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The Dragon and the Toddler

A folktale from Pilgrims Vale

By Grantt EnnisPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 21 min read

“We all know that the woods can be dangerous for little ones,” Jasper began his story, easing himself into his old wicker chair. A dozen young eyes gazed at him, rapt with attention. “That’s because they’re older than us. Older than Hespen village. Older than the crossroads at Whitley. Older than all the towns that run the length of Pilgrim’s Vale.”

“Older than you, Jasper?” A young one piped up. The old man smiled and nodded.

“Hard to believe, but yes. Even older than me. Those woods were there long before folk came to the valley, roots digging deep into the wet soil, branches reaching high into the skies. Everyone knows that the treefolk live in the woods, building their little houses and hiding in the hollows, but do you know what else lives in those woods?”

He let that linger, looking out over fresh faces reflected in the glowing fire of the hearth. Good kids, the lot of them.

“A dragon.”

They gasped, caught up in the story. None so old as to challenge the idea. He smiled again.

“That's right. A big, toothy dragon, covered in glittering green scales, wings wide as the long house at Whitley. Fangs like daggers.” He raised his arms over his shoulders like wings and lowered his head to bare his teeth. The kids tittered and clutched at each other and he almost lost their attention, but he clacked his stick against the stone floor to drag them back.

“Gorbash is his name. He’s been the lord of the woods since time began, watching over the ancient oaks to make sure his domain is kept free from trespassers and villains. At night, he glides over the treetops on his leathery wings, picking off skulking wrong doers and, if the shepherds let them get too close, the occasional sheep. He likes them well roasted with a little mint sauce.” He smacked his lips as if he’d eaten a good meal and let the kids giggle their excitement. Then, master storyteller that he was, he let the pause linger, waiting for the inevitable interruption.

“Have you ever seen him?” Came a small, nervous voice.

“Oh yes,” Jasper leaned back, “Many times. We have an understanding, Gorbash and I. But that comes later. I met the old dragon decades ago, when something truly wondrous happened. When he was defeated by a child even younger than yourselves.”

“Gorbash had lived in the Westwood for hundreds of years. He’d seen the first oaks spring from the ground and reach towards the skies, watched as the Arrowrun river danced across the valley floor, and witnessed the coming of men folk to Pilgrim’s valley. Of course, he never named those things. Those names came after, when the languages of man reached his ears and he began to take notice and learn the tongue for himself. Even his name, Gorbash, was one chosen by the folk who set foot on his lands. These things he accepted as the changing of the times, because dragons are tied to the natural world and know that all things must change. Yet dragons are also guardians of the ancient things, particularly the parts of the world that still have meaning and importance. They stand over mystic places, swim through major rivers and snake between the trunks of mighty trees. Gorbash flew amongst the peaks of the valley, keeping it green and lush and beautiful.

He was concerned when the people came. They dug at the earth, ploughing long strips of it, churning it into mud and binding it into fields wrapped with fences. With axes and fire they felled trees and threw up little buildings from the timber they cut from their boughs. They stalked through the woods and brought down the deer, roasting them over fires and throwing their bones to their dogs. For Gorbash, the old protector of the valley, this was too much. How dare these humans trespass onto his lands and treat them so poorly? What good were these scurrying creatures that stripped the landscape and multiplied and made such waste?

The old dragon watched with growing distemper as these people swarmed his valley. As was tradition, he gave them time to bring him offerings and sacrifices to allow them onto his lands. The woods gave him shade and vibrant blooms of flowers in springtime. The animals gave him food and good hunting. The tree folk gave him gold and trinkets they pulled up from the tunnels in the hills. These offerings pleased him and he allowed his land to be used by these things. But the people gave him nothing. They simply took. They ate and claimed land and moved into it as if it was theirs all along, giving nothing back. This made the old dragon angry.

One night, when the moon was full and Gorbash was brooding, he watched as the menfolk killed one of the oldest wolves of the forest. They hunted it with spears and cornered it away from its pack. They skewered it and carried it back to their horrible wooden dwellings where they threw it on a fire and celebrated its death. That old wolf had been a companion to Gorbash. It had lead its pack in hunting the weakest of animals, picking off the sick and infirm to keep herds healthy and control their numbers. The wood thrived as a result, given chance to regrow after the deer and rabbit grazed. These humans had killed the old wolf for nothing more than stealing some sheep. Ended it’s life just to make their own lives easier. In one fell swoop they’d shifted the balance of the forest and torn the heart from a glorious pack of wolves. Their despairing howls echoed through the night and it was too much for old Gorbash.

The old dragon watched the humans singing and smiling after killing his wolf and he found a rage he never knew he had. He burst across the night sky and descended upon that first human village, feeling the rage in his belly turn to fire itself. When he opened his mouth to voice his anger it came out in great gouts of flame that roasted the people as they ran and set alight to their wooden homes. In a moment the village was destroyed and the people scattered.

Now, Gorbash wasn’t heartless. He knew he’d gone too far. He flew back to his lair and sat in brooding contemplation of what he’d done. He’d not meant to cause such devastation, but he told himself it was for the best. Those humans had taken so much and caused such harm that it was only fair he respond in some way. Like the rest of us are prone to do, he sat and he justified his actions, even if they made him harder and colder and nastier to do so. He promised himself he’d have better control in future, but he also promised that he’d protect his valley from these humans who cared so little for the land around them.”

Jasper paused to make sure it wasn’t too much for the little ones. They usually found the scary monsters and idea of people running away somewhat exciting, but there was often a younger, more sensitive child who found the idea of suffering too much to bear. Quickly and with practised ease, he scanned the faces turned toward him, and finding no tears, he continued.

“When the menfolk came back, years later, they wore shirts of metal and carried long poles tipped with spikes of steel. They built more wooden houses and some made from stone that were harder to burn. Gorbash, feeling guilt over his last outburst, stayed away from these new menfolk, but every now and again he glided across the tops of trees and between the peaks to remind them that he was here and that they should be wary of his anger. This time, they stayed away from the Westwood itself, but they built more villages across the length of Pilgrims Vale and tamed more and more land into fields and farmsteads.

Now, time moves differently for Dragons. They live such long lives that to them a week feels like a second. A year like a week. A decade like a year. They have no need to pay attention to the smaller things. Before he knew it, the humans had settled throughout the valley, binding the land in roads and bringing their own laws and borders. They weren’t Gorbash’s laws, but these things have a way of changing the land, casting their own spells on the world around them. This was seen keenly in the lives of the treefolk. Their kind had lived in the woods since the first trees had grown, small things who kept close to the woodlands and lived in the tunnels under the hillsides. They tended the woods and made sure the forest grew well, gathering in their little communes to dance and sing with the changing of the seasons. They dug gold out of the hills that they gave to Gorbash, heaping it in his lair for him to gaze at in wonder as it glittered and shined like the stars he loved in the night sky.

When the menfolk began to truly tame the valley, the tree folk became caught up in their laws and borders. They stopped their dancing at the change of the seasons, save for in their hidden groves and burrows. They kept to the heart of the Westwood where they were hard to find, letting the fringes grow wild and fierce. Finally, they gave less gold to Gorbash, as they had to pay their taxes to the menfolk who’d claimed all their lands.

None of this helped the old dragons ire. He watched as these coming menfolk changed the land around them and changed his own life as a result. He’d festered after his first outburst, telling himself he did the right thing, even when he could still hear the screams of those humans he’d roasted on that fateful night. Holding onto these kinds of dark feelings can change anything, and for dragons, creatures so keenly tied to the world around them, these changes can be profound. His scales grew darker and metallic. His wings became leathery and clawed. The fangs within his maw bristled, and his brow became thick and brooding. His voice, which had been so eloquent, became a growl of buried anger. He no longer flew by day, as the light of the sun showed how much his homeland had changed. Sometimes his buried anger became uncontrollable, and he roared as he flew, furious at the memories of burning menfolk that danced in his guilt.

To the people of the valley, Gorbash became a legendary monster. He’d destroyed the first settlers and reduced their village to ash. At night, he soared amongst the treetops of the Westwood and devoured men whenever he found them. Villages too close to the forest risked destruction at his clawed hands. The menfolk moved throughout Pilgrim’s Vale in packs, carrying heavy spears and wearing suits of armour to protect themselves from his fangs and talons. They built stone outposts and forts to resist his fiery breath, all fearing the fate of the first settlers.”

Jasper checked their faces again. The set up was always a dangerous part, prone to losing their attention, but it was necessary to teach them the true message. Most were still listening to him and nothing else. A few of the more precocious or excitable had begun to fidget. That was fine. It was time for the story to move on.

“It was a few hundred years after humans first settled in the valley. Folk had lived there for generations, but Gorbash saw only a steadily growing tide of humans swarming over his lands. He didn’t see the great cities housing knowledge and art; he saw only hives of menfolk that grew and grew and tore at the land around it. He didn’t see a family settle onto new, fertile land; he saw another nest invade and take root. His heart was heavy with the destruction of his valley, the greed of the menfolk, and the guilt of his actions against that first village.

A caravan left Whitley hall, driven by a family eager to start a new life on new land. They carried tools and timber and seeds and livestock, the sum of their lives, and hopes to make a better future for their growing family. They had elders sat in amongst their belongings, already knitting winter clothes or whittling useful things. There were adults aplenty, driving the oxen, tending to the young ones or simply walking alongside. Finally there was a score of little ones just like yourselves, most in the carts but some carried on shoulders or even running to keep up. They were headed right here, to Hespen village, though it wouldn’t be called that for many years, having heard of the spring and the green fields. They walked and drove and chatted and sung, all smiling and excited to build a better life.

Unfortunately, the route came through the Westwood, just at the edge where it creeps further into the valley along the line of the Arrowrun. This was one of the last legs of their journey, the final tough part before they reached their new land, but it was the part they feared the most, as it would take them through the lands of Gorbash. They fell silent as they neared the forests edge, holding their children close and making sure they had steel tipped spears to hand. They stopped on the outskirts and ate a simple meal of what they had left, warning the children to stay quiet and giving the old folk great flatbows to carry on their laps. Looks passed between knowing adults, lingering glances to those loved ones they didn’t want to lose.

Then they entered the Westwood. They became cautious and tight knit. Caravans moved closer together and those that did walk stood within arms length. The road through the forest was close and difficult, so going was slow, and every creaking noise felt like a great shout calling out to the old things in the forest. The trees swayed slowly in the breeze, seeming to lean closer to peer into the carts. Small shapes darted between the trunks, too big for rabbits, but too small for deer. However, most eyes gazed up through the thick canopy, waiting for leathery wings and a looming shadow. “

“Did they make it?” Squeaked a little girl no older than five summers. Jasper smiled.

“They were halfway through when the lead wagon broke a wheel. It popped off with a great crack and the wagon lurched into the muddy path with a crash that echoed between the trees. The caravan was horrified and they stood for a moment stock still and unsure what to do. Then the elders called for fresh timber and a new wheel and the menfolk scurried to lift the cart and change the broken part.

The children grew restless. They mewled and grizzled and wondered, feeling the fear of the adults and knowing, deep down, that the forest was a bad place to be. The mothers clutched them tight and rocked them and spoke soft words, but some refused to quieten. A few mothers called for leaving the wagon, but it blocked the road and left them no choice but to fix it.

There was one mother, a brave woman who’d seen harder things than most. The wood didn’t scare her as much as the others and she was eager to get her young son to a new life away from the politics of Whitley Hall. This mother didn’t want her son to become a hard-bitten mercenary or a merchant drudge, she wanted him to feel the land beneath his feet and the sun on his back. To be a free man able to make his own life choices.

As the wheel was changed, this mother took her son from the fretting elders and crying children. Away from those worries, the little boy gazed around with wide blue eyes and took in the woods and the trees and the undergrowth without the hate and fear of the others. He reached out with a pudgy fist for the leaves and the moss, smiling when his mother gave him a glowing part of the world around him. Even when she stopped him putting the latest treasure in his mouth like you’re all prone to do.”

He paused to let them look around and spot those with their thumbs in their mouths and laugh and giggle, letting the tale work its magic. He even cast a glance at the mothers lining the walls, noting the knowing nods and genuine smiles of the proud parents. He continued.

“Some may call this mother irresponsible and some may call her foolish. Bravery can sometimes be mistaken as such. But this mother had lived with real fear as a child and she refused to let it dictate the life of her son. She wanted him to grow up without fear, because she knew that fear bred hatred, too. So into the forest they went, with her pointing out the larch and the willow and the acorn and the deer tracks. The young boy wriggled and reached and giggled and stared and the mother, careful to keep the caravan in view, wandered a great circle around as the wheel was changed. Of all the little ones in that caravan, only this boy was smiling.

It only took a moment, one single, solitary moment, for things to go wrong. Caught short, as we all can be, the mother set her little boy down for just a second to tend to natures call, having done so a hundred hundred times before. With hitched skirts she cooed and spoke to the boy, keeping him gurgling and mumbling to know he was nearby. Then the noise stopped. Quickly she finished up and rushed to where she’d set the boy, only to find that he was gone. Probably up and wandering, as toddlers tend to do. Still, the fear caught her then, and she called for help as she called for her boy, crashing into the scrub around to try and find him, telling herself that a little one couldn’t get far. It’s a fable us grown ups tell ourselves, always surprised at just how far you children can get when you’re determined.”

Again, he cast glances at the mothers in the room who this time gave solemn nods as if it were a church sermon. They’d all felt the fear of a child get further than they wished.

“Gorbash felt the family enter his woodland. He knew every single movement that happened in the Westwood and he was terribly protective of it, as we’ve discussed. Normally he’d ignore the odd menfolk wandering through his forest, not wanting to fly so far to deal with trespassers. Yet this time he felt the lumbering of wagons and the tread of many feet and he raged that the humans had finally become so brazen as to settle in the forest itself.

That old grim anger he’d let settle in his belly clawed at him. Was one horrible example not enough to make it clear he didn’t want them on his lands? They’d claimed most of the valley itself, churning the fields and chocking the rivers, chasing away the wildlife and driving them out of their lairs and dens. Now they were trying to do the same to his beloved forest!

So he took flight, even though the sun was high in the sky. He roared when he saw his shadow, covered in spines and claws and gnarled horns, the fury and resentment within him changing him to a monster. It stoked his fury and he was soon breathing great gouts of flame as that rage became a fiery inferno within.

No one knows why Gorbash landed where he did, some distance from the wagons in a great grunt of displeasure. He stalked through the undergrowth, sleek as a serpent, slipping between the trunks and boughs as his tongue flicked at the air to find his quarry. The dark little knot of hatred deep in his heart whispered all the terrible things he would do to the interlopers, driving him to a frenzy of hatred. His eyes were wild, filled with red rage.

And then he stopped. Before him, in the dark tangled woods of a forest long ago abandoned by the tree folk, stood a small human, no more than two foot tall. It was ungainly and clumsy and pudgy and awkward, soft and stupid. Old Gorbash had never really noticed a toddler before, nor any of the children of men. All he’d noticed were the hunters with their bows and the mercenaries with their spears and the farmers with their ploughs. This was new to him. It was different. It didn’t look at him with fear or hate, it just stopped, stared at him, then giggled.

The toddler’s round face scrunched up in a huge smile and, arms outstretched to grab and hold and feel, it tottered toward the big, mean, old dragon. To his surprise, Gorbash found he could only stand and watch, his great wings folded above him and his tail absently swishing through the undergrowth. The fire in his heart was forgotten, the rage impotent against this little thing before him. It was as if the tangled little ball of hatred within his belly suddenly unravelled, faced instead with something so pure.

The little boy reached him then, stumbling across his splayed claws and fidgeting with the scaled talons planted into the ground. Gorbash slowly lifted one great foot and let the toddler use his fingers as a ladder to pull itself back up. Then the boy got lost in the reflection of light against the dragons claws, gurgling to itself as the light danced like nighttime stars. That woke something soft inside off Gorbash. The toddler squealed with delight, the sound out of place in such a close woodland, but sorely needed, and he reached up towards the dragons snout as if he wanted to be there. Without really thinking, Gorbash gently picked up the child and brought it to his face, sniffing and tasting the air around it and finding only innocence.”

Jasper stopped again, and addressed the gathered parents. “Of course, that’s not what we call that smell, but we’re not dragons.” They smiled and nodded and laughed and he carried on.

“That’s when the magic truly happened. As Gorbash brought that little toddler to his face, the little lad leaned in and gave that dragon the best little hug he could. Now, he was only small, barely a mouthful for old Gorbash, but that dragon felt his little arms either side of his cheek and felt that little body press against him and that, my lovely little dears, is when Gorbash felt what menfolk could give. What we all have to give to everyone around us. A little thing that costs us nothing but changes the entire world. Do any of you know what that is?”

It didn’t even take a moment. A small, enchanted voice in the back spoke softly, but the room was so quiet that everyone could hear.

“Love?"

“That’s exactly right,” Jasper smiled, easing himself back in his chair. “Old Gorbash had only ever seen menfolk conquering and taking land and hunting animals and slaying things that got in their way. He’d never had chance to see a mother with her child, or a pair of young sweethearts, or just a couple of elders remembering the good old days. He’d never seen or even know of love. But he felt it then. In that little act of kindness from an innocent human babe, he felt the boundless potential for absolute love that us menfolk can give.

His craggy hide grew sleek and glittering. His horns became whiskers that could caress or hold. His claws dulled and his teeth fit in his mouth again. His eyes cleared for the first time in hundreds of years. He smiled, which was truly amazing as he may have been the first dragon to do so. Gone was the little knot of hatred. Instead, just forgiveness for what the humans had done. Forgiveness for his own ignorance in how he’d acted. Forgiveness for these new settlers just trying to find homes and safety for their families. He understood now, and that was most important.

When the mother stumbled across them, she didn’t see a monster from the history books. Instead, she saw a graceful and beautiful creature gently holding her baby. The sun glittered from its hide and old Gorbash even shifted a wing to keep the glare from the woman’s eyes. Slowly, gently, he passed the toddler back to its mother who carefully took it and thanked the old beast. Her fear told her to run, but she’d long since mastered it and she forced herself to thank the dragon and ask forgiveness for being in its woods. Old Gorbash shook his head and spoke in his deep booming voice.”

Jasper put on his deepest tone, shaping his entire face to get the sound just right.

“No longer shall the men of Pilgrim’s Vale fear these woods. We have too long been strangers. Let me help you now.”

The children giggled. He even thought he heard a snort come from the parents, but in truth, he knew better. The snort came from outside. He went on with his normal voice.

“And so Gorbash went with the mother and helped fix the wagon. He walked with the caravan as it went through the Westwood and found that all these menfolk were capable of love. He saw it from the mothers to their children, from the husbands to their wives and from the elders to all things. He laughed at their jokes, a feeling that was quite alien to a dragon but thoroughly welcome, and enjoyed their songs. By the time they reached the outskirts of Hespen hill, Gorbash had quite fallen for these people and their lives and their stories. He realised how lonely he’d become and wanted to remain a part of their lives. They promised to tell him stories and spend time in the Westwood celebrating their festivals and tending to the forest. Fearing any harm coming to the people he now loved, he promised to watch over their children and their homes. He has done ever since.

Remember when I told you that dragons lived so long that they didn’t take notice of the small things? Well, now Gorbash had noticed the little lives and he wanted to be a part of them. He watches over us and makes sure we’re safe. We tell stories about him and have our feast days in the woods for him to enjoy. So although you need to be careful in the Westwood, you need never fear it. Old Gorbash watches over you, little ones.”

*

It was some time before they all left his little hut. The children were excited by the story, their joy reminding the parents of what it had felt like when they’d been told. “Was it you that told the story when I was a little one, Jasper?” Many asked. He just smiled and filled a pipe with smoke weed. Some left food and drink and Jasper eyed up a small clay jug of left over summer wine with more than a little relish. When finally the last one left, he took the wine and his pipe outside in the fresh late-summer night and sat on a little bench outside his hut, puffing away at his pipe and blowing terrible smoke rings.

“Your impression of me gets worse old friend,” came a rumble from above. The words sounded strange, coming not from the mouth of a man.

“I do it on purpose,” Jasper replied, pouring a little of the wine into a wide dish and holding it above his head. Great clawed hands reached down and plucked the dish gently from his, taking it back up into the gloom above the house. There was a splashing sound of messy drinking, like a dog from a bowl. “You could always do it yourself?” Jasper grinned.

The splashing stopped and strange laughter curled from the darkness. “I don’t want to scare anyone. Just in case.”

Jasper nodded. There had been a few tense occasions throughout the years. Larger crowds always had one or two folk who remembered the old stories of what the dragon had done. That was changing now, though, with each new generation. Every time he told the story of the dragon and the toddler he banished the old, dark memories and made way for the new ones. Ones which lead to communities living peacefully with the woodlands and its guardian. Still, Jasper wasn’t getting any younger.

“I’ll need to find a replacement soon. Maybe we should start looking out for an apprentice to take over?”


“Replacement?”

“Of course. I won’t be around forever. That’s one of the biggest prices of love, I’m afraid. It’s easier for us folk because we don’t tend to live longer than those we grow fond of. But we always have the memories.”

The darkness above grew silent. Two old friends thought of how little they had left together. Then, knowing that dark thoughts breed dark things, they both piped up at once with a memory of better days. They both laughed, both shared, then, as the night began to turn to morning, Jasper returned inside and his oldest friend, one he’d made as a baby, took off into the night to carry out a duty he’d maintained for hundreds of years.

Fantasy

About the Creator

Grantt Ennis

A UK writer looking to leave a lasting legacy. I write stories about out of the ordinary things and our reactions to them. I one day hope to ride a tyrannosaurus rex.

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Comments (3)

  • Sara Jane Triglia 2 years ago

    Well written and enjoyable! Loved how it began as a tale being told.

  • Heather Hubler2 years ago

    I loved this take on the challenge! The storytelling was top notch, and the ending was so satisfying. I enjoyed this read, well done :)

Grantt EnnisWritten by Grantt Ennis

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