I stood at the cave entrance, frowning at the gray morning sky. Winter was coming, and I wasn’t sure if we’d make it this year. With a sigh, I re-entered the cave.
Xanthe was waiting for me. Her scales, usually the color of molten gold, had lost their luster lately. When she saw me, she greeted me with a flick of her tail. I crawled into a mound of blankets piled next to her, and leaned against her broad side.
“Where’s Mag?” I asked.
“She’s out hunting. I hope she catches something this time. I’m starving!”
“I know, we haven’t eaten in days.”
I ran my finger over the blanket, now worn and threadbare. When I made them with Mag last year, before the forest fire, there had been plenty of food, and Mag sold the extra to buy material for clothes and blankets. With all the extra time on my hands, I even got the chance to do some embroidery. I smiled as I ran my hand over a golden dragon stitched in the corner of one of the blankets. That likeness of Xanthe had taken me over a month to perfect.
I sighed and closed my eyes. “What are we going to do, Xanthe?”
Xanthe curled her tail around me. “I don’t know, little one.”
Just then, Mag burst into the cave, hair tangled, eyes glowing. I leapt to my feet.
“Adelia! Xanthe! Quick…there’s a rider coming!”
I froze. “Mag… I thought we agreed not to do that again.”
“Addie, we have to!” Mag said, glaring at me.
“She’s right, you know.” Xanthe said. I bit my lip.
“But I feel like a thief.”
“We are thieves,” Mag said, grabbing me by the arm. “But we’re going to be dead thieves if we don’t do this. Come on, Addie!” I let her pull me out of the cave.
Within minutes, I was lying at the bottom of a deep gorge, crimson berry stains all over my legs and chest—if no one looked too closely, it passed for blood. Mag stood on the grass above me, keeping a lookout for the traveler.
At last, we heard the sound of a horse trotting in the distance. Mag sprang into action. She screamed and cried, running toward the sound. “Help! Help me! My daughter’s going to be eaten! Oh, please, sir, help me! She’s my only child—I can’t live without her!”
I rolled my eyes. Mag always had a flair for drama. But I guess it must have worked, for I heard the horse hoofs stop, and a man’s voice say, “What’s wrong?”
“It’s my daughter! She fell into a gorge and injured herself, and now she can’t get out. Everyone knows that the dragon hunts in the gorge at night, but I can’t get her out by myself—what am I going to do?”
I wondered whether the rider understood any of this. Mag was supposed to act panic-stricken, but surely she could be a little more articulate? Still, I heard the man get off his mount and say: “I will help you save your daughter. Stay here.” Seconds later, a face peered over the edge of the gorge. The rider was young, and rather handsome, I suppose, at least compared to the old blacksmith who’d tried to save me last time.
“Over here,” I whispered weakly, “Please, sir…I think I twisted my leg.”
“Don’t worry, miss. I’ll get you out.” The rider lowered himself over the ledge and proceeded to climb down. Just as he reached me, a piercing cry split the air, and a shadow fell over us. I looked up to see Xanthe circling above. At the sight of the dragon, the rider panicked.
“Hurry, hold on to my hand!” He tried to drag me away.
“My leg!” I cried, but the rider ignored me, so I let myself go limp, and discreetly hooked my toe around a boulder. Xanthe swooped down, and before the man had time to blink, she had me in her claws, and we were lifting off into the sky.
Back at the cave, Mag was waiting with the rider’s horse and supplies.
“We got a lot this time,” she said with a smile, holding up a leather purse. “There’s a pile of money in here, and when we sell the horse, we’ll have enough to last the winter. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“Yeah,” I muttered, heading inside. The image of the rider’s stricken expression when he saw Xanthe fly off with me would not leave my mind.
“Addie…” Mag started, but thankfully Xanthe shushed her. The two of them left me alone the rest of the evening.
The next day, I headed into town with the horse and money. I found a buyer immediately for most of the loot—everything was of the highest quality, and I didn’t have to haggle nearly as much as I usually did. I even sold the leather pouch, and put the gold in a makeshift sack made by tying the four corners of my blanket together. Next, I bought the supplies we needed for the winter—food, clothing, blankets, tools. By the time I was ready to go home, I was exhausted.
“Did you hear about what happened to the tailor’s apprentice yesterday?” A shrill female voice caught my attention.
“No, what?” Another woman replied.
“My cousin that the cave girl and her dragon robbed him.”
“Again? I thought they’d gotten caught by now.”
“No such luck. Everyone’s afraid of the dragon.”
I ducked my head and scurried away, only to crash into someone else.
“Ooph!” The person exclaimed as we tumbled to the ground.
“I’m so sorry!” I said, scrambling to my feet.
“That’s okay,” the stranger grunted, also struggling to right himself. Our eyes met, and I felt my blood freeze in terror.
“You!” he exclaimed. It was the rider from yesterday. The one we’d robbed. The tailor’s apprentice, apparently. I turned to run.
“Not so fast!” he snapped, grabbing my arm. “Who are you, and what did you do with my horse?”
“Let go!” I snarled, twisting out of his grasp. I grabbed the sack of supplies that I had dropped and held it in front of me as a shield. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“My horse! You stole him—you, your mother, and your pet dragon! And to think, I tried to save you!”
“How dare you accuse me of being a thief? I told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve never seen you in my life!” I tried to pretend I was Mag, using her indignant tone. But I’ve never been good at lying, and apparently the apprentice noticed.
“Oh you haven’t, have you? Well, I have. You were the girl in the gorge. The one who supposedly broke her leg. Ha! There’s nothing wrong with your leg! You’re nothing but a filthy, lying thief! Now for the last time: Where is my horse?”
“I’m not a thief!” I shouted at him. Then I turned and ran, pushing through the crowd that had gathered around us.
I knew he couldn’t catch me, even with my blanket full of supplies. Living in the caves for a decade and a half had made me stronger than most men in town, and I didn’t look back once as I ran, hearing the young man’s angry shouts diminishing in the distance.
Xanthe and Mag sprang to their feet when I finally reached our cave and collapsed, panting. The blanket fell from my arms, and everything in it clattered to the ground.
“Addie, what happened?” Xanthe asked.
“The rider…I met him on the way here…” I gasped.
“Oh no! You did manage to lose him, right?” Mag said.
Xanthe curled her tail around me. “Are you all right, Addie?” I nodded in response to both their questions, leaning against Xanthe’s broad flank.
“Don’t worry, Addie,” Xanthe nuzzled the top of my head. “He can’t find you here.”
That night, though, as we were eating our supper around a campfire, I thought again about the apprentice. I hadn’t noticed it at the time, but in retrospect I realized that the man had looked tired and dirty—as if he’d slept in someone’s stable overnight. With a start, I realized that that was probably what had happened. We’d stolen his belongings, and he hadn’t even had enough money for a room and a meal at the local inn. With a pang, I remembered his heated words: You’re nothing but a filthy, lying thief!
I stood abruptly, leaving my bowl of soup on the ground.
“Where are you going?” Mag asked, her mouth full of vegetables. Without a word, I headed into the cave and came out with the blanket that contained the remainder of the money.
Mag’s eyes widened, and she swallowed. “But Addie, we won’t have enough to survive the winter!”
Xanthe shushed her. “Let Addie do what she must, Mag,” she said, observing me with her wise, golden eyes. I gave her a grim smile, and taking the makeshift pouch, I left the cave.
I had a pretty good idea where to find the rider. There was only one stable in town, after all. By midnight, I reached the stables, and found a side window. Sure enough, the young man was sleeping on a pile of straw in one of the stalls.
A snorting sound startled me, and I looked into the dark brown eyes of the apprentice’s horse.
“Shh,” I whispered. “Don’t worry, he’ll be able to buy you back tomorrow.”
The horse watched me as I dropped the money quietly by the sleeping apprentice’s side, then climbed back out the window and headed home.
Late the next afternoon, I was foraging near the gorge. As I bent to pluck dandelion greens, a male voice said: “I thought I’d find you here.”
I whirled around. It was the apprentice. “What do you want?” I asked, ready to run.
“Why did you return my money?”
“You’re the one who kept bugging me about the horse. Don’t you need money to buy him back?”
“Yes, but I’ve never met a thief who returned her loot.”
“I’m not a thief.” I mumbled, even though I knew it was a lie.
“So you say.” He regarded me with puzzled green eyes. I slung my bag of weeds over my shoulder and started to head into the woods.
“What?” I snapped, turning.
“Who are you? Why did you steal from me? What is a girl like you doing here?”
“Why should I answer your questions?”
“You stole my money and gave away my horse,” he pointed out. “The least you could do is answer me.”
I sighed. “Not everyone has money and an expensive horse, you know. My friends and I barely have enough to survive the winter, and we have no other way to make a living. You were the first person who came by, so…does that answer your question?”
“Who embroidered that dragon on the blanket?”
For a moment, I didn’t know what he was talking about. And then I remembered that I’d left my blanket in the stables, wrapped around the gold. “I did. Why?”
“You said you had no way of making a living, but it seems to me like you could earn money with your needle.”
I snorted. “Yeah, right. A cave girl? Embroidering? No one would take me seriously. I’ve tried it before.” I laughed bitterly.
“What if you worked in a shop?”
“Who would hire me?”
I stared at him in shocked silence.
“My uncle is a tailor. He’s always looking for new talent. I could introduce you to him.”
I stared at him in disbelief. I had tricked him, robbed him, sold his horse, and spent his money—yet he wanted to hire me?
“Why would you do that? I stole from you!”
“I know.” The young man chuckled. “But then again, you did return the money. At least, some of it. And you really do have the talent to be a professional seamstress.”
He grinned and held out his hand. “I’m Owen. What about you?”
“Adelia.” I choked out.
“It’s nice to meet you, Adelia. So how about it? Do you want the job?”
I wanted to, really. But what about Xanthe?
“What’s the matter?” Owen said when I hesitated.
“I can’t leave my friends. Xanthe—she’s the dragon—she needs wide-open spaces.”
“Ah.” Owens’s green eyes softened. “I don’t see why
He smiled at me. “Now, will you take me to meet your friends? I have a feeling they’ll want to know about our new arrangement.”
I smiled back, tentatively. “Follow me.” I headed toward the caves, where the sun was beginning to set. It sent streaks of light across the sky that shone like a million rays of gold. Dragon’s gold. And as I watched the aureate sky, I knew that we would be alright.