By Michael T. Schaper
The burglar stared down at the ruins of the old mansion in the valley. His heart jumped with excitement, and he took a moment to congratulate himself.
It really does take a thief to catch a thief, he noted drily. Old sayings often had a surprising degree of truth in them: around this part of the world, no one else had even the vaguest idea that the building really existed.
Here, on this isolated property, he could already see glimpses of bright yellow through some of the shuttered windows. The sun glinted and sparkled, no doubt reflecting some of the treasures within.
All that treasure down there, he told himself, stolen over so many years, from so many different victims.
This wouldn't necessarily be a straightforward job. He was almost certain that he could also make out a long tail flickering slowly back and forth, jutting out of the vestibule.
He debated whether to take a more cautious approach — go back into town, many klicks away, put some detailed plans together, and engage some help — but decided against it. Strike whilst the iron is hot, he told himself, and smiled. He liked that saying, and it seemed particularly apt when dealing with dragons. Besides, he had no interest in dividing up the hoard.
He worked his way down the hillside, through wild shrubs, past rocky outcrops and over river beds long dried up in the summertime heat. Hopping over an old rusting fence, he noticed a couple of outsheds fallen into disarray, their roofs long gone. But the fields, he noted with some surprise, were well tended and recently harvested.
And as he went, he also kept an alert eye on the central doorway. The end of the giant, long tail would appear there from time to time, flickering back and forth, creating a gentle gust of wind.
He decided to wait until dusk to try and make an entrance into the building. He’d long ago found that the time between light and dark, when shadows grow longer and the vision weaker, was often the most advantageous.
So he sat down in the shadow of the side of the building, as still as possible, listening to the giant beast inside as it moved around, the great rustling of scales as it breathed in and out. Every now and then he heard the sound of metal upon metal, almost like a steel spoon clanking in a pan.
He tried to recall the old stories the townspeople had told, handed down from so many generations ago: of ancient Ithaca, queen and last of the dragons in this part of the world, making her way through the rooms, guarding her treasure trove ceaselessly whilst plotting her next round of plunder and terror — or snatching innocent folk for an occasional meal. How much of that, he wondered, was real, and how much hearsay?
When the sun finally began to make its way down, he knew it was time to move. Some doves and a handful of other birds had settled on the roof and begun making their last calls of the day, providing a degree of cover from curious ears.
There was no access to be gained through the boarded windows, and most of the doors, he soon discovered, were locked solid with ancient, rusted padlocks. He found only one accessible small side entrance. For a moment doubt and uncertainty almost overwhelmed him, as it does almost any human come up close to such majestic and dreadful creatures: would he be overly exposing himself to the beast? Could Ithaca be on the other side, already listening and waiting for him?
Fortune favours the brave, he told himself. All he needed to do was make a quick dash in, quietly scoop up several bagfuls of gold, and then he would be out again — but infinitely richer.
The ancient tail came hurtling out of a nook and caught him unaware as soon as he stepped inside. Wrapped tightly in the old leathery folds of the beast, he caught only a glimpse of the rooms of gold as he was dragged roughshod through the building into what had once been the kitchen.
The kitchen was warm, and whilst the burglar feared it might have been from the burning of other intruders, he was relieved at second glance to realise it was merely from a large pot bubbling on the stove. It carried the scent of vegetable minestrone.
“It’s sometimes said,” the giant lizard muttered, her back to him as she stirred, “that ignorance is bliss. But it's not a view I have ever subscribed to, especially when it relates to protecting my own home.”
Honesty, he thought, might be the best and only policy right now. “Your majesty, forgive me. I am a poor man, without means or family. I meant only to take a few coins, just enough for my own needs.”
Smoke flared from Ithaca’s nostrils as she turned to face him, and her tail tightened just a little more around him.
“Gold? You really think so? Have a look for yourself.” She dragged him into the next room, and he saw that it was almost full of nothing more than corn. A house full of maize cobs, enough to feed a monster for a very long time indeed. Tins of corned peas and carrots also rolled around the floor, glinting in the day's last sun. To the side were bags of rice, and wheat, too.
He looked once more into the giant face, the long, scaled snout and ancient, lined features, and noticed for the first time small pieces of corn and sunflower seeds caught on the edge of her jaw. He smiled, sighing out a mixture of relief, fear and confusion.
“All that glitters is not gold, you know,” Ithaca said with a flash of teeth.
The burglar had never seen a dragon grin before, nor realised that it could produce such a despondent, melancholy effect in an audience.
“I've lived an honest, quiet life for a very long time now,” she continued. “Never going out, or showing my face in public. No thieving, or terrorising the locals. No stealing sheep or cattle. Why, I even became a vegetarian. Just so no one would worry about me. Maybe that's why I'm the only one of my people still here. I'm just a myth, a vague memory, to the peasants here. Or at least I was, until you arrived.”
The thief squirmed in her talons. “An excellent strategy, your majesty,” he said. “Very wise. You know, the Japanese have a saying about these situations. Have you heard it? Deru kui wa utareru. The stake that sticks up gets hammered down.”
“So they say,” nodded the dragon. “Wise indeed. It does get a bit boring, however. I feel like I've been doing this forever, staying quiet and endlessly eating the same thing.”
Her talons tightened around him one last time, and he realised the beast was leaning over, about to devour him. “But as is sometimes noted, you know, variety is the spice of life,” Ithaca whispered.
About The Author
Dr. Michael Schaper
Michael Schaper lives in Canberra with his partner Nadine, a standup paddleboard, two goldfish, some visiting sulphur-crested cockatoos and the ghosts of many half-written stories.