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Dragon Gem, The: 1. The Dragon Gem
The words rang in Dissa’s ears as she resolutely waded out into the chilly waters. She ignored both the taunting of Guilin who had dared her to make the attempt, and the pleas of her friends to give up and return to shore. Her braided dark hair was tucked down into the back of her short brown dress, and her knife was on a belt around her waist. Her shoes she had sensibly left back on land.
Rotting wooden piles still clustered thickly in the shallows. Once Laketown itself had stood here, but the fiery death of Smaug had smashed and burned most of the buildings decades before. Superstitious fear of the dragon’s grave had led to the town’s rebuilding to the north, further along the shore of Long Lake. Though the waters were not deep, no one had ever recovered any of the jewels that were known to have encrusted Smaug’s belly, and that must have fallen to the lake bed as the vast carcase rotted away.
Now that the water was up to her waist, she leaned forward and let herself drop into its embrace, stroking forward carefully to avoid the many snags.
The lake was cold, but not icy, not in midsummer. Old stories claimed that the dragon had fallen on the side of town where the waters were deepest, but even there the bottom could not be more than twenty feet below the surface. There seemed no reason why an intrepid swimmer could not collect a few of the gems. And yet – none had done so, not in sixty years. A number had tried, naturally. Some lost their breath, and were dragged half-drowned from the lake by their friends. Some became disoriented underwater, and turned up far along the shore. A few never were seen again. Now the folk of Laketown avoided the Dragonstrand, except for the young who still sometimes dared each other to enter the cursed waters, as Guilin had dared Dissa today.
She kept her face resolutely to the east, marking her place along the shore so that she would not become lost. By now she had swum far enough that the cries of friend and adversary alike had faded to silence behind her.
Why had Dissa taken the dare? She was not usually reckless. Indeed her parents had long worried that their daughter was too retiring, preferring to stay at home with her mother and sisters and unable to make friends easily. The most foolhardy thing she had ever done was probably to go out in the winter without her wool hood over her head. So why?
Perhaps, at long last, she had become tired of sitting in the shadows, listening to tales in the firelight, never acting. Even if she failed today – and she fully expected to fail – everyone would know that Dissa daughter of Androl had made the attempt. She would earn the respect of her peers for her courage, at least.
And so she took a deep breath and let herself sink into the green water.
The light sparkling on the surface faded rapidly as she thrust her way downward, keeping one hand lightly on a wooden piling so that she would not become confused in her direction. Something brushed her leg – a weed? no, a fish. She could scarcely see, now, as she reached the floor of the lake.
She had decided that it would be foolish to dig at random into the ooze; doing so would only disturb the mud so that she could see nothing. Far better to look around and try to determine where the dragon’s bones lay. Any jewels she might find would be near the center of the skeleton, since the old tales agreed that it was Smaug’s breast and belly that were armored thus.
Luck had brought her close. The great skull gaped at her from only a few yards off. She estimated the distance carefully, then let herself rise to the surface again, making certain that she kept to the same side of the piling so that she could swim in the right direction.
On her second descent the sunlight failed even more abruptly, it seemed. Again Dissa used an old pole to orient herself. She ended among the great ribs of fallen Smaug. Quickly, before her breath ran out, she began to feel around between the bones. But something prevented her from getting her fingers more than a few inches into the mud – she could not understand why. As she tried vainly, she began to become dizzy from the lack of air, and was forced to surface again.
Now Dissa paused to think. She had done as much as any, and had not yet become lost, nor drowned. Should she try once more, or decide that she had accomplished her purpose and carried out the dare? She looked towards the tree-lined shore, and the sun now standing halfway to the horizon. Her friends were there, and her family in town further away.
No. She had come this far. Once more. She filled her lungs with air and descended.
This time darkness engulfed her almost immediately. Had she not had one hand on the piling, she would unquestionably have lost her way. When she reached the bottom, Dissa drew the knife from her belt and used it to test the muck. With an effort, she was able to poke through the barrier and feel around. There was something there! She could not see it, but it felt rough, not like an ordinary pebble. She grasped the object firmly in one hand and pulled herself back to the pole.
When they found her far down the shore that evening, Dissa was laughing softly and rocking back and forth as she sat, still cradling the fragment of broken pottery that she had spent so much effort to retrieve. In later years she had it set on a silver chain, and her husband Guilin called it her dragon gem.
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