Chapter 1: The Foul and The Dead
The bone hilt, studded with rubies cut to look like dragon’s teeth, accented the sword’s draconic theme, but it was the blade itself, a crescent river of steel flowing point to hilt and etched with a winged serpent leading sinuous runes in its wake, that was this weapon’s loudest statement, though its strongest statement at present was the foul-smelling dragon dung smearing the proud weapon. Eleita straddled and deadlifted the broadsword, then yoked it across her shoulders, taking care not to slice her back or her wrists on the edge.
Funny that a magic sword should be found in a rank pit used as a dragon’s outhouse, after the dragon devoured the hero and shat him out. No doubt this conceited prince pranced out for his quest, wearing armor so polished that it gleamed, unknowing that his destination was a dragon’s bowels, and in the annals of courtly history, he would be written off as a chivalrous waste. No solemn ancestral tomb for this one, just a monstrous log piled on top of the other defecated would-be heroes, a crap-cairn of the proud. Eleita trudged out of the muddy shit hole.
The hackles on her neck rose. Whatever was watching her was not making itself known. She decided she would stumble along under the weapon’s weight as if she wasn’t aware; maybe it would leave her alone, and even be thankful that she plucked the steel thorn from where it lay its privates.
The beast was white hot, not just with anger at being pricked by the presumptuous human and his unbreakable blade, but furnace strength hunger, that wasn’t slated by the gristly knight. While its anger and hunger were never sated, occasionally the beast could satisfy its curiosity, so it waited and watched. This morsel was no threat, but a wonder nonetheless, like the mice or wrens that climbed or picked at its scales. What was she up to?
Eleita was a frightful sight, covered in dragon crap studded with cast off scales and claws, bone fragments, copper coins, glass jewelry, and other filth dragons didn’t covet. Though unto today, Eleita had been chaste in body, mind, and tongue, it seemed natural, having been steeped in dragon filth, to let filth rain from her mouth as well, and call her friends, who cowered past the tree line, every obscenity and blasphemous phrase she knew, and a few that she invented. A famous author on your world said to let the fat lady scream, but here I defer to propriety, as Eleita’s cursing was epic, and might have made your ears explode.
“Gilliven the Bold,” she said to herself. “Better that he was called Gilliven the Foul, or Gilliven the Bonehead.” As all she found of the dashing knight was his jawless skull, she snickered at her own grim pun. While mocking the dead was not very godly, it comforted her with schadenfreude and mitigated the injustice of the dead jackass almost certainly being canonized for his failure, while she might not even be thanked for her manure-mining efforts. Yes, the fire-baked and shit-spattered skull in the pocket of her robe would likely be a holy relic this time next year, and some other oaf would inherit Gilliven’s mighty blade Drucona. Drucona the not-so-mighty rather, that was of no help to Gilliven the Excremental.
When she reached the tree line, she dropped the weighty sword onto the ancients’ road, then towed it behind her, its point skidding over cracked flagstones that were skewed and slanted by jutting undergrowth.
“Ow! Oooh! Ouch!” As each exclamation set the sword shivering, she dropped it to clang and clatter on the stones. “Aggh!” The sword seemed to writhe on the stones, which caused one of the ancient stones to crumble. “I’m already sheathed in dragon dung. I’m undying, not unfeeling or unbreakable. Be careful!”
More winded than startled, Eleita said, “Are...” >puff< “...you...” >puff< “...talking to me?”
“Do you see any other magic swords? Were you talking to the rubble? Must I use small words with you as well? Perhaps one at a time?” When the sword spoke, its steel shimmered through the crusted filth. “Fine. Bathe.”
“That was my plan. I wasn’t planning on tracking dragon manure into town.” While there were many unhinged people that would love the novelty of talking or singing to their weapons, Eleita’s reluctance wasn’t being charmed by this rude knickknack, and she found herself looking away from it and wishing she could bury it under a flagstone of the ancient road.
“Good, common sense. If that beast had some, neither you or I would be in this humiliating situation.”
“How did it happen? Gilliven talked such a good game that if only half of it was boasting, I half expected him to kill it.”
“Gilliven had one thing going for him—he could talk whiskey out of a grape. Since I knew it would be a miracle if that phony fast talker lived, and the heavy lifting was entirely up to me, I chewed out Gilliven the whole way there, and when we got within earshot, I gave the dragon an earful too.”
“You did what?”
“I gave it a proper tongue lashing. I speak your language, simpleton. Also, the language of dragons, the language of goblins...”
“If you really want to be helpful, you could talk the manure off of us. Shouldn’t you have defeated the dragon first?”
“Oh, I vanquished him—verbally. For centuries, I’ve studied blistering language in all its forms. In fact, I have a treatise prepared. Take dictation:
’Drucona’s Invaluable Guide to Obscene Oaths and Dirty Words For Lasses and Lads
My erudite and noble readers have no doubt learned the niceties of etiquette by now, but in this volume we shall list the meanings and uses of every curse in all languages, so that any educated lad and lass…’ ”
“I’m not writing that!”
“Like you could do better. Write your own book, why don’t you?”
“I’m not writing any book, you overgrown steak knife, and especially not that hack. Do you take me for a butcher’s block?”
“That was somewhat witty. You may have a knack for this. So if you’d like to be a Learned and Reputed Author, clean the poop, bring paper and pen, and we’ll get cracking. By writing my book, you’ll learn the right twists and turns of phrase for yours.”
“Thank you very much!” The sword’s white light tinted pink.
Since Drucona’s impenetrable egocentrism twisted everything to circuit the sword’s small world, Eleita wouldn’t fight the thing. For it was just a thing, wasn’t it? Surely she wasn’t obliged to treat an ensorceled, soulless, object ethically. So she would lie, flatter, and fall into its orbit, and, just to be on the safe side, do penance later. “The thanks are all yours, you marvelous sword, for standing up to that cowardly dragon, who no doubt hides whimpering afer your harsh words.”
“And you would be honored to write my book.”
“Wonderful! It’s only the first of seventeen priceless tomes I must share with the literati.”
“There is still the dragon. Though you crushed its spirit, we must kill it once and for all.”
“Couldn’t it wait a few days or years? What’s the difference? It’s hundreds of years old, like me, and can afford to wait.”
“As the dragon devours potential readers, your audience dwindles, and the power of word of mouth suffers, until your books languish uncirculated and your first public reading will receive a very poor showing.” Eleita smiled, happy to discover that she still had it in her to spin a bald-faced lie after so many years of holiness.
“You have a point, figuratively speaking. As I’m a sword, I literally have a point. I never grasped where humans got that idiom.”
You vain thing, swords have a hilt, not hands, and don’t grasp anything, Eleita thought, but smiled ingratiatingly—unsure if Drucona could read facial cues, whether or not he saw the world around him—and lied, “we ungainly creatures aspire to elegant forms like swords.”
“Is that it? That makes sense,” it dithered.
“As to the dragon....how would you defeat it?”
“Easier done than said. Round up your catapults and ballista.”
“My catapults? My ballista? I don’t have any catapults or ballista! I took a vow of poverty, and don’t even own a fishing rod! I do have some friends, just up ahead. They were good friends until today, when they became allergic to dragon crap.”
“No catapults? Not one measly ballista? Then it will be easier said than done. Even with friends.”
“We could get arrows in the village. I could probably get better advice there, too. Is that all a magic sword is—an enchanted yes man? Can’t you make it bleed?”
“Perhaps, if I was armed with a brawny wielder that is also a good listener. Do you know any heroes that are wide of shoulder and broad of mind? Or a wizard to brew a homculous out of your ears and Gilliven’s muscles?”
“No, just some bumpkins that are broad in the beam and loud of mouth. Hey, Wencia! Mank! Thanks a lot!”
Wencia and Mank hooted and whooped as they saw their filthy friend and fellow votary, then sniggered to hear how she ignobly crawled into the dragon’s befouled lair in search of Drucona, who then interrupted with its vainglorious introduction, which was in turn cut off when she dunked it in the river. Only after she thoroughly rubbed the dragon’s ordure off her robes, boots, and arms did she then retrieve the blade from the running water and pitch it unceremoniously onto her pack blanket, where at first it continued its long monologue as if it had not known it was submerged all along, but sulked when it realized what she had done. She ignored its wounded pride as she disrobed, then again and more thoroughly washed her clothes, and lay them to dry on a rock, before soaking herself. As she was hot from the effort of searching for and bearing the weight of the sword, as well as bearing the brunt of its overbearing personality, and heated moreover from the mockery of her friends, she relished the cold water and relaxed as dragon stink was swept away by the river’s current. She felt no impropriety at denuding herself in front of her fellow monks, as they were all sworn to the Goddess Coruna, and accustomed to ignoring bodily needs to focus on the mental and spiritual. She then asked the Goddess to forgive her pleasure at being clean, for delight was a greater sin than venting dirty words.
“Mank, carry that th...Drucona to the village. I’ve done my share.”
Mank frowned, but nodded. Once a powerfully built man, monkish austerity and asceticism made him lean and lanky, though he was left with a portion of his former strength. As few expect brawny displays from holy men, his occasional feats of strength were more impressive. He picked up the massive sword with the ease of one who by long custom and familiarity made a sword second-hand nature. “Just so you’re not thinking of girding me for war against that monster.”
“I hadn’t thought so, but seeing you with a sword reminds me of the day you walked through the gate. You were frightful—covered in gore.”
“Let’s not speak of that day,” said Mank.
Eleita ignored him. If they would make light of her baptism in filth, he could stand to relive his own immersion in offal. “When you collapsed, it took five of us to carry you to the stable. I’d like to say we made sure the hay was clean, but we didn’t know you—you looked like a monster. And that thought seemed validated when we scrubbed away the blood, and found no wounds to dress.”
Some men would take this retelling as complimentary, as proof of their prowess, but Mank was not that man, and she regretted her spite as soon as the words crossed her lips. She could see now that he held the hilt tenuously, as if it pained him to recognize his familiarity with a weapon. Though his martial past was not long ago, that blood-painted warrior passed from his life as if it was a shade he had laid to rest. Now he was more devout than any other she knew.
“We all know you’ve changed, Mank,” said Eleita. “You’re a good man, and a blessing to the order. But you could wield this blade if you wished. Why else did Drucona give you skill at arms?” But when Mank would not look her in the eyes, she knew that she would bear responsibility for the austerities he would certainly inflict upon himself later. Though it had now been over a year since he had abandoned his strict regime of self-punishment, she had reminded him of his sinful past, and his reaction showed that he still felt pride or shame, or some mixture of the two, a foul concoction that he would be desperate to strike from his soul.
After a mile, a well-maintained road replaced the rubbly path. While the ancient stones were still cracked and rough, new stones were laid where the undergrowth pushed through, so that the road was a gray patchwork of new and age-darkened stones.
“Was there nothing left of Gilliven?” asked Wencia.
“Just a skull.”
“A skull is cold comfort to those left behind.”
“Call me vile, but I could care less. If any grieve him, they should feel lucky to have it, as it was almost all I could do to drag the sword. My only regret is that I couldn’t give him a piece of my mind, when he went to pieces in the shit, offal, and mud, all over me. He should have shown more consideration in the manner of his death, and definitely should have known better than to trust that wizard’s plaything.”
“What thing do you mean,” chimed in Drucona, a literal chime as his tempered steel shivered to speak.
After a few seconds, Eleita asked. “don’t you sleep?”
“My dormancy mode is probably restful by your standards.”
“It’s another few miles to town. Take a nap, and I’ll let you know when we’re close.”
“This is much too exciting. Besides, I lay dormant for 200 years before Gilliven found me, and I won’t miss another second.”
When dust, leaves, and dry grass hailed into them and blotted out the skies, Eleita tightened her cloak and looked up, expecting dark clouds, to see the dragon soaring overhead instead, its wings barely stirring as it coasted toward Cjantosk. When the fear smacked her, and her heart raced, her mouth filled with the bloody tang of terror. “It’s too late,” she muttered.
“We have to do something,” said Wencia.
“I agree!” shouted Drucona. “That thing hasn’t heard the last of me! Let this fill your wings, Urgu! Asghtrea duilo! Reiuya duila! Fannengen eduin weanari duila!” The magic sword’s shrieking pitch, tortured by the draconic syllables, was excruciating to hear.
“What are you doing,” screamed Eleita.
“I’m giving that monster a proper taunting in its own tongue. It’s in pieces by now.”
“Mank, if that idiot says another thing, break it!”
“What? We’re all on the same side!” Drucona thrummed and quavered.
“Not another word! Mank, I mean it!” When Mank gripped Drucona with both hands and lifted it over his knee, the blade’s vibrations shushed. The sky quieted as well, as the dragon’s unwavering velocity soon merged with the horizon.
In screaming, Eleita had swallowed dust the dragon left in its low-flying wake, and when she stooped to hack it out the aftertaste of the terror got the best of her, and her lunch leaped out as well. She covered her mouth with her cloak and scowled at Drucona,, but her frown relaxed when she couldn’t lock eyes with the sword. “What is Urgu?”
“I can speak? Wait! You don’t know?”
“Tell me or he’ll snap you.”
“That was Urgu.”
“It has a name?” Her mind was swimming.
“What has a language and no name? Forgive me for assuming you a scholar. Since my vandal was literate, I believed her erudite.”
“You stupid thing, your rescuers are monks, and none of us fight due to vows to the goddess Coruna. Your dragon-mocking would have put you in need of another rescue—after the dragon ate those of us that are flesh and blood!”
“Monks? That’s a laugh. When someone holds my hilt, I know whether they’re a veteran or a green grocer by their calluses. This one’s a killer.”
Mank darkened, but said nothing.
“Hello, there!” The voice came from the woods bordering the ancient road. When Eleita turned to glimpse the speaker, she saw that sometime after they were stopped by either the spectacle of Urgu or their argument with Drucona, a dozen armed men had surrounded them.
“Forgive me for interrupting. While your discussion was profoundly interesting, I’ve heard what I need to know. ’None of us fight due to vows’ and ’this one’s a killer’ seemed the most important. When Killer drops the sword and steps back, you three can be on your way to fulfill your vows for another day.”
“I’d like nothing more than to part with it,” said Kuryia, “but this awful sword is the only weapon that can cut the dragon.”
“And Cjantosk’s elders will ransom it for any price. We could fill Killer full of arrows if you prefer. I’d be doing him a favor. In the eyes of the goddess, aren’t those vows holier than life?”
Sunset flared early when sparks and embers peaked above Cjantosk. When burning wind-born motes drifted into the woods, and searing trails of flame answered, monks and bandits alike tracked the cinders with their eyes as the cloud of draconic ash inched closer.
The bandit chief’s cordial airs disappeared, and he snarled, “give it to me. None of us want to be in the woods right now.”
“You scum can’t have me,” said Drucona, and his steel shone white hot, then flashed a blinding light. “Run!” While Wencia and Kuryia’s eyes were on the bandits, Mank was about to surrender the sword and dazed by the brilliance mid-motion, so Eleita grabbed his free hand and pulled him into a run.
Bold, hot, winds roared over them, and a smoldering ember blew into a pine and caught it ablaze, so that the woods were soon full of the sweet aroma of burning pine.
“I can see a little,” said Mank. “Find cover.”
When Eleita, Wencia, and Mank fled the road, they found the woods to be hazy and acrid from pine smoke, and when the fire spread to the grass, their avenues of escape dwindled rapidly. Arrows flew from the bows of the half-blind bandits, but the dragon-fueled winds spun them even further awry. If the bandits started to regain their vision the same time Mank did, Eleita thought, their accuracy would soon improve, and taking cover sounded like the most important prescription for survival at this moment, but with most of it ablaze and soon to be more of a danger to those it protected than the arrows, their cause seemed too desperate even for prayer.
There was the sound of boots, then a horrid scream, and a man on fire sprinted toward the river, but collapsed a few yards from the water. Mank spun on his heels and lifted Drucona over his head. An archer, the bandit chief, and another bandit with a sword closed in on them, and behind them another frantically flailed a burning body with his cloak.
There were no orders given. The bandits flung themselves at them. Mank took two quick steps, then dropped to one knee to extend his lunge, impaling the archer with Drucona. In less than a second he killed a man twenty feet away, shocking Kruyia, who had never seen sword fighting. Then overextended, Mank rolled over the archer’s body to duck swinging swords. Mank so quickly evaded their reach that one bandit’s hilt clobbered his leader, who dropped to the ground stone still, his head bloodied. This left just one....and the other six that caught up to them.
“Run!” yelled Mank, as he was surrounded. Eleita and Wencia ran as fast as they could, one crying and praying for Mank, and the other screaming for her life. As none of us know how we would conduct ourselves with death at our tail, it wouldn’t be right to ennoble one at the expense of the other by telling you which did what. That said, Mank gives us two examples. Four years ago Mank alone, in his armor and shield, and astride his barded destrier would have torn through six bandits as easily as you cross an item off your to-do list, but our unarmored, unhorsed, and ascetically lean Mank, further fettered by a religious vow, was the shadow of that man. Or perhaps he was the soul of that man, and that faith saved him in the end, as he was flanked and slain by the four he couldn’t kill, and the part of him dignified by divine salvation escaped while his dead body was kicked and hacked to bits. These are arguments best left to atheists and theologians. The great majority of us, that live by doing our duty, already understand Mank’s death.