It is bright and early when the older village children gather excitedly in the town square, clutching each a small coin and bit of bread, their deafening chatter drawing curious looks from some of the elders. Other adults know why the children are so riled up, and smirking to the rest explain: the local storyteller has promised to tell the children some new tales now that those going are old enough to hear them. Tales of some of the most amazing - and terrifying - creatures; dragons.
Most chuckle, reminiscing on their youth and the first time they had first heard the magnificent tales. Many from the same storyteller, whose age has long been a mystery. Some lend her agelessness to the woods she calls home, some to the mythical creatures she describes in her tales; either way, the woman is said to be protected by powerful forces within the forest. Local legend has it that she tells the tales so true - so honestly - that the faeries and dragons in the region have blessed both her and the forest around her with health, protection, and overall longevity...
...so long as she remains within the perimeters they have blessed. This is why the children are departing early in the day, coins and bread in hand, into the woods to the storyteller's home; to hear her tales, visitors must go to her. Some of the adults even decide to take the day to travel with the children, eager to hear these transitional stories once again for themselves. Those old enough to hear the tales of the powerful, sometimes fearful dragons are nearing adulthood, and these tales are only told once a season alongside special feasts.
Each person attending needs an offering - the coin - and something to eat - the bread - on the walk out to the storyteller's dwelling. And so it happens that the adults now interested in going need to acquire their own items. For some, this is an easy feat. For others, it is not so. Such is the case today; two men in particular find themselves in need of hearing the tales to refresh their spirits, but also lacking part of the needed toll.
The first is Renny, a man in his mid-twenties. Orphaned young, he's managed to cling to existence longer than many thought possible. However, the last cold season hit the village hard, and the unusually cold temperatures took their toll on the young man. He'd been laid up for weeks with a terrible illness, and has been scrambling to scrape a living - even more so than usual. One thing that often cheers the homeless man is hearing the various tales told by the storyteller - when he can afford to do so. He has neither of the items required today, though, and is about to give up the thought and go sit on a miserable corner when another man approaches him.
This man is the second man lacking the full toll, and his name is Martin. Martin is an older man in his late fifties, though he looks to be in decent shape despite his bouts on the streets. He frequently shifts from living with various relatives to living on the streets, and as such is rarely in too bad a state; he has somewhere to go, some of the time. He smiles at Renny as he hobbles over on a stiff leg, and Renny nods back respectively.
"Trying to scrounge up the coin to go today?" asks Martin. Renny shrugs, shaking his head.
"I don't have the coin. Or the bread."
"Well, arguably, you could go without the bread," starts Martin thoughtfully, "You'd be very hungry by the time you made it to the storytellers' home, and there's no guarantee there will be enough food there. The old woman tries, but she can only prepare so much food for the occasion."
Renny thinks on this, weighing the option. It is true that the bread is only highly encouraged; a little something to keep the body energized through the long walk. But he doubts he could make the trek on his meager reserves; it has been several days since his last, small meal.
"I still don't have the coin, and that is required," the younger man says. He pulls a ragged, dirty blanket from his cached supplies behind some old broken pots and begins to spread it out on "his" corner. Martin cocks an eyebrow and scoffs at him, reaching into his pocket to produce two coins. He hands one to Renny, who looks at him incredulously.
"Are you sure?" inquires Renny.
"Of course! That said, I don't fancy walking all that way on an empty stomach. Let's see if we can find us a scrap of bread to share," Martin instructs, glancing either way for an opportunity.
They try the bakery first, attempting to convince the baker to give them just a small piece to share. Usually, he might be persuaded, but they've caught him on a bad day in a hurry and he denies them their request.
Then they try asking others if they would share their own bread; both offer to repay them down the line. Few meet their gaze, and fewer still respond at all, most mumbling that they, "really need the bread themselves". Neither receives pity from the crowds.
It is actually when both have nearly given up, sat down at Renny's corner, that someone approaches them. Two children, brother and sister. At first the children just stare at the two men, and they stare right back. Martin recovers from the oddness first, smiling gently at the kids.
"Well, hello! How's today treatin' you two?" drawls the old man. The girl giggles at the silly informalness of the greeting.
"We're good. We're going to see the witch!" says the girl excitedly. Her brother, a few years older, rolls his eyes and corrects her, annoyed.
"She's not a witch! She's a storyteller!"
Renny and Martin chuckle; ah, the joys of siblings!
"The storyteller, huh? You like to go see her?" inquires Martin, curious.
"Yeah!" both children reply.
"We like to go see her too," Renny states.
"Well, aren't you going to visit? She's telling lots of stories today! We can only stay for some though - there are lots more for the bigger kids," the girl explains.
"That's right; some are very scary stories, only for grown-ups. We do like to visit, but we have no bread to eat on the walk and are very hungry," says Martin.
For a moment, there is silence, before both kids reach into the basket between them and produce a piece of bread for each man.
"Momma always sends extra, so that no one has to be left out!" exclaims the boy proudly. The men rejoice in their luck that a thoughtful mother has thought to send extra bread!
"Yeah, come on! You can walk with us! We know the way!" his sister adds.
And so they all make their way up the long trail, happily munching on their pieces of bread (and a few extra from the basket, just in case). When they arrive hours later, they are among the last to join and are stuck standing at the back. The young children squeeze their way through towards the front, however, and the party becomes separated.
People are packed into every available crevice surrounding the storyteller's house, their noise a horrendous din of chaos. Young and old alike jostle for a favorable spot around the old storyteller.
The storyteller stands in the center of the feast, dishing out the food that is finished while occasionally stirring a cooking pot between bowls, the scent wafting over the crowd. Each person passes the bowls down, and once most of the surrounding crowd is in the midst of eating, she calls those gathered to pay attention; the stories are about to begin.
"Good evening!" exclaims the old woman, her voice somehow strong enough to cut through the endless chatter of so many people. "We are about to embark on tonight's visual journeys, told through the stories of old! Tonight's tales feature some of the most powerful creatures thought to ever walk the earth and fly the skies; dragons!"
At the mentioning of dragons, the crowd breaks into a deafening roar of excited screams and shouts. The storyteller waits until the crowd has calmed again before continuing.
"For those of you new to this practice, or those who need a reminder - these tales, like the dragons they describe, require coin! At any point, please add your coin to the one I have placed here. This signifies to the dragons of our forest that you consider yourself part of their hoards; that you are something worth value to the dragons!" As quizzical looks begin flying around the crowd at this, the storyteller laughs, "More importantly, your coin today will help feed the next feast in one season's time! Feeding these crowds isn't cheap!"
The first few stories are childhood favorites, meant for the youngest kids, hammering home old wisdoms. They are short and devoid of much real danger to the characters. The last is the only story with dragons that the youngest will hear, involving a dragon locating a young child - a toddler - lost in the forest. The dragon of that tale escorts the child back to its village and is well rewarded with a hoard of gold by the grateful townsfolk.
They get progressively more intense from there.
The next tale of dragons sees a dragon adopt a human child. Every year, the dragon and its hoard seem to grow smaller, but the dragon assures the child it is just the child's growth every year on their birthday making them think the dragon and its hoard grow smaller. When the dragon shrinks down to the size of a kettle and its hoard down to one, single coin, however, the dragon must admit that it pays a handsome fee every year to keep the child from the ancient beast it was originally going to be sacrificed to as a toddler. The two hatch a plan in which the daughter - actually the dragon - marries the creature, and thus ends up with half of the creature's fortune. This in turn, causes the dragon to grow with the size of its new hoard, though it means a sad - hopefully temporary - farewell to the dragon's "dearest treasure"!
Surprisingly, one story containing dragons is actually that of the first mermaid. Discovered by the dragon (and sometimes another magical creature), the child found floating in wreckage within a kelp bed is transformed into a hybrid capable of living in the sea with its adoptive parent. As the child grows, however, it sees it is the only one of its kind, driving it into depression and loneliness. In some versions, the child fully transforms into a human once a year - often for a season - and returns after successfully mating to live the rest of the year in the sea.
Then come the more natural stories; stories where dragons are not so kind, but not outright killers either. Stories where they come across lost children, but like most animals either avoid it or care for it as best they can - but not before the child perishes due to the elements or starvation.
The stories turn darkest when the feast finishes up; visitors are warned that these are tales for adults and those on the cusp of adulthood. Strong alcohol is poured to steel the nerves for the last few tales. Martin takes only one, but Renny, often more affected by these darker tales, sneaks a second when given the bottle a second time mistakenly.
In one, a hungry dragon seeks its next meal when the crying of a human child gets its attention. Following the cries, the dragon finds the child's guardian(s) dead. The story of how the guardian(s) die is often tragic - enough that the dragon decides to spare the child in an attempt to see it reunited with its village. When someone does come for the child, though, the child is fearful. When the adult searching for the missing villagers finds the child, he attempts to attack or kill the child, prompting the dragon to kill the man.
It is a sorrowful tale. Many listeners are silent throughout, sympathetic to the child's plight.
The last, the darkest. This dragon is what orphans the child - it kills the guardians. Eats them - often in full view of the child who is luckily too young to recall the traumatic sight. The dragon moves to kill the child, but the child gets away or is saved and raised in town. Upon finding out the truth of their guardians' deaths, the child vows to slay the dragon. The story does not go well for the child, however, as the dragon dispatches of its attacker readily, idly wondering when the next orphaned human will come straight into its lair; a self-serving snack for the beast lazing upon a glittering hoard of valuables - and rusting metal tools dropped by those seeking to slay it.
As the stories conclude, the storyteller reminds the crowd, "Don't forget to leave your offering of coin! Whether to appease the dragons or to feed the next crowd - whatever the reason! Thank you all for joining me on this lovely evening! The next story day will be in two week's time, featuring our denizens of the forest; the wolves!"
Martin and Renny wait until most of the crowd has begin their way down the path before stepping forward, each still handling their coin.
"Thank you for this; I needed this today," admits Renny as they both toss their coins into the pile. Martin smirks, wide enough to show off a few missing teeth due to his old age.
"Thought you could use a cheer. Come on, now; it's dark and growing darker. We've got a long way to go til we're home."
As the two men begin their decent, Renny looks back over his shoulder at the old woman and the pile of coin.
"Where do you think she keeps all that? And if she can't leave the forest, how does she get the coin into town to pay for the feast?"
"Hm. That's a good question. I got one for you too."
"Oh?" ask Renny, curious.
"Did you see the dragon?"
"The dragon. That coin she claimed she left on the ground? If you looked carefully, you could see it was the dangly bit of a dragon's tail." At this, Renny turned around to look, but the darkness obscured everything but the faint candlelight in the woman's home. Martin continued, "It's like those, uh... I forget what they call them, but they're these fish with a rod and lure structure, just over the mouth. Lures in smaller fish and swallows them. I think that dragon's tail is similar; it leaves a tail with this thing that looks like a coin on the end."
"And what's it trying to lure in then? Us?" Renny remarks.
"Coin. That dragon, if you didn't see, was larger than the house; that big hill? Didn't you see it move as the dragon breathed?"
Renny stops short. There were a few times where he did think he saw the hill beyond the house move. He'd thought it was the alcohol kicking in, but if Martin had seen it too...
Looking back once more, Renny had to wonder now.
Back at the storyteller's home, the old woman hums happily as she cleans up after the feast. The coin pile is higher than she's ever seen it; it had been a grand turnout. Satisfied her porch is now neatly swept, she sits in a chair on the porch, looking out at the stars.
"Today was a good haul," she states aloud. A moment passes, and then comes a familiar, guttural voice.
"Indeed it was, my dearest treasure," responds her lifelong guardian. A dragon who, much like the one in one of her stories, grows and shrinks with the size of his hoard. It's been a long time since he was once the size of a tea kettle.
Consider leaving this storyteller some coin, would you?! It'd be much appreciated!
Playlist used for the creation of this story is here.
Longer versions of individual stories mentioned in this story:
About the Creator
A Colorado native and secondary caregiver to her younger brother with special needs, Megan enjoys her adventures in World of Warcraft, various types of documentaries, and making homemade items for the critters and people in her life!