In this eternal night, in this never-changing light, time does not exist; it is outside where there is life and death, joy and pain, and strife.
But then a new light enters. A flame kindles the jewel, it catches the light and sparkles patches of fiery-coloured light back into the domed hall. Wherever the light shines, new spaces open up, as if newly created in that very instant. Unending roofs of raw rock appear out of the dark, high above the wide, smooth floors of the hall. The walls and gates are at the edge of light and sight. And all these vast spaces are filled with the dark red gold, and with the new, flaming light.
The light approaches, and with the light comes a woman. Amidst the splendour of the hoard she looks like a speck of dust: ragged, lean and hungry. At the sight of the heaped gold she stops short, overwhelmed. She gazes in amazement for what seems an eternity, as if the dark timelessness had returned and swallowed her. The more she looks, the hungrier she seems. At last the jewel catches her sight. The light refracted from the glassy stone sets a burning brand in her eyes. Unheeding, she runs towards it, and in a faltering frenzy climbs the mountain of treasure, until she comes to a staggering halt. The jewel is at her feet.
‘Jewel, jewel burning bright,’ she says breathlessly, ‘you are mine!’ Slowly, she reaches out for it — and takes it.
‘Thief!’ says a voice as red as the gold, as wide as the cave and as deep as the darkness. ‘I smell your greed!’ And then comes the dragon.
The diamond in her hand blazes blindingly, she drops it – the gold at her feet jingles and shifts, she falls on her knees – then the treasure rises as a serpent worm, made of gleaming red gold, with blazing eyes, wings of darkness, and the shining jewel at its heart. Terror springs from his gaze, his armour is alight with magnificence.
‘I do not allow lesser mortals to come to my halls unbidden,’ the dragon growls, ‘nor do I suffer them to steal my treasures. You shall be punished. What is your name?’ A hot breath touches her meagre cheeks.
She cannot keep the tremour out of her reply: ‘Such an insignificant creature as I am does not deserve to bear a name, and must not dare to mention it in your presence.’ She bows down low before the hoard-warden. ‘I have no name, I am no more than my life, no more than my story.’
‘Then I command you to tell your tale,’ the dragon declares with authority, ‘but do not strain my patience.’
‘My first name was pain. When my mother gave birth to me, she lay in pain for three days – and when I finally found my way into this world, she was dead.
‘My next name was cold. My siblings, who raised me, lived in poverty. We had no place to live, no fire to warm us, no roof to shelter us from rain and snow. Not all of us lived to see the next summer.
‘My third name was hate. I had brought death to my mother, and yet I lived. I took the most food, and my sisters and my brother starved. I was defenceless and vulnerable, but not innocent. My sisters blamed me, for all of it.
‘My fourth name was hunger. When my siblings sent me away to take care of myself, I was at a loss. I lived the life of a beggar. Thenadays a crumb of bread was a feast, and it lasted a week.
‘My fifth name was lust. Before I was old enough, I found I was able to deal myself for food. Their rage of lust pierced my innermost heart and left me shattered.
‘My sixth name was loss. It was not long until I, too, bore a child. I was sent away, for in this condition I could not be sold. I hated my child, and I killed it, and I loved it. I am an outcast. I am desperate. So I come to your hall, to your famed treasure – a lure to those who are without hope.
‘And my last name I received from you: thief. Through all the pain, the hunger and the suffering, I never wanted to be a lowly person. But it is not in my power to decide this.’
‘Indeed it is not.’ The serpent rears, his voice rings loud. ‘I sentence you, thief. Your penalty is death.’
‘Just judge,’ she pledges, ‘before I receive my sentence and suffer the punishment I deserve, my only wish is to know your noble name and ancestry. I crave to know against whom I have trespassed.’
‘I bear a secret name,’ says the worm. ‘I am the lone survivor; the blood of a thousand warriors has drenched my gold and dyed it red. They fought over the treasure in bitter enmity. I am the sentinel; as long as I live, their memory will not be lost. They claim the gold in eternity. I am the judge; I alone have the right to name the one to own this treasure. None alive or dead will I name.’
This kindles the contempt of the woman. ‘Judge,’ she cries, ‘I know your name! It is injustice.’
‘Yes, it is.’ The dragon sinks back on his bed of gold. ‘But it is no honourable name, and I am weary of bearing it. I seek justice, and yet I cause hate and murder.’ There is a bitter ring to his voice. ‘There is no justice, so no longer will I search. I will take your punishment upon myself.’
The woman hardly dares to believe.
‘This jewel is at the heart of all the misery,’ the dragon explains. ‘It is the heart of mankind’s woe. I command you to rip it out, and thereby end this sad story.’ She steps up to the great worm hesitatingly. Once again, she stretches out her trembling hand to the jewel — and takes it!
As she takes the jewel away, the serpent sinks back into the heap of gold with a hot sigh. Where the worm just disappeared, pale flames begin to lick at the gold. Instantly, the treasure beneath her feet begins to glow with heat. The flames spread. In a scramble she hurries away from the hot gold and out of the hall. In the doorway she turns and looks back: all the high heaps and the hoarded gold are on fire, burning bright. The heat is unbearable. She hurries on, away from this glimmering place of splendour and horror. As she reaches the light of the sun outside, the ancient halls behind her crumble and a darkling smoke rises to the heavens.
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Until the end of her life she remained as poor as ever. But in the cold nights of bitter winter frost her heart warmed her as a secret fire within; and when she had to endure the violence of higher men, her skin was as resistant as scales of metal. Her hair was, to the last of her days, deep red with a golden sheen.