Published on 2014/01/05

Bottled

Laura H. Smith

If Ma were crying, the situation might have seemed more manageable. She stood in the corner with her arms folded, saying the armor might not fit over her son’s head on account of it being melted in some places the last time her husband wore it. Scourge remembered the incident well. Ma sent him to pry the armor off the charred remains. Things were never the same after he accidentally broke off his father’s blackened head and had to chase it down the hillside.

The armor went on uncomfortably. When the buckling and strapping finished, someone pounded the helmet on. The world turned black before a firm grasp twisted the horrid thing around. He could still smell the acrid reminder of the helmet’s last adventure.

Scourge faced the fire-lit room, the close quarters choked with the large bodies of warriors. Arms bulged wider than he was round the middle. Ashamed of her son’s size, Ma made him eat raw meat in the hopes of growing him, but it had only given him worms. He noted the unsympathetic looks and the occasional grin amongst the faces surrounding him when one of the heftiest men, Torgny, slapped a sword in the boy’s hand.

“Is that it, then?” Scourge asked, loosening the lump in his throat.

“Should your ma give you a goodbye kiss?” Torgny offered in a booming voice.

“Not especially,” Scourge said, casting a glance at her weathered face and wide-mouthed frown, more monkfish than mother. “Don’t I get some words of advice?”

“Come back victorious to atone for your crime,” Ma said. “Otherwise, come back dead.”

“I hardly think I could come back if I were dead,” Scourge said underneath the din of all the warriors pounding their chests and hooting. His father sure had not come home of his own volition. Scourge had dragged Valter, Son of Nils, home on the singed and dented shield Torgny now hooked on the boy’s arm.

“Scourge, the Village Twig,” Torgny said. “So begins your ordeal.”

Overwhelming terror kept his feet locked together. Scourge stalled crossing the threshold until meaty hands pushed him along the earthen floor and out under the stars. Then, his legs took a few wrenching steps. He started sweating instantly. The men nudged him with ax handles, forcing the boy out beyond the security of the village.

The heavy, wooden gate slammed behind him. The crossbar fell with a thud. Scourge listened to the blur of voices behind the wall, obscured by the snapping of torch fires as the wind fanned the flames.

I wonder if I will even see the dragon before it kills me, Scourge wondered. Whether or not he saw his death coming tonight, it was best if he died out of the sight of everyone, especially Ma. Such a thing would only bring her further shame. This ordeal was unnecessary. He admitted to stealing the two cabbages and potato! He simply wanted vegetables after Ma insisted on all that meat, but the point was moot. Scourge would never taste a potato again.

“Boiled, mashed, stewed, baked, raw and crunchy and gritty,” he said to himself. “It’s potatoes for the boy, but a boy for the dragon.”

His feet dragged along the muddy road. The long days of rain had cleared, and tonight provided crisp air and a bright moon. The stars looked upon him in eager anticipation of the impending bloodbath. One star streaked across the sky in giddy excitement. Then it streaked back the other way. Down. Up. Down, down, down, and with a bright flash, a number of trees burst into flame.

“Dragon,” he squeaked. Scourge stumbled off the road into the brush, shedding his cumbersome shield and sword. Inside the tree line, he found the remnants of an old cottage. Some of the wood had burned and the rest had long moldered, ensuring the mossy walls would collapse if he breathed near them. Plus, it lacked a roof. Hoping for some better cover, he hastily searched the property.

He heard the splintery crack first. It sprang from under his feet. The next part involved screaming and falling, and then Scourge whimpered at the bottom of a dry well. He turned his helmet round and through the slit, he could see treetops and a hint of sky above. So far, nothing sizzled in dragon flame.

For two years, burly barbarians like Torgny marched out to end the village’s dragon difficulty. Scourge figured the ones who came back alive smartly ran home after realizing they were nothing more than bread nearing a fire with a high probability of becoming toast. At least those brutes had the option to return with an embellished tale of mortal peril. Scourge had no such luxury. He thought it better to just die in the well. The grave was waiting for him, after all.

He closed his eyes in resignation, and then he heard something move. The delicate sound reminded him of insect wings. Scourge forced himself up to lean against the wall and pulled off his father’s helmet. He listened. Flutter then ping, like the chieftain tapping his dagger on a goblet before saluting Torgny’s latest achievement. Worried for a moment the sounds were dragon in nature, he glanced up, but his round view of the world above indicated a lack of fiery destruction. No, the sound came from in the well.

Scourge set the helmet in his lap and began to feel his surroundings. Crumbly stones and dirt were all he could make sense of, but the sounds happened again. He paused and listened, taking his time to follow the direction until his ear pressed against the stones. He would have to dig out the sound. Once he pulled the stone away, his hand plunged into the moist soil. A few wriggly things met his hand, but then he found a bottle. He wiped the dirt off and held it up, trying to use the scarce moonlight for a better glimpse. Then the sound happened again, and at once, the bottle rattled.

“What’s in you?” he asked, and held it to his ear. He heard an even fainter sound.

“Let me out,” said a little voice.

Now this called for a decision. “I wonder,” he said. “Death by bottle? Death by dragon? Or do I just sit here and wait for the end?” Curiosity won. “I just hope it’s over quickly.”

He pulled the cork. A luminous substance churned inside, swirling ribbons in shades of green and gray. The fog thickened and started taking shape. A small figure climbed from the bottle, squeezing through the neck. The body grew bigger than the bottle itself before fading into the shadows, leaving Scourge with the memory of gray scales and some unfriendly looking fingernails.

“How about some light?” The voice grated similar to Ma’s when she had winter fever, except much higher in pitch and even more impatient. “You have to say it.”

Scourge recoiled against the wall. “Light?”

A snap preceded the illumination of the well. A green ball of unnatural light fizzed into existence from the dark, and Scourge blinked at the little gray man. He had a squashy face. Though narrow and heavy lidded, his green eyes took up half his head. He adjusted the drawstring of his frayed burlap breeches and smiled with sharp teeth, the grin wide and tricky. “Hello, young man.”

“Hello,” Scourge said when he could think of nothing else.

“I won’t follow with a how-do-you-do because you’re at the bottom of a well.”

“Dragon,” was all Scourge could manage.

“Dreadful.” He paused and sniffed. “I don’t smell dragon.”

“I don’t think he’s around at the moment,” the boy admitted.

“That is still troublesome,” the little man said. “Well, dragon or not, I desperately would like to leave this wretched hole.”

“I am not sure I would.”

“One step at a time, boy. What is your name?”

“Scourge,” the boy said.

The little man blinked his green eyes. “You do not appear to have been aptly named.”

“Ma had high hopes for me, but instead I often am called the Village Twig.”

“More apt, yes.” He bowed. “I am Spolevik, the Imp. So, Village Twig, even though you are dressed like one, I gather you are not a dragon slayer.”

“More like a dragon sacrifice.”

“Still, you have quite a bit of armor on your small frame.”

Scourge nodded. “It belonged to my father.”

“Did it help him against this dragon?”

“No,” the boy admitted. “Not in the least.”

“No offense to your father, boy, but you need to shed all that chain and leather or you will sink like a witch.”

“Sink? How?”

“The water in the well, Twig.”

The boy whipped his head side to side. “Water?”

The imp snapped his fingers again and water burst from the sides of the well. It reached Scourge’s knees before he realized heavy armor was unsuitable for the situation.

“Hurry up, boy!”

Scourge tugged at the straps and fumbled, breaking free right before the water overtook him. Together they tumbled and swirled, rising up to spill onto the ground above. He crawled away from the flood and coughed. The little bottle floated right to his leg and bumped against it. Somehow, the cork had found its way back and stoppered the bottle once more.

“You are the rightful owner of the bottle,” the imp said. “Pick it up.” He leaned over to smack himself on the head, and water shot from his pointed ear. “Don’t worry. You can’t crack it, smash it, or melt it. Even if the dragon inflicts one of those aforementioned atrocities upon you, the bottle will remain.”

“I’d rather I remain.”

“We will see, Village Twig. With an imp in your pocket, luck can change.” Spolevik scratched his flat chin. “I have an idea, but if I help you, you must help me.”

Scourge nodded, water dripping into his eyes. “I will help you.”

“Without even asking the cost? I want you to set me free.”

The boy shrugged. “I’d set you free anyway. No one should live in a bottle.” He looked at the glass prison. “It must be cramped.”

The imp raised a scraggly eyebrow. “As my master, you command me to do magic on your behalf.”

Again, Scourge shrugged. “I don’t want to command anyone,” he said. “I wouldn’t give anyone the same treatment I’ve gotten. Scourge, move this pile of manure over there. Scourge, dance a jig in the manure pile. Scourge, dig a hole over here. Scourge, say you’re a cowardly little weakling or we’ll throw you in the hole.” The imp grimaced. “I may be weak, but at least I have sympathy.”

Spolevik sniffed the air. “Brimstone for sure. Your fiery friend is approaching, and dragons are curious. Toss the bottle over there.” Scourge did as told. “Ask me to turn you into a rock. Make sure you stay extremely still. Too much movement will break the spell.”

“Turn me into a rock?” Scourge asked, but before he could add a why to his question, the imp snapped. Unable to resist the magical force, Scourge crouched into a ball. The spell stuffed him into a hard outer shell, while green and gray smoke swirled around him.

“You’re hidden,” Spolevik said. “Now be still and silent, no matter what.” He walked over near the bottle and began to shout. “Oh dear! Oh my! Where is my master? I am lost!”

The imp continued to fret conspicuously until the trees swayed under a heavy wind, and thunderous beats made staying still a difficult task. The dragon landed near the old cottage, and when his tail swung around, it smashed the humble dwelling to dust.

“Hello, dragon,” Spolevik said. “I apologize for disturbing your evening with my wretched wailing.”

The dragon leaned forward, stretching his long neck to smell the smaller creature. “What are you?”

“I am an imp, sir. Being a lowly imp, I served a master who freed me from that bottle.” Spolevik pointed and waited for the dragon to follow his bony finger. “Unfortunately, my master has disappeared and I cannot go back in the bottle unless he tells me.”

“Why would you want to cram yourself into that little bit of glass?” the dragon asked.

“Why, it is the safest place in the world. The bottle is magic. It cannot be cracked, smashed, or melted!”

The dragon laughed, a sound hideous enough to melt armor. “We shall see.” He flicked the small thing with his claw and it flew through the air and smacked the trunk of a large pine. When that failed to crack the bottle, the dragon used his tail to scoot it back around. “We shall see.” He brought up his great foot and stamped with such force that Scourge nearly fell over from the resulting tremor. When the dragon lifted his foot, the bottle remained intact.

“Go ahead,” Spolevik said. “Breathe your flame upon the glass. It will not melt.”

The dragon let loose his molten breath, and though the nearest trees turned to cinders, the bottle sat as solid as ever. “This is strange indeed,” the dragon said. “The bottle is smaller than you, imp. How do you fit inside it?”

“It is bigger inside on account of the magic,” Spolevik said.

“Veritably,” the dragon said. “I should like to own this bottle, then.”

“Forgive me sir, for I know only what my master tells me. I know nothing of dragons. What could be so precious even a dragon would hide it?”

“If I answer your question, you will tell your master, and then men will know a dragon’s secret.”

“Please, sir,” the imp said, “I can only place something inside the bottle at my master’s behest. Without a master, I am powerless.”

“But you lost your master,” the dragon said.

“Correct, but you could find another man for me who could become my master.”

“A sorcerer lives near the mountain.”

Spolevik’s voice rose and he spoke quickly. “No! No, not a sorcerer. Bad idea. A simple man who fears dragons and magic would be better.”

The dragon sat back on his haunches and considered this idea. “I could steal a dumb brute from the village to the west. They are fairly fleshy, and I would like to make a meal of one when I am done.”

“I don’t say I like that idea,” Spolevik replied. “Weak and scrawny is preferable in this matter. He is likely to be less defiant.” After feigning to ponder, the imp slapped his knee. “Oh, yes! I am reminded of a young man my master encountered in the forest some days ago. Twig thin, rock dumb, and lost. Perhaps if you could find this lad, we would have our master.”

“Perhaps,” said the dragon, “but I hate to involve a man of any sort.”

“It must be done if you are to use the bottle. Only a man can be my master. It is how the magic works.”

“I understand.”

“I shall await your return,” the imp said, “and I will refrain from asking your secret until it is time to use the bottle. As one creature who despises men, I will hold your secret in the utmost confidentiality.”

“I am sure you shall,” the dragon said, his tone implying the imp would keep the secret because ashes told no tales. The beast took flight.

Scourge started cramping. He finally fell over and the confining shell burst around him, turning into green dust. “Oh,” Spolevik said, “I forgot. You can move now.”

“What do we do?” Scourge asked. “Wait until the dragon brings the boy?”

The imp sighed. “You are the boy, but you are going to be a bird. How about a dunkadoo? You have a neck like one.”

Not quite so rock dumb as described, Scourge chose his words more carefully this time. “Why a bird?”

“You will fly a good distance from me, then alight in a tree. Make sure it is a tall tree. Land on the highest branch so the dragon can easily find you.”

“But I will be a dunkadoo.”

“This time the magic comes undone when you are still. Once you stop beating your dunkadoo wings, you will revert to the Village Twig. Make sure you find a sturdy branch, and remember to act surprised and fearful.”

Scourge trembled prematurely. “I think I can manage that.”

“Go on,” Spolevik prodded. “Say the words.”

“Turn me into a bird.”

The green and gray vapors surrounded Scourge, lifting his body into the air. He felt lighter and stronger as his body squeezed into its new form. He flapped his wings and soared into the night. Finding it hard to give up the thrill of flying, the boy played in the air for some time before the dragon’s shadow fell over him. Reminded of his task, Scourge settled on a tall and stout spruce. He nearly lost his balance when the green dust fell away, and he was forced to wrap his body against the trunk.

“Help!” Scourge shouted, feeling earnest in his fear as he alerted the dragon to his predicament. “Please help! I can’t get down! Somebody help me!”

A rush of wind threatened to loosen his grip on the tree. The dragon perched nearby, his claws crunching on two large treetops.

“I am lost and I climbed up here to see if I could find a way out, and now I can’t get down. Please don’t eat me,” Scourge pleaded.

“You are too scrawny for a decent meal. I will take you, boy,” the dragon said. His breath radiated the heat of a bare, high summer sun. “You must do something for me, however.”

“Anything,” Scourge pleaded. “Just get me down.”

The dragon splintered the trees when he took flight, and he plucked the boy from the spruce with one grasping claw. The sensation churned his stomach. When they found Spolevik, Scourge met the ground gladly.

“I found your man, imp,” the dragon said before he ordered the boy to obey the creature’s every word.

“You, boy,” Spolevik said. “Come over here and pick up this bottle.”

The boy stumbled over and took the bottle in his hand.

“Good.” The imp turned to the dragon. “We await your command, sir.”

“I must take you back to my lair.”

The imp bowed. “This boy and I are at your service.”

The dragon rose from the ground, grabbing both Scourge and Spolevik in his talons to rise high over the forest. He soared a far distance to the mountains, and then dropped his passengers into a hole in the side of a rock face. The dragon used his free claws to climb up the cliff and slither in after them.

Scourge and Spolevik admired the vast lair filled with treasures. Gold piles consumed the immense space enough for the dragon to slip in and through the hoard like an eel in water. Finally, his head rose and he summoned them.

“No man could ever reach this place,” Spolevik said. “What could you possibly need to protect? This lair is safe enough.”

“Nothing is good enough but the safest place in the world,” the dragon said. “Only the bottle will suffice.”

The imp looked to Scourge. “Listen, boy. Unstop the bottle. Whatever the dragon commands you to say, you must repeat it. Agree?”

Scourge answered meekly. “Yes.”

The dragon rummaged in the coins and produced a shimmering red jewel almost as big as Scourge. Warm, fiery light radiated from the gem, blurring the edges. The owner held it delicately between two claws. “Tell the imp to store my heart inside the bottle,” the dragon said. His hot breath broiled worse indoors. Scourge felt the urge to faint.

“Imp,” he rasped, “store the dragon’s heart in the bottle.”

Spolevik snapped. Green and gray vapors surrounded the stone and gradually sucked it into the bottle. Scourge replaced the cork, noticing the thing buzzed and hummed like it was filled with angry hornets.

“Give me the bottle,” the dragon said.

Scourge, trembling still, held the bottle out until the dragon pinched it gingerly with his talons. “It rattles,” he said, trying to maintain a grip as the bottle jerked and vibrated.

“It is the magic,” Spolevik assured.

The dragon quickly buried it deep in his hoard. “Now our business is done,” he said, turning back to the red and sweating Scourge and unfettered imp, “time to burn.”

The dragon reared his head and sucked in a great breath, but before he could puff, a great explosion blasted the boy and the imp across the cavern in a flurry of coins and jewels. Scourge grasped at the scattered treasure before him. Amongst the riches, bits of glass twinkled and then turned to green dust.

The dragon blinked, stunned. Before he could comprehend the severity of the circumstances, he collapsed upon his hoard. The thud reverberated and glittering assets cascaded from the piles, causing a rippling of clinks and booms.

When the cavern finally fell silent, Spolevik said, “Well, that about does it.”

“Is the dragon dead?”

“Death is usually the outcome when your heart explodes,” Spolevik answered. “You can go poke him to make sure.”

“I don’t understand,” Scourge said. “You said the bottle could never be cracked, smashed, or melted.”

“From the outside,” the imp said. “If you put something as big as a dragon’s heart inside, it’s going to burst into a thousand pieces. The bottle is made for an imp, after all.”

“So are you free, now?”

“Unless I stumble into a different bottle, yes. I plan to stay far away from the sorcerer the dragon mentioned.”

“Good for you.” Scourge started to search around. “I suppose I need to find a sword and cut off this dragon’s head. No one will believe me otherwise.”

“A good plan.” Spolevik snapped. “I have just bestowed some strength upon you, though nothing too obnoxious for a youth of your size. Go and do the deed yourself. I need to look for something.”

With the messy and not-so-strenuous business of the head complete, Scourge found the imp spreading green fog over a pair of boots made of silver and gold scales, surely meant for a king. “A parting gift for the Village Twig,” Spolevik said. “Wearing these boots, you can jump safely from any height, and can cover a great distance in a short amount of time, even with a heavy load.”

Scourge shed his floppy old boots and gladly put on the new pair. The imp helped him drag the boulder of a dragon’s head away and secure it to his back with conjured ropes. The boots, combined with his enhanced strength, made the burden tolerable. “Magic can only do so much,” said the imp. “You can bear no more weight. You must leave unburdened by spoils.”

“I have enough,” Scourge said, smiling at his gleaming boots. “I would be dead without you, Spolevik.”

“I would still be in a bottle, Village Twig. We part ways here, though if we find each other again, I will be glad to see you.”

“It’s not every day I hear that.” Scourge walked to the edge of the cavern and stopped. “That is a long way down.”

“You’ll be fine.” Spolevik folded his arms. “You have magic boots.”

Scourge meant to offer another protest, but the imp snapped. A fist of green smoke formed in the air. It gave the dragon’s head a firm punch and sent Scourge over the edge. The boy screamed all the way, but he met a soft landing. He looked up and waved goodbye before taking his first giant stride. Within minutes, he arrived at the village gate.

“Hello,” he called. “I killed the dragon.”

A few moments later, some faces appeared over the ramparts. Arguing went on. Occasionally, curious warriors peered down at the proof. When the gates opened, Scourge inched in, worried that vigorous stepping might expedite him to the next village. Wide eyes greeted him. Sleepy villagers roused by the news came shambling from their huts and cottages. Ma approached first.

“No coming back dead this time around, Ma,” Scourge said, untying the knots holding the dragon’s head in place. Released, the head fell back into the mud with a definitive splat.

“It doesn’t look big enough,” Ma said, inspecting the head. “Are you sure you killed the right dragon?”

Torgny interceded. “Only one dragon plagued our land.” He marched forward and clasped the boy’s shoulders in a crushing grip. “Scourge has slain the dragon!”

That did it. The villagers swept the boy into revelry that continued into a feast. Great warriors vandalized the monster’s head and raised their cups to the village hero.

Just as the starving boy enjoyed his first mouthful of food, a much longed for bit of legitimate potato, Torgny stood up and nodded in respect to the chieftain. “We owe many thanks to our Village Twig, who has passed his ordeal as only a champion can, but I propose we give the lad a more suitable name.”

The chieftain pounded his fist upon the table, his hefty agreement rattling the plates and cups. Torgny lifted his tankard. “To Scourge, the Dragon’s…” He trailed off for a moment, contemplating the serious nature of naming a hero. “The Dragon’s Scourge!”

“To Scourge Dragonscourge!” the crowd replied.

“We could take some more suggestions,” Scourge muttered.

Torgny bellowed, slugging the Dragon’s Scourge on the back. The shock sent the boy’s half-chewed potato sailing to the dogs on the other side of the table.

Ma stood up, and though Scourge hoped she might protest, he was sorely disappointed. “I think killing the dragon makes up for the stolen cabbages.” Cheers and agreements were shouted all around. “However,” she added, “I think killing the sorcerer near the mountain would make up for the stolen potato.”

Again, Ma’s words were met with jubilation. The excitement smothered Scourge’s pleas. He found himself hoisted up, trapped in the crushing grips of drunken warriors. They carried him toward the village gate, chanting in clashing rhythms.

“Scourge Dragonscourge!”

“Kill the sorcerer!”

He had a grave concern the well was fresh out of bottles.


Laura Smith is a national board certified teacher, specializing in early and middle childhood literacy. She luckily does not teach kindergarten. Although she is an avid collector of fairy tales, folklore, and mythology, her short fiction published thus far has been in the steampunk genre. Her stories can be found in the Dreams of Steam anthologies Brass and Bolts and Gadgets from Dark Oak Press.