Based in a slightly mythological version of the 4th century this details the first adventure of "Jurgo" a soldier/warrior in the Roman tradition and how he encountered a daemon bird.
I first met Jurgo the same day we heard of the death of the emperor. It was a wet, wild night. The wolves were howling out over the hill and those of us who had no homes and warm wives to be with were drinking at the inn that stood next to the Christian temple.
We lived in a village not more than a short days walk from the ruins of ancient Ilium that the Greeks had destroyed - the Troy of the Romans - and were a fairly normal sort of people except for the constant troubles of which I will speak later.
My name is Marcus: a common enough name in the Roman world and I was the second son and third child of the innkeeper. My father was serving drinks and I was cleaning tables, being a youth of tender years, when the door flew open and a young man, not more than a few years older than myself burst into the room and slammed the door closed behind him.
He apologised in general for the sharp blast of wind that had ripped through the room and threw his cloak over the back of a chair. We all looked at him: tall, thin, wearing the leather tunic and short sword of a centurion but with a helmet we did not know, being of some outlandish origin and having small horns coming out above the ears. He took the helmet off and a shock of red hair fell down around his neck and across his eyes. He pushed it to one side and called my father over, ordering a meal.
There seemed no harm in the fellow so the other occupants of the room went back to their own conversations. At the table next to the young stranger three travellers from a nearby town, taking cloth to the markets at Ephesus, were talking politics. The young man seemed to be listening to their talk.
One of the company, a large hairy fellow known to us to be from the north of Greece, with the hands of a wrestler rather than a merchant, was espousing the virtues of the Emperor Constantine to his friends.
"I beg your pardon, friend" The young stranger interrupted the flow of his praise, "If you be a loyal subject of the Great Constantine, then I fear that I have bad news for you"
The conversation in the inn stopped with suddenness.
"What say you, fellow?" The big Greek asked, staring.
"The Emperor has been dead these six weeks, sir" The young man stated, "He fell ill at Helenopolis while preparing for the war against the Persians. He was taken to, but died at, Constantinople and is buried in the Church of the Apostles."
The big Greek stood up and was very silent for a moment. Then he sighed.
"You bring bad tidings, man. The Emperor was a giant. A holy man. He is a loss to us all."
"Amen" Someone said and I suppose that the Greek would have gone on to give a eulogy, being a wordy sort of fellow if the great scream had not happened at that very moment.
The walls shook with the sound and the howling of the wolves, a noise that we heard not at all due to it's constancy, stopped abruptly and every man in the building either jumped to his feet with an oath or dived under the nearest table.
"It's the daemon bird" My father cried, crossing himself in the fashion of the Roman church. The young man also jumped to his feet and ran to the window, throwing open the shutters and staring out.
"Close the shutter, you fool!" My father shouted, "The daemon bird is attracted to the light" The stranger complied just as the sound of the scream whirled above us, far up in the blackness. There was a rush like a fierce wind and a monstrous blow against the wooden roof of the inn. The boards creaked but held and the thing in the sky screamed in frustration, it's noise fading away into the distance. Towards the sea to the north.
"Some farmer will lose a goat tonight" Someone said as people began to come out from under tables and behind chairs.
My father was angry with the wrath that comes from great fear. He waved his fist in the young stranger's face.
"We could have lost our lives thanks to you" He shouted, "The daemon bird eats anything that moves"
"I am sorry, sir" The young man replied, "Tell me of the daemon bird."
My father stomped away, too angry to answer, so I explained.
"The daemon bird comes from the mountains to the east. What the Romans call Ararat where once Noah landed his ark. It seems to be a bird, but a giant one. As big as a fishing boat, perhaps bigger. I saw it only once in the daylight, carrying a sheep, so I can guess it's great size. We call it a bird, but it is like no bird. It has no feathers only a hideous, grey skin stretched over what look like long fingers. It has a beak as long as a hoplite's spear, but the beak seems to have teeth for we have found the remains of animals it has eaten and they are marked with tears and holes such as teeth would make. It comes, usually, after dark and is attracted to the light. It has taken several people from our village and it has become dangerous to be out at night."
The young man nodded and sat back to his meal, now cold. After a moment he nodded.
"I thank you. I had no idea that there was any truth to the rumours I had heard"
"So you knew about the bird?" I asked.
"Only rumours. I was in Constantinople when word of the great bird of Asia came to the Emperor's court. My family are of a minor noble line and I was given leave to find out the truth of the matter by my father. My name is Jurgo, sometimes Jorg, and I intend to destroy this daemon if I can and God aids me"
I stood still and my mind ran crystal and clear as never before. I am the second son of my parents and the third child. My brother is the village baker, having succeeded to the position after the death of his father in law, the former baker. My elder sister has married well. Her new husband is my father's partner in the inn and I will never inherit it. Not that I want it. I have planned for years to leave this village and now I saw my opportunity. This young man, with his rich, if travel stained, clothes and obvious breeding and a charm that exerted itself on me. He could be the way out of here. Besides, my mind was fired with the imaginations of a young man about Constantinople and the Emperor's court.
"Good sir Jurgo, if I may be so bold" I said quietly, "I am Marcus, son of Hannam, who owns this inn. I am learned in Latin and some Greek, which I learned from the Christian priest. I can wield a sword (just) and I am a fair archer. I am also a good mountaineer. I will be your guide in the mountains if you will have me"
Jurgo stared, and rose to his feet.
"What of your father? And his inn?"
"My sister will inherit and my parents have three children younger than I. I will not be missed for long"
"Then: if you are willing to come, I am willing to take you. My hand on it"
We shook in Roman fashion and that is how I became companion and servant to Jurgo, who became known as Jurgo Draconis, slayer of daemon beasts.
We rode for several days to the east. Jurgo on a horse and I on a mountain pony purchased with the small amount of cash that I had hoarded over the years. The weather was kind after the first day and we saw no sign of the daemon bird. The roads were falling into disrepair as we travelled further and the mountains loomed before us. Snow capped and awesome.
We camped below an overhang on the fifth night since leaving my home. We had talked about many things on our journey. Jurgo was a Christian in the Roman fashion. A believer in the Christ. I suppose I was too, but I tended to worry in case Mithras - the old warrior god - still had power over the fortunes of soldiers, warriors and their companions.
Jurgo was supremely confident in his God, however, and left no room for doubt.
We had lit a small fire and were cooking a simple meal with a hare I had caught using my bow. We drank hot water with a shot of some sweet drink that Jurgo had provided. I blushed with embarrassment when he first brought it out, having worked in an inn for years and not knowing of this liqueur which only Emperors and great men drank in their palaces in far off Constantinople or Rome. The night was closing in around our camp and I had divided the hare between us. Far to the west the last rays of the sun lit the face of the mountain high above us and Jurgo stood facing the north his face set in thought. He turned to speak to me as I handed the hot meat to him on a ceramic plate.
Out of the night, high above us came a scream like death himself had taken fright. Jurgo almost fell and the plate dropped to the ground spilling the hare into the dirt. I cowered back against the rock face and felt the weakness in my bowels. I am not ashamed of my fear. Such a noise should be heard only in the Christian hell, not in the holy mountains of Ararat on a such a lovely night.
The scream lasted for what seemed hours but was only a few moments, and then died away to the west. We saw the faintest glimpse of a shadow in the dying rays of the sun.
"The daemon bird" I finally managed to say. Jurgo only nodded. He leaned over and very carefully picked up the hare and replaced it upon the plate. Then he kicked dirt over our small fire.
"It will be cold tonight without a fire" He said, "Best rug up tightly against the cold" I nodded, almost uncomprehending.
Jurgo went to where we had tethered the horses. They had (oddly) made no sound but were standing in a fear that was evil to behold. Sweating and red eyed. Jurgo loosed them and brought them closer to where we lay beneath the overhanging rock. Then he hobbled them and spoke words of comfort to them. Eventually they calmed and we lay down, back to back against the cold. I do not know if Jurgo slept, but I dozed very badly that night.
In the early hours as the sun began it's new journey from the east, with the long shadows reaching to the western horizon, the daemon bird came sweeping silent and deadly back to it's secret lair in the mountain.
Jurgo saw it first. He jumped up and ran, stooping and crouching from rock to rock to bush, watching the sky and squinting. I sat bolt upright staring with horror. He watched that daemon as it circled above like some evil shadow.
"Marcus!" He yelled suddenly, "My spear!"
The spell broke and I jumped up and grabbed his spear were it was stuck into the earth next to his sleeping place. I ran out and handed it to him. I drew my bow and swept an arrow into it. We both stared into the sky. The giant creature was still circling above.
"Has it seen us?" I whispered, my horror still strong if not paralysing.
"It will" He answered, and he began to yell. Waving his arms and jumping up and down. "AIEE!. Ho daemon!" He cried, "Daemon I challenge you! Come down Dragon spawn. Come down and die!"
I stared at him like he was witless. I knew what he was doing and why. We had come into the mountains just for this reason: to kill the daemon. I had envisaged creeping up on it in the dark and putting an arrow through it's brain before it knew we were there, but to actually invite it down in broad daylight!
Jurgo's efforts were beginning to bear fruit. The horses finally gave voice to their fears and began to scream. The daemon bird was circling down closer as though to look at the puny human ants who challenged him.
Jurgo stopped shouting and waving and took a stance, his long spear aimed up, the butt against a large rock so that the point was more than an arm's length above his head. I drew my bow back and began to move slightly away for a better shot. I moved nearer the rockface but not under the overhang. I shook several arrows from the quiver that lay near the dead fire and stuck them into the ground before me. I gave myself up for dead and prayed, mainly to Jurgo's Christ, that my soul would not also be lost when the daemon bird killed me.
The horses were going mad: straining at their leashes, biting their hobbles. Screaming with fear. Jurgo stood quietly. The daemon bird circled silently. I sweated and prayed and waited. The whole tableau remained for a long moment.
There was a scream from the sky. The horses fell down. The daemon bird had folded it's hideous wings and was falling like a lightning stroke towards us. Jurgo stood, his face grim and set like one of the ancient heroes, but I saw his lips move as he also prayed to his God.
In a splintered second everything changed. The daemon bird had screamed out of the sky and impaled itself on Jurgo's spear. It was huge. The size of a small boat. I was firing arrow after arrow into it's hide. As though through a tunnel I saw one of my bolts pierce it's eye as it writhed against Jurgo's spear. But the spear was barbed and held. Vile dark, blood burst from it's breast and down the haft and over Jurgo, drenching his tunic. The bird tried to rear back away from the awful pain. It fell backwards screaming and writhing in mortal agony. What can I say? There must have been a miracle: for Jurgo's spear had passed between every bone and straight through the monster's heart.
I finished my arrows and dropped my bow, sprinting to help my young master.
As I came up with them the giant claw raked towards Jurgo, cutting into his shoulder with a glancing blow that brought a scream to his lips. He nearly fell but I upheld him.
The bird jumped and twitched, gave a shriek that all but deafened us and finally fell over dead on it's back, still writhing in it's death throes. I lay Jurgo down. The dead weight of the monstrous bird was enormous. I found Jurgo's sword and sawed off it's head. The ground was covered in blood and my arms ached and hurt like fire as the surge of energy that powered my muscles began to die away. Jurgo gave a groan and opened his eyes.
"Marcus" He croaked, "If you love me, get me a drink of water"
I nearly wept to see him alive and laughed. Between us we lifted him up and he sat with his back against the rock, staring at the huge beast.
"I don't believe that we did all that" He said finally, "I am forever in your debt."
"No, Jurgo" I replied, "It is I who am in your debt. Just to be companion to a man such as yourself is payment, more than enough"
He laughed, and grimaced as the pain of his bruised ribs hit him.
"I am just a man, like yourself. You did as much as I. Truth to tell, I think your arrows did more than my foolish spear."
We talked back and forth for a while and then I found a change of clothes in our packs. We dressed our wounds and burnt all the carcase of the daemon bird except for the head. It stank and sent up a smoke that fouled the sky for hours. Jurgo's wounds, especially the one in his shoulder, were more painful than dangerous and we set slowly out the next day, carrying with us in a cloth the head of the daemon bird, travelling slowly back to the west and my old home. I knew that we would not stay but go on to new adventures.
I mentioned this to Jurgo as we came in sight of my village and he laughed with returning strength and vigour.
"I have heard that there is a large and greedy Dragon loose in the countries to the north of Greece. One that pillages farms and villages and eats young maidens. Shall we go look for it, do you think?"