She smelled the goblins the moment they entered her lair. They were quiet. She had to give them that. Not quiet enough, but quieter than most. She might not have heard their feet clicking against the treasures covering her cave floor, but she heard them gathering loose coins and jewels into their sack. There was no way to keep her from hearing that.
She pretended to sleep. It amused her to have visitors. She took her time disposing of them. She catalogued how greedy one might become once confronted with her vast wealth. They all came with reasonable dreams, but as soon as they saw the piles of glittering treasures, they couldn’t resist taking more than they planned. She didn’t need to kill them. Most would’ve died trying to carry everything down her mountain.
These two were different. They said nothing. They filled their small sack and turned to leave. She thumped her tail across their path and exhaled a small jet of flame over their heads.
“Hello, little ones,” she said.
The bigger of the goblins drew a dagger from his belt and pushed the smaller one behind him.
She chuckled. “Oh, dear, I assume this is some enchanted weapon. A dragonslaying knife, perhaps?
The goblin lowered his blade. “Please, let us go. You have so much.”
“Indeed, I do.” She lowered her head to get a closer look at them. One snort knocked them both off their feet. “But how much would I have if I let every little thief stuff their little sacks? I’d be a pauper within a decade.”
“You’re a dragon. Why do you need treasure at all?” asked the smaller goblin.
The bigger one shushed his companion.
“Why do you need treasure?” she asked. “Why does anyone? Because it glitters. Because it shines. Because it offers dreams and joys and sorrows and pain to goblin and dragon alike.” She raked her talons through a mountain of coins. They ran down her fingers, nearly burying the goblins in an avalanche of gold.
“Because. That’s why. Nothing more complicated than that.”
“Please, let my brother go,” said the larger goblin. “He’s only here because of me.”
She spread her wings to cast darkness over them. “Then his death is on your head, not mine.”
“I know why you hoard,” said the smaller. “You’re not greedy. You’re cruel. You love luring people here just so you can torture and eat them.”
She shook her head. “I wish it were that, little one. I wish. It would make more sense. But I am not the monster you believe me to be. I am only a very old dragon, driven by ancient instincts, who has spent countless centuries gathering these shiny baubles because. Just because.”
“Aren’t you lonely?”
She looked to the cave entrance. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d left. She wasn’t sure she could even fit through it anymore. Her eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness.
“It’s just a little bit,” he said. “We need it to feed our village.”
“A noble call for thievery, but once you taste it, you will want more. The gold doesn’t let anyone go. It’s a cage as surely as poverty.”
“Easy for you to say,” said the older brother. “You have the gold.”
She lowered her wings, thumped the ground with her great tail. “You’re right. I sit here, atop my mountain of riches and think you presumptuous for desiring what I have in abundance. Easy for me to judge you for your frailty.”
She lifted her tail.
“Go then. And may it bring you more peace than it brought me.”
The older goblin said, “Thank you.”
“Why? I only give you the tiniest portion of what I have.”
“It’s more than most would be willing to give.”
They left her to her glittering treasures. She was old, by the measure of her kind. Long after the goblin brothers were dead and gone, and their children, and their children’s children’s children had perished, she would still be. But even dragons did not live forever. Time, however centuries of it remained to her, was all she had and so much she’d squandered collecting these baubles.
She squeezed herself through the cave entrance, just barely, and covered her eyes from the burning sunlight. She’d get used to it. With a great heave, she launched herself into the sky, leaving her worthless glittering obsession behind her.