"The warrior heard of this legend as he sat in the dark and smoky tavern and a great hunger arose in him," the old man said, gleeful that his tale had captured the complete attention of the eight children sitting before him under the spreading branches of the oak. It was a fine day to be out with his grandchildren, telling them the old tales his grandfather told him when he was a boy. The sounds of village life had receded as the tale grew in the minds of both the listeners and the teller. "Ever since he was a boy, the warrior had but one desire. This desire only grew as his experience in the wars he fought drew him ever closer to the embrace of the Goddess. The bard's story of the spirit of the river enflamed him.
"After all of the other patrons were either gone or drunk beyond caring, the warrior sought out the bard. The lanky old man was eating, and not pleased to be interrupted. When the younger man told him what he wanted, the bard laughed scornfully.
"'And ye are such a fool that ye be believin' such nonsense, are ye?' the bard said. 'Well fool, the tales say that the river is just a ways down the road from here. Such is why I told the tale to this drunken lot. They know of it and like the tellin' of it. Simply take the road east out of town. Ye can't help but find the river I spoke of since the road crosses it. But I warn ye of this, the legends tell of many fools such as ye lookin' fer dragons, but none ever tell of any man smart enough to frame their request well enough to come back whole. Now leave me to me supper, fool.'"
The old man took a sip from his water skin, stretched out his long legs, and smiled at the children. "Now the brave warrior had survived many battles and studied many great works of literature in his travels. Armed with what he thought was more than enough knowledge to demand the spirit to grant him his request, he resolved to seek out the river dragon. The following morning he gathered his belongings and his horse and set off to the east. It was nearly midday when he came upon the river. The road crossed over the river by way of a wide stone bridge which was well traveled by the local farmers and merchants. Feeling that his demand of the river dragon needed privacy, the warrior turned his horse off the road and headed for some trees clumped around both sides of the flow some distance upstream.
"When he got there, he tethered his horse and made his way down the bank. Looking around for some place a dragon might live in the deep, wide river, the warrior began walking farther upstream. He was well out of sight of both the bridge and his horse when he almost gave up. He stopped to look down into the blue-green water in irritation, thinking about turning back in embarrassment, when the water surged and foamed around a huge, almost serpentine body of sapphire and silver scales. Streamers of silver hair crested the river spirit's head and trailed down its back to flow downstream with the current. Fiery sapphire eyes looked down at the warrior standing before the being with his sword bared in fright.
"With a click of his silvery claws, the dragon grumbled, 'Most who seek me out do not come so blatantly hostile, young one. What is it you want?' in a thrummingly deep voice that still managed to whisper with the rising breeze.
"The appearance of the dragon, the very beauty of the spirit of the river, so confounded the warrior that he simply dropped his sword and fell to his knees. 'Ever since I began following the path of war, I have feared death. I face the possibility of falling into the embrace of the Goddess every time I take up arms, but I fear it. I have sought you out to find immortality. I wish to never feel the Goddess' embrace, ' the warrior explained, his carefully thought out demand shocked out of his mind as he stuttered his request.
"The dragon, much more devious and far older than most of his kin, smiled a pitiless smile, his eyes sparkling with glee and his ivory teeth gleaming in the sun. 'I will grant you your request, brave warrior, ' the spirit of the river said with great sarcasm. 'You will never know the Goddess' embrace. You will see the end of this world. You will never have to fear the pain of age. You will never sicken or hurt. You are now immortal.'
"With another smile and a wave of the dragon's scaled arm, the warrior vanished in a torrent of wind. In his place whirled a dust devil, spitting angrily. 'Now go, fool. And give my regards to the spirit of the air, for she is now your mistress.'"
With a start, the children glowered up at their grandfather as they realized the story was finished.
"Grandfather!" eight outraged voices exclaimed, their young faces screwed up into scowls.
"Yes?" the old man replied mildly, taking another drink from his water skin.
"You can't end the story like that!" the eldest girl complained, her freckled face pinched into a fierce frown.
"Yeah!" the eldest boy agreed wholeheartedly. "The warrior is supposed to outsmart the spirit. You can't turn him into a dust devil!"
"Because you can't!" the boy retorted adamantly and six heads nodded in agreement.
The old man was just about to respond when a voice began calling the names of the older children. They all got up, gave the old man a perfunctory kiss on the cheek with scowls still in place, and went to do their afternoon chores. He was chuckling and getting to his feet when he saw the youngest boy, a sturdy lad of about ten dressed in handed down clothes of faded brown, wandering back to the tree.
"Was it a true story?" the boy asked.
The old man smiled kindly. The boy was the only child his son and daughter-in-law had before dying in the last fever that struck the region. He had his son's pale, pale skin and unruly, nearly white blonde hair. The earnest expression on his face and the green eyes were his mother's, however. Secretly, the boy was his favorite grandchild but one couldn't play favorites. Even for orphans.
"Weeell, it is more of a local legend. Years ago a famous warrior came into town and heard a similar story. The next day he disappeared. He was probably ambushed by the bandits that used to plague the roads around here in my great, great grandfather's time, but he was woven into the legends of the old nature spirits."
The boy looked crestfallen. "Oh," he mumbled and went to do his chores.
All through the day, the boy's attention was divided between daydreaming of the story and trying to do chores. His cousins quickly saw the youngster was not quite there and picked up on the slack, completing jobs he was only half doing, fixing chores he did wrong, and generally making sure the kid didn't fall down a privy hole in his fog of imagination. The whole family usually took turns looking after the orphan anyway, so the day was little different than those before. Young Jon was always daydreaming about a different life than the one the Goddess had dealt him. His father, unlike theirs, was a soldier in the lord's army. He was always traveling on the lord's bidding and coming back home with tales of faraway lands. Many in the village near the farmstead believed it was probably him or one of the other soldiers who brought the fever that had taken so many lives nearly four years ago.
As the day wound down and the light began to fade, Jon shook himself out of the reverie that had taken him into his most fervent dreams the entire day. He looked about, wondering whose turn it was to look after him tonight. He was just about to go looking for his grandfather when one of his aunts called him name. Grimacing, he recognized the voice of his least favorite aunt. His uncle was all right, but his wife seemed to think taking care of the family orphan was somehow beneath her. If it were up to Jon, he would never trouble them at all.
He looked to the west while walking to his night's lodging and saw that it was going to rain tomorrow, possibly even tonight. He smiled. Maybe he, and his cousins, could spend the day in the hay barn listening to stories like the last rainy day. He ate quickly that night and curled up on his pallet by the fireplace, wishing not for the first time that his parents were still alive. The last thought that crossed the boy's mind before sleep claimed him was of dragons.
The next morning proved his prediction right. A steady drizzle wreathed out of the sky to drench everything not under cover. Several of the roofs began leaking and the children were sent out to gather reeds from the nearby streams to re-thatch them before everything was soaked.
Jon, grumbling at the chill he was getting from the bone-soaking rain, wandered away from his cousins as they made their way upstream on the little creek, gathering the immature reeds located there. Even as young and relatively useless as he was around the farm, Jon knew half the reeds they gathered would not be useable. They were too small and too thin to use as thatching. He drifted downstream, picking an occasional handful as he looked for the older clumps not found in shallower waters.