‘Well, what have we here?’ the knight asked, a bemused expression etched on his face.
‘Perhaps they are a couple of drowned rats, sire?’ a second voice added.
Eli looked past the knight and saw a lad not much older than himself, who was holding two horses.
Scrambling to his feet Eli brushed himself off as best he could, then reached down for Karn. ’We were looking for our friends, sire, and were chased by dragons. We had to jump into the river to escape them.’
‘Dragons, you say?’
‘Yes. They have been coming down from the snow topped mountains. Livestock and villagers from along the valley have been taken.’
‘And these friends you were searching for?’
Karn held up the rolled-up blanket and sack that were hanging from his shoulder. ‘These was their belongings, sire,’ he said, stifling a sob as he did so.
‘We found bones, and this sack and blanket. That was all,’ added Eli.
‘I am sorry. So, where is your village?’
‘It is not far, sire. We can take you there.’
‘Then lead on,’ the knight commanded of them.
The journey back to the village of Darksaber was an easy one for man and boys, and with the sun shining down the clothes of Eli and Karn dried out quickly as they walked. Little was said, with each pondering questions in their own minds.
‘And you are certain they are dragons you saw?’
‘Yes, sire,’ Eli replied. He was always the leader of the two friends. ‘There were a thousand small ones, red and yellow and black and breathing fire. And one very large and terrifying one.’
‘Have you heard of such creatures before, sire?’ the knight’s companion asked.
‘I have heard stories, just like almost everyone has, but have never had the pleasure of seeing a dragon, of any size.’
As they walked on they shortly came around a bend in the road to find a man standing before them. He was considerably older than the boys, or the knight for that matter, and the clothing he was wearing was made of hides. He carried several weapons; a spear and a bow and arrows, with a quiver slung across his back and the carcase of a young deer slung across his shoulders.
'I thought you were supposed to be searching for your friends?' the man said in a gruff voice.
'We were. And we found them ... or what was left of them.'
Beside him Eli heard Karn sob. It was going to take some time for Karn to come to terms with this, he thought. Eli reached out and placed an arm around his friend’s shoulder, comforting him.
‘Who do I have the pleasure of addressing?’ Erasmus asked.
‘This is Izaar,’ Eli offered. ‘A hunter from our village.’
‘And you are?’ the hunter asked the knight.
‘I am Erasmus of Jeebath, knighted servant to the King of Jeebath, Ruler of the Seven Lands of Candor. And this is my companion, Darriemus,’ the knight replied. ‘We are travelling through all the distant lands at the request of the king, with a view to gather news from all corners of the Seven Lands while assisting the king's subjects wherever needed.’
Izaar offered a bow of the head and replied, ‘Welcome to our lands, sir. We shall take you to our village. Our people will rejoice at meeting one as noble as yourself.’
‘Darriemus and I thank you.’
Izaar stepped aside and with a wave of his hand signalled for the visitors to join him on the path to the village and the band set off.
'So what happened to Remi and Eran? Did you find anything out?' Izaar asked of his fellow villagers.
'There were dragons,' Karn replied.
'And how can you be sure you found them?' he asked, to which Karn simply held up the almost dry blanket and sack that hung from his shoulder.
'These were their belongings. We are certain of that. And we found bones,' answered Eli.
There were still miles to travel and as they walked on they shared their story with Izaar and Erasmus, who marvelled at not only their luck, but also their resilience.
'Your return, coupled with having such noble company visiting our village, will be much cause for celebration, even if our village will be saddened by the news of Remi and Eran. You have both done well,' he assured them, though he did still hold concerns over the possible presence of the dreaded beasts in their valley.
Upon their return to the village there were indeed scenes of jubilation, as Izaar had foreseen, even if those celebrations were tempered by the heartbreaking, yet not entirely unexpected, news brought by Eli and Karn. Such news and events of importance had a habit of travelling on the winds during these strange times.
And that night there were indeed celebrations, with their visitors feted as if they were royalty themselves, and the telling and retelling of Eli and Karn's adventure began, around a bonfire burning bright in the village square, sending sparks flying high into the air. With a pig on the spit and drink flowing freely amongst the gathered villagers there was much to be grateful for.
And so it was that into the midst of this celebration another stranger came, dusty, hungry and weary from his travels. From the east a mysterious man with the appearance of a sorcerer emerged, wearing worn sandals, leaning heavily on a staff and draped in a heavy cloak and hood. Fate had brought him to this village, just as it had brought the knight.
‘Who is it that seeks refuge in our village?’ asked Izaar, meeting the stranger at the edge of the village square.
‘I am Mephran. I seek only a soft place to lie down and some food if it can be spared.’
Izaar looked the bedraggled stranger up and down before stepping aside and inviting him in.
‘You are in luck, stranger. Come share in our feast.’
‘My thanks to you and your people,’ Mephran replied as he was led toward the fire.
As the night wore on the story of Eli and Karn's miraculous escape from the clutches of death raised eyebrows amongst the visitors, if not for the sheer audacity of their great escape, but possibly also because of the already burgeoning statistics of their pursuers. The small dragons had already grown in size and in number, from hundreds to thousands, while the large monster had grown from the size of a cow to now be the size of a horse.
'The small ones, they would be Firebirds,' the sorcerer replied. 'They are often found working in concert with larger beasts, acting as scouts, or gatherers, presenting their masters with prey and then, once the dragon has had its fill, scavenging off the leftovers.
'And the large one, the master of all others, that would be an Oxenwing. I have seen many in my time. Dangerous animals, though they do have their weaknesses.'
'And how can we exploit these weaknesses,' Erasmus asked the sorcerer. 'How can we kill them, or defeat them, and keep the villagers and the valley safe?'
'There is safety in numbers,' the sorcerer replied. 'The villagers will be safe if they stay together. And yes, there are ways to deal with these monsters.’
‘And how do you know this?’ Erasmus enquired.
‘That is for tomorrow, good knight.'
Eventually the fire died down and so too did the celebrations. Villagers drifted off, making for their homes and leaving only the elders and the visitors, along with Eli and Karn. Just as Erasmus was fascinated by the young men who had survived the attack, seeing wonder and fear in their eyes, the boys were fascinated by the strangers and their knowledge of the beasts and the world outside their valley. Erasmus was determined to help this village and its people and hoped that the stranger, Mephran, who he suspected was a sorcerer, could help.
That night they all sleep by the fire, some more easily than others. When Erasmus and Darriemus rose at dawn they found the sorcerer sitting by the fire, the contents of a sack which had hung around his neck now spread out on the ground before him.
'Your magic?' Erasmus asked, while nodding toward the sack.
'Just tools of my trade,' the Mephran replied. 'And may I see yours?' he then asked.
'The tools of your trade. Your sword.'
Instinctively Erasmus placed his hand over the hilt, protective of his weapon.
'You will need assistance should you encounter an Oxenwing, or any other dangerous manner of dragon. I can help you with that.' As he said this he pulled his hand from the sack and opened it, palm side up, revealing a strange looking dark stone that seemed to sparkle.
'What is that?'
'Dragonstone. It comes from a far-away land and has qualities that dragons are both fascinated by and fear greatly. It can slay them, but it needs to become one with your weapon. Then bravery will still be required in order to dispatch the beast.'
The sorcerer then reached back into his sack and produced a small leather pouch, which he opened and poured some of the contents out onto his hand, before taking a pinch of the glittering, sand-like substance and tossing it into the air. Erasmus marvelled at the way the particles shimmered and sparkled in the early morning light, hanging in the air for what seemed like a very long time before gradually falling and being caught again in the sorcerers open palm.
'And this will take care of the Firebirds,' the sorcerer remarked. 'It too is Dragonstone, ground to a fine dust to release the power of the fire within. Sprinkle this on the winds and they will drop from the skies, or scatter. But be warned, the Oxenwing may become enraged.'
Erasmus reached out and picked up the stone from the sorcerers hand and looked closely at it, seeing it flash with all the colours of the rainbow as it moved in the sunlight.
'How do we make this happen?'
'Before this day is through you will be armed to face these beasts, should that be your desire.'
Erasmus glanced at the sleeping forms of Eli and Karn, then at Darriemus.
'It is,' he answered.
'Then so be it. We must prepare you. Come to me at dusk,' the sorcerer said, before gathering his belongings and getting to his feet, then wandering away without another word being spoken.
By this time the village was waking, with people emerging from their homes to go about their business. Eli and Karn, too, woke to find the knight studying them intently.
'Can you draw me a map?' Erasmus asked them. 'Can you show me exactly the path you travelled and where you found your friends.'
The boys glanced at each other and nodded.
Later that day, as Erasmus and Darriemus sat by a stream, Eli and Karn came to them, handing over a scroll which showed the journey they had taken. The knight studied it carefully and asked many questions, until he knew the path and the lay of the land just as well as if he had already been there.
'We can take you part of the way, sire, if you will let us?' Karn offered.
'We would welcome your company,' the knight replied. 'We will leave at dawn, but right now we need to meet with the sorcerer.'
'You will find him in the grove of trees to the west, sire,' offered Eli.
They found the sorcerer where it was said he would be, standing by a low burning fire and with his belongings scattered about in a circle.
'Your sword, my lord,' the sorcerer said, while holding out his hands.
Somewhat reluctantly Erasmus drew his weapon and handed it over to the mysterious man, who immediately took it to where his belongings were gathered and sat, his legs crossed beneath him. Here he reached for the strange black stone and some leather bindings and proceeded to fasten the stone to the hilt.
Erasmus and Darry glanced at each other, not quite knowing what was happening.
When the sorcerer had finished he stood, then with some force he thrust the point of the sword into the fire, forcing it into the ground so it finished standing upright, the hilt well clear of the flames.
'Sit,' the sorcerer commanded. Man and boy complied, while the sorcerer sat opposite them and reached for his sack, from which came various oddities. He tossed some dust into the air, and upon both Erasmus and the boy, then added some other items to the fire, before then starting to chant in a low voice and in words that neither Erasmus or the boy had ever heard.
As the chanting continued and more things were thrown into the fire, it seemed to Erasmus that the world was starting to spin. He looked at his sword and he thought he could see that it was beginning to glow, with the leather bindings around the stone in particular appearing as if they were about to catch fire.
The chanting grew louder. The sorcerer was speaking in tongues. The stars were spinning above them. Faster and faster the world spun, then, when it seemed everything around them was just a blur, the world went black.
Erasmus woke at dawn, immediately his eyes went to the sword, which was still standing in what was left of the fire. It was no longer glowing. He stood and reached for it, finding it cool to the touch, yet at the same time there was something different about it. Pulling it from the ashes he took close notice of the stone. The leather bindings were now steel, as hard and solid as the rest of the sword, and the Dragonstone was fixed firmly in place.
Looking around him there was no sign of the sorcerer or any of his belongings. Other than the sleeping form of Darriemus, he was alone.
When he heard a noise coming from the trees he spun around, only to find Eli and Karn waiting for him.
'We are ready, sire,' Eli said.
'Very good,' Erasmus replied, while sheathing his sword.
At the sound of the voices Darriemus stirred and rose, then a short time later the four of them set off, walking through until noon, where they stopped by a river and ate the provisions the boys had brought with them.
'We wish you well, sire,' Eli offered when they were ready to leave.
'We hope that the deaths of our friends can be avenged,' added Karn.
'We will do our best,' the knight replied, then after waving farewell to their young guides the knight and his squire continued their quest, walking through until shortly before dusk.
As they approached the rise ahead of them the quiet was shattered by a loud roar, which reverberated around the hills and sent critters scurrying for cover. Quickly the man and boy ran forward, crouching down as they ran, before finding cover behind a fallen tree which gave them a view of an almost desolate valley, where great areas were burned and the charred trunks of trees stood like skeletons. The only sign of vegetation was along the stream which ran through the valley centre.
'Look, sire. Is that an Oxenwing? It looks just like the beast described by the sorcerer.'
'That appears so,' Erasmus replied.
From their position at the edge of the valley they could see a grey beast positioned upon a path, near to where it narrowed at one end of the valley. The animal was resting with its head on the ground and every now and then it would flick its long tail from side to side, or give a flap of its wings, before tucking them back in against its body.
Even from this distance they could see the bright red eyes darting left or right, and the claws upon its feet, and the scales upon its neck and body. This was the closest either of them had even been to such a creature. As they watched their attention was drawn to movement further down the valley, where they spotted a deer running in front of what looked like a red and orange and yellow cloud of insects.
'Look! The sorcerer was right. The Firebirds are hunting prey for their master.'
'We must watch how this unfolds,' Erasmus whispered. 'That is the only way we will learn how these beasts work together and how we may be able to combat them.'
The young deer didn't stand a chance as it was hounded by the Firebirds toward where the great, grey beast lay in wait. Each time the young deer broke left or right the Firebirds swarmed and pulsed as one as they chased the unfortunate animal, blocking its every effort to escape. Then when it was finally close enough, the dragon pounced, reaching out with its long neck and snapping its jaws around the throat of its victim.
The struggle was short and soon the lifeless body of the deer was dropped to the ground. With the swarm of Firebirds still buzzing around it, while still keeping a safe distance, the dragon ate its fill, ignoring those that were awaiting the scraps. Only when it had consumed most of the prize did the dragon finally step away, lumbering over to a tree and lying down beneath it.
As soon the dragon departed the Firebirds descended on the carcase like flies. It was a feeding frenzy and it wasn't difficult to see why there had been so little left of Eli and Karn's friends when they had met their unfortunate end.
'How do we do this?' Darriemus asked his master
'I shall not leave your side, my lord.'
'That is not very wise, Darry.'
'Perhaps, lord. But my duty is to you and to those you serve.'
For some time the knight studied his young squire, contemplating his next move.
'Tomorrow then,' he eventually replied. 'We will have dragons to battle. Right now we must find shelter.'
Carefully the two of them backed away from their hiding place and started back down the hill, searching for somewhere to spend the night. After a short while they came across a stone wall, which upon inspection appeared to be the remnants of a house.
'This will be suitable,' Erasmus said. Darkness was beginning to fall and they quickly made ready a place to sleep, using some branches to both soften the ground and also cover them over and before long they were resting, with Darriemus soon fast asleep, much to his knight’s amusement.
The night proved uneventful, though Erasmus heard the sounds of various creatures roaming the hills, but nothing came close to their hiding place. At one point he heard the buzzing sound of what he knew must have been the Firebirds, but they simply passed by.
When daylight eventually came it was Darry who gently woke his master.
'All is quiet outside, my lord.'
'Then let us hope it stays that way,' Erasmus replied. 'Come now, we must see what our beastly friends are up to.'
They cautiously left their shelter, mindful that they needed to be careful not to attract attention to themselves. Climbing the hill once more they returned to their hiding place of the previous day where they once again looked down into the valley. There was no sign of any of the dragons, but Erasmus had a feeling that they wouldn't have travelled far. This valley was their home.
Above them there were clouds rolling in, heavy and ominous, as if a storm was building. They knew that the key to any hunt was patience, so they were prepared to wait for the right moment. Nothing was said between them. Nothing needed to be said. They simply needed to be ready.
By noon the storm clouds were threatening rain and thunder and possibly more. Erasmus and Darry had remained under cover, watching for anything to happen but so far it had been quiet. Only when the first flash of lightning broke across the valley was there any sign of the dragons return.
Whump. Whump. Whump.
It was the sound of wings beating against the storm. Erasmus and Darry looked up just as a shadow passed overhead. The Oxenwing had returned.
They watched as the great beast circled above them, around and around the valley, circling lower and lower, until finally coming to land close to where it had rested on the previous day. As it settled the swarm of Firebirds came to settle around it, the only splash of brightness a distant circle of red and gold in an otherwise colourless setting.
But not all the Firebirds were there, some could be seen buzzing about the valley, small bursts of fire giving away their presence. It appeared they were looking for more victims to present to their master.
Suddenly one of them landed upon the log below which Erasmus and Darry were hiding. They watched in silence, daring not to move as it studied them. It was a small, brightly coloured creature, not much bigger than a mouse, but with a long neck and tail and gold wings, and if their reputation hadn't already been known it could even be said they were beautiful.
Beast and humans studied each other for a few moments, then in a flash the Firebird was in the air and flying in circles, squawking and flashing fire. Within seconds a few more appeared, having been attracted by their friend. Darry looked down to where the Oxenwing was resting, just as the entire flock of Firebirds lifted off as one and started toward them.
He cursed, grabbing the sleeve of Erasmus's tunic and pointing at the mass of fire coming toward them. Behind that they could see the Oxenwing now standing on its hind legs, wings outstretched and head looking their way, puffs of steam and fire shooting from its nostrils.
At his side Erasmus felt his sword come to life. Placing his hand on the hilt he felt a power that was new to him.
'Quick, out into the open,' Erasmus ordered. 'And have that sorcerer's dust at the ready.'
Together they scampered out from under the log. Erasmus started running toward the ruins where they had sheltered the night before, with Darriemus on his heels. When Erasmus stopped and drew his sword the flock of Firebirds parted, circling around each side of them, but keeping their distance, obviously wary of the weapon which almost glowed in the hands of Erasmus.
Man and boy were back to back, surrounded by circling beasts, fire being spat at them from every direction, but they held their ground.
'Open the pouch and take a handful of the dust,' Ersmus ordered. 'But not all of it!'
Darriemus obeyed, his hands trembling as he did so, but soon he held a handful of the magical powder.
'When I drop down, I want you to spin a circle around us and release the dust. Can you do that?'
'Right. Get ready ... now!'
As Erasmus dropped, Darry spun, releasing the dust as ordered, scattering it high and wide. Some of it hit several of the creatures and they fell to the ground, dead. The remaining creatures scattered, an incredible wave of red and gold moving upwards and outwards, thinning as they went, until finally there was not a sign of them.
They had scattered on the four winds, just as the enraged Oxenwing landed upon the log at the crest of hill, standing to its full height, wings flapping and spewing fire in their direction.
'Run for the ruins,' Erasmus ordered.
As Darry ran the great beast jumped forward, landing closer to Erasmus, its head snaking back and forth, while storm clouds, dark and heavy swirled above them.
A shot of fire was sent forth and Erasmus jumped sideways to avoid it. He could feel the power in his weapon. He could feel it wanting to reach for the beast but he held it steady.
Once more the beast advanced, again spewing fire, but Erasmus side-steps again, this time heading away from the direction of the ruins, to give his companion a better chance at getting away should he need it.
Again the beast advanced. This time Erasmus backed away.
The tail slashed and the head snaked back and forth. The wings flapped as fire and steam are spewed.
'Oi! Bonfire breath! Up here!' suddenly yelled Darriemus, from atop the stone wall of their shelter. The beast paused and raised its body, swinging its great head around to get a better view of the boy who was harassing it, while its tail thumped the earth, flattening small trees as it did so.
The creature's eyes grew wide and a shot of steam flew from its nostrils, but then it drew its head backwards on its long neck, down which scales could be seen rippling, one row after another. As it sucked in a massive breath to prepare to roast its tormentor, the dragon's chest rapidly expanded, holding buckets of air. The chest was exposed and both Erasmus and the boy knew that this was their only chance.
In the half light of the storm and surrounded by heat and destruction, Erasmus looked down at the sword he was holding. He could feel the weapon tingling in his hand, as if it were ready to fly, and fly he knew it must. With all the effort he could muster, Erasmus stood and spun his body, his arms extended, both hands holding the grip of the sword. One circle. Two circles. And then he released the weapon.
Man and boy watched as the sword spun through the air, end over end, just as the great beast unleashed a flash of fire in the direction of Darriemus, scorching everything in its path, but not before the boy was able to jump from his vantage point. Disappearing behind the stone wall he didn't see the moment the point of the blade found its mark, sinking with ease into the flesh of the beast, all the way to the hilt. But he definitely heard it.
The beast's scream pierced the air like nothing ever heard before, as it stretched its great neck skyward, sending a tower of flame shooting higher than it could ever be thought possible. Its tail thrashed this way and that, causing Erasmus to dive sideways to avoid its dangerous spikes, as the dragon continued to rage and scream and thrash, trying to follow, filling the air with fire and wails as it began to stagger, while its blood, black and thick like tar coursed from the wound in its chest.
'Watch out!' Erasmus yells at his companion. 'It's going to fall!'
And fall it did as it spun around and around before finally toppling across the stone wall where Darriemus had moments before been hiding, collapsing the structure beneath its weight.
As death throes go, this was spectacular.
It was only then, as the great beast took its last breath, sending shots of steam into the darkness and as its black blood flowed freely across the scorched earth, that Darriemus emerged from behind a rocky outcrop.
He watched as Erasmus reached the animal and pulled his sword free of the carcase, wiping the blood from it upon some dry grass.
And so began the legend of Erasmus and his great sword. Slayers of dragons.