Pungent black smoke filled the air, fanned by an easterly wind. Flames were consuming a number of the squat wooden shacks that made up the poor west side of the town of Ishmere. Most of the inhabitants from the east side had emerged from their houses when screams of alarm had sounded. When the first burst of flame from the dragon's maw had missed the madly running cattle he aimed at and hit Herm's shack on the outside edge of the village, Herm and many of the other poor folk had scrambled out of town immediately. They huddled now in disheartened groups on the far west edge. The remainder of the inhabitants of that ill-fated side of town either stood around, mouths gaping as they watched their belongings go up in smoke, or wildly dashed around screaming and running into each other.
As expected, nothing was being done to slow the blaze, and the houses could not have burned faster had they been doused with fuel. The shrill screams of panicked women and frightened children were almost deafening. The screams rose and fell, occasionally drowning out the cries of the men, who were trying desperately to organize into a fighting force.
The dragon, his blood-red scales shining in the mid-afternoon sun, was still out in the field devouring one of the many unfortunate cows that had been too slow to escape his flame. Much of the herd had stampeded, bringing down the fence in their panic and running hard in every direction. There was little chance of recovering more than a few head of cattle, and that only if someone went out immediately to round them up. Unfortunately, everyone was just as panicked as the beasts and not likely to think of their recovery for some time.
Isra was almost trampled by a wild-eyed bull as she ran down one of the many side streets that led to the village well. Her old, cracked wooden bucket in hand, she had been too intent on filling another bucket of water, desperate to save her burning home, to notice the charging bull ahead. The huge black beast, pink foam spewing from its mouth with every breath, bellowed its rage as it charged toward her. Isra looked up at the awful sound and gasped. She threw herself to the side hard, flattening her body against a wall and praying to Larmar that it would pass without killing her in its pained rage. Her sigh of relief came out as a choked sob as the bull ran past her, kicking up clods of soil in it's mad race to escape the danger behind it.
She managed to reach the well without further physical hindrance. Trying a slipknot around the handle, she dropped the bucket in. Blisters had already formed on her hands from the last few times she had performed this same chore. Now they ripped open and the muscles along her arms burned a constant complaint as she pulled the brimming bucket up as fast as she could. She bit her lip and ignored the pain, knowing too much was at stake now to worry about a few discomforts.
The rope slipped in her hands not far from the top, spilling out much of its contents, as she was startled into a sudden awareness of the world around her. Cursing, she released the rope, heaving it up again as soon as she heard the bucket hit the water below.
"What are you doing? There's a dragon! Oh, by the Gods! A dragon! Larkmar save us! A dragon!"
Isra ignored the woman, running around her and almost knocking her over in her haste to return to her home. Perel, the wife of one of the village's most prosperous merchants, grabbed the sleeve of Isra's dress and yanked, popping stitches and tearing fabric as she did so. "Don't you dare ignore me! What do you call yourself doing, anyway? There's a dragon, you fool! Now's not the time to be putting out fires! We have to do something!"
When trying to pry Perel's fingers loose from the cloth of her sleeve failed, Isra resorted to slapping the woman, hard. She felt badly when Perel fell to the ground, but when she tried to grab the hem of her dress, with the obvious intent of pulling herself up with it, Isra took a long step to the side before her senses came back and she realized how much time she had already wasted on this fool. It's all easy for her to say! Her house isn't on fire! Everything I have is in there!
She turned down the side street she knew led to her house, coughing as smoke hit her full in the face. She pulled the front of her dress over her face, almost dropping the heavy bucket as she did so.
She recovered her grasp and continued her blind run, no longer able to see, but knowing her way by heart. She tripped over something that lay in the middle of the road and fell to her knees, the pain bringing tears to her eyes, but she managed to hold tight to the bucket. She rose as fast as she could and continued down the road. Finally, she could see what was left of her own home smoldering before her, blackened but standing. It's working. The water's working!
Hope fluttered momentarily in her heart as Isra splashed what little water remained in the cracked bucket on her burning outer wall. It might actually survive this after all. She knew the chances were slim that anything she had inside could possibly come out undamaged, but allowing those thoughts to fully register would only bring down her spirit. She would simply give up the fight if she thought about it.
Instead, she turned and ran back down the twisting, smoke hazed road toward the well as fast as her feet would carry her. She breathed heavily as soon as she had reached air clear enough to allow it, coughing, holding on to a pain in her side that grew worse with every running step she took.
Perel was standing in front of the well, hands on wide hips, surrounded by a small group of her cronies. Every one of them glared at Isra as she came loping up, expressions not softening in the least as she stood and swayed, almost falling down from exertion and an ever worsening cough.
"Get--get out of--my way! I have to--to get to the well. I do not have time for this!" She gave them all her most evil eye as they all stood their ground, blocking her from access to the well. Her temper flared and she moved toward them, intent on beating down every one of them if need be to get the water she so desperately needed.
"How dare you hit me? Just who do you think you are? Put down that bucket! The men will need that to put out the fires when they've finished running off that dragon."
Isra stopped momentarily, trying hard to ignore the fact that the bitch had just told her to give up a bucket that belonged to her by rights. She looked in the direction Perel was pointing, noting that the men had at last gathered and armed themselves with shovels and pitch-forks, a few of them clutching rusted swords. As though they could possibly fight off a dragon with weapons like that! What did they plan to do? Bore it to death? I do not have time to worry with this!
She turned back to the women and glowered at them, hating them more for every moment of her precious time they wasted. Still, being vastly outnumbered, she tried to speak civilly and calmly, doing her best to reason with them.
"Get out of my way. My house is smoldering. It could catch fire any second. I have to pour more water on it, or it will burn."
"Apologize to me and I might think about it."
Isra could hardly believe her ears. My house is burning down! Everything I own is in that house, and all that--that bitch can think about is her hurt feelings? Red flooded Isra's vision and she gritted her teeth, growling audibly at the women in front of her. How dare they block my way? I have every right to that water! Her voice, when she recovered it, was barely recognizable as human.
"Get out of my way."
She was breathing heavily now and it had nothing to do with the smoke or her recent exertions. It was becoming hard to think clearly. Everything. Everything I own is probably going up in smoke even now. The large white bowl and copper vase her mother had so prized, her father's pipe, the only thing he had ever bought for himself, the handful of necessities she had worked so long and hard to get for herself. All of it was likely burning, irreplaceable objects disappearing forever. She tried to swallow, but her throat was too parched. She choked out the words Perel demanded she say, hoping against hope that the bitch would take them at face value and leave her in peace.