Six fools ran from the dragon’s fire, but only one of them was her husband.
There was the wizard in blue robes with a green-jeweled magic staff. There was the armored knight who bore a shield that guarded against flame. There was the jungle barbarian and the mystical fire-cat. There was the sprightly archer. And then there was the mustachioed scoundrel, who had assembled them all. His beloved wife had been lost to an enchantment, an enchantment that was impossible to break. Impossible, that is, for a single man, even if he were a devoted spouse.
The scoundrel was known as such for many reasons, and one of them was his penchant for gambling. It was in his nature to wager. He would visit the gambling houses to be sure. But he would as soon bet the farmer on the freshness of his fruit and eggs. He would stake his coins on whether mothers-to-be would have boys or girls. He would cast out his pennies to the old men and women who sat in the town square and wager about the weather.
He always had debts, but he always found ways to pay them. And after he was married to the town’s loveliest blacksmith, she would help him even as she scolded and beseeched him. It was a sickness, she would say, that he must find a way to heal. But the scoundrel would appease her with his charms, and he would bring her small but thoughtful gifts. A brick of chocolate, a fine piece of leather for her to tool, a single flower—so long as it was her favorite. And though she remained stern and steadfast, she would always forgive him.
One day, what little good luck the scoundrel had left ran out. His various debts to various lenders were all purchased by one impossibly wealthy and mercilessly unforgiving lender, known only as the moneymonger. The scoundrel owed so much that even the price of everything he and his wife owned, their home, their land, their share in the blacksmith’s shop, was not enough to pay the debt. The scoundrel’s very life was not enough.
The scoundrel woke from a drunken stupor the morning after learning that he was beholden to the moneymonger. When he sobered and returned home, he found a note from his wife bidding him goodbye and entreating him to stop his gambling ways, and to travel far away and settle elsewhere to begin life anew. She would always care for him, she said, but she no longer cared to be with him.
After he was done weeping and wallowing in his misery and despair, the scoundrel dragged himself through the home that he and his wife shared. As he walked about their cottage house, he wistfully took note of every doorknob, every little crack in the floor, and of his wife’s possessions. Her clothing, her spare set of tools, a half-eaten wheel of her favorite cheese, her best pair of fancy boots, still polished and unscuffed. He could not fault her for casting him out. But the quickness of her decision shocked him. He had only just told her the news of the moneymonger the night prior.
As was his habit, he went to the shop to find her. He would do whatever it would take, even if it took his life, to pay every coin of that debt. This time he would not ask for her forgiveness. Nor for a chance to redeem himself. This time, he would…but he could not think of it, a life without her. It would be a noble sacrifice to do as she asked in her letter. But the scoundrel was not noble. And he did not truly believe that she could live a happy life without him.
He went to the blacksmith’s shop, but she was not there. He went to the tannery, to the market, to the gardens in the town square, to the homes of their friends—her friends. She was not there either. He searched anywhere he could think to search, asked anyone he could think to ask, but he could not find her or any word of her.
Many told him that she must have abandoned him for being a scoundrel. They told him he should let her be, but he began to feel that something was wrong.
He wondered why his brave and stern wife would leave him a letter, and not face him herself. Though perhaps she feared that he would succeed in charming her. He wondered where she could have gone if she was not in the places she was wont to be. He wondered why, if she had left him, she had also left all her belongings. She was not a rash or petty woman, his wife. He began to worry that she had suffered some mishap, though he found no signs of such.
He went to see the moneymonger to let him know that he would settle his debts but first he must find his missing wife. The moneymonger was busy, but his minion received the scoundrel and laughed and told him that his debts were settled, and wished him good luck in finding his wife.
The scoundrel was again shocked. And it did not escape his notice that the last day he saw his wife was also the last day he bore his debt. Now both were gone.
Though he was distraught, the scoundrel hid his grief and charmed his way through the town, listening to rumor after rumor, learning all he could about the moneymonger. He knew his wife well, and he knew that she knew him well. He began to believe that his wife had left that note and made it sound as if she were abandoning him on purpose, to keep him from risking himself to find her. He read the note again and again, searching for clues. But he found none. And it was indeed his wife’s hand, and it was steady and showed no signs of distress.
He heard many rumors about the moneymonger. Chief among these was that the moneymonger had a great treasure, beyond what he kept in his manor and the banks in town and city, that he suffered some mysterious malady, and that he employed a wizard to help collect debts. Some whispered that the wizard transformed people into stone as trophies for the moneymonger. And the scoundrel shuddered at the thought that the life-like sculptures in the front hall of the moneymonger’s manor might have once been alive. The scoundrel wondered if he should dare to return to the monemonger’s manor, to see if he could spot a sculpture in the shape of his wife.
He decided to seek the advice of a wizard, the blue-robed old man who lived in the town and often strolled through the square and the nearby woods bearing his wooden walking stick set with a green glass orb. He carried pouches of seeds, some to feed the birds and some to plant around the town. He was likely too gentle to know much of dragons, but he was the only wizard whose services the scoundrel could afford. (Though his debt was forgiven, the scoundrel had little money to his name.) The wizard bristled at the mention of one of his kind transforming people.
“First of all,” he said, as the scoundrel strolled beside him on a forest path, “no unwilling creature can be transformed into anything. That is, it is possible to transform someone against their will, but the wizard would have to use so much of his power that he himself would die.”
The scoundrel asked if there were other ways it might be done. And the wizard stroked his beard and told the scoundrel that he would think upon it.
“You were right,” the wizard said the next morning at the door to the scoundrel’s cottage. “Your wife, I fear, has been transformed.”
The scoundrel made the error of asking the wizard how he was so certain.
The wizard waved his staff over the cottage’s little garden. “I asked the flowers and I asked the trees,” he said. “I asked the grasses and I asked the weeds.”
The scoundrel frowned, partly in confusion and partly in irritation. He liked the kindly old wizard, but he was eager to save his wife from the harm or torment he feared she was even now suffering. And his fear had exhausted all his patience.
The wizard sighed. “You are the blacksmith’s husband. Of course they will not speak as freely with you as they would with me, no matter how much drink you ply them with. But there are always eyes watching. There are always those who dare to watch even a man as forbidding as the moneymonger.”
Those eyes were connected to mouths, mouths that found themselves speaking to the kindly old wizard. Much of what they spoke were the same rumors that were spoken to the scoundrel. But some of it was new.
Unbeknownst to the scoundrel, the moneymonger paid his house a visit on the morning after he assumed the scoundrel’s debt. The scoundrel was not home that morning. He was still at a tavern, lying in a drunken stupor, after a night of trying to drown his panic and his shame.
The scoundrel imagined it. His wife must have discovered his absence when she woke in the morning, and was surely preparing to set out to find him. He had told her of the tragedy the night before, promised her that he would find friends to help him pay the debt, and she had let him go.
Eyes had seen the scoundrel’s wife leaving in the moneymonger’s covered carriage, with the moneymonger himself. She had none of her blacksmith tools with her, so it could not have been some business that the moneymonger had with her.
“Do you know the story about the ruins beyond the far hills?” the wizard asked. “The abandoned city, built by an ancient people, built so well and so solidly, that one could scarcely call them ruins. Why if I had the means, I would—”
“Wizard, please,” the scoundrel said. “My wife.”
“I believe I can take you to her,” the wizard said.
She lay sleeping out in the open upon the floor of the valley, nestled under an outcropping of stony earth. It could not be her, yet the wizard was certain of his sources, of the eyes that had seen the moneymonger’s carriage travel down a ruined road. The moneymonger had not desired to be seen but nor was he trying to hide. He did not take her in the middle of the night. He did not take her by secret and winding roads. But few traveled to the haunted ancient ruins that lay beyond the far hills, a day’s carriage ride away. The ruins were distant but still too close for those among the town who believed the unsettling stories of their elders. Ghosts and monsters stalked the crumbling halls in the once-verdant valley and the towering columns that still cast cold shadows on the high plateau above.
Eyes had seen the carriage go and they had seen the carriage return, but they did not dare to cross into the ancient city.
The scoundrel could not believe that it was his wife he looked upon, for what his incredulous gaze found sleeping at the bottom of the valley was a dragon.
The scoundrel did not want to believe it. He wanted to return to the moneymonger’s home. He wanted find a statue in the shape of his wife, and once he did, he would entreat the moneymonger to allow him to take his wife’s place. Failing that, he vowed to amass enough wealth to buy the statue back and have her transformation reversed. Or better still, he hoped to find his wife working for the moneymonger in some secret smithy, enslaved but unharmed and alive.
But the wizard told the scoundrel that if his wife had been turned to stone, she was surely dead, but if she was a living, breathing dragon, then she might be saved. The wizard had learned much more about the moneymonger, more than the moneymonger would wish any to know. Perhaps it was a danger to have such knowledge, but perhaps the moneymonger was untroubled. He had many enemies, enemies more daunting than a scoundrel and an old wizard. Yet he foiled all those enemies from finding his greatest treasure.
“That is what she is guarding, I’ll wager,” the wizard said after they returned to their carriage half a league away. “His greatest treasure.”
The scoundrel found himself not wanting to take that wager. Evening approached, and he was glad to be gone from the eerie dead city.
There were the rumors about the harsh means that the moneymonger employed to guard his amassed treasure. He kept it in the abandoned city, guarded by a dragon. The dragon’s presence might seem an unwise signal for those seeking the man’s treasure. But on the contrary, it was a deterrent. Stealing treasure guarded by a dragon was impossible. Impossible for the greatest wizard, the mightiest knight, the strongest of men, the most cunning of creatures. Impossible for one, alone. But together…
The wizard told the scoundrel he would need more allies.
“Even if I believed that was my wife,” the scoundrel said. “And even if I were to amass an army, it is impossible to steal from a dragon.”
“Near-impossible, actually. But we are not stealing from the dragon. We are stealing the dragon herself.”
The scoundrel widened his eyes. “But that seems more impossible.”
The wizard frowned and bristled again. “Impossible is impossible. It cannot be more or less.”
“Impossible can be more than near-impossible,” the scoundrel said, raising an eyebrow and crossing his arms as the carriage trundled along.
The wizard chuckled and the scoundrel’s heart strained, for he knew his wife would like his new friend, and longed for her to meet him.
The wizard surmised that the moneymonger had used a powerful charm to transform the blacksmith, the scoundrel’s wife. For despite rumors, he had found no certain evidence that the moneymonger employed any wizards. The wizard favored his own kind, but not so much that he would deny the wrongdoing of a wizard, if he should find proof. The moneymonger did not seem comfortable with those who wielded powers he did not have. He rarely kept company with others of great wealth, or great stature. The rumors of a wizard in his company may have arisen from a morbid jester he once kept to amuse him during a winter outside of the town.
There were many enchanted items known to be in the moneymonger’s possession. No doubt there were more that were not known to be in his possession. A charm of transformation might be one such possession. And much as a wizard’s life would be drained if he were to cast a spell of transformation, the charm too would need to drain life from someone, most likely the one who was transformed.
The wizard devised a plan to come upon the dragon while she slept. He would create a potion that would keep her from waking long enough for them to search upon her body for the charm. The charm was the keystone to the transformation. Removing it would collapse the transformation and restore her. There was a chance that the charm lay within her body. But if that were so, they would escape and devise another plan. And if she did wake, they would need an archer with the truest of aims to deliver more of the sleeping potion straight into her nose. If she woke and breathed fire, they would need a way to allay that fire. And if the moneymonger’s minions discovered the scoundrel and his party, they would need fighters.
The scoundrel loathed the thought of asking others to risk their lives for him. But he remembered that he was in truth asking them to risk their lives for his beloved wife.
The scoundrel had a friend who was a good archer. The man was actually his wife’s friend. The archer and his own wife never had looked too kindly upon the scoundrel. It was a difficult conversation. The scoundrel’s wife had been gone for nearly a moon. A few believed that the scoundrel had done his wife some harm, though that was because it satisfied such folk to believe the worst. Most seemed to believe that she had indeed left him. But when the scoundrel told the archer what he had discovered and what he sought to do, the archer believed him and agreed to help. Indeed, he surprised the scoundrel by telling him to feel no guilt, to remember that it was all the moneymonger’s wicked doing.
The wizard knew a knight who carried an enchanted shield capable of withstanding fire. He sent word to the knight, who lived in a neighboring realm. When the wizard received no word back after three days, he turned his attention to the jungles of the southern realm.
“I know of enchanted beings who dwell there, the fire-cats, who can resist dragon-fire,” he told the scoundrel. “If the knight does not or cannot answer our call, perhaps a fire-cat would. Alas, I do not know any personally, and I do not know their natures. They may be friendly, or they may be the secretive type who do not easily offer favors to friends much less to strangers.”
The scoundrel decided he would travel to the jungle while the archer kept watch on the dragon and the wizard distilled his sleeping potion in the proper doses.
The scoundrel had traveled three realms before he settled in the town where his blacksmith wife was born. But he had never journeyed to the southern jungles. The air grew humid and warm as he traveled further and further south, using horses and carriages when he could. In a fortnight, he had reached the edge of the jungle.
He encountered a fire-cat within the first few hours of plunging into the jungle, using only a rough map of their territories. Following instructions he had learned from local peoples, the scoundrel made the proper gestures of greeting and respect. The fire-cat bowed his head and shook the ruff of flame-colored hair around his head to return the greeting. The scoundrel, weary from travel, entreated the cat to help him. The cat gave no response. He then appealed to the fire-cat’s sense of glory at the prospect of facing a dragon. When the fire-cat again gave no response, but began to walk away, the scoundrel in his desperation, flouted all the warnings he had been given and insulted the cat.
“Are you a coward, then?” he asked. “Too afraid to face a dragon?”
The fire-cat whipped around, his fur prickling, and he glared at the scoundrel. The scoundrel backed away and bumped into a solid wall of muscle. He spun and faced a brawny man, naked save the leathery wrappings that covered his loins, his feet and ankles, and his wrists. The scoundrel was too afraid to remember his manners, but the barbarian gestured for him to follow and the scoundrel followed. The barbarian led the scoundrel to his village. None there spoke the scoundrel’s language and he did not speak theirs. Still, the villagers welcomed the scoundrel to the jungle and gave him a safe and comfortable place to sleep for the night.
When he woke, in the middle of the night, to the light of a single burning candle, the scoundrel glimpsed the fire-cat looming over him. There were no sheets to clutch. So the scoundrel lay still and slowly began to move away. The cat gazed at him, tilting its head as if curious.
“I cannot resist fire,” the cat said, startling the scoundrel, who had forgotten that enchanted beasts often knew how to speak. He startled further still because the cat spoke his language.
He realized that the fire-cat was not the same one whom he’d encountered earlier, who did not understand the scoundrel’s insult, but was offended by his tone. This new fire-cat had been called upon to come forth because he spoke the scoundrel’s language.
“I cannot resist fire,” the cat said again. “I can only eat it.”
The scoundrel learned that fire-cats consumed and sustained themselves on fire. Though their sharp teeth suggested they could sustain themselves upon flesh when fire was lacking. The fire-cat asked if the scoundrel intended to let the cats have the dragon, so her fire could sustain his tribe. When the scoundrel said “no,” the fire-cat became confused.
“Don’t your kind fear and despise dragons?” the cat asked.
“Not this one.”
The scoundrel hesitated. “She is my wife.”
“You married a dragon?”
The scoundrel sighed.
The fire-cat was easily convinced. He had never tasted dragon-fire, and was curious, and sought adventure. But he was too young to be trusted to travel alone, so he was assigned a guardian, the very barbarian whom the scoundrel first bumped into. The barbarian was none too happy about this duty, but he agreed to it, and the trio set out to return to the scoundrel’s homeland.
In the month that they traveled, the barbarian learned much of the scoundrel’s language and the scoundrel learned a bit of the barbarian’s language. The barbarian, though annoyed at having to childmind a fire-cat, was angered that the scoundrel and his wife were separated. He suggested hunting the one who had transformed the woman into a dragon and forcing him to reverse the transformation. Or perhaps killing him and hoping that the transformation would be reversed.
The scoundrel stopped mid-stride. “No, my friend,” he said, invoking the barbarian word “friend,” which by custom compelled the one who heard to listen. “I only want my wife back. I want no harm to come to the moneymonger, his minions, or anyone.”
He entreated the barbarian and the fire-cat to follow that rule of no harm, and reminded himself to assure that all the allied strangers in the quest to free his wife did so as well.
When they returned to the town, the scoundrel found that while he was gone, the knight had answered the call after all. The allies now had two ways to dispel the effects of the dragon’s fire. He noted that the magician had kept the cottage garden watered and had even planted some new flowers.
“For when the lady returns,” the wizard said. The scoundrel was touched.
One last time, he realized that not only could he not pay the assembled allies, but he would ask them to risk life and limb for his sake, for his wife’s sake. Most of them were but strangers. But the archer was a friend. The wizard was kind-hearted. The knight deemed the cause honorable and worthy. The fire-cat’s payment would be a taste of dragon-fire. And the starry-eyed barbarian longed to see husband and wife reunited.
The archer had watched the dragon from afar, and even with eyes as sharp as an eagle’s he had not seen any sign of a charm. She was so massive in her dragon form, that if she wore a ring around a clawed finger, or a jewel around her scaly wrist, he would not see it. Her senses were keen, and the few times he had tried to venture closer, she had smelled him and began to ride toward him so quickly that he barely escaped.
“Dragons may be large, but they are certainly not cumbersome,” the archer said.
The barbarian and the fire-cat stayed in the forest, despite the scoundrel’s insistence that they stay in the cottage with him. Rumors sprung up in town of the odd beings haunting the forest. The knight took a room in the town’s best inn. He drew some attention, though not much. The town was visited by knights on occasion.
The scoundrel kept watch over the moneymonger and his minions, fearing that he and his plan would be found out. But if the moneymonger knew of the scoundrel’s plans, he did not seem at all troubled by them.
At last, the wizard’s sleeping potion was ready, as was the party of questers.
She slept and they crept. Closer and closer. Still far enough to safely flee if need be, but close enough that the scoundrel could feel the intense heat of the dragon’s breaths. He could hear the scraping of her scales against each other as she stirred. It was night, but there was a luminous glow that seemed to shine forth from between the dragon’s scales.
The fire-cat and the knight went first, followed by the barbarian and the archer, then the wizard and the scoundrel. They were almost close enough for the archer to fire the arrows, dipped in sleeping potion, into the dragon’s nostrils. The scoundrel worried about hurting her, but the wizard insisted that even the fleshiest most sensitive parts of a dragon were tougher than a knight’s armor.
Dragons were resistant to enchantments, but not immune. If the archer could spend all his arrows, the wizard believed she would fall asleep. He just was not certain how long she would stay asleep.
When they were close enough for the archer, he nocked an arrow and fired. It struck the dragon’s snout just behind her right nostril and bounced away. The scoundrel held his breath, but she did not wake.
The archer tried again. The arrow passed into her nostril, and as the wizard had predicted, there was a sudden spark as the wooden shaft was burned by the intense heat wafting naturally from the dragon’s nostril. The wizard had prepared the sleeping potion so that it would not burn away. The archer managed a second arrow before the dragon began to stir and waken.
The archer kept shooting as the dragon opened her eyes and raised her head. She peered into the darkness, and the scoundrel could feel that she saw them. She rose to her feet, snorted fire as if to expel whatever had landed in her nostrils. The scoundrel heard the angered rumbling in her throat. She opened her mouth and summoned fire.
But the cat and knight were ready. The fire-cat inhaled the dragon’s fire and the knight held aloft his shield to deflect it. They sheltered the others. They were to do so until she succumbed to the sleeping potion and fell. Then the others would quickly surge forth and find the charm that imprisoned the woman in dragon’s form.
The archer had some arrows left, but they would be wasted if he tried to shoot them through the fire. The wizard shouted for him to climb to the plateau. If they could draw the dragon out slowly and make her come closer and closer to the plateau, the archer might fire upon her from above.
Suddenly the fire-cat stopped drinking the fire.
“It’s too much. I cannot consume it all.”
“And I cannot deflect it all,” the knight said.
The scoundrel glanced at the wizard. “Then what do we do?”
They ran for the colonnaded plateau where the archer was already waiting as the dragon blew fire and pursued them. She gained on them as they rejoined the archer. From behind, the scoundrel heard the dragon crashing toward them, toppling columns in her unyielding haste.
The scoundrel did not think the wizard’s potion would work.
They ducked down into a hidden trench that the barbarian and the scoundrel had dug over several days, while the dragon wandered elsewhere in the city. If she was set to guard some treasure, she would not stop at simply chasing them away. She would hunt them.
“I would say your wife has a fiery temper, but I fear that jest is as old as my beard,” the wizard said in a low voice.
They heard the dragon stop and stomp toward their hiding hole. The wizard gestured for them to remain quiet, but the archer leaned toward the scoundrel.
“One of her scales was different,” he whispered. “I saw it just before I ran. Like that.” He pointed to the green stone set in the wizard’s staff.
“Are you certain?” the scoundrel whispered back.
The archer shook his head.
But he had elven blood in his heritage and his eyes were sharp as an eagle’s. And the scoundrel’s hopes rose, for he suddenly believed with utmost and reckless faith, that the glassy scale was the charm that had transformed his wife.
He wanted only another chance. He hoped against hope that the wizard’s sleeping potion would take effect soon.
The fire-cat began to rumble and spew forth the occasional giddy meow. The barbarian tried to quiet him. But it seemed the fire-cat was drunk from drinking dragon’s fire. He tried to rise, but then fell down.
They heard the dragon searching nearby. Their hiding hole was full of dirt and stone from the city. It was meant to mask them from her senses. But she would surely find them if she came close enough.
They needed a distraction. The plan had failed. If they were to try another, they had to escape alive.
The scoundrel leaned toward the wizard. “Can you conjure an illusion?”
“Even if I had the skill, I fear she would see through it. She should have fallen to that sleeping potion by now. It was so powerful I feared to carry it. Yet I see now that she will not succumb.”
The scoundrel frowned in thought. “How quickly can you grow a flower?”
The wizard raised a brow.
The scoundrel knew that the wizard was a master of plants and other things that grew in the earth. The wizard had tended his wife’s garden, until it looked even more vibrant and alive than it typically did. Perhaps he could grow a specific type of flower, there in that trench, quickly enough for the scoundrel to offer it to his dragon wife, and hope that she did not cook him before his allies could flee. Before he could find that special scale beneath her throat. The wizard said that the transformation would have twisted her mind as it did her body. That she would not remember being a woman. But the scoundrel hoped she would remember the flower and him together.
The wizard thought the scoundrel’s plan was daft. He need not risk himself. For the wizard could grow a field of flowers if he had but one seed. And he had the needed seed in the collection he carried with him.
He found the seed and tossed it outside the trench on the slope of earth that descended from the plateau and back down into the valley. He dared to raise his staff and as the green stone within the staff began to glow, a flower grew on the stony ground of the plateau. Then another grew beside it, and another. The flowers multiplied. The barren ghostly plateau sprung to new life within minutes.
The dragon watched the growth of the flowers, mesmerized. She shook her head as if clearing away an undesired thought. But then she lowered her head as if to take a closer look.
The scoundrel was ready. When she bowed her head, he leapt out of the trench and onto her throat and grasped the false scale. His hands began to burn from touching her fiery green scales. As she raised her head, he was pulled away from the ground. He yanked at the false scale. The dragon shook her head, trying to shake him off.
She breathed fire, but it did not reach the flowers, for the fire-cat jumped out of the trench and fell to the ground with his mouth open, drinking the fire. What he could not catch, the knight deflected from behind him.
The scoundrel lost his grip. He dropped from a towering height. He was certain his body would shatter. Perhaps it would die. But he had the false scale in his burned hands.
Something caught him. The barbarian.
The barbarian tossed the scoundrel over his brawny shoulder and ran away.
But then the archer called out. The fire had stopped. The scoundrel could feel it, the sudden cool. The dragon uttered a cry, not a roar, but a cry as of pain. She collapsed thunderously, her fire spent. She began to shrink, and she began to transform.
The scoundrel, through the fierce pain of his burned flesh, entreated the barbarian to put him down. He dropped the false scale and ran to his wife. He swept his charred and tattered cloak over her.
She breathed deeply like a dragon. She woke and called his name, her green eyes gleaming, and he held her. Scoundrel and blacksmith were reunited.
After the scoundrel’s wife, was dressed and the scoundrel’s burns were salved, she insisted they must find what she was guarding, for she must have dropped it when she transformed back.
The wizard stroked his beard and turned to the scoundrel. “He will surely come after you for taking away his dragon.”
“I am no longer his dragon, my good sirs,” the scoundrel’s wife. She curtsied to them. “I am yours.” She swept her gaze across the gathered company and her eyes gleamed a glittery green.
She gazed at the field of flowers again, and this time, she did not shake off the memory of her favorite flower, and how her scoundrel husband always remembered it. Lying within the flowers, she spotted the treasure she had been guarding. The treasure that only a dragon could guard without failing.
A golden heart.
Now that she was a woman again, she remembered what the moneymonger said. He never thought she would utter it to another, for he never thought that anyone could succeed in breaking the spell upon her.
Long ago, the moneymonger lost his heart to a curse. He found his heart, but it was still enchanted by the curse, and he could not restore it to his body. Though enchanted, the heart was still vulnerable to harm. So the moneymonger found a way to turn his heart to gold, so it would be preserved until he could find a way to break the curse.
There was a way, but it seemed impossible to him. Love could free the heart from the curse. But without a heart, the moneymonger could feel no love. It seemed a perfect curse, a loop that could not be broken. So he kept searching. There were always those who learned his secret and sought the golden heart to gain power over him. He devised the most extreme means to protect it. But his enemies would always find a way to get at the heart, whether it was locked within thick walls, hidden away on an island in the midst of deadly crashing seas, or bound within spell after spell. In the end, he found that only one thing could protect his heart. A living guardian. One whose very nature compelled it to guard treasures. A dragon. Dragons were fierce, nigh-indestructible, and resilient against enchantments. But no natural-born dragon would do a man’s bidding.
So he found a charm that could transform creatures into other creatures. He tried first with animals. The transformed dragons died quickly, as if the original being’s life force were being burned away faster than it naturally would. Dogs and cats and the like did not last long, mere months, and even so they did not take the moneymonger’s one command well. People lasted longer, and took the command without question. But even so, even with the willing, the dragons would die within a decade. So the moneymonger had to keep replenishing them.
When the blacksmith entreated the moneymonger to forgive her husband’s debt in exchange for all they owned, the moneymonger laughed and told her that a thousand times what she owned would not pay the scoundrel’s debt. But there was something that he could do to pay the debt for once and for all. He could agree to be transformed into a dragon. The moneymonger needed a dragon to guard his greatest treasure.
The blacksmith offered herself in her husband’s stead. Her mind was transformed even as her body was. She became a brutish beast who remembered only one thing, the last command she was given before she became a dragon. To guard the golden heart.
“I will crush it. Then he will die,” the barbarian said, stepping toward the golden heart.
The scoundrel intervened. “No!”
“Perhaps there is another way to defeat our enemy for good,” the fire-cat said, as he pointed a paw to the object that the wizard held. It was the charm that had transformed the blacksmith into a dragon. Separated from its host, it had transformed back into its original form, a polished stone, green and flattened and inscribed like a coin.
“It won’t work if he’s not willing,” the wizard said. “This belongs in the vault of my elders.”
“The best way to defeat the moneymonger is to defeat his purpose,” the blacksmith said. “So long as we hold his golden heart, he will not dare to harm us.” She glanced at the barbarian. “Or we might crush it.”
“Perhaps, beloved, the best way to defeat this villain is by fulfilling his purpose,” the scoundrel offered. “By breaking the curse on his heart.”
“And if you could do it, why should he be rewarded after all the people he has harmed?” the barbarian said.
The scoundrel glanced at his wife. “Perhaps he will feel remorse once his heart is restored.”
The blacksmith’s gaze was fierce, but her voice was soft and steady as she spoke. “A heavy heart is not punishment enough for all the harm he has done, and all the folks he has killed by transforming them into dragons.”
“We must find him and bring him to justice,” the knight said.
The archer raised a brow. “We?”
“Whosoever will join me.”
The scoundrel sighed. “He will be after us, friends,” he said, wrapping an arm around his wife, “for foiling him. But you have fulfilled your quest. And I have never been so happy to be indebted.”
“I liked you better as a dragon,” the fire-cat said, gazing longingly at the scoundrel’s wife. She answered with a forbidding wink.
“As you said,” the knight replied, “we are your friends now. This adventure is not yet done.”
“We should leave this plateau quickly,” the archer said. “Before the moneymonger finds his treasure and his dragon missing.”
“Why did he let us come this far, I wonder,” the scoundrel said. “He must have known what we were about from his spies.”
“He was certain we would fail.” The wizard crossed his arms. “As others have failed to save their loved ones from the transformation.”
The scoundrel shook his head. “Why did we not fail?”
The fire-cat teetered from side to side. “Skill, daring, dumb chance.”
“Love,” the blacksmith said as she smiled upon her husband.
The wizard chuckled. “We are fools to be tampering with such powers.”
With that seven fools ran from the haunted ruins.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Six Fools and the Dragon” by Sanjay Patel.