Written by Carl Malcolm
Art by Anato Finnstark
The cave was inky dark, and unseen things could be heard scuttling about. The drip, drip, drip of water echoed through the stillness, a much slower rhythm than the rapid thumping of Aaron’s heart. Still, he forged ahead. The curiosity of an eight year old wouldn’t be beaten by the dark.
Aaron followed a strange glow that called to him, feeling his way along the slimy walls. The end of the tunnel opened up into a huge cavern, bigger than any building he’d stepped foot in, bigger than the church that Mother dragged him to every Sunday, and even bigger than the smelly warehouse by the river that he wasn’t supposed to go near. His jaw dropped open and a whispered wow escaped.
The whole place burned with the honeyed glow of gold. Red rubies the size of his fist, delicate silver crowns, jewel encrusted rings, more than his eyes could take in, all nestled within an ocean of golden coins. His mouth watered at the thought of all the food he could buy with this fortune. He could have real chunks of meat instead of discarded gristle, and loaves of bread fresh from the oven instead of the burnt heels and green-spotted slices he’d grown accustomed to.
He skidded down the slope of gold in a scattering of coins that actually hurt a little more than he was expecting. As he came to a halt, a gout of smoke erupted from an enormous black stone in the centre of the cavern. A burning bright orb appeared on the stone a few paces away from the smoke. Aaron’s skin turned clammy and cold, despite the warmth of the cavern, once he realised the orb was an eye, and it was fixed on him. The eye was bigger than Aaron’s head, and the smoke was coming out of the creature’s nose. His eyes traced the huge body attached to the head, its gleaming black scales and spikes half-buried in gold. A dragon!
Mouth dry and heart pounding, Aaron couldn’t move, paralysed by the great beast’s glare. But after a painfully long stretch of time, he realised that the dragon wasn’t moving either. He began to wonder, could it be friendly? Maybe it was like Uncle Douglas, who looked big and scary but was actually very nice and gifted Aaron wooden figures that he whittled with his knife.
“He… hel… hello,” Aaron stammered out. His small voice echoed meekly around the cave. No response. “You… you have a lovely home.” Mother had told him to say polite things like that to people, even when they weren’t true at all, but he wasn’t lying this time. He bent down to pick up a coin, so he could continue complimenting the dragon on his decoration choices, but as soon as his fingers touched the gold a terrible, earth-rumbling growl boiled out of the dragon. Aaron threw the coin as if it had burned him. “Sorry! Sorry!” he squeaked.
Aaron backed away, holding his hands up to prove he wasn’t taking anything. The dragon continued to glare at him as he retreated but refrained from lifting its head to attack. Aaron stumbled as he backed away and landed on his back in a splash of coins. He scrambled to get back up and ran for the tunnel. The back of his neck prickled with the fear of being burned alive, but he made it out of the cavern and into the tunnel. The pounding echoes of his own frantic footsteps had Aaron convinced that the dragon was chasing after him. Something twinkled at the end of the tunnel, and it wasn’t gold or rubies. Daylight! He launched himself from the cave, and only then, panting on his back with green grass beneath him and a cheery blue sky above, did he realise that the dragon hadn’t been chasing after him at all.
Sweat soaked through his clothes and plastered his hair to his forehead. After a long moment of getting his breathing back under control, he sat up with his feet splayed out before him and dug around under his shirt. He pulled a glittering diamond free and sat there marvelling at all the colours dancing around inside it. Mother had always told him that stealing was wrong, but he was sure the dragon could afford to lose just one diamond. Plus, maybe with this Aaron could afford to buy the medicine that she needed so badly.