"Please, Grandfather, tell us a story?" The girls huddled close about him, wheedling another hour beyond their bedtime, knowing that he would give in – he always did. Their brother, almost too old now for tales told by firelight, pretended not to care, but listened even so.
"Very well," the old man said with a smile. The girls squealed with happiness and settled on the rug at his feet to listen. "But first, bring me some more tea, would you, lad?" His grandson, taller now than him, assented only slightly grudgingly. The old man cradled the cup between his hands, always cold now despite the warmth of the walls.
"Once," he began, "there was a boy who dreamed of flying." They had heard this story before, but never grew tired of it. "In his waking life, the closest he could come was to climb. He would climb anything that stood still long enough – trees and walls and even his own lord father."
"He must have been very brave," said the smallest girl.
"He was too brave," said the old man. "And one day he climbed too high. A witch, who was going about her secret business in a tall tower…"
"What was her secret business?" asked the middle girl, the one with the auburn hair that glistened in the firelight.
The old man chuckled. "Whatever witches do, I suppose. I've never dared to find out! In any case, the boy came across the evil witch in her tower, and spied upon her, for he was curious as well as brave. But the witch caught him in her bony clutches and laid a curse upon him." He made his voice shake as he imitated a crone's voice. "For your impudence, you must be punished. And so I take from you your legs."
"Did she really take away his legs?" asked the smallest girl, who was still small enough to wonder at such things.
"No," replied her sister, "but they wouldn't work any longer. Isn't that right, Grandfather?"
He nodded. "That's right. The boy fell into a deep sleep, and when he awoke, his legs would no longer move. They lay there like two logs, and as much as he bid them to stand, to walk, to run, they would not answer."
"He must have been sad," said the oldest girl, her long face thoughtful.
"He was sad and frightened and angry all at once. Worse, while he slept, his brothers and sisters, mother and father, all but one very small brother – yes, as small as you, dearest – left him, fearing he would never awake. But he had some comfort. For not only did he still have his youngest brother, but his faithful wolf had also stood by him while he slept, to keep him safe."
"What was the wolf's name?"
"Summer," he said fondly. For these children, summer was not a wistful dream, but the only season they had ever known. "The wolf could carry him for short distances, but he knew it would not be far enough to seek out the witch and have her lift the curse. He needed something stronger. A giant."
"A true giant?" squeaked the tiniest girl.
"A true giant," he agreed, "who towered over any man. He was kind-hearted, although he knew not the language of men, and he was willing to carry the boy on his shoulders. For him, a small boy was little more burden than a fly would be to you. Many leagues they travelled together, with the wolf and his smallest brother by their side. And they had many adventures. They met two clever frogs, a boy frog and a girl frog, who told them…"
"Frogs who could speak?" asked the middle girl, sounding dubious.
"Yes, that they could," said her grandfather firmly. "And tell stories, far better than the poor tales I spin for you. Brave frogs, quick with a spear…"
"They don't sound much like frogs to me," insisted the middle girl, but her sisters hushed her and begged him to continue.
"Into the North they travelled, past the Wall and into the strange lands beyond. And through all of their travels, the boy dreamed. Each night when he slept, he raced through the wild woods on four legs, or even flew on broad wings. His dreams were growing stronger, and he might have slipped away into them forever, were it not for the counsel of his wise friends, and the crow."
"What crow?" asked his littlest grand-daughter, her eyes wide.
"A very wise crow, who knew much of dreams. He taught the boy to master his mind, not let the dreams take control. And the boy learned that, though his own legs were still useless, he could borrow the legs of others."
"It doesn't sound very fair to them," said the eldest girl. She was a soft-hearted one, always thinking of others.
"Perhaps not," he agreed. "But the boy did not think of such things then, for he was focused only on what he had lost, and revenge. And finally, after many hardships, he found the means to obtain it – but it cost him more dearly than he could have imagined."
"It always does, in stories," said the middle girl sensibly.
"It does," replied her grandfather. "And perhaps if the boy had paid closer attention to all the stories he had heard in his short life, from the frogs and the crow and even from his old nurse, he might have remembered that."
"What did he find in the North?" asked the eldest girl, even though she knew the answer already.
"Dragons," he said. Their eyes went wide as their minds conjured up visions far beyond what his words would ever convey.
"I thought the dragons came from the East," said the boy, the first time he had interrupted the story.
"And so they did," agreed the old man. "From the East they had travelled, farther even than the boy had journeyed, but the North was where he found them. For a terrible winter had fallen upon the land, and the dragons were waging war against it with their fire. They were fierce beasts who knew only one master – their queen, who had raised them by hand from the time they were hatched. In the confusion of battle, they slew the giant who had carried the boy so far and so faithfully."
The littlest girl sniffled at that.
"When the boy was brought before the queen at last, he found that she was beautiful and hard, but not cruel. He told her his tale, and she listened, and thought long over it. Because I have slain your mount, she said at last, you shall have another. And she gifted him with the ridership of the green dragon, to fight at her side. And that was how the boy came at last to fly." He glanced at the fire, burning low, and at the smallest girl, who was rubbing her eyes. "Perhaps it's too late to finish this story tonight," he said, knowing they would protest.
"What happened to the witch?" asked the middle girl, who had a bloodthirsty streak. "Did he find her and make her take off the curse, and then kill her afterwards?"
"He did find her," said the old man, with a hint of regret in his voice, "but she had lost all her power, and could not have made him whole again even if she had wished to. And indeed he found that, after a time, he barely missed being able to walk." It was a lie, of course, not the only one he had told that night, but still the hardest.
"What about the frogs?" asked the eldest. "He should have kissed the girl frog and then she might turn into a beautiful princess."
"She already was," he said, and smiled to himself.
"And what about the littlest brother?" said the smallest girl, half-asleep.
"Now that is too sad a story for bedtime," replied her grandfather. "Leave the story with the boy flying on dragon's wings, and dream sweet dreams, my dear ones."
One by one the girls kissed him and padded off to their bedchamber. Only the boy, nearly a man grown in truth, stayed behind. He had something to say, but the old man let him take his time about it. Finally the words burst from him. "I know that story's about you and your brother, Grandfather. So why do you have to turn it into a legend full of talking animals? It's just a bunch of lies."
"Sometimes," said the old man, "lies make a hard truth easier to bear." He knew the lad wouldn't see that, but perhaps one day he would. "Push me over to the window before you go." The boy did as he was asked, wheeling the chair across to the open window, and then left. The old man sat breathing in the warm summer air, and, contented, let his mind fly free.