By Kathryn Ryman

The cave is larger than the beast that keeps it. The walls stretch up high into the dark and the roof seems as distant as the moon when first you enter. The dragon itself is small. It lies stranded in the center of its vast empty domain, a huddle of bones and wasted muscle. You feel your heart sink; awash with disappointment, you regard the pitiable creature from afar. It rolls its sunken eyes towards you and scents the air but it does not get up, makes no move to guard its barren kingdom. You start forwards refusing to be deterred. The treasure could be something small you reason, something that can’t be seen from as far away as this. Something tiny you think… or something invisible even; with a dragon lying there before your very eyes will you really draw the line of disbelief at invisible treasure?

The dragon is not as small as it first appeared nor as feeble, not by half. It looms large as you approach and your nerve begins to waver. When finally it does raise its head and turn to look you squarely in the eyes you take a moment to re-adjust your concept of time, of what is old. The pyramids are new in the dragon’s eyes, empires were built and brought down in less than a day. You want to go home and forget how short your life will be.

You aren’t welcome. The dragon speaks straight into your mind and your own thoughts scatter like rats in its presence.

‘I um… I’m here for the ah… treasure?’

You have never felt so foolish. The dragon blinks at you very slowly.

You understand there is a test? A flash of your initial excitement returns, this part will be just like the stories, just how you’ve imagined. You grin and nod eagerly.

‘Yes! A riddle, I know.’

You are ready, you know you can find the answer; dealing with the dragon is where you must show caution.

“I’ll answer your riddle, but I’ll need to see the treasure first.”

You speak firmly, all your research told you that was the only way to deal with a creature such as this. Show it you mean business. The dragon is silent for a long time. More silent. Then one huge wing draws up and away from the shrunken body. You lean forward carefully, never stepping within range of teeth or claws, and you spy a book. It is an old book, tattered and leathery like the dragon itself, it nestles in the coil of the beast’s long tail.

“That’s the treasure?” You ask with a sinking heart.


“Isn’t there more of it?”

There was. The dragon’s non-voice seems to sigh.

“Well where is it?”

It was won. If you wish to win the book then you must answer the riddle. It is your turn to sigh now, you glance about yourself feeling foolish and wondering why you ever came.

“Well what’s in the book?”

It is a book of life.

“The Book of Life? Well I guess that sounds interesting.”

You rally your enthusiasm and console yourself with the fact that at least you got to see a dragon. Maybe the last dragon. You square your shoulders and look it in the eye again. “Alright. Let’s hear the riddle.” The dragon shifts with a great and ponderous creaking of ancient bones, coming to rest again with its nose just bare inches from your own. Even if the thought to run had occurred to you your knees would have been too weak to act on it. You stare at the flaky skin between its flared nostrils and try not to think of fire. The dragon heaves a great sigh and begins to recite.


Where creatures dwell on land or sea,

There is one thing a certainty.

Picture this, what would you find

to be rarely a comfort but always on time.

Now I tell you last of these clues three,

It comes to all who live but me.


The words are slow and rhythmic; they reverberate off the inside of your skull, bouncing through your mind and building to disorienting intensity as the simple rhyme comes to a close. You blink hard and shake your head to clear it. The answer seems… Obvious. You shake your head again. It isn’t obvious, that is not what you came here for. You came for a battle of wits and hard won treasure, not a kindergarten rhyme and an old book. You regard the dragon coldly.

“That’s it?” A ponderous blink and silence greet the question. You gaze around the vast, empty cave and sigh. “God what a waste of time.”

You know what the answer will be but paranoia forces you to double check, and anyway it would be a shame to waste all of your painstaking research. You did not come here unprepared. So you sit down on the stone floor and pull a tiny silver square from your bag. The little computer whirrs to life in your lap and the dragon seems unperturbed. From the corner of your eye however, you see the barest coil of smoke trail upwards from the end of its snout. You ask it to repeat the riddle and it does. You search the little rhyme and compare it to the hundreds of others you have studied, it is not among them, but then again you are already certain.

“Alright.” You sigh, and climb back to your feet. “The answer’s death isn’t it?”


            “Well… Great.” Of all the things you expected this to be, awkward was not one of them. “I’ll just take this then? Shall I?” You take a hesitant step forwards.

You have won the right to know the book. The dragon concedes and moves aside once more. You reach down and carefully lift the book from its protective spiny coils. It is heavier than you would have guessed. The cover is dark and the pages rustle seductively as you flip open the cover. The book seems to whisper, seems to hold all the answers you might ever need and you lean over it eager to catch anything it might say. Your mind and heart whirl with the possibilities inside the book, to hold it is a rush so intense you begin to feel light… To feel weightless… To feel drawn and spread out into the very air around you and then down, down until… You feel your pages turned by a sudden wind, you are blown about in paper with a thousand other hearts and it is joy, joy, joy, before your cover slams shut once more.

The book falls back to the ground with a solid thud and the sound echoes around the cave with a ring of finality that is enormously satisfying to the dragon’s ears. It heaves its ancient body forwards to curl again around its treasure and there it sits. There it waits.


Image by Jacob Aguilar-Friend.