"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

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Pelean's Jewel, Part V

For a moment Tallow honestly believed that his heart would burst from sheer terror.

"I...um...I..." he stammered, whirling about to face a huge shadow.

"At a loss for words?" it said. "Let me get a look at you, not-fish." It spoke another word, one Tallow had never heard before and was fairly certain he couldn't pronounce, and little lights flared to life in the water around them, illuminating the cave, its owner, and Tallow.

It was twice the size of a knight's charger, silvery white with smoke-grey eyes and very long, very sharp teeth. Long and sharp as well were the claws on its four wide, webbed feet and the barbs that ridged its whiplike tail. Tallow felt very small and tasty.

"You're a wizard," he blurted.

"All dragons are wizards. You don't think anything breathes fire naturally, do you?"

"Er, no, I guess not. Now that you mention it."

The dragon flexed its gills. "What are you, not-fish? You smell like land folk."

Tallow changed himself into a water-dragon, which helped him feel less appetizing, though he was still less than a tenth the size of the beast whose lair he had invaded. "I am land folk. My name is Tallow."

"Ah. A shape-changer. I knew one like you once, not long after I came here. She used to visit me, but she got old, as land folk will do, and in time she came no more." He sighed, then turned his attention to Tallow. "My name is Pelean."

"Pleased to meet you, Pelean," he offered politely. "You weren't born here?" He thought it was a very good idea to keep the dragon talking. It is hard to snack and talk at the same time, after all.

"Dear me, no. I was captured by land folk and brought here. I wasn't much longer than you. Just a little thing, I was."

"How old are you now?"

"Oh, somewhere around a hundred years." He swished his tail through the water. "Old by your reckoning. But I feel young. I think my kind live much longer than yours."

"You don't know how long you might live?" Now Tallow was genuinely curious.

"How would I know? I haven't seen any like me since I was a sprig. I hardly remember them. But speaking of sprigs, what brings you here?"

Tallow decided to be honest. It was the least he could do, he thought, in return for not being eaten. "I was looking for the queen's lost jewel."

Pelean grew very still. "She...lost it?".

Tallow nodded.

"Is it..." The dragon sighed. "Is it blue?" He sounded like he already knew the answer.

Tallow nodded again. "Yes. As blue as the sky."

"Oh." Pelean drooped and seemed to shrink. "I thought she had given it to me. Is that why men with swords tried to kill me? They thought I had stolen it?"

"Yes," he said, as kindly as he could. "I'm sorry. They aren't bad people. We all just...assumed..." He trailed off awkwardly.

"You assumed I was a brute like the plains dragons, or a thief like the mountain dragons? Or maybe both?" Pelean asked shrewdly.

Tallow gave a miserable nod, and the dragon's tail angrily churned the water, his voice rising with his indignation, "Well, that's very nice, isn't it? I get taken away from my family, hauled over land in a miserable little tub, dumped in this stream all alone and told to protect it. But I do it anyway.

"For a hundred years I've picked land folk's trash out of the water, killed biting eels and lizards that would be happy enough to take a nibble of you when you splash around in the summer, moved fallen trees from the stream so the land wouldn't flood, knocked wasps' nests out of the trees along the bank so you and your kind could enjoy the water in peace, and you all finally bother to notice me because of a jewel?!" he thundered, and Tallow cringed away from him.

"I'm sorry," he whispered, and he meant it. "I'm so sorry."

All the anger left the dragon as quickly as it had come. He hung his head. "I thought she gave it to me to thank me. It is the color of the ocean where I was born. I thought...oh, it does not matter what I thought. She did not give it, and it is not mine."

He darted into a nook on the far side of the cave and emerged with the jewel held gently between two claws. He gave it to Tallow, who handled it carefully with his unfamiliar webbed fingers. He had never seen it before, had never gotten that close to the queen. It was so very beautiful that he suddenly understood why everyone wanted it so much.

"Take it to her," Pelean said sadly. "With my apologies for the misunderstanding."

"Why do you do all that work when no one ever pays any attention?" Tallow blurted.

"If I do not, who will?" His tail twitched restlessly. "Besides, it is only the land-folk who do not notice. The fish and frogs do. They aren't very good company, but they are grateful."

"Those little tiny fish...they said they lived here in the winters?"

"Yes. Their ancestors were washed up here from the south in a storm many years ago. They wouldn't survive the winters this far north, so they come to my cave. I keep the water warm in there for my own comfort, and they are too small to get in the way," the dragon explained dissmissively.

Tallow suspected that the eager chatter of the little fish would 'get in the way' long before the winters ended. Pelean looked at the jewel in Tallow's hand, then jerked his gaze away.

"You'd better get back with that before dark, or else you might lose it. Come," he said abruptly, and swam toward the entrance. Tallow carefully tucked the jewel into his cheek so he could swim and followed.

They emerged into the long shadows of late afternoon. Tallow watched the long ribbon of water snaking toward the palace, which looked like a little toy house from this distance. He had a long swim home.

"You said someone like me used to visit you. May I come back, sometime?" he asked.

The dragon smiled, which was rather unsettling in light of all those wickedly pointy teeth. "I should like that a great deal. The fish are friendly and affectionate, but just between us? Their conversation leaves something to be desired."

"I'll come back soon," he promised, and set off toward home. As he reached the first bend in the stream, he looked back, and saw Pelean still bobbing in the water in front of the cave. He looked at the distant royal city, the dragon, and the long stretch of water which was only the most obvious thing separating the two.

Pelean watched curiously as Tallow swam back to him and spat the jewel out into his hand. He held it out to the dragon.

"If she knew what you did, I'm sure she would have thanked you. So keep it. It can be what you thought it was." He thrust the jewel toward the dragon.

Pelean hesitated. "But she does not know that I thought it was her thanks to me."

"She will. As soon as I get back to the city, I will tell her myself."

Gingerly the dragon plucked the jewel from his hand. "If you are sure..."

"I'm sure," Tallow said, and swam away before he could change his mind. A mile downstream hegrimaced and shook his head.

"I'm sure I'm in big trouble," he groaned.

© 2007 by the author. All rights reserved.

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