Monday, April 1, 2013

To Kill A Dragon


To Kill A Dragon

“I do not write for children, but for the childlike, whether of five, or fifty, or seventy-five".
        -George MacDonald

Alice walked along the top of the stone fence. A warm, wet wind swept down the lane toward her. Her black curls whipped her face, and her cloak flew out behind her like huge bat wings. Her small, bare feet slapped the cold stone of the fence with a lonely rhythm. She walked until her path was interrupted by a gate in the fence, but with cold determination, Alice took a running start toward it and landed precariously on the other side. Her bare toes gripped the stone with practiced expertise, and she continued her walk. At eight years old, she was a serious girl. Her eyes, shrouded by dark brows and lashes, were the color of the sea on a cold, cloudy day. She was small and thin, but quick and intelligent.
Alice looked across the countryside which was scorched and blackened. Old burned remains were all that was left of what was once a grove of trees: dragon’s work. She picked up her pace and started running along the fence. When her path diverged, she leapt down and continued across a wide expanse of green hills. The soft grass oozed mud between her toes as she ran. The darkening sky threatened rain but just as the first heavy drops fell, Alice opened a door in the hillside and jumped in. The turf-covered door looked much like a cellar door and was almost invisible against the hillside as it closed behind her. A thin stream of smoke rose from the ground on top of the hill.  
“Alice, darling, is that you?” a warm voice spoke to Alice out of the darkness.
Alice’s eyes adjusted slowly. “Yes,” she answered drearily. “It’s raining outside.” Her small voice was tinged with disappointment. She was standing in an entryway which was paneled with dark wood. Several hats and cloaks hung on pegs in the wall, and pairs of muddy shoes stood under them. She noticed that her father’s cloak and sword were missing from their place.
Her mother appeared from around the corner of the kitchen to help Alice with her cloak. Alice was similar to her mother with her dark hair and pale skin. But her mother was far prettier – in Alice’s opinion. She was always clean and tidy, and her black curls were braided in a circle on her head. Today there were sprigs of ivy woven in. Several tendrils of hair had escaped the braid, and flour was smudged on her cheek. This always meant delicious food was cooking.
The home consisted of one large room, paneled like the entryway that served as the kitchen and eating area as well as two other smaller rooms – the larder and Alice’s parents’ room. A fire was crackling in the fireplace that took up most of one wall. The walls were lined with shelves filled with books and vases of flowers. Several bundles of dried meat and herbs hung from the beam that supported the ceiling. A large skylight in the ceiling provided light during the day. Rain pitter-pattered on the glass pane. The tantalizing smell of baking bread and savory meat assailed Alice’s senses, and her stomach growled. The supper table was set with a red cloth and several tall candlesticks. Alice’s wolfhound Leif took up most of the carpet in front of the fire.
“Why isn’t Leif out with Father?” Alice asked her mother.
“Oh, his leg is bothering him again,” replied her mother. “Set the table, please,” she said, reaching over the shaggy, grey hound to stir the stew which cooked over the fire.
Alice frowned in concern for Leif as she climbed up on her stool in order to reach the plates on the shelf. Leif had gotten into a fight with a boar her father had been hunting and had been injured. Alice knew that Leif hated getting left behind.
 “Where is Father?” asked Alice.
“He had to go to town.” Alice’s mother opened the little oven to check the process of the bread. A lovely smell wafted into the home.
Alice’s stomach growled again, so she snuck a handful of blueberries from a bowl on the counter.
“Why did father go to town?” she asked, popping a berry in her mouth.
“He had a meeting with the Council. Make sure your father’s pipe is filled for him, please.”
Alice packed her father’s pipe with tobacco as she always did, and stood on tip-toe to set it on the mantel for his after-supper smoke.
“Is it because of the dragon?” asked Alice, nervously.
Alice’s mother nodded.
For months now, there had been a great black dragon that came at night, raiding the town of its livestock and occasionally eating a townsperson who got caught outside after dark. It had first appeared, a month before, flying down from its long sleep in the mountains, hungry and ruthless. It had recently burned down a town very close by and eaten many of the people who tried to escape. Alice shivered at the very thought of dragons. Her family lived underground because there was always the threat of attack. She prided herself in not being afraid of very many things, but she could not stand the thought of dragons.
 “When is Father going to get home?” asked Alice, climbing on her father’s chair to put her father’s special mug at the head of the table. He had always been very particular about his mug. It never got washed out – just rinsed. He said it added to the flavor. Alice’s mother tolerated it with a certain amount of longsuffering.
“Soon, hopefully,” said her mother while she hollowed out apples in order to stuff them with raisins and cinnamon for desert. This had been Alice’s favorite desert since she could remember.
“Oh for goodness sake!” exclaimed her mother as she opened the raisin jar. Half of the raisins were gone. “Oh, I have got to do something about those pesky little imps,” she said, referring to the faeries which frequented the house at night. They were harmless enough, but they stole food and tromped through the flour, leaving little floury footprints all over everything.
Alice liked the faeries, but seeing that her mother was in no mood for such a remark, she said nothing and turned to Leif. Getting down on all fours she approached him and started growling. Leif showed no signs of acknowledgement other than for the dull thumping of his tail. With a tremendous Rawr, Alice pounced and tackled the huge hound. Leif was more than twice her size and many times her weight, so she was no more than a fly on his back. Leif rolled over and licked her face with a huge tongue. After several minutes of rambunctious wrestling, both hound and girl collapsed in a heap of fur and hair. Alice curled up against Leif and massaged his sore leg. She was slowly lulled to sleep by the thump, thump of his huge heart.  
Alice was awakened by a prickly kiss on her forehead. She opened her eyes groggily to see the bearded, grey-eyed face of her father grinning down at her. She rubbed her eyes and smiled sleepily.
“Good morning,” said her father winking.
“Morning,” she yawned. “Is it really morning? Did I miss supper?”
“Yes. I ate every last scrap.”
Alice’s stomach grumbled. “You are lying,” she said, rubbing the last sleep from her eyes.
Her father burst out laughing – a hundred tiny wrinkles spread out from his eyes. “I am, am I?” he reached down a huge hand and scooped Alice up under his arm like a sack of flour. Alice yelped in protest, but giggled.

Alice sat at supper and devoured her meal in silence. She listened intently to her parents’ conversation.  
“So, did the Council come to any decision?” asked her mother, nervously spooning peas onto her plate.
Her father chewed his food thoughtfully. “Well…” he said, slowly drawing out the word. “We are going to have a lot more trouble than we thought in getting rid of the dragon. It seems we have a very angry wizard on our hands.”
“Bjorn?” asked Alice’s mother, speaking of the wizard that lived deep in the forest outside of town.
Wizards did not live close to each other. They preferred to spread out and have their own space. Bjorn was the only wizard for miles around, and it was absolutely necessary to have his help in order to get rid of the dragon. Dragon’s skin is almost impenetrable, and they can battle a huge number of men without the slightest danger to their own safety. The only way to kill or get rid of a dragon, short of an entire army, was magic. And only a wizard could employ the use of magic. 
Alice perked up her ears, but gave no sign that she was paying any attention to her parents’ conversation. She was uncontrollably fascinated with the whole business of wizards.  She hated dragons, but wizards didn’t seem so bad. They were moody and unpredictable but not malicious – unless they had reason. Apparently Bjorn did.  He was upset with the townspeople for some reason and was plaguing them with all sorts of troubles. Alice’s father told them how Mathias and his family had broken out with warts – it hadn’t been pretty. He said that Old Widow Martha’s parsnips had been snipped, her turnips were turned up, and her snapdragons kept nipping at her. Apparently Bjorn thought himself quite funny.
Alice’s mother was puzzled, saying that the people had always been on fair terms with the wizard.
Alice continued to munch her food silently. Leif had moved under her feet and she threw him bits of food now and then.  She scratched his back with her little toes – which didn’t reach the floor. Alice’s father thought that someone must have done something to anger Bjorn. But then again, the townspeople had always been very respectful of the wizard.
 “Did someone go into the forest and disturb him?” asked Alice’s mother, nudging Alice’s elbow off the table with a scolding look.
Alice’s father said he didn’t think so. At least, no one had admitted doing so.
At that, a small bell on the wall rang, signaling someone was at the invisible front door. Alice jumped up and ran to see who it was. Leif lumbered after her, growling.
“It’s Barrett,” she announced with an air of disgust as she looked through a peephole. “Do I have to let him in?”
Her mother nodded. “Watch your attitude, Alice.”
Alice made a face, making sure her mother didn’t see. She opened the door.
Barrett was a gangly youth, a few years older than Alice, with dirty blonde hair and freckles. He had a missing tooth, but that was only because his big brother had knocked it out in a fight.
Alice stood blocking his entrance into the main room.  
“Hiya, Alice!” said Barrett – too loudly.
Alice didn’t answer, but pointed to his dirty feet, which he reluctantly wiped on the mat. She let him pass, but only after narrowing her eyes at him suspiciously. She did not care for boys, and thought them rather a nuisance. Her father, on the other hand, clapped the boy on the back and pulled up an extra seat for him at the table.
“What’s the word from your father?” he asked, pushing a mug of milk toward Barrett while Alice’s mother served him bread and meat.
Barrett took a long draught of milk and a too-big bite of bread before answering.  
“Favver’s fed up,” he said unable to pronounce his words with such a full mouth.
Alice scrunched her nose at him in disapproval, and she turned her attention to picking fuzz off her frock.
Barrett told Alice’s parents that, just as Alice’s father had left the meeting, Barrett’s mother was painting her new fence, and the paintbrush had flown clear out of her hand and wrote a message on the fence – all by itself!
“What did it write?” asked Alice unable to ignore Barrett any longer.
I will have justice for the death of Pip – foolish little townspeople,” quoted Barrett dramatically. “Bjorn thinks someone in town killed Pip.”
“Who is Pip?” asked Alice.
“Bjorn’s falcon,” said Barrett confidently. He went on to explain that his father had had enough of the abuse, and he, along with several other families, planned to move to underground houses. They were going to start work the next day, and he was wondering if Alice’s father would help.
Alice’s father said of course he would help. He went to the mantle and lit his pipe. He stood thoughtfully for a moment.
“Why would he think we killed Pip? Why doesn’t he think the dragon did it? Or why doesn’t he think Pip just flew away?” asked Alice, feeling that Bjorn was very unjust in his anger.
“I don’t know. But there is nothing we can do about it tonight,” said Alice’s father, yawning. “The main thing right now is to just keep everyone safe from the dragon – and away from Bjorn. Tomorrow I’ll go and help dig out the new underground homes. Bjorn will cool off in time. We have bigger things to worry about. And by bigger, I am, of course, talking about the dragon.”

The next morning, Alice got up early, as usual, and ate a hurried breakfast. It was her duty to go to the secret goat fold every day and let the animals out to pasture after milking them. The fold was underground to keep the goats safe from the dragon which almost always raided at night. During the day it was fairly safe to be outdoors, and Alice let the goats out in the fresh air to eat the grass and wander about the fresh, rolling hills. But she always kept a weather-eye peeled for the familiar shadow of the dragon.
As Alice sat on a large boulder from which she could see the whole herd, she heard a harsh croak. She jumped at the noise and swung about gripping the tiny knife she carried, only to see a raven with a hunk of bread from her lunch in its beak! She jumped up in rage yelling at the bird to give her back her lunch. But it only hopped down onto the pasture further away. It looked at her with its beady eye – almost daring her to get close. She jumped down from the boulder and gave chase. It flew away from her, coming to rest a short way off. Alice knew she was never going to get her bread back. She threw up her hands in frustration and went back to her spot on her boulder. The raven ate the bread but didn’t fly away. It hopped a few feet from the rock and sat there staring at her.
“Go away!” she yelled. “You are not getting any more of my lunch!”
The raven flew up onto the boulder, a few feet from her. She waved her arm at it but it only flapped its wings before settling down to stare at her some more.
        Alice looked at the raven with curiosity. She remembered the summer before when her parents had taken her to see a man in the village who had all sorts of different birds. There were exotic, colorful birds who could talk, huge hunting birds that could spot prey from a mile in the air, and, as Alice remembered most clearly, there was a one-eyed raven that always sat on its master’s shoulder. It had been obvious, just by the way it looked at Alice, that the raven was incredibly intelligent.   
“Could I tame you, I wonder?” Alice mused, looking at the glossy, blue-black bird next to her.  
The raven made no reply.
Alice tore off a small bit of meat from her satchel and tossed it to the bird, which caught it mid-air. Alice smiled to herself. This bird reminded her of Leif – always begging. She tore off another small chunk, but this time, she placed it about a foot away from herself. The raven looked at her very hard but didn’t move toward the meat. Alice was distressed for only a moment, when the bird hopped forward and stopped with its black head cocked to one side, calculating her every move. Alice turned away from the bird and looked out to the goats which were mindlessly eating. Everything was calm, and a light breeze rustled through the grass. When she turned back to the raven, the meat was gone. Alice kept this up until all her food was gone. When this happened, the raven stayed only a few minutes before flying off.
Alice sighed. She had just wasted all her food. She hopped off her warm rock and paced to and fro among the goats, patting their heads and scratching their ears. She tried very hard not to be too disappointed that the raven had gone.
The next day however, the raven was back looking for more food. Alice tried again and, this time she got the bird to hop right up to her and take food, as long as she wasn’t watching. Alice continued feeding the raven until all her food was gone. She expected the raven to fly away again but this time it stayed in the meadow hopping around, looking for grubs.
As Alice sat watching it, she scratched her head. The night before, her father had mentioned that several families in the village were plagued with singing lice. The more they scratched, the more the lice sang. It was driving people mad. So far Alice had not heard any singing, but she worried about lice. And the more she worried, the more her head itched. Her father had also said that one family found several mice in the pantry who were arguing over who got to eat what. Apparently Bjorn was still mad.
 As the sun traveled across the clear sky, Alice distracted herself by watching the raven which didn’t fly away until Alice guided the goats back into their underground fold for the night.
A few days later, as Alice sat at supper, her father complained that the dragon had come to the village the night before and carried off one of the young girls in the town. Alice felt her little heart do a summersault in her chest at the thought. Alice’s mother, seeing that Alice was getting frightened, suggested that they not talk about the dragon for now. So Alice’s father talked about Bjorn’s latest trickery. Several frogs had been spotted at the town well trying to convince several young girls to kiss them, saying they were really princes whom Bjorn had bewitched – this may or may not have been true. Alice didn’t like this story much either. She thought it time that someone go confront the grouchy wizard. But her father said that it was too dangerous still. Bjorn might do anything, and they didn’t need any townspeople turning into pigs or toads. To keep her mind off the subject, Alice thought about her raven. She could hardly wait to see it in the morning.
       
Over the next few days, Alice started to gain the raven’s trust. It started sitting on her arm and eating from her hand. Finally it would sit on her arm with no food being offered at all. It flew to her when she came into sight and recognized her voice. Alice named the raven Brend. A perfect fit. Her little raven. Brend sat on her shoulder all the way back to the underground home. She gave him the last bit of her lunch and set him in the grass. When he had eaten his morsel, he sat there looking at her. Alice had to shoo him before he lazily took wing and flew away.
That evening, Alice helped her mother with meal preparations as usual, with Leif trailing her every move. His leg was finally starting to heal. When her father got home, he announced that Barrett’s family’s new underground home had been finished. Also, all of the singing lice had been killed, and with the proper amount of reasoning, the mice had been convinced that they could find better pantries in the next town. But, from what Alice’s father said, Bjorn had still not cooled off. He seemed to have run out of ideas for now, but everyone was sure he would think of more ways to terrorize the town.  
After supper, Alice helped her mother clean up and wash the dishes in the dish tub. She put the leftover food in the larder and swept the floor. Her father sat down in his rocker and smoked two bowls of his pipe as her mother continued to flit around the home arranging things just so.
“Alice, time for you to go to bed,” said her mother. “You have to get up early to milk the goats or they will go dry.”
Alice washed her face and climbed onto her straw mattress on the ground next to the fire. She did not have her own room, but she loved sleeping next to the dying embers every night. Leif lay down next to her mattress to get his fur stroked by her tiny fingers.
        Alice’s mother blew out all the candles. The fire sizzled and licked the last bits of wood which would occasionally pop, sending up showers of amber sparks. The firelight played off her father’s strong, bearded features, casting ghostly shadows on the wall behind him. Alice loved running her fingers through her father’s beard. His eyebrows were always sticking out at every angle, and she would lick her fingers and smooth them down. Leif let out a loud, contented groan and snorted into the fire, which sent up a cascade of sparks. Alice looked up to the skylight. The first stars were becoming visible as the sun finally set. Alice giggled to herself – Brend was sitting on the skylight looking in at her.  
        Finally, her mother came over and kissed her cheek, smoothing the raven curls from Alice’s face. Alice’s father followed suit after he hung the black covering under the skylight to keep the dragon from seeing the light within. He didn’t see Brend, who blended in with the night. He kissed Alice’s cheek and told her not to sleep tight and not let the faeries bite – which they were notorious for doing. Alice didn’t mind though. Once in a while, she caught glimpses of the mischievous people running about the ground around her bed. Leif didn’t mind them much, unless they pulled his fur too hard or tried to climb inside his ear. Then he would bite at them. But they always just cried with laughter and jumped away.
Alice was usually only half awake when the little folk came out, glowing with their own magical light. They usually cast a sleeping spell on the house-dwellers, so they could go about their frolicking and mischief-making with little interruptions. But once in a while, Alice woke up long enough to see them playing games on the furniture or dancing in a ring. They were a plethora of different colors and hues – fair to look upon though they never stayed still long enough for Alice to really see them in detail. However, as soon as one of them noticed that she was not sleeping properly, it would squeal in rage and all the faeries would scatter. Then one would jump up on her bed and bite her hand or her ear, slap her on the face, and blow sleeping dust in her eyes. This abuse never hurt terribly bad, though in the morning there might still be tiny faerie teeth marks. Then Alice’s mother would cluck her tongue and tell her that that’s what is to be expected when little girls don’t sleep like they should.
On that night, however, the faerie folk weren’t out. It was far too nice an evening for them to be indoors. Alice guessed that on nights like these they went to their faerie-rings in the forest to dance. Maybe they were at the wizard’s. Alice started thinking about Bjorn. She wished that someone would go and talk to him and try to make him understand that no one meant any harm to him and that it was most likely that the dragon ate Pip. What if Bjorn got another Pip? Maybe someone could give him another falcon as a pet.
An idea struck Alice like a slap in the face. She had to take Brend to Bjorn. He had to be the replacement for Pip. Alice lay on her mattress with a very uneasy feeling in her stomach. Bjorn couldn’t have Brend. Brend was hers. Alice shut her eyes to sleep. But the little niggling thought kept coming back. There is no other way. There is no other way. Alice sat up on her mattress. She knew that there really was no other way. She had to take Brend to the wizard to make him stop all his nasty tricks.
She looked to Leif who was lying next to her. He was fast asleep and snoring as only a dog can. With slow, quiet determination she got up. Alice got up and put on her darkest cloak and hood. She put several bits of food from the larder in her satchel to tempt Brend and went to the door. 
Out in the warm, summer night air, all was silent and still. Alice’s heart beat so hard she was sure that someone would hear it. She had not been out past dark since she was very young – due to the threat of dragons. It was hardly dark out, however. The moon was dazzlingly bright. Dangerously bright. A dragon could spot her from a mile away. For a moment, she considered waiting for a cloudy night. She discarded that thought, feeling sure that it was now or never.  
         As she approached the meadow where she grazed her goats, she whistled and waited, crouching in the shadow of her boulder, which seemed strange and unearthly in the moonlight. A familiar croak met her ears as Brend flew to her outstretched arm. He took the bit of bread, greedily, without as much as a thank-you. Alice was fond of him nevertheless. She patted him on his silky back and scratched him under his bird chin.
        “Alright Brend, let’s find a wizard.” 

Alice ran over the lake of moon-bathed meadow and Brend flew behind her. Their long shadows glided over the ground behind them like specters giving ghostly chase.
After what seemed like an eternity of running with the fear of being seen by the dragon, Alice and Brend finally reached the forest with no sight of the dragon. Perhaps it was over in the town trying to find more people to eat. The trees loomed up in front of her now, and she quailed. She had never before been so near the forest, let alone actually entered it. The trees were very tall and very black and very foreboding. Alice entered on a small path that wound into the forest until it disappeared. Brend flew in after her. Somehow, with a raven as her friend she was not so intimidated. Without the moon shining over her head, it was almost completely dark, and Alice had to rely on the path not to lead her astray. She was now chiding herself for not bringing a lantern.
Strange noises started reaching her ears: clicking and screeching and other unearthly sounds. Alice wondered if the wizard was watching her even now and if would cast a spell on her before she could explain herself. Brend was not making things easier. He insisted on croaking in the branches overhead and flying in front of her abruptly. After about fifteen minutes of walking, Alice thought she saw a light up ahead in the trees. It looked very much like faerie light. Perhaps this is where all the faeries went on nights that they weren’t making mischief in homes. Alice didn’t have long to wait. She was soon standing with Brend on her shoulder at the edge of a wide clearing, ablaze with light. A fantastic sight met her eyes.
In the very middle of the clearing, there was a low thatched house with a very large squat door in the middle with huge iron hinges and a brass door knocker. There was a chimney on top, and there was smoke coming from the chimney – blue smoke. In the front of the house was a fire and on the fire was a cauldron. Alice could only guess what things brewed there. By the side of the house was a small vegetable garden. Next to the front door of the house was a rocking-chair – rocking. No one appeared to be in the chair.
But what really caught Alice’s eyes were the faeries. Hundreds of them. Apparently, this is why everything seemed so quiet at her home. They were all here. There was a large faerie-ring in front of the low house with fungi of every shape and color in a circle around it. The faerie-folk were playing games in it. It seemed to be a version of musical chairs – or mushrooms – and tag, though Alice was not sure that any of the faeries really knew what they were playing. They were shrieking and laughing and fighting and making all sorts of noise. Alice watched them in fascination while Brend crouched low on her shoulder as if unsure what to think of the bright beings. Alice had never seen them when she was wide awake.
Her attention was soon diverted, however, by the appearance of an old man who emerged from the door of the cottage. Alice guessed this must be Bjorn. He looked every bit a wizard if ever a wizard there was. He was not terribly tall, but rather stooped-looking with a long grey beard as all wizards should have, and a long robe as all wizards should also have. A pair of spectacles balanced precariously on his long thin nose, through which a pair of keen blue eyes peered suspiciously. He was not wearing a pointed hat, as Alice thought he should, for all wizards do, but she soon spied it on the ground by the rocking rocking-chair. Half a dozen faeries sat on it or swung from the pointed tip.
Bjorn shuffled over to the cauldron and stirred it with a wooden spoon. He sprinkled in a suspicious looking powder. Alice was sure it was a potion meant for some evil on the townspeople. She had to put a stop to it. But just as she had mustered up the courage to step into the clearing, Bjorn had an outburst.
“Alright!” he shouted toward the rambunctious faeries. “Pipe down, I tell you, or I’ll trample your funguses – fungi.”
The faeries only laughed, and one of them ran over and kicked Bjorn’s foot. Bjorn must have had a terribly hard foot because the faerie yelped in pain and hopped away, holding its sore toe, while all the others roared with laughter.
“That’ll teach him to sauce me,” said Bjorn, grumbling to himself. “Rambunctious little fools.” Bjorn went on for some time about the foolishness of faeries, all the while adding tidbits to his cauldron.
Finally, Alice decided that she could not wait any longer. It was now or never. With determined steps, she marched into the clearing and stood, legs planted wide, arms akimbo, fists on her hips, and Brend perched menacingly on her shoulder. Everything in the clearing went silent for a moment. The faeries froze mid-frolic, and Bjorn looked at her from over his spectacles with a look akin to bewilderment.
He stared at her very hard for a moment. “If you’re seeking employment, I have all the elves I need. Besides, you are absurdly large for an elf.” He turned back to his brew.
“I am not an elf,” said Alice indignantly. “I am a girl.”
Bjorn’s eyes flew back to her, and he marched up to her, his blue eyes blazing over the top of his spectacles as he bent over her. “What are you doing here?” he growled. “You murderous townsfolk aren’t allowed in my forest.”
Alice squared her little shoulders and stuck up her nose. “This isn’t your forest, Bjorn,” she said. “And we didn’t kill Pip!”
“Oh, you’re on first name basis with the victim are you, little girl?”
“No, but we didn’t kill him. The dragon did, I’m sure.”  
The old wizard seemed to think for a moment before shaking his grey head. “No, no, I’m sure it was one of you people.”
Alice stamped her foot. “It was the dragon, I tell you! They just eat, eat, eat, anything in sight!”
Bjorn huffed and shuffled back to his fire.
“And if you weren’t so busy being old and cranky, and, and blind, you would see that!”
Bjorn muttered something about “that arrogant little tart” but he turned to her again. “So,” he said darkly. “Why have you come here to see Bjorn the Bear, the great Wizard of the Wood?” he started to approach her again. All the faeries giggled darkly, rubbing their little hands together.
Alice’s heart jumped a little, but she was determined not to let Bjorn see how scared she was.
Brend hissed at Bjorn.
Bjorn started and for a moment just stared at the raven blankly. It seemed he had not noticed it before on Alice’s shoulder, having blended in with her wild hair.
“A raven,” he mused.  
“His name is Brend,” said Alice trying to shift the focus of the wizard’s scrutiny away from herself.
Brend glared at the wizard.
“I have tamed him and brought him to you as a replacement for Pip, hoping you will stop being mean to us.”       
        Bjorn mumbled something about “the presumptuous tart” but made no comment. “How old are you, girl?” he asked.
        “Eight and five months,” she answered confidently.
        “Look me in the face, girl.”
        Alice looked.
        “Extraordinary,” he said, staring very hard. Alice shifted uneasily under his scrutiny. He pinched her chin between two boney fingers and turned her head from side to side. He looked at her blackly for a moment.
“Did those meddling villagers send you?” he growled. “Thinking they could just go bribe a young, na├»ve, unsuspecting wizard to come and play her little unpracticed tricks – beat me at my own game… those mischief-mongering, insubordinate fools. How much did they pay you?” 
        “No one sent me!” cried Alice trying very hard to break him out of his rant. “I just came here on my own. I don’t know of any other wizards.”
        “You mean to tell me that you are unaware of the fact that you are a wizard?”
        Alice’s eyes grew to an impossible size. She stared at the wizard in dumbfounded silence. “I…I am not a wizard,” she said trembling. “I am just a girl; my parents own goats, and I look after them.”
        Bjorn burst out laughing. Alice jumped and Brend fled to the trees with a squawk at the sound.
        “Well, this is a new twist,” he said. “I have here a young wizard who thinks she is just a normal girl bringing her pet to appease me.” Bjorn chuckled again and shuffled back to the neglected cauldron.
        “But I am just a girl! I really am!” Alice was alarmed and becoming more and more unsure.
        “Come here, girl,” he snapped.
        Alice scurried forward, unable to refuse; Brend flew down to her shoulder as if to supervise the interaction.
        “Do as I do,” Bjorn said. He held his hand over the cauldron and spoke a word that Alice did not recognize. The spoon started stirring the brew by itself. Bjorn stopped the spoon.
        He motioned for Alice to try.
        Alice spoke the words hesitantly with her hand over the cauldron. The spoon started making nervous, shaky, circles in the liquid. Alice yanked her had away and jumped back, shaking and wide-eyed. Brend croaked with alarm.
        Bjorn chuckled. “See,” he said. “I told you. You have wizard’s blood in you if ever someone did.”
        Alice was mute with shock. How could it possibly be? She was a wizard? Impossible!    
 “Well!” announced Bjorn loudly, breaking Alice from her thoughts. “Let me take a look at this peace-offering of yours.” 
        Alice patted Brend on the head as he sat on her arm. She was trying very hard to recover from her own shock that it was difficult to start even thinking about giving Brend up.
        Bjorn plucked Brend off Alice’s shoulder in one swift motion taking both girl and bird off guard. Brend shrieked in protest, biting at the wizard’s gnarled hands. Alice cried out, grabbing at her bird and pleading with the wizard to be careful with him.
        Bjorn sniffed the bird, holding his wings down and turning him over. Brend’s little stick-like legs pumped the air trying to grab hold of anything. Bjorn then proceeded to pluck a feather from the bird’s belly. He twirled it in his fingers and tossed it away.
        “Hmm,” he said. “I think he will do just fine. I have been needing extract of raven for some time now for a potion I am working on.”
        Alice screamed in rage and protest, telling Bjorn to give her back her bird and she had changed her mind about giving Brend away. Bjorn said it was too late for that, and Alice burst into the best eight-year-old crocodile-tears that she could muster. She did not use this tactic very often, in fact she thought of herself as too grown up for it, but she decided that if ever she needed the tears, now was the time. Bjorn glanced around looking very uncomfortable for a moment. The faeries had started to gather to watch the performance – some of them pulling up toadstools to sit on.   
        “Okay, okay, stop!” said the wizard thrusting Brend back into Alice’s arms. The raven nipped at his finger once more before assuming his position on Alice’s shoulder to smooth his ruffled feathers.
        “You may keep him on one condition,” he said.
        Alice scowled at him suspiciously, tears still pooling in her grey eyes.
        “You must come here and help me with my work. You also are in desperate need of training.”
        “And you will stop your tricks?”
        “Yes,”
        Alice held Brend close, looking at the ground, thinking hard.
        “Alright,” she agreed. “I am not allowed in the woods, so I will have to come at night,”
        Bjorn agreed, saying that he didn’t sleep much anyway.
        “Are you hungry, girl?”
        “My name is Alice,” said Alice.
        “That isn’t what I asked,” said Bjorn huffing about “that insipid tart.”
        Alice admitted to be a little hungry. Her thoughts were so jumbled with all the overwhelming things that had happened that she could hardly think. She didn’t like thinking about the possibility of her being a wizard. It was altogether unsettling.
        Bjorn turned to the cauldron and filled two wooden bowls which appeared out of nowhere.
Alice quaked, asking if the contents were not witches’ brew, or a potion that would make her sleep a hundred years.
Bjorn peered at her over his spectacles. “First off,” he said. “I’m not a witch. I’m a wizard obviously. Second off – secondly? Anyway, it’s not a potion. It’s stew. Why are wizards so misunderstood?” He said to himself.
“But the powder I saw you put in…”
“Crushed rosemary. Smells wonderful and adds a lovely flavor.”
Alice sniffed the dish. It smelled wonderful.   
Bjorn handed her a wooded spoon and tucked into his own meal. Alice took a tiny bite and, finding it was not poisoned, followed suit.
“Do you eat all that stew by yourself?” she asked referencing the huge amount of stew in the cauldron. But as soon as she looked over, she had her answer. All of the faeries were swarming the pot like locusts and, before Alice had finished, the entire contents of the cauldron were gone.
“Greedy little buggers, aren’t they?” said Bjorn shaking his head. “But unless they get fed they get terribly cranky. As Wizard of the Wood, it is my unhappy duty to tend to them.”
“You made up that title by yourself, though,” said Alice.
“Do you know of any other wizards in this forest?” snapped Bjorn.
Alice said she didn’t and Bjorn said “point proven”. Alice wasn’t sure what point that was, but she remained silent.
The Moon was slowly traveling across the indigo sky above the clearing and the faeries had quieted down, some of them lying about watching the stars. Crickets were chirping and a light breeze rustled in the trees surrounding the wizard’s home. 
Alice yawned. It must have been well past midnight. “I should go,” she said sleepily. “So you will stop terrorizing the townspeople and help us with the dragon?”
“The dragon? So that’s the real reason you came is it?” He looked at her hard and she shuffled her toe. “No matter. We will speak of that later.”
Bjorn looked closely at her face again as if checking to make sure he didn’t miss anything. He nodded slightly and muttered something unintelligible. Then he turned and shuffled back to his cauldron. He waved his old gnarled hand over it and spoke a cleaning spell. A scrub brush and bucket of sudsy water got to work.
Taking this as dismissal, and with Brend on her shoulder, Alice turned and walked out of the clearing and back into the black trees. The merry sounds of the faeries faded along with the magical light of the wizard’s hut. Brend was silent and still as Alice crept along in the woods. She reached up and scratched him under the chin to cheer herself up and remind herself that she was not alone in the blackness – although what sort of company a raven was, Alice was not entirely sure. When they reached the end of the forest, Alice raced along in the moonlight as quickly as possible. She thought that she could see the bat-like shape of the dragon circling to and fro over the village in the distance searching for food.

During the days, Alice continued her training with Brend. He knew her voice and came when she called, landing on her arm. In fact, in his own bird-way, he seemed to be growing attached to her – not simply doing what she wanted for the treats.
 At night Alice went to the wizard’s home in the forest and helped him with all sorts of wizardly things – both magical and otherwise. Most of the time, she helped him in his little garden pulling weeds and tending to all sorts of vegetables varying in kinds from carrots and cabbage to horseradish and hemlock, which he used in all sorts of brews. Bjorn gave her a book on wizards – telling her that she needed to know her own kind. Alice read the book from cover to cover.
In the beginning, wizards had been sent to the world to be protectors of the people and aid them in fights and otherwise look after them. Some of the wizards fell in love with the beautiful daughters of men and married them, having children by them and creating the race of partial wizards. Most of the children of these unions did not carry the original magic of their fathers, especially as generations passed, and the blood of their fathers ran thinner in their veins. But, as in Alice’s case, there were still wizards born. And these children were still bound to the calling of their forefathers – to protect and guard the race of men. There was a vague disquiet in Alice’s heart as she realized she was among those who were bound to this calling. But Alice enjoyed her lessons with the wizard all the same.     
Most nights the faerie folk played outside the wizard’s house and generally got underfoot. They thought Bjorn’s bursts of rage wildly funny and laughed when Alice pleaded for silence. However, Brend was more successful in controlling them. He flew over them and knocked a dozen over at a swoop. They regarded him with sullen compliance and they kept more to their faerie-ring and kept their noise at a respectful level – for faeries, anyway.
Alice went to Bjorn’s house very often and stayed many hours. She soon learned to accept the fact that she was a wizard and even started to secretly take pride in it. As soon as her mother and father were asleep, she snuck out with Brend and went to the little clearing in the woods. She returned home with a few hours to spare for sleeping before her parents woke her up in the morning thinking that she had been home all night. This gnawed on Alice’s conscience, but she knew in her heart that she was doing the right thing in the end. After all, the townspeople were no longer being tormented by Bjorn’s spells.
But the dragon problem was getting worse. It was coming during the night more and more. Nearly all the rest of the overground dwellers were digging out new underground homes. It seemed like someone was getting eaten every week. And the animals were disappearing as well. The dragon had also burned down a home to get at the people inside.
Alice was very thankful that her father had moved the family out of the village the year before when a troll had been bothering the town and had moved the herd of goats to a safe and hidden location. Barrett and his family were now safe underground along with at least ten other families. But there were about fifteen more that were still in the process of digging. They weren’t even waiting to get their homes properly finished. They just wanted them big enough to get in.
Alice felt a twinge of guilt that night as she sat comfortably by the fire playing with Leif while her father read to her, and her mother brought in hot, sticky buns and tea. Alice was careful not to let her parents see as she set her spoon to stir the tea all by itself. Leif sniffed at the spoon suspiciously.
That night when Alice arrived in the clearing, she was met by the sour face of Bjorn.    
 “There you are!” he said, irritably. “I expected you ages ago!”
 “I am earlier than normal,” said Alice, puzzled.
“That doesn’t matter. We have work to do.”
“We do?”
“Yes, yes of course, you silly tart. Tonight we are going to finish that potion we started.”
They spent the next few hours filling phials with a black, thick, gooey sort of potion that Bjorn said would make a person tell their deepest, darkest secret.
        Later that night, as she and the wizard enjoyed a glass of very un-magical, un-alcoholic ginger beer, Alice brought up the question that had been bothering her for some time.
        “What about the dragon?” she asked tentatively. “When will you kill it or drive it away? It has been eating more people and more animals.”
        “These things take time,” replied Bjorn sipping his drink. “All in good time.” He grew serious. “I have not been sitting idle. Killing a dragon takes lots of preparation. If I fail, it will probably eat me and everyone else around. So we can’t be too hurried. Now,” he said getting up and retrieving his staff which was leaning against the cottage. “Show me how your fire-starting skills are coming.”
        Alice had completely forgotten to practice and as a result made a poor show of the demonstration. Bjorn made her practice again and again before moving on to the next lesson – Shield casting.
“Now watch closely,” Bjorn said. “If used correctly, a proper shield can deflect a dragon’s fire just long enough for you to move away.” Bjorn held his staff out in front of him. A green light burst from the end and spread out in front of him like a transparent wall.
“Now throw a fireball at me,” he commanded.
Alice formed a blue fire ball in her hand and threw it at him but it bounced harmlessly off the shield, fell to the ground, and disintegrated. Alice sighed in dejection. 
Bjorn shook his head and rubbed his temples. “We need to go back to your fireballs. Listen,” he said irritably. “You will never get better unless you concentrate. You will probably never be able to form fire strong enough to break a shield – even dragons have trouble with that – but that was weak, Alice. Very weak. Like a small pebble thrown at an elephant. Your fire is not that bad, but your trajectory is terrible. Now form another one but do not throw it.”
“I’m trying,” Alice felt her lip quiver. Bjorn was trying his hardest to teach her but she felt like she would never get any better. A tear formed in her eye but she quickly dashed it away.
Bjorn noticed. He grumbled quietly about little girls who cry, but his face softened, and he knelt down to look Alice in the eyes. “We will break after this, Alice. But you must bear with me because I am not used to teaching the art of wizardry to others.”
Alice nodded mutely.
Bjorn took her tiny hands in his large ones. “Now, form a fireball.”
Alice bent her will upon the creation, and the blue light started to form. It grew and took shape growing condensed and heavy in her hand. It throbbed and pulsated between her fingers and echoed in her ears as she compressed it into a solid orb of blue flame. It was a powerful sensation that raised bumps on her neck.
The dark night grew darker around her as the light of the fire grew. The faeries went silent in their ring and watched – their own luminescence dim in comparison with the fire. The summer air became colder around her as the heat of the fire in her hands grew. A brisk wind whipped at her hair and she could not tell if it came from the air around her or if the orb itself was blowing in her face. The trees rustled and grew uneasy. The grass beneath her feet lay flat – splaying out in the circle around her like a ripple in a calm lake when a rock is dropped in.
“Slowly,” murmured the wizard. “Give it more shape. Control it. Do not let it control how it forms. Beautiful,” he said. “Do not drop it. When you throw it, bring your arm back to your shoulder and when you throw, step into it.” Bjorn walked a distance away and cast his shield in front of him.
Alice took her place. With careful aim she stepped and propelled the fire forward. As it flew through the air, it left a comet-tail of fire behind it. With a great crack, it burst upon the wizard’s shield and exploded in blue flame. Bjorn stumbled backward a step and his shield wavered for a moment as the last embers dissolved on the ground, scorching the grass.
A respectful applause came from the faeries.    
Alice stood meekly waiting for his assessment. But Bjorn just stared at her.
“You have done it,” he said finally. “I think I will make a wizard out of you yet. Now do it again.”
Alice grinned and, for the next hour, she pelted Bjorn with a hail of fire, each one stronger than the next until Bjorn had had enough.
Alice slept later than normal that morning and the goats were grumpy when she got to their fold. After their milking, Alice laid down in the grass on top of a small hillock for a nap while they grazed. She closed her eyes and listened to the hum of bees zooming from clover to clover and the happy croaking of Brend as he dug for worms. The goats crunched their grass contentedly. The noonday sun warmed Alice’s face, and it seemed bright even behind her shut lids.
Then a shadow passed. Alice opened one eye. The blue sky was clear and bright – not a cloud was in sight. She shut her eye. Brend was quiet. She noticed that the goats had gone silent too. The shadow passed over her closed eyes again. One of the goats whimpered. Alice opened both her eyes just in time to see the huge, black, reptilian body of the dragon sweep across her line of vision. Alice’s stomach dropped.
The dragon wheeled around again and made another pass over the herd – lower this time. Alice jumped up and stood, transfixed, looking into the sky. She had never seen the dragon. It was beyond anything her imagination could have comprehended. Each leathery, black wing equaled the length of the dragon’s body, which resembled that of a huge horse with claws instead of hooves. Its inky black scales glittered in the sun. The pale, yellow underbelly glittered with gems – imbedded from long sleep on dragon plunder, hidden somewhere in the distant mountains. Instead of a mane, there was a ridge of hard spikes down its neck.
Alice trembled, unable to move. The dragon circled the terrified herd, as if to decide which to devour first. It was not until Brend let out a shriek that Alice was snapped out of her stupefaction. She jerked into action, as though something else, outside of herself, propelled her forward. She prodded the goats toward the fold. Brend flew around them to keep them together. The goats, in confusion and terror, resisted. Alice felt that, at any minute, she would feel monstrous teeth at her neck or feel the hot acrid flames scorch her.
The dragon seemed to sense the attempt at escape. But he had yet to attack – like a cat playing with a mouse. Alice heard the huge bat wings beat the air. The dragon snarled. Though it was more of a screech than a snarl – but guttural, a sound from deep within the fire-consumed belly. Alice heard herself scream, but she didn’t remember telling herself to do so. It sounded far away.
Then the dragon swooped so low that Alice had to throw herself to the ground in order to avoid getting knocked over by a huge wing. When she looked up, she saw the helpless body of a goat in its mouth. The rest of the herd bolted. Some of them ran straight into the opening of the fold, but about two thirds of them ran out into the meadow and across the green hills in reckless fear. Alice knew it was hopeless to go after them. Then she thought about her fireballs. She turned to look at the dragon which was ripping another goat apart across the meadow and bolting it down.
Alice began to form a fireball in her hand. The blue light started pulsating and hardening as she shaped it. As the light grew, the dragon looked at her. Its snake eyes burned yellow, and it dropped the goat from its mouth, which was lined, top and bottom, with monster-sized canine teeth. It started to approach Alice, its head hanging low, swaying side to side as its huge reptile tongue tasted the air, and its huge reptile tale lashed its flanks. Alice quailed. Her fireball started to dim in her hands, but she didn’t let it go. With one last effort, she threw it at the dragon. It fell short of its target and melted into the ground, scorching a circle in the grass.
This seemed to anger the dragon, however, and it threw its head back, rearing on its two hind legs. Alice waited no longer, but turned and bolted into the entrance of the fold. She felt the heat of dragon-flames lick at her heels as she pulled the door shut behind her.
There in the darkness, among ten or so bleating goats, Alice erupted into hysterical sobs. Her little frame shook with fear as she listened to the dragon devour the remaining goats and scorch the green grass above her. She finally drifted into an uneasy sleep with tear drops still fresh on her cheek.    
“Alice, Alice!”
Alice’s eyes cracked open – still crusty from dried tears. Several faces swam above her.
“Alice! Are you alright?”
The voice sounded vaguely familiar. It was low and masculine. A large, cool hand was placed on her forehead. As her vision cleared, Alice saw her father and several other men from the village staring down at her.
“The dragon…” she began.
“Alice, are you hurt?”
  Alice slowly sat up. Her face was smudged with dirt, and the tear tracks shone out stark-white against it. “The goats…” she couldn’t finish as she erupted into another bout of exhausted hysteria. Her father quickly scooped her up in his arms, and she wrapped her arms around his neck. Her tears were spent, but sobs wracked her tiny frame. She shook uncontrollably as her father carried her out into the open. The other men stayed below to calm down the terrified herd of goats.
The sun was just setting, and Alice could see the meadow was blackened, parts of the ground still smoldered from the dragon’s fire. The dying sun cast a blood-red light on the bare hills. For hundreds of feet in every direction, the land was utterly destroyed. Alice’s father told her not to look as he walked by the charred remains of the unlucky goats. Alice buried her face in his neck and clung to him all the more as the stench of burning hair and flesh assailed her nose. Her father took her home where they were met in the entryway by the joyful tears of Alice’s mother. She sobbed and took Alice from her father’s arms, holding onto her as though she were drowning.
As night came, Alice lay against Leif, her fingers twisted in his shaggy fur. Her face was washed, and her hair was combed. The back of her legs and feet had been blistered by the dragon’s breath when she had run, and her mother washed the wounds and put ointment on the blisters before wrapping them in soft linen strips. Then she made tea for Alice and offered to put her hair in braids like the way she always wore it. Her father sat on the floor next to the fire with Alice, as her hair was braided, and read her a story from one of her favorite books.
When the story was over, everyone was quiet for a time.
Finally, Alice’s father spoke. “Do you think you can tell us what happened, sweetie?” he asked.
Alice stared into her tea miserably as she recounted what happened. She was worried about Brend. He hadn’t followed her into the fold. She told them about Brend but left out the magic.
“I am sure Brend is fine,” said her father smiling. “He probably flew to safety. Ravens are very smart, you know.”
“But I ran and now most of the goats are dead,” said Alice in despair.
“I would rather have all the goats in the world die than you,” said her father, smoothing down one of Alice’s rumpled eyebrows.
Alice smiled faintly.
“There,” said her mother, finishing Alice’s braid and kissing Alice on the cheek. “You are a proper lady now.”
Alice got up to look in a mirror. She smiled at the sight. Just like her mother.
The next day, Alice’s father went to the town and met with the other Council members. He and Alice’s mother stayed up late talking at the supper table about the new problem they were all facing. They thought Alice wasn’t listening, but she was all ears as she sat with Leif by the fire. From what she understood, the dragon was not finding enough food at night, so it had started coming out when it usually slept, to hunt – or so everyone guessed. This meant that no one was safe out of doors at any time.
  Alice knew she had to get to Bjorn. But the thought of facing the dragon again made her sick to her stomach. She worried about Brend as she lay next to the fire with her arms wrapped around Leif. She thought about all the people who were being killed – all the livestock that were being eaten. Unless something was done, the dragon was going to lay waste the entire town. At some point, it would be too late and everyone would be dead. Alice did not even know if Bjorn knew what was happening.
Her eyes watered with bitter tears. Did he even care that everyone was dying? He stayed in his forest – safe and secure – surround by magic and faeries and safety… but how long would the dragon spare the trees? Alice chewed her lip as she thought. It had been a miracle that the forest had been left untouched thus far. How long would that last? She knew that she had to get to Bjorn. She had promised to help him. And if she could get to him and tell him what was happening, she knew that he could not just sit by. The dragon had to be killed. And it had to be killed soon.
Alice lay on her mat that night. Her parents had gone to bed and Leif was snoring contentedly. When she knew it was safe, Alice silently got up. Tucking her knife in her sash, she left. She knew there was no point in bringing her cloak. If the dragon was looking for her, he could find her. And she needed to be free of anything that would tangle her up.
She sucked warm air into her lungs as she emerged into the night. It was cloudy and blustery and very dark. With one last look at the safety of her home, she started running. Alice ran and ran as she had never run before. She reached the woods in safety and plunged into a darkness so thick she could feel it close around her like a fog. Eyes peered at her from every direction. Nothing more than mischievous sprites, but she was careful to stay on the path lest they lead her astray. She had never been in the forest without Brend. She missed him terribly and felt the oppression of the trees, all the more, without his presence.
Alice snapped her fingers, and a flame appeared from her thumb – hovering above it like a mist above ground – a trick she had learned recently and she was quite proud of. The eyes disappeared. She heard several yelps of pain as the light accosted the sprites. Alice continued running. All at once, she burst into the glade. Everything was as she had seen it the last time. The faeries were being as obnoxious as ever, and a gentle smoke was rising from the chimney.
“Bjorn!” bellowed Alice in the most demanding voice she could. “Bjorn! Where are you?” Bjorn came out of the house, but he looked very different than he normally did. His pointed hat was on, he had a grey-black cloak wrapped about him, the hilt of a sword peeped out from under his mantle, and his staff was in his hand. His face was grim and set. Alice was relieved to see that her beloved Brend was perched on Bjorn’s shoulder. Brend gave a happy squawk when he saw her and flew to her. But before Alice could say anything, Bjorn strode up to her.
“At last!” he said darkly. “Where were you last night?”
“I… I got attacked by the dragon,” said Alice, taken aback. “He came out in the day.”
“That is no excuse! We had work to do!”
Alice’s temper boiled. “What?! I almost died.”
Bjorn scowled. “That is no excuse! Had you been here, we might have had a dead dragon by now!”
“You blame me?” said Alice in a rage. “Why can’t you just kill the dragon without me? Why do I always have to come to you? Why don’t you come to us for once?”
 “You are a wizard.” Fumed Bjorn. “Do you have any idea what that means? That means that you take equal reasonability in the fate of your townspeople. That is the calling – the charge – the fate of a wizard!”
“But I couldn’t even hit the dragon with a fireball,” said Alice in dejection.
Bjorn’s face went blank. “You tried to fight the dragon? Alone?”
Alice bobbed her head, and she sat down on the ground, dissolving into silent tears.
“Oh… come, now. Really, there is no reason for tears,” said Bjorn looking sorry for being so gruff. “I never meant for you to face it alone. You should have run.” Bjorn looked down at her legs which were still lightly bandaged. “How badly are you hurt?”
Alice shrugged, wiping the tears away bravely. “It isn’t as bad now. They are just red. My heels are blistered.”
Bjorn told her to wait as he went back to the house, coming out again with a little black jar. He told her to unwrap the bandages. When she had done so, he examined her wounds, muttering something about basted, blazing, dragons and their loathsome fire. He rubbed some of the ointment from the jar on her blisters, and they slowly shrank away until all that was left were a few red spots. Alice got up slowly, feeling much better.
“When do we get the dragon?” she asked trying to sound very brave.
Bjorn looked down at her grimly. “Tonight,” he said. “We kill him tonight, or die trying. Now listen carefully to my instructions.”
About an hour later, shrouded in cloaks that could only be seen by those who knew what they were looking for, Alice and the wizard, pointed hat pulled low over his head, moved silently across the grass. Brend flew after them. The moon seemed to glide in and out behind boiling clouds. Stars twinkled brightly between them, but all was not well. Alice could feel it.
As Alice padded quietly after Bjorn, she repeated over and over to herself the instructions given to her. Bjorn had said timing was key. To miss the moment meant all would be lost. She kept looking about worriedly, knowing that at any second the dragon might appear. Finally Bjorn halted, saying this was the best place to do battle. Out to the left was wide flat nothingness. Green meadow unencumbered by vegetation of any sort. Out to the right, over a hill, was the village – dark and abandoned. Several tall oak trees grew at the top of the hill. One of them was badly burned, but the other two were still untouched by dragon flame.
Bjorn threw off his cloak and Alice followed suit. Bjorn said that while fighting dragons, nothing must hinder movement. He said it was paramount to have quick feet; otherwise the dragon could make a quick meal of them all. Alice’s muscles were tense and cold; her heart beat wildly as Bjorn removed his hat and lit a small fire of green flame with his staff. Alice scurried over to the oak with the lowest branches and climbed up, sitting almost invisible within the full-leafed bows. Brend sat in the branch above her silently.
Bjorn started stoking the fire with his staff. The flames grew and grew until they were a blaze of green. Bjorn’s face was grim and set in the light. Then with a swift gesture, Bjorn lifted his staff into the air, and the flame was flung far into the sky, lighting up the night. The Moon seemed to diminish, and the stars all but went out at the brightness. Alice thought she could see the shape of a huge green dragon in the flame for a moment. But she couldn’t watch for long. The sound of wings approached. The dragon had answered the call.
It came like a huge black shadow from the mountains. Its yellow eyes the only light within darkness itself. Its bat wings beat the air with measured speed. The gems, embedded in the pale underbelly, glinted in the light of Bjorn’s fire. Alice felt the fear boil inside her again. A cold sweat broke out on her forehead, but she stayed quiet and forced herself to focus on the task ahead of her.
The dragon focused in on the wizard. With a rasping growl, it belched out flame – deep orange – that met Bjorn’s green flame in the air. Bjorn now had his shield out in front of him for protection. Alice watched from the tree as beads of sweat gathered on her forehead. She knew that she was to do nothing for the time being. Until Bjorn gave the signal, she was to remain hidden. If the dragon knew she was there, it would all come to a sudden end.
The dragon alighted on the grass which withered away underneath it at the touch. The dragon circled Bjorn. With his shield out in from of him, Bjorn gathered a huge green fireball in his hand. For a moment he lifted his shield as he hurled the fire at the dragon’s face. Alice had never seen Bjorn like this before. All the old man seemed to have left him. He stood up straight, and he moved nimbly in and out of the dragon’s line of fire. The fireball cracked upon the nose of the dragon and sent it jumping back a few paces with a roar of pain. It belched a stream of badly-aimed fire at the wizard, which shot wide and lit the tree next to Alice’s tree on fire. Bjorn cast a nervous glace her way, but put his hand out to tell her to stay put for now.
The dragon seemed to regard the wizard with a little more caution now and decided to attack from the sky. Lifting its huge bulk into the air, it flew around and around as if to decide its best angle. The wind, caught up by the massive wings, fanned the flame in the burning tree, and it started to blaze. Smoke gathered and swept across Alice’s sight. She stifled a cough, but she knew that she could no longer stay in the tree. The very edges of the branches of the tree she was in started to smolder as flame started to lick at them. With careful precision, she lowered herself out of the tree. Brend alighted on the ground next to her.
The dragon attacked again. To Alice’s horror, Bjorn was consumed by flame. The whole area in which he stood was alight. But when it cleared, the familiar sight of Bjorn’s green shield still burned about him. But it was starting to waver. He was going to need help. Bjorn ran clear of the fire just as his shield gave out. There was an evil light in the dragon’s eye, and Alice could swear that it was laughing at the wizard.
A huge stream of flame was aimed at the wizard who rolled away with a singed beard. Bjorn hurled another ball of flame at the dragon hitting it in the ear. Another followed, hitting the huge reptile in the chest. It stuck there for a while, dripping away like green poison. The dragon screamed in pain and rage. Bjorn had added a sticky sort of spell in the one, and the fire left a discolored spot on the dragon’s chest.
From the end of his staff, Bjorn shot a bolt of lightning at the dragon who met it halfway with flame, deflecting the bolt. Bjorn looked to Alice, motioning that it was almost time. The first part of the battle had not been as successful as they had wanted, and he needed just a few moments for his next strike. The next spell took more time than mere fireballs, and he didn’t have time to do it unless the dragon was distracted.
Bjorn had retreated away from the flames. He firmly planted his staff in the soft ground with his shield cast into a semicircle around him. The dragon eyed him from a short distance. It kept scratching it the sore spot on its chest, but it soon lifted into the air again for another strike at the wizard.
Alice could feel the heat of the burning oaks. She saw Bjorn give her a nod and she sent Brend up into the air to fulfill his task. Her throat felt thick and bitter but she didn’t let the tears come. She was too old for this. It was time to grow up and save her town. She was not just an ordinary girl. She had a role to fulfill. A destiny to embrace. A calling upon her life. She had her people to save.
She crawled away from the now blistering heat of the burning trees and lay flat on her stomach. Clouds and smoke were gathering even thicker in the sky, and the low rumble of thunder echoed across the burning land. Brend was now at the level of the circling dragon. With a shriek, he dove at the dragon and started clawing at its eyes and leathery ears. The dragon almost fell out of the sky at being startled so badly. Alice doubted that the dragon had ever guessed such a small creature would be so bold, and it made her smile with pride.
The dragon, however, soon regained its balance and started snapping at the troublesome bird. But Brend stayed well out of the way of the dragon’s gaping mouth. The dragon, being too big to be as agile as Brend in the air, alighted on the ground. Alice saw Bjorn give his second nod and she made her move. But before she could come out of hiding, a huge hairy shape bolted past her and flung itself at the dragon’s closest wing. Alice realized with horror that it was Leif.
Alice watched as Leif ripped at the dragon’s wing with tooth and claw. The dragon snarled in pain as Leif’s teeth tore through its wing. Leif was a huge dog, but was no match for the dragon’s strength. With one swift beat of its wing, the dragon flipped Leif, still holding on with locked jaws, into the air. Alice screamed as Leif landed twenty yards away and lay still with a huge piece of bloody wing still between his teeth.
The dragon tried to fly, but with a huge gaping hole in its wing, it was thrown so off balance that it flopped back to the ground, whipping its treelike tale in agitation. Brend was still flying to and fro clawing at the dragon’s eyes, but Alice could see that the bird was getting tired. Her head swam, but as she looked to Bjorn for guidance, he motioned for her to keep on as planned. Alice thought he looked worried, and she could see that he was exhausted. The spell was taking longer than expected.
With one last look at her beloved dog, Alice jumped into action. She ran up to the wounded dragon and caught ahold of the wing Leif had injured, pulling herself onto the huge back. She carefully avoided the row of spikes lining its spine and made her way to its head. Feeling that something was on its back, the dragon swung its head around to try to see, but Alice carefully stayed out of its path of vision. Unable to focus on the almost unperceivable weight on its back, the dragon turned its attention again to the wizard. It flamed at the wizard’s shield, but was unable to penetrate it. The shield flickered, however, and Alice knew she needed to hurry.
The dragon whipped its tale around, knocking Bjorn over. His staff was knocked out of the ground and the shield faded and disappeared. Bjorn was quick to pick himself up and reset it, however, as he continued working on his next attack spell. Meanwhile, Alice slowly worked her way up the dragon’s neck holding on to the spikes for support, knowing that if she fell she would probably be impaled.
For one moment, as Alice crouched on the crown of the beast’s head, she saw her face reflected in the glassy, yellow orb of the dragon’s eyes as she leaned over. Recognition of the situation it was in seemed to dawn suddenly on the dragon. Its eyes grew wide as lightning flashed and Alice raised her knife. But the recognition was too late. With a yell as loud as Alice could muster, she drove her dagger into the dragon’s eye, up to the hilt. There was a roar like she had never heard before, that split the smoky night, as Alice wrenched the knife out and launched herself off the dragon’s head. She hit the ground and rolled as pain shot through her legs.
She turned over and watched as the dragon rolled in the scorched grass clawing at its eye. Alice saw Bjorn get up from his place on the ground with a huge blue orb in his hand. It was like fire – but not like it at the same time. It glistened and shimmered but didn’t flicker as fire did. It looked glossy – almost wet.
Alice could not watch Bjorn, though. She remembered the next step of the plan, and she frantically started to from a fireball in her hand. As it took shape, she let the dragon’s own blood – the only fatal poison known to dragons – drip from her knife blade into the fireball. The fire crackled and spluttered but ate up the red juice greedily. The orb swirled and twisted as the red mixed with the blue, turning it purple. She ran over to Bjorn. She was just in time to see him hurl his glossy orb into the dragon’s red snarling mouth. As it hit the back of its mouth, the orb burst into a waterfall and went cascading down the dragon’s throat.
The dragon looked at Bjorn with hatred in its one yellow eye as the other oozed blood. It opened its mouth to blast him with flame, but nothing came out but a cloud of hot steam. Bjorn grinned in triumph as the dragon attempted it again with the same result. Alice was too busy to smile as she squashed her ball down to size. Then with a running start, Alice hurled her fireball into the dragon’s mouth.
As the fire went down, the dragon’s eyes bulged. It reared up, and, with a last effort, flung itself into the air, beating its injured wings frantically. It flew in several wobbling circles before crashing to the ground several hundred feet away. It lay there motionless and never moved again. Rain started to fall in torrents but Alice hardly took notice. She ran to where the still form of Leif lay.
Falling upon the ground, Alice lifted his big head onto her little lap, removing the chunk of dragon wing from his mouth. She smoothed his rumpled fur. Brend alighted on her shoulder and sat very quietly.
“Leif,” she whispered. “Leif, please don’t be dead. Please. You were so brave. Please be okay.” Alice ran her tiny fingers over the Dog’s still body. His neck was broken as well as several ribs. Her tears started to fall as she kissed his wet nose.
Alice did not even notice the men and women who had started running toward the scene, having seen the wizard’s green fire from a distance. They had watched the battle from the shadow of the hills and, at the sight of the beast falling from the sky, had come closer to investigate. They did not seem to notice Alice sitting with bird and dog. The trees hissed and steamed as the rain washed away the dragon fire. Its huge carcass lay twisted and smoldering. Bjorn stood by himself to one side with his pointed hat pulled low over his eyes – water running off the brim and puddling at his feet.
Whispered exclamations that the dragon was dead started circulating. Soon everyone was laughing with relief and excitement. Women danced in the rain while the men bravely went up to the dragon and poked at it with scythes and pitchforks.
“Gems!” someone exclaimed. “The underside of the dragon is encrusted with them!” The excitement broke out anew as everyone tried to pry them from the pale underbelly.
“We can rebuild,” said a man joyfully. He kissed the palm-sized emerald he had loosed with his knife and put it in his pocket.
Alice lay down next to the body of Leif and wrapped her arms around him. Brend nestled down at her head. She shivered in the cold as her soaked clothing clung to her.
“I found her!” she heard someone say. “Alice! For goodness sake! What on earth are you doing out here?” Alice rolled over and looked up into the distraught faces of her mother and father.
“Leif is dead,” she murmured.
They stood her up on her feet.
“What were you doing out here?” said her father, shaking Alice by the shoulders.
“After dark! Alice how could you?” said her mother looking scared and hurt. “You are very lucky Bjorn killed that dragon. What on earth possessed you to leave the house? Did you come out here alone? Are you hurt? Why were you so foolish?” The questions poured down on Alice like the heavy rain itself.
“Because!” said Alice shaking. “Because Bjorn said it was tonight or never! The dragon is dead. Don’t be mad. And Leif is dead, and I couldn’t save him.” Alice wiped the stream of rain and tears from her face and shivered. Her mother wrapped her cloak around Alice and took her hand.
“Come dear. Leave him for now. Leif was a good dog, I’m sure he was just looking after you – don’t blame yourself.”
“I can’t leave him!” wailed Alice, but her mother pulled her away, saying Father would get him in the morning and bury him properly. Brend hopped mournfully after Alice.
As the sky in the east lightened at the oncoming of early morning, the mass of villagers slowly broke up and wandered back to their homes. Bjorn approached Alice’s parents and told them everything, explaining that Alice was really a wizard.  He told them how it was really Alice who had wounded the dragon and delivered the final, fatal blow. He also asked if he had permission to finish Alice’s training. She had managed to kill the dragon, but she still had much to learn.
Her parents were speechless. Alice sat, quietly waiting for the final judgment. At last her parents spoke. They agreed that Alice’s training should continue. It was very obvious that they did not like the idea of their young daughter being a wizard, but they knew that it was a destiny they could not interfere with. It was not something any of them could choose. Alice was called. And her parents understood that high calling on wizards to protect and defend the people.
Bjorn thanked her parents, told them it would be best not to tell the villagers what Alice’s role really was, and turned to Alice telling her to be at his hut the next afternoon to continue training. Alice nodded as she held Brend in her lap.  
It was a very silent, somber procession that commenced the funeral of Leif later that morning. Alice said a few words and kissed Leif’s nose before her father lowered him into the deep grave he had dug. Alice stayed at the site even after her parents had hugged her and gone back to the house.
Ehem,”
The noise broke Alice out of her revere. It was Barrett. She looked up at him testily.
“I’m real sorry about Leif,” he said shuffling his feet.
Alice thanked him quietly, feeling bad for being irritated.
“Look, I got something for you,” said Barrett. “I noticed you didn’t get anything from the dragon plunder.” Barrett pulled out of his pocket a brilliant pale blue gem the size of a robin’s egg. It glittered in the sun – seeming to gather the light to itself. Alice took it and held it.
“I thought you might want it to remember what Leif did.”
Alice smiled at him and thanked him.
Barrett turned red and mumbled something about it being no big deal before retreating.
Alice breathed deeply. The sun was coming out from behind the clouds, and the birds were singing in the fresh, wet morning air.
“Well, Brend,” she said patting the raven on the head. “We better go milk the goats.”
Getting up, Alice tucked the precious blue stone in her pocket. Blowing one last kiss to Leif, she started out across the blackened countryside. Her heart felt light despite the blackness though, as the withered grass glistened with dew and morning sun. Alice passed a wilted violet. With a quick look around to make sure she was not being watched, she cupped her hands over the tiny flower and whispered to it. As if in answer, the violet lifted its woebegone face, and its shriveled leaves uncurled and stretched in the sun, brushing off bits of ash and soot.
Alice beamed with pleasure. She did not know how she knew to do that, but something deep inside her had told her to. Perhaps it was the part of her that knew what she was. Knew that she was one of the chosen few to continue what her forefathers, send from the world beyond, had started. To protect and lead and heal. Be it her people, or little wilted flowers. Alice grinned and took off running across the fields, laughing merrily as she raced along while Brend flew after her.