by H. K. Marshall
I had enough silver to hire the turnip farmer as a guide, but did he speak the truth? “You can believe it, Gregory. It lives in the western wilderness, the most fearsome serpent I’ve ever seen.” Mud from baiting a hook stained his hands but did not reach the sleeves of his yellow shirt.
No dragon had been seen in the region during the reigns of the last four kings, and most disappeared within a generation after the settlers drained the swamps. “How many dragons have you seen?” I inquired.
He chuckled. “Um, well, I’ve seen plenty of brown rock snakes.”
“You compare rock snakes to dragons?”
“I’m telling you it stood bigger than a bear. Came upon my sister as she dug turnips.”
“She cried out?”
“No, my sister neither hears nor speaks, but you never met a kindlier girl. She ran back to find me mending the plow. Never too early to start preparing for sowing, you know. Pale as a corpse, she moved her mouth in vain and pointed.”
“What did you do?”
“As soon as I saw it, I took my father’s spear from above the fireplace. He served as a spearman, a great one, in the king’s army, and he taught me a little.”
A woman’s voice piped up from atop a small boulder that sat against the riverside. “Ralph, you’ve never seen a dragon, and I’ve never known you to miss a chance to back down from a fight.” The voice belonged to a woman he called his twin cousin, maybe younger than Ralph and with a nose like the blade of my battle axe. Her brown hair hung down in three braids.
Ralph answered with a sneer. “I suppose that nobody ever saw anything you haven’t. Don’t you have any manners? I’m talking to this gentleman. I see he chose to sit in the mud with me rather than on the rock with you.”
The young woman rolled her eyes and went back to staring at the float on her fishing line while Ralph continued his story. “As I told you, I took my spear and charged out into the field.”
“What did it look like?” I asked.
“A dreadful beast. Fiercer than a lion. Covered in fire and smelling of brimstone.”
The woman interrupted, again. “Do you even know what brimstone smells like?”
Ralph glanced at her then looked back at me. “If you ever smell brimstone, you’ll know. Anyway, I went at it with the spear and it spouted red flame, hot as any smith’s forge. Then I wished I had a shield, but a poor farmer can’t afford that.”
I could not even detect a smell of smoke on him. “What kept you from burning?”
“Oh, it singed my beard, but I danced back out of the way. My family has always possessed a gift for footwork. The monster swung the stinger on the end of its tail, dripping with venom. We must have struggled together for half an hour until its eyes blazed like embers in a furnace. It bared its devil’s fangs and reared up on its hind legs, so it stood tall as a house, to devour me, but then I saw its mistake. I lunged and rammed my spear into its navel. Then it fled.”
“And nobody has seen it since,” the cousin added.
Ralph turned his head to face her. “Because I drove it back to its lair.”
She had no trouble responding to that. “Oho! That should be easy to prove.”
Ralph could only come up with “Um ….”
“Just show the guardsman to the lair,” the woman suggested, “and he will settle the question. He may even rid the wilderness of the menace.”
“But …” He seemed to reach for an excuse.
She pressed him. “Don’t dally. At first light, show him the way unless you fear the beast.”
“I don’t fear anything. The way through the forest is rough.” Then he stopped for a second and said to me, “Don’t misunderstand. I’m sure a stout warrior such as yourself could make the trip with ease, Gregory, but you must need to attend to your master’s business.”
I told him, “Nothing would please my master more than for a member of his guard to kill a dragon, except, of course, for him to kill one himself. I have silver to pay for your help.” I did believe that it would please my master but also harbored a more definite wish. I had once spoken to him of my desire to rise to captain of his guard someday.
When the time comes, he had smirked, I would not grant that place to any but you. Just one thing—bring me the tail of a dragon to show me you know how to use that axe.
“Go ahead.” The woman on the rock brought me out of my musing. (I never did learn her name.)
“Alright, I’ll do it,” Ralph said. “I’ll take Gregory in for the night. My sister will sleep by the front door, and he’ll use her room.”
The next morning, we woke to a sky as grey as an evening just before nightfall. Ralph had no saddle for his mule; so I left most of my supplies at his house and let him follow me on my pack horse. The green of early summer never looked drearier than it did that day. Less than halfway through the morning, a light rain began to fall. In my zeal to see the monster, I had forgotten my oiled cloak and left it with my other belongings. Ralph kept dry in his.
The morning got darker after that. No path led the way. I trusted my guide. In the afternoon, the rain ended, but we entered a fog. Soon Ralph told me to stop. He pointed. “Right over there, not sixty yards beyond the withered tree you’ll find the bank of the Hermit’s Creek. Twenty paces on the other side, the drake makes its lair.”
The tree, twice as wide as a man is tall, stood just ahead. I don’t know why it had not fallen unless either it had been in good health not long before or belonged to a kind which grew a hardy wood.
Then Ralph said, “We could await the morning if you want, Sir. Should the battle last into the night … Well, everyone knows such creatures thrive in darkness.”
“I’ve never heard they shun light, and how could a guard so craven he feared the dark defend his master? I must not let the creature escape; few enough of such monsters, by which a man may win glory, linger these days.” Besides, I did not want to spend more time than necessary without proper clothing in that mist, even in summer.
I went the rest of the way on foot because my horse had never smelled a dragon before. Ralph did not seem to mind being left there in charge of both horses. I stalked the last several yards to the creek, remembering the cat our family kept when we still lived together before my father died and the creditor took me. A lump rose in my throat, but I shrugged. At least, I serve a kinder master than some. When I reached the creek, the fog beyond obscured my vision.
After considering the other shore without seeing my quarry, I crossed over, and upon climbing the far bank, I touched my breastplate just to remind myself of its presence. It might not avail against flames, but it could help if that devil took me in its jaws. I also had my oak shield, reinforced with bands of iron and overlaid with the tanned hide of a brown bear. The serpent would have a hard time setting fire to anything in that damp.
When I crossed, I found that Ralph’s directions had led me not to the other shore but just to a small island. Its tapered ends turned back toward the way I had come so that it would look like a frown if one saw it from a treetop on a clear day.
The island seemed empty of beasts, but under a willow, I came upon a mound of turnips about as high as my knee. With my nerves growing calmer in the absence of the fiend, I picked up one of the turnips and began eating, wondering whether the farmer had even conjured the whole tale from his own mind. When I had only a couple of bites left, a splash came from the side of the island where I had come ashore. I wheeled around, eyes wide.
Not twenty feet in front of me, the serpent’s head appeared above the bank, almost straight across from where I stood. Upon taking note of my presence, it heaved itself up and stood as a darker cloud within the fog. Tales spoke of scaled monsters that entombed warriors in melted armor and of winged ones that came without warning in blazing doom upon towns.
This one stood as high as my waist, and pale grey plates covered it. A cloven tongue as long as my arm slid out. The creature charged, and though I blush to confess, I jumped back because the beast startled me. It stopped, however, before we joined battle. I came behind the mound of turnips and almost stepped on the worm’s other treasure, a single round egg, yellow, speckled with brown, and about as wide as the head of my battle axe. Now I would have reason to boast of two from one hunt.
Just then the mother rushed at me again with a hiss like that of a turtle I once kicked, but louder, like the hiss of a hundred turtles. I would not have believed how fast the dragon could move since, with its plated back, it even looked a little like a turtle.
I darted away from the egg and the turnips so nothing would hinder my feet. A perilous task confronted me, but a few blows of my axe to the serpent’s head should avail. The fiend was not as quick as I.
It showed teeth like daggers that pointed backward. Now my turn came to rush upon the dragon as I raised my axe and shouted a war cry. My foe neither advanced nor retreated but hissed again and raised its tail higher than its head, displaying another weapon in addition to its fangs. I hesitated and considered what threat this presented; a good fighter never runs heedless into combat against an unknown adversary. The end of the tail bore a great bulb, set with spikes like horns but with no sign of the venom the farmer spoke of.
The hissing stopped, and my cry faded in the heavy air. Our eyes locked, and in the silence, I heard a soft cracking. Over to my right, a piece of shell fell away from the egg. For a moment, I forgot the beast that challenged me and watched as the hole grew bigger by the working of a mouth on the inside. A tiny grey head, itself the shape of a bird’s egg, stretched into the mist. It trembled and swayed before returning my gaze.
At that time, I recalled something a scribe had told me years before. Though folk tell of many dragons that plunder and murder, I have never read any such story set down by the great recorders of wars and kings or by students of natural history. These write of men who kill dragons.
None had been seen in the kingdom or any neighboring kingdom during the reigns of the last four kings. The little one was crawling out now.
Perhaps a snow lion that robbed the flock would satisfy my master. I slunk off, still watching the mother, of course, to one end of the island. I had enough silver to pay the farmer for his turnips.
H. K. Marshall was born and grew up in the Deep South. From childhood, he had both an interest in science and an appreciation for beautiful language. In the 1980’s, he obtained a degree in biology. Then, in the early 1990’s, he moved to the Mid Atlantic where he obtained a more specific degree in one of the biological sciences. He enjoys playing chess and, of course, reading fiction. He wrote a little as a youth but began writing as an adult in 2008. This is his first piece to be published. Contact him at [email protected].