Sir Philip called down to the peasant on the road. “Hoy! Be thou from Daneshire town?”
The peasant made a half-bow and responded, “Aye. I be from yon Daneshire township. Who be thee?”
“I am Sir Philip, late from the courts of King Richemonde, the Wise. I am on an errand from my lord, the king, and it doth bring me to these parts.”
“Oh? On errand, eh? And what errand might this be?”
“I seek the dragon of the lands north of Daneshire.”
The peasant’s face took on a similarity to a recently-plowed spring field. “Why?”
Sir Philip’s head recoiled from the directness of that question. With frown emblazoned across the base of his face, he said, “Impertinent one! Knowest thou to whom thou speakest?”
The peasant shrugged. “Apologies, sir knight. Forgive mine surprise in hearing thou seekest the Dragon of Daneshire. Why, sir knight, seekest thou the dragon?”
Appeased, Sir Philip responded, “To prove my virtue in arms.”
“What, thou plans’t kill ‘im?”
Sir Philip tolerated no more of the peasant’s uncivility. “Out of my way, varlet, I would pass thee now!” He spurred his horse as the peasant made clear the way to Daneshire.
“Ignorant peasant!” Sir Philip couldn’t get the bumpkin’s lack of respect out of his mind. The three miles to Daneshire were thoroughly unpleasant, full of reflections on the peasant’s churlishness and villainy. When finally Sir Philip did arrive in the unremarkable town of Daneshire, he was at least able to distract his disgust in the search for the reeve of the town. Daneshire existed at the far reaches of King Richemonde’s demense, and, as such, there was no manor nearby to appoint a bailiff over the settlement. Such a mannerless and uncouth realm!
But Sir Philip hoped to make a change to all that. With the hoard to be had in the cave of the dragon, why, he could build a strong, walled manor and become a landed knight with Daneshire as the beginning of his barony. Would that it could be less a forsaken borderland was the wish of Sir Philip, but ’twas only in the forsaken borderlands that new nobility could be made.
There being not many souls in the town, the search for the reeve was brief and conclusive. A clean, well-dressed peasant presented himself. “I am Fastulf Huldriksen, reeve of Daneshire. At thy service, good sir knight.” Fastulf made the proper half-bow for due deference to a mounted knight of the king.
“I would dismount and converse with thee, reeve.”
Fastulf gestured to several men to approach Sir Philip, to assist him in dismounting. The reeve motioned for the visitor and the men bearing his arms to enter the town hall, while a pair of men took Sir Philip’s horse to provender it.
Sir Philip pointed to a suitable corner and Fastulf nodded a the men with the arms, who placed them in the corner with care. Sir Philip’s black hair topped his scalp, its length a sharp contrast to the shaved back and sides of his head. His clean-shaven face made him stand out further from the bearded, blond rabble of the peasantry.
With the weapons in a corner, Fastulf ordered two chairs be brought to set facing the central hearth and that a fire be stoked there. The knight seated himself first and Fastulf took the chair of second preference. He then asked, “What bringeth thee to Daneshire, good sir knight?”
“Reeve Fastulf of Daneshire, I am here on errand from King Richemonde the Wise.”
“Long live the king.”
“I am here to bring gentility to this wild land. I am of a mind to do great works that would earn for me a barony.”
“Very good, sir knight. And how may the people of Daneshire be at thy service?”
Sir Philip appreciated the manner in which the reeve observed protocol. “I would know more about the Dragon of Daneshire.”
Fastulf nodded and leaned towards Sir Philip. “And what would thou wish to know?”
“Tell me first of its habits. How does it move about? What does it eat?”
Fastulf surmised from Sir Philip’s questions that the knight intended to hunt the dragon. “The great beast, though capable of flight, uses that mode infrequently, preferring to roam its territory on legs. We have seen it walking with stately gait, and striking its prey from cover with a pounce most rapid. Its prey is typically the deer or elk of the forest or the ram of the mountain. Rarely will it strike a bison of the plain.”
“And how did the people of this town come to see the dragon do these things?”
“Good sir knight, we travel to the lands of the Cumbri for trade in amber and tin, and the road to the Cumbri passes through the territory of the dragon. For many years have we seen the dragon and its ways.”
“And has it ever slain a man or the horse of a man?”
“Nay, good sir knight. Nay. Never has the dragon given us cause to fret or worry.”
“But what of hunters in that area?”
“We hunt not in the territory of the dragon. We hunt not where the king claims his woods and neither do we hunt where the dragon claims his lands.”
Sir Philip raised an eyebrow. “So would thou sayest that the dragon is rival to the king?” Already, Sir Philip entertained designs on the tribe of the Cumbri and how they might be conquered after he slew the dragon.
Fastulf looked into the fire, which did fill the hall with its warmth. He did ponder Sir Philip’s question carefully. He spake, “The people of Daneshire know the benevolent rule of King Richemonde. Him do we serve, and none other.”
Sir Philip wanted a different answer. “Nay, reeve, doth the dragon possess a mighty power, that the folk of this land do fear, even as they would fear the king?”
Fastulf nodded. “Aye, good sir knight. The people of Daneshire dare not to take their flocks into the borders of the land of the dragon. Why, only one man that I know doth live in the lands of the dragon.”
“Hold, Fastulf. Thou sayest a man liveth nigh unto the dragon?”
“Aye, Rolf Klintsen, he is the man. He maketh his home upon a cliff that overlooks where lives the dragon, where the quiet alloweth him to know better his Maker.”
“A holy man, this Rolf?”
“Aye, good sir knight. A holy man, indeed. He doth offer up prayers and supplications on our behalf, and we have known the blessings of his devotions.”
Sir Philip looked into the fire. “I would meet this holy man, if he would be able to speak more to me of this dragon. Comes he oft into the town here?”
“He doth, from time to time, as it pleases him to get grain or paper, or to mind his letters to and from the Father Superior of the monastery in Ogham.”
“Then I should have a room here in Daneshire, that I might be present when returns the holy man.”
“As you wish, good sir knight.”
And so, Sir Philip did reside two days in Daneshire, in wait for Rolf Klintsen, the monk of the dragon-lands. On the third day did Rolf arrive in town, and the reeve did introduce him to Sir Philip. Rolf did give his assent to converse with Sir Philip, on condition that the two would be seated in a garden plot.
“What, among the vegetables and the worms?” But Rolf would have it no other way. Being a man of God, he was not subject to the command of the knight. Sir Philip did relent, and the two sat where they did overlook the cabbages, carrots, and turnips.
Rolf asked the first question. “Sir Philip, do you mean to hunt this dragon? And to slay him?”
“I do, indeed.”
“Then I would dissuade you from such a task, for it is fraught with danger and promises little reward.”
“My king does not permit me to consider danger.”
Rolf allowed Sir Philip’s bravado to pass over him. “So it is. What then, dost thou know of the dragon, Sir Philip? For whatever thou knowest to be true, shall be one less thing I would be needed to teach thee, and whatever thou holdest as truth, but is false, that I shall be able to correct, that a falsehood not prove to be thy undoing.”
“Fairly said, holy man. Here is what I have heard of the dragon, that it is a mighty hunter of beasts, and that it doth hold sway over its lands, as does a lord. And the bards of the court sing of the vast treasures that it has amassed in its cavernous home, where dwarves beat its gold into grand jewels; that the dwarves are enslaved not by the dragon, but by their love for the grand hoard of gold. Their songs tell of how the dragon once did battle with the king of the sea-raiders, and how the dragon did slay that king, with breath of fire; that the dragon did bind the servants of that king to place the king’s treasures on ships and sail them back to his cavern, lest he slay them with breath of fire, as befell their lord and master. Heard I the song of the fall of the Darini, who did anger the dragon when they paid not their tribute of ten virgins one year; that the dragon did lay waste their lands with fire and violence; that the Woluntii followed in the wake of the dragon and did take hold of the lands of the Darini, that the name of that people is known no more. Truly, the dragon is a rich and powerful beast, full of cunning and malice. That he troubles not these lands is plain: they are poor, and the people trouble him not – there is nought to be gained in plundering…” he motioned over the garden “… cabbages.”
Rolf smiled. “Well, good sir knight, there is much that you do know. And verily, the dragon is a mighty hunter, and, yea, it doth hold sway over its lands. But it lives not in a cave.”
Rolf motioned outwardly from his person, describing a great circle. “It maketh a great ring for its lair, a wall with no gate, for it doth fly over the wall as it sallies forth to hunt its prey. Sheer are the walls, half as thick as they are tall, and fully the height of two men are these walls.”
Rolf held two fingers up. “Dirt and dung, these are the stuffs of which the walls are made of. The dragon mixeth his dung with the dirt and useth its tail to beat the mixture into shape. The sun baketh this mud, and it becometh like unto stone in durability. Safe from man is the dragon in his lair, lest a man bringeth a ladder and a bow, or two ladders and a lance.”
Sir Philip did not like this learning. What use was a lance without a horse to deliver the power needed in the blow? Would he have to lay siege to a dragon’s fort? Or, perhaps… “What of the dragon as it hunts and feeds? Doth it show any vulnerability? Wouldst I be capable of striking it then, from my mount?”
“The dragon is quick to respond, good sir knight. It sleepeth not outside its lair and it, like thee, feareth not the dangers of battle. Truly have I seen it brave the antlers of the bull elk and prevail. And especially ferocious it can be when a rival enters its territory.”
“Aye, sir knight, a rival. There is a she-dragon as well as a he-dragon in these lands, and I have seen, twice, a rival enter these lands, for to claim the she-dragon for its own. Twice have I seen the dragon of Daneshire send his rivals flying to other lands, after battle fierce with claw, bite, and fire.”
Sir Philip had secretly been hoping that the dragon-fire detail had been but a legend. That it was actually true troubled his heart and clouded his mind. “So you have seen this dragon fire, holy man?”
“Yea and verily, sir knight, yea and verily. As sure as I have seen the dragon in its lair, asleep like unto a cat on a hearth.”
“Like unto a cat, say thee? So he sleeps well on his mounds of gold?”
“Nay, good sir knight. There is no gold in the lair of a dragon. There is but the ground where he maketh his bed and a spring from which he drinketh.”
“Egad! No gold?”
“Nay, good sir knight. The tales of dragon’s gold are but stories told to fill the darkness of night with the illuminations of imaginings. Likewise, I am certain that no dragon has wrought the downfall of a kingdom, nor has any exacted a tribute of virgins, or any other sort of tribute. Again, such things are the stuff of fancy, meant to entertain, but not educate.”
No gold meant a serious obstacle to Sir Philip’s plans to fund the building of a manor house. Still, if the dragon could be slain, such a feat could still earn him a baron’s title. Then, plunder from the lands of the Cumbri might produce enough for the beginnings of a noble estate. “No matter. The dragon is a worthy foe, and honor shall I bring to my king with its head presented as a trophy.”
“Hm. The time for a dragon hunt is not opportune, for it is their mating season. The dragon of Daneshire tends to be in the company of his lady. A fight with one dragon, I would not want to have, and a fight with two would be foolishness, indeed, even for a score of men-at-arms.”
“When ends the mating season?”
“In thirty days or so, good sir knight. Following that time, they become solitary, though the sir will bring his dame gifts of food, to sustain her and her young, who stay with the dame for five years. One would never wish to hunt the dame, for she is always in the company of her brood, and they are as fierce as she.”
“Then hunt the sir, shall I, a knight for a knight.”
“Ah, good sir knight, but even then, I would not think such a course to be wise, and I would inform you sufficiently to stay thee from this course.”
Sir Philip adopted a condescending tone. “Oh, holy man, great is thy wisdom and learning, and I thank thee for the profit I have enjoyed of’t. But leave unto me mine own knowledge of the hunt, for skilled am I in such arts.”
“Well, good sir knight, wouldst thou approach him from the front?”
“Nay, holy man, for he doth bite.”
“Wouldst thou approach him from the side?”
“Nay, for fierce are his claws.”
“Then wouldst thou approach him from behind?”
“Yea, for his defenses are weakest in that quadrant.”
“I would advise against that, good sir knight.”
“And why sayest thou such a thing, holy man?”
“Well, good sir knight, that is the matter of another falsehood of the bards.”
“And what is that?”
“Verily, verily I say unto thee that a dragon doth not breathe fire… ”
Nicely done. So much so that I’ll let the matter of a town with “Shire” in its name pass….
Ah, yes, well… erm… it’s set in an alternate universe in which “shire” can be included in the names of 11th-Century British towns… also, dragons…
Well, actually, it is “Daneshire township”… would that get me a pass as far as the town name goes?