“Fergus! What happened here?!” Fergus heard Father McCollum cry, and the sound of boots on grass quickly approached behind him.
Fergus swallowed nervously and kneaded his hands together. He had been utterly impotent to stop the fire, but hadn’t run and hid when it had started, like his cowardly instincts had told him. “Something happened, and now the barn is on fire.” He said it with a slight inflection at the end, making it sound like a question, as if Father McCollum's question might have been rhetorical.
“Clearly!” Father McCollum cried, his billowing robes appearing in Fergus’s peripheral vision. “What happened to cause the fire?”
Fergus’s face was warm, though he was quite a distance from the blazing shed. It was past dusk, but the well-kept monastery grounds were easily visible in the radiant, orange glow. Before he knew it, his knit peasant’s hat was in his hands and he was wringing it back and forth. “I … I don’t know,” Fergus lied. “I saw the light from my window, and I came down here as fast as I could. By the time I made it down all those stairs, it was like this.”
His stomach hurt from lying, but what was he supposed to do? Tell the truth? There was no way Father McCollum would believe him, and he’d simply have to spend the week in the tower without supper again. Still, guilt chewed at Fergus’s insides.
“Where are the cows? Are they still out to pasture?” Father McCollum asked urgently.
“Yes, Father,” Fergus stammered. “I put them out just before you left for the trader’s market, just like you asked.”
“Thank the High Ones,” Father sighed. “We would have been sore off without them. What about the chickens? How many are accounted for?”
“I found Mable, Isold, Darby, Juniper, Silverbeak, Penelope, Fiona, Tristina, and Janet,” Fergus reported mechanically. “But there’s no sign of Caneil, Harriette, or Regina.”
Father McCollum rolled his eyes. He had never thought much of Fergus’s propensity to name livestock. Still, his face was thankful. “More saved than lost. Good lad, keeping up with them.” he said. “And there wasn’t anyone inside the barn? The other acolytes and scruples are still at the communion in Talonwood, then?”
“Um, yessir. It’s just been me here, all day. All by myself.”
Fergus held his jacket tightly against his sides.
Father McCollum placed his hands on his hips and started up at the leaping flames. The barn’s roof collapsed, the wooden shingles finally giving way to the corrosive power of fire, and filled the air with glowing ashes and smoke. The trees from the nearby wood were painted an eerie orange.
“Come on, then,” Father McCollum said. “There’s little we can do about it now. Dew’s fallen, so it won’t spread to the monastery. The best we can do is wait for it to burn down, and then examine the ashes for any sign of who did this.” For a moment Father McCollum didn’t move, except for crossing his arms over his chest. Fire reflected off of his bald head. “These are dark times we’re living in, Fergus. Dark times, indeed.”
“Y-yessir,” Fergus replied.
The Father turned to leave, presumably back to the cart that he had brought back from the trader’s market. When he was sure that he was alone, Fergus opened his jacket ever so slightly and hissed into it, “Now look what you’ve done! You’ve gone and gotten us both in such deep trouble!”
Two amber eyes blinked open, catching the light of the fire, and a scaly head, the size of Fergus’s thumb and the color of the leaping flames, poked its way from beneath Fergus’s arm. The creature hiccupped, and a gout of fire the size of the boy’s open palm erupted into the air. Fergus twisted away from fire before his clothes could catch, but the heat made his face and fingers sting. Silently he hoped that Father McCollum wouldn't later notice his lack of eyebrows.
Tending a monastery by yourself can be ever so boring. But when Fergus had gone exploring around the grounds that day, he had no idea he would stumble across the huge, brown egg in the crags south of the abbey. Though he was beginning to appreciate why the monks called the area ‘Forbidden Gulch’.
Already Fergus was making a list of things he would have to do that evening, in addition to helping Father McCollum unload the goods from the cart.
Number one: find out what had happened to Caneil, Harriette, and Regina.
Number two: dispose of the brown egg shell pieces in his bedroom.
Number three: figure out how to muzzle a dragon hatchling.