This is the first of my two stories that I wrote for Vision Forum’s story contest.
The blood raged in my head as I reached out and took an apple from the board, holding it high. I crushed it in my hand, sending slippery pulp running down my arm and dripping to the floor. My voice rang out over the tense assembly, “As my name is Ironhand, ere the next day’s sun dawns, my hand shall bear the dragon’s heart here before ye.”
Ceorgar leaped to his feet and roared, “Does this landless prince try to wed the king’s daughter?”
The three nobles who followed him smirked and shouted their agreement, but were quickly hushed by the heavy silence that descended. All waited.
“Does the destruction of a prince’s lands quench the royalty of his blood? Or does Aedán forbid foreigners from slaying dragons? Cannot I claim the prize as well as thou?” I asked, eyeing Ceorgar coldly. He bit his pompous lip and shot a venomous glance towards Balthild, whose eyes were fixed on mine in trusting love. Aedán looked at me, gravely bowing his head. The warriors shouted their joy as I turned and strode out of the hall into the twilight, casting one last glance at Balthild.
The pungent wind stung my nostrils, its chillness wafting over my hot spirit. Memories of my last dragon hunt mocked me again as images of my slaughtered father and brothers turned my heart sore. Bitterness rose in me as the sight of Ceorgar’s glance and the memory of Ceorgar’s insults to Balthild filled my mind: thus does foiled lust turn to hate. I looked up at the stars and prayed, “Christ, strengthen my hand this night, and bring me victory for her sake.” I quickened my steps to the eotanweard’s hill – Ceorgar would not wed Balthild while breath remained in me.
The night was silent, and a mist hung over the hill. I crouched, sweeping my eyes over the horizon: the eotanweard was not visible. I ran to his hill, and sinking into the ground was the dark pool of his blood. A severed arm lay by it, still clenching the broken sword that had shattered on the beast’s scaled hide in his dying effort. With growing trepidation, I bent and saw a trail leading away. I ran along it into the sliding, dense whiteness of the mists, not daring to hesitate.
The wyrm came on me silently, a demon phantom of night. For a moment, my sight was filled by its gaping, iron-toothed maw. I acted instantly, born of long training, striking violently at its jaw and lunging close to its chest. It contorted hungrily, struggling to get at me as I gripped its arm and held myself out of reach. Viciously, I thrust upwards, twisting the claw. I felt the shrieking scream from the dragon transpierce my mind and echo over the desolate hills, smiting into my bones even before its joint cracked. Something smote me in the breast, and I fell, gasping, to the ground, drenched in the beast’s blood.
I lost my hold. The thought lashed my numbed mind with uncertainty, yet I stumbled to my feet and ran after the vanishing monster, following its clear trail. I smiled grimly, for this time it was its own blood that stained the grass. A shadow moved and I looked back to see a horse with a rider in princely clothes, cantering in and out of the mists. The cold blackness of fear haunted me. Yet I followed the track deep into the fens, until I came to a darkly glimmering pool with red ripples spreading over the surface. The wyrm had entered there.
The coldness of sharp iron pierced me; evil pain exploded my shoulder; my face struck the grumy earth.
“Where are thy friends, Ceorgar?” I asked, terrified lest my voice break in my exhaustion. I drew out the spear as Ceorgar ran into the clearing with blade drawn.
“I thank thee, Ironhand, for helping me win my prize. Thou hast done thy part now.”
He dived for me, blade glittering in the moonlight, and I heaved out my sword, exploding from the ground to meet him. He was a fierce fighter, cunning and deadly, and he pressed me hard. But Balthild’s face gleamed always in my eye, and I drove him back until he was on the brink of the mere, fear in his eyes.
“In selfishness I once hunted a colony of mountain dragons. In their stirred up wrath they slew my family and my people,” I hissed, pressing forward. “It is not for myself that I go forth now.”
Like a snake, he thrust at me, but I turned it aside, wrapping my fingers about his wrist. He dropped his sword. I thrust him into the mere, his scream echoing in my ears.
The raging wyrm erupted from the murky waters even while Ceorgar struggled to mount the bank. It placed its mighty heel on Ceorgar’s helpless body, bending its deathly head. It tore his heart out as I took up Ceorgar’s spear and cast it into its throat. Spurning Ceorgar’s corpse, it turned towards me, the shaft protruding from between its teeth. I looked at it wearily. I had never doubted that I would kill the dragon with some degree of ease. It was my pride. I raised my sword. The monster swayed over me, weak from loss of blood, then fell, striking the spear shaft into its skull.
I rushed on it, plunging my sword into its breast to assure its death and to cut my spoils from it. A snort sounded on my ear, and I turned to see Ceorgar’s steed caught in a thicket. I bound the dead body of its master to its back beside my trophies, and then, leading my grim load, I wended my way out of the marshes as the light began to change the crisp air into morning.
My heart sang as I saw the last warriors assembling, and I commanded the doors to be opened. I strode before the expectant assembly, cast the long tip of the dragon’s tail to the floor, and held up the huge heart in my hand. Shouts of satisfaction and astonishment echoed around me, but I heard them not. Blood streamed from my torn arms and pierced back down my tattered garments. My victory was not of me, but of the Creator who had given the dragon into my hand.
“Thou art wounded, and not by dragon’s tooth or claw,” a voice said behind me.
I gave a piercing whistle in answer, and Ceorgar’s steed with its black burden stepped in. The assembly leaned forward and Ceorgar’s followers turned gray. “By God’s grace I have rid your land of a fell beast, my lord,” I cried out, “and of a man more fell.” I whipped the cloak from the pallid body. Aedán stood up and Balthild paled. “What is my reward, O king?” I asked, looking deeply into my beloved’s eyes. The dawn’s rays glowed in her hair as Aedán took her hand and smiled.