The Duke and the Dragon

Upon the tall tower, Egbert stared out over the horizon. Why must I watch for dragons? he thought to himself. They probably do not even exist. He took a large bite of the bread his wife had given him that morning for lunch. Just then he saw something, like an eagle, soaring so high it was barely a speck in the blue sky. He squinted at it a while as it gradually flew lower. After a few moments he could make out the long, spear-headed tail, the wings like a bat’s, and the soft orange flicker at the nose. He immediately ran for the stair down into the castle. He rushed into the throne room where the duke and duchess were enjoying a leisurely luncheon.

“Sire!” he began, bowing low before the duke. “I’ve seen a dragon!”

The duke immediately called in the captain of the guard. “Round up all of thy men, fully armed; ready them for battle.” Then he turned back to Egbert. “Whence comes he?”

“I know not, Sire; I was for but an instant inattentive, taking my lunch, and when again I turned mine eyes to the sky, I saw something, an eagle, methought, but as it did lower itself, I saw that ’twas a dragon.”

“Good, well, I thank thee, sir. Now I advise thee to make ready thyself for battle,” the duke said gravely.

As he left, Egbert saw the duke kneel before his throne in prayer.

Egbert went first to tell the marquises about the dragon. When he reached their rooms, he found them reading. “Excuse my intrusion, milords,” he said, bowing low, “but this ye should know: I have sighted a dragon.”

Ethelwulf, the older marquis, spoke first: “Whence comes he?”

“As I told your father, milord, I know not; I looked away and back and it was there,” Egbert said.

Now the younger marquis, Athelstan, spoke: “We do thank thee, Egbert, for surely our father would have wanted to keep this from us. He knows that we would like to fight.”

“And will ye now do battle, milords?”

“I shall,” said Ethelwulf, “but thou, Athelstan, art yet too young.” With that, Ethelwulf took up his great Scottish broadsword and slung it in its scabbard onto his back. “If I do not survive this battle, brother, I pray thee, take this my great sword and make better use of it than have I.” He turned to leave

“Fare you well, brother,” Athelstan said.

“And you,” said Ethelwulf, and he left.

As soon as the door shut, Athelstan embraced Egbert, crying. “O, I fear I shall lose my brother!”

At that Egbert drew his sword and held it before him, taking Athelstan’s hand and placing it on the hilt. “Fear not, milord, but swear by my sword that if your brother die today, you shall take revenge on this and all dragons.”

“O, sir, that I do swear!” Athelstan fairly shouted. “But thou wilt assist me; thou wilt instruct me in the use of that great sword. And thou wilt stand by my side on the day of battle; swear!”

“Milord, I do swear to assist you in any manner I can.”

Ethelwulf made his way through corridors and down long, spiralling stairs. He came into the courtyard to find it full of soldiers; the captain of the guard stood before them. The soldiers looked at him as he walked past them toward the front of the formation.

“I have come for battle,” he shouted as he approached the captain.

“Milord, have you your father’s accord?” The captain asked.

“Thou needst not to worry about that,” Ethelwulf said.

“Milord—” The captain began.

“What have I told thee?”

“Ay, Milord, be then my lieutenant.”

“And the lieutenant—lieutenant!”

The captain’s lieutenant presented himself before the marquis. “Milord?”

“You shall serve as my ancient,” Ethelwulf told him.

The courtyard gates were opened and the formation marched behind the captain out to battle. The Ethelwulf’s contingent was small, consisting of 100 men, mostly archers. As they approached what was to be the field of battle, the great sword weighed heavily upon Ethelwulf’s back; he drew it from its scabbard and held it before him, its long expanse of highly tempered and polished Spanish steel glinting in the sunlight. The smoothly finished macassar ebony of the handle felt cool in his hands.

The dragon was flying low over pastures, killing sheep and cattle. When he saw the soldiers approaching, he banked to the east and around in a circle, back to the south, whence the soldiers came. Seeing the dragon coming for them, the soldiers raised their shields and the archers nocked their arrows. The captain raised his sword and waited for the dragon to draw nearer; when he was in range, the captain dropped the sword to his side, shouting, “Loose!”

The arrows flew up in a great arc toward the dragon, who flew on, unconcerned. When they hit, the arrows glanced harmlessly off the dragon’s shining blue scales. A second volley of arrows was similarly without affect. By this time, the dragon had come within fire breathing range, and he let go a blast of his white hot flames at the soldiers, who scattered, but to no avail. The fire burned through wooden and leather shields like paper, melted bronze and copper fittings, and cooked the soldiers inside their armour. Those left alive after this first burst of fire ran futilely away, to be caught up and sliced to bits by razor-sharp claws or burned to a cinders by white hot fire.

At the end of the massacre, all lay dead but one man, who had taken refuge under the burnt carcass of a sheep. He was later hanged for cowardice.

Athelstan went out into the field where his brother's body lay in a heap, burnt, broken, stinking; his face was visible, though, protected by his steel helmet. The great sword, which the Scots called Claymore, lay a few yards away, blackened by the heat of the dragon’s fire.

Athelstan stood, holding this great sword, in a field red with the blood of the dead, crying.

The great sword he took to the blacksmith, bidding him, “Sir, do re-temper this my brother’s great sword, and polish it so that it doth shine argent as quicksilver, that I might use it to avenge my brother.”

When he had his sword, now restored, the guard Egbert taught him its use. By his eighteenth birthday, Athelstan was so skilled in the use of his great sword that no opponent in the duchy could defeat him.

On the day Athelstan was made duke, his first order of business was to send out scouts to search for the lair of the dragon that had killed his brother. It was many long months before any word came back, but one of the scouts had found a cave, out of which a hot wind blew once a minute. Athelstan knew at once that this was the dragon’s lair.

He immediately called his best knights together and it was quickly decided that they should leave at once.

It took three weeks’ travelling to reach the cave; and when Athelstan stood before it, feeling the hot breath of the fiery beast within, fear, hate, anger, and sorrow all washed over him like waves, but one stayed with him. He stood before the cave and was afraid.

Athelstan silently motioned to his knights to gather round him. “We must go silently,” he whispered.

They entered the cave and followed it deep into the earth. The ambient temperature increased steadily as they went deeper.

At last, the cave turned sharply and the glow of dragonfire was visible. Athelstan raised his hand and the party stopped.

“Wherefore stop ye?” a voice boomed from around the corner.

All were silent.

“Are ye not come to kill me?”

The silence hung heavily in the air as Athelstan’s men stood petrified with fear.

“I know ye have tongues; I’ve been listening to ye for years.”

“How can you listen to people hundreds of miles away?” Athelstan said boldly.

“I’m a dragon, man; dost thou not know that dragons can hear anything in the world?”

The duke stepped forward and looked round the corner. The dragon sat calmly on the cool rock and looked at the duke.

“Smaller than I had imagined,” the dragon said, seeming to smile.

“And you are bigger than I had hoped,” Athelstan said. “But to answer your question, yes, I am come to kill you.”

Now the dragon did smile. “Art thou? I should not think one as small as thee could harm me. In fact, I should not think any man could kill me. Thou art the four thousand six hundred and thirty seventh man who has come here saying that he will kill me; I ate them all.”

“You shall not eat me,” Athelstan said.

“O but I shall. I shall spit thy viscera upon a dung heap and pick my teeth with thy femur,” the dragon said contemptuously.

“Egbert, come forth!” Athelstan called.

Egbert came round the corner, his sword drawn, and stood by Athelstan, ready to fight. Athelstan reached over his shoulder and put his hand upon the hilt of his great sword.

“Thy brother tried to kill me with that, did he not?” the dragon asked.

“Ay; on the day he died, he spake thus to me: If I do not survive this day, make better use of my sword than have I; and I intend to.” Athelstan told him.

The dragon got up slowly and stretched himself. He turned round to get a drink of water from the pool at the back of the cave. Athelstan rushed forward, drawing his sword and slid it under the fiery blue scales of the dragon’s belly.

The dragon continued to drink calmly until he had done, then he shook himself and Athelstan was flung backward; his sword clattered to the ground. The dragon was surprisingly agile; it whirled round, caught Athelstan’s sword in its teeth, and tossed it delicately to him. He caught it easily, wondering why the dragon would throw it back to him.

“Well, even with it this is far from a fair fight,” the dragon said arrogantly. “But I want to give thee a chance.”

Athelstan stood silent, wondering how the dragon seemed to know what he had been thinking.

“Seems, sir? Nay, I do know what thou thinkest.”

Athelstan remained silent, but not motionless; he lunged at the dragon, who dodged easily, spun round and dealt Athelstan a tremendous blow with his tail. Athelstan hit the wall of the cave with such force that his breastplate was so deeply dented that he was forced to remove it.

Now, sans armour, Athelstan lunged again at the dragon, who again dodged easily, but this time did not hit Athelstan with his tail, but slashed at him with its razor sharp edge. Athelstan’s undershirt was sliced open and when he looked down, he saw a few tiny trickles of blood dripping down his chest.

Athelstan dodged back to where Egbert stood. He made signs to him that the dragon could not see, indicationg that he wanted Egbert to distract the dragon. He ran toward the back of the cave, round his left side, whilst Athelstan went right. The dragon looked quickly from Egbert to Athelstan, then spun round and sliced Egbert in half with his tail. Egbert saw his lower torso fall away from him, blood spilling freely, staining the floor of the cave.

Now the dragon faced Athelstan. “Why do you not simply burn me with your fire?” Athelstan asked him.

The dragon was taken aback by Athelstan’s question. “I suppose I like a bit of variety; I burned thy brother and a thousand more with one blast; there is no challenge to it. If thou wert a dragon, would’st thou not become weary of always burning, scorching, charring?”

“And when you weary of slicing them to bits and eating them, what then? Will you go back to fire? Or will you weary of killing altogether?”

“I have not wearied of killing in ten thousand million years; I think I shan’t ever weary of it.”

“But are you not an intelligent creature? How can you do the same thing for so very long without wearying of it?”

“Can’st thou not see? Hast thou not a brain in thy head? I am older than any man, born before men ever existed on this earth, indeed, before the earth itself existed, and I shall live past the end of it, fifteen thousand million years more. If I wearied of the only thing I do, what kind of existence would I have?”

“Ay, what kind of existence is it? I think you are already weary of killing.”

“Fool! Thou knowest nothing of weariness! Weariness is when thou hast lived so long that thou hast seen all that there is to see, when thou knowest all that there is to know, when thou hast taken an hundred trillion lives and seen every possible way a creature may be killed. Do that, then speak to me of weariness!”

Athelstan regarded the dragon for a long moment as he seethed in anger, frustration, and, it seemed, despair.

“When you came here,” The dragon began softly, “you said you were come to kill me.”

“I did.”

“Then do so.” The dragon split through the scales of his chest, exposing the soft inner tissues over the heart. Blood oozed from this wound, but the dragon seemed to take no notice. “Run your sword through my ancient heart. End my weariness.”

Athelstan put the point of his long sword against the red pulsating flesh and leaned on it, driving it slowly into the dragon’s beating heart. The blood now gushed from the wound and ran down the blade, over the hilt, and down Athelstan’s arms. He pulled the sword out then and the dragon laid himself gently down. The pulsing of the blood slowed, the light of the dragon’s eyes dimmed, and he died. Athelstan rinsed the blood from himself and his sword and he walked back to his castle in utter silence.

All the people of the duchy were there, crowded round the castle. Athelstan made his way through silently amidst their cheers of triumph. He went up to the rooms he used to share with Ethelwulf, the last place he saw his brother alive. He hung his Claymore upon the wall where Ethelwulf used to keep it, lay down on his old bed and wept.

Athelstan’s knights had brought back the pieces of Egbert’s body with them and they were placed upon a pyre and burned within view of Athelstan’s rooms. He watched, tears running down his face.

He had been alone in those rooms for two days when there was a knock at the door. Athelstan said nothing. The door opened slowly.

“Make thee gone!” Athelstan said.

“Sire?” It was the voice of a small boy.

Athelstan looked at the boy. “Didst not thou hear me?”

“Ay, Sire, I heard you,” the boy said boldly.

“Then why art thou still here?”

“I would speak with you, Sire.”

“Wouldst thou?”

“About my father, Sire.”

“Thy father?” Athelstan knew before he asked: “Who is thy father?”

“Egbert, the guard, and your friend, Sire.”

Athelstan’s face went from an expression of anger to one of sorrow. “What is thy name, boy?”

“Ethelwulf, Sire.”

Athelstan wept. He beckoned to the boy. They embraced and Athelstan whispered in his ear, “Know you that I have no heir?”

“Ay, Sire.”

“Then you are mistaken, my boy,” Athelstan said kindly.

The boy didn’t understand. “Who is your heir, Sire?”

“Do not call me ‘Sire’ anymore, my son.”

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