THE HOARD MOST PRECIOUS
By Alexandra Erin
First Publication: September 24th, 2015
Word Count: ~1,500
Ah, so, another little mammal has come to beard the great wyrm in its den. Come, then! Come out and show me who would slay the dragon. Come out and see the hoard you would claim as your own.
What is that look? Is my treasure so much smaller than you imagined? I have roasted a thousand fools as they stood precisely where you stand, and yet I do not think a single one of you has ever found my fabled trove to be exactly what you thought the stories had promised.
Do not be twice fooled, though. If my neat and orderly hoard occupies less space than you were led to believe it must, still I assure you its value has likely been underestimated.
I think it’s the jewels, to be honest. Those who have much first-hand experience with precious stones are rarely driven to hunt the dragon’s hoard, so you have only your dreams to serve as a basis for comparison. You expect a chest of gemstones to be as big as your family’s cedar trunk, and you expect the contents to all be the size of a fist, yes?
Well, there are uncut stones to be had in that size, but unworked materials rarely hold my interest. See this cask of rubies? They were a gift in admiration from a red dragon with whom I once fought over territory. Neither one of us could claim the peak over which we quibbled, and so we sealed the truce between us with an exchange of gifts.
They seem mere pebbles, yes? You could retire modestly on one of them. If you could but fill your purse with the fraction of them it would hold, your descendants would be wealthy forever.
Then there’s gold. Certainly, there’s more of it here than you’ve ever seen, but I feel you were expecting there to be more even than this. Piles of gold. Mountains of gold with me nestled between them. The cave must be stuffed with gold to the point of bursting, or else the treasure-hunters will feel cheated.
Well, by my best conjuring, all the gold ever mined by the hands of man or dwarf would not fill this cavern. Does this surprise you? If it does, you have little knowledge of the nature of gold, of its scarcity, or indeed its density.
If I were to promise you your weight in gold to leave me in peace, you might decide it would be worth it, on the balance, to trade an uncertain fate for a certain fortune. But if I were to show you how little gold it would take to make up that measure, I fear you would be sure I was cheating you.
See that gold rock at your feet? I leave it there for a purpose. Do try to lift it. It fits easily in your hand, but it is not so easy as you supposed, is it? This is what a stone-weight of gold looks like. Fourteen pounds, as the accountants of the day would measure them. Would you like to keep it, with my compliments? As I told you, I have little use for raw material. It is not your weight in gold, no, but it is more than enough to change your life. And think of the story you would have to tell!
Be not so hasty! I make this offer not for fear of my life but for fear of yours. I have no taste for killing greedy fools at this time of my life.
Yes, I called you greedy. The nugget in your hand would be enough to make you very wealthy, and you could carry it out with no more risk to your life than you faced in coming here. What else should I call you, when you turn down a proffered fortune for the slim chance of an even greater one?
What? You think I am the greedy one, to hoard such wealth? If I am jealous of my hoard, it is for a purpose, though I can see no reason why I should need such a purpose beyond the fact that it is mine.
Listen! I was old when the world was new. My bones are as old as stone, but my spirit is older still. The reckoning of my memory encompasses every epoch of the earth, and yet I recall each detail with the same clarity you recall your own life.
That is the crux of it, though. With what clarity do you recall the fleeting moments of your life? Do you not rely on keepsakes, which you call mementos, to serve as signposts as you wind your way through way through the labyrinth of the dusky past? Do you not commit events of great moment to paper in order to preserve a more reliable accounting than your own poor memory can serve?
You see a trove of treasures gilt and gleaming and assume that I covet such things because I am a covetous beast, which means I am but a sinful brute, which makes it virtuous for you to slay me and claim all of this for yourself.
But what would any of this be to you, that you would not find in that chunk of gold I so generously offered and you so cavalierly discarded?
See this bowl? A simple vessel of beaten gold. To you, nothing about it is as remarkable as its composition. The metal alone is valuable. There is not a dealer in art nor in antiquities who would pay a penny more than the gold’s weight for it.
To me, though? I was alive when this bowl was made. To look at it is to throw open the door to a time and place long forgotten. I remember the slim brown hands that held it, the full lips that sipped fragrant spiced wine from it. I can see in the theater of my mind the cushions on which they arrayed themselves, the curtains that hung around them. I can smell the wine, the food, the perfume and incense on the air!
Ah, and what does that call to mind but this gold censer? Its sweet airs once blessed the services of a temple no living being outside this cavern has ever clapped eyes upon. When I look upon the censer, I can smell the incense. I can see the great edifice of the temple. I hear the voices, lifting up in song.
I hear the same voices crying out in fear, and I smell the scent of burning wood and roasting flesh. It was not a nice religion. Or perhaps I was not a nice dragon. I do not recall what the nature of our conflict was, to be perfectly honest. I recall the people, though. So long as this relic remains in my possession, they will not be forgotten.
Few things in life endure. Wood and fabric rots. Iron corrodes. Silver tarnishes. Paint, pigment, and ink fade. Bones are ground into dust.
Gold lasts, though.
See these coins? Relics of rulers I’ve buried and empires I’ve outlasted. You would weigh them and count them, but in taking them from me, you would rob me of an accounting of history. Outside this cave, coins are stamped over, melted down. History is forgotten. Here, it is accounted for and preserved.
Among your kind and mine, I have had friends, and lovers, and enemies. The passage of the centuries dims the distinctions among these groups. I remember all fondly as threads in the tapestry of my immortal life. I would prefer to continue remembering them.
Here is my final offer, then: take whatever you may carry, so long as there is enough of any item you select that you do not deprive me of more than half of it. Take no more than half the fine rubies I highlighted. Select your favorite coins from among the various strikings and denominations rather than pilfering one pile. Take whatever it pleases you to take, just leave me with my memories.
Whatever this costs me, I will have purchased something precious: a novel experience. You would be the first one to accept such an offer, the first enterprising soul to leave my lair alive. After a few millennia I may not recall the color of your hair or the cast of your face, but every time my gaze falls upon a spot where some trinket used to be, I will remember that you existed and you did something remarkable, something without precedent in the course of history.
Are you quite certain?
What follows will not be long, and I long ago ran out of ways to make it memorable.