by James Scotte Burns II
From the gates of an immense fortress rode a resplendent knight, sunlight glittering off the burnished steel of his fine plate armor. Cheers from the walls and towers embraced him as his mount tossed its head and stepped high through the flowers cast under its hooves. Amidst such revelry, the warrior’s first real battle beyond the spires of his home proved to be with his swelling pride; a struggle in which the outcome at that moment seemed uncertain at best.
Leaving the old stone keep behind, he took to a road through the nearby forest, reveling in the sounds of the wood and the smells of leather, horse, and newly oiled steel. His harness creaked slightly as he reached into his saddlebags for a small wineskin and waxed roll of hard cheese. Although he had broken his fast not two hours since, a simple meal taken on the trail completed his vision of the soldier perfectly, and he had been anxiously anticipating fitting that figure for so very long. The moment’s satisfaction of his martial desires was made even sweeter by the nobility of his cause—the rescue of an innocent and the slaying of the wretched beast that had taken her. His training was superb, his bloodlines beyond question, and his weapons, armor, and mount the finest that his house could provide. His attention, however, was at that moment not all it could have been, as a steel bolt glanced off his gorget and embedded itself, quivering, in a young tree beside the trail.
Choking on surprise, he spun his horse in time to see the next missile fly from a stand of thorny flowering bushes. With no time to pull his shield from its saddle harness, the knight’s left hand raised quickly to protect his face so that the bolt took him in the gauntlet, punching between its fine scales and lodging in the mail and flesh between his fingers. At the ratcheting noise of the crossbow being drawn once more, he bit hard on the shaft of the bolt just below its barbed head, screaming with rage and pain as he pulled it through his hand and spit it contemptuously onto the trail. Snatching a fine dagger from his belt, he let the blade fly in a whistling spin just as the next bolt flew past him from the hedge.
The master-at-arms would have been proud as the knight did not wait for his attacker’s next move, but immediately followed his flying blade in a rush, drawing his long sword and hearing a startled howl cut short behind him as the errant second bolt found another mark behind him. The knight’s dagger flew wide at the last, but caused the crossbowman to leap sideways and up to avoid its flight, exposing him perfectly to the slash of the knight’s sword. With full arm strength and the momentum of the horse’s charge behind the stroke, the brigand was cloven nearly in two, splashing the horse with gore and collapsing in an unpleasant heap. Wheeling, the knight turned to find the source of the second voice. The other highwayman, a larger and evidently slower fellow, was pinned neatly to the bole of a tree. The bolt through the ruffian’s throat seemed a more than equitable reward for the bruise the knight had suffered on his own.
Assuring himself of no more ruffians hiding nearby, the knight dragged the bodies into better view on the roadside. The detritus having been cleaned from his mount as best he could manage using the shabby coat of the crossbowman, he disdainfully tossed the rag on the midden pile and washed his hands from his water skin. Some woodsman would no doubt alert the sheriff and the mess would be disposed of properly. Lamenting the damage to his accoutrements, not the least to him the distasteful stains on tabard and horse blanket, he still congratulated himself on his martial skill, his field dressing—the bandage stopped the bleeding while the salve took nearly all the pain—and his luck with that final bolt. Luck was not something one could learn after all, but was certainly a part of any successful warrior’s desired equipment.
Clear of the forest, the knight took to wide plains that stretched out like the parchment of a tale waiting to be written. On the horizon lay the mountains that were his destination, their folds harboring his fearsome fate. No one knew from where the würm had come, but its travels in this realm were well marked in burnt countryside and the scorched remains of partially devoured livestock. Some thought that it had wakened from a long sleep, angered to find its lands now in the hands of a human king and peopled by his subjects. Others believed it the conjured horror of some amoral dabbler in arcane arts, no doubt slain for his efforts and leaving his creation without purpose or direction. Whatever the truth of the matter, the beast had developed a curious taste for the company of young ladies of high birth. The latest was the daughter of a noble of his father’s protectorate, hence the mission upon which the knight now found himself. A righteous cause indeed, but one that caused him no little concern, his armed prowess with brigands and the like notwithstanding.
Several evenings under the stars, pious prayers, meditations, and reflection upon his cause and his nobility fortified not only his faith, but also his righteous pride. He felt the very essence of chivalry and valor as he ascended the foothills and began the final days travel to his destiny. The hills gradually rose, becoming slopes too steep and rocky for his mount, so he found a small glacial valley with good fodder and a small stream carrying runoff from the heights. Removing harness and saddle, he curried the horse and picked its hooves, speaking gently to it of its part in his righteous mission, and his hope that it would wait faithfully for him to return with his rescued maiden. Then he hobbled it, not as a question of faith, but in goodwill toward the stablemaster, whom he knew held less stock in the horse’s honor.
The day’s climb in armor to the lofty cave mouth was difficult, the sweat running off his chest and back dampening the breeches underneath his leggings, his boots chafing at the heel as he scrabbled for purchase once the path became little more than a rocky cliff. Panting lightly, he finally pulled himself over the lip of an outcropping and spied the objects of his quest. While lying prone behind a slight rise that hid him from the cave mouth, he saw a young woman, plump and pretty for all the dirt that smeared her face, hints of tiny rivulets under her eyes showing the flow of tears now dried. Aside from her battered clothing and nearly matted hair, she appeared unhurt. Coiled about the stone pillar on which the lady was somehow fixed lay the würm.
Scales shifted as the creature breathed deeply with a broad rushing sound like distant wind through an olden forest. Wings folded along its back, the skin a golden leather, it stretched thirty meters or more, blocking the cave entrance behind and nearly encircling the small hill on which the pillar stood. Dreaming, its claws scratched narrow furrows in the soft stone. For a moment, the knight was taken with its beauty—a creature of immense power and legendary grace in flight. The maiden’s quivering sigh, cast from the depths of her own tortured sleep, broke his reverie and the knight cursed himself a fool for finding anything worthy in such an evil beast. It would die by his righteous hand, and he would return the young woman to her father.
Gently, the knight circled the cliff edge to his right, hoping to slip behind the beast’s flanks and take it from behind. Such a creature surely knew nothing of honor and deserved no better. The good leather boots he had donned for the ascent made for surprisingly quiet and swift passage as he rounded the little hill and silently drew his blade from its scabbard. A few more steps and he could clearly see the back of the beast’s head, the great horned crest protecting the softer flesh of the neck and throat before scales took that duty for the balance of its sinuous body. As he neared the creature, carefully choosing the place from which he would drive his steel into its tremendous skull, he could feel its heat, smell the ancient musk of its body. He envisioned the grateful kisses of the maiden and the gold her father would lay before him at the banquet in his honor. With great humility, he would at first gently protest, then accept graciously and later use the gold to purchase land and keep suitable for a slayer of dragons. He hoped he did not have to buy another horse, but that remained to be seen. For now, he raised his blade in the thrusting form he judged best, preparing the stroke that would see him into the ranks of heroes.
Silently, the dragon’s calm amber eyes slid partly open. Not that she needed to see the knight to know where he was and what he was doing. His clanking and stink had been a burning splinter in her rest since he began his ascent hours before. Relieved, she resolved to find fresh bait tomorrow. Or perhaps the next day. Her tail whipped around, curling elegantly in a blur of sinewy grace over her back and toward the spot where she knew the knight stood ready. At the moment his thrust began, the small bony mace that was the tip of her tail caught him below the small of his back, snapping his spine and sending the blade darting over her head, splintering itself on the stone pillar inches above the maiden as she woke to the sudden tumult. The force and swing of the dragon’s blow having sent him skyward, the knight’s final vision was a jet of searing flame that caught him at the top of his arc over the far side of the cliff. Trailing smoke as it spun toward the ground, the carcass in its shining—and in places now glowing—armor crashed into a pile of rusting plate and chain, bones and broken weapons scattered at the base of the cliff’s far side. The dragon leisurely reached up and lightly tapped the pillar with a long foreclaw, releasing the maiden from the spell that had held her there. Blowing delicately at the tiny thing to encourage her flight, she hoped the girl would find the horse in the valley below like the others had. Then she closed her eyes once more and dreamed of the glory that would one day be hers when she returned home a great slayer of terrible knights.