The cold wind blew across the plain. Egil remembered how it had looked, blowing snow off the roofs of the small houses clustered together in the village, how he had watched it back and twist around the pathways, so sometimes it seemed to be coming almost perfectly horizontally. He had wondered what kind of fool would go out in such weather.
But then his little sister, Lifa, had wanted to go up to the outcropping that looked over the town, to see how it looked all covered with snow.
Egil had told her not to be foolish, but she gave him a dark look, and before he could stop her, grabbed a thick fur robe and slammed the door in his face.
"Fine, freeze, see if I care," he shouted at the door, and sat back down at the small window. He saw her walk around the house, and then. . . .
But that was nearly an hour ago. She should have given up on her foolish errand by now, or even been there and back again. He worried. He paced the floor, kicking absently at the rushes. He threw some more wood on the fire, but it did little to warm the cold feeling inside him. Finally, he grabbed a large sack off the wall, stuffed in a bottle of his father's prized mead, a small wheel of cheese, some dried meat and half a loaf of bread that was rapidly going south, cold notwithstanding. Then he pulled on his cloak, and ventured out.
The weather was every bit as bad as he had feared. He could see Lifa's tracks through a deep drift next to the house, but the wind had scoured them off beyond. Hoping he could find her, Egil set a course towards the bluff.
It was tough going. Even though it was midday, the blowing snow kept the visibility down to a few feet; even worse, it was mostly in his face. Ducking his head to keep out of the worst of it, he concentrated instead on putting his feet where the snow wasn't too deep, although he was frequently forced to push through knee-high drifts. He wondered how Lifa had managed, being a head shorter than he.
He found the bluff by running into it. One moment, he was shuffling forward like an octogenarian, then the blowing snow suddenly stopped, and his cold-frozen brain momentarily thought that was kind of strange, and then he banged his head into a rock. As the world seemed to shift sideways, he plopped down into the drift he had just crashed through and waited for the cliff to stabilize.
He wasn't sure exactly where he was on the bluff—his path from the village had been anything but a straight line—so he couldn't say whether he needed to turn left or right to find the path that led to the top. He lifted his hood and stared back towards the village, hoping to catch a glimpse that would orient him, but he might as well have left the hood down. He decided he couldn't be too far off-course, and picked left as his first direction.
Half an hour later, Egil decided that he had chosen the wrong direction. There was no sign of a path, and he reluctantly turned around, and headed back the other direction. Now the wind was occasionally gusting in his face again, and he groaned. Stupid Lifa, I should just go back to town. Serve her right. But then fear crept in. What if he couldn't find his way back to town? He couldn't follow his tracks, that was certain; he hadn't seen any of hers, and he would be a fool to think that he had left any. He didn't even find the protrusion of rock he had struck, despite looking very hard for it, but he did find the path to the top.
The path was icy and very, very treacherous. In the summertime, the shepherds would sometimes lead the sheep up it, and he had been dozens of times—but then it wasn't covered in ice and drifts. The snow hid irregularities in the path, and forced him to take his time. He tried to keep close to the cliff, not trusting the drop-off on the other side—although it was snow-covered and not too steep, so he probably would have been fine if he had fallen—but he kept stumbling over rocks.
Finally, he made it to the top. Here, because of pine trees close to the edge, the snow was not blowing as much, and he could make out, a little way from the edge of the precipice, an irregular trail through the drifts. Lifa's, certainly. Egil began following it, cursing as snow fell over the tops of his boots and began to melt against his skin.
After what seemed like forever, but was really much less than an hour, he found her, leaning against a gigantic dead oak tree which had lost its branches to spring storms many years past. She was looking, starry-eyed, out at the plain.
"What did you think you were doing, you could have died!" he shouted as a greeting.
"Isn't it pretty?" Lifa motioned to the town below them, which occasionally could be seen through the blowing snow.
He inwardly agreed with her, but he wouldn't say it. His silence as he stared into the distance answered her question without a word.
"I suppose you've considered that we'd never make it back there, as long as the snow is blowing," he groused.
She thought about that for a moment. "Well, no matter. The wind will drop by the morning; it never blows too long. We can make a shelter under a pine tree, or maybe even find a cave. Mother and Father won't be back for a few days, in this weather, anyways, so they won't miss us. It will be an adventure!"
Egil, who had camped out in the wilderness with his father several times on patrol, took exception to it being an adventure, but kept his mouth shut.
"Come on," Lifa said, standing up and fastidiously brushing the snow off her cloak, a singularly futile gesture, "we should look before it gets dark." Then she was wallowing through snowdrifts with an enthusiasm that would have made a polar bear proud.
There was a grove of pine trees nearby which would have been perfectly suited to a rough, but survivable shelter, but Lifa didn't stop. "I seem to remember finding a cave here once. Didn't go in, but it seemed big enough."
"There's half a chance that any cave would have a bear hibernating in it," Egil shouted, a sudden gust of wind tearing the words from his mouth. If Lifa heard him, she gave no sign; instead, she suddenly paused, turned right, and headed for a stand of aspens shivering in the wind.
"It's right over here, I remember now," she said. "There should be some dry branches or something we can light, to make a torch of, just inside the entrance." Then, unerringly, as if she was guided by some path only she could see, she abruptly veered slightly to the left, and then vanished.
Egil gave a shout of surprise, then saw that what he had mistaken for another drift was actually an upslope of rock, covering a mostly triangular cave entrance.
While there was still light, the two of them gathered together enough wood to last them through the night, then Egil shared the food with Lifa as they alternated building the fire. When it was right, Egil began sparking his flint off his belt-knife into the kindling; presently, they had a good fire going.
As the half-light faded, the winds did begin to die down, and as the sky darkened, Egil could occasionally see stars.
"Before we sleep, sister, I would like to see how deep the cave is, see if there are any creatures that live in here."
"I'll come with you," she said.
"You tend to the fire," he replied.
She stuck her tongue out at him, while he grabbed a torch he'd made previously by wrapping a thick stick with birchbark. It wasn't ideal, but it was better than nothing. He didn't think the cave would be too deep; most of the caves in the area were no more than forty feet deep.
As we walked hunched over through the cave, he noticed an odd smell, like nothing he'd ever smelled before. It didn't smell like an animal, not quite. It was almost pleasant, but there seemed to be an undertone that he didn't like.
The cave led deeper than he'd expected, and suddenly branched off. He was deciding which way to go, when he heard a noise behind him and whirled quickly, almost crashing into Lifa.
"I told you to tend to the fire," he hissed.
"It won't go anywhere," she replied contemptuously, then whispered, "this is deeper than I thought."
"Me, too," he muttered, thrusting his torch down the northern passage. It ended within view of the feeble light, so he began to head down the other path, with his sister following.
To his surprise, the cave suddenly got larger, and he no longer had to hunch over. As he was wondering what kind of cave this was, anyways, a gust of wind caused the torch to flicker crazily.
"It must open a little further on," Lifa commented. "Let's see where."
"We shouldn't go much further," he cautioned. "If the torch goes out, we'll have to fumble our way back in the dark."
"No we won't," she said. "I brought another torch."
Why didn't I think of that?
There was a sharp bend, and then they both paused in wonder, as the roof of the cave swept upwards, and they found themselves in a vast underground cavern, much larger than the torch could illuminate.
"Come on," Lifa said, "let's take a quick look and see what's in there." She grabbed his hand and led him forward, then stopped suddenly, looking down at the floor of the cavern.
Bewildered, he stopped, too, and looked. On the floor in front of them was a giant lizard head, which looked to be carved from marble. He held the torch close to it, admiring the craftsmanship and simultaneously wondering who might have carved it and why, when he realized that it wasn't just a head, but there was a neck, too, and he could only imagine what that connected to, and then it opened an eye, an eye that seemed as big around as the village well.
Egil dropped the torch from nerveless fingers, not noticing as it landed on his boot and then rolled off. His brain sent so many conflicting messages that he managed to open his mouth and croak something which sounded exactly like a door with rusty hinges being opened, and was just as profound a thought.
They both should have died in that cavern. Most dragons are not terribly fond of humans, generally against intruders in their lairs, and typically also grumpy when awakened. It was Lifa who saved them both.
In the years which followed, Egil would never say—indeed, was never sure—exactly what Lifa had said to the dragon. His mind was still hopelessly snared in the fight/flight debate, but Lifa, in that one moment that the two of them had to live, even as the dragon was beginning to raise its head, clapped her hands together and said: "A dragon! How interesting!"
Hearing that, the dragon paused, and rather than eat them, decided that the two would be a worthwhile diversion of an otherwise boring day—for the dragon was as loath to travel into the storm outside as they had been, and began to talk.
They spent the night trading stories about life in the village and life as a dragon, and when the morning came, although none of them had slept a wink, were not tired. The weather had cleared, and in the early morning, the dragon flew off to the west, while they returned to their village.
Neither of them spoke of that night in public, not from fear of ridicule, for dragons were not unknown in those parts, but because each felt that to speak of it would somehow make it less real. No longer would it be an experience they had shared, but instead just another story of the village. And although they never saw that dragon again, for many years, Egil always got nervous whenever Lifa got that roguish look in her eyes.