I did have doubts that this week would include a short story, let alone a knights and dragons short story. I mean, I know I intended to get into the pattern of a short story every three weeks, but whether or not the road to hell is paved with intentions of the best sort, the path my blog runs on certainly is. So I was perfectly happy to accept a short story once a month, if that’s what happened. Not to mention the fact that last Sunday morning at 4am I ended a marathon eight-day, 60,000+ word writing sprint that was all about the dragons, so I wasn’t at all sure I had any dragons left in me.
However. Apparently my dragon supply is extensive, and I wound up discovering some new ones. They’re not Cloverly dragons, and, being of a more traditional dragon size, are sadly very likely extinct, but in their day they were perfectly wonderful. As dragons tend to be.
And since it was a traditional story, we needed knights.
(Note: History buffs, please don’t shout at me for referring to weapons with the wrong terms, or mixing and matching items from different eras. It’s a short story. With dragons. Thank you.)
A Tale of Knights & Dragons
The dragon was nestled among the rocks on the mountain peak, her heavy paws resting on rock chipped and cracked by the weight of long generations of clawed feet, her flanks pressed against boulders worn smooth and concave by the passage of countless centuries of scaled bodies. She watched the valley below with eyes that reflected the colours of the sunrise, warm orange shot through with burned pinks. There had been smoke in the forest at the end of the valley during the night, rising from the point where the trees started to thin and give slowly to the long grass of the valley floor. If she knew humans – and she did, because every good guardian must know the risks to their holdfast – they’d already be up, moving with first light. Forests are damp and cold places when you’re trying to keep your fire low and smokeless. No one would have slept much. They’d reach the lake at the base of the cliffs by midday. She waited.
The humans came out of the shelter of the trees just as the sun was creeping across their tops and raising steam from the damp leaves. They marched with purpose – no straggling band of outlaws, these. Four men on horseback led the way, and more horses walked behind them, laden with supplies. The guardian licked her lips. To either side of the supply horses, as well as behind, marched men on foot, their armour dull in the morning shadows. There were maybe twenty in all (numbers are unimportant to dragons, there are either enough or not enough), and they were all armed. She could see longbows and spears as well as swords, and two men carried staffs from which the flags of the knights’ houses hung limply. She knew the colours, though. She’d had dealings with them before. She got up and stretched like a cat, all arched back and extended claws, then slipped off the edge of the cliff, taking on its dull greys and moving with slow grace towards the caverns. It was time to raise the dragons.
“Here we go, lads,” Sir Roger said, bringing his horse to a halt at the last tree. Ahead of them swept a sea of long green grass, running smooth and uninterrupted all the way to the placid blue of the lake at the foot of the mountain. The crisp light spilled across the steep cliffs, and they were rendered in shades of pale grey and nearly white, pocked with deep shadows which were the entrances of dragon holes. Those cliffs were insurmountable, and the peak reached high and jagged to the thin blue sky. It was entirely the sort of place one might expect dragons, and they’d passed the last sign of human habitation three days back. Up here was wild country and wild beasts, not even a shepherd’s track to guide their way. Just the mountain, growing bigger and more ominous with every step forward. He knew some of the younger men, who had never faced a dragon before, were nervous. Scared, even. Hell, he was nervous himself, and not afraid to admit it, even though he’d bested dragons not once but three times before. He had every intention of making this the fourth.
“Now,” he said, stroking his grey beard as if soothing a pet, “They are not to be underestimated, these dragons. They are old, and crafty. But neither should we fear them, as some supernatural creatures beyond our ken. No, we must treat them with respect and honour, as worthy adversaries, and prove to them that we are no less!”
The youngest knight yawned, and his horse did a bored little sideways shuffle. The other two knights shared an amused smirk, and Sir Roger glowered at them.
“Do not take this lightly, Sirs! We ascend now into the realm of the beasts!” He flung his arm out to point in the direction of the mountain, although the moment was ruined somewhat by his gauntlet flying off his hand and into the long grass. His squire rushed forward to find it, and his horse shifted her hindquarters and farted. He sighed. No one had any sense of occasion these days. Why, when he was just a young knight-
“Shall we be off then, Sir Roger?” Sir Tom said. He was a big man with long legs and a large belly – curiously like a pumpkin on stilts, to Sir Roger’s mind.
“Fine, fine. Let’s just go, then.” Sir Roger snatched his gauntlet from his squire and nudged his horse forward. They’d see. Just wait until they were face to face with a real, fire-breathing dragon. Then they’d see.
High Lord Florence perched at the mouth of the cavern, her great wings flexing slowly above her. She hadn’t bothered to camouflage herself against the rocks, but wore her true colours of deep, rich reds as she watched the party advancing across the valley floor.
“A big group,” she observed to Stella, who had been the first to spot them.
“Unusually so,” the smaller dragon agreed. “Not a single challenger this time, then.”
“Oh, there never is, even when they say there is,” the High Lord said (Lord is a non-gendered term to dragons. In fact, the whole gendered thing is more of a human issue. Dragons don’t consider it much. Any dragon can lay eggs, if they so wish, and names are chosen based on what suits their little faces when they hatch. Or whatever the first thing they bite is). “But honestly, they’re such little things, and completely scale-less. No wonder they need to help each other out.”
Stella snorted, and scratched behind her ear with one heavy back claw. “Shall we all go down, then? Show of numbers and all that?”
High Lord Florence considered it. They weren’t a big clan, and being rather large dragons they tended to keep to their own little family groups much of the time, unless a meeting was called. At the moment there were seven of them living in the old mountain, the seat of the dragon Lords. “May as well,” she said. “It’s a nice day for it.”
The party of knights and fighting men had almost reached the edge of the lake (the waters looking desperately cool and inviting, because it was proving to be an unseasonably warm day, and armour is not known for for its suitability to a hot climate), when the first of the dragons took to the sky. The men had been able to see them for a while, first as splashes of colour against the pale cliffs, then as unclear silhouettes. Only now did they truly appreciate the vast size of the beasts, as deep red wings snapped open against the vault of blue sky and the dragon rose into the air, tail curling gracefully behind her, four legs tucked up neatly against her belly. A second dragon followed, all pale greens and blues, harder to see against the sky. This one was smaller, but even at this distance you could tell she’d dwarf the tallest horse they had. Another took flight, purple this time, and another, and another, until there were seven dragons circling the peak, dropping above and below each other in a graceful dance that seemed to be a display as much for them as it was for the knights.
One of the men crossed himself and began to pray loudly, and Sir Roger glared at him. “Well, that’s not going to help, is it?” he snapped. “Do your job and hold your tongue, and we’ll emerge victorious.”
Sir Pete, the youngest knight, unused to Sir Roger’s rather less than devout ways, opened his mouth to object and Sir Tom waved him to silence. “No room for that here,” he said. “We’ve got dragons to deal with.” And he slid off his horse and walked the remaining distance to the edge of the lake, unsheathing his sword as he went.
Sir Roger followed him, giving his reins to the praying man and telling him to make himself useful, and the two men stood staring up at the dragons, still circling their peak with unhurried wing beats. Sir Roger rather fancied he could hear them from where they stood, heavy and leathery and dangerous.
“They’re expecting us.”
“Of course they are,” Sir Aldemar the Great, the fourth knight of their expedition, said. “They’ll have seen us days ago, probably. They don’t just hang around the mountain doing nothing, you know.”
The other knights agreed, and Sir Roger said, “Well. No time to waste. Let’s get set up.”
High Lord Florence landed on the boulder that crowned the mountain (put there for that very purpose), turned slightly to make sure her profile was good, flexed her wings and let out a roar and a gust of flame. She was gratified to hear some faint shouts from the camp at the edge of the lake, and a splash as someone fell in the water.
“Oh, very good,” Percival said approvingly. “Look, their tent fell down, too.”
“Ach, that’s a shame. It’s taking them long enough as it is.”
“I know. My wings are getting tired.” Percival yawned, exposing worn old teeth. “I shall fall asleep before all the fun starts at this rate.”
“We can’t have that.” High Lord Florence took off again, catching the air gracefully. “You sit and do some posing. It’s good to have variety.”
Percival clambered onto the rock and threw himself into the posturing with gusto.
“But it roared!” the praying man wailed. “The beasts will devour us all!”
“Who brought him along?” Sir Robert demanded. Bad enough that he was baby-sitting Sir Pete, but this one was making such a fuss. And when he’d dropped the tent pole he’d broken one of Sir Robert’s favourite drinking horns, too.
“Sorry, my bad,” Sir Tom said. “My regular cook got bitten by my dinner, and he can’t walk too well yet.”
“The dinner or your cook?” Sir Robert asked.
“That man is right, though,” Sir Pete said, hands on his hips and his breastplate blinding in the sunlight. “Those monstrous things are just waiting to pounce, but you’re telling the men to set up shelter rather than defences!”
Sir Robert and Sir Tom exchanged glances. Sir Aldemar looked up from his sketching and scoffed loudly, then went back to drawing the dragons circling the peak. They were much bigger and fierier on paper.
Sir Robert poked Sir Tom in the chest. “Your nephew. Your problem.”
“A curse on family and a pox on bitey dinners,” Sir Tom grumbled, and pointed at his nephew. “Take whiny cook there and your men. Retreat to the edge of the forest and set up camp. Do not on any account return.”
“What? No! I have come to fight dragons! And besides-” the young knight gave the two old men, and the skeletally skinny, even older Sir Aldemar the Great a dubious look, “-you might need my help.” He flexed his muscles proudly to prove it, although the over-shined armour just made him look as though he were shrugging.
“I hope you’re not arguing with me,” Sir Tom said, scowling. “Don’t make me go home and tell your mother you were arguing with me.”
“You can’t make me leave just when it’s going to get interesting!” Sir Pete wailed.
“By the old ones, just do it, would you?” Sir Tom glared at the young man until he turned and stomped away, muttering under his breath and swearing roundly at the men as they scrambled to catch up with him.
“Well done, Petey,” Sir Roger called after him. “We’ll need a nice warm meal once we’re finished here.”
“Oh, don’t rub the boy’s nose in it,” Sir Tom said, but he was grinning.
“Well, if all the drama is over,” Sir Aldemar the Great said, without looking up from his sketching, “Are we going to get on with things or what?”
The dragons watched with interest as a small contingent led by a knight in very shiny armour marched back the way they had come, taking with them one of the horses.
“That’s interesting,” High Lord Florence said.
“He must be new,” Percival observed.
“One less to deal with.”
“Yeah, but the horse…” Stella licked drool from the corner of her lips.
“There’ll be plenty to go around,” the High Lord assured her.
They watched until the small party was a comfortable distance away, then turned their attention back to the men on the shore. Three tents had bloomed like fat white toadstools along the edge of the lake, and the two old knights in their tarnished armour stood outside them, looking up at the mountain. The third knight was still seated, legs straight out on the ground in front of him, scribbling away.
“I’ll take that one,” Percival said. “He looks about my age, in human years. Should have some cunning about him.”
“Fair enough,” High Lord Florence said, and looked at the other dragons, ranged to either side her on the mountain top, all watching the humans avidly (the flying in circles had become a little boring). “Dragons. Be smart, be careful, be dragon. Onwards!” And she threw herself off the cliff edge, plunging down to the water like a high diver. Her wings snapped out as the lake raced to meet her, and she arrowed across her reflection towards the men on the shore, her jaws wide with fire and delight, hearing the wings of her dragons strong and sure behind her.
“Here they come!” Sir Roger shouted, and even Sir Aldemar the Great scrambled to his feet, then stood swaying from getting up too quickly. “Stations!”
The men that were left rushed to their places, barely speaking to each other. They were no random soldiers, but hand-picked and faithful comrades of the old knights. They’d seen these confrontations before, knew what they needed to do and when they needed to do it. They didn’t need to be told how to face dragons.
“Be brave, my friends!” Sir Roger bellowed as the red dragon came roaring across the lake, vast wings skimming the surface and stirring it into turbulence as she rode a gust of flame towards them. “Stand strong!”
“Astonishing,” Sir Aldemar mumbled. “I must remember that shade of red.” And he drew his sword, standing his ground to the right of Sir Roger and Sir Tom, the men and tents behind them, each of them with plenty of room to move.
The dragon snapped upwards as she reached the beach, bringing her taloned back legs down to touch the sand, wings shivering behind her as the other dragons landed, three to each side, filling the beach with colour and power and beauty. The red dragon was twice as tall as Sir Robert when she sat back on her haunches, and her incisors were as long as his finger. She lifted her head and roared, and the sound shivered the sand of the beach and the earth under his boots. She lowered her head to inspect him with eyes that were deeper than the sea, and drew her lips back from those terrifying teeth.
“Sir Roger,” she said.
“High Lord Florence. Lovely to see you again.”
“The pleasure is always mine.” She inspected the table in front of him. “Oh, you made the pieces bigger! Thank you so much – Percival has some difficulty with the tiny ones. Arthritis, you know.”
“I’m just fine,” Percival rumbled, climbing up the beach and sitting himself on the opposite side of Sir Aldemar the Great’s chess board. “It’s just tricky to tell the difference between the queen and the bishop when they’re so damn tiny.”
“High Lord Florence, the cook has come up with something new. He calls it a scone. Would you care to try one?” Sir Roger’s squire asked, offering her a large basket filled with current-studded, golden buns as big as a man’s hand. “The tea’s just brewing.”
“Oh, how wonderful!” She selected one and nibbled on the corner gently, eyes half-closed. “Well, that’s just perfect. So tasty.”
“Here you are. Before I forget.” Stella set a basket next to one of the tents. Inside, dragon scales – harder than metal, lighter than a blade of grass, beautiful and priceless and full of life – glittered and shifted, sliding over each other with musical whispers. “There’s also some eggshell in there – looks a lot like dragon skull, and just as hard.”
“Eggshell?” Sir Tom said. “Are congratulations in order?”
Stella flushed an attractive purple, and the men cheered.
“Well, now the pleasantries are over,” Sir Aldemar the Great leaned over and tapped the chessboard. “Your move. I’ve been looking forward to this – I know you’ll be a worthy opponent.”
“Victory will be mine,” Percival announced, and moved his pawn.
“I will ride rough-shod over the bones of your minions,” Lord Aldemar replied absently, considering his move.
High Lord Florence looked at Sir Roger. “Should we worry about the men you sent away?”
“No, not at all. I’ve got someone on look-out. We’ll make a lot of noise if he comes back – you know the sort of thing. Bang some shields and shout and jump around a bit. Maybe one of your young ones can singe his toes and drop him in a tree or something.”
“Always happy to help.” The High Lord took a sip of tea, then rested her chin on her palm and studied the board carefully. They were at a draw after the last expedition, and she fully intended to be the one to break it.
Those young knights. All about the shiny armour, never about the strategy. Who knew tea and chess could win you dragon scales?
And now over to you lovely people – do you have a favourite non-traditional version of tales about knights or dragons or other creatures of that ilk? I’d love to hear about them – and your thoughts on the story – below!