In which Karik and his companions test themselves against an ancient dragon.
When at last the storm broke, it left behind a bitter cold that did not relinquish it’s grip even in the light of the noon sun. There was much work to be done, for winter was now at hand, and Bodvar said that the snows would soon be upon them. Ylmi ranged far afield each day, seeking any game which she could find. But the forests were swiftly growing empty as every bird and beast sought shelter against the cold in nests and dens.
While Siggi saw that the last potatoes and vegetables were harvested, Bodvar said that the goat herd must be parted. “I do not doubt there are still some still wandering the hills that we have not found, but let us take what we can down to the village, that they may have all they need for the winter. We will survive on what is left, and any others which we find in the coming weeks will be a bonus. But I do not wish to wait, and find myself in the village with Unhost while the snow covers my path home.”
So it was that Karik made again the trek to Unhost’s village. The going was slow, but when they arrived, the village had still the look of a place deserted.
A heavy mist that was almost rain hung over the village, so that the slopes that rose inland disappeared into grayness, and the bay seemed to vanish into dim cloud.
When the goats were separated, the day was almost ended, and Unhost agreed to let them rest in his hut for the night before starting back up to Bodvar’s home in the hills.
But Karik took his leave of Bodvar, and sought out Igil. As he suspected, his friend was at work with Havar, laying boards on the keel of a new boat. As he approached, Karik paused and watched them.
They were focused deeply on the boat, with Havar explaining to Igil some shaping of the boards so that Igil laughed. Karik marked in his mind that Igil seemed truly happy.
Crossing the sand, Karik greeted them and Igil embraced him with great joy. “Havar has been showing me how he makes these boats to go shallow in the water.” He said. “On the edges of the bay, the rocks are deep and sharp, but there also are many fish. These boats,” he pointed about them “draw so little water, that we can sail, right up over them!”
Karik replied that this was indeed thrilling, and asked Igil if they could speak together for a few moments.
The two of them sat together a little way apart from the boats, and looked out over the sea. The mist laid heavy still on the water, but Karik thought he could see the dark outline of the mountain in the distance.
“Have you thought on the dragon?” Karik asked after a few moments.
“I have thought on little else.” Igil replied. “Havar says that it is twice the size of Unhost’s hall, with wings as long at least. Something that large will not be easy to kill.”
“I have my sword, and Revik has his ax.” Karik said. “And all of us have our spears.”
“But they are bear spears.” Igil pointed out. “The cross piece will prevent us from piercing the beast deep enough to kill it.”
“Then we must beat down the cross pieces.” Karik replied. Igil said this was easier said than done.
Karik nodded. “And we must determine how to fight a beast that can fly.”
Igil nodded slowly, his fingers running over the beginnings of a beard that barely covered his chin. “It seems to me that fighting a dragon in the open is the way to a quick death. We must face it in it’s lair, or not at all.”
“We do not know what manner of cave it dwells in.” Karik pointed out.
“That does not matter.” Igil replied. “If we face it on the mountain face, it can simply leap into the air and burn us alive, or make for this village and turn it to ash while we sit helpless on it’s mountain.”
They discussed this problem among themselves for sometime, until the grey light began to fade into darkness, and Karik said that if they wished to speak with the others, they had best find them ere nightfall.
So while Karik waited with Havar, Igil found his brother Revik, and brought also Wisic and Umir. Then, while Havar’s fire crackled in their midst, Karik and Igil explained to the others what all they had discovered since coming to the village, and Havar vouched for the truth of it.
“Unhost does not wish to share his goods with King Jarhost.” Karik finished. “So he gives an appearance of poverty and says little to newcomers of his wealth, preferring to let them work for him with only a little profit to themselves. Meanwhile, he gives to this dragon enough food to supply a village, and enough gold to rival that in Bjarnmont.”
Revik and the others were angry at this, and said that it was time someone taught Unhost the meaning of hospitality.
“Unhost is the least important.” Karik told them. “We have our sights set higher.”
Revik’s eyes gleamed at this. “The dragon.”
“The dragon indeed.” Igil said. “We shall slay it.”
Karik grinned at Revik. “Is that a worthy enough adventure for your strength, oh Revik?”
At this Revik nodded and stroked his great ax. “It is. Let me but go gather my spear and I will be ready.”
“Oh ho brother,” Igil laughed. “Not yet. We have still some preparations to make ere we are ready to attempt this thing.”
Revik’s face darkened. “How long do you think to wait? The snows will be upon us any day now.”
“Three days.” Karik answered. “Three days and we will be ready.”
The next day Karik told Bodvar that he had matters to attend to in the village and would need a few days to see that they were resolved.
“Do what you must.” Bodvar told him. “But do not stay too long, the path up the mountains is more than treacherous when the snows come.”
Karik promised not to wait longer than he had to, and then set to work with the others. During the day, they labored to prepare themselves for the great undertaking, and after darkness had fallen on the settlement they sat together discussing how best to go about the attack.
Now toward the end of the third day, Unhost came upon them as they labored on the new boat that Havar and Igil had finished. He asked them how they found their work, and praised them for all taking the time to help Havar.
But Karik walked with him a short way along the beach and said that he wished to ask a question. Unhost said that he might.
“I have heard that there is, in this region, a beast that terrorizes this place from time to time, some sort of monster, but I cannot tell why no one has tried to kill it.”
Unhost laughed and patted him on the back like a child. “You are young,oh Karik, and you will learn soon the ways of the world. This beast you mention is a dragon, which is why only a few have tried to kill it. Dragons are wily beasts, and those who have sought to slay the one which has from time to time troubled us, have died in flames.”
Karik allowed that this was indeed a terrible way to die.
“Put these thoughts out of your mind boy.” Unhost said. “And continue to work well with us. In time you may have your own farm, and brew your own mead.” Karik laughed and returned to the others.
When night fell they slipped quietly down to the boats, each with his own weapons. Each of them carried a pair of long spears, the cross bars bent down or broken off. Over his back, Revik had slung his great two handed ax, and his brother carried on his belt a seax, a short blade only sharpened on one side, but there it was deadly sharp. Karik and the others carried bows and small axes stuck in their belts or slung over their backs.
They slid Havar’s boat into the water, rippling black under a cloudy sky. The moon’s light shone through the clouds, giving off a faint glow in the bitter cold of the early night.
Carefully Karik and Revik slid their oars into the water and began to row as quietly as they could. Over the water, the only sound that could be heard was the wind moaning over the cliffs on either side of the bay, and Karik felt his heart beginning to race.
Once they were a little ways out, Havar raised the sail, and they glided smoothly along, rising and falling with the gentle waves that caress those northern inlets.
The moon was well overhead when the dark shape of the mountain appeared out of the darkness before them. Igil and Revik stood in the bow of the ship, holding oars wrapped in rags, and these they used to push off from the rocks that rose out of the water. More than once the sharp rocks scraped against the side of the boat till Karik feared that they would all sink before they reached the island.
But they reached it safe enough. Together they pulled the boar ashore, that the falling tide would not take it out to sea, and took up their weapons.
As they prepared to move forward, Karik noticed snowflakes falling in the moonlight, and a shiver went down his spine. The ground was steep and rocky, and they had great difficulty going any distance in the darkness. Havar said that as best as they could tell, the entrance to the Dragon’s lair was on the western side of the mountain, so that was where they went.
They had not gone far when Karik, who was leading the way, discovered to his great surprise a path cut into the rock. This astonished him, but Havar said he had no knowledge of where it might have come from.
Their first sign was the mound of broken rock and stone. It was piled like rubble, as if it had been thrown from the mountain. Igil and Karik confirmed that this place would work well enough for their plan, so all set to work.
When they were ready, Karik took with him Revik and Havar into the mountain.
The moon had set, and it was the dark, cold hour before dawn as they crept into the tunnel. Karik carefully led the way, feeling along the walls, but as he did so he noticed that the rock was smooth, as if it had been carved by hands rather than simply a broken cave. Down they crept, through the wide passage, which turned and twisted as it descended, taking them ever farther from the entrance. Of a sudden, an orange glow began to light the tunnel, and they saw that there were cut doors and passage ways into the mountain around them. Karik wondered more and more at this, and the thought came to him that they had not counted on the dragon having allies with him in the mountain.
They felt their way along smooth pathways in the mountain until, thinking they had passed through the mountain, they saw the first light of dawn pouring in from the east.
Revik said that the mountain was far smaller than he had thought, but Karik raised his hand for silence, and crept a little farther in.
The path led them to a ledge, from where the glow seemed to rise. Approaching it carefully, Karik looked over the edge. Below them, the dragon lay upon a gleaming mound, his sides rising and falling as he breathed.
The fire within him glowed with an angry hue that bathed the walls of the cavern in a red glow, and in it’s light Karik marveled to see where they stood. For this was not cavern, hollowed out for the dragon’s resting place. Staircases and balconies rose up along the walls, and walkways were carved further into the mountain beyond these. It was a fortress, a citadel.
“You enter my home uninvited.”
The dragon’s voice echoed like distant thunder, and it seemed to Karik that all stood still.
“But you are guests even in your own home, it would seem.” The great beast stirred, and the rattle of armor and metal on stone filled the hall. “Once it was warriors who challenged me, who fought me like men. Now it is…”
He paused took a deep breath “…children,” He ground out the words like the shifting of rock on a mountain. “Younglings, who slink through my halls. Unannounced like thieves, their greed knowing no bounds.” His head slowly rose from the gold and he turned his glinting eyes on the Balcony where Karik hid.
“Tell me, I am curious, who it is who slips so carelessly into my home. Or have you manners not even enough for that.”
Karik determined that it would not be a wise choice to speak, so he remained silent, and stepped back, but the dragon rose with a speed Karik did not expect from a creature so large.
“As I expected.” He snarled. The mountain shook as he rose to his feet and his head rose up, then back down as he peered down at the balcony where they stood.
“Go on…” The dragon nodded at the exit. “Go on, run. I like to see your fear.” He smiled, and the flames again flicked over his fangs. “Run away…Karik Haldsson.”
Karik shook at that, and found his voice. “How do you know my name?”
“It speaks!” The dragon hissed. “Oh come now Haldsson, I am not a fox to hide in my burrow while the world passes by outside. Do you imagine that I would be blind to know what passes in the village on my doorstep.” A heavy, clawed foot struck the ground as the dragon took a step forward. “I am here to rest, to recover my strength after years of war. The doings of your petty village amuse me, but I care little for the scrapings of your little rock you mannerless starling.”
“All the same,” Karik replied. “We little like one who eats what he did not grow, and feasts on what he did not kill.”
“Oh?” The dragon’s voice sank low and to Karik it seemed that he chuckled. “Have no fear Karik Haldsson. I shall remedy that at once.” And with that he reared back his massive head, and Karik leaped behind one of the great pillars as a thundering torrent of fire hurled down on the balcony.
When the fire abated, Karik dashed for the passage, Havar hard on his heels, but once they reached it, they slowed. Revik was not with them, and when he peered out of the passage, he could not see him on the balcony.
The dragon laughed, a great rumbling noise that filled the cavern and echoed off the rocks. “I take it you have never fought a dragon before.” He composed himself. “Dragon fire is…quite terrifying, or so I’ve been told.” He shook himself. “Still, I do not feel like fighting today. There was a particularly large whale yesterday that still sits heavy in my stomach.” He arched his neck until his great head hung but a few feet off the floor, and he peered into the passage where Karik had taken refuge with Havar.
“Hmmm.” He sniffed at the rock. “Perhaps we could come to an agreement. I could use a servant as capable as yourself.”
“You think to flatter me?” Karik asked in surprise.
“Well,” the dragon chuckled. “You did come with more than one companion. Which is more than I can say for your unfortunate predecessors. I think you might make a fine Jarl. Perhaps, in time, a king if -Ah!” He snarled, for Revik had laid upon his wing a deep cut with his ax.
“Stop it.” The dragon hissed, and loosed another storm of fire so that Revik was driven back into yet another passage. “Cease your meddling while I speak.”
But as his head was turned, Karik and Havar leapt forward with their spears, thrusting at his great neck. But his scales grew heavy and close together, so their spears did little, and and instant later the beast bathed again the balcony in fire. Again they darted back into the passage, but the dragon’s fire had caught on Karik’s shoulder.
“You have the manners of a fire drake.” The dragon snapped.
Havar tore off his cloak and wrapped it swiftly around the flames, as Karik writhed in pain.
“Am I a snow bear?” The dragon asked. “To be needled to death with your little pin pricks? Is that your plan? STOP!” He whirled just as Revik stepped out, and he slowly lowed his ax and backed away.
Karik took a deep breath as the pain began to subside, but his shoulder was raw to the touch, the leather jerkin he had worn was burned away where the fire had touched it.
“A dragon is not an ill friend.” The dragon’s voice was calm again, though when he glanced outside, Karik saw that it’s eyes did not stray far from Revik. “With me as your friend, you could be a Jarl, and if you serve me well enough, perhaps I would make you king of this little island. It does not matter to me.”
“What manner of service do you require?” Havar asked.
“Only what is common.” The dragon answered. “Food and provisions, the gold you find beneath the ground, and…from time to time, the occasional sacrifice.”
“What did you think the answer would be?” Karik hissed to Havar. But to the dragon he said “A creature such as yourself would require much food…”
“You village as enough and to spare.” The dragon replied. “And with you as Jarl, I think it would be an easy thing for you to make it more profitable than before. And if it seems that a little settlement beside the sea is too little for you, it would be a small thing for me to seat you in Bjarnmont after a time.” His giant head leaned toward the passage, and Karik felt it grow hot as his breath passed over them. “What say you, Karik Haldsson?”
But Revik saw his chance, and unseen leapt forward and dealt a mighty blow to the dragon’s wing with his ax, hewing at the beast with all his strength.
The dragon’s roar filled the cavern, deafening Karik and Havar so that blood trickled from their ears, and they nearly collapsed with the pain. But swiftly Karik roused himself and staggered forward, leaping from the cavern to slide down the dragon’s body, seeking a purchase for his spear. Havar swiftly followed, and the dragon twisted and turned, for as soon as he drove one of them off, the other two attacked. Yet for all that, their weapons were pitiful attacks against him, better suited for hunting wild animals than piercing the scaled armor of the ancient terror.
Yet his wings were not so armored, and it was these that they attacked, so that he grew weary of the matter and determined that better sport would be had in the open air. Raising his great bulk, he lifted himself onto the balcony and made for the mountain side.
Swiftly Igil and Revik followed him, and Karik struggled to his feet. The dragon heard them follow and laughed to himself, thinking that he had not had such sport since his first coming to the mountain. With a laugh he lunged from the mountain.
But he found himself foiled.
For over the great entrance, Igil and the others had hung a great net of rope and stone and chain which fell in thick folds about him. In a moment of fear he thrashed this way and that in an attempt to extricate himself but found it tangled ever thicker. Then Igil, Umir, and Wisic leaped down from the mountainside and attacked the dragon’s wings, cutting and slashing at them as fast as they could as the dragon thrashed and writhed in rage.
Thus far, all had gone as Karik hoped. But the dragon had not grown so great by weakness. Gathering himself, he loosed a storm of fire that left the greater part of the net a smoking ash carried away by the wind. With a snarl, his jaws caught Umir and bit him in half, hurling his body into the sea. His tail whipped through the air, catching Havar in the chest and hurling him down the mountain.
Then he spread his wings and made to leap into the air. But Karik and his companions had done their work, and the mighty wings of the dragon were bloody ribbons, and he fell back to the mountainside, stumbling and sliding on the slope as he did so.
Then his eyes turned to Karik, glowing red with hate and rage, and he spoke in a voice heavy with evil power. “Karik! I curse you, you and your sons, and your son’s sons. Death and fire will cling to you like a cloak. Your every victory will turn to defeat, your triumphs to tragedies, you conquests to calamities. Never shall you have rest, never shall a home provide you comfort. I, Jheim Al-Haryk doom you so. Now despair, and die.”
And with that, the great beast, dripping with blood from his many wounds, charged. The last fire he could summon raged over the mountain, blinding Karik and all the rest with the heat and smoke.
The mountain shook and up in his mountain hut, Dranri saw smoke and fire rising in the morning sky and wondered what these things meant. Even farther north, King Jarhost was woken from his slumber with the word of a Dragon’s rumor in the sky.
So they fought, and this was the first great battle Karik waged. The dragon was weakened, but even so he was a terrible beast, and the fey death strength was upon him. Never before had he been so challenged, and there have been few such battles since. For though the dragon was mighty, he was outnumbered, and those who attacked him were no mean warriors.
Here and there Igil darted, his seax biting deep first on this side, then on that with cunning and crafty strokes. Karik and Wisic also attacked as swiftly as they could, seeking to slip their spear between the beast’s scales and draw a trickle of blood. But none could match the strength of Revik, who weilded his two handed ax to the dragon’s great discomfort. Beset on all sides, the dragon knew not where to turn. If he attacked to the right, Karik and Wisic beset him on his left. If he struck to his left, Igil and Revik with his deadly ax attacked from the right.
But their weapons were made for hunting and the work of a farm, not battling an ancient fiend from the fire. In the midst of a stroke, Karik’s spear snapped, and the iron blade fell to the ground.
The dragon roared and turned, his claws tearing rock from the mountain face, and lashed at Karik, who leaped back to avoid him. Then he turned again and set upon Revik. But as Karik looked about for his spear head, the dragon’s tail came whistling through the air and struck full in the chest, hurling him against the mountainside.
Then Wisic and Igil came close on the dragon, and Igil’s seax slipped beneath the dragon’s scales, and pierced deeper than any cut yet. The dragon roared, and turned again, tearing rock from the mountainside to fall down in an avalanche on Igil and Wisic.
A rock struck Igil in the shoulder so that he could not move his right arm, and Wisic bled from the nose and mouth as he struggled to his feet. But the dragon wrought his own doom in that blow.
Karik struggled to pull himself to his feet as the fight raged. His ears rang, and it seemed to him that the mountain moved back and forth. Shaking his head only made the mountain move more, and with a convulsion he vomited into the dirt, drawing deep breaths as the dragon pulled down a second avalanche on Revik. Karik looked about for his spear, but a gleam caught his eye.
The morning sun was just beginning to peak over the horizon, and it’s rays gleamed off a blade buried in the rocks. This was the blade Farndrang, which for years had lain on the mountainside, buried in a past battle, and dislodged from it’s resting place by the dragon’s strike on Igil. Now Karik lunged for it, hurriedly pulling away the debris.
Revik had dodged the better part of the dragon’s avalanche, and looking about him saw his brother bloody, Wisic staggering, and Karik on his hands and knees. He roared his defiance and the dragon roared back, and the two came against each other. Revik’s great ax hammered at the dragon’s scales, and the dragon struck left and right with his talons.
But then the dragon screamed, a cry of pain and anger and disbelief. For Karik had taken up the sword, and pierced the dragon’s side. Longer than a man’s arm Farndrang was, and Karik had buried it to the hilt.
The dragon turned, reaching for Karik, but the work of the warriors now began to show. Slow the great beast moved, for the mountainside was spattered with his black blood in a hundred places, and the wound Karik had dealt was not a small one.
“You should have taken my offer.” The beast snarled as he set his eyes on Karik. “Warriors such as yourselves would have been kings in this land in a short time with my help.”
“Perhaps we still may be.” Karik replied. His breath came in gasps, and the sword felt heavy in his hand.
The dragon laughed at that, and but it turned into a choking cough. “The kings of this land are cursed, and my curse will lay heavy on you if you ever try to wear that crown.”
But as he spoke, Revik rose from the rocks behind him, and with a well measured stroke, brought his ax down on the monster’s neck. It came from the back, where the dragon’s scales were tapered, and the heavy iron blade sank deep. The dragon jerked as Revik pulled the ax back for a second blow, but before he could strike again, the beast collapsed in a heap. His head slammed into the mountainside and slid down till it rested a few feet from Karik, it’s red eyes open in a death stare that pierced Karik to his heart.
Then Karik looked about, and surveyed the mountain in the grey light of the dawn. Smoke rose from a dozen places where the dragon’s fire still licked at the mountainside, and broken rock surrounded them so that there was danger of a landslide if they moved too carelessly.
By the dragon’s head, Revik sat on a large stone, his ax still buried int he monster’s neck. His clothes were torn, and his left arm was red and blistered where the dragon’s fire had touched him.
Not far away, Igil and Wisic laid on their backs, resting as they breathed. They too had been marked by the dragon’s fire, Igil on his right hand, and Wisic along the right side of his body. He had cut off the greater part of his shirt, and now his body sat exposed to the cold wind, red and blistering.
A little while later they found Havar a short way down the mountain. He alone of them all remained unmarked by the dragon’s fire, and in later days some said this was not a small thing. But though he was unburned, he was covered in cuts and bruises and blood so that not one of them looked any better than another.
Then, exhausted and weary, they made their way back into the dragon’s lair. As Karik had noticed, it was a great cavern, hollowed out and made into a fortress, not a cave as they had suspected. At the base of the great hollow, where the dragon had rested, they found a small pile of gold. It was a pitiful thing, unworked and filthy it had been given to the dragon by Unhost, and the small horde had not improved by the dragon’s keeping.
“It seems to me that the dragon took this place from someone who was here before him.” Karik said. But the others had no idea who it might have been or where they had gone. For Karik kept the great sword he had found, and though he did not know it’s name, he knew it was no work of any smith in Vrania.
They crept down into the rubble, where broken stone and dust mixed with gleaming gold. All about the edges of the cavern where the broken remains of ancient passageways. Doors and arches that had been broken and blocked by the dragon’s wrath.
“What was this place?” Havar wondered, his voice echoeing in the cavern. He stooped and lifted th hilt of a broken sword, glance from it to the blade that Karik now held. “No smith we know made these weapons.”
“The old tales say that Vranr was exiled.” Karik ran his gaze over the broken staircase that ran over the wall. “Perhaps those tales were more than legend. Perhaps his exilers set a watch on him.”
“Let us go.” Revik’s voice boomed from up above. Karik looked up to see him peering over the ledge at them. “We are all weary, and we have still to reckon with Unhost on this matter.”
“Also, I am hungry.” Havar tossed the sword hilt to the ground, where it fell ringing on the rocks. “And a cup of mead would go far in easing my pain.” There was much agreement to this, for where the dragon’s fire had burned them, the pain was beginning to grow. Slowly, stiffly, they began to make their way back to the mountainside. But Karik paused at one of the doorways, and peered down a narrow corridor. Several rooms were set off from it, their shapes shifting in the flicking light of his torch.
Alone he slipped inside, stepping over the fallen stone that had once been carefully carved. Within the corridor, the stone had escaped the dragon’s talons, but not it’s fire. Black soot covered the blistered rock, remnants of a long forgotten battle.
The far room still had a door. Old, dry wood bound with iron and anchored in the rock, it groaned and creaked as Karik pulled the handle. Inside, there was nothing but a barren room with only wrap of hides and leather set on a shelf cut into the rock. Karik waved the torch around the room, but nothing else could he see. Carefully, he reached out his hand and lifted the bundle from it’s shelf. It was bound about with a leather thong, and Karik dropped to his knees.
Propping the torch on the uneven floor, he undid the leather and unrolled the hides.
The hides unrolled to reveal parchments covered in dark lines, some straight and stretching the length of the paper, others winding their way among them. What they were, Karik could not begin to tell in the flicking light of his torch.
Fromt he cavern, Revik’s voice echoed again with a call for Karik to hurry. Swiftly, Karik rolled the hides back up and thrust it within his shirt and snatching up his torch, hurried back.
Outside, snow had begun to fall, and the cold wind that blew from the north felt rough on the burns of dragon fire. Covering themselves as best they could, they began the hike back to their boat. The path felt far longer than it had seemed in the darkness, and they were all stumbling with weariness as they pushed the boat back into the water with cold fingers and shivering limbs.
A grey light hung over the fjord, but they could see the shapes of the settlement in the distance and the smudge of dark smoke could be seen rising into the sky in a dozen places.
“I do not know how Unhost will respond.” Igil said quietly. “But he must respond somehow.”
“Unhost is not the only one.” Karik winced as the wind gusted, catching the burn on his face unprotected. “The other Jarls will be more than a little interested in a dragon horde so close. And King Unhost will not remain silent.” He sighed deeply. “This matter is only beginning.”