This story is based on a character I created for Dungeons and Dragons that I haven't had a chance to use yet. Enjoy!
He’s almost never awake this late in the morning. Waking up late is a luxury he normally can’t afford. Erdin stretched, feeling the creak and groan of his muscles as he sat up, yawning wide. He was glad he’d been able to afford a room last night. Paid up front, as always, late in the evening when the owner was tired. It was particularly dark, what with the storm and the rain washing out the torches outside.
He hadn’t needed to augment his disguise at all, not even to cover his gruff voice. The owner had been happy to make a sale at all, and even happier when Erdin had offered to fix the shrieking, stiff hinges on his door without charging for the magic he used. It was the first time someone had smiled so genuinely at him in a very long time.
He left just at dawn, this time choosing to implement his magic. He didn’t want to break this rare camaraderie. He nodded to the barman as he left, vaguely waving off his offer of “come back any time!” He’d never be back. It was better that way.
The streets were still empty. It must be the weekend, he thought, noticing that the other little shops in the ragtag village were closed, their darkened windows glinting with the rain from yesterday still settled on them. It was too cold for it to be gone yet; spring was still too new in this region, and the constant heat of summer wouldn’t settle in for a few months yet.
This was his favorite time of year. Everything looked new in the light of a winter fading away; the trees sported the buds of life that would bloom in the coming weeks, and the animals reflected it as well, carrying their young about in wombs or eggs or any number of miraculous means. People, too, reflected the season, he thought as he watched a young mother strut along with her small child clinging to her hand. The boy was babbling about something, ducks, he thought he heard, but the mother wasn’t listening. She looked worried.
“Pardon, sir!” Erdin froze as she made her way toward him. “Pardon, but have you seen a little girl? She’s not more’n his height,” she gestured at her son, “only she got away from me while I were doin’ my shopping. Little blonde girl in a blue dress?”
“Oh,” he stuttered, pulling his hood lower, “I…no, I haven’t…I only just start-started out, I…”
“Thank you anyway,” she said, looking more crestfallen, and turned to go with the little one trailing behind her. “C’mon, James, we need to keep looking to Tabs.”
“Bye!” the boy said, smiling brightly at Erdin as they went. The poor thing had no idea that his mother was worried, or that she had any right to be. Erdin waved at him, which made the boy giggle, and he couldn’t help but smile a little sadly. He’d keep an eye out.
He kept up the road as the town woke up around him. The streets began to fill with weekend market vendors, with flowers and pastries and other delights for sale. Shoppers followed quickly, mothers gathering to chat while their children ran around to play, lovers out for a day’s courting, the religious crowd pouring out of the various churches as the sun crept up in the sky. He found himself surrounded by the smell of spiced wine and the sound of laughter, warm in the light of a clear, cloudless morning, watching the steam rise from the drying cobblestones.
What he would have given to stay, to enjoy it, to find someone to chat with about the latest silly gossip. He could move into that empty little flat above the baker’s, offer to light his fires for him, and sweep the shop for solid, steady pay. Maybe he could go to the university on the other end of town, where he’d maybe meet some like-minded friends to talk poetry and literature with. He would come home in the evening and finish his work, wiping the soot from the ovens and cleaning the dishes, sneaking a snack of the day-old bread and giving the rest of it to the beggar men that came to call or the church to redistribute. When he was done, he’d climb up to his comfortable bed, and sleep on a full stomach.
Maybe he’d go to the festivals they held, like the Springfest coming up, and he’d meet a bonnie girl who’d laugh at his jokes, and he’d court her for a while as he saved up to start a bookstore in that empty building at the end of the road. Maybe they’d end up together, and he’d find himself in a comfortable chair, reading stories to his children by the fire as she watched with a smile on her face.
“Oi, watch it!” Erdin blinked as the shorter man thudded into the street beside him, taking a moment to process what’d happened.
“Oh…oh, I’m so sorry, let me-“ But he stopped as he caught the horrified look on the man’s face. Damn, his mind had wandered too far, his magic had slipped. He recoiled, pulling his hood low. If he could just get away quick enough…
“What the hells are you?” The man’s voice was loud and high-pitched. He scrambled to his feet, backing up.
“I’m just a traveler, I’m sorry, I’ll be on my- “
“Guards!” He took off sprinting, and now people were staring. Women were pulling their kids into the shops, telling them to stay close in hushed tones. Erdin lowered his head and started walking briskly up the high street, avoiding the looks of the crowd as he tried to recast his spell. It was taking too long, and people were starting to get curious, trying to get too close, but he eventually managed to get it functional enough that they didn’t know what to look for.
His walk became a jog, and then, when he hit an alleyway, a run until he was sprinting as fast as the man had, his heart pounding in his chest. He made it to the edge of town, a high stone wall far from the gates in and out. Cursing, he leaped for the ridge and just barely made it. Sometimes his height had its advantages. He pulled himself over the wall and rolled as he landed on the other side and kept running. He’d heard calls of “invader” as he’d gone on, and “monster,” followed by the usual question of “how did that get in?” He’d been sloppy, stupid, he should have been paying attention. With any luck, they wouldn’t send anyone out looking.
He kept running for a long while until it was hard to breathe and he couldn’t see the town over his shoulders anymore. The woods were thick here. He could hide until he recovered, he had enough food for a week or so of travel before he really needed to forage.
As he ran through his supplies, his train of thought was interrupted by a scream, not from the town behind him, but from a little while ahead. He stopped and listened as the scream sounded off again, more desperate than before. That wasn’t an animal…in fact, that sounded human. That sounded like a child.
He started running again, this time toward the sound, and this time trying to be as quiet as possible. As he got closer, he heard the raucous laughter and guttural taunting and smelled the smoke and fire and general odor of discontent. A goblin band. Dammit. Yes, as he neared and pulled himself behind a larger tree, into its somewhat rotted trunk, he could see a small band of them dancing about a fire, and a little child tied above it, letting out sobbing screams as she wriggled away from the flames.
The girl was small, no older than six or so, with blonde hair in matted braids that dangled dangerously low. Her dress was stained with dirt and grass and something dark he hoped wasn’t blood, and it was starting to singe along the hem.
There were too many of them to attack head-on. He’d survive it, easily, but that scale of magic would burn the little girl up as well. If he could lure them away, that might work. He dropped his disguise, and instead focused on a point about thirty feet into the woods, behind him and a bit to one side, so he could watch them go.
“Hey! Over here! I heard something this way. Go back and tell them I’ve found her!”
The goblins stopped their jumping and looked over. Vicious grins spread between them, and, drawing sharp daggers from sheaths at their hips, the goblins made their way silently toward the sound, stifling their laughter. The girl’s screams had become silent, trembling sobs.
As soon as they were out of sight, Erdin rushed in. He produced a quick gust of wind that knocked out the flames, and, stumbling in the darkness, pulled the little girl down. She gasped and made ready to scream again.
“No, no! No, they’ll hear you. I’m here to help, I promise, please just come with me.”
She swallowed the scream and nodded, taking the hand he offered as she stood and allowing herself to be pulled along, back into the woods. Turning behind them, Erdin summoned a spark and lit the fire again, then kept going. He couldn’t quite run with her, the girl was too little for that, but he walked as quickly as his hunched position would let him. Hearing the sounds of the returning band, they skidded to a stop. The girl was shaking.
There was no way to outrun them, they hadn’t put enough ground between them and the creatures. He turned to her, kneeling and offering his cupped hands. “Up, into the tree, climb as high as you can and hunker down, okay?”
She nodded again, and scrambled up his arms and shoulders into the tree, just managing to pull herself out of sight when the first one came through.
It sneered at him. “Funny li’l trick you pulled back there, big man. Funny thing. Thing is, we’re not that stupid. Find us one man who’s gonna send ‘is backup back just when ‘e’s ‘eard screamin’. But now we’ve got you, don’t we?” Others filtered out of the trees then, all with bright snarls and their weapons drawn.
“Please, don’t come any closer. I don’t want to hurt you. What you did was wrong, but I’d rather just go.”
“Wrong, was it? We was just gettin’ food for us and our kin, ‘ow’s that wrong?”
“She was only a child, someone’s daughter, surely-“
“Mate, I don’t care. Meat’s meat, and yours is next.” With that, he leaped forward, brandishing the dagger.
Erdin didn’t think this time. His hand almost reached on its own, crackling with power as the goblin came close. He noticed too late and couldn’t stop himself from colliding with the fist, convulsing as he did and crumpling to the ground. Another came forward, but Erdin pointed his finger and watched as that one stumbled, clutching its head and screaming out in agony. A third came at him, but by this time he’d pulled his staff from his back, and swung it in a wide arc, thumping it soundly into the head of the goblin as it came close, sending it flying back.
The first goblin recovered enough to stand again and lunged at him. This time, Erdin wasn’t quick enough, and its dagger found purchase through his thin trouser leg. Erdin grunted in pain, his leg threatening to buckle under him, but he rounded on his goblin and grabbed it again, using the same spell as before to shock it again, chucking the now limp body away from him as another two tried to tackle him to the ground. A good swing with his staff took one down, but the other hung from the hood that’d fallen down and was now cutting into his throat.
Pointing his hand behind him as he swung around, Erdin concentrated, and a flash of brilliant fire sprouted from his fingertips, blasting directly into the face of the creature on his hood, who dropped to the ground, screaming as its flesh bubbled off. Lit in the flames of the spell, the other goblins finally saw what they were facing, and the ones that could still move sprinted into the darkness, giving up the fight completely.
Erdin dispatched the ones on the ground quickly. His heart was thudding again, blood pounding in his ears as he stood up.
It was so easy. They shouldn’t have had to fight him at all. Why not just show them who he was? Avoid the bloodshed. Why shouldn’t he get exactly what he deserves?
What he deserves.
The pain in his leg caught his attention, and he yanked his mind away from those dangerous thoughts, wrestling them down as he looked at the dagger sticking out from just above his knee. Thankfully, it seemed to have missed any arteries, but gods, it hurt. He finally did crumple down, grunting as he did so. Best not to take that out yet, he didn’t want to deal with the bleeding while the little one was watching. He tilted his head up as he knelt, and caught sight of the little girl still in the tree.
They both froze. The only sounds they made were ragged breaths.
“Are you all right?”
The girl just stared. He couldn’t blame her. He tried again.
“I didn’t hit you, did I? You were very good to stay up there through all of that. I know it’s hard to look at. I’m sorry.” He wasn’t sure he was just talking about the fighting.
“Are they dead?” Her voice was rough and small. He could barely hear her.
He saw no point in sugarcoating it. “Yes, they are.”
“Are you going to die?” She pointed at his leg, which was continuing to bleed. He wouldn’t be able to stand, he didn’t think.
“No,” he shook his head. “I’m just hurt. I’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” She seemed satisfied with that answer. After a pause, she asked, “Can I come down now?”
“Yes. Yes, you can come down. Let me help you.” With much effort he knelt beside the tree again and helped her scramble down, biting hard on his lip to keep from calling out as he put weight on his leg. When she was on the ground again, he slumped against the tree, turning his back to it. She sat down beside him.
“What’s your name?”
He smiled at the innocent first question. What a polite child. “You may call me Aaron.”
They sat in silence for a moment. She shuffled her feet, clearly wanting to ask, so he sighed. “You can ask. I won’t mind.”
She jumped, looking a bit sheepish. “Uhm…are you…a dragon?” She pointed to his face. What a sight his sharp scales and spines must be. Could she tell what color they were in the dark? He wondered. He wasn’t sure. Maybe they just looked dark to her. Then again, he was sure she’d seen them lit up by his fire. She pressed on. “I didn’t know dragons were real if you are one.”
“Dragons are real,” he nodded, “but I’m not a dragon. Not really. I’m someone whose family was once dragons. Now I’m just a man who looks exceptionally like one.”
“Oh.” She nodded as if she understood, watching him move. After a moment, she said, “can you breathe fire?”
“I can. But that’s mostly because I can cast magic.” That was a bit of a lie, but she seemed satisfied with it. He readjusted himself. “Tabatha, are you hurt?”
He sat up, gesturing for her to come closer as he pulled out his bag and rifled through it. He drew out a bright blue potion, uncorked it, and handed it to her. “Here. Drink that, you’ll feel better.”
She nodded, and drank it without question. These were sold in town, she’d probably seen them used a thousand times. As she drank it, the burns on her skin smoothed over, and she looked better than she had. She handed the bottle back when she was done. “Thanks.”
“What about you?”
He’d only had the one potion. “As I said, I’ll be fine.”
She didn’t look convinced but didn’t press it. He gestured back the way he’d come. “Are you from that town?”
“I am. Mum’s probably worried sick about me.”
“I think so.” He remembered the woman from the morning. “Tell you what. When it gets light, I’ll take you back there. Running through the woods right now wouldn’t be the best plan.”
“I’m scared of the dark.”
He nodded. “Well then. I’ll light a little fire, if that’s okay with you?” She nodded. “Good. I’ll do that, and you can have my coat for tonight. I’ll make sure none of them get you, okay?”
He shrugged off his coat and handed it to her, watching her cuddle into it as he used a bit more of his magic to pull wood together. Making sure she was looking first, he blew a thin line of flame onto the wood, which he dried with more magic, and watched with a smile as her face brightened, both figuratively and literally. She was asleep not long after that.
She wasn’t too afraid of him. That was nice. It was very rare for someone to see him so…openly, and for them to continue to accept his presence. He’d been prepared to have to stop her from running, perhaps use his magic to make her sleep so that he could bring her back to the guards. That she had stayed, had been excited to see him blow fire…It was nice. He almost didn’t want to let her go, but he couldn’t keep her from her family. That would be cruel.
He pulled a long strip of fabric from his bag and took off one glove to bite down on as he tied up his leg tightly and pulled the dagger out. Biting down more firmly, he used a small line of flame to cauterize the wound. It took everything in him not to make any noise. He didn’t want to wake her up.
It was a long, painful night. He was glad when the sun rose, and the little girl yawned awake. She started when she saw him, but amazingly, still didn’t run.
“Good morning.” He smiled when she got the sheepish look again. “And yes, I am.” She just nodded. He slowly stood. “Can I have my coat back?”
She handed it to him.
“Thank you. I’d offer you food, but I don’t think you’d like mine.” Road tac was hardly appropriate for a child. Better to wait until she got home. She nodded, maybe guessing his rations, and waited until he’d slipped the coat back on, pulled the hood up, and eventually stood. His leg still hurt, but at least now it would hold weight if he forced it. He’d find somewhere to rest when she was safe.
They were a few hours’ walk from the village. Tabatha was silent almost the entire time. Just as they were about to see the gates, though, she asked, “why’d you come to get me?”
She shrugged. “You came and got me, even though you got hurt. There were a lot of those mean men. You could’ve died.”
“I suppose you’re right.” She was astute for being so young. “But you were in trouble, and I don’t like seeing people in trouble.”
“I thought dragons were the bad guys.”
“Most of the time, they are. Sometimes, though, they’re just people, and people shouldn’t let other people suffer.”
“People shouldn’t let other people suffer.” She nodded. “You’re a nice people, Mister Aaron.”
“Thank you, Miss Tabatha.” She smiled at the honorific.
When they got near to the gate, he stopped. “Okay, Miss Tabatha, this is as far as I can go.”
“Well, some people don’t like me.”
“Because I look like a dragon. And like you said, dragons are usually the bad guys.”
“But you’re a good guy!” She said, looking offended, and he couldn’t help but laugh. He knelt down, slowly.
“Yes, but people don’t know that just by looking.”
“Well, I’m gonna tell them you’re a good guy so they can make you a hero.”
He smiled sadly again. “You tell them all about it. Get home to your mother first, though, and give her a good long hug, okay? And stay where she can see you.”
“I promise.” With that, she hugged him tightly. He patted her on the head and watched as she sprinted back into town.
He made sure he saw her go through the gate, greeted by an ecstatic guard who called for her as soon as he saw her, then stood and walked back into the woods. It would be best not to be nearby when the girl started telling her tales about the dragon she met.
He stepped up to a tree and pulled on it as if there was a door there, setting a destination in his mind. When his hand moved away, it revealed a shimmering ripple, which he stepped into, and was gone.