Our April story, “There Be Dragons”, is from our third anthology, 13 Claws. All the tales in the collection involve animals…and crime. Many are our dear companions, cats and dogs; others are perhaps, as in Jane’s story, a little unusual.
Jane is a master short fiction author. Her work has won and been short-listed for many awards, including The Bony Pete and the CWC Award of Excellence.
“There Be Dragons” was a finalist for the 2017 CWC Award for Best Short Story. In this story, three children, grieving the loss of their mother, stumble on their strange and mystical heritage.
THERE BE DRAGONS
By Jane Petersen Burfield
For a murder, it was both necessary and satisfying. No one had deserved this fate more. No one could threaten her family and get away with it.
She swam in the darkening water as the sky glowed in the west. Soon the fireflies would dance, and she could forget, just for a while, what she had lost and what she had become.
“There be dragons,” Katie read aloud from the illustration. As she squinted at the map in the old book, the creatures that illustrated the manuscript swirled. A soft green glow lit the map from within. Startled, Katie let the book slip from her fingers onto the dusty desktop.
“We’re not supposed to touch that book,” Georgie mumbled. Ever since their mother had died, he’d spoken in soft whispers.
“I know, Georgie.” She sat in the chair behind the carved oak desk and turned over another page. “Where do you think the dragons lived? I’m not sure I believe in dragons. Maybe they lived a long time ago.”
“Of course, there are dragons,” Georgie murmured. “Mother told us about them. She showed me one once. I remember going out to the garden with her. We ran around the pond. There was a splashing sound, and a dark shadow came out of the water. A man came out of the trees. Mother pushed me behind her. There was a flash of light, like lightning. I think the man ran away.”
“Did you dream that?” Katie closed the book, sending a gentle swirl of dust from the neglected desk flying around the library.
“No,” Georgie said hesitantly. “No! I remember. I remember the eyes in the pond. Something chased the man, and then disappeared. I think it was a dragon.”
“Well, we could use a dragon now. Creepy Gerry is here bothering Emma. He keeps turning up wherever she is. He follows her. And Dad isn’t even aware of it.”
“Emma is old enough to look after herself.” Georgie peered into the forbidden cupboard in the desk where the book had been.
“No, she’s not,” Katie said. “She’s only 17. And he keeps going after her.”
“We’ll watch out for her, Katie, and Grandmother Lowe will be here soon. She’s scary enough to take care of anything. We’d better get downstairs before Dad finds us up here. He’ll be mad if he knows we opened the secret cupboard.”
“Okay, Georgie.” She put the forbidden book back and locked the cupboard door, closing the outer panel in the desk so it couldn’t be seen. “I’ll put the key back in Father’s drawer later when’s he’s having coffee in the garden.”
“I’ll go out with him, Katie. I can keep him away and I love the fireflies.”
“You love that garden. Lilacs, lilies, crickets and the fireflies in the trees. Mother loved it too, I remember.”
“I really like fireflies the most. They are magical.” Georgie headed for the door, listening carefully for anyone outside. In the darkened hall, they turned toward their bedrooms.
Peter Drake walked around the dining room to look out on the stone patio. Almost time to summon the kids for supper. Their large stone house sat well back from Barrie Road at the end of a wooded drive. It was very similar to the family home they had left in Wales, complete with dragon gargoyles under the eaves. Now, in the late afternoon, sunlight made the dining room and patio outside a drowsy haven.
He stared at the pond, sitting like a jewel amongst the trees. In certain lights, he swore he could see Maria, but dusk was the best time. The woods were silhouetted against the darkening sky, and the fairy lights danced. He had always loved the little glow bugs that drew him outside. Maria swore they were magical, but he had scoffed at her. Still, unexplained things went on in the garden. Mysteries.
Ginny, their housekeeper, banged the gong for dinner. She loved banging that gong. Ginny had driven Maria mad with the noise, but she had kept their house and lives tidy. How could he deny such a small source of joy to his inherited help?
At dinner, Emma was missing.
“Where’s Emma?” Peter asked. “I thought she was home from her weekend with her friends.”
“She’s tired, Peter. Asked to stay upstairs. I’ll take her a tray later,” Ginny said as she served plates of salad.
Katie stabbed at a crouton, and it skittered across the tablecloth. “She thinks Cousin Gerry is still here. He left this afternoon, thank heavens. I hope he doesn’t come back.”
“Gerald asked to visit,” Peter said. “We don’t have many relatives. I want you to know both sides of your family.”
“We know enough about your family, Dad. We don’t need to see Gerry.” Georgie buttered one of Ginny’s soft dinner rolls, ignoring his salad.
“You don’t know everything about our family. But I’ll tell you more someday when I think you are ready. Now, what did you learn today?”
Living in the country meant that Katie and Georgie had to bus to school and could rarely invite friends over. They had to watch the news or look up a new subject on the computer every day to answer their father’s hated ritual question over dinner. He asked every night, trying to be a good parent.
“We learned about China, Dad.” Georgie passed the butter to Katie, who was pointing at it as inconspicuously as she could so her father wouldn’t get annoyed. “And we looked up some Chinese myths. On Friday, Miss Andrews showed us pictures of dragons in a really neat book. She said they represent power. They were amazing!”
“Dragons are common in many myths and fairy tales. Katie, don’t manhandle the rolls.” Peter turned back to Georgie. “There are beautiful illustrations in the Lang fairy-tale series. I particularly like the ones in The Green Fairy Book. I’ll have to find you my copy in the library.”
“Sometimes, Dad, I wish they still existed. I almost believe they do.”
“Georgie, we talked about that. Evening shadows can make us believe almost anything. But you know they are just shadows.”
“But, Dad, I saw one last year. I know I did!”
“Georgie, you have a vivid imagination, just like your mother.”
Katie and Georgie looked at their dad in surprise. Peter rarely talked about their mother, and it had been more than two years since her death.
After wiping his chin with his napkin, Peter turned to Katie. “Now what did you learn today?”
She winced and began to recite the trivia she had looked up.
After dinner, while Ginny cleaned up, Katie headed outside along the path off the patio. The water in the pond seemed flat black, reflecting the fairy dance of firefly light. She walked farther around the pond as sunset shone through the trees. She wasn’t worried about finding her way back to the house after dark. Unusually good night vision was a family trait, her mother had told her. And the house would glow with the lights from the family’s rooms.
She looked into the water, hoping to see the shape she had seen so many times before. Tonight, there was nothing there, or nothing she could see. Katie sat down on the bench installed in memory of her mother. She stroked the carved figures on the wooden side, and thought about her. A ripple on the surface of the darkening water drew her eyes away from the silhouette of the house. As the dark waters started to stir, her hopes grew.
“There you are Katie. I thought I’d join you on your walk.” The water’s surface grew flat again as her father appeared.
Katie took her father’s hand and asked, “What really happened that night? The night Mother died?”
Her dad’s hand clenched slightly. “Why do you want to know, sweetheart? I’ve told you what I can.”
“You never talk about her or about what happened. All I remember is hearing something across the water. And you ran out. Georgie ran behind you, and I tried to stop him. It was getting very dark. I saw you struggling with someone. He broke away. And then something reared up out of the water, hit the man and swept him in. Something very large. Where was Mother? What happened to her?”
Her dad squeezed her hand. “I know it’s confusing. Let’s go back to the house.” They turned away from the water, and started to walk up the patio to the house. “I think it’s time, Katie, for me to tell you what I know. I’m not sure Georgie is old enough yet. Emma knows some of it. We’ll find a time to talk tomorrow when we won’t be interrupted.”
As Katie glanced back at the water, a flicker of light beneath the surface lit a large body in its depths. More flickers of light matched the fireflies above.
School the next day seemed interminable. Katie longed to be home for the planned meeting. Emma was waiting for her in the kitchen with juice and Ginny’s ginger cookies when she arrived home. Being away at boarding school had changed Emma. She now wanted to spend time with her little sister.
“Do you think he’ll tell us about Mother, Em?” Katie asked.
“I hope so, Katie. Don’t bug him for details. This is hard for him. You don’t see him every night after you and Georgie go to bed. He sits looking out the window at the pond. He can sit there for hours.”
“Did he ever tell you what happened? I was young then, just 10, and Georgie was very little. He never said anything to us.”
Emma refilled Katie’s juice glass. “He rarely talks about Mother. Or the creature.”
“So you believe in the creature, too?”
“I do, Katie. I do. It protects us. But the creature knows people are scared of it, so it doesn’t often let itself be seen.”
“What happened that night? What did you see?”
“I’m not sure, Katie. I saw something, but I’m not sure what. A man grabbed Mother outside on the patio. He dragged her around the pond. Then something hit him as he held her. I swear it looked like an animal claw. Then it got really confusing.”
The girls heard the front door open and their father call for Ginny. They listened to him settle in the dining room, where they knew he would be looking out the window, even though dusk wouldn’t fall for another few hours. They looked at each other, and went quietly to join him.
“Hello, my little ones. How was your day?” He poured himself a whiskey.
“The usual, Dad,” said Emma.
“Same here” said Katie. “Are we going to talk about Mom before Georgie gets home from soccer?”
“Yes, I guess so. We should.” He walked over to close the dining room door, and sat at the table, his back to the windows. “I’m not sure where to start. There are things about your mother’s side of the family that few people know. But someone found out, and Maria had to be protected.”
“Who threatened her? You’ve never told us this,” Emma said.
“Your mother was…special. Her family goes back a long way in Wales. They were never rulers, but ruler makers. And they had some unusual abilities.”
“Like what, Dad?” Katie asked.
“They were—they are—deeply connected to the old world, to the magical side that most people have forgotten about or scoff at. They understand magic. And because of that, they are in danger.”
“So that’s why we left Wales.” Emma held Katie’s hand tightly in her own.
Peter got up from his chair and came around the shining wood table to stand near them. Taking both their hands, he said, “Yes. Your mother had to leave for her safety. We brought your grandmother and your great-grandmother with us. We thought we’d all be safer over here, but they found us. They sent a man to try to kidnap your mother.”
“Who are they?” Emma asked.
“I’m not sure. I believe they belong to another old family who knows the secrets of power. The man that night tried to capture your mother. She decided she needed to keep you safe.”
“How?” Katie turned to look at the pond.
“Your mother knew you would be in danger if they knew she was still alive.” Peter looked at the girls. “What I’m going to tell you now is a secret, a very important secret. Your mother vanished to protect you. The police believe that she fell or was pushed into the pond, but they never found her body. They only found blood on a rock nearby and ripped material from the dress she was wearing on the rocks and bushes where the water cascades down to the lake. They think her body was swept out of the pond into the lake. The water runs pretty fast over the cliff, especially when it rains.”
“What about the man? Did he drown in the pond, too?”
Peter shifted in his chair, to half face the water. “They never found him. The police thought he may have survived. That he climbed out of the pond at the far end.”
“But so could Mother!” Emma got up to stand by the fireplace where she could see his half-turned face.
“We thought it best for your sake to say she died. I don’t know if we were right.”
“Is Mother still alive?” Katie sat with her shoulders coat hanger-straight, clutching the arms of her chair, looking at her father with wide-open eyes.
“No one is to know what I’ve told you. Including Georgie. He’s too young. You all will be in great danger if this becomes known.”
They heard the front door open, and Ginny’s cheerful voice bounce down from the front hall. “Hello. Anyone here? Oh, there you are.” She peeked into the dining room. “I’ll put the kettle on and make a quick dinner.”
When she’d gone, Peter said: “We’ll talk more about this another time, girls. It’s important that you know. Remember, keep the information secret.”
Katie was glad to go upstairs with Emma. Their mother was, seemingly, alive. And if she hadn’t died, where was she? When could they see her?
“Katie, I want to show you something.” Emma pulled her sister into her bedroom. “After mother disappeared, I found her jewelry box hidden at the back of her closet. And in it, I found this.” She held up a very old necklace—a dark red stone shining from an intricately woven gold shield, hanging on a long rose-gold chain. “I think this is what the intruder wanted. I don’t know what to do with it now. I’m nervous to leave it in the house.”
“Wow, Em.” The necklace shone with more brilliance than the window light should have given it. Katie examined it, holding the chain so the pendant flashed. “But why did you take it?”
“I wanted something that was Mother’s. Sometimes I wear it under my top.”
“Be careful, Em. Put it back in the closet. Dad might look for it now that he’s told us about Mother.”
“No, he won’t. He doesn’t like to look at anything that reminds him of her. He doesn’t even go into the living room, because her picture above the fireplace makes him sad.”
Katie shook her head and walked over to Emma’s window. “I don’t know what to think about what Dad told us. If Mother is alive, where is she?”
She looked out at the pond, but nothing was stirring.
Peter, too, looked out toward the pond in late afternoon sun. Had he been wise to tell the girls? But if anything happened to him, they needed to know.
He knew she was in the water, benign and protective, but he had never seen her. The ability to see the magic was given only to Maria’s daughters. Neither he nor Georgie could see her. He could hear her, and occasionally he saw a shadow move. Nothing more.
Dinner was very silent, except for Georgie talking about the upcoming school play. Peter for once did not question them about what they’d learned that day.
After dinner, Katie waited in the dark hallway outside the dining room. When Peter stepped onto the patio, and walked toward the sunset-lit trees around the pond, she followed him.
Fireflies, lively tonight, hovered between tree branches and above the pond. And in the water, light seemed to shine upward.
“Ah, Katie. It’s a beautiful evening. I thought some fresh air might clear my head.”
“May I walk with you, Dad? I’ve finished my homework.”
“Of course. How are you feeling about what I told you today?”
“Why is all this happening to our family? Why are the people coming here, coming after us? And where is Mother now?”
“They think your mother—and now perhaps you and Emma—know about something they want. It’s hard to explain. The women in our family are special. They have special sight, and special abilities.” He took Katie’s hand. “Have you ever seen anything…peculiar…in the pond? A creature?”
Katie looked up at her dad. “I know there is something in the pond. I’ve never seen it clearly, but I know it’s there.”
“You do have the special sight, then, Katie.”
“Georgie says it saved us from the strange man before Mother disappeared.”
“I was surprised when Georgie said he saw something. Usually only the women have the sight. Maybe young children do, too.”
“Where did this creature come from, Dad? I’m not afraid of it.”
“The creature is a female, like you and Emma, and your mother. It’s part of your heritage, your Welsh family.”
“Can Emma see her?”
“Yes, she has the sight, too. You both see many things other people don’t. Have you ever tried to talk to the creature?”
“Sort of, Dad. Once I sang a lullaby Grandma Lowe used to sing to us. One that Mother knew. There was a ripple. It was too dark to see, but I wasn’t afraid.”
“You were singing to your great-grandmother. We brought her with us from Wales, but she got very sick on the journey, and so she left her human form. She’s the creature, the dragon in the pond. She is powerful and protects you, indeed all of us. There is still danger for her, though. Few people believe that dragons still exist, but…”
“Why do those other people want to hurt us?” Katie slipped her hand back into her father’s as they reached the far side of the pond. From there, the sun reflected on and through the water, and she saw the large, dark shape, followed by a smaller shape.
Peter stopped and looked intently at her. “There is a book, a valuable book that belongs to our family. We brought it with us from Wales, and I hid it in the house. It’s about dragons. In the historian world, it would cause a sensation.”
“I know about the book, Dad. It’s beautiful. The pages shine.”
Peter glanced quizzically at her, but continued. “There’s also a pendant made from a rough garnet set in Welsh gold. It goes with the book. Strange things happen when the two are close to each other, so I hid them in two different places. I think that’s what the men are after. I don’t know how they found out about them, because only our family knows.”
Katie and Peter sat down on the memorial bench, Peter’s fingers automatically searching to rub the inscription to Maria.
“Did you tell Cousin Gerry about it, Dad?”
“Yes, unfortunately. Yes, I did.”
“Dad, I don’t know how to say this. I’ve seen him in the upper hallway, several times, where he has no right to be. He spies on us. And he follows Emma. I don’t like him at all. Neither do Emma and Georgie.”
Peter sighed and looked into the water. “Gerry’s never been as reliable as he could be. But I thought, I hoped, he would protect our family if need be. It’s possible he’s behind it. I hope not. But I don’t know.”
“Is there anyone else who knows?”
“Just your Grandma Lowe. I’ve left a letter for our lawyer in case something happens to me. Other than that, we’ve told no one. I think Ginny suspects something, but I don’t want to put her in danger. She’s a good woman. I’ll be glad when Grandma Lowe returns from Wales.”
The water rippled, and a black tail tip emerged.
“It’s time.” Peter stood up and brought out a silver whistle. “Would you like to meet your great-grandmother, Katie? I mean, meet her again. You knew her in Wales when you were very little.”
“I remember her. Oh, yes, Dad. I would.”
Peter blew one long note on the whistle. Suddenly, a dark green head emerged from the water, followed by a scaled back, bright wings and a pointed tail.
“Margaret, here is your great-granddaughter, Katie.”
The creature pulled herself up onto a rock, and spoke in a gravelly voice. “Hello, little one. You have grown since I last talked with you.”
“Great-grandmother! I am so glad to see you. I wish Mother were here, too.”
The dragon moved closer to Katie and her father. An ethereal wing wrapped around the girl’s shoulders, nudging Peter aside. He looked startled, but then moved back.
“Well, little one, your mother is not too far away. I tell her how you are and what you are doing. She so much wants to come back to you. But your father and I decided that for everyone’s safety, she should stay hidden. Like the locket and the book. I know you have seen both. Keep them separate, and keep them safe.”
“Margaret, I wish I could see you.” Peter looked in the direction of the rock beside the bench. “I’m grateful for your protection of the children.”
“I will always protect my little ones, Peter. Don’t worry.”
Katie watched as she unwrapped her wing. She slid off the rock, and back into the water. Just before her head went under, she said, “Remember, keep the treasures safe. I’ll be here.”
The rest of the week slipped by quickly. Emma and Katie would quietly ask their dad questions, but he rarely answered them, pretending Ginny or Georgie were about to enter the room.
On Thursday night, Ginny called Peter to the phone.
“Hi, Peter. It’s Gerry. I’d like to come down.”
“Gerry. We’re busy this weekend. Perhaps another time?”
“I need to see you. Now.”
“Sorry. As I said, we are busy. The kids are in a play at school. Before their holidays begin.” Peter listened as the receiver slammed down. He hoped not to hear from Gerry again.
Katie was glad the school year was almost over. On Friday afternoon, she went upstairs to put on her costume and asked Emma for help with her makeup.
Emma applied mascara to Katie’s lashes, and stood back to study her handiwork. “Beautiful. You are growing up fast.”
“I wish Mother could see me.” Katie looked into the old dresser mirror, through silvered reflections, imagining what she would look like in a few years. Her mother’s dress, hemmed up with tape and held in by a belt, outlined her maturing shape. Her copper hair had darkened over the winter, but the summer sun would lighten it back to a blaze. Her green eyes were her mother’s color. She glowed, much like the afternoon sun outside the window.
Trailing skirts just a bit too long for her, Katie stepped down the stairs, surprised to see her father at the bottom. “You look so much like your mother, Katie. I’m not surprised you have her gift.”
“Thanks, Dad.” She paused on the stairs, aware of a new feeling. Power? Could it be power? “We should go. Is Ginny in the car?”
“Yes, ready to go.” Peter called up the stairs. “Georgie!”
“Coming, Dad.” The small boy tumbled past Katie on the stairs. His old-fashioned suit, expertly recut by Ginny from Peter’s old jacket, made him look like he had stepped out of a movie. “I’m excited.”
“I know, son.” Peter locked the front door, and they left for the school.
Nearby, watching them go, was a man dressed in black.
The play—a reenactment of village life 150 years ago during Canada’s Confederation—was a success. As the audience clapped for their own children, if not for other cast members, Katie fought an urge to get home. She didn’t want to stay for the reception and the congratulations, the groups of neighbors gossiping, the kids running to burn off energy after sitting still for an hour. She just wanted to go home.
After a few minutes of lemonade, cookies and chat, she whispered to Peter that something was wrong. He looked at her, this little die-cut version of Maria, and knew they must go. Ginny rounded up Georgie while Emma, Katie and Peter headed outside to their car.
The drive through the darkening woods was silent. Even Georgie seemed to feel anxious now. As they turned down their long driveway, a light shone from the far side of the house.
Peter told everyone to stay in the car. He got out and ran around to the back. When he didn’t return, Emma scrambled out the door, followed by Katie. Ginny kept Georgie with her inside the car.
The girls ran around the house to the patio. The dining room door stood open, the glass in shards on the ground. Inside, Peter was wrestling with a man.
Katie tried to run in to help. Emma held her back, but Katie broke free. She shot inside and leaped on the man’s back. He tried to shift her, but she hung on. Peter hit him hard. Katie and the man fell to the carpet.
Peter pulled Katie up and hugged her. She could feel him shaking. He collapsed in a chair, while Georgie and Ginny burst into the dining room. Emma dialed 911 for the police.
“What happened? Who is he?” Georgie pushed away from Ginny and tried to pull off the man’s mask off before Peter grabbed him.
On the floor, the intruder groaned, then stirred.
“Find some rope, or duct tape,” Peter ordered. “Emma, did you call the police? Katie, go to the front to wait for them. Georgie, stay back.”
Suddenly, the intruder scrambled up and dug into his pants pocket. A glittering knife appeared in his right hand. He lunged for Georgie and grabbed him. Keeping an eye on Peter, he dragged Georgie by the boy’s collar across the room to the outer door. “Don’t come any closer, Peter. Give me the book and the necklace and I’ll leave. I’ll keep Georgie with me. Give them to me or he’ll die.”
“Gerry!” Peter recognized the intruder’s voice. “Why are you doing this? These are my children!”
“Money, Peter. Just money.” He yanked Georgie to his feet with his left hand. “You have valuable things. With Maria dead, you don’t need them anymore. And I do.”
“I can’t believe you’d betray us like this, threaten my kids.”
“You heard me.” Gerry moved back, a firm hold on Georgie. “Give me the book and the necklace or Georgie will get hurt.” He brandished the knife. “I mean it.”
Suddenly, Georgie kicked backward hard, striking Gerry in the shin. Gerry yelled in pain and loosened his grip on the boy’s collar. Georgie broke free and rushed out the dining room door.
Katie watched Georgie run toward the bench on the far side of the pond with a cursing Gerry, knife still in hand, in close pursuit. She rushed after them. Georgie and Gerry were beside the water, with Gerry closing the gap between him and the boy. Then, to her amazement, she saw a large golden claw come out of the water. Gerry turned, his eyes widened, and he dropped the knife. The claw reached up, hooked Gerry and dragged him under.
Katie screamed. Light shot up into the sky like fireworks. The water surface quivered with the struggle beneath.
Peter and Emma came running up to her. Katie could only point. Georgie shouted about Gerry in the now-quiet pond.
“Georgie, listen to me,” Peter said, spotting the knife and pocketing it. “The police will be here soon. Tell them Gerry fell into the water.”
“Yes, sir,” said Georgie.
He turned to Katie. “You understand, don’t you, Katie? Do not tell them what you saw. Say the same thing.”
Katie nodded. Looking at the water surface, now lit by fireflies, she couldn’t believe anything had happened. The surface, as smooth and dark as oil, reflected the last of the sunlight. At the far end of the pond, she saw two dark shapes emerge from the water and, with a swirl of wings, lift into the sky.
She heard running footsteps, and knew the police were close. And as they arrived at the pond, she saw two magnificent dragons, one large, and one smaller, fly through the twilight, and out over the trees. She shivered as fireflies danced around her. She knew she had just seen her mother and knew she would see her again. Then she could see nothing but the last of the twilight, shining through the trees.
Later that night, after having Ginny’s restorative cups of cocoa, the girls relaxed in Emma’s bedroom. Emma hugged Katie and pulled the garnet pendant out from under her blouse. Soft light infused the space around them.
“That was quite a day, Katie.”
“I’m so glad it’s over. I’m glad Mother is alive. I’m glad there’s some magic in the world. Most of all, I’m glad we’re safe again.” Katie settled back down on the bed.
The sisters smiled as the pendant lit up, fire-like. They would keep it and the book safe. They would keep their family safe.
And soon, Katie knew, they would see what happened when they put the pendant and the dragon book together.