Soon after the old man wakes, he takes his lyre to the cave where the sleepless dragon guards the golden hoard of a long-dead king and plays songs he hopes will send it to sleep.
Before leaving his hut, he feeds the dying fire from a dwindling pile of foraged wood and sets a pot of bitter tea to boil. With trembling, scrimshawed hands, he ties back his hair, as thin and translucent as the chill breath of winter that covers the hard ground outside his door. His bones, which creak like the wind-ravaged pinewood that spreads for miles around his hovel, implore him to stay indoors. But nothing can distract him from the fervour he feels at the thought of the wakeful dragon and its hoard of ever-guarded gold.
The smoke that rises from the chimney of his ramshackle hut each morning like clockwork reminds those in the nearby villages that it is time to begin their day, to take breakfast and head for work on their farms and forges—"The old man's up," they say, kissing their loved ones, "better be off."
A traveller deciding to sup at a nearby inn or pothouse soon learns the story of the old man, the dragon, and its hoard.
"Once belonged to an old tyrant," says a one-eyed weaver, nursing a cup of pungent cider, "oh, long time ago now. Back when my grandfather was a boy."
"Cruel feller." says the barmaid, filling the traveller's glass. "Taxed people round 'ere to almost starvin' an' kept it all holed up behind a great big dragon for safe-keepin'."
"His wizard, cunnin' bastard, put a spell on the beast so it would never close its eyes for a wink an' burn anyone to a cinder if they took so much as a footstep inside that cave."
"But tyrants only last so long afore people get tired of 'em. People rised up, and now we don't have no more tyrants round 'ere."
"Nor wizards, neither. Good riddance."
The traveller, quaffs his ale and stammers: "Has no one ever tried to claim the gold? Slay the dragon?"
Oh, many, the people at the inn say, many a foolish hero has travelled here to try, and now they're nothing but ash and bones. But none of them's more stubborn a fool than the old man who lives near the cave, the old man who, possessing no youth or skill with the sword, spends what should be his quiet years singing to the beast in the hope that he'll send it to sleep. But that's just what gold-lust does to a man . . .
Long before the traveller wakes next morning from his dragon-slaying dreams, the old man will have warmed his hands by the fire, soothed his hoarse throat with bitter tea, taken his lyre from the foot of his bed, and trudged across the snow-covered ground to a well-worn rock by the cave mouth.
He has sung every song imaginable, every ballad and lullaby he can remember; he has composed songs that describe the spring, the moon, the smell of earth after rain, the language of birds, clear nights and storm-scarred skies. He has sung songs of high peaks, of soaring on warm updraughts and dropping through cold pockets to hunt horses on the high plains, of the deep breathing of a dragon mother and the ambient heat of her belly that warms against cold winds.
But the dragon has never slipped into slumber; the old wizard's spell holds fast.
Today, the old man knows he will sing for the last time. His fingers, despite the warmth of his morning fire, are as cold as icicles and nearly as stiff. His blood flows more laboriously each day. Despite the hot balm of bitter tea, his voice is almost gone, now little more than a puff of winter wind. His pursuit has almost ruined him, but, dogged as an old hound, he has enough left in him for one last song.
His fingers pluck the lyre, the notes seeming to hesitate as they approach the cave before being swallowed by its darkness and drowned by the growls and grumbles that come from within.
The last song that escapes his lips is one of a wizard, who once served a tyrant, who found his senses and his courage and did his part to end that cruel reign, and when he was done, he broke his staff and burned his books, and only when it was too late realised he had one spell left to break, but no magic left to break it.
How it clawed at him, that he had trapped a life in such a way and caused such suffering, but he was trying to put it right, he was trying so hard and had done for so many years—and how the dragon must sleep, for this was the last song this old man would ever sing, and if it failed to bring the creature rest then rest would elude it forever, and it would spend an eternity guarding a tyrant's gold.
With a dissonant chord, the strings of the old man's lyre break.
He breathes heavily in the cold air and listens for any sounds from the cave.
Morning dallies on the cusp of the cavern. The dragon opens its eyes, the fire in its belly no longer burning; the gold that slips and clinks beneath its feet drags at its heart no more. It crawls to the mouth of the cave, stands to its full height and unfolds its stiff wings, crunching and creaking like a barque, long aground, once more taking to water. With one, two, three great beats it rises into the air, sees high peaks in the distance, which draw it even more viscerally than the gold in the cave once did.
It beats its wings again and soars over the treetops, soon to be far, far away.
Below it, unseen by the dragon's enrapt eyes, a small hut punctuates the wood; no smoke rises from its chimney.