Authors: Loren K. Jones
Tags: #Fantasy, #Dragons, #adventure, #traders
All that Glitters
By Loren K. Jones
Twilight Times Books
All that Glitters
This is a work of fiction. All concepts, characters and events portrayed in this book are used fictitiously and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Loren K. Jones. Expanded and revised from a previous electronic edition published by e-Quill Publishing, Brisbane, Australia 2010 with title "All that Glitters."
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, except brief extracts for the purpose of review, without the permission of the publisher and copyright owner.
Twilight Times Books
P O Box 3340
Kingsport, TN 37664
Revised Electronic Edition: July 2016. Author's preferred version.
Published in the United States of America
For my wife, Pamela Ann Jones, the love of my life,
and the adventures we have shared since 1983.
NISTON STRUGGLED UP THE
steep slope of the crater's side, through deep snow and line after line of thicket, trying to get to the cave located on the crater's highest peak. He paused and scraped the top layer of snow off a drift in search of some clean snow to quench his thirst. He had started with a full water bottle and enough food for five days, but the climb had been harder than he expected and his water had run out after just three days. His food would last only one more day, but that didn't matter. He was determined to succeed, or die trying.
He looked down at the valley, through a gap where the trees had been scoured away by a landslide, and gazed at the smoke rising from the chimneys of distant Kavinston. He clenched his fists in anger as he looked at his home. The town was nearly obscured by the distance, but he imagined he could see the people in the streets. Hear their laughter at the idea that he might dare the cave. Hear the derisive laughter of the only person who mattered to him as she called him a runt.
Turning away, he looked at the last thicket he must cross to reach the cave. The thicket was a long, straight line of juniper trees that looked like they had been deliberately planted by someone. Legend claimed they had been, but not by a man. Supposedly, they had been planted by a dragon as his hedges. Stavin discounted that as pure fancy.
What he didn't discount was the legend of the dragon's gold.
Everyone knew there had been dragons in the old days. After all, the Empire of Luxand had been founded by the dragon Dandarshandrake. Other dragons had been seen through the centuries, though few humans had been blessed by their attention. A dragon had often been seen soaring majestically above the valley back when Kavinston was being built, but it had been ages since it had last been spotted.
The stories of the dragon's gold had been around since an intrepid youngster had chased a wounded deer into the cave more than a hundred and fifty years ago. He'd gone in after it, then stopped in his tracks when he saw a huge pile of gold. Supposedly, terror had gripped the boy's heart as a long, low moan filled the cave, and he'd run for his life, forgetting the wounded deer and the gold in his fright. He had run all the way down the mountain to the village and told the Elders what had happened.
The Elders of Kavinston had sent a band of stout warriors to investigate the cave. Only four returned three days later. They confirmed the boy's story of a dragon's hoard of gold, and added to the legend of the terror.
Their leader had been much farther into the cave than the rest when the terror hit, and he hadn't won free to the sunlight with the others. His screams had echoed horribly, only to be followed by an even more ominous silence. The survivors had fled down the mountain as fast as their horses would carry them, and none of them would ever climb that mountain again.
Some years after that incident, two foolish boys had dared one another to go into the cave and prove their bravery. They had both entered as their friends watched. But both had reportedly emerged at a dead run just a few moments later. The second to emerge claimed to be the bravest because he had stayed the longest. And so had begun the foolish tradition of boys proving their bravery in the dragon's cave: That was why Stavin was making his lonely journey now.
Stavin struggled through the last line of thicket and saw the mouth of the cave, just as it had been described. It was a pitch-black, irregular circle in the side of the mountain, near the summit. The edges of the opening were smooth, as if they had been worn down by the passage of countless hands. A shiver of fear shook his slight frame, and he made no effort to hide it. There was no one to hide it from. No one had come with him. No one believed that he'd really do it.
No one believes I have the courage,
That thought burned in his mind and started his legs moving once again. Stavin approached from the side and peeked around the edge into the darkness, but he could see little of the interior. Gathering the last shreds of his courage, he crept into the cave.
Stavin walked until he couldn't see where he was stepping, then stopped and let his eyes adjust for a few moments. When the impenetrable darkness had been replaced by a deep gloom, he walked forward. Then, suddenly, as if it had been hidden by an outcropping of stone, he saw the treasure glinting in a shaft of sunlight. The mound of gold was as tall as two grown men standing one on the other's shoulders, and as long as the cave was wide. Then The Terror struck.
Wild, unreasoning fear grabbed Stavin's heart and squeezed. He gasped for breath as his knees shook uncontrollably. His bladder and bowels threatened to let loose and shame him. Yet, for all his fear, he didn't run. He couldn't.
I'd rather die than go back without proof that I really went into the cave.
Gathering his breath, he shouted, "I won't run! I won't!"
New terrors assaulted his senses. Barely seen shapes flitted through the darkness at the corners of his sight. Shadows moved and writhed as if they were tormented spirits. The sounds of moaning and screaming assaulted his ears, and still he stood his ground.
he screamed. "I won't let you frighten me away!" Suddenly the fear was gone, and Stavin fell to his knees in relief, gasping for breath.
"You really won't run?" a deep, echoing voice asked.
"N-No!" Stavin shouted.
"You are alone," the voice said softly. "Who do you think to prove your bravery to?"
"Myself!" Stavin shouted, bolder now that he was still alive. He struggled to his feet once again and stared at the pile of gold.
A sound like a gigantic sigh filled the cave. "Kids," muttered the voice. "And what do you desire as proof of your bravery?"
"Gold! As much as I can carry," Stavin shouted into the darkness.
That'll show 'em. That'll prove how brave I am.
Harsh laughter echoed through the cave. "Is that what the last hundred and sixty years have been about? You have indeed come on a fool's errand, boy, for there is no gold here."
Stavin got angry when he heard that. He could see it plainly before him. He shouted, "No gold? What's that if it's not gold?" as his hands balled into fists.
The mound of gold seemed to shimmer, then it moved. It rose toward the roof of the cave, and part of it unfolded toward him. The center lifted from the floor, and he could see what looked like legs underneath. Then a long, sinuous neck swung a wagon-sized head around to bring two golden eyes the size of battle-shields to focus on him.
"You mean me?" the voice asked, and Stavin realized how foolish they had all been. It wasn't the dragon's gold that they had been trying to steal: it was the dragon itself.
Stavin stumbled backwards and tripped on a rock, landing on his backside. "Don't eat me. Please don't eat me," he pleaded in a little boy's voice as the dragon's head swung closer.
The dragon considered him for a moment, then snorted. "I don't eat humans. You surprise me, boy. Most grown men would have run screaming for the sunlight, messing their britches the whole way if I turned on them like that. You are braver than you believe."
"But no one else believes," Stavin whispered. "None of them believed enough to come and see if I'd even enter the cave. Not one of them. Not even—you wouldn't understand."
The dragon's head nodded. "I understand better than you might think."
"And now I'll go back empty-handed, and no one will believe that I really came in here."
"There you are wrong, boy." The dragon shook itself like a wet hound and a sprinkling of golden scales fell to the cave's floor. "Be a good lad and gather those up," it commanded, and Stavin automatically did as he was told. "Good enough. What are you?"
"I'm a human," Stavin answered softly.
"Don't try my patience, boy, or you'll be bear-bait," the dragon snapped. "What do you do? Are you a warrior?"
"Yes. Or, I will be when the spring draft comes and I take my place with the others."
"What is your weapon?" the dragon asked.
"The Dragon's Tongue," Stavin answered, then wished he hadn't.
"What is that? I've never heard of it before," the dragon asked, tilting his head to the side.
Stavin was relieved to still be alive, so he explained. "It's a quarterstaff with a spear point at each end."
"Odd name," the dragon commented. "Why is it called that?"
Stavin thought for a moment before answering, "Because it has two points, is very sharp, and can cut both ways."
The dragon actually chuckled. "Heh. Now that's truth if I ever heard it. What armor do you wear?"
"Breast and back plates, thigh and shin guards, chain-mail leggings, a long chain-mail coat and cap, a helmet, and armored gauntlets," Stavin answered. "Why do you want to know?"
"You'll see. Now shut up for a moment."
Stavin suddenly found himself in the center of a circle of bright light, surrounded by a whirlwind made of the dragon scales he had collected. His arms were abruptly pulled out straight from his sides and his clothes vanished. As he was taking a breath to protest, he was magically clothed head to toe in a soft, felt-like material that looked like spun gold. Golden chain-mail rattled and chimed as it made itself around him. Tall gauntlets formed around his hands, but only the backs of the gloves were armored. Breast and back plates snapped around him like a mussel shell. Thigh guards wrapped his upper legs, and shin guards with knee cups wrapped his lower legs. There were even plates that extended out over his boots.
As he looked up at the dragon, he could see the reflection of his armor in its eyes. He was filled with wonder as a helmet formed around his head in the shape of a dragon, its body forming the dome of the helmet while its wings formed cheek guards and the neck and head formed a nasal guard. When Stavin looked at his hands, a brightly shining staff appeared, then transmuted into a Dragon's Tongue.