A little boy with big dreams has questions for his father.
|The dragon lounged beneath a blazing sun, a giant serpent nested within its own coils, its scales glittering with the light like thousands of obsidian mirrors. The knight advanced on his quarry, slow but confident. The upraised palm of a mailed hand shielded his eyes from the sunlight reflecting off the dragon’s armored coat. He marveled at it, at the natural craftsmanship of it, and dreamt idly of the grand suit of armor it would make. Being so close,the stench of the creature was impossible to ignore. Having walked across the aftermath of battle fields, through the corpse laden streets of plagued towns, and waded through thigh deep muck and mud into the cavernous lairs of monsters, the knight was familiar with the odor. It was the scent of death which radiated from the dragon, the sickly sweet aroma that drew the carrion birds from miles around in foul black clouds. The monster’s head appeared beneath one massive coil, streamlined and arrow shaped. Squash colored eyes glared balefully at the approaching figure arrayed in fine steel mesh with an unblinking gaze. There was a sound, like wind rushing up from inside a deep cavern, and the dragon’s coils swelled in size as the monster sucked a deep breath of air, flushed throughout its lengthy body in an imposing spectacle of intimidation. The knight paused, unslinging the shield from his back and fitting it to his left hand, then reached around and took hold of his sword, letting the dragon have a good look at it as the sun raced along the weapon’s edge.
Seeing that the knight had no intention of turning back, the dragon loosed its head from its coils with a hiss, a sound more akin to the rolling of distant thunder than a breath of wind. The dragon’s long sinuous neck sprouted from the mass of the beast’s body, towering over the knight so that the dragon could look down upon its foe, an angry deity prepared to strike down the infidel. The tempo of the knight’s heart quickened. His belly churned and a sudden nagging uncertainty began to fog his thoughts. These were the first symptoms of dragon fear, a spell which, if effective, would render the knight paralyzed and helpless in the face of certain death. The knight was trained against the dragon’s charms, however, and once he recognized the monster’s attempt to influence him, he hardened himself against the betrayal of his emotions and blanked his mind against the onset of fear. The dragon’s hiss became a low rumbling growl and though there was no visible change in the way it watched him, the knight could sense the beast’s gaze narrowing in frustration. The dragon’s head dropped, its neck curving into the shape of a drawn bow. The knight paused, spread his feet apart and crouched slightly behind his shield, smiling behind the visor of his helm as the dragon’s mouth opened wide, its sword-like teeth gleaming.
The anticipated strike came a moment later. The dragon’s head leapt forward, closing the distance between the combatants in the blink of an eye. The knight deftly stepped aside, turning his body to keep his front toward his attacker and allow the creature’s head to snap past him. The muscles of his arm flexed as his sword rose and fell, cleaving into the wyrm’s neck before it could withdraw for another attempt. The monster hissed, stunned by the strength of the blow. The ground quaked beneath the knight’s boots as the rest of the serpent’s body uncoiled and lashed about in agony. A second blow split the dragon’s armor and carved down into the meat beneath, unleashing a poisonous crimson torrent. Its hiss became an ear splitting shriek. The dragon’s body whipped about, curling around behind the knight. In his peripheral view he caught the pale gleam of the monster’s underbelly. It was attempting to roll away in order to protect its injured throat. Unwilling to give his foe the chance, the knight shook his arm free of the shield, freeing both hands to grip the hilt of his sword. He brought the blade up overhead like the axe of an executioner and, putting his weight and strength behind the swing, struck the final blow. The sword jolted as it bit into the earth, severing the monster’s head away. The dragon’s body leapt upward, twisting and trashing, unwilling to accept its fate. The knight turned away, protecting his face from the spray of gore erupting from the stump of the dragon’s neck. After a few moments, the creature’s coils resigned to their fate, slowing and finally succumbing to stillness.
A sudden cacophony of sound filled the air as the knight looked down upon the severed head of his fallen foe. A hundred formerly beleaguered villagers appeared from the surrounding countryside to praise their savior. Women were cheering and weeping, children laughed, and men were shouting his name, “Barton! Barton! Barton!”
A sudden darkness overtook the sun, blanketing the knight and all the revelers in a deep black shadow.
“BARTON!” A voice thundered, completely drowning out the cries of the villagers. The knight tilted his head upward, lifting his visor to look at the towering form of the giant looming over him. He didn’t have time to raise his weapon in defense. The giant reached down, took hold of Sir Barton by the shoulders, and shook him. Barton’s fantasy vanished like smoke on a strong wind and the boy of twelve blinked up at the angry face of his father.
“What’re ya doin boy?” the older man shouted, pointing firmly at the nearby headless form of a three foot long snake. “That’s a night viper! Can ya think of what’d happen if it’d bit you?”
“It’s only dangerous if yer sleepin,” Barton muttered defensively.
“Or if ya pick at it,” his father countered. “I send ya away for potatoes and I find ya poking at snakes.”
“I didn’t poke at it,” Barton sulked, “I killed it, like ya showed me.”
“Aye,” his father growled, reaching down and pulling the dagger out of the boy’s hand, “And with yer pap’s good knife, no less.”
Barton looked down at his feet, unable to continue staring his father in the eye. The older man could only continue to scowl at his son a heartbeat longer before a smile began to twitch at the edges of his whiskered mouth. Barton was a skinny little fireball of a boy, all knobby knees and elbows. He was fast approaching an age when he needed to start taking more responsibility for the work around the house, but his imagination often ran off with him. By comparison, his father really was a giant. The man had broad shoulders, a barrel chest, large arms, and a thick black beard to match his hair. Barton had his father’s hair, but his more delicate facial features came from his mother. Chuckling, the boy’s father reached out with a large calloused hand and ruffled Barton’s hair.
“C’mon,” he rumbled, “We need more potatoes than I thought. Help me pull’em up.”
Barton’s poor mood dissipated immediately and he fell into step behind his father, grinning and trailing the remnants of his knightly fantasy.
The village in which they lived was situated in a valley between mist laden mountains. Roads were few and far between, restricting travel to and from the village to the deer trails that crisscrossed the wilderness. The residents were preparing for the harvest festival. They were living at the tail end of summer and before long the fall would bring the torrential rains, followed by the bitter mountain winter. Times were going to grow hard, and quickly, which warranted a little celebration to remember that winter didn’t last forever. Barton’s father claimed to be able to smell the approach of the coming season. Barton took an exploratory sniff of the air as he walked, detecting only the mouth watering aroma of fresh bread cooling on a nearby window. Barton’s father paused as they came upon the doorway leading down into the village store house. It had at one time been the cellar of a mansion which, according to Barton’s father, had been burned down long ago. The men of the village had cleared the ruins away into order to make use to the cellar back before Barton was born. Barton’s father bent, set the dagger down on the grass, and grasped the rope handle on the rough cut square door covering the entrance, pulling it open and releasing a burst of cool earthy air. Barton stared past his father, down into the dark recess of the opening in the earth. The afternoon sunlight only seemed to penetrate a few feet beyond the doorway.
“Stay here,” Barton’s father said, “I’ll hand ya a basket and then start passing potatoes out so ya can fill it.”
Barton nodded and watched his father disappear down in the dark. A moment later the older man reappeared with a reed basket large enough for Barton to comfortably sit in. He handed it to the boy, who set it down by the door, and then disappeared again. Barton listened to the sound of his father rummaging around in the cellar, images of knighthood swirling about in his adolescent brain.
“Pap,” Barton said as his father reappeared with his hands full of potatoes.
“Aye?” the older man replied, transferring the load to his son who clumsily dumped them into the basket.
“Do yeh think there are dragons in the world?”
Barton’s father shrugged, pausing to give his son a moment of his attention. “There were once, I suppose.”
“Have ya ever seen one?”
The father’s pale grey eyes twinkled with a flicker of curiosity. “Do ya think I have?”
Barton shuffled his feet a bit sheepishly before replying, “The men at the inn say ya have, back when I was little. They say ya went away and seen a dragon.”
Hadrian considered this a moment and then walked toward his son and sat down in the grass, motioning for Barton to do the same. The boy plopped down beside his father who draped a large arm across his small shoulders, drawing him close.
“When ya were small,” his father said, “You were very sick. Aye, I left, looking for a way to make ya better again. I went to the east, far away, where there are other mountains; tall, barren, rocky things. Dragons lived there, or so I were told, but all I seen was a graveyard, son. Bones as tall and thick as trees, skulls as big as a house and filled with teeth as long as a spear. The dragons were all gone.”
“What happened to’em,” Barton asked, looking up into his father’s face.
“I suppose they died with the previous age,” the older man replied, “Back when life started gettin hard and magic slipped away from the world.”
Barton thought again of his game earlier, suddenly feeling a little sad, “So there are none left?”
“Well,” his father said, smiling, “The world is wide, and there are still dark places that still hold ancient secrets. There might be dragons still, far from this place, where men cannot bother’em.”
“Think I’ll see one?” Barton asked, brightening.
“Aye,” his father said, “I think so.”
Barton grinned as his father hugged him and then stood.
“No more questions, “he said, “We’ve work to do.”
Barton nodded and stood up, watching his father disappear into the cellar once again. He listened to the sounds of the older man moving within the dark, his thoughts filled with flights of dragons.