alexpgp: (OldGuy)
[personal profile] alexpgp
“Do you think that’s the town, sir?” asked Godfrey, the older of the two horsemen that sat on their mounts inside the forest’s fringe, looking out at clump of low dwellings that lay about a mile distant in the middle of a flat grassland. A third horse, loaded with weapons and provisions, stood tethered to the older man’s horse.

“I pray it is,” answered Arthur. “Our food and silver are depleted, requiring this aspiring knight,” he said, using his thumb to point to himself, “to find employment for himself and his arms-bearer.” He threw a smile at Godfrey, and then kicked his horse into motion, emerging from the woods and heading directly for a path that led to the town. The older man followed.

“Would you take a look at that, sir?” said Godfrey, as they drew near to the settlement. He gestured toward the town’s ramparts, which seemed to be collapsing inward, toward the settlement. “That wall would hardly keep out a disgruntled sheep, much less anything bigger. What were they thinking when they built it?” A lifetime ago, Godfrey had fought in many campaigns, attaining the rank of sergeant before losing an eye in battle. He knew something of fortifications.

“We’ll soon find out,” said Arthur, as the gates opened and a small crowd of prosperously dressed men came out to greet them and escort them into the settlement. It was indeed the right town, Redemar by name, and word of Arthur’s interest in solving the town’s problem had preceded him.

“Sir Knight,” began the mayor once Arthur had been seated with the other town elders and the company served food and drink, “permit me to come to the point by saying that our humble town has for these past twenty years suffered the depredations of a dragon that preys on the flower of the town’s womanhood.” A supportive rumble rose from the assembled elders.

“Every year, this dragon requires us to take two of our fairest maidens to a cave near the sea, located a day’s ride northeast,” continued the mayor, waving an arm as if to indicate the direction, “where we must chain them to the wall and abandon them to await the dragon’s ravenous appetite. Only in this way does this beast consent to leave the town alone to engage in commerce and wrest a living from its fields. Will you help us?” The eyes of the mayor and of the elders were wet with tears. “Will you deliver us from this monster?”

“I will,” said Arthur.

“I must warn you, however,” said the elder sitting next to the mayor, “that many brave knights that have agreed to help us have never returned.” The mayor shot the man a dirty look, saying, “Verily, it is a mission fraught with danger.” Then he turned to Arthur and said, “Which is why we appeal to you, as a stalwart and fearless knight, to render succor to us.”

The next few hours were spent ironing out the terms, conditions, and remuneration for freeing the town of the dragon. Then Arthur joined Godfrey in separate quarters that had been hastily prepared for the two visitors.

“I don’t like it,” said Godfrey, after Arthur explained their mission. “I took my grub in the kitchen, and the servants – women, all of ‘em – were solemn as churchmen. They all of them kept their distance from me and said hardly a word, as if they were afraid of being seen with me or talking to me.”

“Maybe they’re put off by your eye patch,” suggested Arthur. “Or perhaps they’re just afraid of the dragon.”

“Whatever they’re afraid of, it’s no dragon, sir” said Godfrey. “I mean, the mayor says the monster hasn’t harmed anyone or anything in this town for a score of years, right? And it’s certain none of ‘em need fear being chained in the cave, as they have aged far beyond their years.”

Arthur shrugged and sat down to let Godfrey undo his boots and leggings. “It’s a paying job, at any rate,” he said.

“Can’t argue with that,” said the arms-bearer, kneeling to unlace his master’s leathers. “But did you notice how, when they were taking us to the mayor’s house, they took us well around the main square, when it would have made more sense to take us through the square instead?”

“Not really,” said Arthur, and yawned. “You think they were hiding something?”

“I don’t know. I glimpsed some small sacks in the middle of the square, soiled with something and sitting among some cobbling stones,” said Godfrey. “But people kept standing in my way, so I don’t really know what they were.”

“I’d put it out of your mind,” said Arthur. “We have a hard day of travel tomorrow. Get some sleep.”

“I will, sir,” said Godfrey. “Good night to you.”

* * *

Arthur and Godfrey made good time the following day, gaining the cliff above the sea while the sun was still high in the sky. They dismounted and pitched camp several hundred yards from the entrance to the cave, the location of which an elder had insisted on describing to them.

“Don’t you have a map?” Godfrey had asked, interrupting the short, hirsute man who stank of sweat and ale. “No maps!” exclaimed the elder, and his eyes bulged from their sockets. “It is an evil place that cannot be drawn on a map! The very idea is sacrilege!”

Arthur wore his mail shirt and carried his sword and shield into the cave. Godfrey followed, carrying a cocked crossbow loaded with a heavy silver bolt. They found two sets of chains embedded in the cave wall about a dozen yards in from the entrance.

“No sign of mayhem,” said Godfrey. “No bones, no cloth.”

“The beast likely drags his prizes to its lair before devouring them,” replied Arthur. Godfrey grunted noncommittally. After reconnoitering the area inside the cave entrance, the men withdrew to their camp and ate a cold meal, then retired with Godfrey taking the first watch.

Some time long after the sun had set and the Great Bear was standing on its nose above the Pole Star, Godfrey shook his master awake. “Something is climbing the cliff,” he whispered, then turned and brought the crossbow to his shoulder. As Arthur looked toward the cliff and the starry sky beyond, a scrabbling dark mass rose above the line of the cliff and blocked out a portion of the stars. A few moments later, a soft hissing sound could be heard and the odor of sulfur tinged the air.

“Hail, sir knight,” said a rasping voice, “and crossbowman, too. I presume you are the latest party sent to kill me?” Godfrey shot his crossbow at the center of the massive shadow.

“Oh, my!” said the dragon. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ in answer to my question.” There was a short scratching sound and a moment later, the bolt landed at Godfrey’s feet. “I would be grateful if you refrain from shooting at me again, crossbowman. At least, not until after we have spoken. Permit me.” The dragon squirted a small pool of burning naphtha on the ground between them, which provided a brilliant light.

“What do we have to speak about, accursed beast?” said Arthur, shielding his eyes from the sudden brightness of the naphtha’s flame.

“Well, for one thing,” rasped the dragon, “besides you calling me an ‘accursed beast’ and the fact your man just tried to kill me, there is whatever else you might have planned for me, all because those scrofulous misogynes in Redemar cannot stand the thought of letting any woman escape their clutches – even if it is to suffer what they might gleefully imagine to be a slow, horrible death – and so hire men like you to kill me.”

“So you want to say the women die quickly, is that it?” asked Arthur.

“My dear knight,” said the dragon, “they don’t die at all!”

“I don’t believe you,” said Arthur, after a moment’s silence.

“Well, then take a look at me, at my size,” said the dragon. “If I were inclined to eat humans, don’t you think I’d require several more than just two per year? And further, if I were actually interested in eating humans, wouldn’t it make sense for me to require delivery of those with the most meat on their bones instead of those who are the most beautiful?”

“Makes sense to me,” muttered Godfrey, and his stance relaxed.

“You look like a man who has seen military service,” said the dragon to Godfrey. “Did you notice how the walls of the town are better suited to keep people in than keep anything else out?”

“Now that you mention it,” said the arms-bearer, “that’s exactly right. I didn’t make the connection at the time. It wouldn’t have made sense.”

“The walls are there to prevent escape,” said the dragon. “And did you happen to notice the ‘decorations’ in the town square?”

“No,” replied Godfrey. “We were led around the square, but I think I saw some kind of sacks.”

“Sacks, eh? About the right size to hold, say, a small melon? Soiled? With several rocks immediately nearby?” asked the dragon.

“Yes,” replied Arthur, “that’s right. What were they?”

“The town fathers of Redemar have drawn up special laws that apply to women,” said the dragon. “Who they may speak with, who they may associate with, when they may leave their residence and with whom, that sort of thing. Punishments vary. Rape – which occurs quite frequently – is punishable by flogging the woman in public. Adultery – an offense very loosely defined – carries a range of punishments, from forcing the woman to wear a chastity belt of barbaric design to wrapping the woman in a white muslin bag and burying her up to her neck in the center of the public square, so that only her head remains above the ground, whereupon the unfortunate creature is stoned to death.”

“If the townsmen are as evil as that,” asked Arthur, after another silence, “then why not destroy them? And why save only two per year?”

“I am an old,” said the dragon, “and coming to the end of my days. I have seen and known much, and though I have drunk delight of battle… I know enough to realize that cutting down townsmen – as tarnished as their souls might be – is a sure way to bring down the king’s wrath and my premature demise. Still, my gray spirit yearns to do what it can before life's end, some work of noble note, and to die unashamed, having won some victory – however small – for what is right. Is that so bad?”

The two men and the dragon were silent for yet another moment. Then the knight asked, “How do we know you’re telling the truth? And if the women brought here are alive, where are they? What have you done with them?”

“Well, to answer your first question,” said the dragon, and turned to unleash a brilliant stream of burning naphtha that arced a hundred feet out over the sea, “consider the fact that I haven’t incinerated you, despite my every right to do so in answer to your bolt. To answer the rest of your questions, come to the cave tomorrow morning, when the sun is a hand’s breadth above the horizon. Now, I shall take my leave and go eat my fill of my favorite sea plants.” With these words, the dragon’s bulk withdrew back over the cliff and disappeared.

* * *

The next day, knight and arms-bearer entered the cave to find two beautiful young women dressed in traveling clothes. Each stood confidently next to a small, sturdy strongbox. A third strongbox stood near the cave entrance.

“I am Miranda,” said the taller of the two young women. “And I am Evelyn,” said her companion. “We were brought here from Redemar as a sacrificial offering to the dragon. We have spent the last year in the dragon’s palace far below our feet, where we were treated better than we had ever been treated before in our lives and where – among other things – we learned to read words and write our names.” Evelyn thrust a folded paper at Godfrey, who took it. “This is a map showing how to reach the Great Northern City without going past or near Redemar.”

“The dragon says it is time for us to go out and make our way in the world,” said Miranda, “but he wants to make sure that - like our predecessors - we do not travel without a knight to protect us, as he has given us these chests of gold with which to start our lives.” Miranda pointed to the chests at her and Evelyn's feet. “If you will be our champion, the gold in that chest shall be your reward,” she said, indicating the chest near the entrance.

“The townsmen lied to us, sir,” whispered Godfrey, “we owe them no fealty.”

“I agree,” said Arthur, and held out his hands to the two women. “The day grows older as we speak. Let us make ready to depart!”

Date: 2010-06-24 11:43 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I really enjoyed this!

Date: 2010-06-24 03:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm pleased you liked it!


Date: 2010-06-25 04:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Good story twist, but a bit shy on pith and punch overall.

Date: 2010-06-27 03:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Suggestions noted. ;)


Date: 2010-06-25 05:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Nice one! (As usual.)

Date: 2010-06-27 03:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks! (As usual.)


Date: 2010-06-25 07:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Very nice! A feminist fairy tale.

Date: 2010-06-27 03:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]


Date: 2010-06-25 08:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]

This was great, just funny enough and just serious enough at the same time. And I really like this theory.

Date: 2010-06-27 03:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks for the kind words. I just hope enough other members of the community come around to your way of thinking!


Date: 2010-06-28 11:17 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh YES! Loved, loved, loved reading this :D

Date: 2010-06-28 01:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks for the kind words!


Date: 2010-06-28 02:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh, wow. This is fantastic!

Date: 2010-06-28 11:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks for the compliment!


Date: 2010-06-28 02:56 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Man. This is one of my faves in quite a while!

Date: 2010-06-28 11:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm happy you liked it!


Date: 2010-06-28 04:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yay- great story!

Date: 2010-06-28 11:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]


Date: 2010-06-28 07:43 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Very, very nice take on an old story! I have not seen this variant before.

Date: 2010-06-28 11:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks for the compliment! The tale was inspired by a conversation I recently had with an artist in St. Petersburg.


Date: 2010-06-30 12:41 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Oh this is fantastic and engaging! Although I do wish there had been some kind of justice for the townspeople...


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