Playing With Dragons by author Joseph J. O’Donnell

Author Joseph J. O'Donnell

Tom was a large young man with a very congenial personality. Most in the village considered him a big oaf, only good for menial labor. He helped out wherever he could to earn his room and board, and was paid little more than that. The old man who visited the village took a liking to Tom. He was considered a character unto himself, and drew suspicious stairs from the others. Rumors had it that he was a wizard, but rumors like this were never confirmed. Nevertheless, the small populace of this out of the way village, believed in most anything that was bantered about.

The old world empire, ruled from Rome, had long been past. England, who had watched the Romans leave, still had no organized system to rule the land, and would not see one for some time to come. The country shrank back from a civilized world in retrogression into what is known as the Dark Ages. Christianity, the religion that the Romans brought with them barely lingered, and darker forces seemed to be growing again . The old man never seemed to lack money, and for this the villagers paid him with respect. His attire was that of a traveler. His clothes, though not majestic, never seemed poorer for wear. His wide brimmed hat nearly covered his eyes, yet his long white bushy eyebrows were clearly visible. His white hair, and beard, reached the belt looped around his great waste. Yet, although perceived to be old, this frequent visitor to this hamlet town’s blacksmith, was met with respect. Once, goaded at the tavern to pick a fight with the old man, the smithy warned those chiding him, “There’s something peculiar about that old one. There’s not one here, save he, who I gladly wrestle with. Any other challenges I’d gladly accept. But all of you should pay heed to the traveler. I do not think he is all that he appears to be.” his listeners grew silent, and quietly nodded in agreement with his words. One day, while visiting the village, the old man saw a group of youths taunting and teasing Tom. Immediately he waded into the gathering crowd and stopped them. “What are you lads up to?” he said gruffly. “What’s it to you, old man?” one youth, apparently the leader of the young ruffians, asked. The old man approached the boy, and he suddenly seemed to tower over the others about him. “I consider Tom my friend,” he said, his eyes glowing like coals from under the brim of his hat. “That makes it my business.” The boy shrunk back from the traveler, and edge of fear showing in his voice, “We were just having some fun,” he said unevenly. “Have fun elsewhere,” the old man said, now stooping to look directly into the boy’s eyes. The intimidated youth gave a yipe, and scurried away, drawing the crowd of boys with him. “I’m not afraid of you, old man,” the boy shouted back over his shoulder. “You should be,” the wizard said quietly, merely to himself. Gently he turned to Tom and asked, “So, what are you up to these days, Tom?” His warm smile, and now gentle voice, had an immediate soothing effect on the boy. “Not much,” Tom said gratefully in his shy manner.

“Well, I have some work for you,” the old man said. “I’ll give you room and board, and pay you ten pence a week as well.”
Tom’s face lit up with happiness, and he said, “That is very generous of you. What do you want me to do?”
As they walked along together, the traveler said, “I have some dogs I’d like you to take care of for me, plus I need you to help me around my home. I’m getting older, and I’m beginning to feel life tugging on my coat tails more and more each day.”
“When would you need me to start?” Tom asked with a hope of a better life seemingly laid before him.
“Immediately.” the old man said. “Unless you have other tasks to perform?”
“None at the moment,” Tom swore.
“Alright then, you will start now,” the traveler concluded.
Tom was visibly happy with his new prospects, and was nearly dancing down the road as he walked with his companion. The old man beamed happily under his hat as well, knowing the lad would certainly be in better hands then how the local villagers treated him.
Up ahead they came on the group of youths again, now settled in by the smithy shed. Tom grew quiet, and warily eyed the boys with sideway glances. The old man turned a glaring look toward the boys, and it was enough to send them off again.
“Is there anything you need to fetch,” the traveler asked of Tom.
“I have a bedroll, and a few things in the smithy’s barn,” Tom replied.
“Then hurry up and get them, and we’ll be on our way,” the old man replied with a smile.

Hearing the approach of the old man, the smithy came outside his forge. “Hello sir,” he said with respect, but noticing that the old man had Tom in tow. “Good day to you too, sir,” the traveler replied. “Is all right by you, sir?” the smithy asked with a look of reproach toward Tom. “All is quite well,” the old man said with a smile. “As a matter of fact, I have employed Tom for a good deal of work that I have in mind for him.” With a look for relief that Tom was in no trouble he said, “That is well, sir. I thought you may have had a little trouble with Tom. He’s a good lad, but a little slow, if you know what I mean.” “No, I don’t know what you mean,” the wizard said with a slight gruffness to his tone. “As a matter of fact, I find Tom quite delightful and full of cheer.” “No offense given, sir,” the smithy said in defense. “And none taken,” the traveler returned with a kindly smile. “Will he be gone long then sir?” the smithy asked . “Quite a long time, I’m afraid,” the old one replied. Worried at the prospect of losing easy labor, the smithy said in protest, “But, I need Tom here to help me with my chores, and I too have great need of his services.” The traveler saw that the man was fretting the loss of his servant and knew the man had a good bargain with Tom at his beck and call. “With my age gnawing at me, day by day, I believe my needs warrant his assistance even more so,” he said. As the smithy looked at the traveler he could almost see him shrivel with age and grow frail before his eyes. “It must be and an illusion,” he thought, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs now clouding his thoughts. After he did so, he now gazed upon the wizard and saw again the youthful strength he knew he possessed. The old man’s eyes glaring like coals from underneath his big hat. Not willing to lock horns with his formidable opponent, the big blacksmith gave him a baleful look and said, “Will he be taken care of?” “Yes, and I will give him a good education well,” the traveler said . “I will miss him,” the smithy said. “I’m sure you will,” the old man said with a knowing look. “But I will give you something to compensate his loss.” he reached into his pouch and handed the blacksmith three gold farthings. Amazed the smithy said, “Why thank you sir.” A slight look of greed crossed his face as he jingled the coins in his hand. “I will miss him, a lot.” he added . “No more than you’ve recouped your losses for,” the old man replied, stiffening his voice. Worried at the prospect of crossing the old one, he replied, “Quite right you are, sir. You’ve been most generous.” “Then I shall give you my blessing as we leave,” the old man said tilting his staff in the direction of the blacksmith’s forge. “May your craft grow and prosper.” The dumbfounded man stared at the old man’s staff and surmised that he may of cast a spell on him, and his livelihood. He did not know if it was for ill or good, and looked at the old man’s face for reassurance. “No need to fret so,” the traveler said, “I mean you only good things.” The smithy then smiled weakly and said, “I thank you sir, for you generous blessing.” Tom reappeared then, his bundled belongings under one great arm. “You mind your new master Tom,” he will treat you well,” the blacksmith said. “And if you shall ever so desire, you have a place here with me,” he added. He gave the wizard a warm smile then reached up and patted Tom on the shoulder. “Thank you sir,” Tom returned, “but I believe I shall be good for a long time, and you might forget me.” “He will be gone for a time,” the old man said assuringly. “Then I bid you well, Tom,” his old employer said with a hint of remorse, “and indeed I will miss you greatly.” With a smile and warm wishes, the company departed and the smithy went back to his forge with the coins jingling in his pocket. He turned and watched the old man and Tom walk down the road back to the forest from which they came, and after a weak smile, returned to his work. The old man and his big companion set up camp in the woods just before the sun went down. “Is your home a long way from here?” the lad asked. “We reach it before sundown tomorrow,” the old one replied. “Will you be kind enough to gather some wood for our fire?” When he came back, which was in no time at all, being so large and able to carry a great load of firewood, he saw that the old man already had a fire lit. Amazed, he noted, “ You made a fire already? You are very fast.” “Almost like magic,” the old man replied with a smile. “I will teach you this skill someday.” Tom’s look changed from one of amazement to a merry smile, and laid the wood near the fire for it’s eventual use. “Do you like dogs, Tom?,” the traveler asked as he sat back to enjoy a smoke from the pipe he pulled from his pocket. “I like all animals,” Tom sad. “Animals are a lot kinder than people sometimes.” “That’s very true Tom,” the old man said noticing his companion’s suddenly sullen expression. “Well Tom, I have five very large dogs that I want you to tend to.” “What kind of dogs are they?” Tom asked innocently.

“They guard my property while I’m away, and are very big, but I think you’ll get along well with them,” he answered.
“Do they like to play?” Tom asked .
“Yes, they do,” the old man replied, “but they nee someone big and strong like you to keep up with them.”
Tom smiled, and the old man could see that his companion was growing sleepy. “Well, we should get some sleep now,” the traveler implied. “We’ll have a long road ahead of us in the morning.”

“Good night then,” the lad replied. “Good night to you too, Tom,” he answered. “Sir?” Tom asked. “Yes. What is it Tom?” he said . “Your name, sir. What is your name?” he inquired . “I am known by many names,” he replied, “but for you, my name is Godwain.” “That’s a good name, and a wise one too,” Tom contemplated, hearing the old man’s name for the first time. “With age comes wisdom,” the traveler replied. “How old are you?” asked Tom. “Older than anyone you ever knew,” was his answer. “Well goodnight again,” Tom said as he rolled himself up in the blanket. “Goodnight then, Tom,” the traveler reiterated, as he watched the oversized youth fall quickly to sleep. He puffed on his pipe and blew some smoke rings toward the fire. As he did so, he listened to the night sounds and watched the stars moving in the sky overhead. All seemed quiet, save for the chirping of the crickets, and occasional hoot of an owl. The old man never slept, at least not fully. He always kept one eye partially open, as if a being within him stood watch over the forest. Nothing went unnoticed, nor was any sound missed that the old on was not unaware of. For it was the forest and the surrounding hills that were his domain. The next morning the sun rose, and its light danced amongst the tree tops overhead. The old man knew that the further they walked into the woods, the less the sun revealed it’s presence through the canopy of foliage above them. The traveler woke Tom from his slumber. “Is it time to go?” Tom asked responding to the gentle nudge on his shoulder. “Yes, Tom. But first we’ll have some biscuits and tea,” Godwain said. Tom saw that a pot was boiling on the fire and the aroma of a sweet peppermint tea rose up from the water. The old man had two tin cups ready for the brew, and there was biscuits stacked on two plates for him and his companion. “I have some jams and butter for the biscuits, and a slab of cheese for the both of us,” the traveler continued. “You shall have the bigger share, as you are larger than I am.” “Thank you,” Tom said, returning the warm smile of his new master.” “Did you sleep well tom?” the traveler asked. “Yes sir, I did,” Tom replied. “I did hear some far off sounds of voices though, near dawn.” “So did I, Tom,” the old man said. “Seems like those youths from the village. But they are a long way off, and your hearing is very good.” “I hear like the animals do.” remarked Tom. “ Even the smithy used to tell me that.” “So, I’ve noticed,” Godwain said with a pleased look.” “Did you hear them too?” Tom inquired. “Yes, last night when they left the village. They might want to follow us to see where we are going,” he replied. “I think we shall leave as soon as we’re finished.” Tom and the old man wolfed down their breakfast and made ready to break camp. Tom was wary of the boys, but knew that they did not stand a chance against him. He knew that he was much stronger than anyone in the village, including the smithy, but as his livelihood depended on the townsfolk, he did not care to make trouble for himself. The traveler was aware of this as well and knew that Tom, once in his employ, would shake free of this worrisome shackle. “Come, Tom,” Let’s begin our travels again, for tonight we shall sleep under a roof and be content with a splendid hearth to keep up warm. They broke camp, and the old man made sure that the fire was thoroughly doused with water from a small stream nearby. They walked for most of the day, only stopping briefly for a cold meal. The old man had brought enough rations for the trip and seemed to have planned on the right portions for Tom. Just after they ate, they left the trail, which had dwindled to nothing more than a foot path by now anyway, and began to climb through the woods as the land climbed into the hills above. For the next three hours or so, they traveled until they reached a small river. It flowed noisily as it coursed its way down the hillside to the forest floor below. The old man picked his way along the river bank until he reached a ford near where the river, and the land, leveled out. Here, they crossed, climbing a small embankment on the other side. Tom knew that the old man must of taken this path many times, as he unerringly found the ford to cross. “It sure is pretty up here” he remarked . “This is the heart of nature, as I see it,” the traveler agreed. “Up to now, no one has been up here save you Tom.” Tom felt privileged, and the old man gave him a warm smile of welcome. “How did you find such a place?” he asked. “I’ve been here since the beginning of my life,” the old one answered. “How many years is that?” Tom inquired. The old man stopped to think, then turned and said, “I’m not sure. Probably since the beginning of time,” he gave a chuckle and Tom replied with smile. The land began to rise, but then leveled out once more after about an hour. From there on in, the forest floor above the hill was flat and thick with great trees. “These trees are really large and must be fairly old,” Tom remarked “They are the grandfathers of all trees,” the old man said . “Are we far from home now?” Tom queried. “Actually we are now in my domain,” the old man said using his long staff to indicate the countryside all around them. “You are lucky to live in such a place,” Tom said. “No…,” the old man corrected, “…we are lucky, for this is will be your new home too.” Tom grimed with pleasure, knowing now that this would be his home. The trees and the land were unbelievably beautiful, as if from another place in time. “We are here to care for this place, and let no harm come to it from the outside,” the traveler said. “This place is the roots of the world and all else would perish if this land is harmed .”
“Then we shall protect it,” Tom said firmly.
The old man smiled. He knew he chose well when he took Tom into his care. He knew that Tom was not fully grown, but would fit in well as the years would pass. Up ahead, in a
clearing, was a tall structure. It looked like a small tower from an old castle.
“Who lives there?” Tom asked, stopping to look at the structure.
“We do,” the old man said. “This is home.”
Tom smiled and began to dance with glee. His large size enabled him to make thumping sounds as his feet pounded the ground below him. The old man laughed with joy at his friend’s happiness and he instructed him to look around at his new surroundings.
Suddenly Tom stopped, then asked the old man, “Where’s the dogs?”
“They are right here,” the old man said, “waiting for you to play with them.”
The old man suddenly let out a whistle, and as if from nowhere, five very large dogs, ran from the woods and greeted him and Tom with wagging tales. Their ears were pressed back and a look of recognition toward the traveler was fixed on their faces.
Tom sat down heavily and let the dogs lick his face. He grinned broadly, and happily petted each one in turn . “They are really nice ” Tom said, in his slow fashion.
“I knew you would like each other,” the old man said with a smile. “Let’s get indoors now, and get the fire going. Would you mind getting some more wood.”
“Can I take the dogs with me?” he asked excitedly,
“By all means, and you can play with them, if you wish,” he replied.
A little later Tom returned with firewood in hand, and dogs in tow. They seemed subdued and the old man asked what was wrong.
“I heard the voices again, only much closer,” Tom said.
“Well, I have some biscuits and jam for you to eat, some fresh spring water for you to drink. You will stay here to mind the house while I take the dogs to see what I can see,” the old
man instructed.
“Can’t I come along?” Tom asked concerned for the old man’s safety.
“No need. I shall only be a little while ”he replied .
The old man and the dogs left, while Tom stayed behind as instructed. Once, out of view from the tower, the old man picked put his pace and, if Tom could see him, he would be amazed of how fleet of foot his master became. The dogs ran at full speed to keep up with him, for they needed to, in order keep pace with him. Neither he or the dogs showed signs of growing tired.
They retraced the route that Tom and he came up earlier. Back through the large trees they ran unerring in their endeavor. They passed through the thick woods beyond and finally came to a halt near the ford they crossed earlier. Here the traveler rested. Within a half hour, they heard the band of young ruffians approaching them from the woods near where the traveler first encountered the stream. The dogs simultaneously glanced toward their master. Without a word from him, they moved off and fanned out on this side of the steam. Two lay down on one side of the ford and three on the other. The old man waited at the crossing, just above the bank.
He could see the twinkling lights of their lamps and could hear them speaking plainly as they moved up along the water’s edge. “I can see the trail plain enough,” the leader said.
“You said that yesterday, when you missed the spot where they left the path,” another complained.
“Yeah, well I have them dead to rights now,” he replied.
They grew close to the ford when the leader realized that the trail led to this point and went no further upstream.
“They crossed here!” the leader declared. The old man could see that it was the bully that
he had confronted back in the village.
“Let’s cross,” he said, wading ankle deep across the ford. The others fell in line behind him.
The old man saw that there was seven youths in all. The youngest was about fifteen years of age, and the oldest leader, was perhaps nineteen. Half way across they stopped in their tracks by the sudden growling of the dogs who throated their displeasure in unison.
“What is that?” the youngest boy squeaked.
“It is a sign that you should go no further,” the traveler boomed out just above them.
The boys could clearly see him now, as if he was lit up by an aura of light. “Well, old man, we meet at last,” the eldest boy said.
“We’re here to teach you and Tom a lesson,” the bully said in a threatening tone.
“And we have been waiting for you,” the traveler said answering the challenge.
The boys seemed frozen in place, finally the bully demanded, “Where’s Tom?”
To the surprise of all, including the old man, Tom appeared from the woods behind his companion. “Here!” he said in a deep, steady voice.
The traveler glanced behind him, and smiled. He turned his attention back to the ruffians in the stream and warned, “You’d better leave now, while there is time!”
“The only one who is leaving is you old man” the bully cried out. “ Come on boys, let’s get them!.”
Before they could come any closer the most amazing thing happened. Right before their eyes, the old man suddenly transformed into a large dragon. He seemed to snort an effervescent plume of smoke.
The bully yelled, “It’s just an illusion. This old man is just a trickster.”
The dragon slowly raised up but his eyes never left his quarry. “I’m afraid not,” his loud commanding voice stated .
Several of the other boys began to draw back in fright.
“Let’s get out of here!”
“Run for your lives,” they screamed in terror.
“Too late,” the dragon said with a roar, a plume of flame arcing toward the boys.
Later Tom and the traveler sat in front of the heath eating some of the biscuits that Godwain had set out earlier.
“You know Tom, I had instructed you to remain here,” the old one said, chastising his young friend.
“I could not let you go alone,” Tom said, taking a bite of another biscuit.
“I had all my children with me,” Godwain responded indicating the dogs sitting by the fireside.
“I know, but I feared for your safety,” he said defending himself.
“Did you have an inkling about who I really was?” the old one asked.
“Yes,” Tom responded knowingly. “I told you that I felt closer to animals then people,” he reminded.
“Yes,” the wizard agreed, “ you did at that.”
“I just knew you were different, and I believed in you,” Tom said quietly, eating another biscuit.
“And I believe that is why I chose you to be my friend,” the old man acknowledged at last. “I’m glad that you came to the river. I discovered that all the faith in you I had,
had proved to be correct.”
Tom smiled at the old man’s approval. As they continued to gobble up the last biscuits, Tom asked, “What do you wish of me now?”
“Well Tom,” the old man replied, “I would like to teach you as my apprentice. I believe that there is more of you than many expect. We must look after this small part of the world together. Our responsibilities are great.”
“I have much to learn,” Tom said in a serious tone.
“Yes, and as I said before, this place it the root of the world, and now we must keep it safe for all time,” he replied.
Tom gave his quiet smile, but was concerned by the old wizard’s sudden look of consternation.
“It something wrong?” Tom asked.
“It is nothing,” the old one replied. “It must of been something that I ate and I guess that it disagreed with me. It will pass.”
They both chuckled and watched the hearth’s embers glow until the fire died out.

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