OAKWOOD FOREST, 1350.
Like any right-minded boy of nine and a half, Tom had always dismissed the rumours as unbelievable. Too good to be true.
“Stuff and nonsense,” his mother said. “You are to ignore them.”
“But what if they are true?” he asked her.
“They are not.” She shook her fist to emphasise the point. “You must stop your foolish chattering. There have been no sightings and even if there were, the king has forbidden such talk. Haven’t we enough troubles, without adding to them, Tom?
“No ifs and no buts. There’s been neither flicker nor flame, no unexplained rising smoke, no remains of large animals or tracks in the dirt.”
“If only there was a rumble from the earth or a roar from the sky above, then you’d believe.” Tom mumbled to himself. He so longed to track down the source of the rumour.
For in spite of these denials, the rumours persisted.
Tom’s family who lived on the edge of Oakwood forest, were struggling. His dad had fallen and injured his leg after being forced to repair the squire’s castle battlements. Although his mum had thrown all her efforts into looking after him, he needed the expertise of a doctor they could not afford. While Tom did his best with the household chores, his mother muddled through looking after the cow and chickens, as well as tending the vegetables in their small plot of land. The land was always in danger of being poached because under strict rules, the king would not allow it to be enclosed. More seriously, there had been no help from the squire and it was unlikely Tom’s dad would ever work again.
Tom collected the firewood and did his best to help, but his dad had not yet shown him how to hunt for the small animals that were permissible to eat under the king’s charter. This did not include deer which were regarded as royal possessions. The punishments for stealing deer were severe. Imprisonment in the squire’s jail, often followed by mutilation of one of the offender’s hands.
When people had their fill of ale, tongues loosened in the taverns, even though the king had threatened to kill anyone who spread false rumours. They gossiped about a creature who had royal blood and ate kings for breakfast. Feeling threatened, the king had sent out soldiers to search the forest, but so far no one had reported anything and nothing had been proved.
And yet the rumours persisted.
One day, Tom left his parents in their miserable hovel and headed into the forest to seek solace under his favourite oak. There was something about the tree that enchanted him. Said to be older than time itself, he sat against the trunk’s hollow which had been formed by millions of termites. He emptied his meagre rucksack and drank from a flask of milk. Then he nibbled an old apple. When he still felt hungry, he cried into the earth as if his heart would break.
After a while, Tom’s tears dried up and he was aware the atmosphere had changed. Chittering birds flew out of branches spreading into the azure blue sky; insects ceased their endless humming, and the hairs on his skin prickled. In spite of the chill, he was enveloped by something he couldn’t understand. Embraced by an invisible warmth, he forgot his troubles and fell asleep.
At dusk, Tom awoke to chirruping birds and squirrels cracking nuts. He was reluctant to break away from their soothing sounds, but eventually he stood up, brushed himself down and began the journey back to his family’s hut. The wood pecker’s drumroll cheered him on his way and bats clicked and swooped overhead. He was nearly home when a squirrel stopped its skittering and viewed him through large black eyes.
“Don’t be afraid,” it said. While the boy had heard squirrels make strange chattering noises and squeak when excited, he had never known them to talk like humans. He told himself he must have imagined it.
A week later, things weren’t any better at home and only the thought of visiting the forest oak kept Tom going. In a drunken stupor after drinking the last of the beer, his parents were in no state to raise objections to his setting off.
Guided by the silver moon and a lantern, he trudged through soil damp with shedded golden-green leaves and the odd croaking toad. In the twilight, a small deer slipped past, limping slightly as if it had injured its foot.
This was the first time Tom had sought the tree’s shelter at night. Normally he’d have been too scared to tramp around in such gloom, but there was something so magical and mysterious about it, he was prepared to risk it.
He’d brought with him a small hunk of cheese and a crust of bread. He planned to bake his mother a loaf first thing the following day to make up for eating the last of that day’s bread. He was almost happy when he reached the tree.
As he had often done before, he rested against its trunk. This time though he felt something give behind him. He swung his body round and began exploring the familiar crack with his hands. He shone his lantern onto the outline of a small door. When he pushed, the wood gave and it opened. Tom flashed his light into the space inside and gasped.
Before him were piles and piles of gold coins, all shapes and sizes, glinting like candles. The next moment, the boy felt a rush of air as the world’s only remaining dragon landed beside him flaring her nostrils.
When Tom’s eyes opened to her presence, he fainted.
When he came round, the dragon was fanning him with her warm breath.
“There’s no need to be afraid.” she rumbled. “I won’t harm you… I’ve been waiting so long to meet you.”
“What do you mean?” Tom asked.
“Exactly what I say. Have you never heard the rumours of my existence?”
“I have heard…” Tom managed to speak, but it came out squeaky. “No one has been able to prove you exist.”
“I didn’t want them to know. I’ve been very careful to hide my existence. If they started hunting me, it would only mean needless deaths and bloodshed. But the time has finally come to break the curse of the unicorn, and I can’t do it alone. I need your help. My name is Minna, by the way. I originate from the beautiful isle of Crete. I lived there thousands of years ago.”
“I don’t understand.” Tom assumed he was dreaming.
“You will,” she said airily. “I do hope you like my coins. I’ve stored them here for safekeeping.”
“They shine like the sun,” he said, relaxing a little.
“I’ve spent more years than I care to remember collecting them,” Minna said sadly.
“Are you for real?” Tom voiced his thoughts. “I didn’t think dragons actually existed. Not any more.”
Minna snorted. “I’m the last of my kind. Unless…”
“Unless I make the necessary sacrifice.”
“What sacrifice?” Tom felt frightened again.
Minna’s sigh was like wind rustling through trees.
“I have to sacrifice my love of gold. That is the only way my eggs will ever hatch.”
“I see,” Tom said. He didn’t really see, but he was a good listener. “Where are the eggs?” he asked curiously.
“Hidden away high up in the tree. Far from prying eyes.”
Tom’s eyes widened, trying to imagine them.
“You must promise not to tell anyone about the gold. It’s my secret. Can you do that?”
“Yes… I suppose so.”
“Are you sure?” Minna vibrated her wings nearly knocking Tom over.
“Can’t I even tell my mother?”
Minna exhaled into some nearby logs creating a fire to keep the boy warm. “Especially not your mother. You must promise,” she hissed.
“Alright, I promise. I don’t break my word once it’s given,” Tom said fiercely.
The pair sat in companionable silence, enjoying the heat. The dragon waited for Tom’s next utterance…
Finally, by the light of the fire, he told Minna of his troubles.
“That bread smells wonderful,” Tom’s mother said. “We will have to use it sparingly as you’ve used the last of the flour.”
“Sorry, mum. I wanted to surprise you.” Tom took the bread out of the oven and laid it to cool on a slab.
“You have. I’m looking forward to eating it. Take some to your dad.” She looked a little ashamed. “We both need reviving after last night.”
“I thought I saw a dragon last night,” Tom said tentatively. He had no intention of breaking his promise to Minna about the gold, but he wanted to test his mother’s reaction to the idea of a dragon actually existing.
“Then you must have been dreaming. Dragons are mythical creatures. They don’t exist in real life. Ignore any rumours if you want to keep our family safe. They are false.”
“Of course, I must have been dreaming.”Tom was disappointed, but not surprised by her reaction.
Tom was running faster than he’d ever run in his life.
He stood by the oak tree, calling loudly.
“Minna, you must help me. Please.”
Tom waited some minutes, but was met by a thick silence.
Just as he was about to leave, the dragon revealed herself in all her glory.
“What’s the matter, Tom?” she asked sweetly.
“Something terrible has happened! My mother came across a deer that had died in the forest and dragged it home for us to eat. Someone saw her and reported her to the squire. He sent out his men and they’ve thrown her in prison. She’s in the squire’s dungeon’s waiting trial. If she’s found guilty, she will lose her hand as a punishment. The deer belong to the king and common people are not allowed to kill them.”
“But she didn’t kill it,” the dragon pointed out reasonably.
“It doesn’t matter. My dad says she will be found guilty, either way.” Tom started crying bitterly. “Oh, what’s to become of us?”
After a great deal of soul-searching, interspersed with outbreaks of scale-preening, Minna made the following announcement.
“I will relinquish some of my coins so you can take them to the squire and make peace. The rest I will keep here for you to use later. The squire doesn’t need to know about my full hoard.” Minna understood it was customary for such an “offence” to be pardoned if a decent sum of money was handed over and the coins were more than ample.
As soon as she’d decided this, the dragon felt an inner peace she’d not known since accidentally killing the unicorn in her rash flight from Crete many centuries before and unwittingly igniting its curse. The dying unicorn had told her that as a punishment for trampling on him, her eggs would never hatch. She had begged the creature’s forgiveness and in a final act of mercy it had said she must let go of her love of gold and prophesied that a young boy with golden hair from a strange temperate land would help her.
Without thinking, Tom hugged her. “Thank you, Minna. I won’t forget your kindness in a hurry.” She responded by encasing him in her wings and crooning.
“Now, go and take some of these coins and get your mother released. I’ll keep the rest of them safe in case they are needed again. They will soon believe there’s a dragon once they see them.”
After the boy left, Minna flew up to the nest. One of the eggs had cracked open and a baby dragon was wobbling round trying to clean itself. The other two eggs remained firmly sealed, only able to open once the sacrifice was complete.
The squire laughed in Tom’s face when he told him about the dragon, but he had no qualms about taking the coins. When Minna heard the squire had not released Tom’s mother, she was furious at having being duped. She’d never have given Tom the coins had she known the squire would not honour his side of the bargain. Clearly, the man’s greed knew no bounds. It seemed he was more interested in currying the king’s favour than he was in releasing an innocent woman.
Nothing riles a dragon more than injustice. An enraged Minna flew out of the tree leaving her fledgling behind. Before long, Tom heard a monumental flapping outside his parent’s hut.
“Hop on,” she said, offering her back. “We are going to rescue your mother together.”
Tom clung on fiercely, spurred on by the thought of his mother’s freedom. Something told him he’d never forget this as long as he lived, so he savoured every moment.
As they flew over the castle, the dragon darted out flames. Huge tongues rapidly spread setting fire to the squire’s castle.
“Go easy,” Tom cried. “I don’t want my mother getting burnt.”
Minna was as good as her word. When she tore down the bars, Tom’s mother was released from the dungeon and sprang into her son’s arms.
“Now, do you believe me about the dragon?” Tom asked, as his mother stepped onto Minna’s back.
“It was no idle rumour, after all,” she admitted as the trio rose into the air. The dragon spurted out more flames and soon most of the castle was ablaze. Once the battlements crumbled, it was not possible to put out the fire.
The fire could be seen for miles around and a crowd gathered to watch as the castle turned to ashes. It was not possible to find the squire.
“If only he’d believed the rumours,” they said.
When Minna returned to the nest, she was dismayed to find the baby dragon had flown off! Her frantic searching yielded no results and in desperation, she turned to the tree.
“What you did was good, but you have not yet made a full sacrifice,” it said voicing its ancient wisdom.
Tears rolled down the dragon’s cheeks. “What can I do?”
The tree considered the matter seriously. “You must give the remaining coins to Tom, then gather your eggs and return to your roots in the isle of Crete. The land has long since recovered from the earthquake that hit it when you ran away from the Minotaur’s demands after he fell in love with you. That way you will have paid the recompense in full.”
“What about my baby dragon?” Minna pleaded.
“I can’t answer that,” the tree said, rustling. “He will have to make his own way. You must hope for the best.”
Many years later, at least in human terms, Tom stood on the balcony of the mansion he’d built as a result of being given the coins. Inside, his family slept soundly.
Yet the events of the past were imprinted on Tom as if they had happened only yesterday. He often wondered how Minna fared and if he would ever stop missing her. Although he’d spoken about her to his wife and children, now grown up, he felt a growing distance as if they were merely humouring him.
Tom was about to leave the balcony and retire to bed when he saw what looked like a blazing cloud rushing through the sky.
Heart racing wildly, he ran down the stairs, opened the door and called out.
Closer inspection revealed the dragon was not Minna, though very much like her. This creature was just as majestic, albeit with less scales and brighter eyes. Minna’s son landed on the lawn, poised for action.
“You have gold-tipped wings!” Tom observed. “Minna’s were green.”
“Tell me about it! After years of searching for my mother. I discovered that for myself.”
“I’m so glad you found her,” Tom said.
“And after all I went through to find her, mother asked me to return here to let her know how you’ve been getting on. She never stops raving about your golden hair.”
Tom patted his hair, now speckled with grey. “Less golden now, I’m afraid.”
“I wouldn’t know,” the young dragon remarked saucily.
“But how is Minna?” Tom burst out. “Have her other eggs hatched out yet?”
“I’m not here to speak about the eggs.”
Tom decided Minna’s son had an infuriating air.
“What are you here for, then?” A trepidation came over him as he considered the true cost of the sacrifice and whether it had actually been paid in full.
“According to Minna, for old time’s sake. As I said, my mother wants to be assured you are alright. That giving up her hoard of coins was worth it.”
“Absolutely. What your mother did changed my life. I will be forever in her debt.” Tom spoke passionately.
“My mother sent me here so I could offer you one last ride. She said you’d like that.”
Tom turned to the mansion, questioning whether his family would even miss him.
“Come on. There’s no time to lose. I’ll be gone in a flash and I don’t intend to come this way again,” the young dragon said haughtily. “Your country is too cold and wind-swept for my liking.”
Tom realised his family would never believe him if he spoke of the dragon and he longed to see Minna.
“Come on. You know you want to,” the creature insisted.
Tom’s mind raced as he stepped onto the dragon’s back. There really was no smoke without fire, he thought, holding on tightly.