This is unedited and copyrighted - Daryl Devore
All gazes fixed on the crimson glow of the embers. The light too feeble to ward off the soul-freezing sounds which drifted out of the woods, weary travelers sat around a campfire with heads bowed and huddled deeper into their cloaks. Strangers to each other, but linked at this moment by the need for companionship and the illusion of protection.
The evening grew dark as clouds blanketed the sky erasing the stars and dulling the moonlight. A breeze rustled the leaves of the bushes. Or was it a breeze? Heads lifted and gazes searched into the darkness for danger. One of the horses tied to the trees reared its head, whinnied and stomped a hoof. The wayfarers pushed their hoods off their heads and peered past the startled beast trying to locate what disturbed the animal. Two of them reached for their swords.
A log dropped deeper into the fire and raised a shower of sparks. As the blaze settled, the travelers changed their focus back from the world outside the campfire to the one inside their thoughts. Silence fell once more on the huddled group. One pilgrim raised his hands toward the heat, cleared his throat and lifted his voice. "The Legend speaks – in whispers – of a black dragon who flies in the dark of the moon. The glow of his eyes will melt a man's soul and turn him against all that is good. The heat of his breath will inflame a woman's loins, which can never be quelled. The lick of his fire kills you alive, never again to taste, touch or love or be loved. But, they say, there is a strong and handsome prince. One with a broad, steel sword who will seduce it."
Hawkyns picked up his sword and ran the flat side of his blade across his breeches erasing the foul-smelling dragon blood. The night sky being moonless and cloudy and offering no light, he held it to his nose and sniffed, examining it for any last traces of foulness. Another dragon slain, but not the one for which he had searched for many months.
Nox Noctis Incendia, a feared and vicious dragon, ravaged villages throughout the kingdom of Wealden by the Sea. Hawkyns had knelt before his father, the king, and sworn he wouldn't return until that dragon was defeated.
He glanced at this corpse lying before him spilling its blood onto the meadow. The grass sizzled and turned brown as the red liquid dribbled through the blades. Kicking at the short spike on the end of the tail, Hawkyns snarled in frustration.
Even the smaller ones gave fierce battle. He'd stumbled across this one as he searched for a place to bed down for the night. It had been chewing on a cow's carcass when he discovered it. With a screech, the dragon flew into the sky and dropped toward him with talons poised and ready.
Hawkyns jumped from Gladur then slapped his rump to shoo him into the cover of the forest. He raised his sword and slashed at the spiked claws. The dragon heaved a downbeat with his wings and rose above the sharp blade. Hearing the gargled inhale, Hawkyns raced toward a rock and hid. The ground rumbled when the dragon landed. Each step echoed off the forest.
Staying low, Hawkyns ran to a dense copse of trees and checked his position. He was behind the dragon's line of sight and smell. There was a gentle movement to the air but as long as he was out of the path of the dragon's nose, his scent would be difficult to catch.
The enormous brown beast plodded about, sniffing, searching for his prey. Frustration boiled and the dragon released his fiery breath with an air-ripping howl. Dark red and orange flames spewed forth engulfing the trees and bushes in its path.
Experience having taught him that a dragon is weakest the few moments after exhaling fire, Hawkyns seized the instant to attack. Sword raised, he rushed out. As he neared the right flank, he swung. But the dragon had not been caught unaware. It raised its wing, snagged Hawkyns' feet, and tossed him across the meadow.
A blast of air ejected from his lungs as he hit the ground a few feet from the bank of the river. The sword fell out of his grasp. A sharp pain made him grimace as he tried to force air back into his lungs. Keeping his gaze on the dragon, he groped for his weapon.
The monster turned and twisted his head, sniffing the air then paused, tilted its head and sniffed once more. Heaving its great body around, the dragon padded away from the flames and toward its half-eaten meal.
The evening dew had settled on the meadow grass and the chill seeped through Hawkyns' clothing. He was not dressed for battle, nor did he have his shield or helmet. Just his sword. Pushing onto his knees, he turned and saw the reflection of the fire off his sword. He glanced at the dragon, reached for his weapon and stood. His body swayed but he shook himself and cleared his head.
Running toward where he guessed his horse was, he emitted a short sharp whistle. The dragon lifted his face from the cow. Chunks of fresh meat dangled from his mouth. He chewed and bent his head back to his meal. Hawkyns whistled again. Gladur stepped out of the brush and walked to his master.
The charger stood still as Hawkyns placed a foot in the stirrup and grabbed a handful of mane to hoist himself on the large dark brown animal. "You know what to do." Hawkyns clicked Gladur onward.
Across the soft meadow, Hawkyns directed the horse toward the left hind flank of the eating dragon. When near it, he stopped. Both horse and rider remained motionless. The dragon swallowed the last gulp of cow and sniffed the ground. It raised his head and wrinkled its nose. Stretching out it wings, the dragon curled them around itself, like a blanket and rested his head on the blood stained grass. Hawkyns waited. Gladur twitched an ear toward a sound. At last the breaths of the dragon slowed to a deep pace. Its tail twitched and wrapped against its body.
Hawkyns lowered himself to the ground, tightened his grip on his sword and crept toward his prey. Before each placing of his foot, he scanned for branches that could snap and alert the dragon. His heart pounded and blood raced as he neared the sleeping giant. His eyes burned from the putrid odor emanating from beast.
The animal stirred and belched rancid breath that caught on the breeze and floated across Hawkyns nose. Quelling the desire to vomit, he steeled his nerves and readied himself to act.
The brush fire had reached the river and the flames exhausted themselves leaving blackened stumps. With no light, Hawkyns moved closer trying to distinguish the shape of the dragon. When his boot bumped the foot, he leaned forward and cautiously placed a hand on it. It was a scaled dragon. Now was the moment to act.
He grabbed the edge of scale, heaved onto the leg, and ran up the dragon's back. It snorted and lifted its head. Hawkyns raced toward the dip between the shoulders and raised his sword. His feet shifted as the dragon pushed to stand. With an enraged howl, Hawkyns slammed his sword into the dragon until the hilt stopped when it banged into dragon scales. With a powerful jerk, he twisted the blade and held fast.
The animal howled in agony. Writhing and flapping its great wings with thunderous sounds. Hawkyns' grip held but his feet slipped on the scales and he dropped to the beast. His feet dangled over the edge of the body as the animal convulsed. With a final gasp, the dragon snorted out a puff of smoke and stilled.
Scrambling back up the side, Hawkyns stood next to his sword and waited until the death convulsions ceased. He gripped his weapon, braced his feet and pulled. "Argh."
The sword slipped from its burial in the dragon's back. Dark blood oozed from the wound and rolled over the edge. Hawkyns squatted and slid down the back and tail, jumped to his feet and admired his conquest.
"Damnation to you."
He turned from the dragon and returned to his steed. The clouds eased over the sky allowing the stars to twinkle. In the faint light, he could see his horse remained where he'd left him.
Placing his freshly cleaned sword on the ground, Hawkyns scratched Gladur between the ears then stroked his hand along the horse's face to his soft muzzle. He removed the saddle and caparisons placing them both near his weapon. Unlacing the bridle, he laid them on top of the saddlecloths. Gladur whinnied and stomped his hooves.
Hawkyns patted his neck. "It's all right, Gladur. The dragon is dead. I know it smells badly but it cannot hurt another."
The horse glared at him, twitched his ears and pawed at the ground. The rustle of a bush drew Hawkyns' attention to a dark shadow. He stepped away from his horse, bent low and reached for his sword.
Fingers wrapped tightly around the hilt, he stood and faced in the direction of the noise. His gaze crisscrossed the darkness, looking for movement that would give him a target.
Gladur danced in a circled, snorting and throwing his head.
"Friend or enemy?" Hawkyns raised his sword. "Man or beast? Show yourself."
His gaze caught sight of movement as a large shadow stepped forward. It bobbed its head and whinnied. Hawkyns split the air with the sound of his laughter. "So Gladur, you seem to have caught the eye of a lover. Aye, go." He slapped the horse's rump. "At least one of us should be merry this night."
Gladur raced over to the mare and sniffed. She turned and trotted into the forest. His gaze followed his stallion until it swallowed by the darkness. Sword tucked into his scabbard, Hawkyns picked up his saddle, packs and wineskin. He pulled out the cork and raised the skin, tilted it and caught the liquid in his mouth. After several great gulps, he walked toward the river's bank searching for a place to make camp. He dropped his gear on a flat piece of grass, near the water's edge.
Striding over to where the bush was burnt by the dragon's fire, he kicked at the ashes looking for smoldering embers. He scooped several up with a piece of old wood and hurried back to his campsite. Grabbing a handful of dried grass for tinder, he placed it on the sand of the riverbank, piled a few bits of small kindling on top and tucked the embers into the grass. He puffed air onto the pile until a wisp of smoke floated upward. Young flames erupted and grew as he fed them grass and laid kindling overtop. Soon he had a fire big enough to pile on larger branches. The small source of light eased the darkness-caused sense of dread. His stomach rumbled.
He quenched his thirst with a few more gulps of wine then searched through his pack for his black-handled dagger. He held it firm, reached over and picked up his sword then headed toward the dead dragon. Hawkyns carved a large chunk of meat from the belly and wiped the dagger blade on his pants. "'Tis a shame I cannot share this beast. It would feed a village. The wolves will have a fine meal on the morrow." The tip of his sword slid into the dragon flesh as he lifted it and carried it back to the campfire.
He propped the meat over the fire and stepped back to watch the flames kiss the flesh and sear it. The fire hissed as droplets of blood fell onto the embers. "Strange how ye are the most vicious creatures on land and ye smell worse than the devil himself, but ye taste good." He patted his grumbling stomach with a silent promise of a meal soon.
With an attempt to distract himself from his hunger, Hawkyns set up the rest of his camp and laid out his bedroll. He traced his fingers along the golden dragon on his shield's crest and wondered how long he'd strayed from Wealden by the Sea. Home no more to him. No one remained for him to protect. His wife dead by the dragon he sought. His child dead. Unborn in the belly of his wife.
Nothing but ashes remained of Celia. The woman whose face used to appear to him every night but now had faded like a sunset. He missed lying with her. Her wondrous body open to him. That pleasure had not been relived with the wenches he'd since bedded.
A shiver rippled through him as he remembered her cries of joy and how Celia would call out his name as her fingernails etched scratches up his back. His fists clenched as he remembered the day when they lay together next to the edge of the waterfall. That day had been filled with glorious lovemaking. The sensation of her slipping herself over his hard cock and grinding on him sparked a pain in his loins. The thought of her breasts dangling in front of his mouth as he strained his neck to suckle one then the other filled him with a barren despair.
That was the day she told him they'd been blessed with the gift a child. A full moon later, both were dead and buried. His village destroyed. His mother driven to madness and his father's body broken. Hawkyns marshaled the remaining knights and soldiers. Several were given orders to track and kill the dragon while others were to remain to protect and repair the village and the blackened land.
News returned month after month of another knight killed. When he could stand it no more, Hawkyns knelt by his father's bedside. "My king." He kissed the royal signet ring. "You must retake your throne. The people of Wealden need their true ruler. I must find this devil and destroy him."
His father had placed a withered hand on his son's shoulder and gave it a feeble squeeze. Hawkyns glanced up into the dull gaze of his king. "I fear I am leaving you with a village in tatters. With ministers and a wife crazed with some foul evil. But I must go."
"Go." The king's voice was feeble. He lifted his hand from Hawkyns' shoulder and signaled his ministers to step closer.
With a deep pain, not caused from physical injury but from love, Hawkyns rose and walked to the door. He pulled his sword from its scabbard, returned and knelt by his father's side. Holding the sword with the point resting on the floor and the hilt forming cross, Hawkyns lowered his head until his forehead touched the blade. "I will hunt down the dragon that did this to your kingdom and to our family. I swear I will not return until I have killed him…or he kills me."
The flush of anger and the pounding of his heart brought Hawkyns out of his memories. He closed his eyelids and listened. It was nearing dawn. The nighttime creatures were asleep and the daytime beasts had not woken. He was alone.
Behind him, the gurgle of the water tripping over rocks soothed and calmed him. He grabbed his cloak to warm himself after a swim and walked toward the riverbank. The water chilled his body as he slipped beneath the surface. Air bubbles streamed back as he propelled himself forward. Surfacing, he inhaled a gulp of air and released it while he rolled his shoulders relieving the tension built up from fighting the dragon. A tantalizing aroma of roasted dragon floated along the breeze. His stomach complained with a loud rumble. The sky darkened as he stood, shook the water off his body and hair then walked to the shore and reached for his cloak.
An unearthly scream made him snap to attention. His head pivoted right and left as his gaze searched for the reason of the sound. Intense pain permeated his body. He yelped as his knees buckled, but he did not fall to the shore. Black clogged his vision.
Through the blackness, a light beckoned. A moan escaped his lips. Pain racked his body. A warm touch eased the agony. The scent of lavender tickled his nose. Hawkyns forced his eyelids to open. Before him was a breathtaking vision; a woman with eyes as green as the deep forest and lips redder than his wine. Her smile soothed his heart with a lightness not felt in many months. A golden fire encircled her face. He tried to lift his hand to touch the face of the angel, but he could not find the strength.
He watched as she floated upward and darkness consumed the void.