A Short Story by Ethan Young
Near the Carpathian Mountains, modern-day Romania, 1246 AD
I chopped off a man’s nose once.
I don’t remember it in much detail. It was in a tavern in Wittenburg, I think. Or London. Somewhere east of Spain, I’m sure of that much. It’s mostly a blur, because the tavern keep had been topping off my mead-horn with his home brew for most of the evening. That home brew, I recollect, was a fine mead that had raspberries mixed in it. Gave it this really nice touch of tartness that complemented the honey really well. So this bugger ends up jostling my elbow and making me spill the drink I’d just paid for, and calls me a damned poxed ninny to boot. Daggers were drawn. He lost. Screamed like a damned soul, too. But I think I was mighty gracious to only take his nose. I could have taken his life as well.
Some men know wines. I know mead, and mainly because it’s cheaper than wine. I also fancy myself a discretionary consumer of cheese. Cheese and mead broaden a lad’s shoulders, and if he earns them victuals from the edge of his blade, they broaden them shoulders even more.
I’m a mercenary. You might assume that means I’m a knight, but you’d be wrong. True, a lot of knights who fall on hard times become mercenaries who sell their blades to the highest bidder, but my pedigree weren't never good enough to merit having the title “Sir” in front of my name. I was born the son of a bricklayer in the poorest part of the poorest town in merry old England. My father’s father was a bricklayer, too, but the way I heard it he got caught up in some war or another and ended up with an arrow in his eye. Horrible way to go, but then, there are lots of horrible ways to go. One good thing about Europe: the way all them royals and dukes and such squabble all the time, a hungry man with a sharp blade will never lack work for long. Henry III reigns in England now, or so I’ve heard, but that was six months past so he might have keeled over from the galloping shits by now for all I know.
Them kings, as long as I be marking on the matter, have brought nothing but misery to their kingdoms. All these wars, says I, are family feuds in one way or another. And I know for a fact that Henry III has as much French in his veins as he does English, with maybe even some Norse and German thrown in there for the accounting, and so I say that he's no better than a mutt like me.
I feel my eyes water. The smoke from the hearth makes it some fiddly to write. The mead spills down my beard. It is a goodly-sized beard, red like fire, and I’m very proud of it.
This tavern is a dive, which is exactly how I like my taverns. The wenches are gracious and obliging, which is exactly how I like my wenches. My table is in a corner, with the wall to my back. I told the tavern keep I would accept nothing less on account of my desire to keep from being knifed between my shoulder blades. I could name at least as many men as I have fingers who’d jump at the chance to do so. That number of fingers, incidentally, is seven. I lost the third finger in France. I’d been hired along with a dozen others like me to provide protection to some Duke or other whose name I never bothered to memorize. We were ambushed by bandits near Anjou. The fellow that took my finger had a scar lengthwise across his brow and took the finger in a single hack. I, being the competitive sort, took off his head in the same. The second finger…you know, I’ve forgotten how I lost that one. But I remember the first. Pa took that finger from me when I was twelve. The old tyrant, brutal bastard that he was, had me out chopping wood and got in a right old temper on account of I wasn’t chopping fast enough to suit him. He took my finger as punishment, and that was the last time any man ever laid a hand on me and lived more than two shakes. The dead warrant come down on Pa then and there. I snuffed him the following night, and it pleases me to say that I did it with the same blade he’d used to mutilate me.
I hit Pa on the headbone with the knife's pommel hard enough to break the skin. He fell and launched a scream, so I took that knife and stabbed him with it until he parted with his voice and his life and his damned greasy old soul. It was an easy thing to do. I was a strapping young lad, even at those tender years. When I was done, I took off Pa's boots. They were real nice boots, too, and so it would be a shame to waste them. Maybe they’d belonged to Granddad before he caught that arrow with his face.
If you think it was cruel of me to kill my old man, then you never knew Pa. Likely he’d have done a lot worse to you for a lot less. Do unto others before they do unto you, as the Good Book says. Or, at least, that’s what I think it says.
I stole everything worth taking from the cabin, which weren’t much other than the knife, Pa’s hunting bow, his boots, a quiver of arrows, and some hard cheese and biscuits. Then the house burned down. It is a shame, I say, that such a fine shack got burned to ashes, but I was trying to make a campfire and must have been some careless with my tinder. I traded that knife for a sword not long after, when an old knight with a purple rose on his shield tried to run me over with his horse. A rose, I say. How silly a sigil is that? Why not use a dragon, the way them Welsh do? Even Henry III uses a lion, or so people say. And yet this fellow picks a rose.
That knight lost his sword, his horse, his mail and his life, and may he rot where I left him, which is beneath a hedge a few days’ east of Londontown in the event you are looking for him. That mail fit me like a second skin, for as I’ve said, I was a strapping young lad. I fairly strutted down that road, I did, but I left his shield behind as a rose did not suit me.
I learned fast, as the alternative was dying and I had no wish to die. I learned that there was coin to be made for a man willing to sell his blade to those who will pay his price. A man need not go hungry so long as he can swing a sword. I’ve fought in wars on occasion when some lord or king finds himself in need of men and is willing to cough up gold for soldiers to fill out his ranks. I’ve been underneath the French and English banners and the flags of at least a dozen German princes, caring nothing for their politics but only for their blunt. I’ve worked for mayors and lesser men, too, usually townsfolk who have problems that only a sword can solve. You make more coin fighting wars for nobles, but you have more fun working for the commoners, as they have mead and wenches in plenty and tend to be generous with both. Hunting bandits or a man-eating bear or some such is a lot simpler than fighting a war.
When it comes to wars, it ain't the fighting that bothers me. I like that part fine. It’s what goes on when there ain't fighting to be had that makes my beard curl. The singers would have you believe that wars are fought by gallant knights in shining armor. They are liars. The knights wear armor, aye, but ‘tis bloodstained more often than not, and not all of that blood is noble.
The commoners bear the brunt of all them wars. They’re happy to let their highborn lords play their power games, so long as they’re left alone. They never are. The singers like to leave that part out of their stories and ballads, but that’s poets for you.
I never went into banditry neither, not once. I make an honest living, or as honest a living as one in my profession is capable of making, and I have no wish to steal from those who are poor already. I was poor. I remember what desperation tastes like. I am a killer by trade, aye, but it is all a job to me and I do not butcher women and children. I kill to put food in my belly and wenches in my bed, but never on the wrong side of the law. Not for the love of it. Not for the lust of it. At the end of the day it’s the pay that matters, whereas bandits kill for killing’s sake, with the coin as a fringe benefit. That is the difference between my kind and theirs. Remember that, elsewise you might discover a knife has suddenly sprouted from your tender portions.
It really frosts my ass whenever the bards sing songs of dashing bandits sneaking into ladies’ towers and giving to the poor, because bandits are neither heroic nor dashing. As if I didn’t need another reason to despise poets. Anyone who steals from the poor is not worth a song.
There’s a bard singing by the hearth even as I write this. He is a thick lad, with a thick head on wide shoulders and built like a barrel. His eyes are the color of mud. His hair is black and oily, and he has an abundance of it. But that is the Almighty’s sense of humor. What He does not bestow inside a man, he bestows on the outside, and that bard must have hair by the tonnage as there isn’t a dollop of sense in him. His voice is like a yowling cat, and he is drunk.
I want to punch him.
This mead is sheep’s piss.
Give me another.
Has it stopped snowing yet? No, of course it ain't. Them Carpathians are awash in snow the way a sea is awash in water. Anyone outside will freeze to death before long.
I think I still have a few icicles in my beard.
Where was I?
Romania’s a long way from merry old England, and an even longer way away from Spain. I do not like Spain. I stayed there for a spell fighting for some Spanish lord against the Moors before I wound up here, and I found the weather disagreeable. Too warm. It made me sweat something fierce, even when I weren’t fighting. The sun was like a furnace. Even the nights were as warm as evening in Hell. But Spain did have some redeeming tributes, namely its wine, its women and its steel. The wine was good, like sweet velvet on my tongue, and they make it so fine and in such quantity that I never again imbibed good wine so cheaply than when I was in Spain. It took me some time to get adjusted to mead again when I left the Spaniard, as I had become accustomed to the finer things in life.
And the Spanish women...I never seen so many beautiful women in one country in all my born days. Spain must hold a place of favor with the Lord, as only the Almighty could bless a country with so many dark-eyed beauties. Them women, even more than the wine, were what made Spain tolerable. More than tolerable, even. All nice curves, dark hair and dark eyes with a stare that could melt a man like butter.
Aye, and the steel. There’s lots of good steel over in Spain, and the Moors have the best. Them Moors are a strange lot. They dress in funny-looking armor and have all sorts of weapons that I’d never seen before. They have swords that seemed to be more like scythes on account of they’re so curved, and even the lowliest Moorish soldier has fine weapons, with blades sporting gold filigree and hilts encrusted with coral or fine gems.
I've changed me mind. I love Spain.
It pleases me to say that I own such a blade myself. I took it from a Moor that I shot in the face with an arrow. Popped his head like a big red pimple, it did, and that sword was probably worth more than what the Spaniard paid me for my services. Another mercenary in my unit, a Swiss pikeman named Hans, tried to take the sword from me after I’d already laid claim to it. I laid Hans open from chin to groin and got a new pike in the bargain as well.
The Spaniard was always makin’ a big deal about the Moors and their religion, but I didn’t care much either way. I’m not much for religion, even on Sundays, and I can’t help but think that Almighty has no preference one way or another on how men go about worshiping Him. The Moors were just another enemy to me.
When the Spaniard turned me loose, I started east on the back of a Moorish horse that weren’t Moorish no more on account of its rider come to a sudden demise. I didn’t have a clear idea about where I was going. I didn’t really care. I had enough coin from the Spaniard to get me all the mead and wenches and lodgings I needed for three whole months, and them were good months, but as I crossed the eastern border of Saxony I found my pockets dry again. I took up with a fishing village on the coast of the Baltic for a few weeks. That village, whose name I can’t remember with all this mead in me, was in sore need of strong backs because most of its men had died from the pox the previous year and there was no one to haul the nets. I would have preferred someone to fight, as that is what I am used to doing, but gold is gold when all is said and done. I hauled in those nets from Monday to Saturday, and even on Sunday too. You might say that men should not work on Sunday, but fishermen do if they want to eat. The village priest was right there hauling nets alongside us, and he drank as much mead as the next man when the day was done. We hauled nets until our arms nearly fell off, aye, and then scaled and gutted them fish till we were up to our knees in fishy parts. I haven’t eaten fish ever since.
When the villagers found they couldn’t afford to pay me no more, they told me to move on and I was happy to oblige them. I left them and their fishes for brighter prospects and wandered along forest and river and road, selling my blade to anyone I met, though there were few takers. I was flat-out broke by the time I saw the Carpathian peaks on the horizon, and I was mighty glad to see them peaks because mountain folk are always in some kind of distress or another: bandits are raiding, or a feral wolf is carrying off shepherds’ children, things like that. I can handle bandits and wolves.
But this job was different. I’ve been in many poor towns in my day, and they were all one flavor or another of destitute, but this town looked like Old Nick had started working it over with his whips of flame and decided to stop halfway through. Some of the buildings had burned. Some were near collapse. A few were intact. The inn was one of the latter, for which I thanked God if the Almighty could be bothered to hear the words of one such as me.
We mercenaries ain't a sentimental bunch. You don’t get attached to the people who pay you. It’s simpler that way. And the benefit of mercenary work is that you can choose who you work for. I don’t claim to have a strict moral code, nor can I speak for other mercenaries, but I do have a code, and I stick with it.
A man needs a code. Elseways we're nothing but beasts. It's codes that set us apart from the animals.
But when I walked into Brasov village, or what was left of it, I couldn’t help but pity its people. I was walking, mind, because my Moorish horse had given out on me somewhere in Poland. I never seen such desperation and hopelessness as I did on them Brasov villagers. I’ve been in wars, seen every kind of man or devil and fought alongside many of them. But I never seen destruction like this.
My arrival was some concerning to the townsfolk, as they thought I had come to reave and rape, but I avoid the former and disdain the latter, as women are more enjoyable when they go to your bed willingly. But I cannot fault them for thinking so, as I must have looked some disreputable: battle-worn armor over a ragged tunic and breeches, tattered cloak and soiled furs, armed to the teeth and sporting the red beard that went down to my belt.
It was a woman who grabbed me by the arm and told me in broken English that her name was Karina and that I was the answer to her prayers. I replied that if God sent me to answer prayers, His standards must gotten right lowly. She was a comely lass, though. She had blue eyes, blue as sapphires. Deep as an ocean. A man could drown in those eyes, he could. She had long black hair, too, as black as night without stars, with a figure like a slender sapling. I found her most appealing, though in ways that set her apart from all the other women I've known. I’d had many women, and I'd enjoyed them and they me...but something about Karina made her special. No woman had ever stirred my mind as well as my groin. As soon as I set eyes on her I was smitten with her.
Men don’t talk of love. We brag of our carnal conquests, aye, but love…when men speak of love, their voices drop to a whisper, and they look away as if ashamed.
Put a sword in a man's hand and he turns into a beast. Put gold in his hand and he turns into a fool. Aye, but put a woman in his hand, and he turns into both at once.
We men are wretched things, we are.
Karina had a boy on her arm. Her son, I
assumed, and I counted him as right lucky as he hadn’t been orphaned like so
many other children. I put his term at around nine. I like kids. No, not that way. I enjoy being around ‘em, as I
find their honesty and sincerity endearing. I’ve never kicked or hit a child,
not once. Mayhap if someone had been nice to me when I was a shrimp I wouldn’t
have turned out the way I did, so the way I see it I’m doing them kids a favor,
and their parents too. Only a beast harms children. Perhaps that will be a
point in my favor when the Almighty and I finally have an accounting.
Anyway, I tried to tell Karina that I was in search of work. It was a difficult task and I figure she didn’t understand much, but then this young whelp come up to me and tells me in my own tongue that she was the miller’s daughter and the boy was her brother’s. The miller, and the boy's parents had all died in the inferno that had consumed most of the town. The young whelp’s old man had been the mayor but he’d been burnt to cinders too, and that meant he was the mayor now. I told him what I told Karina about searching for work and he said that there weren’t no work available on account of all the ruin around us. But I, ever quick to spy opportunity, rejoined that he was wrong and that there was work to be had, and by chance I was just the one to carry it out for him.
I recall the conversation that the mayor and I had as we walked down a lane. During that walk I nearly tripped over a burnt log, but then realized it weren’t a log at all but some poor sod’s arm, all burnt and blackened and shriveled. The mayor didn’t seem to notice. Perhaps he was trying not to. I certainly couldn’t blame him for that.
He asked me what work I had in mind, and I said that I could hunt down the ones who caused all this mayhem and bring him their heads in return for gold. The mayor laughed at me, and that surprised me, as no one laughs at me very often, or at least not more than once. He told me that he could tell me for a seasoned fighter but me and a hundred others like me couldn’t accomplish what I was proposing. I said that I was worth two hundred men, as bravado never hurt anyone when negotiating a price, but he laughed again.
“Are these bandits really so fearsome?” I asked, puffing out my chest. I could only puff it out a little, though, on account of my breastplate.
“You think bandits did this?” The mayor waved his arm so as to emphasize his point.
“I’ve seen the work of bandits and all manner of men. This does not seem so different.”
“But it is. See the fire?”
“There is fire, sir, and then there is fire. It burns just as hot and of the same color no matter what man sets alight.”
“This was not the work of any man.”
I arched an eyebrow at him, and it was a bushy red eyebrow just like its twin. The mayor had no eyebrows. They’d all been burned off and so the spot where they’d been above his eyes look right crispy. “Oh, aye? And whose work is it then, pray tell?”
The man’s face went pale as new milk. “The devil.”
“Which devil? I have known so many.”
“The devil that lives in the mountains.”
I tried to hide my skepticism but didn’t succeed, as subtlety ain’t one of my strong points. “Go on.”
“Do you believe in tales, sir?”
“No 'sir' about me. And it depends on the tale. I’ve heard many and told many, but never took any seriously as far as I know. Tales are just that. Tales.”
“Then you will not believe me when I tell you that the mountain devil is the sort of thing you hear of in tales. Knights bear his image on their shields and banners, I’ve heard, but if they saw one for themselves they would think twice about it.”
“Speak plainly man, or speak not at all. I do not like theatrics.”
“It was a dragon that put paid to our town. It came upon us in a storm of fire and death and gnashing teeth, and flew away on a whirlwind borne by great wings large enough to blot out the sun. It lives in the mountains near the highest peak.”
I laughed heartily. Laughed, I say, until tears ran down my face. “Your bread must be made of moldy barley, or your ale and mead made of stale hops and sour honey,” I said, “For only a bad belly would make you tell such stories and believe them to be truth.”
“You insult me. You insult us. Again I say, look around. What more proof do you need?”
“I have seen men do things as bad as this. Worse things, too.”
“You scorn me yet again, yet you say you desire work from me.”
“What I believe don’t matter all that much, and for the right price I’ll believe almost anything,” I said. “If you want to say it’s a dragon, do so. I care not, so long as I am weighed down with coin.”
“We have no coin. We were poor before the demon rained fire down upon us, and now we are all but destitute.”
“Then lodgings, sir, and meat and bread to fill my belly. And, sir, if I could ask but more of you, ale and mead to wash it down.”
“Lodgings, you say. Meat and bread, you say. To wash it down, you say.” The mayor looked around and I felt sorry for him then. Aye, and I felt guilty for laughing at him the way I’d done, too, and I’m not the sort to feel guilt easily.
“I repent of the calumny I caused you,” I said, and did my best to look the way a dog does when you catch it gnawing on your boot. “If you will affix me abundantly, I will work for you, aye, and gladly.”
“There is no point in trying to rebuild. Not while the demon still lives. It would undo our labors in a heartbeat.”
“Then I shall kill it. I do not share in your belief in dragons, as I believe in what I see, and I have never seen a real dragon before. Nor have I heard of other men seeing one. Mayhap your grief has distorted your memory. I will not fault you for that. But aye, I’ll go kill this so-called dragon for you, and I’ll wager this fine dagger here on my belt that it proves to be nothing more than bandits with torches.”
“Go, then, and seek your battle. You will return victorious or not at all, for losing will mean your death. Mayhap winning will also be your death, for the beast’s last exhalation may roast you in your armor. Mayhap. But if you return, you will have all the mead and ale and food we can spare.”
“And so I shall. And if I do not, well…all men are doomed to die at the hour appointed.”
The mayor said one last thing to me before he went back to his duties, such as they were. He must not have had very many duties left, aside from digging graves. “We are peasants, but we are not fools. Bring us the beast’s tongue as proof of your victory. I will know it when I see it, for I saw it for myself when it attacked us. Its tongue has two tines, like a fork, and is as long as a man’s arm.”
“If I find such a tongue, I shall do as you ask.”
“One more thing.”
“I never got your name.”
“You won’t have heard of it.”
I turned to go but felt a tug on my arm. A goodly tug, too. Strong. I turned and found Karina clinging to me like a barnacle to a ship.
“My lady,” I said.
Karina made an effort to be intelligible when she used what little English she knew. “You go…slay the…devil?”
“Aye, so it seems.”
“Then…” She looked frustrated, then began again. “Then you must know…do not confront it with its eyes open. When it is---how you say?---awake. It sleeps after eating, and it has eaten well. Do not wake it.” Then her eyes brightened, and she ran off all on a sudden. Karina returned a few shakes later with an older woman in tow.
“This my mother. She knows, knows herbs, knows cures, knows poisons. She has strong poison for you, for to tip...weapons. This will kill demon quickly, more quickly than most poisonous snake. But its hide is tough, like leather.” She beckoned, and her nephew came running with a spear in his small fist, though it weren't a spear but an old fishing harpoon. It was thrice as tall as he, with a barbed head. “Take this, too. Will need…more than arrows, to pierce it.”
“Thank you, lass.” I played along with Karina’s sake, as I was still reluctant to hazard a belief in dragons. I stowed the poison in a satchel on my belt and set off for the mountains straight away. I left the villagers to their grief. There was nothing more for me to do there.
Them Carpathians are the meanest bunch of mountains anywhere. I didn’t have any climbing gear and was not at all dressed for the clime, and so got cold quickly. And there is something about the air in those mountains that makes it hard to breathe the higher up you get. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done; I’d sooner face down an army on my lonesome than scale a mountain again. But I kept going, even when I grew numb at the tips of my fingers and toes and my armor felt like its weight would send me crashing to my death.
You do not think about how high up you are. I learned that quickly. You focus on the rhythm of the climb. One foot, one foot in front of the other. I wondered if this was how ticks felt when they clung to deer, so tiny in comparison to something so massive. The highest peak weren’t hard for me to find, and that was the only upside. It stuck out like a broken nose, a sword surrounded by daggers.
I’d like to be able to say that it was the thought of righteous vengeance for the slain villagers and justice for their relatives that kept me going through that hellish climb. But it wasn’t. It was the thought of a warm bed, and warm mead, and warm meals all winter, once the town was rebuilt. And Karina. My thoughts kept turning back to her as surely as the tides.
If you want to hear about a knight in shining armor, go find yourself a damned bard.
My hands were gauntleted, so I didn’t realize that the large rocky outcropping onto which I heaved my exhausted ass had been blackened by fire until I looked down at it. A layer of ash lay on it in a layer deep enough for me to bury my finger up to the first knuckle. When I turned my gaze upward and removed my half-helm for a better glance, I found that the rock, and the mountainside above it, had been likewise burnt. Blackness covered both snow and stone in a pattern of ugly splotches.
I tried to tell myself that I was only shivering from the cold.
I took a swig from my wine-skin and kept going. Wine, I say, and not water, for water does a man no good before a fight. Wounds are more easily borne with alcohol to dull the pain.
It were nearly sunset by the time I neared the peak, and the closer I got to it the more blackened the mountainside became. That old harpoon Karina gave me saved my life during my ascent. I used it as a walking stick, and would have fallen to my death on at least two occasions if I hadn’t had it with me. So it was that after the better part of a day’s perilous climbing and hiking, I found it. I found the cave that the villagers had spoken of.
It was a godforsaken place. It reeked of death and smoke. Burnt and half-eaten pieces of livestock and men lay where they’d fallen, some near-covered with ash and snow. And the first thing I heard above the screeching mountain wind was the noise.
It was as deep and regular as a blacksmith’s bellows, and for a moment I wondered why a smith would make his workshop all the way up here. But then a nasty little chill worked its way down my spine.
That ain't no bellows, I thought with growing horror.
I hid behind a rock and took off my greaves and boots, the better to muffle my footsteps. As I did my mind raced.
It cannot be. It cannot be. It cannot be. I repeated it like a mantra over and over. But I found myself believing it less and less.
There was a flash of orange light and I ducked even further by pure instinct, but nothing else happened. When I finally dared to peek out from my hiding place, I had Karina’s poison ready. I smeared it carefully on the makeshift spear, and was meticulous about coating both edges, until the steel was smeared with sickly green.
I had that harpoon held out in front of me when I took that first step toward the cave. I paused, listened, then took another, and so went in that fashion until I found myself in darkness. But it was not stone that made up the walls, but ice, and something had turned that ice into a network of warrens using tremendous heat. Tunneled through it, the way a mole tunnels through dirt. My bare foot squished in something soft. Animal dung, judging by the smell, and whatever dropped it must have had an arse-hole as wide as the English Channel because you could build an entire castle out of its leavings.
I removed my foot with a squelch and went deeper into the caves. I followed the noise, because the louder it grew, the closer I got to whatever was making it.
I rounded the corner, almost bumped it on the nose and nearly fainted. If you tell a soul, I will hunt you down.
In my line of work things tend not to surprise you after a certain point. I’ve traveled across Europe fourteen times in the past fourteen years, seen just about all a man could want to see and many things he’d rather not…but nothing could have prepared me for this.
It was a monster.
I’d put its length at over sixty feet, longer than most ships, and a third of that was its tail. That tail, by the by, was surmounted by a series of ridges that went along its length and stopped just short of its neck. It had two back legs big enough to carry off a full-grown cow, and when it breathed, tiny wisps of flame came out of its nostrils. Its head was lizardlike, with horny protrusions along either side and across the back of its skull, and its forearms weren’t forearms at all but a pair of great webby wings. Its talons were like swords of black steel, its tail thin and whiplike.
I’d never felt so afraid in my life. If I’d been devout, I would have prayed, because this thing was enormous. I cursed myself for ever being stupid enough to take this job, and made a mental note to apologize to the mayor for not believing him if I ever got out of this alive.
I also owed him my dagger too, goddammit.
I knew I should just stab the damned thing before it smelled me or woke me up, but I could not resist the urge to just look at it. Man-eating aside, there was something to be admired about its size and power. Dimly, I wondered if there others of its kind out there, and hoped it weren’t so. One dragon was already more than the world could handle.
That thought alone was enough to get me to raise my harpoon over its massive head and tighten my grip on its haft. Even if it was true, there would be one less by the time all this was over.
If you ask a damned bard, he’ll tell you that old St. George rode up to the dragon’s lair on his noble steed and killed the beast in pitched battle.
That’s a load of horse shit. Chivalry be damned: fair fights are for suckers, and don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise. Use every edge you can get your hands on when you go looking for a fight. Better to be alive and underhanded than gallant and dead.
I barely breathed for fear of waking it. If that happened, I was doomed, because there was no way I would be able to fight something this big in such a confined space. Of course, fighting something that big is usually suicidal to begin with.
I edged around it as it slept, skirting the cave wall, until I could position my spearpoint above its left eye. That seemed to be one of its few vulnerable spots, if its scaly hide was as tough as Karina claimed. I hadn’t believed her, but I hadn’t believed the mayor about the dragon either and look how that turned out.
I didn’t stand on ceremony. I drove that spear into its eye so hard that I felt the bones of its skull grate against the blade once it stopped plunging through the soft stuff.
It roared, and I’ll hear that sound until the day they put me in the grave. It was a sound you felt rather than heard. It made the mountains tremble.
I was already moving before its other eye had snapped open, and I took care to remain on its blind spot because I couldn’t be sure how quickly the poison would act. I headed toward the rear of the huge ice cavern while the thing thrashed about like a frenzied serpent, clawing and snapping at nothing and banging its head against the ceiling, perhaps to try and get the spear out. But that, of course, only drove it in deeper. I curled up into a ball to make myself as hard to spot as possible and watched the display in terrified awe.
I started to fear that the whole cave would come crashing down on both of us because of the way the dragon was writhing, and it seemed that way for a few terrifying seconds as icicles above my head began to break free. I didn’t want that, not only because I would die but more importantly because my getting paid depended on being able to cut out the thing's tongue. If I hadn’t been wearing my half-helm I’ll wager one of those things would have buried itself in the back of my neck.
Twenty seconds went by. Then thirty.
The dragon began to slow as the poison set in. It let out a lowing call that sounded like a wounded steer, staggered, and vomited up a gruesome mass of blood and bile that boiled with heat. It veered as though drunk, crashing against one side of the cave and then the next, and it looked like it was trying to find its way back outside by some bestial instinct. The spear, I could see now, was buried almost two-thirds of its length in the thing’s head.
Then it teetered left, tottered right, and fell, its wings splaying out on either side. Perhaps it had spotted me and was too crazed with pain to care. I personally believe that this was the case, though I suppose I’m too cynical to just take good luck at face-value.
There was nothing romantic or song-worthy about the way that creature died. Its last breath was a jet of searing flame, and then it went limp, let go of its bowels…and expired.
Just as men do.
Even so, I waited for over an hour before I dared to approach it, and when I did I had my poisoned sword in my lee hand and my dagger in my aft hand. There was no way to avoid stepping on it, as its girth blocked the whole of the passageway, and I ended up having to step on its wings. Somehow it felt disrespectful to do that, as though I were trodding on a dead man’s grave.
It didn’t move at the touch of my bare feet.
The thing’s mouth was way too big for me to open unaided, so I wrenched the spear out of its head and pried its jaws open with it, using it as a lever to hold those rows of teeth open. I could hear the wood cracking and so worked quickly, as I didn’t fancy losing an arm to a beast I’d already killed. That would just be embarrassing.
The tongue was actually a good deal longer than the mayor had described it. I tore a large strip of linen from my tunic, took several handfuls of ice and packed the bloody trophy up. It was, I noticed, indeed in the shape of a fork. The mayor had gotten that part right.
It was early the next morning when I turned up in Brasov again, covered with blood and ash with snow and ice in my hair and beard, so exhausted I could barely stand…and when I did them villagers cheered me as loudly as men might have cheered Robin Hood.
It made me very uncomfortable, because I ain't Robin Hood. I’m no dashing knight or heroic outlaw. I’m not a hero. I don’t look like a hero, I don’t talk like a hero and I damned sure haven’t always acted like a hero. I don’t think of myself as a villain, but I’m not going to be up for sainthood anytime soon, either.
The whole town, or what was left of it, went with me to see the mayor, and I presented the tongue to him without flourish or ceremony, along with the knife I'd wagered. Never let it be said that I ain't one to keep a bet.
Their cheers were deafening, but all I could focus on was how badly I needed to piss. I needed hot food and mead. And a woman, if any were willing, though I didn’t have much hope in that regard. The women here would still be grieving long after their cheers had died down. Their husbands and lovers and children would still be gone. Taking advantage of them after all they’d lost would be only a step above rape. I am a mercenary and a lover of mead and women both, but a rapist…never.
Everyone draws the line somewhere. Even those such as me.
I’ll say this for the mayor, though: he was good for his word, and then some. He told me that he’d double my payment if I stayed and helped rebuild the town, and when I told him I would he made sure than I never lacked for warm bread and cheese and mead.
Karina invited me to dine with her and her nephew the evening I brought back the dragon’s tongue, which I was only too eager to do. She seemed taken with me, which took me aback, though I had to turn down an offer to stay with her. The inn was good enough for me, especially after the roof had been repaired. But I talked with her often at all hours of the day, and eventually grew comfortable enough to visit her without invitation. But I never took her into my bed, not once, during that winter.
That nephew of hers took to me right off as well. He looked up to me as some sort of crusading hero and took to following me everywhere I went. I’ve had fleas that were not as hard to shake as the lad, whose name, I learned, was Gurn. It was a harsh winter, but one of renewed hope; I did what I could to earn my keep and tried to bring in what food I was capable of obtaining, be it meat from sea or vale.
And when spring came…when spring came I married Karina.
I think it was time, too. I’ve seen more than enough of this world for one lifetime, and mayhap enough of it for several more. I've seen most all a man could see and done just about all a man can do. I saw the world, Aye, and the world I saw is some dusky and some ruinous.
Karina is on my arm as I write this. Her belly bulges as my child grows within her.
My Moorish sword hangs on the mantelpiece above the hearth in the inn. The dragon’s tongue has long since rotted away, and good riddance to it. What need have I for trophies? I have Karina. I need nothing more.
I never thought that peace could be so sweet to a man who knew nothing but war.