Treasureby Cortni Fernandez / Fantasy
By Cortni Fernandez
Luca sat apart from the quiet crowd and worried that Darius, the storyteller before him, was dying.
It wasn't as though he looked ill or weak; Darius was as tall and strong as any of the gods, with eyes bright as the sun, and the grin of a mischievous goblin. When he spoke, the stars themselves surely listened. Sometimes strangers called him mad, but Luca knew otherwise. He didn't mind that Darius' cloak was patched beyond its function, or that he strapped all his belongings to his back like the spiky conch of a hermit crab. Darius wasn't really Luca's father, but if he could choose any father in the world, it would be him.
And now, despite his apparently excellent health, Luca couldn't help fearing that he was about to lose him.
The usually harsh sands of the Coraldust desert felt cool and soft beneath Luca's hands, where he and Darius had arrived amongst a camp of nomads that evening. Their colourful tents waved in the night breeze, and their jangling copper fell silent before Darius's voice. Wolf lay curled up beside Luca's knees, a warm lump of shaggy fur, and the only one around the campfire who wasn't wide awake.
Darius stood near the fire, glowing with its warmth, and peered around at the watchful crowd. He was in the middle of Luca's favourite story, and usually chose this moment to pause for dramatic effect. The eyes of the young ones on their knees before him were wide with interest.
"I awoke," said Darius, his voice delicate as the desert breeze as he turned his gaze on the children. "To the sound of a baby crying..."
Darius pretended to listen to the night, and some of the children looked around to hear the baby's cry. The elders smiled, many turning their dark weathered faces and crinkled eyes on Luca.
"I picked myself up off the sand," Darius was saying, his cloak sleeves rising. "And I looked far and wide... and do you know what I saw?" One of the children shook her head. "A roost. A great tower of grey stones - the nest of a mighty wyvern. Yes! The cries of a baby, from a wyvern's nest. So... I approached. I was careful, quiet, tiptoeing across the sand. I began to climb the tower, rock by rock, and when I reached the top..."
Darius caught Luca's eye and winked. "I found a baby boy, crying and wailing like it was the end of the world. He had a shock of red hair, just like mine, like the down of a baby phoenix. And when I scooped him up into my arms, he looked at me, and I looked at him, and I knew." Another pause. Many small heads now turned to look at Luca, who grinned.
"But then!" Darius said suddenly, making everyone jump, and pointing off into the distance. "A dark shape on the horizon! A great beast, a hungry monster, its wings like dripping moss on tree branches, its snarling snout sharp as a blade, its tail whipping the air as it shot towards me like an arrow... the wyvern, come home to its nest, to find me stealing its ill-gotten treasure!"
The gasps and excited muttering made Wolf's ears twitch, and Luca scratched them as Darius recounted his terrifying battle with the wyvern, his daring rescue of the kidnapped baby, and his heroic escape with the boy that now sat before them. The end of his harrowing story was met with cheers, laughter and applause from all around the nomad camp. Darius gave a grand bow around the circle. The young ones fell over each other with questions, demanding to know if he had been scared, if the wyvern had really stumbled away with a broken wing, and if it had all truly happened.
"Of course it did," said Darius magnificently.
"How come you didn't run away?" said a young boy.
"And leave my son to be wyvern food? Certainly not. Besides," he whispered down to them. "I already knew I was going to win."
The bright desert moon rose high overhead. As the nomads stretched and shifted, and the dull murmur of talk arose once again, Luca opened his cloth bag, which clinked with coins. Donations fell from tiny hands, and the children ran away giggling at Wolf's friendly tongue.
"Much appreciated," Luca said to a smiling nomad elder, who was wreathed in copper beads and a long trailing beard.
"Your father is an excellent storyteller, young man," said the elder, giving Wolf a gentle pat on the head. "You look quite like him."
Darius waved goodbye to the young ones who were called to bed by their mothers, and hummed to himself when he came to Luca's side. Luca wasn't as tall or broad as Darius yet, but he was sure he would be getting whiskers any day now; he always liked it when anyone pointed out their shared shade of red hair. "I like these people," said Darius, folding his arms with proud approval. "They're truly kind."
"And generous," said Luca, tying up the jingling coin bag. "This is enough to-"
"Keep us fed and watered for a week," said Darius. Luca gave him a flat look, but Darius's bright eyes twinkled.
"Well, it will," said Luca, ruffling Wolf's floppy ears. "Might even get-"
"A prime cutlet for Wolf." Luca rolled his eyes. "We are given many gifts, boy. Never forget which are most precious - or you might lose them," Darius said, with his maddeningly knowing grin.
"You mean your precious gift of being able to finish every sentence I start?" said Luca. "I could do without that."
Darius gave a barking laugh, which Wolf answered in good measure. He cuffed Luca on the shoulder before heading off to his discarded traveling pack. Luca grinned as he watched him go, but something continued to gnaw at his insides. Maybe Darius wasn't dying, then; maybe he just knew that he was going to die.
As far back as Luca could remember, Darius had always had an uncanny ability to see things before they occurred. There was never any hint or warning to tip him off; Darius just seemed to know.
"Welcome to Keelstrum, boy," Darius had said to him one day, when Luca was ten years old and had first set foot along the bustling streets of the cape town. He had been so busy dodging the wheels of shellfish carts and stacks of kelpie traps that it was all he could do to stay in Darius's shadow. Wolf was firmly attached by a leather strap to Darius's belt, though he desperately tried to head in every direction at once. "I know just the place for us to set up. We'll wait until dusk - the lanterns are like stars."
"What is that smell?" Luca had said, trying not to trip over the cobblestones.
"Delicious, isn't it? Alright, it takes some getting used to, but it has its charms. You should appreciate our time here. Mark me, the next time you visit this place, you'll change your tune."
"But how can you stand it?" Wolf sniffed the air in excitement, but Luca held his sleeve over his nose. "It smells like a-"
"Oh, it does not," Darius said, marching along purposefully down a packed thoroughfare between the spiky-looking houses. "And you've never even seen one, so you don't know anyway."
"But isn't this-"
"Heavens, no. And that won't work," he said cheerfully over his shoulder, before Luca could even open his mouth again. "I'm too clever for you."
Luca tried again, and got as far as an intake of smelly fish air.
"No, this is the place for us, lad. I have a good feeling about Keelstrum. We'll have a good time here, and the smell will wash out once we reach the river at the end of Whistling Wood. Yes, the one I told you about. Three days, so that we'll be here for the kraken sighting day after next. No you can't go swimming you silly boy. Old? Who are you calling old? I'll eat you for breakfast with a side of oysters and toss your bones to the kraken. Now hold this." Darius suddenly seized the lid on a barrel of starfish and placed it on Luca's head, so that he had to reach up and catch it awkwardly.
"What the-" Luca said, feeling equally bewildered and foolish walking down the busy street with a barrel lid held over his head. Darius and Wolf edged a few feet away from him just as a passing cart hit a dip in the road, and a netful of slimy silvery trout cascaded right over the top of Luca's head, slapping wetly against the barrel lid.
Wolf immediately bounded up to start licking his clothes. Once a deep shudder had run all through his body, Luca lifted the barrel lid to see Darius waiting for him, a wide smile on his face and laughter in his eyes.