Vassal and noble alike bent backs and cursed my banner over the fortnight, heaving chests to suck in air befouled with the rotting fug of brimstone. Perched atop a ragged ledge bulging out of the promontory, I consulted rough sketches, then peered beyond the parchment, vouching for labors which aspired to match my diagrams.
Directly below my outcropping, distant figures toiled in the stink atop a rocky plateau the size of a tournament pitch jutting out from the base of sheer cliffs. I struggled to ignore billowing blue smoke, taking care to breathe through open jaws as putrid mists scaled the precipice to whisper past my perch. The miasma exhaled rhythmically from a crag that hollowed granite into yawning wound where these bluffs joined the tableland.
My gusto swelled as tiny lieutenants brayed at master builders and platoons of brutes who slaved to erect a wall whose bearing called to mind a massive horseshoe. Our barrier took shape from colossal boulders, and plump slabs skinned from the face of nearby cliffs. Girded and lashed with cut timbers, our ominous bulwark cast imposing shadow beyond the opening of the cavern. Should Old Cyrus deign passage from the comfort of his mountain chamber, to toy with soldiers on his porch, we would fire the catapults from fortified positions, hurling spikes to sting and grapple scabby hide. At last we had engineered a trap worthy of Herculean opponent, and would soon return with reinforcements–and the bait.
Low hanging branches vexed our cavalry, grasping angrily for helm and gauntlet, spooking mounts as we slogged over unmarked trails through black skies and lurid vapors. Did this old forest actually reason to hinder our decree? Rustics from surrounding villages huddled in musty public houses drowning gullets in mead, polluting my soldiers’ merry repast with barnyard prattle about some invisible enchantment.
Tavern rabble claimed a lurking malice jinxed the philosophy of unwary sojourners who wandered into these woody foothills sheltering the dragon’s breath. Lesser venturers, unguided by code or alchemy, took leave of mother wit for hopeless fascination, and stayed to fatten worms. Undaunted by wide-eyed yarns of commoners, I spurred my steed to a trot, challenging bold horsemen to overtake my lead as we climbed the mountainside, dismounting at the treeline before dawn.
Striding among campfires outside the tents and hutments of our bivouac, I studied the visage of my chieftains. Tempering spirits, I promised illustrious death made immortal by envious boast for quest worthy of song and saga. And for my savages whose mettle would not sharpen to the keen edge of God, sovereign and country, I scorched cold marrow roaring at joyous life reeking with wine and naughty wenches, on estates landed by their share of dragon’s hoard.
Brothers in arms crashed pike and spear on shield, piercing the haze with havoc and throaty war cries that tumbled and boomed along the lower canyons. Sudden pride choked my gorge. I could have led my beloved bastards across the Styx in headlong assault to dog almighty Cerberus, and in due course may tempt such unhappy chance.
Sol peeked over jagged fangs of far off ridge, bathing final battle plans in new light while I hastily broke fast upon salt pork and crust of rye. Fortunately my addlepated squire balanced these dry humors with flagons of barley wine. We set our trap, secured the bait, and lay ready to murder our monster. Anon, mysterious bewitchment held the sun spellbound over our encampment to espy our stratagem and glare in defiance. We began to boil in our armor like yolks trapped in eggshells. Fell warriors waxed into disquiet, struggling to hold back a rising spleen. Sweating hours of watchfulness began to evaporate ambition. Presently they beseeched me direct pages to the ramparts bearing wine skins pregnant with proper refreshment to steel courage for the fight. I led my roan away from the barrier and held counsel with captains in the shade of the treeline.
I had sent Sir Galahad on errand to task about the local shires in pursuit of an honest maid. Galahad paid 15 silver pennies to a reputable farmer in one of those sleepy hamlets who swore an oath to the purity of his most obedient daughter. This wretched squatter grinned green cheese teeth, outstretched a knobby palm, and crowed fawning streams of vulgar reassurance. On all counts, Sir Galahad dispatched his charge with aplomb, and brooked no cause to pale the cast of noble enterprise. Notwithstanding, we had already frittered away an entire morn sweltering among decapitated pines and cyclopean masonry which stood defiantly beyond the cave’s portal. How long must we endure fruitless vigil ere providence saw fit to reward our valor?
Fitful rest grew impossible as our damsel bewailed endlessly, entreating deaf ears for priest, absolution, or escape from chains tethering her to a stump not fifty paces from the mouth of the lizard’s lair. Ever should I dread visiting grim death upon a righteous vessel, but I began to pray for swift end to her lamentation. Ere long I ripened to the conclusion that Old Cyrus would not accept our offering and oblige with glorious battle. Beast lore commends us that dragons can smell the difference, and quite rightly take umbrage on ensnarement flavored with spoiled bait. We miscarried a costly venture, teetering on false promises from a knave who lorded over pigs, and plowed both earth and offspring with clammy fervor.
Long before sunrise of this same day, Merlin‘s arm darted from the mists that blanket our stronghold, clawing the reins of my charger before our company crossed the drawbridge. In croaking monotone, the wizard bade us godspeed and caveat emptor, forewarning that reptiles can detect most ills that flesh is heir to, and above all else, the intemperate fever of unchaste blood. I did harken earnestly to sage advisements of our ancient warlock, then cantered over the moat to seal our king’s proclamation.
Could I have charted any other course of action? We had rolled the bones on the instant of Sir Galahad’s bargain, resolving dutifully to entrust fate to the wisdom of our stars. Beyond question, the sworn oath trumpets a man’s sacred covenant. As knights we are bound by every man’s word, even when given tongue by a bumpkin–until he forsakes his pledge. And we would sooner die than dishonor our code.
Choosing benevolence over bile, I ordered sentries to unchain the sullied wench. In a chivalrous stroke, I would grant life to a buggered girl, raise morale, and repay wickedness by loaning her to my captains. At sunset I harried officers on reckless gallop back to the farmer’s thatched hovel for family reunion with the village mattress. After prospecting for our silver, we mashed that grizzled potato-eater to a sticky pulp. Weary but undaunted, we jested and gamboled robustly on the ride back to Tintagel, eager for roast mutton and the foamy kiss of amber brew at lavish settings, while champing at the bit for victory which must needs reward our return to dire purpose on the morrow.
King Arthur paced the mighty hall that night in a spitting fury. Blazes from the crackling hearth threw his shadow across gray stone walls. Desirous to forestall the calumny of withering scowl, we gawked past royal flesh transfixed by its inky pantomime, whose limbs did weave and flicker as an oak buffeted by autumn tempest.
Hazarding the peek askance, we marked our monarch’s smirk journey by degrees from sanguine hue to florid. Shouting and pointing dirty fingernails to exclaim disfavor, the king threatened to send Sir Lancelot in our stead to enforce his rule. That wound spilled bitter humor.
Beguiled by careworn veil, Arthur dared not strip the the cover to behold impiety in Lancelot and Guenevere, who consorted in licentious treason at every turn. Shame on our king, for as I surmised, his tirade bespoke brewing misgiving for spouse and comrade, contrary to scorn for our stalemate. In the glow of hearth light his eyes did luster with desperate gloss hitherto unheeded. Arthur cursed our names by God, Mary, St. Dunstan, and any pox or demon he could summon. No thane escaped rebuke.
Aye, ’tis woefully so, Old Cyrus gobbled up a distant cousin who had blossomed on a far-flung branch of Guenevere’s family tree in Manchester. The scaly beast left nothing for afters, save the dripping tatters of a velvet gown whose lace bore witness to the lass. We reverenced passing of a beautiful colleen with due gravity, and sweetened condolence with jocular acquittal, for thus she assumed heaven unbesmirched, despite the convictions of sporty courtesans. I forecast Her Highness, Guenevere, would conjure opening from this tragedy.
In a blink our lady seized advantage, feigning regret for disguise of overmuch remorse, she commended Lancelot and loyal escort ready themselves presently for procession abroad, from Cornwall to the moor of remote northern estates on the Mersey. Most strategically, theatricalness acting on enduring sorrow would defend Guenevere’s cold caliber, which spurned the pleasure of husband and king.
Far beyond Camelot and scruple, the king’s mate would lie in the sweat of an enseamed bed, a succubus embraced by Lancelot, manorial splendor, and township beteeming sodding Chesters who dared not pry into the affairs of their empress. Verily, she was a crafty one. The queen’s englutted cousin proved timely chance for hasty retreat from castle and conscience while Arthur patrolled hallway and parapet muttering blasphemies, holding fast to fading paradise.
In a few lusty gulps, Arthur quaffed another chalice of claret. Forthwith Pendragon broke silence, barking at us to take leave of his round table without feasting. Banished to separate quarters, His Highness bade us seek penance for frailty and deception. The son of Uther vowed that on the morrow he would baptize his sword in the dragon’s clotted crimson or the steaming juice of rounders, depending on the execution of our carnage.
Apart from my company of champions, no other nobleman would yield a single groat to alter the fate of Old Cyrus. And yet, we paid homage to that blustering devil. An Ancient Red, Old Cyrus betokened a truly legendary adversary as perhaps the last of a vanishing breed of timeless and powerful wyrms. By all means, we had bent ears overmuch to hearsay rumoring the fantastical Kraken in Loch Ness, but no boatswain of quality ever came ashore to transmute myth to watery menace. Even so, scarred survivors, blasted by our dragon’s breath, delighted in cheers and applause that followed hard upon gasps of horror. Eyes which had not been torched to raisins gleaned comfort at the sight of sheer awe sweeping across crowds of gob-struck admirers.
We’d swaggered into manifold strapping brannigan, tipping tables, and trading beer-soaked bruises to reckon the creature’s verdict in sparing odd combatant to breathe full account of trial by fire. Some speculated that Old Cyrus released warriors as cruel omen, to harrow gentlefolk who crossed themselves and whinged to look upon a charred husk, who walked our kingdom very like overburnt fowl that escaped the cook’s furnace.
Others held sway over naive surety that the monster could not disgorge the ghost of any man-at-arms whose faith armored him in blessed valor. I kept my own counsel, masking a foreboding which swelled on news of each survivor. Dragons cannot leech mercy from sinister hearts! Demons cannot hide their spots. We have no epic or canon to instruct elsewise. Even a misbegotten babe from filthy peasant hides would puff at fanciful bestiary discolored by a kindly dragon. Such creatures have never occupied earth or sky.
In sooth Old Cyrus bestowed merry misadventure about the realm. The firedrake only preyed upon the scarce maiden, slow-moving serf, or harebrained mercenary charmed by illusions of fame and fast promotion. Wherefore must we slaughter this beast? Verily, a skilled poacher did greater damage to the King’s estate.
Howbeit, countless would-be heroes, seduced by tales of treasure with wealth to belittle the dreams of Croesus, took up the lance for ignoble cause, decorating the gold and jewels of the serpent’s hoard with unstopped gore. Moreover, I would not disgrace their memory by recounting them as victims. Each stalwart jouster carved out his own fate, dueling for storied life or proud death. Such gallantry draws its own reward.
Age-worn, and weary, Old Cyrus no longer thundered with the potency that drove fell beast to massacre breathtaking military units and lay waste to so many impregnable towers.
Endlessly we had tipped brimming pots of ale and roared besotted ballads in praise of his terrible strength. I lay in the straw listening for rats. And I wondered if I were the only knight who felt sorrow that this old dragon had to die.