Picking up where we left of…..
The brothers jumped – as much as they could in their soggy condition. Behind them stood a great, black, craggy Dragon. His eyes burned, his wings furled like wind-lashed sails.
“And what, my puny threesome, are you doing out here, cowering like mice midst a herd of cats?”
“We do not cower!” declared Osip, making himself as small as possible.
“Well, actually, yes,” Luka muttered, “we do.”
Only Lev stood tall before the fierce creature. “We are soldiers,” he explained, “not mice.”
The Dragon snorted. “And why are you not over there, with the others of your kind?”
“We have left the King’s army.”
“Aha! Cowards!” His fangs flashed as he rubbed his paws together. “I thought so.”
“We may be deserters but it is not from cowardice,” Lev continued. “The King feeds us little, pays us less, and has kept us from our families, year upon year.”
“Royals are all the same,” the Dragon sneered. “You expected better, I suppose. You are nothing to your King and got what you deserved.”
“We could not even see our Grandmother before she died. She was a good woman and our only kin in all the world. Did we deserve that?”
A wistful sigh escaped the Dragon’s maw. He, too, had a Grandmother – though whether or not he would grieve her passing was a question for another day. Playing with the mud between his claws, he ruminated aloud, “So…perish from hunger or get hung for the deserters you are. A bit of a dilemma, eh?”
The brothers hated to admit it, but the Dragon was right.
“Perhaps I will just eat you where you stand,” the beast growled, relishing the smell of fear in the air. “But I’m not really hungry right now. No…. Perhaps I will help you, beyond your wildest dreams. Take you to safety. I could do that. For a price.” The Dragon grinned, his warm breath singeing their hair. “Oh, I won’t ask too very much,” he said. “Seven years’ service, that’s all.”
Looking one to the other, the brothers knew they were out of options. They’d given the King seven years for nothing. At least the Dragon was offering them their lives. “Whatever you ask,” they replied, “it is yours.”
And he scooped them up in his paws and flew east, far from battle and storm, setting them down in a sunny patch by the side of a well-travelled road. Just being on dry ground was such a delight, they almost forgot their parched throats and empty bellies.
“Where are we?” Osip asked.
“In a land where no one knows you,” the Dragon said. “There is a town not more than a league to the south, down this road.”
“Much good a town will do us when we’re no better than beggars,” complained Luka.
The Dragon scowled. These humans were never satisfied. Then, from thin air, he pulled a small whip and handed it to Lev.
“Flick this whip, and as much money as you desire will appear before you. You can live as great lords, keep manors and horses, and drive about in carriages. Or give it all to the poor, whatever you wish. For seven years, this is your boon. At the end of that time, you’re mine.” Then he placed a great book before them. With due solemnity, all three of them inscribed their names.
“Oh, one more thing,” said the Dragon, spreading his wings and rising into the air. “The rules say I have to give you a way out of our bargain. So, when next we meet, I will set you a riddle. Guess it, if you can, and you shall be free, out of my power forever.” A stream of Dragon fire lit up the sky, and he was gone.
Say what one will, the Dragon was as good as his word. With the help of the magical lash, the brothers had riches to spare. They travelled where they pleased, and when they pleased. They lived in grand houses, wore fine clothes, and rode magnificent horses. But their lives were not all prodigal merrymaking. In honor of their Grandmother, they also used their good fortune to build schools and libraries, hospitals and museums. They even kept track of the war they’d abandoned, as it ground on ad nauseam, creating victims on all sides. They helped those they could, regardless of nation or allegiance. In short, they found their way in the world and did little wrong.
“I wonder what the Dragon would say about all we’ve done,” Luka mused, glancing over his shoulder, just in case.
Lev laughed. “Can’t speak for the Dragon,” he said, “but I think Gran would be pleased we’re not total scoundrels.”
Unlike their stint in the military, the years full of joy and good works passed very quickly for the brothers. So it was, with hardly expectation or warning, they found themselves in the glade where their adventures had begun with only a fortnight left to call their own.
Osip and Luka paced up and down, up and down, until they wore the sod bare. They had grown accustomed to the easy life, and the thought of being in a Dragon’s service for even one day did not appeal at all.
Lev, on the other hand, remained sanguine and carefree. He lay down on the grass and stared into the clear blue sky. “Oh, sit down, you two,” he said. “You worry like old hens. We just have to guess the riddle, remember? I’ve always been good at riddles.”
“Not Dragon riddles,” moaned Osip.
“Oh, God, we’re doomed!” Luka cried, head in his hands. “There’s no help for it, none at all.”
But Lev shrugged off their gloom. “Well, no matter what,” he declared, “we’ve had good innings. No one can take that from us, not even the Dragon.”
This last thought did not cheer his brothers one bit.
As they sat by the side of the road, all long looks and creased brows, an old woman passed by. She was calico covered, head to foot, her grey straw hair spiking out from under her feathered hat.
“Sad faces on such fine gentlemen,” she said. “Whatever is the matter?”
“What is it to you,” snapped Osip.
“Brother, is that any way to speak to a stranger?” Lev chided. “Forgive my brother, madam. He has more on his mind than it can hold.”
“Perhaps I can help,” the old woman offered, “if you tell me what your trouble is.”
And, because the woman reminded them not a little of their Grandmother, they told her the story of their bargain with the Dragon, and how the time was fast approaching for them to pay their due. “If only we could guess the riddle,” they said.
The old woman thought for a long time. “A Dragon, hmmm, yes,” she said at last. “They are tricky ones. I can tell you this: if you would help yourselves, one of you must follow that path into the woods. At the end of the path you’ll find a ramshackle building all tumbled rocks and thatch, rather like a little house, perched upon two pillars, rather like giant chicken legs. Don’t worry, you’ll know it when you see it. There you will find the help you need.” With that she bade them farewell and continued on her way.
“Well that was damn peculiar,” Osip said.
“And not much help, either,” added Luka.
“You two are hopeless,” laughed their little brother. “Just wait here and fret – pull your hair out for good measure. I won’t be long.” And with that, Lev vanished into the woods.
It was almost dusk when he came upon the mound of rocks atop two pillars. It didn’t look much like what you or I would call a house – though the pillars were remarkably like chicken legs – but Lev knew it when he saw it.
Inside sat a very, very old woman, her wild white hair cascading round her, down to the floor. She sniffed the air and glared at the intruder.
“Are you a fool, young man? Or just ill-mannered, barging into a stranger’s house like that.”
“Begging your pardon, ma’am. I try to be neither. Truth is, I was sent here by an elderly woman I met on the post road. She said you might be able to help us – my brothers and me” And Lev told the old woman their story, beginning to end.
When he finished, she patted him fondly on the knee, her head nodding up and down. “Goodness,” she said, “you three have gotten into the thick of it. And I should know. The Dragon is my grandson.”
“Oh, I am sorry,” said Lev.
“Yes, me, too.” She sniffed him again. “Well, you seem a sincere man – and I am never wrong about these things. But is it enough? These brothers of yours, they couldn’t be bothered to come, I suppose? Why should I help them?”
To be continued…
Or read the full story here.