Adele ran as fast as she could, trying not to look back at the destruction of her once lovely home. She held her wailing daughter closer to her, attempting to calm her down while struggling to keep out of the reach of the fire.
When Adele reached the safety of woods outside the village she stopped to look and see if anyone had escaped the devastation. Everything she had ever known was in flames. She squeezed her eyes shut to stop the tears from streaming down her cheeks. He’s not dead, he can’t be dead, she thought desperately. She silently vowed she would come back and look for him once she got her daughter to safety. She had heard stories of an old lady who lived in the woods, who helped travelers. She turned back towards the forest and ran further into the shelter of the trees.
Adele had been walking through the forest for a few hours when she saw a small cottage in a large clearing. It was encompassed by a little picket fence and surrounded by a garden of flowers. The cottage was covered by climbing roses and to the right of the house stood a blossoming apple tree. She watched as wisps of smoke from the chimney wafted into the sky.
It must be the old lady’s cottage, she thought as she pushed her long brown hair out of her deep blue eyes. The smell of fresh bread wafted towards her. She heard her stomach growl. Hoping to get something to eat, she walked over to the small white gate, pulled up the rope that kept it in place, and went up the pathway to the front door. On the door there was a lovely little brass knocker in the shape of a swan. She rapped on the door.
A kind looking old lady opened it. She was short and had her wispy silver hair pulled away from her face into a bun. Her eyes had wrinkles around them from smiling so much. She looked at Adele and said, “Oh, you poor dear! You look completely exhausted! Come in and I’ll make you some tea.” She bustled back into the house leaving Adele standing at the door.
Adele peeped inside and immediately felt at home. It was a big, cosy room that had a kitchen on one side and a living room on the other. It was lit by the light shining through the windows and a fireplace in the kitchen with a pot simmering over it. The kitchen was full of cupboards and counters. She stared hungrily at the loaves of fresh bread on a round oak table in the middle of the kitchen. The table had two quaint little wooden chairs resting around it. She tore her eyes away from the bread to take in the rest of the house. There were flowerpots in all the windows, giving the room a bright and cheerful feeling. In the living room, mahogany bookcases lined the walls stopping only where a window peeked out. It had a big soft carpet that covered the floor of the whole room. There was an old leather chair in the far corner and a small table next to it that matched the colour of the bookshelves. There were two doors on the back wall and a flight of steps leading upstairs.
The old lady was standing next to the table in the kitchen pouring hot water into a round squat teapot. She glanced up, saw Adele still standing at the door and hurried over to her, carefully guiding her over to the leather chair in the living room. She pulled up another chair from the kitchen and sat next to Adele.
“While we wait for the tea to steep, you can tell me about yourself,” she hesitated, “Only if you’d like to of course. I’m Nelia.”
“I’m Adele. And this,” she said, motioning with her eyes to the sleeping one-year-old in her arms, “is Ariana. I’m from the village that is near the forest to the north. I lived in a cottage on the outskirts with my husband, William. Last night, as the sun was setting, he heard something strange outside and went to see what it was. I went with him and saw a massive dragon flying over the village, spitting balls of fire everywhere. He told me to stay at home until he came back and went to help the people in the village. But I couldn’t stay, because the flames had spread and our house caught fire. I ran to the edge of the forest and hid behind one of the trees. As I looked out I saw the whole village burning. I hope he’s alright,” she sighed. “I walked for a while and then saw your house. Why do you live out here in the forest? It must take you hours to get to the nearest town.”
Nelia smiled and answered, “I don’t like noisy places. I prefer to be surrounded by nature. Living in the middle of a forest is the perfect spot for peace and quiet. And I don’t really need to go to towns around here very often. I have all I need right here.”
Nelia rose and walked over to the teapot, lifted the lid, and stirred it with a spoon. She went over to one of the numerous cupboards, took out two ceramic mugs and placed them on the table. She poured the tea and handed a mug to Adele.
“After that ordeal you must be starving! Would you like something to eat?” Nelia asked, smiling at her. “I just baked some bread this morning.”
Adele returned her smile. “Yes, thank you! I’m very hungry. Fresh bread sounds wonderful!”
Nelia bustled over to a drawer in the kitchen, pulled out a bread knife, and cut the bread into thick, fluffy slices. Adele got up from her comfortable chair, put Ariana down and took her little hand. Keeping pace with her daughter, she went over to Nelia.
“May I help?” she asked.
“No, thank you. You sit down,” she said as she pulled both of the wooden chairs out from the table.
Adele picked up Ariana, sat her in one of the chairs and then sat down in the other chair. Nelia handed a piece of bread to Ariana and watched her devour it faster than she thought possible for such a small child. When Ariana had finished she held up a tiny hand and said in a small, unsure voice, “Moe, peaz?”
Nelia smiled down at her adoringly. “You can talk! Thank goodness! You were so quiet I thought you couldn’t,” she said as she handed her more bread. “You and your daughter can stay here if you’d like, Adele,” she offered.
“That’s very kind of you,” Adele said, “but I have to go and see if my husband is still alive.”
“You can’t take the little girl into danger though.”
“No,” Adele looked down at Ariana and smiled at her.
“Ariana could stay here with me if you’d like,” Nelia said. “And I can give you whatever you need for your journey.”
“Thank you so much,” Adele said gratefully. “I know you’ll take good care of her.”
“You get some rest now. The sun is setting already. There’s no way you can make your way in the dark. You can leave tomorrow morning.”
Nelia led Adele and Ariana into one of the rooms on the ground floor. It was a nice little room. The only furniture it had was a little truckle bed, a bed-side table, and medium sized dresser. All of them the same mahogany that she had seen in the kitchen and living room. Apparently the old lady liked dark wood. She seemed to have a talent for using a lot of dark furniture, but make it look bright and inviting at the same time.
“Tomorrow morning you can go to the well at the back of the house and clean up. You’ll have to go out the front door and around to the back. I’m going to start packing a basket for your journey,” Nelia said, and she walked out and closed the door behind her.
Adele didn’t want to rest, thinking how much harder it would be to find her husband the longer she waited. But she knew she had to if she was going to be of any help to him. She lay down on the bed with Ariana pulled close to her and fell fast asleep.
When Adele woke, the light of the rising sun was streaming through the small window in her bedroom and dancing on the walls. She looked around her, trying to remember where she was. Then she remembered the kind old lady that had helped her. She turned over and looked on the other side of the bed. Ariana was still sleeping peacefully.
Adele slowly got up doing her best not to wake her daughter and bent down to kiss her goodbye, knowing she probably wouldn’t see her for a very long time. She went into the main room and saw that Nelia was already up, standing at the table and putting the last things in the basket for her.
Without looking up from her work, Nelia said, “Good morning, Adele. Did you sleep well?”
“Yes. The bed was very comfortable. Thank you.”
“You’ll find some soap on the counter over there,” she said, pointing to the corner towards the front of the house.
Adele thanked her again, grabbed the soap, and walked out the front door into the sun. The sky was a beautiful robin’s egg blue with little, puffy, white clouds flying across it. She gazed around her at the garden. It was very well taken care of. The beds were perfectly weeded and the plants perfectly trimmed. She walked carefully over the nicely trimmed lawn, around the house to the back. There were at least four or five chickens running around. She went over to the well in the corner of the garden and washed the tearstains from her face and the dirt from her hands. When she got back inside, Nelia had finished her basket of supplies and had breakfast ready for her.
After Adele had finished her delicious breakfast of omelet and fresh bread she looked in on Ariana again. She was still sound asleep. Adele closed the door quietly and took the basket and cloak from Nelia.
“I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for my daughter and I. Please tell Ariana I’ll be back as soon as I can and that I love her very much,” Adele said as she hugged Nelia goodbye. She marched out the front door and didn’t look back.
Adele finally reached her village. There were a few smouldering skeletons of homes and shops left, but most of it was ashes. She walked slowly through the devastation of her home and then further into the village. She saw something move ahead and quickly darted behind one of the still standing houses. She peeked out from her cover and saw that it was a woman. She was wearing a cloak and had the hood pulled up. Her back was turned to Adele.
“It’s all right. You can come out,” the mysterious lady said, speaking loudly enough so Adele could hear her.
“Who are you?” Adele asked, as she cautiously stepped out of her hiding place and slowly walked towards the dark figure.
When she got close enough the stranger pulled her hood off and turned toward her. Her beautiful face was framed by waist length silver hair. She wore a simple green dress under her cloak adorned only with a brown belt and a sword.
“I am here to help you,” she said. She had a soft accent different from anything that Adele had ever heard. “I have been watching over you from afar, but now you need my guidance to find what you lost.”
“How do I know I can trust you?” Adele asked her suspiciously.
She held up a letter. Adele scanned it and said, “This is Will’s writing,” she said, astonished, but then her eyes narrowed. ”You could have forged it.”
“He asked me to take care of you if anything happened to him. I’m here to take you to him so you can save him from his captivity.”
“Did you see where he went? Is he all right?” she asked, anxiously.
“I did not see where he was taken, but I know where he went.”
“The dragon, as many know him, tries to take as many down with him as he can. They go to a place far away from here. That is where you husband is.”
“And you will lead me there?”
“I will trust you. Please take me to this place,” she begged. “But first, may I know your name?”
“You may call me Serina,” she said.
“Thank you, Serina,” Adele said.
Serina smiled kindly at her and then turned around and started walking to the south, just along the treeline.
“Come with me,” she said. “We must hurry. It is a long journey.”
Adele hurried to catch up with her. They walked together in silence.
When the sun was high in the sky, Serina stopped and said, “We will rest here and have a light lunch, then we will push on until nightfall. We have to travel south until we reach the Red Desert. It is somewhere there we will find the dragon’s lair.”
Serina already had her own food somehow stowed away in the voluminous folds of her dark cloak. Adele looked into her basket and saw that Nelia had not only packed food and water for her, but also an extra pair of shoes in case she needed them and a bottle of some sort of oil. Once they had eaten their fill they continued their journey south.
They had been traveling for weeks and had stocked up on food and water in the nearby cities and towns they passed.
Finally, they came to the Red Desert and Adele stared at it in fascination and horror.
“We have to go in there?” she asked pointing at the seemingly endless expanse of hot, steaming sand.
“Yes,” Serina replied.
“Won’t we get lost?”
“We will have the sun, the moon and the stars to guide us,” answered Serina, squinting up at the sky.
So they went into the desert, with only blazing sun as their guide. After a few hours of persistent walking, they saw a decayed old village that looked dark even in the bright sunlight of the desert. It was surrounded by an enormous wall that had only one gate.
“That’s it,” Serina said, pointing at it.
As they made their way down the tall dune they had been standing on, Adele noticed movement in the streets.
When they reached the gates of the town, they looked around them cautiously and stepped inside the confines of the wall. As they walked over the cobblestone streets they thought they could hear whispers and see shapes moving around. There were definitely people living here, but they didn’t seem too eager to show themselves to these new strangers walking through their domain.
They made it to what they thought was the middle of the town and looked around them. The dark shapes surrounded them now. One of the shapes stepped out of the shadows and into the light. It was a little boy with dark raven hair and green eyes.
“Have you seen a man here recently?” Adele asked. “He has light brown hair and brown eyes. He’s tall…” she trailed off. The little boy was staring at her blankly.
Serina crouched down and looked the boy in the eye. “Where does your master keep the new ones?” she asked him. He pointed to a tall dark building and then disappeared into the shadows again.
They went over to the building he had indicated. Adele stared at it. It looked like it could fall apart at any second.
“It’s been standing this long, it can wait for a little longer while we go look for your William,” Serina said.
“Do you read minds?” Adele asked.
“No. Of course not. I only guessed what you were thinking from the expression of your face.” Serina pushed lightly on the door of the old building and it creaked open. Inside, there were numerous doors lining a long hallway. “Why don’t you check doors on the right and I’ll check the ones on the left,” Serina suggested.
So Adele went to the first door on the right and tried the handle. It opened easily. She looked inside the room. Nothing. She went down the whole line of doors with the same result until she got to the last one. Inside this room there was a large cage lying in the middle of the floor and in the cage was a man lying unconscious. Adele ran to him and grabbed his hand.
“Will!” she cried. “I found him!” she called out.
Serina rushed into the room, pulled a piece of wire out of her cape and started picking the lock. There was a click and the cage door opened. They pulled William out and laid him on the floor.
“Good! You grab his shoulders and I’ll grab his legs. We’ll be out of here in no time.”
As they made their way through the streets, a huge black shadow passed over them. Serina looked up. “The dragon is here! Hurry!” she said, as she took Will and hoisted him up onto her shoulders. When they were just outside the village, the dragon landed in front of them and stared at Adele with its massive fiery eyes.
“I thought you might help her,” he said, turning his blazing gaze on Serina.
Serina put Will down and pulled out her sword, all the while keeping her eyes fixed on the dragon. “I only help people take back the loved ones you steal from them,” she growled.
“They’re mine!” he yelled, spitting a ball of fire at Serina. “I played the game for them! Those who try to take what is rightfully mine die.”
Serina jumped aside just in time. The ball of fire whizzed passed her, barely missing her. She smiled boldly at him, “Maybe they do. But these people have never belonged to you. You just like to think they do.” Then she whispered to Adele, “You’ll have to take him and run away from here as fast as you can. I’ll distract him so you can get away.”
“I can’t leave you here!” Adele whispered back.
“I can take care of myself,” Serina said, urgency in her voice. “Now get out of here!”
“Thank you,” Adele murmured softly.
The dragon laughed wickedly, “You’re making it too obvious, little elf. You know that neither of you will be able to escape.”
Serina started circling the dragon, looking for an opening for attack and also turning him away from Adele. “I bet you couldn’t beat me if you tried, you over-grown lizard.”
Serina glanced at Adele. She was struggling to pick Will up. Serina turned her gaze back to the dragon. He was moving closer to her.
“You’ll pay for that insolent remark!” he rumbled angrily.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have anything on me right now.”
He roared at her and blew a flame of fire at her. She was too close to dodge it. Just before the flames enveloped her she looked past him and couldn’t see Adele anywhere. She smiled at the dragon. That’s two more people you can’t have, she thought. Then she felt intense heat surround her and everything turned black.
Adele staggered under her load, going as fast as she could with the extra weight. She didn’t stop until she was outside the desert. She gently set her husband down and looked over him to see if he was wounded, but she only found a few minor burns. She reached into her basket and took out her bottle of water and poured it over them. Then she remembered bottle of oil that Nelia had put in her basket. She took it out and popped it open. It smelt like crushed herbs. She put a couple drops on each of the burns and massaged it in.
“Ah. That feels good.”
She looked up and saw he was awake. She cried out happily and hugged him. “I’m so glad you’re alive!”
“Careful,” he groaned. “My head feels like a bomb went off inside it.”
Adele pulled away and looked at the bottle that she was still holding. “I wonder if this might help.”
“You want me to drink that?” he asked, incredulously.
“Of course not,” she said. “I thought it might help you if I rubbed it on your forehead.”
She rubbed some on his forehead and looked at him expectantly. “Is that better?”
“What is that stuff? Is it magic or something?” he asked, amazed.
“I don’t know. The old lady in the woods gave it to me.”
“I thought she was just a legend.”
“She’s not. She lives in the nicest little cottage and she’s taking care of Ariana right now.” She told him how she ran into the woods and found Nelia’s house and how she met Serina and how she sacrificed herself for them.
“Why did she have to die?” Adele sighed sadly. Tears poured down her cheeks. “We should go home now,” she sniffed.
They traveled home, thanked Nelia for taking care of Ariana, built a house in the woods, and lived happily ever after.