Wendell and the Dragon's Heart

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Chapter 4

The wheat field was full of young stalks that blew slowly in the first breath of summer’s wind. The yellow stalks were heavy with the smell of growth and swayed gently in the morning breeze. Old man Cralth stood by Wendahl, his foot standing on a shovel, his hand clasping the handle gently but severely. He spoke roughly and without any sort of kindness.

“Now, I want you to keep this field speck-clear of ravens. The ravens have eaten half my harvest, and if they get a speck more, I’ll know who to come for. You can use the stones of the field, I don’t care which.”

And he was silent and said no more, and jerked his spade from the dirt and trumped away with it.

“Remember - no wheat, no brass!” he yelled behind him.

Wendahl took a stone in his hand and weighed it. The sun was almost born on the far mountains, and brushed the wheat softly with a mellow light. The wheat tossed and turned absentmindedly in a spurious breeze, making a wispy, dreamy sound. A crow alighted on a stalk and pecked, looking at him pointedly from one dark eye. He took the rock and reeled it back, then hurled it mightily. It swished into the wheat. The crow jumped up into the air for a moment, tottering in startled flight, then settled down and pecked again. It stared at him, as if wondering idly what he was doing.

Wendahl looked around quickly and found another rock. He reached down and grabbed it, still cold from the ground. Another bird had come, a raven. He drew his hand back, squinted for a moment, and then chucked it at the far one. It sailed in a perfect arc over both. The birds stared at him in forthright curiousity. He looked around, then scurried and grabbed a few stones, some large and small, and started hurling them at random.

“You stupid birds! Go away!” he yelled insanely.

He ran out into the wheat and charged them, flailing his arms madly. They looked surprised and sailed off, soaring up into the distance. Wendahl bent over, catching his breath and puffing. Slowly he walked back to the edge of the field, stooping to gather a few stones on the way.

By then, a small cluster of birds had come down and began feasting on the tender wheat stalks. Wendahl took a stone and leaned back; he stopped for a long moment, concentrating, then threw it. It sailed awkwardly past a single blackbird and disappeared into the wheat. The birds continued eating. He took another stone and held it a long while, hesitating. He raised it in the air, and held it there tightly. Then, with a snap, he sent it hurtling in a line. A raven squawked. More birds were coming, and soon the field would be full of them.

Quickly, but surely, he threw some more stones, and a few birds scattered, but not nearly enough. He turned about, this way and that, and grabbed and threw pieces of granite and even dirt clods as fast as he could. It was a losing game, no one could keep up with the bird’s hunger, not even with a dozen people. He had one stone left in his hand; he held it for a while, watching the birds feast, his face blank with anxiety. If he was going to win this ridiculous fight, behaving like a ninny wouldn’t get anywhere, he could see that by now.

He took the rock and held it up, then waited... Finally, steadily, he threw it. It flew lamely and scared a cluster of birds, sending them haphazardly upward.

The day became like the same dream being repeated over again, but always a bit different. Birds would come, he would scramble desperately to chase them away, and more birds would come.

He found that if he tried to judge the distance too precisely, he would always miss, but if he just threw it suddenly it would hit something some of the time, if he gave himself a moment to aim. By noon the sun was beginning to warm even the hard ground, and his fingers began to ache and spark with distress. The rhythm of the day, of periods of bored, unending dullness when he had chased everything away, punctuated with periods of sudden franticness, lulled him into a kind of half-awake state. He found himself thinking now of many things, remembering, and the day seemed as long as the many years before him, as if he was slowly reliving everything he had ever known over the course of the hours.

But the day had an end, and he was surprised to hear farmer Cralth’s voice breaking through to him.

“That’s a good job, boy, but I’ll expect it to be better tomorrow with practice. I’ve been watching, don’t think I haven’t. I suppose it’s worth a brassy.”

With that, he handed him a dirty brass coin and turned to slowly walk away without looking back. Wendahl watched him shuffle away for a moment, then made his way down the dirt path towards the village.

The sun was smoldering low on the horizon and a bit of wind was coming up. He shivered a bit and hugged himself. The coin was cold and rigid in his fingers, now past pain from numbness, but somehow it felt almost warm.

The wind drove what thoughts he did have now from his mind, and steadily he walked towards the town.

It was dark and smelly in the Black Mongrel as usual, but the darkness outside seemed to make the guttering torch light cheery and homey like a candle in the front window of someone’s house. Wendahl took a seat at the front and put the coin down on the counter. The bartender looked down at it without any change of expression.

“What’ll it be,” he said dully.

“Stew and mead,” Wendahl said, his voice tired beyond any emotion, even hunger.

The bartender turned without a word and was gone. Wendahl looked around absentmindedly. The other patrons sat at tables, some grimly enjoying their drink, some talking, huddled in a corner.

The tables were made of old wood and were stained all over with different things. The floors were swept, but still carried pieces of mildewed straw and filth between the cracks. It seemed as if there wasn’t a clean spot in the entire place, but it was good to be somewhere warm, away from the wind that waited outside the door. He turned back around and waited mindlessly, staring at the surroundings.

The bartender came back with a bowl of steaming goop in a carved bowl, and a small tankard. Wendahl thanked him rudely and began to shovel the scalding soup into his mouth. It was not the best, with chunks of marsh potatoes and stringy meat, but it might have been Ambrosia for all he knew. After a minute of scarfing like a brute beast, the warmth slowly spread through his limbs, and thought returned.

He finally took a swig of the mead, and its fiery spirits burned through his weariness. The bartender took the brass coin and scattered a few copper mites onto the counter. Wendahl continued eating in silence, and looked around to see if he knew anyone, but no one was there.

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