The Dragon10 mins 573 10 mins 573
‘The dragon stirs again in the mountains, and its breath will bring eternal winter. Defenders of Vyk, band your swords!’
The voice echoed from the plaza to the ends of the ancient village, pumping fire into my veins. This would be my chance.
‘Will you go, Marco?’ asked Klara with both an instinctive fear of losing me and the sheer pride of imagining her beloved defeating a centuries-old myth, returning to her a dragonslayer. This was a dream we both had dreamt feverishly ever since we were little children at the orphanage - holding hands and gazing at the starry night sky, telling each other the chilling tales of the beast that slept in the mountains.
‘He will, he is the best sword of Vyk.’ Said Erik, my closest friend. Another boy abandoned by an angry father over his wife’s death in childbirth, Erik found happiness in books and ink and had promised to write my tale and sing of my valour.
‘I must.’ I said. ‘The dragon may not wake again in decades.’
The mountains of Tartos were tall and etched into the dark sky, always a silent reminder of the doom that lay waiting once men left the warmth of the village, Vyk. Their eight peaks beckoned to the final journey, the last pilgrimage to the land of no return- a legend that spun dread in the hearts of those who gazed at its misty silhouette darkening at dusk. And there, in the shivering cold and ice, lived the dragon.
Some said it breathed ice, some said its touch was death, some said its mere sight was damnation, but no one knew for sure. Its breath traveled the land and brought with it sorrow and the thick gray fog that always hovered around Vyk. If it woke, legend said, the village would be lost to frost and death.
For centuries, Vyk had sent brave men to fight the beast, and they had not failed us, for each time they went, winter passed and summer arrived in its lush-green splendor. They went by the hundreds, and a handful returned- the ones who had never seen the dragon. Songs by the bards honoured only a few, the rest were lost in the depths of unwanted memories. Legends spoke of them returning to this old village one last time to watch over their empty graves.
But not me.
I would slay the dragon and return to Klara, who would be my wife, my blue-eyed beauty. Perhaps Erik would be godfather to our child.
I felt unusually happy as I thought of this, my journey to begin a day after. Fifty warriors had already assembled in the fighting hall and were sharpening their swords and axes, praying to the god of the battle for this timeless glory. Every man had made promises similar to mine.
‘Skilled, but only eighteen.’ Said the village chieftain as he looked at my broadsword that twilight, his eyes painted in a strange sadness in the hall’s flickering fire. ‘Are you ready for this, Marco? There might be a sweeter future here.’
I knew he meant Klara.
‘I am ready, sir.’ I replied.
The next morning was bitterly cold- pale sunshine dappling the silvery mist. The families of the fifty pilgrims stood silently amidst sounds of clashing metal, wood, and footsteps, each watching the men with deep sorrow, hoping against hope that they might come back to the soil that birthed them. Among all the faces mouthing tearful farewells, I saw my Klara. She ran to me and held me in a tight embrace.
‘Come back to me,’ she said, sobbing, ‘I’ll wait for you. Kill the wretched beast and come back to me.’
I nodded and kissed her forehead, her golden hair spilling over my fingers. How beautiful she looked even in anguish, her eyes the summer sky and her lips the freshly-plucked cherries of the meadows in spring.
‘Watch over her while I’m away,’ I told Erik, ‘and sing of me when I return a hero.’
‘I will.’ He smiled, wiping his eyes with his hands.
The road was steep, with death at every corner.
Lives were lost in the freezing snow, in lofty passes hanging over a dark abyss, and to the white, hungry beasts that cloaked themselves in the ice, waiting till the shortest hours of the night when the fire dwindled to flaking embers. The winds raged in elemental fury without mercy, cracking the skins of the pilgrims to crusty dead sheets, freezing the blood blue. When we reached Kadth, the final mountain of Tartos and home to the dragon, we were reduced to ten men from fifty.
‘Pray for the souls of your brothers,’ whispered the chieftain through his black-blue lips, ‘for the lives lost in this unholy place never go back to the fatherland. They will suffer to the end of eternity, till the day the Gods walk the earth.’
I prayed. For them, for myself. I did not want to die here. We climbed and climbed, but there was no sign of the dragon. Food became scarcer. Legends said that before us, there were older people who lived in the mountains, peaceful people. They spoke of land beyond Tartos, where the damned souls are set free to a never-ending summer. Shambala, they called it. They lied. There’s only snow.
The winter deepened to an extreme, and claimed whatever was left of us, the frigid cold seeping into our bearskins and turning our limbs into deadened sticks. We left the bodies as they were, frozen and staring into the dark sky with glassy eyes, silent guardians who would watch over Tartos forever.
Three of us were left when I heard a strange voice carried by a gust of cold wind.
Welcome, chosen one. The Lord awaits you.
It was spectral and musical, and it came from a deep cave a hundred feet above me. It seemed unaffected by the winter.
My last two friends were dying, but my blood still had the heat of molten iron.
I’ll come back to you, I thought and began the climb.
The cave was enormous, but the cold left it untouched- instead, radiating with a dimmed light that shone from within. The walls of the cave had cryptic drawings, of men walking in lines endlessly to form a complete circle. The snow melted from my skin to water and my broadsword glistened when I heard the rhythm of a monstrous breath- terrifying, inhuman. I knew what it was.
‘Attack, beast,’ I spoke, ‘and be swift.’
A deep rumble answered me from inside, and the rocks began to shake. Then it emerged, a monster of blue and white, with eyes of gold and teeth of frost. It was gigantic and breathed a white fume.
Only the bravest enter Shambala, and his time has come, said the musical voice once more, but I paid it no mind.
‘Die!’ I roared, running at it with my sword bared.
It breathed the fume, and my whole body was shrouded in it, stinging and burning, yet I got to my feet and ran again.
The dragon turned, and I ducked under its belly, trying to drive in the fatal stab with all my might. But it moved to a side, missing the sword by a mere inch. For a hundredth of a moment, it stared at me with its eyes of gold, and I knew it was the end for me. However, the beast hesitated, as if confused, and this to me was the elixir that revives the dead. With a thunderous war cry, I charged and plunged my weapon into the fiend’s scaly neck.
The dragon screeched in pain and swayed from one side to the next, then fell on the cave’s floor, lifeless, my sword’s hilt sparkling in its crimson blood.
‘Marco, the dragonslayer, they will call me,’ I said, panting in exhaustion and disbelief, my senses returning, ‘and now... I must return to my lady.’
But I couldn’t.
My body was suddenly heavier. The musical voice laughed childishly and the drawings of men on the walls began a hypnotic dance, all of them marching in perfect harmony towards the dead beast. I collapsed in the cave, feeling the warmth of the stones call to me. It was bliss.
I fell asleep. When I woke, there was sunshine in the cave. I felt no cold, and only fragments of bones remained as remnants of the dragon, the rest had melted. The drawings sat still on the stone walls. I felt weaker than before and realised that my face was now thickly bearded.
With haste I climbed down the mountains of Tartos, once glancing at a blade of ice to see my reflection. My handsome face was gone- a gnarly stranger stared back instead. I was horrified- it must have been the white fume the beast had breathed.
No matter, Klara would still love me. She must have been waiting for a year now, poor girl.
To my surprise, the cold had vanished and the ill-famed mist around Vyk had thawed, making my return safe and of great ease. The village now reveled in a state of joyous autumn. It had changed from what I had in my memories, though. There were more houses now, the plaza a bit more crowded.
‘I am Marco, the dragonslayer!’ I told the first man I met, in celebration of my homecoming.
‘Never heard of that name before.’ He replied nonchalantly.
‘It is because there was no one alive to speak of this. Sadly, the rest of my people perished along the road over the year.’
‘What are you talking about?’ He asked, now puzzled.
‘The band of warriors who left for Tartos last year, of course!’ I said, somewhat angrily.
‘Tell your foolish tales someplace else,’ the man waved me away, ‘the last band left over twenty years ago and never returned. The dragon hasn’t stirred since and the cold has lessened.’
I had no words to offer. I asked a few others, and they said the same.
For hours I sat at the plaza. When dusk fell I went to the old house that I had shared with Klara. It was gone, a new one in its place.
A boy of thirteen or fourteen came out of the house, I watched from afar, followed by two little girls, all three with golden hair.
‘Father, mother, hurry up!’ One of them screamed, and a moment later, I saw my old friend Erik walk out of the door, holding Klara by her hand, who had aged beautifully, the eyes still radiant with the blue of the sky.
Both of them were smiling.
No. No. No.
You said you would wait for me.
You said you would watch over her.
Tears streamed down my face as I saw them walk away, a perfectly happy family, perhaps going to the play that was performed at the seventh day of the week in the theatre at the end of the plaza.
When they were gone, I walked down to the end of the village to the decrepit graveyard. After some searching, I found a stone that had begun fading, almost hidden among tall reeds of grass.
‘Marco’, it said, and nothing else. From its appearance, I could tell that it was never visited.
My empty grave.
At night I waited again, and they returned, talking happily. I walked up to them, desperate for her to remember me.
‘Wait,’ I said in my gruff voice, as they looked at me, alarmed, for I was too close- a dirty, disheveled, godforsaken man.
‘You, stay away from my wife and children!’ Erik screamed, pushing me farther from them.
‘Darling, let’s get inside and bolt the doors. You three, go inside, now.’ Said Klara, and for the first time, I saw hate and disgust in her eyes for me. The enchantress of my fantasies had dissolved into dust and snow and what stayed behind ushered her family into the house and slammed the door on my face.
The next morning, the new chieftain of the village came with a band of armed men and asked me to leave, stating that I was a stranger causing trouble to the family of the village scribe. When I tried to explain who I was one last time, they used fists instead of words, leaving me on the ground bruised and bleeding.
Now that I walk through the deepening fog, I ask myself what all this had been for. Why I didn’t listen to the old chieftain and stay back. Stay back with those two vicious, two-faced people.
I think of cursing her, but I can’t. I love her too much.
As I walk the path to the mountains of Tartos, I feel that the cold walks with me. Trees wilt as I move past them, my breath is frosty as winter. The ice is a welcome sight now, and when I begin to speak, a low rumble escapes instead. I climb and climb, to the highest peak, Kadth. And then I see that my skin is gone, and blue-white scales have taken its place. My teeth are crooked like jagged ice, mist escapes my nostrils, and my eyes are golden.
Welcome home, my Lord, the strange, musical voice says.
That evening, a voice is heard from the plaza, echoing to the ends of the ancient town.
‘The dragon stirs again in the mountains, and its breath will bring eternal winter. Defenders of Vyk, band your swords!’