Pumpkin Sue – A Dragonson Story
Part One

By: Walter G. Esselman

Suddenly, a dragon dropped out of the sky and slammed down right in front of the boy with the orange eyes. Long teeth snapped shut.

However, the boy just yawned. This was mostly because he was sleepy. It was the middle of the night after all.

"Any castle?" asked the boy, Gideon, casually.

The black and blue dragon, Pavataro, sniffed dismissively. But since he was the same age as the boy—fifteen years old—his head only bobbed at six feet.

"This is stupid Lunchmeat," grumbled the dragon, using his old schoolyard nickname for the boy.

"I'll take that as a 'no'," said Gideon dryly, and he looked towards Snarlwood Forest. Or, at least what he could see of it, because it was so dark. "Well, if there are people living in there, then there must be a way in."

Snarlwood was a large oval forest with a seemingly impenetrable tree line.

"We wouldn't be here if you hadn't gotten us in trouble," said Pavataro.

"What? Me?" replied Gideon hotly. "You're the one who knocked me into the guest table, which then spilled wine all over Lady Truneau's favorite dress."

"The waiter had pigs in blankets. And he was walking away," said Pavataro, as if he were talking to a child.

Gideon was about to retort, when someone else spoke up.

"Isn't it a little early for all this hullabaloo?"

The boys turned to see a person standing really close to them. She—and there was definitely a 'she' about her—stood with one hip cocked. Her head was a pumpkin with a face carved into it.

"Um…," started Gideon.

"'Um' is not a word," said Pavataro in sotto voce.

But the boy ignored the dragon.

"I'm sorry," said Gideon to the pumpkin–headed woman. "We didn't see…" The boy stopped. Past her, he spotted what appeared to be the opening of a tent, but there was no outer tent. At least, none that he could see.

"Well, I guess that makes sense," admitted the woman. She was wearing purple footie pajamas with an armored squirrel, which was embroidered over the left breast.

"Is…is that tent invisible?" asked Gideon, wide–eyed with wonder.

"Just the thing a girl needs when she's out on the road by herself, don't you think?" asked the woman.

"That…that is so cool," grinned Gideon. "Where'd you get it?"

"I sell them, and other products," said the woman. "I should introduce myself, my name is Pumpkin Sue Maplebees, trader extraordinaire."

"I am Pavataro, dragon extraordinaire." Then he nodded at Gideon. "And this is Lunchmeat, emergency snack extraordinaire."

"Emergency snack?" asked Pumpkin Sue.

"In case I can't find razor deer," said Pavataro, licking his lips.

"Actually," huffed Gideon, and he introduced himself properly. Then he nodded towards the dragon. "He thinks he's funny."

Pavataro sniffed and retorted. "I'm hilarious."

"Well, what're you two gentlemen doing in a place like this?" asked Pumpkin Sue.

"Oh, we were trying to reach Connick Castle to retrieve a book," explained Gideon.

"A book?" asked Pumpkin Sue.

"The king borrowed it from the library at the castle of Bon Su Pear, and it's long overdue," said Gideon.

"Huh. Now, I'm seriously curious to see what he borrowed," said Pumpkin Sue.

"Oh! I don't know if I can say. But it doesn't matter anyway, because we can't get in," said Gideon.

"Oh! And you won't," said Pumpkin Sue. "Well, at least not until daylight. No one can enter these woods at night. Which is okay, because you really don't want to go traipsing around in there at night. Or, in full daylight for that matter."

"We've been to Shadewood," said Pavataro, a little defensively.

"Three times," added Gideon.

"Well, color me surprised," she said. "But if you wait a short while, there'll be a path going through."

"Is it magic?" asked Gideon.

"Probably," said Pumpkin Sue. "They're rather tight–lipped about how they did it."

"I guess that makes sense," said Gideon, a little disappointed. But he turned to the trader. "Well, we could offer you some razor deer for waking you up."

"We could?" asked Pavataro dangerously.

Gideon looked at the dragon.

"You know how you feel about getting woken up," hissed the boy earnestly.

Pavataro opened his mouth to argue, but then he closed it again. He turned to the woman.

"We do have a lot of razor deer," admitted Pavataro. "You can certainly have some."

"Oh, that's just too sweet of you," said Pumpkin Sue genuinely. "But I have to decline. Razor deer does terrible things to my digestion."

"What? No razor deer. Like…none at all?"

"None."

Pavataro looked stricken. "That…that's terrible."

"Oh, it's just a trifle," replied Pumpkin Sue lightly. "Besides, beef or duck work just as good in a stew. But you are welcome to keep me company until the sun manages to get herself up out of bed."

The boys got a fire going and enjoyed some food with her.

As the sun lit up the edge of the woods, a section of trees suddenly faded away to reveal a path.

Gideon and Pavataro stood up in surprise.

"Okay, that's neat," said the boy.

"That'll take you straight to the king," said Pumpkin Sue. "But don't leave the path until you reach town. I'm not kidding when I say that these woods are dangerous."

"Good to know," said Gideon. He started to turn, but then stopped to look back at her. "Wait. If these woods are really that dangerous, do you want us to wait for you?"

Pumpkin Sue smiled warmly. "How gallant of you. But I'll be okay. Besides…" And she gestured at her footie pajamas. "I still need to get ready. Because a pumpkingirl doesn't want to meet the king looking like a refugee. But you two have fun."

The path through Snarlwood was made of stone blocks. On either side, there was only a thin strip of grass before the gnarled trees on either side. Gideon looked up and saw a canopy of leaves and branches hanging over them. Very little sun managed to squeeze through.

"Yep," said the boy in a cheery voice. "This place isn't creepy at all."

"Let's just get in and out quickly," muttered Pavataro repressively.

A rending howl came from above. A half second later, something dropped between the boys. Pavataro had a fleeting glimpse of a big, hairy man.

The second the man's feet hit the path, it sent out a shockwave that slammed into both of them.

Gideon and Pavataro were propelled in separate directions. The dragon hit a tree, which sent him pinwheeling, deeper into the wood.

Despite spinning, Pavartaro's training kicked in. Without even thinking about it, he pulled in his wings, moments before he hit the ground hard and tumbled a bit.

Digging his claws into the dirt, Pavataro stopped his momentum. The moment he came to a stop, the dragon looked for the path.

But he did not see it.

"Lunchmeat? You dead?" called out Pavataro.

No answer.

While the young dragon could not see the path itself, his crash landing had scored a line across the forest floor. Moving as quickly as he dared, Pavataro followed it.

The young dragon soon found the tree that he had smacked into. He knew it was this tree because of the Pavataro–sized dent in it. So, he reasoned, that the path should be right in front of him.

But there was no path, just more forest.

"Well. That's not good," murmured Pavataro.

Settling back on his hind quarters, he confirmed that the trees above were free of danger. Then he extended his neck upward to its fullest.

Since he was still young, this was not as high as he would have liked. Of course, he thought sourly, if he had been full size, a little shockwave wouldn't have been able to toss him so easily.

Pavataro scanned the area quickly. But then he did it again, slowly and deliberately. He could not see any path whatsoever.

Settling back down, he walked in a small circle around the tree that he had first hit.

Pavataro was about to get snippy when he heard a wordless cry from Gideon.

"Lunchmeat?" called out the dragon.

His triangular ears pinpointed the direction and he took off. Wings in tight, he snaked through the trees.

The boy kept screaming. On the one wing, Pavataro was grateful, because it helped him find Gideon quicker. But on the other wing, those screams were filled with pain. Pouring on the speed, he reached the edge of a clearing.

The dragon arrived just in time to see Gideon picked up in a Jabberwocky's mouth. The monster, with its eyes of flame, began to shake the boy viciously.

"GIDEON!" cried Pavataro. He shot forward, but he was too late.

The Jabberwocky whipped its head to the side and let go of the boy.

Gideon shot through the air and smacked hard into a Tumtum tree. Bones shattered, and the boy fell to the base in a crumpled heap.

One of Gideon's orange eyes was open, but there was no light left in it.

Shaking, Pavataro gave a rending scream and jumped on Jabberwocky's back. Digging in teeth and claw, the dragon tore whole strips off the creature, which cried out.

But that wasn't enough for the dragon. Pavataro went into a frenzy and chomped down on the thing's neck.

The Jabberwocky suddenly popped like a soap bubble.

Left hanging in midair, Pavataro fell to the ground awkwardly.

Stumbling a little, the dragon looked around quickly, but he did not see the creature anywhere.

He kept searching long after he had established that there was nothing else in the clearing. Every time his eyes would go near Gideon's body, they would quickly sweep past.

Pavataro's mind was almost numb when he stopped himself. It took every ounce of courage he had to just look over.

Gideon was still laying there. One orange eye stared, empty. Swiveling his ears, the dragon tried, but he could not locate a heartbeat.

"Gideon?" whispered Pavartaro.

Slowly, the dragon sat, unable to move any closer at this time.

It was at this moment that a relieved voice exclaimed. "Oh Thank the Goddess! There you are sweetie!"

Pavataro immediately leapt to his feet, with a growl in his throat.

Into the clearing came Pumpkin Sue with a smile. She stopped and her body deflated with relief.

"I was so afeared that you had done yourself harm," she grinned.

"Go away," snarled Pavataro.

Pumpkin Sue looked around, but then she chided herself. "Like you can see what he's seeing, lil squash." She looked at him. "Whatever you're seeing isn't real."

"What're you talking about?" growled Pavataro.

"These woods," said Pumpkin Sue. "They make people see things. Make people go crazy, if they go off the path."

"We were knocked off the path," said Pavataro.

"I know. Probably one of the Wretched," nodded Pumpkin Sue. "They've been so quiet lately; I didn't even think to warn you about them. Sorry."

"The what?" asked Pavataro.

"They knock people off the path, and then eat'em after they're dead," said Pumpkin Sue. "THEY actually like it in these woods. Madness! Right? But your friend, the one with the orange eyes, is already back on the path."

Pavataro looked at her, and then over at Gideon's body. The dragon could even smell him.

"Seems pretty real to me," said Pavataro. He looked back at her. "Why aren't you affected?"

"Because I come here a lot, so I got an amulet that protects me from these woods," said Pumpkin Sue. "Otherwise, I'd be in your boots. Metaphorically speaking of course. But if I touch you, you'll be protected too."

"From the whatever–it–is?" asked Pavataro cautiously.

Pumpkin Sue stepped a little forward. She held out one wooden finger.

"I'm just going to touch one wing with one finger, and you'll never see, whatever it is you are seeing, ever again."

Pavataro took a step towards her and extended his wing. The moment she touched him, not only did the broken Gideon disappear, but he saw the path not too far behind her.

"What?" asked Pavataro in surprise.

"It's these woods," said Pumpkin Sue.

A white–hot fury roared up inside of Pavataro, and he went utterly still. "These woods. These woods that made me see… those things. Believe in them. And wood…wood, it burns really easily."

A small tongue of flame flicked out of his mouth for just a second.

Instantly, Pumpkin Sue jumped back and without her touch, the path disappeared, but the image of a broken Gideon did not reappear.

That was enough to break through to the dragon. He saw Pumpkin Sue backing away carefully and realized what he had been saying.

To be continued…

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