"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Pelean's Jewel, Part IV

Tallow left his clothes beneath a willow that grew along the stream's bank. He slipped into the water and became a fish, swimming a few lazy laps around a large, flat stone to accustom himself to fishiness before he set out upstream in search of others. He thought he was in luck when he saw a school of tiny milk-white fish no bigger than a fingertip, who glimmered with other colors when the light hit them, as opals do. They were coming toward him very quickly. Perhaps too quickly.

"EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEL!" they shrieked in chorus as they flashed around him. Only when they were past could he see what pursued them—a bulge-eyed, sickly yellow eel with a row of cruel teeth lining its gaping mouth.

"Aaa!" he yelped, turning tail and swimming after the rapidly disappearing school. Spying a cluster of water lilies he dashed among them, and was relieved to see the eel glide by a second later, still pursuing its smaller prey. A few moments later he heard a great thrashing and splashing in the distance and thought rather sadly that it must have caught up with the little fishes.

Exploring among the stems while he waited for the eel to finish its meal and move on, Tallow found a catfish sheltering from the heat of the day in the shade beneath the lilies' pads. When he asked about the dragon, the catfish twitched its whiskers and burbled, "Hrrrm, yes…lives in the cave. Scares away the alligators, whenever they come up from the south to nose around. Don't like alligators, m'self. They eat catfish, y'know."

"I've never seen an alligator," Tallow remarked.

"Hrrrm, 'course y'haven't. Dragon chases 'em off, doesn't he?"

"If you say so. Have you, ah, seen the dragon lately?"

"Not for a moon or more. Hrrrm. Big stream."

"Oh. Well, thank you," Tallow said politely before swimming away. A little farther upstream he came across some frogs splashing about among the reeds. He turned himself into a frog and hopped toward them.

"Excuse me," he said, "Could any of you tell me about the dragon?"

A big old frog cocked its head at him and croaked, "What precisely did you wish to know, young sir?"

"Oh, ah…just what sort of dragon he is, you know. Friendly or not, that sort of thing?"

The frog bobbed his head. "You must be new to the area, my good frog. Saw him swimming about and gave yourself a bit of a scare, did you? He does look rather fearsome, I suppose, with those teeth and claws. But you may rest easy on that score. You are not his idea of a meal."

Tallow was feeling rather baffled. "I thought dragons were, well…vicious?"

The frog chortled. "Land dragons are, to be sure. All that fire-breathing and whatnot, eh? Nasty creatures, land dragons. Water dragons, on t'other hand, are much more civilized."

"Oh. Yes. That must be where I got confused. Er, thank you for your help," he said, and hopped off until he was out of sight and could turn back into a fish. He swam around in the shallows for a while, thinking. He had expected to find that every creature in the stream was terrified out of its wits at the mere mention of the dragon, but the catfish and the frog seemed to like the great beast. It was all very curious. He decided to swim on, and see who else he might meet.

He came around a curve in the stream and found himself in the middle of the school of little fish who, much to his surprise, did not seem any the worse for wear. He looked around quickly, but saw no sign of the eel.

When he inquired after the dragon they became very exited, swimming around him in a circle, all of them seeming to speak at once.

"Dragon? Dragon-friend? Big dragon! Eel-biter! Bird-chaser! Snow-killer!"

"The dragon...is your friend?"

"Yesyesyesyesyes!" they clamored. "Warm cave! Winter-home!"

"You live in his cave in the winter?"

"Yesyesyes!" They swam in ever-tighter circles around him, their enthusiasm churning up a bubbling wake.

"Have you seen the blue jewel he has?"

"Jewel? What is jewel?" Their circling slowed.

"Um…a smooth blue rock. Very pretty."

"Nononono. No blue rock."

"Well, what about him? Have you seen him today?" he ventured.

"OHyesyesyesyesyes! Eel-slayer! Sun high! Going south!"

Well, he thought, that explained what had happened to the eel. Tallow glanced up. The sun was still high in the sky, only now beginning to drop toward the horizon. If the dragon had left its cave heading south near midday, it might be gone for a while yet. He could just nip into the cave and have a look around for the jewel. He had only promised Sir Brennan that he wouldn't go near the dragon. If the dragon wasn't in the cave, where was the harm?

"Thank you. Thank you very much!" he said, and swam upstream as fast as he could. If he could find the jewel he would be a hero, and maybe Sir Brennan would reconsider and make him a knight after all. But even with that thought to sustain him he was exhausted by the time he had travelled the several miles to the cave entrance. There he stopped and looked around and carefully tasted the water before darting inside.

It was black inside, black as pitch, black as death. That was his first thought. But slowly his eyes relaxed and picked out a faint glow on the walls. Some sort of moss or lichen was growing there, emitting a very faint light. He made himself wait until he was sure his sight would not improve any further, then he began swimming about the cave. It was very large, larger than the vast kitchens in the palace.

If I were a dragon, where would I put a stolen jewel? he wondered as he began poking about in the nooks and crannies along the walls, and among the oddly pleasing arrangements of river stones that dotted the chamber floor.He was nosing about in a pile of reeds and lilypads which he suspected was the dragon's bed when he felt a stirring in the water.

Behind him, a deep voice rumbled, "Hello, little fish that is not a fish. What brings you to my home?"

© 2007 by the author. All rights reserved.

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