A short note before beginning: This is the second installment in what will ultimately be a very long project. Breaking it up (a lot) for easier reading.
Comments welcome, always. 🙂
None of the villagers heard him. The man turning the roasting meat looked up and called a greeting to the one called Mai, and the second, who had been feeding the fire with fresh wood, made some comment about the meat and its relative completion. A conversation progressed, in which they discussed the seasonings, the timing, the heat, and the expected taste of the coming meal. Jakob stared at them in disbelief, and then, though he doubted it would produce a reaction, waved his hand in front of each of them, to which they took no notice.
He let out a groan of frustration which shortly afterward became a shout – to which no one in the settlement reacted.
“What sort of crazy magic is this?” he wondered, looking down at his hands, which he could see quite clearly. He had seen his reflection in the water that morning. He could hear his own voice. He was hungry. He could not be dead, so why could he not be seen or heard?
He was hungry.
There was meat freshly roasting upon the fire before him – a freshly butchered leg of what smelled like lamb. The scent of it was unbearable. Jakob found again that his stomach was focused enough to distract the rest of his mind from his previous concerns.
If they could not see him, it would be quite simple to take a bit of meat, wouldn’t it?
At once, his conscience was revolted. Stealing was wrong. It meant depriving another of his property. The heir to Antella did not steal. What would his father think? His sister? His mother? Olivia?
A princess did not marry a thief.
“But I am dead,” he protested. “I can’t inherit Antella if I am dead. I cannot be married to Olivia if I am dead. Is there even an Antella to inherit anymore?”
But he was not dead.
He was hungry.
“Is it nearly ready?”
The voice of this young woman pulled Jakob from his philosophical meanderings and ethical concerns. She smiled brightly toward the young men, who, oblivious to his dilemma, had gone on discussing the meal all this while. They all smiled back, apparently drawn in by the sight of her beauty. She was young, with bright wide eyes and a round face.
Jakob saw only the basket she carried, which was filled to the brim with freshly baked loaves of bread. The scent of them, though not as strong as the roasting lamb, sent his stomach to crying in agony once more.
His mind was decided. Unethical though it might be, he would have to steal food to eat. Stomach had beaten philosophy.
He pondered merely taking a loaf at that moment, but even though he was invisible, a sudden vanishing of bread might not go unnoticed. How would the villagers react? It seemed unfair to frighten them, as they were likely not to blame for his predicament.
Instead, he waited, somewhat impatiently, while the young men flirted with the pretty girl, and then at last she set the basket upon a table nearby while she talked. As their eyes were more upon the lady than the bread, Jakob seized the opportunity. He took a decent-sized loaf, nearly the size of his hand, and darted away from them all before they could notice.
Once it was in his hand, the bread was apparently as invisible as he was, for none of them remarked upon the alarming sight of a loaf floating through the air. It was only after he had devoured half the loaf in mere seconds that Jakob considered this fact. He paused in his eating long enough to take note of it, and then went back to satisfying his need.
There was apparently some sort of feast being celebrated, for the roasting lamb that had so tempted Jakob earlier was but a small part of the fare set out as the morning progressed into afternoon. As the sun began its descent behind the hills that surrounded the village, tables were filled with such a variety of food that he assumed some important holiday must be taking place.
There were many legs and roasts of lamb, apparently freshly butchered and roasted in the same manner, but this was not the only type of meat. He could see several types of birds set upon the table, and a few of the elusive rabbits he had encountered in the forest.
There were baskets filled with dozens of the same freshly baked loaves of bread and rolls. Salads, made of fresh green leaves and shoots, garnished with radishes, cucumbers, and young tomatoes, sat in wooden bowls beside pots filled with grains and rice, stewed tiny carrots, boiled turnips, and the earliest ears of corn.
As for the people, they arrived by the dozen, and Jakob saw now that there were more than a hundred residents of this village. He watched, careful to stay out of the way of people who could not see and avoid colliding with him.
“I didn’t know there were so many of you,” he said aloud, and moved now to the edge of the camp, near to one of the caves. “I was told that the Dragonya were nearly wiped out.”
Yet, as he cast his eyes over the caves, he could see a dozen dragons within, resting lazily. The nearest to him, a gigantic red creature, opened one bright green eye and peered through him as the humans had done. A shiver ran down his spine, and he found himself glad for the first time that he was invisible.
A memory came to him then.
“No, no, he won’t hurt you,” Li Tan had said. He stood beside the green dragon, which was peering down at the humans with curious, gold eyes. Was it curiosity, or merely hunger?
Jenni had stepped a bit closer to her brother then, clutching his arm tighter than she had been a second ago. “Well, if you say so, Li,” she’d replied. The dragon rider had smiled indulgently.
He patted the dragon’s nose. “You won’t, will you?” he said pleasantly, to which the creature did not respond verbally, but gently exhaled a breath of warm air. It seemed to serve as an affirmative answer. Jenni relaxed her grip. Slightly.
It was no great difficulty to steal a bit of meat, a few more loaves of bread, and even a handful of the berries set out on the table. There was so much food that even if any of the people had noticed some of it vanishing, it would have been no great concern, for there was still plenty more for the rest of them.
The children rushed through the crowds of people, playing with one another, darting through the adults, laughing. The boys wore trousers made of thick material, boots of sturdy leather, tied with laces, tunics of thin linen in the warm summer heat. Some of the girls wore trousers as well, but most wore skirts which were short enough that they could run as quickly as the lads without fear of tripping.
They showed no fear of the dragons, but ran past and even into their caves without concern. Most of the dragons were sleeping, or perhaps only half-sleeping, and took little notice, though a few opened their eyes briefly and watched.
In the midst of this celebration, the wings of a dragon blocked the setting sun, shading the valley as it gently sank. The children, taking note of its presence, scurried away from the open area between the dragon caves, and watched the landing, as did most of the other revelers.
It was a green dragon, with a fan of scales encircling its head and dark golden eyes glinting in the light of the setting sun and the torches that had been lit to illuminate the meal. With a solid thud, it landed. Its long tail was tipped with points of what appeared to be bone, and it now curled this around its body.
“Nay, I’m fine,” the rider said, and slid down from his dragon’s back without assistance from either the dragon itself nor any of the others who came to offer a hand.
He was a tall man, with long, dark hair bound behind his neck with a leather cord. His skin was tanned from many long hours of flight. As he walked toward the settlement, he undid the fasteners of his leather jacket and removed it. One of the younger men who had stepped forward to assist now took the coat, while several others began at once to tend to the dragon.
“Yes, he’ll need a bath,” the Rider was saying as he walked, “and maybe a little food, see if he’ll take it. Mostly what he needs is rest.”
“And you?” a woman’s voice asked, at which he halted his steps. “You look exhausted, Li.”