The Thief that Breathes Fire by Kendall Peterkin
“He’s done it again,” Cosus threw his tattered cloth down on the table in frustration. Causing his three teenage children to sit up straight. “I’ve counted over and over again, and we only have four.”
“The cattle.” Summanus confidently quipped, before his older and wiser brother, Pollux, nudged his frail shoulder.
“I ask of both of you a very simple request,” Cosus was now turned to his two sons. His eyes were steady and pleading as this cattle was the family livelihood. “Keep the thief away. Keep him away from the cattle. And here you sit, making a mockery of our circumstances.”
“Father, we apologize,” Pollux spoke loudly to show he was now speaking for him and his younger siblings. “Had Cacus not come here in the night, we easily could have taken his head.”
“But you didn’t. And my cattle are gone. What do you say to that?” Cosus was in no mood for logical excuses. He expected highly of his kin. As he’d worked tireless nights to provide for them all.
“Well, let’s go get the beast’s head then,” Summanus stood up proudly. “We follow the cattle’s trail and slay the beast ourselves. Easy.”
“And what will you do when the beast has already eaten them all? What then will you do?!” Cosus was beginning to shout, causing Summanus to slouch a bit in his posture. “You bring me back the head of the thief, and I still will have no cattle!”
“We’ll trade the beast’s head for the cattle across the land,” Pollux was now standing next to his brother. “They get the glory, we get the cattle. No one has to know.”
Cosus thought for a moment before turning softly to the child who had yet to speak. Antonia, his only daughter. While a woman, Cosus had a hard time keeping Antonia from competing with her brothers. He’d even argue she was a better fighter. “What say you, Antonia?”
Antonia stood up slowly, leveling her father’s gaze. “I say we do as they say. I’ll get my spear and...”
“Absolutely not,” Pollux put his large hand up to his baby sister’s bewildered face. “A battle against such a beast is no place for you. You will stay with father and make sure the rest of the cattle aren’t stolen.”
“That’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever uttered Pollux,” Antonia spat. “A beast is a beast. And a thief is a thief. Man or woman, it must be taken down.”
“I don’t think Cacus is going to be too threatened by that spear little sister,” Summanus tried to stifle his giggling but wasn’t making much progress. “Pollux and I have real weapons. Stay here.”
“I will not.” Antonia was firm and stubborn. “You two couldn’t take down a beast if you tried. You’ll need my quickness. Father I will go w-”
“They are right Antonia,” Cosus finally spoke. His voice was clear and unshaken. “You will stay here, with me, where it is safe. Your brothers are more than capable of taking down the beast on their own.”
“That is a lie!” Antonia almost laughed at her father’s decision. She truly believed he thought higher of her. “They will come back with their tails in between their legs smelling of soot and smoke. And only then will you ask for my help to clean them up!”
“Antonia,” Her father stared at her until she reluctantly sat down and pouted. He turned his attention to his eager sons. “If you do not bring back the head of the beast in exchange for the new cattle, I will make you work the farm for three weeks.”
“And if we do?” Pollux and Summanus spoke at the same time.
“Then I’ll have Antonia prepare you a feast.”
The boys looked at eachother and beamed as Antonia turned her red face to the wall. She’d never felt so degraded in her life, especially when she was more than capable to slay the beast on her own.
All she wanted from them her entire life was respect.
The night melted into the sky. Pollux and Summanus ready themselves by going over a drawn map.
“He had to have gone west!” Argued Pollux.
“He’s an idiot! He’d go east!” Summanus shouted back.
Antonia listened on in her bedroom to her brothers doomed plan. She prayed for their safe return and drifted off to sleep.
When she awoke, it was to screaming and celebration. Antonia bolted out of bed and into the doorway where she saw and unbelievable sight.
Summanus holding up a large sack triumphantly that was vaguely shaped like a head.
“Y-you’ve done it?!” Antonia breathed.
“We have!” Pollux announced proudly as their father looked on in the same astonishment.
“So that feast you promised?” Summanus immediately proposed.
“A feast it will be.” Cosus announced ecstatically.
The night was warm and the meal Antonia reluctantly prepared for her brother’s was almost ready. She stared blankly at the large sack, now lying in the corner of the room, near the fire. She listened as her brothers excitedly told the story to their eager father.
“It’s done,” She simply said.
The boys leapt up and wasted no time devouring the meal. Cosus looked to his sons proudly and raised a cup to their blessings. Antonia watched as the world moved around her. The story seemed to be clashing with Pollux's account and Summanus’. But her father looked on with glazed happiness and raised his fourth cup to their blessings. That’s when a drunken Cosus had an idea.
“I want to see the head,” Cosus pounded his fist on the table. “I want to see the beast that devoured my cattle. I want to see his lifeless eyes and blue tongue. Bring the sack to me my boys!”
Pollux and Summanus looked at eachother with sudden timidness.
“B-but father,” Pollux tried to recount confidently. “If the beast’s corpse hits the air, he will be discolored and worth less value.”
“Yes!” Summanus chimed in. “We want all the cattle for exchange. It’s best if we preserve it...”
“I’ll take as many as they’ll offer,” Cosus stumbled and stood. “I want to see the head of the thief.”
Cocus made his way over toward the sack despite Pollux and Summanus attempting to hold him back. Antonia looked on in curiosity. Why were her brothers so eager to keep the beast’s
head hidden? Cocus finally had enough and commanded the boys to sit. The boys reluctantly went to sit down as their father slowly pulled open the sack.
Rocks and twigs all binded together with twine, made the head shape. He looked at the mess for a moment letting silence fill the room. Antonia covered her mouth as she didn’t want to start laughing at a potentially serious moment. But it was when her father turned she could see the immense pain and disappointment in his eyes.
Cocus suddenly turned to his sons, who hung their heads down in shame. As he went toward them with a fist, Pollux begged his father for a moment to explain.
“WHAT COULD YOU POSSIBLY HAVE TO SAY ABOUT LYING TO ME?! THE HUMILIATION?! DO YOU THINK I’M A FOOL?!” His shouting shook the entire shack, causing his sons to fall over each other.
“We couldn’t find the beast father!” Pollux was now wailing. “We followed the trail of the cattle to nothing. We didn’t want you to be ashamed of us!”
“Fools!” Cocus almost laughed. “The beast probably used the tracks to throw you off! How could you not see this!? Out of my sight and to work you go!”
The boys scurried to the barn and Cocus followed close behind leaving Antonia by herself.
If the tracks led nowhere that must mean the beast will be hiding in the woods. She thought to herself. She quietly got up from the table, dressed in her best armor, grabbed her spear and headed towards the woods to find the beast.
Antonia walked bravely in the darkness only having the dim glow of the pale moonlight guiding her. Once in a while she’d sniff the air in hopes she’d smell fire or burning cattle. When the smoke finally hit her senses, she slowed her pace toward a cave and noticed the entrance was blocked with a giant boulder.
She could hear Cacus’ deep and heavy breathing as well as faint cries from the remaining cattle. Antonia put her hand up to the heavy bolder. It wasn’t budging. Antonia could tell. She looked up toward the sky for answers. Her eyes then slowly trailed to the smoke that was escaping from on top of the mountain.
“I could get in from up there...” She whispered to herself.
Antonia used the last remaining twine to tie her spear to her back as she made the long treacherous climb towards the top of the cave. She’d grab loose rocks that would send her flying down ten steps. She prayed and gritted her teeth as her body felt numb against the cool stone. She climbed and climbed until finally the smoke greeted her face. She smiled at herself.
Antonia peeked down into the hole to the large beast. Cacus. He was larger then she had imagined. His once pale flesh was now deep and oily grey. His hair was in strands and brushed back out of his face. She saw the corpses of some of the half eaten cattle and the bones of others. He sat there, blowing smoke at one of the cattles, disorienting them and killing them with his hands. Antonia watched as Cacus tilted his head to blow smoke through the hole she was peering down in. His red, sunken eyes opened wide as they met Antonia’s and his smoke quickly turned into fire.
Antonia jumped back away from the hole as fire rippled through it. She covered her face as the fire finally subsided but Cacus’ yelling made it clear that he knew of her presence.
She grabbed her spear from her back as another blaze of fire escaped the hole.
“Cacus...I command you...” Her voice was soft and shaken at first. Antonia was afraid she’d been in over her head like her brothers and father said. She took another step back as Cacus’ yelling grew louder and the fire from the hole became bigger.
“Cacus I command you,” She was more confident this time. A sense of purpose had erupted inside of her as she imagined the sheer disappointment on her father’s face as he discovered the head in the sack wasn’t real. She took a brave step forward and readied her spear. He isn’t going to come out of the cave, and he’s going to block the entrance as much as he can. She thought to herself. She counted to herself how long it took him to gather more energy to use his fiery breath.
“CACUS I COMMAND YOU,” She roared as she ran towards the hole.Spear tightly gripped in her hand and she jumped toward the smoke. “RELEASE THE CATTLE!”
The sun rose on Antonia’s dirty face as the three last remaining cattle willfully followed her as she dragged Cacus’ head in the sack. It was heavy and taking a toll on her already injured shoulder but she kept forward. Holding her now broken spear, she made her way to the open pasture seeing eight more cattle roaming freely around their owner.
As she got closer, she realized that the owner was large and in impressive shape. Her legs went stiff and her breath became loose as she neared. He looked up at her, raising an eyebrow at her sack and stood.
“Child,” he began. His voice was smooth and loud. Enough to make Antonia stand upright. “What is that you have there?”
“The head of the thief that breathes fire, I have slain Cacus,” Antonia felt odd saying it out loud. “Here I have his head. And I give you all the glory and promise for exchange of your cattle.”
He looked amused at first until he inspected the bag himself. He stared at Antonia for a long time. “Are you a Goddess?” He finally asked.
“I’m a daughter of a hard working farmer.” She announced proudly. “I don’t need a Goddess’ power to protect my father's livelihood.”
He bowed. “Admirable. Truly. You have a deal.What is your name?”
“Antonia.” She breathed.
“A name I’ll never forget.” He lead the four cattle to her, “Hercules, is mine.”
Antonia limped back toward her home proudly with eight cattle following behind her. As the sun rose higher and shined onto her face she approached her astonished family.
Cosus hugged her tightly as her older brothers looked on in shame. “I doubted you,” He said into her hair. “And I will never again.”
Antonia was led back into the home with the cattle being rounded up by her brothers. She was weary, tired, and in pain but she had earned something much greater than cattle or pride.
She earned respect.