Muddy sweat trickled into Kieron’s eyes as he continued up the endless slope. Swearing, he rubbed at his forehead but only managed to smear more mud onto his face. The front of his body, too, was doused in mud from his recent fall.
Don’t you look heroic. At least Merlyn wouldn’t live to tell the tale of the mud-splattered warrior who’d come to her cave.
Where was this legendary cave, anyway? Kieron pulled the map from his pocket and scrutinized the parchment. The cave entrance should be just a few paces ahead of him…. Could Faros have been wrong? Was this all a farce, a wild chase meant to get rid of him?
“I bet Merlyn’s gonna eat you––if you even find her at all.” Kieron shoved Alaric’s parting words from his mind. He’s wrong. I’ll slay Merlyn and free the land from this menace.
Then his brother would finally see that he’d become a man.
Kieron forced his weary legs another step. He’d find Merlyn’s cave even if––
The earth crumbled beneath his feet, and he plummeted into darkness. After barely enough time to scream, he collided with the ground. He moaned. Soft vegetation tickled his exposed skin. Where am I?
Surrounding him were four globes, each bearing a single candle, that cast light onto a vast array of plants. Plants growing underground?
This isn’t enough light. His head tripled its throbbing as he sat up and fumbled for a torch and flint. Did anyone live here? If they did, would they know where Merlyn was?
Or…could Merlyn possibly live here? Where was all the gold? The jewels? The skulls?
Maybe they were hidden in this underground forest. He shuddered.
The voice, deep and gravelly, almost a rumble, came from the dimly-lit area in front of him. Kieron scraped the flint one last time and lit the wood. He wasn’t about to face this gravelly-voiced intruder without being able to see them––
You’re the intruder here, Kieron.
“I said no fire.” A massive face covered in gleaming scales loomed before him. The torch slipped from his fingers. Merlyn.
“No!” cried the dragon as the flame crawled onto the vegetation and––the map! Gasping, Kieron snatched the map from the fire’s clutches and stomped on it. This is my only way home!
A draconic paw slammed against the fiery area, almost amputating Kieron’s foot. Yelping, he jumped back and drew his sword with his free hand. “Stay back.” His voice trembled.
“Oh, mud-human.” The dragon quenched the last of the flames with her paw. “Put the sword down. There’s no need for this.”
“Are you––Merlyn?” The sword shook in his hands.
“Yes. I don’t know why you would ask such an idiotic question.”
Merlyn sat back on her haunches. Her scales gleamed violet, just as the stories said. Fearsome spines could impale a man unlucky enough to fall on her back. And her teeth––oh, her terrible, yellowed teeth had crushed bones. Kieron took a step back. A sword seemed like nothing against a beast of that sort of size and strength.
She’s going to kill me. His sword slipped from his hands and thumped against the plants.
“Careful!” Merlyn’s giant claw swept just past Kieron, barely missing his skin, to cradle the now-fallen sword.
“Hey! That’s mine!” He stomped toward it.
“And it just almost crushed a dunderfird,” she said, “just as you are doing so now. Be careful, human, or I’ll have to kill you.” She paused. “Though really, I should kill you since you’ve seen this place. I’m terribly sorry. It’s always an unpleasant affair.”
She let out a great dragon-sigh. Why hadn’t she eaten him yet? Would she chase him if he ran? And was there even a way out of this place? There had to be; otherwise she wouldn’t be seen out in public. But where was the exit? He saw nothing but shaded plants and glowing globes.
“Are you done destroying my home?” Merlyn said.
“I––” Kieron looked around once more for an exit. No trees, but plants of all shades and sizes sprouted from the ground. One in particular caught his attention––a sky-blue vine with triangular-shaped leaves that wound around another plant, this one with a thick red stalk and pearly flowers. Weird. He’d never seen any of these plants before. “Where’s the gold?” was the only thing that came out of his mouth.
Merlyn’s pale green eyes narrowed. “Please tell me you didn’t just ask that.”
Kieron’s mouth dried. “Uh . . .”
“You truly are insulting, mud-human. First you––”
“My name is Kieron.” He tried again, unsuccessfully, to wipe some of the mud from his face.
“Mud-human,” Merlyn repeated. “First you rudely fall into my home––”
“It was an accident!”
“––then you try to set my treasure on fire, and then, as a final humiliating blow, you stereotype me. This has been a very bothersome day.”
Kieron blinked. “Did you just say I tried to set your treasure on fire?”
“Yes?” Merlyn swept her tail––carefully, making sure not to hit any of the plants––across the area as though pointing to each one.
“There’s fire right there!” He pointed at one of the globes, then the others. “And there, and there, and there!”
“Don’t tell me you think plants can survive without light, mud-human.”
“Kieron. It’s Kieron.” He scowled. “And why do you care so much about the torch? You breathe fire.”
“An unfortunate trait of my species,” she said. “But I see no need to use it except in defense.” She stepped closer. “You won’t make me use it, will you?”
“N-no. Of course not.”
Something brushed against his foot, and he screamed, holding up his hands in defense–against a puffball. A literal puffball––with eyes and short, stubby legs and a severe frown. It sat in front of him, staring up at him with its bulbous eyes, so still he thought it might not even be alive. Then it leaped, and its legs seemed to retract into its body as it rolled into the greenery. He screamed again.
“Don’t scare the bilizae!”
“Bilizae.” Merlyn’s teeth gaped in a dragon smile, more terrifying than comforting. “Sweet little creatures, aren’t they?”
“Uh. Yeah.” What was this place? “This . . . this, right here, is your treasure? But it’s just plants.” And puffballs.
“Oh, there’s more than just the bilizaes,” Merlyn said. “There are also lurcrons and fintherwerps and––” She paused abruptly, giving him a strange look, as though she might incinerate him right then and there.
He swallowed hard. Alaric was right. I’m going to die.
“You’re just trying to get me to reveal my secrets, aren’t you?” she hissed. “You’ve been searching for this place.”
Well, yes. But he certainly hadn’t expected anything like this.
“You want my treasure.” She extended her wings, baring her jaws to reveal her terrible teeth, but no fire brewed in her throat.
“No! I don’t want your plants or your puffballs.” His heart pounding, Kieron held out his hands. “I just want to live.”
Merlyn’s nostrils flared, puffing smoke. “Then why are you here?”
“I don’t know.” Alaric’s face came to mind. “My brother . . . Alaric . . . he always . . . Well, he . . .”
“Just get on with it,” said Merlyn.
“Yes. Of course, your great dragon-ness.”
“Then stop calling me mud-human.”
Her eyes narrowed. He gulped. Way to insult her. Now you’ll be turned into a pile of muddy cinders. “I guess I just meant that my brother thinks I can’t do anything. He thinks I should’ve been born a woman.”
“I rather like human women,” Merlyn said. “They’re much nicer than you human men. They don’t come in here swinging swords and yelling bravado. They take the time to have a nice chat. You men need to learn from them.”
“Uh.” Kieron wasn’t sure what to think of that.
“Well, mud-human––” Merlyn paused. “Kieron. You’ve seen my hoard now, so really, I shouldn’t leave you alive.”
“Please don’t kill me.” He held out his shaking hands. “Please. I know you’re not––you’re not like everyone says you are.”
“Oh?” Merlyn cocked her head. “What do they say about me?”
“That you eat people. That you destroy anyone who comes near you. That you’re a menace.” Kieron swallowed. “But you haven’t eaten me yet. And you don’t have skeletons and gold and all that.”
Merlyn’s sigh sent smoke into the air. “What is it with all the stereotyping?”
“I’m sorry. It’s just––you’re a dragon. I mean––not like dragons are bad––well, maybe some of them are––I should stop talking.” Kieron swallowed and waited for her to spit fire or, in the very least, trap him in her enormous jaws. But she just blinked at him with her great green eyes.
His gaze wandered around to the little forest, and his heart started to calm. It really was pretty––Alaric would call him a woman for saying something was pretty, but he didn’t care at the moment. This strange underground forest was pretty––beautiful, even. “Why do you care so much about these––these plants? And animals, too.”
Merlyn’s wings drooped. “They’re going extinct.”
Oh. Kieron’s eyes widened.
“I don’t want any creature to have to die,” she said, “whether it’s a plant or an animal or even a human. Extinction is a terrible, terrible thing. There are no second chances.”
He’d never thought about that before. Gone . . . forever . . . “Everyone wants dragons to be extinct.” Merlyn’s eyes narrowed, and he hurried on. “But it’s ’cause they’ve got the wrong idea, I guess. They think you’re all . . . Never mind. But anyway . . . I don’t want you to go extinct.”
“Well, thank you, Kieron.” Merlyn gave him a wry sort of smile, which he didn’t even know a dragon could do. “I don’t want to go extinct either.”
“And I don’t want these to go away. They’re so beautiful.” Even the puffball with its strange, iridescent furry spikes.
“I’m glad you see that. Most humans don’t.”
“My brother always said I wasn’t like most other people.” Alaric had meant it as a bad thing. But maybe it wasn’t. “Uh, Merlyn?”
“I want to help protect your treasure,” he said. “If you’d let me.” It wasn’t like he had anything back home. It’d be better if Alaric thought he was dead. Alaric would probably celebrate.
Merlyn peered at him with her large eyes as though searing to his soul.
“What?” he stammered.
“If you betray me . . .” Her nostrils flared again, spurting smoke.
“Yeah, yeah, I get it.” He laughed nervously. “I won’t betray you.”
“Oh, really?” Merlyn smiled again, baring all her teeth and making Kieron shiver. “We’ll see about that.”
He hoped he was making the right decision. But hey, he’d just pledged his life to a dragon who lived underground in a forest of rare plants and animals. What could go wrong?
I hope you enjoyed the story! I definitely enjoyed breaking stereotypes.
One quick shoutout––the made-up names for the fantastical creatures and plants were technically not of my own creation. Relient K’s song “Gibberish” was the inspiration for those strange words. I’m not quite sure if Relient K would spell the words in the same way, but let’s just call it my own translation. (The person who did this video put lyrics in the description, but I’m not sure if it’s their translation or the band’s official transcription.)
What did you think of my stereotype-weary dragon and her mud-spattered hunter? Also, if you want to see another interpretation of this prompt, check out my friend Laura’s post.
So, what about you? Can you come up with a story, five sentences or less, based on this prompt? Leave it in the comments!