CHAPTER ONE

Hon awoke with a start. The sky outside his window was dark but the room was as bright and hot, as if it were mid-day. His hair and nightclothes dripped with sweat.

His bleary eyes went to the wall opposite his bed. Flames danced, rapidly consuming the thatched roof. The darkness of the night sky showed through the flames. Hon thrust himself back into the corner of the room only to feel the heat of rising flames as they licked at him through the wall behind him. He leaped over his pallet toward the closed door. His Mamma screamed his name. He heard faraway shouts of the men of the village. The six-year-old boy began to cry.

He climbed over the smoking, thatch-strewn quilts of his parents’ bed. Patches of burning straw dotted the floor. The room was growing brighter and hotter by the second. Gripping the door pull, he tugged, finding it difficult to open. Trying again with all his strength, the door swung free.

It was in the midst of this chaos that he first heard the sound… a piercing screech that filled his boyish soul with fear. It seemed to be right above him but within the fire as well.

Without thinking, Hon ran for the front door of the cottage. Debris showered over him as he dodged his way through the blazing room. Fright drove him over hot embers on the floor. He didn’t feel the blisters rising on his feet. He burst out the front door of the cottage, his face blackened and his bedclothes smoking. He ran like a frightened deer, away from the house and the terrifying sound above it. He slid to a stop, huddled by the well in the center of the town square.

The pain of his burns awoke him to the reality of the scene about him. Tears flowed again as he took it in. His neighbors were shouting, running, seeking cover. Most buildings were aflame. Wood popped and hissed, smoke filled the air. He finally spied his Mamma’s slight figure through the crowd. She was across the square in the direction from which he’d come. She knelt in the dirt in front of their flaming cottage, her head hung low. In his terror, Hon had run right past her.

The sound pierced his ears again, coming from the dark sky above the square. A second sound accompanied it… a powerful, pulsing, whooshing sound. It drew closer each second. His Mamma turned her head away, hands over her ears and eyes clenched shut. Hon wanted, needed to be with her, so he launched out in another mad dash across the square.

The sky erupted with fire and a building to his right burst into flames. The blast knocked him to the ground. He felt strong, rhythmic bursts of cool night air pulsing down onto his head. A chill overtook his small body and the black sky seemed to descend upon him. A hulking, scaly red beast touched down in a whirlwind of dust right in front of him.

The creature was huge, towering at least twenty feet higher than his childish frame. Its muscular legs were like tree trunks, its body covered in impenetrable rows of rock-hard scales.

Hon could see his Mamma’s cowering form through the rear legs of the dragon. He bolted toward her again, through the wide-spread legs of the beast. Just as he emerged from under the massive body his Mamma’s eyes met his.

“Hon! Hon, no!”

A lightning-fast thrust of the dragon’s foreclaw plucked him from the ground, midstride. With a screech of triumph, the beast rose to its full height, shaking its head side to side as flames spewed from its mouth into the night sky. Though he could no longer see her, Hon heard his Mamma’s voice again.

“Noooo!”

The dragon focused its attention on his Mamma as she screamed at the beast.

“Let him go, you devil!”

Reaching for stones and pieces of smoking wood, she pelted the dragon with one measly object after another. Each one emphasized a different word.

“LET… HIM… GO!”

Enraged at her pitiful assault, the dragon advanced. In one stride it towered over her like a mountain. Mouth wide and teeth bared, it roared into her face. She turned to run but found nowhere to go. Behind her were the burning remains of their home and in front of her was the dragon. Spinning around, she glanced from Hon to the dragon and back again. Mother and son locked eyes and tears began to flow. The dragon swiped at the woman and she flew through the air, landing in a heap 50 feet away at the far side of the square.

As the beast turned, a shower of arrows and rocks peppered its tough hide. The men of the village had gathered themselves to make a defense. Hon saw his Papa in the front ranks, notching an arrow and letting it fly. Their missiles had no more effect than his Mamma’s pitiful assault. The dragon roared in defiance. With a quick twist of its mighty body, the beast’s massive tail swept around, sending men flying like dust in a gale.

Hon was airborne, rising above the blazing village. The men below picked themselves up from the ground, some did not move at all. His Papa ran toward the blacksmith’s shop. Hon craned his neck to find his Mamma. Her still form lay motionless where she had landed. The beast rose higher, circling the town as if taunting the helpless villagers. The sound of its mighty roar echoed through the valley. Hon wept, helpless and afraid as he soared high above his home.

A sharp gust of wind blew against his cheek and he heard a loud “thwap,” to his left. Something wet and sticky splashed across his burnt arm. The dragon screamed and lurched to one side. A short, thick, feathered shaft protruded from the base of its neck. Far below, Hon could see his Papa loading a crossbow. Two other men ran out of the smithy with crossbows of their own. With a final screech of defiance, the dragon climbed beyond their reach, into the dark sky.

The wind whipped Hon’s nightclothes as the rhythm of the huge, bat-like wings grew faster. The pair rose higher, above the clouds, into the starlit night. The dragon clutched the boy in its bony claw.

The compressing grip caused Hon’s head to pound. As the chill wind pounded his face, he gasped for air, unable even to cry. His thoughts became a jumble, fading as he lost consciousness… flames… Mamma… the dragon… Papa… pain… the sound…

Then all was silent.

CHAPTER TWO

An urgent voice called to him, distant yet near.

“Stewart? Stewart!”

A hand on his shoulder roused Stewart from his stupor. He had no idea how long he had been staring at the dim outline of the rocky ridge to the north. The silhouette where his son had disappeared into the night.

“Stewart, it’s Ella. Come quickly!”

At the name of his wife Stewart turned to Fulton, the town blacksmith, and his life-long friend. Soot, dirt, and blood covered him.

“Ella? Where is she? What has happened?”

“Stew, it’s bad. Come!”

They set off across the square, hurrying past a group of men who passed buckets to douse the nearest fire. Another pair was attempting to rope a terrified mare. There were only a few buildings in the village that had not been destroyed. Fulton led the way toward a circle of women and children on the far side of the square. As they approached, Stewart heard his name whispered. The circle parted. There, in the middle of the small group lay his wife; limp, pale, and struggling for life.

“Ella!” he cried, dropping to his knees next to her. The ground was sticky with her blood. One look into her eyes and Stewart knew she would soon be gone. The circle of onlookers was silent.

A faint whisper escaped her lips.

“Stew – art? Stew…”

“My love, do not speak,” Stewart interrupted. His tears fell onto her face. “You are weak, you must rest.”

“I will soon rest… eternally,” she whispered, forcing out a smile. “Hon? Did the beast… Hon?”

Stewart did not want to answer. He didn’t want her dying thoughts to be ones of anxiety. But they had learned early in their marriage that truthful words are best, even when they are hard to hear. Though he dreaded how the terrible truth might affect her, Stewart knew what he had to say.

“Gone. We tried. We fought the beast but…” his voice began to waver, “but all we could do was wound it — to chase it off.”

Tears flowed and he paused to regain his voice. Then, with a frustrated shake of his head, he finished.

“It would not let him go.”

“Gone?” Ella struggled to one elbow until her eyes were within inches of his. “Gone?”

“Yes,” he said.

Every eye was on Ella. Stewart wondered if the news would be the final blow. To his surprise, she lay down, as with a sense of supernatural peace. Her words came evenly, in deep breaths.

“No matter. You will find him, my love. You will search him out.”

She closed her eyes and groped for Stewart’s hand. He eased her body into his lap and she nestled against him like she had many times after a weary day of work. He held her close as the rise and fall of her chest diminished with each breath. His instinct was to strike out, to defend her. But there was no defense. Stewart was helpless against death.

Taking a long, slow breath she turned her face up to his. As he looked into her eyes for the final time, Stewart saw all the things he had fallen in love with seven years before… courage, strength, understanding, and love. He would never forget her faithful, encouraging love.

She exhaled, slow and deliberate… and did not move again. His mind fogged, consumed in sorrow like the black night that had swallowed his only son. He stayed there holding her close, weeping as stars passed overhead. Time blurred. When night gave way to morning, Stewart once again felt the familiar hand of Fulton on his shoulder. He looked into the tear-filled brown eyes of his childhood friend.

“It’s a tough blow,” said Fulton. “All of us were hurt, but none like you. The pain will be with you a long while but we will help you shoulder it if you will let us.”

Stewart lay Ella’s body on the ground and rose.

“I’ve sat here in the dust remembering. I remember the many happy times Ella and I have shared with you and Ida. You are true friends and I have no doubt that you will be with me in this, and…,” his voice trailed off. He resumed with a large breath, “There are two things I must do now.” Looking down at his wife’s peaceful face he continued. “First, I must tend to Ella’s body. She is in her Lord’s care but the care of her body is mine to do. Once done, I must go after Hon.”

Fulton’s eyes made it clear that he believed it a lost cause. Even so, Fulton spoke the words he needed to hear.

“I expected as much. I’m going with you.”

 

*****†*****

 

By noon Ella’s body was ready for burial along with twelve others from the village. Since most homes were piles of smoldering rubble, they spoke words over the dead at Fulton’s blacksmith shop. It was miraculously spared the night’s destruction.

Following the memorial, friends and neighbors expressed their sympathy to the grieving families. They said many kind words about Ella and Stewart was grateful. He knew they loved her. She had been a friend to many. Each time the loss of Hon came up, Stewart insisted that his son was not lost. And he invited  – and every man in the village to join him in the search. Some smiled, nodding their heads politely. Stewart knew that they believed his grief muddled his thinking. But a handful of them, for reasons of their own, shook his hand with determination in their eyes. They agreed to join him, ready for the worst.

That evening the forge glowed with a blazing fire. Stewart gathered around it with five determined men. As they spoke about the task ahead. Stewart realized that most of them had rallied to his cause because it was their cause too. It was the only way they could fight their losses and push away the helplessness that gnawed at their gut.

Next to Stewart sat Fulton, his best friend. He was a man as strong and reliable as the metal he shaped. Fulton’s wife, Ida had lost her elderly mother and father to the dragon’s attack. They burned to death as they slept.

Next was Irwin, a kindly, talkative old farmer who two winters earlier lost his wife of 40 years. He weathered that loss well, but now had lost his crops, his barn, and all the livestock in it to the dragon’s attack. Stewart didn’t think the bent old man had much strength left, but was glad for his willingness and resolve. They would need every hand that could raise a weapon.

“I suppose I’ve a bit of life left in these old bones,” Irwin said. “‘It’s not every day a coot me age can go sportin’ off tuh hunt a dragon! Makes me feel a bit like life’s not done fer me yet. Puts life back inta’ this ole heart. It harkens to me younger days, long past days when I was a bit less wise and a bunch more reckless! Not to say that you’re bein’ reckless, young Stewart. Not at all, what with your young’un bein’ taken. I understand that entirely. You’re doin’ what a father’s got tuh do! I’m just sayin’ that me younger days was surely reckless, surely so.

“Me dear departed, God rest her blessed soul, used to remind me of them days so often. Lord knows I’m never to forget ‘em. But never mind all that! I want you to know that what I’m sayin’ is that I’m in for as much good as these wrinkled old hands can do ya. Might as well go out of this life doin’ somethin’ that matters, and that there’s a fact!”

Seated on a stool across the fire was North, a giant of a man. He stood halfway past six feet tall and with so strong a build that he seemed just as wide. When the dragon attacked, his wife and two children escaped their cottage before it collapsed. They were already on their way to an uncle’s home in another village. North’s stonemason shop with all its tools was gone. In his simple, quiet way the mason expressed his intentions.

“Were it my boy who was taken, I’d be grateful to any who lent a hand. So, I am obliged to come alongside you, Stewart. If he’s to be rescued, it’ll be done by those who are determined and strong. The good Lord has made me both. That dragon will know he’s been struck when I strike a blow. You can count on that.”

Stewart didn’t doubt it.

Next was Pierce, the local wine-seller. The entire village knew him to be a respectable, responsible man in every way. His youngest son, one of Hon’s friends, was under a falling beam during the attack. Thankfully, he had only a broken arm to show for it. But Pierce’s business was a different matter. His vineyard was located behind Irwin’s barn and the fire had easily spread to the field from the flaming building. He would have to begin again from scratch in the spring.

“I’m glad to help, but you need to know that when spring comes,” he coughed nervously against the back of his hand, “I’ll have to be about my work. None of you knows much about wine and vineyards so let me say, it will take many years to get the vines bearing wine-worthy fruit. I’ve got to start,” coughing against his hand again, “as soon as the frost clears.”

“I understand,” Stewart smiled. “Thank you for your help.”

Last was the red-haired tradesman, Reid who did whatever he had to do to make a living — and he did many things well. He was the village baker and butcher as well as a fine rope maker. Of the men present, his loss was one equal to Stewart’s. His home was the first to burst into flame and his wife and three children were unable to escape. Reid was at the tavern when the tragedy struck. As the flames cast streaks of light across his face, his sullen mood was evident. He wore his rage like an oversized cloak.

“I am here,” he said, pausing to look every man in the eye, “to see that dragon pays for what it has done. Life for life, that’s what I say. I only wish the damned lizard had three of them I could take.” He stared hard into Stewart’s eyes. “I know you feel the same, Stew.”

Stewart nodded.

There was not a warrior among them. As each of them left the meeting, Stewart hoped they would be able to sleep before dawn came. With all that had happened and what lay before them he doubted any of them would rest easy. He stayed up late into the night gathering what food he could find to sustain them on their long journey. Not knowing how long they would be gone, Stewart packed extra tunics and outer cloaks. The north regions were known for their harsh climate. Winter would be upon them soon.

Walking away from the glowing forge, he looked toward the north. The silhouette of the rugged mountains stood dark in the moonless night. He knew they embarked on a fool’s errand and resigned himself to being the biggest fool of them all. But he had to go. If there was any chance that Hon was still alive, he had to find him. Ella had labeled him “stubborn” on many occasions, As he looked into the sky he knew she was right. It was his way, and he was glad for it. They would not rescue Hon without it.

 

*****†*****

 

Dawn broke. A fog blanketed the village. Stewart rose from his bed on the smithy floor. It was chilly and damp. He stretched his weary soul. The glowing fire revealed that he was not the first to wake. Fulton had been up to check on him and rekindle the waning fire. He was a true friend, trustworthy to the end. A cynical laugh escaped his lips.

The end may be exactly where we are headed.

Stewart’s plans were set and good men joined him. But in the dim light of the new day he did not feel hopeful. He had been awake long into the night. Restless, he recounted the unthinkable events that had occurred. Over and over the surreal experience of watching his small son carried into the sky ran through his mind. And he tried to push away the vivid memories of kneeling in a pool of his beloved’s blood. Stewart wound up immersed in the horror. Hope had abandoned him, he was sure of it. In its place was the sickly, suffocating weight of resignation.

Walking into the street, he was the only one stirring. No doubt the anxiety and panic of the last few days had taken their toll. Even the men venturing north with him were still in their huts.

Perhaps they have reconsidered? He wondered.

Stewart made his way across the square toward what remained of his home. He had not been interested in seeing it until then. Standing before it in the first light of day he realized what had kept him away. There was nothing there but dreams of what might have been.

A spot of bright blue drew his attention, it peeked out from the blackened heap. Tiptoe-ing his way to the spot, he kicked aside a charred plank and stared in disbelief. There, fluttering in the morning breeze was Ella’s favorite shawl. it was a gift he had given her two Christmases past. It lay neatly folded and unscorched as if someone had placed it for him to find. He took it in his trembling fingers expecting it to crumble to ash in his hand, but it was as soft and beautiful as ever. He raised it to his face. It still bore the womanly fragrance of its owner.

“Th-thank You,” he stuttered as he lifted tear-filled eyes to the hazy sky. “Thank You for this merciful gift.”

He had never been a man of strong faith. That was Ella’s realm. he wasn’t opposed to faith, he had simply never seen the need. But there, in the damp mists of the morning, two days after such destruction and loss, he found himself uttering his first awkward prayer.

“I know You could have stopped this senselessness. I don’t know why, but You didn’t.” He let out a long, heavy breath. “I should be angry at You. I should be furious,” his jaw tensed and he shook his head. “But I’m not. It doesn’t make sense, any of it.”

He looked again toward the heavens just as the sun broke through the fog.

“You don’t make sense.”

The trees diffused the bright rays, scattering them across the devastation weary village. He breathed in, feeling the warmth on his face. He knew that despite the rawness and unanswered questions in his soul, he would go on. Walking back to Fulton’s shop, he held the shawl next to his cheek, remembering his Ella and the last words she said to him.

You will find him, my love. You will search him out.

Yes, he would. He quickened his pace. The men would be waiting.


Citation Information

Carey Green, “Excerpt from Dragonslayer: Beginnings,” An Unexpected Journal: Dragons 5, no. 1. (Summer 2022), 174-186.