tisdag 26 oktober 2010

Lennart Svensson: The Dragon's Lair (short story)


Hereby a nifty story, a roaring tale from the times when men were men and dragons roamed the skies. It's about a hero serving a king and - well, you have it all here below, be my guest. But beware: it's been rejected by a lot of magazines, like Arkham Tales, Clarkesworld and Morpheus Tales. So if you listen to them, don't read it.

1.

There must have been innumerable times that a young adventurer has stood before a king, offering him his services. It’s an archetypal scene, classic, what you will. And now I’m going to paint just that kind of scene to you: an adventurer standing before a certain king, offering his services. And so, what happened? Well, to begin with the king stroke his beard, saying:

”Indeed? Well, why not.”

That he said, this Bigelon, king of Danemonia as he happened to be. The adventurer for his part, a certain Tancred, was a bit put off by the man’s indifference. Where was the enthusiasm?

There you go, the story’s afoot. So now what? Some atmosphere maybe, some heartwarming details about this and that? For example, if you want an impression of the adventurer I could say that he had long, blond hair and brown eyes and wore a green tunic, a blue cape, yellow breeches and shoes with puttees. In a black scabbard, tied with leather stripes and worn in a broad sash, he wore his well-wrought sword, tried in many a battle. The king, for his part, sitting on his throne in the great hall of his castle, had intensely blue eyes, short silvery hair and a well-trimmed, black beard. On his wrist he wore a silver ring, set with pieces of red carbuncle and adorned with a large diamond.

”You can be my vassal,” the king presently said, ”if you go to the Black Plains, seek out the dragon Rhadamantys and snatch The Glass Key from him.”

Everyone in the room, bystanders, well-wishers and lackeys alike, drew their breath: Rhadamantys! This was an enigmatic dragon dwelling in a wasteland north of the kingdom. How could anyone expect to steal a treasure from him?

Tancred however, being an itinerant adventurer and a knight errant, didn’t know about the dragon. Then again, he wasn’t naive. He said:

”That sounds well. And the payment...?”

Bigelon hesitated. Could this man really pull it off? The king had set the stakes high already, so he had to raise the ante:

”Let’s put it this way: you are going to perform twelve, yea, verily, twelve labours, where the dragon’s key will be the first. If you succeed you will win half the kingdom of Danemonia plus your own palace here in Maldorion, our fair city. But if you fail – well, then I guess death by my hand, or by my executioner, will come as a liberation. I mean, can any adventurer live with the shame of having failed in twelve labours...?”

Twelve labours, death before dishonour – or victory and half the kingdom as well. Tancred didn’t hesitate, oh no, he agreed. Why? Because he was an adventurer.


2.

Having received a map over the northern outback of the kingdom Tancred mounted his grey stallion and rode away through green woodlands. By and by the trees got less dense, and before he knew it he rode through a sterile, stony wasteland. Having reached a certain plateau he consulted his map, and decided that this was the place: The Black Plains, the location of the dragon’s lair, the home of Rhadamantys!

Tancred left the horse in a gorge and off he went over the cold, windsvept landscape, sparsely grown with dry, yellowish grass, thorny bushes and hoary trees, the setting sun in his back. If I hurry and seal the deal right away, he thought, I can ride back tonight. Then again, why hurry? Now I’m here – and there is only here and now as the wise men say...

Finally he came to a lake where a winged monster lay, watching its mirror-image in the water. The beast was greyish-green with violet patterns; its back was sharp, it had armoured scales and an oblong head with a pair of large nostrils. It also had giant, leathery wings, neatly folded against the flanks as the creature lay there meditating.

Without hesitating Tancred picked up a stone and threw it in the lake. As the mirror-image on the water was destroyed Rhadamantys lifted his head, got sight of Tancred and asked:

”Now what on earth –”

”I command you to surrender!” Tancred said.

”And why’s that?” the monster said. ”Here I lie, peacefully regarding my mirror-image, and then you come along and spoil it...!”

A talking dragon, Tancred thought, that’s interesting for sure. But what shall I do now, to regain the initiative? I must gain the upper hand! So he valiantly drew his sword and rushed against the dragon, who answered by breathing fire on him. The flames barely reached him – but he had to retreat, had to seek shelter in the only possible place, the lake itself. So he jumped in the water, swimmed under the surface and resurfaced at the other end of the pool. Looking around, he saw the dragon still lying at his piece of shore, now drinking water, apparently indifferent to what had just happened.

Unseen Tancred sneaked up from the lake, gathered some wood, went down to his horse, took some flintstone, a fire-handle and some tinder out of a saddle-bag, sought out a cleft, and started a fire. Drying his clothes and drinking some water out of a flask, he asked himself how to slay the dragon.

When the clothes had dried he took them on and returned to the lake. The sun had set and Rhadamantys was gone. But from the lake a road led, the way the dragon took when leaving its cave to go down to the lake for a drink. A few bowshots away, the shimmer from the lair itself could be seen, a mountainous cave. Tancred rounded the lake and started to inspect the road, finding a hole in it. ”A good hideout” he thought, and so he lay down in the cavity, drew the cape over himself, and spent the night there.


3.

Dawn broke, grey and miserable. Tancred felt shakes in the ground and drew his sword. It was Rhadamantys approaching; the dragon looked straight ahead and didn’t see what was hiding in a hole in the road.

The dragon got closer. Tancred gripped the handle of the sword. When the beast was right above, Tancred stabbed the blade upwards, into its abdomen, as hard as he could.

It was a good plan if only the abdomen hadn’t been as hard as the scaly flanks of the beast. The dragon didn’t feel the jab, only a slight tickle as if it had dragged itself over a sharp stone. Indifferently it proceeded along the way and went down to the lake.

Tancred got up and out of the hole. Now what shall I do..., he thought. Then he had an idea, an inspiration on the principle of ”Why not the other way around?” Why not try something completely different? So he sat himself down on a rock by the road, fully visible, waiting for the dragon to come back. It was an idot’s approach to a heroic mission but he was tired of heroic stances; this seemed like the only way left to go.

The drinking done the dragon approached, discovering Tancred and asking:

”Now what...?”

”I am Tancred”, our hero said. ”I suggest a truce.”

”Fair with me,” the dragon said. ”I am Rhadamantys.”

Tancred apologized for his behaviour the preceeding day, having attacked the dragon without parley. The dragon welcomed this change in tactics, being glad that Tancred now bothered to speak with him. On the question what sort of dragon he was, Rhadamantys answered:

”I am a lucky dragon, a talisman for this region. Hence my violet colour on the back, because violet is a spiritual colour as you might know.”

Tancred didn’t actually know this but he didn’t want to seem stupid, so he nodded affirmatively.

”I’m a lucky dragon,” the creature went on, ”a divine creation, a blissful elemental. I watch the clouds go by in the sky, I feed on dreams and I generate dreams. And my name is no secret; it’s the essence of the magical presence in this land, the rhadamantic resultant of the mind, the will of tree and leaf, bird and boar, bairn and blossom.”

Tancred was almost about to forget his mission, fetching The Glass Key. But now he recalled his errand – and having heard this contraption mentioned the dragon smiled and said that he could give it to Tancred for free. So they went up to the cave, the dragon’s lair itself. Finally there, at the innermost sanctum with all its treasures and riches, Tancred spotted and picked up the object in question, a shimmering, foot-long key, made out of crystal glass. As an excuse for having breathed fire on him the night before the dragon let him take as many gold coins as he wished; they lay in heaps on the cave floor.

It was time for good-byes. Tancred bowed for the dragon, lying there outside the cave’s mouth, basking in the sunshine.

”Farewell, dragon. And thank you.”

”You’re welcome”, the lizard said. ”Maybe we’ll meet again.”

The hero waved good-bye, turned his heel, went down to his horse, put the key in the saddle-bag, mounted and rode away. Finally, back in the throne-room, in Bigelon’s castle in Maldorion, the capital of Danemonia, he handed his gift over to the king. He, for his part, nodded without showing his surprise, had a lackey receive the treasure and said:

”Well then, only eleven missions left to do. Your next thing to fetch will be The Ruby Apple of the Elves...”

Tancred nodded and went off to perform this and other labours, twelve in all – and this he did! And having completed the last one, fetching a certain golden horn (which is unimportant in itself), he rode as usual to the palace and handed it over.


4.

Tancred rode to Danemonia, entered Maldorion, arrived at the palace, went up to Bigelon and handed over the horn. The king received it with his usual indifference, held it with his bony fingers and regarded disdainfully its geometrical patterns.

Bigelon sat on his throne, Tancred stood on the floor beneath. The court stood all around, such as it had always been when a treasure or a token of a completed labour had been delivered in this set-up. But now the twelfth labour had been completed so Tancred cleared his throat and said:

”Then there’s only the question of the payment. Half the kingdom, if I am not mistaken...?”

The king tried to look detached, drumming with his fingers on the arm of the throne. Then he got up, pointed at Tancred and screamed:

”Guards! Arrest the man!”

The royal footmen snapped to and obeyed. The adventurer for his part saw guardsmen with levelled spears approaching, so he began to retreat towards the entrance. But this was barred by other guards, so what to do?

He looked desperately around, caught eye of a lancet window, ran off to it and jumped right out in the air, sailing freely and landing on an awning. He who dares wins. Well down on the ground he sped away thorugh an orchard and slipped out through a gateway, constantly hearing shouts of ”Arrest the man” and ”Stop him” behind him. However, he didn’t let himself be arrested but stole a horse downtown, rode hell for leather through the city, escaping through the main gate before the guardsman had gotten the orders to close it.

He rode away from Maldorion. He was saved – but at the same time he was swindled on the payment he should have received for his labours: half the kingdom!


5.

Three days later. Bigelon sat on his throne, glad to have fooled the adventurer, cheating him on the payment. And he himself, the king, had in return gotten hold of quite a few treasures and talismans, and had gotten some or other political mission fulfilled, without having to move as much as a finger...!

He threw a glance out the hall’s window, and saw a land quitely lying there in the misty sunlight. Birds flew, and clouds sailed placidly by. Then he got sight of a different breed of bird, slightly larger and less gracile. It approached and got larger and larger, and still larger. Then he saw that it was none other than Rhadamantys, the dragon, with a fair-haired rider on its back.

The equipage made a turn over the city, circled in in front of the castle, stopping in mid-air and hovering in front of a window through which Bigelon could be seen. Sitting on the dragon, Tancred – for it was him – shouted:

”King Bigelon! We have some unfinished business, you and I!”

Inside the throne-room there was upheaval. They all had seen the dragon fly up to the window; laides-in-waiting screamed, dignitaries paled and footmen advanced, but no one could do anything. In cold sweat Bigelon rose from his seat, approached the window and looked at Tancred.

”Are you going to give me the payment now?” the hero asked.

Bigelon wiped his forehead and stuttered:

”What... no...”

”Wrong answer!” Tancred shouted, and commanded the dragon fire!

The dragon was, as you remember, able to breathe fire – and now, out of the mouth of the beast, a concentrated flame shot, reaching the castle, entering the window and hitting Bigelon. The king caught fire and started to burn as a torch, screaming wildly. The screams, however, faded quickly and the remains of the king fell to the floor. He was charred on the spot.

”Thus to all promise-breakers”, Tancred said. ”You can’t take an oath and then secretly try to break it. The gods are witnesses to all oaths. I’m no god, but in acting out this revenge I was only the tool of the gods.”

He made the dragon land in the caste gardens, got off, and went inside the building.

As you all can guess, Tancred had, since he had gotten away from Maldorion, ridden to the Black Plains where he had visited his old comerade, Rhadamantys. They met again, as the dragon had anticipated. And he for one wasn’t hard to persuade to fly to Maldorion with the adventurer on his back, executing the revenge.

The hero entered the castle. No one stopped him as he went along, his eyes bearing a fearful expression as if he could kill with his mere gaze. Then he came to the throne-room where everything was confusion, no one seemed to know what to do.

Tancred made for the remains of Bigelon, bent down, and picked up a certain ring from the charred hand, the silver armring adorned with a large diamond, the old symbol for the ruler of Danemonia. He said:

”This is about paying off old scores. Half the kingdom should be mine after all these adventures, after my epic twelve labours. Well, now I’m here to get my share. The king didn’t want to give it to me, and then he had to pay for it – with his life. And inheritors there are none...?

This he had heard during his adventures, that the king had no descendants. This was now confirmed with a telling silence.

”Fine”, Tancred went on. ”Therefore I claim this throne. I demand the whole of Danemonia and its underlying fifedoms and dependencies. Anyone who disagrees...?

No one said a word so Tancred put on the diamond ring and raised his arm for all to see. Then a dignitary cheered, soon to be echoed by the whole room:

”Long live king Tancred!”

And there you have it: Tancred became king and set his mind to govern wisely over Danemonia and its dependencies. His days as an adventurer was over and his days as a crowned head had just begun – but that, as Kipling would say, is another story.

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