Tuesday, January 24, 2012


The day had been bright and fresh, but as evening fell so did a haze, which spread thickly into the sky until the sinking sun shone as through smoked glass.

"Ill omen," rumbled a bear of man as he squinted at the sky. His soft leather garments hung loosely from his large frame, allowing the myriad of feathers, chains, and cuts stones to jangle about whenever he moved. Even in his usual pose of meditative stillness, however, the light from the campfire played about the reflective maze and pressed on the eyes like starbursts.

"Nonsense, my dear mystic," said his companion with a laugh. As he leaned back with a griddlecake freshly plucked from their cooking pan, he gave the burning sticks a vicious kick. Sparks and smoke circled one another like enraged wasps as they vaulted up into the sky. "Where there's smoke, there's fire. And we're looking for fire tonight, Proff."

Proff grunted. He tore a chunk of meat from a legbone with his teeth, then chewed morosely. "Dragons are not fire beings but earth. Earth is bad for water beings like you, Bandit."

"Weak water," said the Bandit. "And earth is where you get gold, which is good for beings like me."

"I think this is a bad idea."

"I think you are just tired from my wenches keeping you up last night."

"Let me see it."

The Bandit took a bite of his corncake and rolled his eyes, but even so he reached under the collar of his white linen shirt and pulled at a silver chain about his neck. An Oriental serpent dangled from its end.

"And what did the message say?"

"That tonight I'm to go to the Dragon's Lair and find this thing's twin."

"Are you sure of this message?"

The Bandit popped the last bit of griddlecake into his mouth, chewed for a moment, swallowed, and then gave a toothy grin.

"I'm not certain of anything except the only way to find out. Come on, Proff, let's shake a leg." He stood up and pivoted on one leg, causing his long black coat to twirl artistically and then drape over him as he leaned down to kiss a grey-haired woman stirring a stew pot. "Goodbye, mum, thanks for the chow."

- - -

Dusk had given into night when the pair found themselves before their destination: a hole in the ground. Its shadows seemed to seep into the cracks and vegetation that surrounded its foreboding entrance.

"Wot ho, here we go!" said the Bandit. Then he strode confidently into the darkness of the hole.

Proff stood outside, looking at the gloom into which his companion had disappeared. A few moments later, the sound of the Bandit's agonized yell floated out from it.

Proff cursed, called forth a few protective chants, and then ran in after his friend.

He found him doubled over on his hands and knees in a surprisingly well-lit chamber packed with objects and scurrying little men.

"Look at it all!" the Bandit wailed, stretching out his arms in despair. "It's all... all... JUNK!"

Proff looked around. Indeed, pile upon pile of rusty tools, moldy codices, broken furnitures, and pewter figurines filled the interior of the cave. At various piles diminutive -- but not otherwise disfigured -- men moved, adding, subtracting, or performing arcane methods of junk divination.

"It ain't no dragon's lair with treasure at all," the Bandit said. "It's a bunch of knackers and their junk!"

"Hmm," said Proff. "Maybe they have the pendant's twin."

"Right so." The Bandit leapt up to his feet and clapped his hands. "Let's have a lookabout, wot?"

- - -

Proff found the Bandit slumped against a pile of busted lanterns.

"No luck?"

"I looked everywhere. I even asked a couple of the knackers. Nothing." The Bandit waved the pendant about on the end of its chain. "Nothing like this."

His pile of lanterns spoke. "Nice dragon."

The Bandit yelped and somersaulted to his feet, while the pile began to whistle a little tune. Though still crouched with his hands crossed protectively in front of his face, the Bandit cocked an eyebrow. He and Proff then watched as a wrinkled man with a hoary beard raised his head from behind the lanterns and set his chin upon a bent lantern case, still whistling his tune.

"Um, yeah, it has some fashionable qualities about it, yes?" said the Bandit. "Have you... seen ought like it, maybe?"

"No, not myself, no, no," said the old man. His eyes peered to and fro. "Why?"

"Well, I'm looking for its twin, or something. Someone said I'd find it here."

"Oh. Looking poorly, I think, yes."

The Bandit frowned. "Oh? Would you suggest a different approach?"

"Less lying on piles, I think."

Proff laughed.

"You should be more systematic."

The Bandit stood frozen with a leg pulled back in preparation for kicking his laughing barbarian friend. "Systemawhatchit?"

"Systematic." The old man came out from behind the pile of lanterns and approached the Bandit. "May I... see it?"

The Bandit reluctantly dropped the pendant into the old man's hand, then even more reluctantly played out the chain and released it.

"See, the other may not have the chain. It can lie on the floor like this," said the old man. "Or it can lie on a pile like this. You should look pile by pile like that."

He handed the pendant back. Then began whistling again.

The Bandit squinted at the old man, then at the many piles in the room, which he had already perused earlier.

"Kinda like a needle in a haystack, wot?"

"Yes, yes, a little bit, yes. Someone must dislike you."

"He is a bit of an impudent wag," Proff agreed.

The Bandit shrugged. "Right, right, should've played nice."

He turned to the old man. "How very, ah, helpful. Thank you, my dear-- I'm sorry, but I didn't catch your name?"

"I am The Fifth."

"The fifth what?"

"The Fifth."

"Ah," said the Bandit. "Well, my dear fiver, it's been fun, wot? But I've got to get my mystical friend home before he turns into a vat of melted cheese. Thanks again for the help!"

A short while later, the Bandit and Proff stood in the darkness outside the knacker hole. The Bandit was humming the eery old man's tune to himself.

"I thought we were leaving?" said Proff.

The Bandit continued humming, rocking back on his toes and heels.

Proff sighed.

"Oh, I'm glad you are still here," said the old man from just inside the cave. "I think I saw something like your dragon on a pile near the door."

The Bandit grinned. "Is that so?"

- - -

A short while later the Bandit jaunted through the forest, each step marked by the clink of two dragon pendants striking together on his silver necklace. Behind him Proff trudged, rolling his eyes as his companion continued to hum the bars of the old man's song.

"Can you believe the next step calls for wenching?" asked the Bandit as he finished his tune.

"Ill omen," the burly shaman replied.

"Wenching! Now that's more like it! Wot ho, here we go!"