At the Hot Gates


The Dragon Boy - Chapter 1

“Good evening, Galifalia.”

She looked up, shaken out of her reverie. How had someone walked up to her gate without her geese objecting? This was quite peculiar. They were very protective of their garden. She saw they were all on high alert, necks craning, red beaks jutting upwards. But they did not make any noise louder than meek, hoarse squawks. This was very odd, indeed.

Whoever had spoken was standing at her gate with the setting sun behind him. She shielded her eyes to see the visitor. She didn’t recognize the voice, yet something in it had been oddly familiar.

“Good evening to you,” she responded, squinting into the bright light.

There stood a man, cloaked and hooded, though he wore his hood back on his head revealing his face. She could make out a shaggy mane of grizzled hair, a large gray beard, a beak of a nose, a jutting brow and two eyes as fierce as sparks flying out of a fire.

“Good evening,” she repeated. Strangers were common enough in her life. Even the occasional dwarf or elf dropped by to pay their respects. Most folk, though, stopped at her gate and gawked at her like she was some rare specimen in the king’s zoo. Rarely did any of them ever speak to her, let alone address her by name.

“Pleasant evening it is,” the stranger said with a mysterious smile. He seemed to realize the effect he had on her and was enjoying it.

“Are you new in these parts?” She didn’t think she knew him, yet at the same moment, his voice and his looks reminded her of someone from long ago. An uncomfortable memory stirred in her heart and sent a sudden thrill through her whole body.

“I’ve been here before, yet it was when you could only dream of having your own garden and a fine flock of geese. Don’t you remember?”

That was a strange comment. How could he know so much about her without her remembering him? She studied his jutting nose and those eyes, so calm and full of mischief at the same time. Uncommonly black eyes, like the opening of a deep well. And now she noticed his lips. Unusually full and red for an old man. A strange memory was welling up in her breast. Galifalia sat up straighter.

“Come inside the gate,” she said. “You obviously know me better than I know you. You’ve come looking for me, it seems.”

“My Lady,” he began, “I always appreciated how you don’t believe in beating around the bush.” He stepped smoothly inside the gate. Pretty limber for an old fellow like him, she thought to herself. From the way he held his body, it seemed to her that he was carrying something underneath his cloak. What did he want to keep hidden? Her gaggle of geese flowed towards the gate, beaks still raised threateningly. As he entered, they made way for him, something she had never seen them do before. They made soft peeping sounds, as if they knew him.

“The years have been kind to you,” the stranger continued.

She nodded in appreciation, but said nothing. What was he up to? And how many years ago had he known her?

“Are you still eager for an adventure?” he asked suddenly.

When the stranger spoke these words, recognition jolted her. If she had not lived for years in the certitude that the man standing before her could no longer be among the living, she would have known him the moment he first spoke.

“You’re alive.” Her voice was hoarse and choked. She was nearly panting with shock.

“And why shouldn’t I be? Life is much too interesting to let go of that easily or quickly.”

“But back then…” her voice faded away and she shook her head in disbelief.

“Back then,” the stranger continued for her, “I was already an old man. Is that it?” He smiled broadly.

“Aye,” she said, looking at him with awe. “I was a young wild filly ready to take on the world and you were an old man. An old man with a young man’s lips. You said you’d take the adventure on yourself, if it weren’t for your age. I thought certainly…” and again her voice trailed off.

“That I was long dead.”

She shook her head in agreement.

“Well, let’s just say that in my profession, one can age younger, so to speak. You know yourself that not everything on the inside appears as it is on the outside.”

Indeed, she had learned the truth of that. She had met things within her own self that she did not know were there until they were called upon.

“How long has it been, Aga?” she asked warily.

“By my reckoning, Thursday next will be exactly forty-two years since your last great adventure began.”

The way he said that troubled her. There was something in his voice that hinted it had only been her most recent adventure, but not her final one.

"Aga, what brings you back to me after so long?”

“Well,” he began, stepping lightly up the path to stand before her. The geese followed behind him, nipping gently at his trailing cloak. “That all depends on whether you welcome what I bring with me into your life once again. Do you?”

The last time he had asked her something similar. She had said yes, and very soon afterwards, and for a long time after that, she had regretted her answer. Yet, in the end, all had worked out remarkably well. She was glad for what had happened, as frightening, strange and overwhelming as it had been.

“Aga, I am no longer young. I have about enough energy to tend my garden and look after my geese.”

“Oh, I’m well aware of the limitations age lays upon us,” he sighed with a great grin. His brown face wrinkled up like a shriveled apple and his chuckling shook his whole body. “But is that really all the strength you have? Are you sure there isn’t a bit more than for weeding a garden and chasing vagrant geese?”

“That depends what it is,” she answered quickly. This Aga was a tricky one, yet she was tickled with the game he was playing with her.

“You never married again, Galifalia.” He said it so bluntly. It struck like an icy wind killing the blossom on the stalk.

She was silent for a moment. This touched a sensitive, painful scar. The old deep wounded sadness began to rise up in her heart and she paused a moment to push it back down before answering.

“I couldn’t, not after…” but she was not able to continue.

“I understand,” Aga said soothingly, laying a comforting hand on her shoulder. “I heard about it. Although I was far away, I heard all about it. I only wish I had been close enough to help.”

“There was little you could have done, unless you know remedies against death.” She glanced at Aga and grunted. “And perhaps you do. Anyway, for awhile, I blamed you that I lost him. After all, it was your adventure.” She paused to see what the effect of her words on him would be. He stood there impassive, waiting for her to continue.

“The more time I had to think about it, though, and I’ve had over thirty years to think about it, I realized that I would have likely never seen him again after the market place if it hadn’t been for you. It was for his sake, not yours, that I continued in the adventure after I saw where it was leading.”

“So you were able to forgive me?”

“I became thankful to you,” she sighed.

“And so you never remarried.”

“How could I? You knew him; it was you who brought us together.”

“I knew him well, very well. And I depended on him. No one, not even I, expected you would play such a role. It was his skill and competence I was relying on. I had trained him myself, you know. You were there to fill out the company, to fulfill the prophecy. I tell you, my Lady, I never guessed the adventure to go the way it did. But then, adventures rarely do.”

They both grew silent, lost in memories. For Galifalia, the memory of the man she had loved was so vivid that she expected him to walk up to the gate any moment and greet them. More than once, she had waited for that to happen, so powerfully did he live within her.

Aga shifted slightly whatever it was he was carrying beneath his cloak. This caught Galifalia’s eye and she looked at him suspiciously.

“Aga, did you want to bring me another husband?” And she laughed at her own jest.

“No,” he responded, not able to totally repress a smile. “Not a husband. I will not try and do that a second time. No, not that. But since in your grief you missed the chance to raise a family…”

Galifalia interrupted him, “He died of a fever, you know. My son.”

“Is that what they told you?”

“They swore to me he died of a fever,” she insisted. “I was in mourning for my husband and beside myself. Then the fever came. Many died. That is why I had to leave. I couldn’t bear staying in that land following the death of the two people I most loved.”

“Well, well,” Aga said. “I have a better understanding now why I find you here.”

Galifalia eyed him suspiciously. “Are you keeping something from me?”

“You know, Gali, since you never remarried, you missed one of the great joys of life. I just thought you’d like a second chance.”

Galifalia opened her eyes wide at the implications of Aga’s words. Suddenly, she was certain she knew what Aga was carrying concealed underneath his cloak.

“You can’t be serious,” she shrieked and then began laughing. “Aga, what are you doing walking around the countryside with a babe on your arm? Do you have no better place to land this orphan than on my doorstep?”

Aga’s face broadened into a big smile and his eyes sparkled.

“As a matter of fact,” he said, “I don’t know of any better place for this orphan of mine. And my circle of friends and acquaintances is great indeed. This is a special orphan, and I always insisted that you are a special woman, my Lady. The two of you would fit very well together.”

“Aga, I’m an old woman,” Galifalia protested.

“Can’t be helped,” Aga said. “If I were looking for youth, I’d go elsewhere. I’m looking for a home. I’m looking for a particular home. Are you interested?”

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