Jarol stood like a sentinel, facing the children before him. All eyes looked at him expectantly. “No,” he finally said. “I promised your mother I’d have you in bed by nine o’clock, and it’s now eight-fifty-five.”
The youngest one cried out first. “Aw, c’mon.”
Jarol looked down at Tony, and felt a small pang of worry. Such a big voice, and yet for a six-year old the boy looked no more than a day past four, his size far smaller than it should have been by now. But then, appearances aside, the fire in those eyes told him this one held the strength and independence of a child twice his age.
Jarol shook his head. “C’mon nothin’. A promise is a promise, you know that, and I intend to keep mine.”
The middle child, Andrew, spoke up then. “But, pa-paw, we still have five minutes.” He gave Jarol a pleading look that begged for reasonable thought. Couldn’t he bend just this once? Always the one to find the loophole in any argument, Andrew would most likely be standing before a judge someday, arguing ad infinitum on what the legislature truly meant by this or that law.
Jarol glanced over, saw the look on the oldest child’s face--a look that said, so what are you gonna do now?--and felt his determination wither. There were only three of them, and he wasn’t growing any younger.
“Oh, all right.” He glanced at the clock, took a deep breath and swallowed it. “I guess I can spare a few minutes.” He shuffled across the wooden floor to the easy chair, the leather worn and shiny, and the pillow top sighed as he slumped into it. His hands cupped the armrests. “So what do you boys want to hear about tonight?”
The two youngest looked to the oldest, Tommy, who gazed toward the ceiling, his lips pressed together, and after a moment nodded his head like he’d just solved the riddle behind Mona Lisa’s smile. “How about the Dragon Lady?” he said.
“Yeah,” the other two shouted.
“The Dragon Lady,” Jarol said. “But it’s so long, and you’ve heard it at least a hundred times already.”
“But we want to hear it a hundred and one times,” Andrew said. “And after that, a hundred and two.”
Tony nodded. “It’s the best one.”
Jarol looked to Tommy, who stood there with arms crossed and a smile on his face. He pursed his lips for a moment and then said, “Okay, the Dragon Lady it is.”
“What color were her eyes again?” Andrew asked.
Jarol laid his head back. “They were black. As black as the new moon sky with all the stars swallowed up. In fact, I’d be willing to bet the light from the torches of a thousand foot soldiers had been snuffed out with just one look from the Dragon Lady. Now boys, there’s evil and then there’s evil, and she was by far the most evil woman who ever lived.”
The room drew silent.
“Instead of skin, her body was coated in scales, green and sparkling like emeralds. And when she talked, her forked tongue flicked in and out, her voice sounding like the crash of ocean waves. Her breath smelled like burning tar.” He told how she came to be and where she lived on the hill. “For years, she ruled over the land with a power no man had ever seen. With spells the bent fire, the flames so hot they would melt the stoutest of shields, she terrorized the people. She devoured her enemies whole like a python eats mice.”
Tony leaned into Andrew, wrapped both arms around his brother.
“‘Bring me your best men,’ she screamed from the hilltop, ‘and I will eat them all.’ And for the longest time, nobody dared. Most hid behind rocks, fearful that one blast of fire from the Dragon Lady would instantly turn them to ash. Then one day, a new warrior appeared, a young man who said, enough, the people had lived in fear too long and had apparently forgot who they were. Nobody had ever heard of him before, and though it had been rumored he was only a minor’s son, the youngest at that, nobody really knew for sure where he came from, or how, without sword or shield, he could act so brave and valiant. But stood before the Dragon Lady he did, wearing only the clothes on his back, because when given the chance to wear the best armor from the finest blacksmith, he refused. ‘I’m not a swordsman,’ he said. ‘Instead, I will go against her with only that which I hold in my hands and the fire in my heart.’ The people were amazed. ‘But you have nothing in your hands,’ they said.”
“But that didn’t matter, did it pa-paw.”
Jarol looked at Tony and smiled. “Not a bit. He went before her, opened his palms, and blue light shot forth. It swirled around the Dragon Lady, and a new look filled her eyes, one that nobody ever saw before--fear. In an instant, it was over. The blue light twisted and spiraled into the sky, and nobody ever saw the Dragon Lady again.”
“Wow,” Andrew said. “That one never gets old, pa-paw.”
Jarol looked at the clock and exhaled. “Well, will you look at that? I gave you the story and still have a minute to spare.” He swept a hand toward the stairs. “Now off to bed.”
The two youngest gave him a hug, a kiss, and then scurried away. Tommy lingered behind, smiling.
“You like that story, huh?” Jarol asked.
Tommy nodded. “Because I know it’s true.” He stepped forward, one hand inside the pocket of his jeans. “And you know what else I know, pa-paw?”
Jarol frowned. What was this? “I can’t imagine.”
From his pocket, the boy produced a wristwatch. His time read nine-fifteen. “I know who and what you are.”