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A Dance with Fire
Sir Delmar hefted the heavy sword and placed it in its sheath. The metal clanged as it connected with his chainmail. Nice and supple as always, Stone is, he thought. If he wasn’t so scared of the peregrination beyond, he would have drunk in the surroundings – a cool, great plain, with azure flowers speckling it, and bisected by a placid stream of water. The water reflected the sky, and his mood. Dark and violent empyreans foretold death and foreboding. But who’s? Mine, or the dragon’s?
And so it was. The ancient dragon had waked again, terrorizing villages south of Dados for weeks since. It had a name, too, so dark and old it paid not to utter it. As the wind whistled in his ears, the black and deep eyes softened, remembering the precedent. He let out a soft sigh.
Stockily built, Sir Delmar showed no mercy towards his surrendered enemies. It was whispered he had no equal in one-on-one combat. But a dragon was not one. Jet black, razor-sharp claws, a spined tail, and a mouth of blue-hot flames – a certain path to the bliss of heaven. But Delmar couldn’t die. Not now. Not after his first child, born after a decade of pain and sorrow. Not leaving his wife, who had sobbed when she had heard he was going to joust the dragon. Not his wife, who had left sparkling tears on the sheets after her parents had died not days before.
Tears glistened in his eyes, but he swallowed them back. Not here. His lord’s other knights and squires were sure to be looking on at him with a twinge of jealousy – those young, temerarious boys with no families to look after, not knowing fear. He was all the other knights’ bête noire, as he got all the glorious missions, being the most decorated.
“You will do well. Be brave, Delmar,” came a high, sad voice Delmar had once feared, but had now come to deeply respect.
“Thank you, my lord,” he replied, with his deep, soft voice.
He took a last look at his wife, three-year son in hand, and his heart yearned to rush to them, pick them up, reassure them, anything. But his duty did not. It would not. It never did. His duty stood high, cold and proud, wrapped in his honor’s loving arms. His heart stood below, crying out to the promises he had never kept, the people he had watched die. Their blood had once put him down when he remembered it splattering the stones and gravel, but now, they seemed to protect him. A flurry of thoughts ran through his head. He had never said goodbye to Piotr. Or Sasha.
The bronze gates shut the thoughts out, and as he mounted his horse, he murmured a final goodbye.
He pushed his horse faster to push those thoughts away. But they kept returning, memories of his wife’s beautiful face, his child’s soft, rosy cheeks and soft hands. All of them. His deceased father, whispering, there are no mistakes in life, child. Just lessons.
But they were mistakes, weren’t they? Volunteering. Putting his wife through this pain. Letting his child never know his father. Not saying goodbye to his dear brother. Not standing by his father’s remains last time, remembering his inspiration, his perseverance.
A knight must never cry, his duty told him, but for the first time his heart prevailed, and he let the tears flow freely – big, fat tears, streaming down his face, trickling into his mouth, a salty taste he had not felt in years from his own eyes. As his eyes glazed, he blinked the teardrops out of his wary orbs. The road was dusty, but the rains started to fall, mingling with his tears, blazing over his battle scars, drenching his every inch in cold water.
The clouds spat out their own sobs. As the rainfall quickened, puddles appeared on the ground. Delmar struggled to keep control of his mount. He adeptly navigated through the seemingly never-ending maze of puddles, which were beginning to slowly transmute to ponds. Delmar veered left into a mountain pass, and found the cave he had used do much there were sure to be supplies there.
His muscles relaxed at the thought of the warm glow of the cave, lighted by never-ending torches gifted to him by the Pearl Wizard. The horse’s pace quickened, and Delmar sensed something behind, quickly unsheathing his sword. Stone flew out in a flash of silver, reflecting the poor light from the aubade in the sky. He pulled the reins, and the horse skidded to a stop. “Easy, Glade,” he sibilated into the horse’s ear.
He turned Glade around, and waited silently. The only sounds were of the rain and his and Glade’s intermingled breathing.
A black figure flew at him, and he cut it into pieces. A hippogriff!
The hippogriff, angry its wing had been slashed, rushed at Delmar in red fury. Delmar held off the spitting creature as he tried to hack off its head. Glade bolted into the safety of the cave, and Delmar found himself on his back. He struggled to get up, and grasped the sword tightly. The water seeped into his underclothes.
The hippogriff cut his green cape into tatters, and reared its head back and screeched. Delmar coughed hoarsely. As the creature attempted to deliver its fatal blow, he thought, Adelina. Hanging on to his wife’s name, he rolled right. The hippogriff’s claws sank into the rock, and Delmar wondered till where the blow would have gone on his body. He got up, shaking, and the hippogriff screamed as its head and body fell away separately.
The job done, Delmar gazed at the horizon to regain his bearings. He walked past the dead hippogriff’s body, muttered a prayer, and staggered into the sanctuary of his cave, stroking Glade’s mane, and out of sheer exhaustion, drifted to sleep on the bare stones.
When he woke up, the sun was in his eyes. Delmar blinked and shielded them from the blazing light. He got up, and his knees buckled. He lashed to the ground and found himself on all fours. Holding the rock face, he slowly got up.
He checked for Glade, and found him there. Clutching the pendant Adelina had given him on the day of their wedding, a symbol of her pure love, and picked up a spare set of armor he had left there. The last one, he thought. If I survive this, I don’t want to fight anymore.
Dados was a few miles south. He cleaned his armor, ate the last of his measly supplies and mounted Glade.
The horse trotted outside. The sun was high up now – it was around noon. It ends today. The sky was postcard-perfect. What was yesterday a dark grey was today a bright hue of blue. The sky did not show it, but deep under, in a locked part of his brain, Delmar knew this could be his last day alive. He was determined not to let it be.
As he inched closer to Dados, beads of perspiration popped up on his forehead. He wiped them away quickly, and helped Glade navigate through the rocky terrain.
Then, he saw it. The Pass of Szajna. The only way to the remote lands of Dados.
Coaxing his steed forward, he pressed on lightly. The pass was perilous, and erratic horses would plummet to their deaths on the jagged rocks, with their masters. The path was easily passed by donkeys, but Glade had steady feet, and could steer himself with a little help from Delmar.
He saw more and more of the burnt mess that was Dados now. Human bones were littered around, covered with the ashes of the houses. He proceeded towards the Town Hall, knowing full well there was an underground safety chamber.
He dismounted close to the Town Hall, and walked slowly down the ash-filled path. The air here was filled with dust and smoke. Delmar felt like he was heaving his insides out. He lengthened his stride and knocked the door three times.
The door swung open. The lord and the Barons were inside, sitting on armchairs. The lord waved him over. Delmar strode across and took his seat.
“Sir Delmar. The Cold One. You are known by many names,” the lord said. “I am Lord Tsöl.”
Feeling no need to introduce himself, Delmar said, “My lord, I have received news that the Unspeakable Dragon has destroyed your land and killed your knights and squires.”
“That much is true,” the lord confirmed. “I could not send it by bird, but the dragon, according to the scouts who were killed in the attack, sleeps in his chambers during eventide.”
“Well, my lord, eventide is a few hours away. I must ride immediately if I am to face him. Where is this chamber your scouts have spoken of?”
“It is two hours’ ride away. You’d better set off forthwith,” the lord said.
“Agreed, my lord. I will set out instantly.”
As Delmar strode to the door, a baron walked towards him. “Take this,” he said, offering him a gold locket. “It is – it was – my wife’s. Avenge her. Please.”
“It is exquisite. I will surely take it,” he said, looping the necklace over his neck. The metal felt cold and inviting.
Delmar walked out and shut the door. He mounted Glade and rode, lashing the reins. Glade whipped the ash into a frenzy, setting off a small tornado. Before long, the remains of Dados were far behind them.
Delmar watched the bright blue sky turn to dashes of purple and orange streaked across the marvelous façade that was the empyrean. Maybe the last time I will see a sunset, he thought. But now, no emotion would come, like they had withered and died yesterday.
Then they almost fell into a ravine. Glade pulled back immediately, but a little late, and Delmar had to use all of his equestrian skill to keep him and Glade from falling off the cliff. A less experienced rider or steed would have found themselves plunging into nothingness, but Delmar was insistent and Glade held his ground, albeit pawing the ground nervously. Delmar looked straight down into the void.
Glade seemed tense. When Delmar glanced up, he knew why. A small, rickety bridge. Then, a deep, dark cave, with bolts of blue flames periodically lighting up its interiors.
It was the dragon’s.
Delmar inched forward. He’d left Glade on the side of the abyss. Now, Stone in hand, he hoped the dragon was asleep. Then that’s a quick beheading. The sky had turned more purple than orange, and was now fading to indigo.
After he crossed the overpass, he landed on the crispy burnt grass on the ground. He waited at the cave’s entrance for a while, trying to regain his calm. Anxiousness hit him. His mind screamed for him to persevere. His father’s voice echoed, a river cuts through a rock not because of its power, but its persistence. Always move forward.
Steeling himself for the worst, Delmar rushed into the cave. The dragon was quiescent. As he ran forward to kill it, he was the one who was surprised.
Four red eyes stared back right at him. They seemed to burn into his body, removing his soul, his identity, washing them away. Then his thoughts came back to normal. His eyes, glazed over, focused on the present. The dragon had two heads.
It was like fighting an army of knights. Tails, claws and teeth whipped around as Delmar dodged the attacks furiously. But the dragon was relentless. Stone slashed at the dragon’s neck, but the dragon merely looked stung, but the wound was deep and red.
As the attacks got faster and with more accuracy, the dragon delivered blow right across his chainmail, ripping it like paper. Blood spurted from the gash, coming out in races, making the ground run red.
And now, it ends, a voice spoke in his head. It sounded like a male and female, interconnected. Then it changed to the buzzing of a thousand bees. What a short life you’ve had. You are not going back to your family! Now, feel the wrath of the Black One, Aonachd!
His insides were on fire as the blue flames crashed in waves over him, blinding him, stopping him from breathing. He felt a slight prickling, then a racing, then absolute agony. He screamed till there was no air to breathe, the smoke filled his nasal cavities. He was burning to a crisp. Adelina, he thought, going through him in a fury. Cyn. He would never see them again. Friends and family.
He was on Death’s threshold, when it all stopped. He felt pure. Now is not your end, said a peaceful, surreal voice. The Ancient Gods. They all spoke as one. Aonachd represents all that is evil, and you will blow them away. Go on! Defeat the Black One!
Delmar staggered to his feet. “Not today, Dragon. Not today.”
The adrenaline pumped through his blood, and for once, his heart, duty and honor, all fought as one. He rolled onto the dragon’s back and drove Stone through it. He felt the power of Adelina’s love and the Baron’s wife flow through him. He caught its wing web and pulled with all his fury. The dragon howled as his web was shredded. One of his wings was worthless. The dragon aimed a blow at Stone, and it flew straight into the chasm. No!
The taste of victory in its eyes, it aimed a claw at Delmar’s heart, only to be stopped by a flash of silver.
Delmar screamed his heart out. Everyone. First his father. His mother. His horse. His best friend.
Fueled by anger and rage, Delmar noticed the claw on Glade’s underside was off. Delmar roared as he picked up the claw and drove it into the Black One’s heart. Then belly. Head. Again and again until the dragon’s blood watered the grass.
And it fell to the ground, displacing all the dust.
“It’s over!” he shouted. And for the first time, he would utter the name. “It’s done, Aonachd. Burn in Seven Hells.”
Delmar staggered back to Dados unsteadily. He felt no pride over what he had done, nor felt sorrow over what he had lost. He raised his hand, knocked three times and fell to the floor unconscious.
He woke repeatedly. He tried to get up, but fainted again.
When he woke for the last time, he smelled a familiar smell of cloves. Adelina! Cyn! His head felt groggy. “H – hello?” he called.
“You did it, Daddy!” Cyn shouted, prancing into the room with a face full of joy and pride. “You killed the Unspeakable Dragon!”
Aonachd, he thought, but all his thoughts faded as Adelina rushed into the room. They were together. And they all hugged.