Munjin shook at the crackling thunder of unseen lightning. He craned his neck up at the churning sky. He liked sitting at the Angry Tree knowing that men twice his size and three times his age feared the giant willow, but even he did not want to stay the night nestled under its ancient branches.
“I’ll buy your arm if you want, dear Munjin.”
Munjin did not jump at the teasing voice. The ghost seemed almost a sister to him. Liriope only appeared when he was alone, so he knew Silas was not lurking about.
“Could you sell me a better one?” he asked.
A smoky girl floated near the tree behind Munjin. “Would you like a frog’s arm, perhaps?” She rubbed a finger against her disappearing jaw, considering.
“I’ll take an ogre’s arm.” Munjin grinned.
“And how would you lift it, dear Munjin? You’d be like a plump fruit wiggling on the end of a dead branch,” said Liriope. Like a water-splashed painting of a girl, she hovered near him.
Ribbons of her essence spiraled off and plucked at his clothing. Even though he knew her, the hairs on his neck and arms stiffened.
She made a show of looking him over.“You seem well considering …”
Liriope brushed a wisp of her spirit body as she might a wild hair. “Am I not connected to all things? All-knowing … all-powerful …?”
Munjin laughed, and held his ribs at the twinge of pain. Liriope could touch nothing. She could only talk, but she was a fast friend. His only one.
“I felt you reach for the tree though,” she said.
“You asked the tree for help, Munjin. And it heard you. You could be a forest-talker.”
Munjin frowned. “Those are stories, Liriope.”
Liriope’s hands passed over Munjin’s. “Not just stories. No. And you could do it, Munjin, if you had a mind to.”
“I’m not a bad soul, Liriope. I don’t want to use magic.”
His Ma preached against the evils of the world. The Good Book was plain on the subject. And ever since his Ma’s pottery started coming out … peculiar … she was even more insistent about the perils of ill spirits. Wizards burned in any number of hells. Good boys helped their parents and kept quiet. Still, he was not much good in the field. He should at least try a little magic, just to make sure he couldn’t do it.
“I could show you,” said Liriope. A snowmoth fluttered through her, disturbing her essence.
Munjin turned away. “Maybe tomorrow.”
“Always ‘tomorrow’ with you. A girl will only wait so long, dear Munjin.”
Munjin smirked at her coy tone, and cut his eyes to her wavering image. She appeared to be a girl his age, dressed in the clothes of his people, but she shimmered and the edges of her form frayed like mist. He felt hollow when he looked at her too long.
“I’d better go,” he said.
“The morrow then.”
He got up slowly, rubbing his back, then bowed courtly-like to her. She smiled and waved as she let the wind blow her away.
Munjin headed back toward home, toward judgment. His side hurt. He touched his puffy face. There would be no hiding his shame.
Tall pine trees swayed as Munjin trudged under home under charcoal clouds. He tasted the sting in the air as the storm brewed up at the mountains of the Pass. He loved the scent and the fury of a late season gale.
His sense of fantasy, always good for a day’s adventure, saved him now by conjuring a more manly version of himself. He would be respected by all and too big for a fatherly walloping.
“By the Tree,” said Munjin in imitation of Junye, the talkative mill owner. “I do believe that fine young man is the son of Ivan Arkoff.”
As he weaved amongst trees, Munjin continued his imitation of the village gossips.
“No, Junye. Not that strapping soldier. Little Munjin had that bad arm. No soldierin’ for that one,” slurred Munjin in the thick, deep voice of Old Tchecky. Dinaelle loved his play acting of the village characters, and Munjin honed his skills here amongst the pines and elms when he walked alone.
“If you set your jug aside old man and look with both eyes,” said Munjin’s Junye, “you’ll see that riding that war horse is none other than our village’s scoundrel son, Munjin Arkoff, back from the Southern Wars no doubt.”
“Well, pickle me twice and split me down the middle, you may be right,” said Munjin’s Tchecky. “And here I thought he just up and ran away to inflict wrongs upon the world. I do believe I’ll go over there and shake his hand.”
A moaning wind, followed by a tremor in the ground, halted Munjin’s next dramatic delivery. He shivered and pulled the openings of his tunic closer to his body.
Then … a cry and a flapping of wings like three dozen mountain hawks filled the air. He raised his good arm to fend off an attack of beak and talon. A mammoth shadow swooped overhead as he crouched, and then he saw what few ever did: a dragon.
Munjin’s eyes grew in wonder, and a grin broke across his face, as he turned to watch the creature of legend soar toward him.
Bigger than his family’s barn, the great beast flew so close he could have hit it with a rock. It bent the trees and stirred a wave of pine needles into his face. Munjin squinted as the dragon banked sharply, and rose into the furious clouds.
Heroes and kings saw dragons, not sons of beet farmers. Could this mean he would find a fabulous sword sticking out of a stone? Or a goblin would give him a handful of magic seeds? Munjin needed his life to change.
Farther away this time, the great beast dipped below the clouds trailed by two smaller dragons. He watched them loop and arc across the gray canvas of sky until they receded enough to be mistaken for birds.
He did not know how long he stood there, stunned in his delight, smiling and beaming, as the dim light faded from blue to black.