I awoke to the pungent scent of frying tomatoes and dragon fire. There was no time to pinch back my basil or even tie back my hair, I could already hear Mel’s mighty bark heralding the danger. I leapt from my little bed and raced for the door, grabbing my things as I moved. This had become almost routine since the tomatoes had been yielding fruit, and I was well versed in the act of drawing on my old holey boots and shirt as I ran. The latch was lifted in a trice, and the pine-plank door swung open with a smoothness that brought a sense of joy and fulfillment into my heart. It had taken most of the afternoon yesterday to strengthen it and repair the hinges; but it was better now because of something I had done, and I felt a sense of usefulness and strength in me that had made me first love my farm. As the door gave way, the bright morning sunlight flooded into the house and allowed me to see what I had to deal with. I knew from my dog’s noise it would be trouble. But I had no real fear, nature had a cure for any cause, ill or good, all I had to do was simply direct it.
My tomatoes were being hard hit. Four dragons circled above my little circular patches, their tails flicking out in anger and looking like six-foot snakes. The sunlight made their bright scales shimmer and gave them a particularly vile look. But not as vile to me as the row of freshly churned up mud and the missing wall of trees that had been at the pine forest when I went to bed five hours ago. It seemed the loggers had been hard at work in the moonlight. I didn’t mind their harvesting the trees, but why did they have to leave such ugliness and destruction behind them? If only those of the Halfful Lumber Company would listen to my suggestions for sustainable harvesting… but it was a forlorn hope that any would ever listen to me, Charlie Biggton. At least they left me alone to tend my farm, with only occasional grumbles. The sound of a furious howl reminded me of the trouble at hand and I looked back and my little farm, a patch of green and beauty in the midst of all the mud and filth. Melawnwyn was heroically keeping the scaly brutes off the plants, his rich growling-bark rolling over the fields as he darted back and forth from one tomato patch to another. All I could see of his progress was a furrow in the plants wherever he ran, and I admit I laughed at my faithful helper. And immediately felt guilty over it.
“Keep at them Mel the Mighty,” I called to make amends, beginning my race across the yard towards my trigger pole, “your voice breeds fear in their cold-blooded hearts! Charlie is on the job. And remember, Harbal Tongly writes, ‘One day the short shall rule the world!’” The dog growled louder as he heard me, and his speed was such the furrows in the plants left by his passing began to swing closed almost as soon as they opened. I reached my pole and paused, studying the situation. This was my second good crop of tomatoes, and I had learned last year the fat red fruit brought on the dragons. They were persistently pestilential beasts, and I had lost all but three tomatoes to them last
year. And my one-room house had been set afire twice from their white hot blasts, though thankfully I was able to put it out and repair the damage.
But this year I had planted my tomatoes in scattered, circular patches and
placed sieves over them, held up by a pole which also held a pipe attached to
my rain reservoir on the roof of my henhouse. The operating mechanism was
simple enough, a valve held back the water, opened by tugging a chain, which I
had thoughtfully numbered so that I knew which chain went to which sieve. The numbers had been a later addition, after I had failed miserably eight times and soaked my faithful Mel instead of the
scaly scavenging dragons. As I watched, a brilliantly green dragon spun about
in midair, and I could see the glint in his eyes as he hunted for the barking
dog that kept him from his juicy breakfast. His miserable fire sack began to
“Steady, Mel.” I called, readying my trap. A line of corn that my herald was racing through suddenly closed, all except one patch about two and a half feet long, where I knew the dog stood. The dragon spotted it and swooped, the guttural gagging cough of a pre-fire breath sounding from him. “Ten, Mel!” I yelled, grabbing for the chain. The dog raced away, springing along the ground faster than the dragon’s wings could take him. The pest saved the fire for when the dog was still again, as I knew he would, but kept up his gagging cough in order to keep it hot. I could see his firesack bubbling and beginning to glow with the white heat of a dragon’s wrath. A streak of red-orange shot out of the corn and into the midst of tomato patch Number Ten. Mel, mighty heart, spun around and faced the dragon, giving it the high-pitched howling bark he knew the beast hated. I jerked the chain down and heard the heartening gurgle of the rain water pouring through, picking up the baking soda I had poured into the pipes last night. A stream of white hot fire spewed from the dragon, driving it backwards, his black wings pounding the air as he strove to stay in flight. As it left his throat, the water began to pour out of the pipe. Mel sidestepped with remarkable dexterity, his one good ear twitching at the furious hiss of the fire dissolving in midair.
“Alright Mel, Charlie’s on task again.” I called, and he immediately went back to his barking growls at the dragons.
It was then I heard the dreadful gagging cough behind my head and felt my dreads stir in a furious hot breeze. I spun around and found myself staring at a brilliant blue dragon face, as the beast stood reared upon its hind legs to be as tall as ever it could, stretching to reach my meagerly 5'4". But it was tall enough. Her bright blue tint let me know this was a female, and an angry one. Her black wings pushed against the succulents I had covering the ground near the buildings as a fire retardant, her small yellow eyes were wide with ire, and the firesack was bulging and bubbling. A scream burst from me as I threw myself to the ground. Chain five was jerked with me as I fell, and I heard the blast of steam that let me know I had caught the other fire, and Mel was alright. But the sound was immediately replaced by the roaring fury of dragon flames searing the air around me.
I jerked forwards on my hands and knees, gasping for oxygen as the fire sucked it all away, and feeling my back beginning to blister. Then I was at the dragon’s side. I scrambled under her wing and rolled onto her blue tail. She let out a furious bleating bellow, and I felt the long tail squirming and slithering under me. A dragon is very sensitive about their tail, and intensely indignant if you touch it. I jerked out my fork, kept in my jacket pocket for just such moments, and jabbed the blue scales under me. A great roar of indignation shook the dragon, and with a mighty flap she lifted into the air, teetering a little ungainly in her exhaustion and anger. The air filled with her exhaled smoke, surrounding me with the dreadful stench. I clapped a hand over my nose and mouth and staggered away from the cloud. A furry body collided with my foot and knocked me headfirst onto the gravel path winding from the squat farmhouse to the hen coop. A wet tongue found my nose as Mel tried to apologize. I rolled over and sat up with a groan. The smoke dissipated and I saw the last two dragons winging for the forest, evidently finished for the day.
“Well done Melawnwyn the Mighty.” I coughed, laying a hand on my friend’s head. His ear slicked back in appreciation of the simple praise and a happy pant flew from his black lips. I smiled back at him and climbed slowly to my feet, groaning as I felt all the bruises and burns acquired in the morning’s work, considering our next move. I looked down at my farm worker and smiled again at the expectation in his one eye. Melawnwyn had come to me two years ago, battered and half dead, a young starved creature with little left but the breath in his lungs. The right side of his head had been sliced and burnt beyond repair. Though the orange fur grew back to cover most of the scars, he would forever miss his right ear and see only from one eye. I had never learned his story, and never tried to discover any past owners; nature had its ways, and if Mel had wandered into my keeping I was perfectly happy that he stay there. Now he nudged my knee, his stubby tail wiggling as he looked up at me waiting to hear the word he longed for. I gave it to him.
“Breakfast. You’re right, my boy, I think breakfast first, Charlie’s hungry too. And then we will see about the rest of life. The morning sun only lasts for a scant five hours, let’s get our work done here before the moons shows their face again and we have to deliver goods to old Growler Venderbeer.”
The road stretched on with its monotonous brown and unchanging, muddy slither. There was nowhere to set my boot without feeling it squelch deep into the sticky mud. The effort of pulling it back out, and setting it down again, and pulling it out… it seemed to have been going on for years. I had to forcefully remind myself we had only come into this region of bare mud some six days ago. My pack dragged on my back and I shifted it to my right shoulder, mentally running through the contents and attempting to think of something I could leave behind to lighten the heavy pull. But everything I owned was in that pack. And I would not willingly part with any of it, not after having carried it so far. The mud pulled at my feet, and my legs ached, and I did not want to think of the next step. So I lifted my eyes from my travel weary feet and turned them on the landscape, trying to find something pleasant. There was nothing. Only the bare, ripped up brown hills where majestic trees had once stood. This place was almost worse than the scorched lands we had crossed to get here. This wasn’t the work of the Rockies, this was voluntary work of the residents. They might have left a few of the trees standing for the traveler to rest their eyes upon as they marched over the long roads. But no, there was only the mud and the dull blue of the sky as the sun began its downward climb. The afternoon dark would come in an hour. And the land would look better for it, I thought wryly.
Still striving to think of something beside my weary feet, I set my eyes on my father’s broad back as he trudged in front of me. His cloak was muddied, and even his black sword sheath hanging on his back, usually kept so carefully clean, was splattered with the sticky mud. His shoulders were stooped, and I felt a pang of sorrow for his great heart. He had longed so much to find a peaceful place for the two of us to settle in, ever since Grammy had died and I left her care to join him in his travels last year. But I had followed that back across the world by now, and found no place to stop. Through city and outlands, there was no peace for Meagan, or any related to him. My father was too outspokenly Christian, and too strong-willed to lay down his knightly service to the king, even though the usurper had now ruled for seventeen years. And I would not have my father any other way. So I told him at Clappton, our last stop, as we furiously repacked our things before the Rockies came for us. I had seen some of the weariness lift from him at my words, and the strength of battle return to his eyes. He had gotten us out, as he always did, and the light of Christ would still burn through the Rockies false words by my father’s speeches and our steady work. Yet it was hard to be always searching and never able to stop.
The mud pulled and squelched, and I shifted my pack again. Father looked back at me and paused in his even stride. He nodded ahead and I followed his gaze. The land changed there. A wall of enormously high pines blocked out every other sight, rising to what looked almost a mile into the sky. They were such a dark green they looked nearly black, and I realized it would have been little comfort to the traveler to have left any of those along the roadway.
“We must be getting close.” I said, slinging my water off my back to better use our pause.
“Halfful is just along the fringe of those trees.” Father nodded, his calloused hand rising to point. Then I saw a stand of rough wooden buildings, set in more of this sticky mud. At a glance I guessed there were some two hundred residents in the place, and I knew from the sight of the buildings that not one ever bathed more than once a week. But it was our last chance at finding a home. And so a home we would make it. I smiled for Father’s benefit, my eyes still on the wooden buildings.
“It will be a welcome change to have growing things near, even if they are a bit dark.” I said. Father’s eyes softened visibly as he looked at me, and he stood a bit straighter.
“That it will.” He grunted, and swept his staff up again. “Come Corinth, we will find a home here.”
“Yes, we will.” I stated, and began to follow his back again. The road curved and slithered along, and the mud only grew worse as we got closer to the town. But it was pleasant to think of sleeping with a roof over us tonight instead of wrapped in a cloak trying to keep my hair out of the mud. The effort of pulling my boots up and placing them down in the oozing brown stuff seemed a little less tiring as the hope of gaining a pot of coffee surged through me. The sun sank, and blackness fell over the land, so thick I could no longer see my father’s back in front of me. But I could hear his squelching steps and gauged my own by the sound. On we moved, and soon the scent of the stinking mud began to be mixed with the scent of fresh cut pine wood and, much more glorious, the scent of coffee and cooking beef. My steps quickened almost unconsciously and I could hear my father’s do the same. The first moon peeked over the northern horizon with her silver sheen, and she was bright enough the vast trees began to cast a shadow over us.
The dark afternoon noises were broken as I heard other squelching steps move onto the road ahead. Father stopped with a grunt, and I drew up swiftly, one hand silently pulling an arrow from the sheaf hanging at my side. Greet all travelers you might meet, but be prepared to receive a knife-blade in return in these days. I swung cautiously to the left and looked past the dark blotch of my father. A skinny form carrying a large bag had just moved out of the trees onto the road. He didn’t seem to notice us, and strode on with a swinging gate, a whistled song coming from him. It was a kind of half-a-tune, as if he were searching for a song he did not fully remember; and I wondered very much that the same kind of half-memory stirred me as I heard the strains. Something almost remembered, sweet and gentle, but that I could not grasp. I put it out of my mind, deciding it must be a tune that sounded like many others, and watched cautiously. A long low dog, its head no more than two feet from the ground, was trotting at his heels. It swung our direction and paused, then gave a low growl and bounded off again towards the vague whistler. Father shrugged his pack up higher on his shoulder and strode on again, moving a little faster to overtake the stranger. I trotted beside him, slipping my arrow back in my sheaf, but shaking my right boot a little to be certain Sticker, my dagger, was ready if I needed him. The dog gave a growl again as we got closer, and the stranger turned to look back. He stopped as he saw us coming forward. The moonlight was not giving off too strong a light, and all I could make out was a vague skinny form with its large pack, only a few inches taller than me it seemed.
“Pardon my herald.” The stranger said, in a soft voice that stumbled over itself as if he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to speak after all. It was heavy with the accent of this Jaspur Region at the bottom of the world, a sort of slow rolling thickness that reminded me of the long stretch of mud we had traveled by. “He thinks it his duty to warn me of… of anything, actually. And announce my coming. And the coming of anything even…” his voice withered away into a timid sigh, before he spoke again. “Charlie Biggton."
“Meagan” My father introduced. The stranger recoiled a step and began to rub one foot nervously against the other at the sound of my father’s rough voice. “My daughter and I are looking for a place to stay here.”
“Ah, that would be Growler Venderbeer’s place. Well, she isn’t actually ‘Growler’ that’s what Mel and I call her… well, Mel being a dog doesn’t really call her anything… Come on, I’m going there.” The stranger swung off again, sidling closer to the trees, and I thought trying to gain a few more feet’s distance from us. He seemed a timid thing, quite unsure of himself. I found myself thinking of the few brown hares we had spotted in this region; intent on their own business, and quick to slide away if they saw you coming, but interested enough to watch you at a safe distance. None of us said anything. The second moon rose in the south as we squelched along, and the light began to be a little better as both their silver sheens spread over the world. But there was still little to be seen of our guide. Not that I bothered trying to see the rabbit-like fellow, I was much more interested in speculating on the brew of coffee a place like this might prepare. We moved steadily closer to Halfful, the town at the bottom of the world, and our last chance at finding a place to settle. Father had said he doubted the Rockies had much interest in this area, as they preferred the more barren lands, and he hoped we would go unnoticed here. But it had been a doubtful statement, and we both knew the rumor; the Rockies were looking for something, and were intent on scouring the world for it. It would not be long before they reached even the bottom of the world, and such little grungy places as Halfful. For my part, I had small hope of ever going unnoticed with my father’s outspoken ways, but I had no wish to cure him of it.
“We are come to settle, if we may.” Father broke the silence. Our guide jumped rather high at the sudden sound, but he nodded in a sort of vague friendly manner.
“Good.” He murmured. “The mud freezes over in a month or so, and makes the place a little nicer. The people here… well, they are here. And they don’t particularly mind if you are too, as a general rule. At least if you leave them be.”
“Missionaries.” Father grunted.
“Oh? Of what?” He asked, and I was surprised. He either knew nothing of Christianity, or more than most of humanity to ask that.
“Christ’s truth.” Father said.
“Interesting." The stranger muttered cheerily, and then went on with great hesitation. “You might, ah, not want to speak of it too much. They don’t particularly like hearing about ideas and… I don’t think they would like yours.”
“They?” I asked. “What of you?” He laughed, a sort of soft choking kind of sound, that was very odd but fairly pleasant.
“Me? Charlie Biggton doesn’t think much of anything.” He answered. “I take my cue from nature. She lets everyone be what they will, and allows them to serve their own purpose.”
“Perhaps you will come on Sunday to hear of our purpose?” Father asked.
“Perhaps.” Charlie said waving his hand vaguely at nothing in particular. But I had heard many such answers and knew how to gauge them now. This man would not come. A wooden-plank building loomed up in the dark ahead of us, and as we squelched around it I realized they were much larger then they had seemed from a distance. This square box must be some two stories, and wide enough for three families to live comfortably in each story. The buildings were placed symmetrically along the muddy streets, one on each side every five yards, and some were larger than the first I had seen. Many had a yellow glow of candle light shining from them, and as we walked well inside Halfful the glow began to supplement the moonlight. I glanced at our guide and was surprised again, not very pleasantly. He was even skinnier then I had first thought, and had long strings of matted hair hanging past his shoulders, looking remarkably like dead, furry snakes. Judging from the color of his scrubby beard they must once have been the same wheat-like sheen. But now they were a dull brown, and even gray in places. Not naturally, or dyed either, but simply from dirt and grime. I stepped a little closer to Father and turned my eyes back to the buildings we were passing, forcing myself not to frown too heavily. This Charlie turned onto another street and pointed ahead, turning to smile at us. At least his smile was pleasant enough, and his brown eyes were clear. Though they shifted away from a direct gaze. He was pointing out another of the pine plank square buildings down the street. It was dilapidated, recently patched up with new pine boards, and a sign hung from it that bore the words, ‘Venderbeer’s; the Best Beer, Far and Near.’ It did not look promising. But I could smell the beef and coffee I had scented earlier, and did not give up hope. Our guide pulled open the plain plank door and stepped aside, holding it open for me, smiling vaguely at his muddy boots and motioning his orange dog to stay. It was a small gesture, but one that none but my father had paid me for a full three years. I nodded him my thanks as I stepped through, being certain I caught his eye so he saw it. Any who took the effort for such courtesy should know it was appreciated.
The yellow light of a hotly burning fire struck up at me and drove away the cold stench of the muddy out of doors. I flung my cloak hood back gratefully and stepped down into the large room. It seemed to take up a full half of the large building, filled with sturdy but roughly made pine tables and benches. Twenty-four people looked up as we entered; two well-built barmaids, a bulky man behind the well-stocked pine bar, some twenty very large people at various tables, and one big woman in a cap and apron that I took to be the owner with the way she eyed us. All but two of these people could match my father in height and size. It seemed our scrawny guide was not the normal build of those in Halfful. Although he did seem rather normal in his rough unhandsome choice of clothes. The big woman’s gaze shifted behind us and she nodded.
“Well Hairy, I see you made it.” She growled.
“Well Growler, so I have.” Charlie Biggton murmured, moving past us in a timid shuffle. He sat a very worn pack on the large bar, and undid the drawstring with a gentleness that was almost a caress. Father began to move deeper into the room towards a table near the fire, and I followed him willingly. ‘Growler’ shoved our guide aside roughly and jerked the bag open. Her large hand slid inside and came out with a potato. She began examining it as I sat down with a contended sigh and slid my booted feet a little closer to the fire. A grizzled old man leaned over and spoke to Father, but it was only an inquiry as to the state of the roads, and Father’s inquiry as to the state of the beds here, and I was not much interested. Instead I watched the scene at the bar. The large growling woman and the dreadlocked Charlie Biggton seemed the only two people of even mild interest in the room; all the others held the same surly foolish look and were disposing of their food and drink without much talk. She shook the tuber under Charlie Biggton’s sharp nose, a frown cut deep into her face.
“Dirty, dirt all over it. My guests don’t take to dirt on their vegetables, Hairy.”
“Dirt?” Charlie said, feigned shock breaking over his face. “Say it is not so! Dirt on a root vegetable? However did that get there?”
“Joke all you want, but how would it be if I stopped buying your stuff?” the woman growled, one eye nearly shutting in a leer that was hideous to see. Charlie Biggton smiled in his vague way and began to empty the sack onto the bar, with the same gentle motion I had noticed earlier. I had the idea he cared more for the vegetables he was leaving behind then any person in the room.
“Where would you find any such food but from me?” Charlie Biggton murmured. “I will clean them before I bring them next time, if you wish it.”
“See you do.” The woman growled again. She swept past him around the bar and disappeared into the kitchen. Our guide leaned against the bar and began to whistle vaguely again, but his eyes sought my face. He looked away in confusion as he noticed I had noticed him. I turned my attention back to father. He had managed to get the old man to talk, and had already learned of a small house set just on the edge of town that might be let to us for a modest enough fee. My heart rose at the thought. Even if it only lasted for a few weeks, it would be very nice to have a house of our own. The woman swept in again, slapped a small coin purse in front of Charlie Biggton and swept on towards us without a glance at her vegetable supplier. She planted herself in front of our table, her large hands on her larger hips, and a frown on her whiskered face.
“Well? What do you want here?” She asked.
“They wants a house to let.” The old man at the table next to us spoke up. “But I suppose they will settle for one of your flea-bitten beds for the evening, seeing as how the Jaspur mud is out.”
“You shut your mouth.” The woman snapped and then looked back at us.
“A room, if you have one.” Father said, in his deep voice.
“And dinner with coffee, if you have that.” I added. The woman nodded and marched away. Charlie Biggton and his pack were no longer at the bar, I saw after she had moved her bulk. I did not give it much thought. I did not give anything much thought. The pleasant feeling of having arrived after a long journey was settling over me. I was perfectly content simply to sit, with my boots towards the fire, watching the flames dance and feel the warmth seeping into me, and know that supper was coming soon.
Trudging along the road was hard work in the mud, and I turned off it as quickly as I could, into the forest. The black pine needles that covered the floor managed to find the hole in my left boot, but it was still more agreeable then the mud. And I liked to walk among living things, even when they were so large and dark. Mel ran on ahead, busy with his snuffling about under the enormous trees. What would it be like to have the nose of a dog, and be able to smell things as they did? Would I enjoy the scents that Mel seemed to, or would they still seem as odious to me as they did now? If they were still foul to my mind, it would not be nice to have a dog’s sense of smell, as the smells would only come to me all the stronger. But I would be able to smell lovely things better, like sunflowers and Earl Grey, and that would be quite nice. I yawned and walked a little faster. The sun would rise again in a scant four hours, and it would be well to get at least an hour or two of rest before starting in on the next five hours of sunlit work. A smile played over my face at the thought of sleep and, I admitted to myself, at the thought of the dreams that might come with it. There was a sweet face of a woman that came sometimes as I slept, round, with red cheeks, and a gentle smile the like of which I had never met in life. She would sing to me, a lullaby that I half-remembered when I woke and always tried to recapture as I worked about my fields or wandered about. Perhaps I would meet her again tonight. I struck my path, worn down in the four years since I had claimed my farm land and begun to build and work it when I was sixteen. I got on faster after finding my little snaking trail. Soon the trees began to break, and I heard the sound of the hens clucking and shuffling about in their house as they began to settle in for sleep.
I stepped out of the forest into my little spot of cultivated land and felt happy delight and peace spread over me. The tomatoes were shining in the moonlight, the lavender and thyme filled the air with their delicious scent, and the sound of the lettuce leaves and corn stalks shifting in the slight breeze sounded beautiful. This was one little spot that grew and had usefulness, and green, and beauty to it. All around us was bare mud or choking dark trees. But here the ground was revitalized and yielded up good things. And I had built this, in all its green usefulness. A sense of pride, and the comforting thought that not all my life was a waste, came over me again as I stood in the moonlight observing my little domain. But it needed tending to, and I would do it better with a little sleep. I called for Mel and stooped to go into my house, my herald announcing my entrance with a guttural bark as he slid past my leg. I lit the lamp and busied myself for a few minutes checking my seedlings sprouting in the terrariums scattered around the single room. All had sufficient water, and there were four new arugula sprouts peeking through the black dirt. I gathered a few castings from the worm box shoved under my small sink and worked it around the delicate seedling. Then I pinched back my basil hanging in pots above the table, checked my Earl Grey stash, found it nearly empty, and decided to wait till I could trade a few hen eggs for milk to use the last of it. The thought of eggs made my stomach rumble and I quickly cracked a few into my small cast iron skillet, scavenged from a castoff junk pile, scrambled them up with the last crumbles of cheese, some cilantro and basil, and dropped onto my small bed, sandwiched between my bookcase and the table I had scrounged from the outcast boards of the lumber mill’s scrap yard. Mel leapt up beside me, and I dutifully gave him a corner of my dinner, though my stomach growled at me in protest of the action. A sense of happy peace settled over me. I let it stay unchallenged for a moment, and then reached for my latest book.
I had an arrangement with the bookseller in Follsom, trading him my eggs and some of my other wares for his books, and had recently acquired a copy of the history of the early €lænğał Kings. It was well used, and as I cracked it open a page fluttered out onto my dusty floor, but I found where it went and was still delighted with my find. History had always fascinated me, almost as much as the old poets delighted my heart. And I loved to learn of the strong old kings, set up a thousand years ago after the last major religious war. The €lænğał Kings, just and wise, wise enough to love the arts and peace more than war. They were a strong breed of men, and women, and for years and years the kingdom had existed on in peace because of their steady rule. It was a pity they had finally been thrown down. And in my time too, when I was but three. I wished it had not happened in my time as I finished my eggs and read of Umber the Magnificent, quelling the Kel that had tried to overtake the kingdom some five hundred years ago. He was truly magnificent. But my eyes were closing on the tale of his son, Horotol the Black. It was time to get a bit of sleep while I could. I sat my book down on the shelf, and my cast-iron pan in the sink, dimmed the lamp, and then flopped back on the bed. Mel settled beside me with a contended sigh and I smiled at him, my mind on the strength of the €lænğał Kings and their deeds of old.
“I wonder why such a frighteningly strong, stern man as that Meagan thinks he needs more then what he can make for himself?” I asked Mel, scratching him fondly behind the ear. He groaned a thank you in answer and rolled onto his back so I could rub his muddy stomach instead. “It is a strange thing, Mel, that so many think they need more then what they can feel and see. And if you do decide to worship something, you have two choices; you can either worship rocks and the fire that makes them glow, or a God that no one has ever seen who died and came to life again on a strange world that no one can prove exists. Both religions are equally ridiculous. I wonder what the daughter thinks? Well, what she thinks of her father’s religion, it was obvious she didn’t think much of me. Mel… she looked familiar. Unaccountably so, because I am certain I have never met her. But still, there was something about her face… I’m sorry she caught me looking at her though, I doubt that helped her think well of me. But no one ever thinks much of Charlie Biggton. But they like what we grow, Mel. And so do the dragons. Those pests will be back again at dawn’s light, we had best get a few hours sleep while we may.” I said, curling onto the thin blankets as I did. It felt very good to lay still, and a contented sigh broke from me.
That was when Mel flipped to his feet, his one ear perked high and a deep throaty growl siding from him as he stared fixedly at the door. That was a growl he used seldom, only when he noticed something of real danger. He leapt off the bed and was at the door with one bound, snuffling at it with every hackle raised. I slowly rose and crossed to him, pulling the door open reluctantly. I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to know what was out there. I only saw the dense darkness of an overcast moonlit sky. Mel stayed near me, pressed against my leg as if he needed the comfort, and it did not help my heartbeat slow to its usual regular pace. Melawnwyn the Mighty was ten times braver then I, and it frightened me to see him frightened. But I swallowed the lump in my throat, unhooked the lamp from the low ceiling, and swung it out the door. The yellow circle of light it gave off only illumined the succulents covering the ground around the house and the gravel walkway leading to the chicken coop and fields. But I… felt something. It was odd, not one of my five senses could register something strongly enough to tell me what it was, but there was something different about the outside world then what it had been when I had come inside. Perhaps a faint scent.
“Steady, Mel.” I mumbled, my voice seeming very thick. I stepped outside, feeling my heart pounding and my senses tingling with the effort of trying to notice everything at once. Mel stayed pressed against my ankle, occasionally giving off his throaty growl that told me he felt real danger very near. We made a quick circuit of the land. I found caterpillars eating the garlic plants, and spotted the red eyes of a fox contemplating trying to crack into the henhouse again. But there was nothing else out. And yet Mel stayed right by my ankle, and every few moments I felt a tremble run through him. Never had my mighty Mel shown such symptoms around me, and my heart was far from easy. But there was nothing else to be done, and even if I found whatever intruder was worrying my furry friend, what would I do? Scream and throw the lamp at him, I supposed. I sighed and ducked through the door into the house again, grateful for the solid walls around me. I shoved my chair up against the latch, and drew the shutters closed before lying down again. Mel stretched out beside me, his ear still alertly listening, but none of the trembles shaking his sturdy form. I threw an arm over him comfortingly and let exhaustion take me into the realms of sleep. As I began to give into the comforting darkness, I thought I smelled a slight stench of smoke, and it confused me. It wasn’t the dragons white smoke, that was certain. I decided the mill must be working on something new, and thought no more of it; but a vague sense of unease haunted my dreams, and the sweet face of the woman did not come. Something black and nasty oozed into my slumber. It was large, and shapeless, and began to cover me, so that I could not breathe.
It was Mel who woke me. I felt sharp teeth nip my nose and sat up with a cry. I was soaked in sweat, horribly dizzy and weak. My throat was immediately flooded with a dense black smoke, oily and tasting foul, as if it were made of the ground up remains of rotted rodents. I reeled on the bed, unable to see anything, my senses so clouded and overcome it was nearly impossible even to cough. It was only a desperate sense of survival that got me to move, rolling onto the floor and crawling towards the door. My limbs were heavy and slow, and my head swam horribly. Every breath brought in more of the smoke, and less and less oxygen. Something was clogging my airways. I began to register the noise as I crawled; a roaring and crackling was just above me. A fire was eating up the roof. A little more sense returned to me, and I noticed the heat. At once it nearly overwhelmed my already overwhelmed body. The house was a burning oven, filled with the deadly dense black smoke and the roar of the hungry flames. My strength faltered and I collapsed, lying gasping on the ground. I had not even the sense left to feel terror of the flames.
Melawnwyn brushed up against me. The soft fur of his head bumped my chin once, and then again. A whine, soft and desperate, came from him. Then I felt fear. I realized my mighty warrior could not open the door on his own. Mel would burn helplessly inside this foul smoke if I did not let him out. I was terrified at the picture of his writhing, burning form that came into my mind, and it was the one thing that could have made me move again. I forced myself to my hands and knees, jerking forward and fighting to find a breath of oxygen in this crackling oven that had been my home. Black smoke swirled everywhere, but as the fire burned through the roof it began to pierce even the oily smoke and allow me to see by its dancing red light. The pine chair was still pressed against the latch, though it was already burnt and charred as fiery debris fell on it from the burning roof. I staggered to my feet, knocked it away with a choked cry, and pulled open the door with the remains of my strength. More of the black smoke poured in from outside. Melawnwyn sprang away into the blackness. I fell to the ground and rolled away from the house, my weak selfishness wishing my friend would stay near me. It felt very hard to be there alone. I tried to crawl after him, but there was too much smoke in me, and not enough oxygen. I was fainting, and with each breath I drew in more of the poison. With a great effort I opened my stinging eyes and looked out at my farm.
Everywhere I looked a yellow flame devoured the green. All my work was being eaten away, and soon nothing would be left but black ash that would be blown away in the wind. I wheezed in another breath and closed my eyes, curling on the ground and helplessly feeling the burning heat of the flames beginning to lick at me. It hurt. But sorrow overshadowed my fear. I would be blown away with the rest of it. Charlie Biggton, gone with the breeze, nothing left behind of his life but ashes and smoke… None would even mourn me. My mother might remember me, for a few years. Lying there coughing and choking for a breath, desperately afraid and alone, the lullaby came to me again. It was sweet, and clearer than ever before, a beautiful tune that breathed memories of a gentle love and half-remembered times of sunlight and green. I knew I was fainting and would not wake again. I welcomed it, letting my mind drift further into the dark, hoping I would perhaps glimpse the gentle woman before I fell into the oblivion of the dead. But even as I longed for it, I felt a great, terrified thought that there might be more; what if it wasn’t oblivion I was falling into? Terror of death itself gripped me and in its driving force I dragged myself a few more feet from the burning house. But still the black smoke followed. It wrapped itself around me, a malevolent, foul blanket of poisonous fumes, swirling and dancing around me. I could feel it clogging my throat and keeping what little air there was away from me. The sound of the flames burning away my life seemed to laugh at me, and I lay and choked in the smoke. I would not let my eyes close again. Fear of what might confront me if I let go of life was stronger even then my failing body and I forced my eyes open.
The smoke swirled away from my face for an instant and I could see. Something moved. Off near the fringe of trees, something watching the flames moved. I thought of Mel and relief flooded in; perhaps he had come back for me! The black smoke swirled into my face and I could see nothing but its oily foulness. But as if taunting me, it shifted away again for a brief instant to let me see the world I was leaving. And then I saw it move again, and knew it was coming closer. And it was gray, and the shape of a man, not Mel. The smoke filled my vision, blinding, and choking what little breath I managed to gain from the burning air. But I felt the someone still coming closer. It was the same feeling I got when I harvested my tomatoes, and knew the dragons were watching maliciously from the woods, just waiting to swoop down and wrest my basket full of red fruit away. I wished whoever was watching me would stop, and let me die in what little peace such a hot, painful death would allow. But death… death! I wasn’t ready. Again I fought my eyes open, struggling to find the strength to get a few more yards out of this smoke and heat. But this time I could not move at all, and could not recall my mind, or even call out.
The pillar of smoke swirled suddenly to the side as something stepped through. I looked up, desperately trying to plead for help, and knowing there was nothing I could do to even let anyone know life still clung to me. And then I saw the form standing over me. Horror chased away what little strength I had left, and I fainted.