by Nate Stone
Two knights test their fate by attempting to slay the dragon.
The Dragon Hunt
The horses' hooves beat a steady rhythm upon the grass. A kaleidoscope of glaring patterns bounced upon the ground and the few spare trees that dotted the way, as the light of the midsummer sun shone down on the two armored men who rode side by side. A slight breeze blew across the way, giving the few swallows and blackbirds that dotted the sky a pillow upon which to glide as they sang short bursts of notes.
"Tis a good blessing, that wind," said the blonde man as he moved his face so that the wind could pass through his hair.
"Indeed," said his companion, the darker of the two. "Tis a penance to ride fully armored under a full sun."
"Aye, that is the truth," said the first. "I myself look forward to the changing of the seasons. Autumn, with its chill, is more to my liking."
The darker haired man--Sir Henry of Nottingham--smiled at his companion, a small and rather sad smile. "I hope that we shall see the coming of autumn. Who can tell what the end of this day will witness?"
The blonde knight--Sir Robert of Leigh--returned the smile to Sir Henry but not in kind. His smile was filled with the hope of seeing many, many more autumns come and go. "The end of this day shall see us victorious over the beast," he declared boldly. "We shall have much to tell our fellows this and many nights to come over the fires."
Sir Henry gave the ghost of a nod. "I hope so, my friend."
Sir Robert gave another bedeviling smile in answer and then turned to face the future. The two knights rode on in silence, the quiet of the earth pierced only by the clank of the armor they wore and the sounds of the world. The swallows and blackbirds continued their dance in the sky, as well as their songs. Occasionally, a hawk would appear to declare his mastery of the air to the smaller birds. Closer to the earth, the sound of deer could be distinctly heard. Several times, Sir Robert saw a doe, escorted by a buck, run in the opposite direction of the horses, away from the woods that loomed before them. Sir Robert took his left hand and took hold of the hilt of his sword that hung by his left side. They were coming nearer.
"You have noticed?" Sir Henry asked him.
"The deer? Aye, I have seen at least three pair race away from the forest. Tis not natural, but, we already know the cause of their fear."
"And I have seen two pair, just as you say, a doe and her mate, though it is too late in the year for mating," Sir Henry said. "Much more, I have seen a family of foxes loping away from the forest and through the open land. I fear that it is worse than what we first believed."
Sir Robert said nothing, only smiled again--a little tighter, to Sir Henry's eye--and urged his steed onward.
At last, the forest loomed before them. The tree trunks twisted and weaved together so that it seemed a wooden wall was raised before them. Though their foliage was still green, the branches were bound so closely together that the trees took on a blackened and gloomy appearance. In the middle of the forest, and extending as far as the eye could see, was the path, overhung with gloom. The two knights sat upon their horses, small and stunted, before the towering mass of the trees. Neither one spoke.
Sir Henry finally broke the silence. "We cannot press on until our mounts have watered and rested. They shall need every scrap of strength which they can muster, as we shall as well. Where did the farmer say was the stream?"
"He said 'twas half a league from the entrance," Sir Robert answered. "He said that the stream would cut across the path, underneath an ancient bridge."
"Then we must make for the stream," replied Sir Henry. "Hopefully the beast will not have defiled it to the extent that we cannot drink, and the trees will offer us some shelter from the midday."
The men clicked their tongues and touched the flanks of their horses with the heels of their feet. It required more coaxing now, penetrating the forest. The horses' nostrils flared every now and again, as the wind brought some scent to their attention. Their eyes widened with anxiousness.
The two knights gripped the bridles of their steeds tighter as they rode deeper into the gloom. The path on which they rode was still wide enough that they could ride side by side but it was malevolent compared to the easy plain from which they had come. Wells and shallows dotted the path, concealed by tall grasses and the leaves of autumns long dead, eagerly waiting to suck a horses' leg into their maws. Clumps of stones, the bones of some ancient road, jutted out to the surface, transforming the road into some devil serpent, slithering ahead of travelers. Sir Henry felt a chill shake his limbs, though the midsummer heat still surrounded them. The road, which seemed to actually undulate under the sheet of summer haze, the ancient road pieces shifting with the movement of the serpent, was a sign of what lay ahead. Now, under the canopy of the forest, even nature would no longer allow them to rest easy in her folds.
Sir Robert's cry brought Sir Henry out of his reverie. "Hark! The stream--it be ahead of us."
A bridge, so old that moss and age had made the once white gleam of the stone into black, arched across the stream which quietly gurgled in its bed. As softly as possible, the two armored figures descended from their horses the, bridles in hand, made their way to the water's edge. The horses nickered nervously, ears pulled back, forcing the knights to exert their strength in pulling them to the stream. At last, the tug of war was won, and the two horses stood by the edge of the water, gingerly lapping the water as it lolled by. Sir Henry and Sir Robert followed suit, each drinking from his own small wooden cup which had nested in their respective saddle bags, ignoring the putrid taste emanating from the water.
"Tis an ill day, indeed," Sir Robert finally said, "when even foul water, such as this, seems sweet when compared to the heat of the day."
"Aye," Sir Henry replied. "It makes me wish most fervently for the wells of Nottingham which..."
The horses neighed in terror as the wolves, a full pack, deadly and silent, rushed into view. Sir Robert gave a shout, dropped his cup, and unsheathed his sword towards the approaching beasts. The wolves swarmed over the bridge and the banks of the stream, almost seemingly oblivious to the two armored men, both of whom now held swords in one hand while the other strained to hold the bridles of their horses who know screamed as the wolves bounded to the exterior of the forest.
The wolves' eyes shone red and yellow in the twilight mist that hovered in the forest. Their tongues lolled as the breath came from their lungs, hot and rotten. The ones on the opposite side of the bridge and the bridge itself paid the horses and riders no mind. The others tried to keep up with the rest of the pack but were maddened by the horses. They screamed and reared, trying desperately to trample the wolves that warmed by them. Sir Robert and Sir Henry both fell, caught unbalanced by the horses maneuver. The bridles fell from their hands and the horses, now free, began a mad dance around the wolves, trying to pin them down. The wolves, in response, directed their frantic eyes to these new enemies and began a counterattack. As they struggled to rise in their armor, both knights could tell instantly that some madness possessed them. They did not patiently circle their prey, inching them to an inevitable trap. Rather, they rushed with no rhyme of a pack but as individual wolves. Some snapped at the horses' legs wildly, catching emptiness. Other tried to leap unto the horses' backs, increasing the fear of the horses even more. All the while, more wolves rushed passed them, oblivious to the melee.
Sir Henry and Sir Robert retrieved their swords, from where they had fallen, and rushed into the mad sea of fur and fang. The gleam and smell and breath of steel sent the animals into a greater frenzy and both wolf and horse now turned against man as well as themselves.
From deeper in the forest, came a bellow, reptilian and hateful.
The storm stopped as the roar wrapped around wolves, horses and men. Wolves and horses disappeared towards the plan. Sir Henry looked at his friend. Sir Robert's face was pale, much of the confidence gone. But his eyes were firm. He nodded.
Another roar tore its way through the trees. The two men ran towards it.
The forest almost immediately changed. Where the woodland had been thick and green before, now the trees were black and twisted. The grass was withered and the stones of the ancient road were blackened ash. The further in the knights ran, the sparser became the trees until there were no more trees at all. The two companions found themselves standing in a rough circle of blackened, cracked earth. The air scorched their faces as if they were standing in the middle of a fire. No birds flew in the air above them. No green thing raised its head. And there, in the middle of the circle, wrapped around a huge stone, what might have been the pedestal of some ancient, stone giant, was the dragon.
Sir Robert looked at the beast, his eyes glazing with fascination and revulsion. The beast resembled a huge snake in that its body was long and windy, its muscles rippling as its coils loosed from the rock, its dull red and yellow scales screeching against the stone. Four clawed feet and the rows of bone that sparkled on its back disrupted its snakeish appearance. A frill decorated the back of its head while a row of horns, starting at its snout, ascended up its head. The dragon's eyes were twin emeralds that almost glowed with their own power. Cat-like pupils split each eye down the middle. These pupils narrowed as they focused on the knights. Its mouth opened, teeth gleamed, saliva steamed and sizzled as it left its mouth and the dragon bellowed again at the strangers who had dared defy his rule.
The blast of the roar and the terrible heat of the dragon's breath forced Sir Robert to his knees. His swordless arm came up of its own accord to shield himself from the terrible heat. He could feel blisters start to form on his face. Some dim corner of his brain told him that the dragon had not even spewed out flames yet. He turned and saw Sir Henry, some twenty feet away, also on the ground, both arms across his face. Sir Robert's heart screamed in terror. This was not what they had planned; this was not what he had expected. The beast was too large, too terrible; against its scales, teeth, claws, and fire, his sword may well have been a rose thorn. They had to escape, make for the trees; they would provide some shelter. Then, they could return with an army.
The dragon rattled in its throat. Its eyes shone the brighter with greed. It landed on the ground, cracking the earth with its weight.
They had to escape now.
Sir Robert stood up and pivoted, ready to rush into the trees. It would only take a minute to seize his friend...
His eyes met Sir Henry's. The dark-haired man's face was the eye of a storm. His friend simply looked at him. Sir Henry gave a small smile, lacking optimism but full of peace. Sir Robert nodded in understanding and acceptance. He turned again, facing the dragon. It was closer now, only a hundred yards away. It roared again, shaking the woods.
The blast of Sir Henry's horn, pure and defiant, met the dragon's bellow, the notes fighting the savage sound in the air above. The dragon reared its head, nostrils flared. Above the din of horn and roar, Sir Robert heard Sir Henry's voice, crisp and rich, "For God and the king!"
"For God and the king!" Sir Robert answered. From the corner of his eye, he saw Sir Henry, sword raised, charging toward the beast. Sir Robert matched the strides of his friend, step for step.
The dragon blinked, shocked at the attack. Recovering, it roared another challenge. Its entire body glowed a bright, sickly light before blue and yellow fire erupted from its maw. Sir Henry leaped away from the onrushing death. He felt the edge of it lick his heels for an instant, melting the soles of his armor. Ignoring the pain, he rushed toward the dragon again. The beast was distracted, its attention upon Sir Robert who, somehow, had managed to reach its flank. Sir Henry heard a war cry and then a clang. The dragon roared again, and thrashed its body, coiling for a counter-attack. Sir Henry took the opportunity to drive his sword between two of the beast's scales. The dragon shrieked and wiped around. Its spiked tail whipped forward. Sir Henry saw it for a moment, lithe and lethal as any snake. He dropped down but the spikes of the tail still caught him, swatting him away like a rag doll.
Sir Robert yelled in anger and fear, raised his sword and brought it down again upon the dragon's hide. The dragon's neck looped back and down, jaws clanging. Sir Robert managed to dodge the fangs but the head turned around, the frill extended, the beast began to glow...
Sir Robert blinked as sword, armor, forest and dragon shimmered and dissipated into the growing twilight. The last few people were making their way to the parking lot and Robby could see Mr. Woodley locking up the park's main building. On the ground, Harry sat up, his dark hair a wild mop on his head.
"Dang it," he said. "We almost had it that time."
Robby looked at the mass of moss and vines that stretched over the patch of rocks where the dragon had been. "I guess we'll have to try again tomorrow."
"Yeah," Harry answered, "We'll have to do better especially with the wolves. Galahad wouldn't have let his horse go."
"Right," Robby agreed. He closed the book's cover on the dragon that glared out from its pages. "See you tomorrow," he said as the two boys raced towards their parents. Behind them, in the fading light, the dragon blinked and smiled.