Nigel opened his eyes, bare branches above him, icy ground seeping into his bones. He took a deep breath and rose to a sitting position. He grimaced, expecting the sharp jabbing pain in his back and the crack, rattle and crunch of his joints. Major Creaks he called himself nowadays. Yet he found the movement painless.
He gazed at his hands, and though chapped, he missed the familiar veins and age spots that had appeared over the long years. Nigel twiddled his straight fingers and marveled at their ease of movement; he moved his legs and stood up. His knees didn’t pop. Once standing, his hip didn’t jut out to the side and there was no stabbing pain down his back.
Nigel beamed as he realized he was young again. He looked down at his feet, covered in heavy combat boots and shook the snow off his army-issue overcoat. He glanced around the dense, snowy forest.
“Oh, I’m here again,” he whispered with dismay. Yet, the sensation of youth was so real, he was happy, even if he was back in the Ardennes and the horror of it had haunted him through the years of peace, prosperity, social revolution, consumerism, internet boom and the much-celebrated Millennium.
“He fought in the Battle of the Bulge,” his neighbors often whispered with huddled heads, as if to explain away his somber and aloof behavior.
Something glinted by a tree trunk and Nigel, curious, stooped, his once rusty knees bending like rubber. It was a long sword, a Claymore perhaps, he thought, and picked it up as if it were a feather. How wonderful not to feel the arm buckle under its weight! The fingers clasped around the hilt, painless, strong and straight as arrows.
A roar cut through the trees, shaking the snow off the bare branches. Nigel heard the wood creak and the falling snow sounded like maracas. It had been years since he’d heard the sounds of the forest, however muffled in snow.
Nigel, unafraid, headed in the roar’s direction. The forest, quiet under its freezing blanket, seemed to wake and give a startled yawn before sleeping again. Yet something odd remained in the air. He sniffed and perceived a hint of acrid smoke.
Boom! The forest exploded into a blaze of fire and Nigel dropped to the ground as he’d done decades ago. The trees shook, and though Nigel attributed the explosion to an air raid, he thought tanks rolled, not stomped, like he perceived underfoot.
Another roar, so close it almost split his rejuvenated eardrums. He stood up and found himself face to face with a dragon, its wings wide, nostrils ablaze and tail pointed upward, scorpion-like. It smelled of burned flesh; he gagged.
The dragon spotted him, and Nigel, sword at the ready, caught his gaze. They defied one another.
The dragon hissed and a fireball spit from his nose; Nigel ducked. He moved through the trees like a cat and soon was close enough to strike the scaly beast. Metal clanged on the hard scales, but Nigel noticed they broke. He struck again and again until the beast gave a piercing scream.
Flames surrounded him. Fire burned his flesh and ash blocked his vision. He drove the sword into the raw skin he’d hacked. Blood poured from the wound. His clothes caught fire, and the flames engulfed both beast and man.
The fire department could not find a clear cause for the fire that had reduced the house to cinders. They believed the ancient wiring in the wall behind the bed was at fault.
The strange old man hadn’t stood a chance; maybe he hadn’t even woken up.
A rumor spread through the neighborhood children. It was spontaneous combustion, they said, because no one found the charred remains.