Emma awoke to a great clamour. She tried to snuggle back under her cozy wolf’s-hide blanket and go back to sleep, she really did. But the racket! It was the adults. Always the adults!
When you are six, it is hard enough to go to bed so much earlier than everyone else. First, there is always Something Big going on when bedtime is announced. Sometimes it’s the stories the hunters are telling after a successful hunt. Other days, it’s just your mother and her friends discussing what they had seen or heard in the village market that day. Today it was a beautiful late fall sunset. But whatever it is, you must leave it behind, and your parents hurry you off to bed. If you’re lucky you might get a story. Or two, if you can convince them. But they have very little patience for extra trips outside to go pee, or more than a couple drinks of water. “But Mommy!” you object.
“Quiet,” says she, “and go to sleep.”
“But Daddy,” you try.
“Quiet,” he insists, “and go to sleep.”
“Quiet!” they shout as one. “And go to sleep!”
So you try, but it is so very difficult when you are six.
On this particular night, Emma had finally drifted off after what seemed like hours, only to be awoken by the adults and their loud voices. People often gathered in their home. Daddy was an important man—a merchant and a member of the village council—and in all of the county, their house was one of the largest. (Three rooms!) But tonight they were louder than usual. Or there were more than usual. Emma was not sure which. She thought that perhaps she ought to go find out.
One peek outside her little bedroom told her that it was both. There were several of the village ladies, and many of the men. Even the mayor was there. It was he who was speaking when she first looked out. “Enough is enough!” he declared. His face was even redder than usual, and his great jowls shook with emotion. The mayor was a very wealthy man, as one could immediately see with just a glance at his enormous belly. “We must put a stop to this at once!”
There were shouts of, “Here, here!”, which were in turn met with a chorus of objections.
“Too dangerous!” declared one of the elders.
“Deadly,” agreed the captain of the guard. “It would be suicide!”
Even Emma knew that people didn’t normally argue with a very important man like the mayor. What were they fighting about? It was impossible to tell, for now they were all speaking at once, yelling to be heard over one another. Usually adults said that this sort of thing was very rude. But then adults said a lot of things. Things like, “Be quiet.”
In any case, Emma certainly could not sleep with all of this racket. She tottered over to her mother, tugged at her sleeve, and said, “Mommy, I can’t sleep.”
Her mother, trying desperately to be heard above the uproar, glanced down briefly and said, “No more water, honey. Run along to bed.” Then she immediately rejoined the “conversation”.
“But Mommy!” Emma objected. “I can’t sleep. It’s too noisy!” But apparently, her mother did not hear her.
Next little Emma tried her father. “Daddy?” she began, not wanting to interrupt his very earnest discussion with two of the other councillors. No response. “Daddy, I can’t sleep.” Still nothing. Finally, she shouted, “Daddy!” with all of her six-year-old might, but no one even blinked an eye.
Little Emma, if you have not yet guessed, was a very independent girl. She immediately decided that if there was to be no help for her here, she would simply take matters into her own hands. She turned and marched into her little room, picked up her heavy blanket and feather pillow, and strode off toward the barn. Tonight the animals would make far better company than those ridiculous adults.
The barn was well away from the house, and as she made her way across the moonlit field she pulled her blanket tightly around her to keep out the chill night air. By the time she was halfway there, the roar of voices from the house had faded considerably. Soon after, upon entering the barn, she heard only the various bleats, neighs and moos of the animals who had been stirred by her arrival.
Emma knew just what it was like to be disturbed from one’s sleep, and very respectfully settled in alongside them in the hay without a sound. The beasts drifted back to sleep quickly, and it would have been very easy for the now exhausted little girl to do likewise, but for a new sound that arose. It began so softly that she thought she must be imagining it, but steadily increased in volume until it became impossible to ignore.
It wasn’t the adults. It wasn’t like that at all. In fact, it was quite unlike anything she had ever heard before. There was a low rumbling quality to it, but as it grew louder, there was also something ear-piercing happening in the higher ranges as well. It sounded like some sort of beast, although what kind Emma could not imagine. It was none of the creatures in the barn, for she could see each of them sleeping peacefully, their soft breathing the only sounds within the barn.
Will I ever get to sleep? she wondered. Once again she picked up her head from her comfy feather pillow, grabbed her warm blanket, and rose to her feet. Leaving the barn swiftly and quietly so as not to wake the animals, she stepped out into the cool, dark night. Briefly she considered making her way back to the house to request her parents’ help, but soon thought better of it. Even from this far away she could see that by now a small crowd had gathered outside of their little home. If something was to done, it must be done by her.
* * *
What she could not possibly have seen was what was happening inside the house. Villagers were tightly packed into the home like nuts in a squirrel’s cheek, and the poor mayor had been forced to clamber up onto the kitchen table in order to get everyone’s attention. This he had utterly failed to do, for very few paid him any mind. Nonetheless, finger raised and eyes solemnly closed, he ranted on. “Our fair citizens are known far and wide,” he proclaimed, “as hard-working and productive. But how can they work if they have no rest?”
His voice, loud though it was, could scarcely be heard above the din that surrounded him. Even if one had been able to think clearly, given the racket, it would have been difficult to count the number of arguments taking place around the room. A burly soldier shouted at a group of elders. “Courage! That’s what’s needed! Each night we are robbed of our sleep. We must fight for our people!”
A nearby cluster of women immediately raised a chorus of objections. “Courage?” cried the eldest of the group. “What good is that against a fearsome dragon?”
“Yes, yes!” the other ladies agreed, then proceeded to repeat the ghastly tales they had heard from women of other nearby villages.
“It picks out its victims eyes before eating them,” the butcher’s wife declared.
“Oh yes,” replied the matchmaker. “And don’t forget the fire!”
“Mmm, yes,” shrilled the blacksmith’s wife. “Cooked a whole village alive and made ‘em a soup!”
On and on it went, spilling out into the surrounding farmyard as more and more joined the raucous meeting.
* * *
As you can see, Emma was quite correct in the assumption that she was on her own. She turned in the direction of the dreadful noise that had kept her awake the second time. Having grown considerably louder, it was not difficult to follow. So it was that little Emma, who was only six, walked past the barn, through the tall grass at the very edge of their farm, and across the old dirt road that marked the border of the little town she had never once left in all of her very young life.
She entered a field that sloped gently upward. Trudging alone through the night, she had plenty of time to consider this strange and annoying sound. What was it? Emma had never heard anything like it.
Or had she? For a moment, she thought she heard something like the grinding noise that sometimes came from the blacksmith’s shop when he sharpened the warriors’ swords, but . . . There was more. Grinding, yes, but mixed with . . . what? Wind. That was it! There had been a terrible storm last winter, and the wind had shaken the house, rattled the pots and ripped off the shingles. That was it: roaring wind, mixed with shaking, rattling and some grinding. Oh, also some sort of snorting, wheezing, gurgling sound that reminded her of when her family’s sickly old mare gave birth last spring.
The ground now rose more steeply, and the soft turf under Emma’s feet gave way to dirt and stones. While she was thinking, the gentle slope had first become a hill, and now something more like a small mountain. Emma was so very tired and cold, but she knew that there would be no rest for her until there was quiet. Though she was only six, she was a very determined little girl, and so she trudged on through the night with her wolf skin blanket wrapped snugly around her. With every step, the noise grew louder, and Emma became both more exhausted and increasingly determined.
The little girl stepped around a great boulder and all at once the her eyes fell upon the entrance to a cave. The orange glow of firelight flickered from within. The source of the noise was certainly inside, for now Emma had to cover her ears, which cried out in pain against the awful racket. This was the first time that she even considered abandoning her mission: not out of fear, but simply due to the agony. Yet she knew that she must continue, so continue she did. Though her resolve was strong, her little body was barely up to the challenge. Every step now was a struggle, for upon stepping into the entrance she encountered a wall of . . . wind? sound? . . . that pushed against her, much like the current of a mighty river.
Emma courageously fought her way into the cavern amid the cacophony of rumbling, piercing, grinding, roaring, shaking, rattling, snorting, wheezing and gurgling. There it was: a full grown dragon, lying upon its back, legs upraised, head lolling, utterly asleep, illuminated by the warm light of a single torch upon one wall.
The little girl had not known what to expect, but the idea that anything in this cave might be sleeping was certainly not something she had even considered. Perhaps it was because this was so surprising—or was it the injustice of it all?—but for whatever reason, being afraid of the gigantic fire-breathing reptile did not even occur to young Emma. Rather, she marched right up to the great unconscious beast, jabbed it in its ribs, and shouted, “Hey!”
The result was immediate. The dragon shot straight up, flipped mid-air and landed nimbly upon its powerful back legs, eyes wide. Seeing the little girl, it took a cautious step backwards and blinked rapidly.
Several tense seconds passed before Emma broke the ice. “Um . . . hello,” she ventured, unsure whether dragons knew how to speak.
“H-h-hello,” it quavered.
Sensing its fear, the little girl felt bad for having disturbed it. “My name is Emma,” she offered. “What’s yours?”
“Brian,” replied the dragon meekly.
As he said nothing further, Emma thought it best to get right to the point. “You snore,” she stated.
Brian lowered his eyes. “I know,” he mumbled. Briefly looking up to meet his accuser’s gaze, he added, “I have anxiety.”
Emma’s face was a picture of six-year-old confusion. “What?”
Brian the dragon sighed. “Anxiety.”
“Oh,” said Emma. “I see.” She did not.
Brian, an unusually perceptive dragon, immediately saw that the little human had no idea what he was talking about. “I worry . . . I tend to be nervous by nature.”
“But you’re a dragon!” Emma said.
“Yes,” he replied with an uncomfortable shrug. “It’s very embarrassing.”
“So, ank . . . ang . . .”
“Anxiety,” Brian offered.
“It makes you snore?” Emma asked.
“Often, yes,” he acknowledged. “I do much better when . . .”
“When what?” But the big beast was distracted, staring at the wolf skin wrapped around Emma’s shoulders. “Brian?”
The dragon once again made eye contact. “Um . . . sorry . . .”
“What is it?” the little girl asked.
“I . . . I used to have a little blanket like that.” It seemed that he just couldn’t take his eyes off of it.
“It’s very snuggly and soft,” Emma responded. “I snuggle right into it at night, and—” Then it occurred to her. “Brian, did you snore when you had your blanket?”
The big fellow looked down and shook his head.
Emma smiled. The solution was obvious.
Minutes later, Brian the dragon, with Emma’s wolf-skin blanket held snugly against his cheek, fell into a deep, satisfied and silent sleep.
Emma tiptoed out of the cave and set off for home. Soon after, near the bottom of the mountain, she met up with a nearly hysterical group of townsfolk—including the mayor, elders, fully armed warriors and, of course, her parents. Her mother and father hugged her, and everyone declared their great relief at her safe return.
“We were so worried!” her mother sobbed.
“Yes,” added her father. “There’s a dangerous dragon causing some trouble around here!”
“Very dangerous!” declared the mayor.
“But we shall vanquish him!” roared the muscular soldier she had seen earlier. And once again a great tumult arose.
Little Emma, who was only six, was very tired and—perhaps emboldened by her big adventure—stomped her foot and shouted, “Quiet!”
An immediate silence fell upon the startled townspeople.
“Listen,” she urged them. They did, and were shocked to find that nary a sound disturbed the night.
“But . . . but . . .” stammered the mayor. “The dragon!”
“Don’t worry,” the little girl replied. “I took care of it. He won’t disturb us anymore.” Then, exhausted as she was, she resumed her march home, calling back over her shoulder, “I’m tired. I’m going to bed.”
Little Emma slept very soundly for the rest of that night, and well into the morning thereafter. When she finally awoke, it was as a hero. There was feasting, and dancing, and people came from all around to hear the great tale of little Emma, the courageous girl who risked her life to save the village by slaying the ferocious dragon. Emma did not bother to correct them, for she knew that children really should be polite and quiet. And she was, after all, only six.
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Space Cadets is my first book, but I have a bunch of ideas bouncing around in my head, so more are sure to follow!
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