Jurgo and I were soaked to the bone by the chilling rain that fell as though it had malice towards us. My nose was running like a tap. An improvement over my inability to breath properly the night before when we lay under the trees in a vain attempt to stay reasonably dry.
This country was appalling! I believe it rained almost every day. Cold, dismal and continual! I longed for the warmer climes of my home as I muttered under my breath while Jurgo led the way through the dark forest trails. Surely the village must be nearby. How much longer must I put up with this interminable weather? And the donkey died of exposure. And I have a cold. And, you know what makes it worse? Jurgo’s constant cheerfulness! Gods, but I really hate that man at times, as much as I revere the ground he walks on!
But what can I say about Jurgo that is not already the stuff of legend?
A Christian saint? Certainly.
A warrior in the old tradition? Without doubt.
The Man who killed the Daemon Bird of Asia? Absolutely (with a little help from me)
A kindly and thoughtful man? Most of the time!!
But not right now as he pushed his way ahead towards .... at last - the village whole lights had just swum into view. Thank God.
Whichever god I was calling out to right then had finally heard me. Jurgo follows Christ or Christos as the Greeks call Him: and I do too. Most of the time. Occasionally I forget myself and call upon Mithras the warrior god of soldiers that my father followed (a little). In my heart, though, I know that Mithras does not answer and Christ does.
A branch snapped back and I ducked just in time to avoid being hit by the wood. But not to avoid the extra wetting as the leaves shook. I moaned audibly. Jurgo turned and smiled in that infuriating way he has when he knows how badly you feel and feels badly for you.
“The lights of the village are in sight, my good friend” He said needlessly, for I could see them.
“Not long now till we have supper and can dry in front of a good fire”.
“Ha” I replied, “Like that last village that refused us and sent us on to this ... this. What is the name of this place, anyway?”
“I do not know, to tell the truth. But God in His wisdom has guided us here for a reason”
“I wish this god of yours would use better methods to move us around”.
“Maybe nothing else would work but the anger of men who are frightened of strangers”.
Jurgo turned back before I could answer so I kept silence as we trudged into the dark village. I call it a dark village and it was. A typical eastern European barbarian outpost on the edges of civilisation, hanging on to the borders of the ancient Roman Empire. Plagued by some terrible superstition of dragon and fire. Which is why we were there, of course.
“Marcus” Jurgo called out to me, “Come along inside. Do not dream in the rain”.
I shrugged and followed him into the warm light of the tiny inn.
Every inn I go into reminds me of my home in the warm lands of Asia Minor. I lived all my days in an inn till Jurgo found me and took me on his endless quest. Small, backward, dirty and full of the odour of stale drink and the reminder of smelly humans - and all inns end up feeling the same. Ah, yes. Here come the landlord, wiping his hands on his apron and smiling that professional smile for the customer. Just like my father, may the God bless him. Just like every other landlord I have met. He greets us.
“Good evening, young sirs. Or perhaps not such a good evening with this rain and all. Have you any luggage? Will you be staying the night? Can I get you some food and drink?” And all the time bobbing up and down, his round red face beaming. Jurgo threw his hood back and unclipped the old blue cloak.
“Our thanks”, He said, running his hand through his hair, close cropped in the Roman manner, “A room for the night and food and drink for a start. We have only the baggage that you see”.
I laid my pack down and straightened my shoulders. There were three men sitting around the common room, pretending not to look at us but otherwise not showing any obvious signs of hostility.
We followed the landlord, who told me his name several times but I confess to not being terribly interested at that moment, cold, hungry and damp as I was. He led us to a small room at the back of the inn. The usual den - dark, dismal and slightly vermin infested. But private, at least. We changed into the relatively dry clothes in our pack and I laid the wet out across my staff which I suspended between a stool and the lip of the gap in the wall that served as a small window. Only a little rain was coming through and I was satisfied that the clothes would dry overnight. Finally - and none to soon as my stomach was growing tired on only having air to digest - we went back to the common room. The same three men were there, joined now by another with the look of a travelling man such as ourselves. A very large man dressed in furs and a dark cloak, he sat to one side nursing a large mug of something and keeping to himself.
We nodded to everyone and sat a small table in the corner where our food waited, hot and tasty.
The very large man watched us from under thick, dark eyebrows for a while and then, gathering three tankards of the local brew, stepped across the room and sat down uninvited. I simply looked at him but Jurgo nodded in greeting.
“I am Wulfred” He said, passing the ale across.
Neither Jurgo nor I normally drink such liquids, but we had agreed that we should not offend any stranger who offered such to us.
“I am Jurgo of Macedonia near Greece, and this is Marcus who hails from Asia”
“I have heard of a Jurgo” Wulfred nodded and wiped the froth from his moustache. “Such a one is said to have killed a Daemon in Asia, - or so I am told” The last said with suspicion.
I bridled at the implied insult and would have spoken sharply but Jurgo waved me down with a smile.
“Word travels quickly”, he said, “Marcus and I dealt with a giant, evil bird in the Mountains of Ararat. Whether it was a daemon or not I cannot say but only the good Christ knows”.
“Are you a Christian man, then?” Wulfred shook the hair out of his eyes. His hair, I saw, was blond with red lights such as the wild Northmen sometimes have. Such people are dangerous and I worried lest Jurgo’s strong beliefs should offend the man.
“I am, as is Marcus, I believe” Jurgo looked at the huge man.
“I follow Wotan sometimes called Odin One-eye, as did my father and his father before him” The Norseman looked grim but there was something in his eye that belied his gruff manner. Jurgo leaned back and pushed the finished plate to one side.
“A man should know what he believes,” he said at last, “What can I do for you, Wulfred of Jotenburg?” I stared at Jurgo, startled. Wulfred looked amazed. Then he laughed. A booming laugh that stopped the quiet conversation of the other people in the inn. When they saw that a jest of some sort was the cause they went back to their talk.
“I see that we know each other, Jurgo.” Wulfred smiled and years seemed to fall from his face. Then he sobered. Then whispered.
“Are you here about the Dragon of Carpathia?”
Jurgo and I both leaned forward. “We are,” my young master answered, “And you?”
“Aye. It seems that we have a quest in common, then. Why do you come?”
“Because daemons of all kinds afflict men and it is the duty of a Christian and a soldier to fight them wherever they may be found. What of you?”
“This creature killed a kinsman of my mother. I am here to avenge my family upon it.”
“Then we can, perhaps, work together?” Jurgo looked the large man in the face and Wulfred smiled again, revealing a full set of teeth.
“We can if you promise not to preach the words of your Christ to me.”
Jurgo sat back and seemed to muse for a moment. Then,
“I can give no such promise, Wulfred, for that would be a lie, and I do not believe that you will accept a liar as a friend.” He continued as the big man nodded, “But I do promise not to bother you with trivia and to be a true companion”.
Now it was Wulfred’s turn to muse. He stroked his moustache for a moment and a grin slowly spread over his face. He pushed out his huge hands - one to each of us - and grasped ours in a grip both strong and warm.
“It is settled then. We leave for the cave of this dragon in the morning”
We drank our ale (dark and thick and strong and dreadful to the taste), wished each other a good night’s rest and retired. Behind us, I noticed as we left, the men in the common room watched us under hooded eyebrows with quiet remarks to each other, with heads shaking and looks of regret.
“It has stopped raining, Marcus.” Jurgo told me when I woke the next day. He always managed to wake before me when we slept indoors. I, on the other hand, always woke first when we were camping outside. Someone has to set the fire and boil water. I have always seen my mission as being the care of the small things so that Jurgo might more easily follow his questing for his God. Maybe the Lord Christ will smile on me and say “Well done, good and faithful servant” as He promised to do. Saints and great men such as Jurgo have their reward and we servants of great men have ours. In Heaven, they tell me, all good men are rewarded.
I shuffled out of the comforting blanket and peered out through the window. It had, indeed, stopped raining, but the road outside was mud and water and the sky looked threatening. I felt better today, though, and my nose was clear so I could breath properly. While I packed our belongings Jurgo went downstairs to arrange breakfast. He was not gone more than a few moments when he returned with Wulfred and the landlord in tow.
“It seems that the dragon struck again last night.” Jurgo said.
“Aye” The landlord spoke up, nodding while his hands twisted and folded in his tunic. “Killed several people in the village across the pass from here.
Seems some folk - having escaped - came here for refuge. All good for my business but terrible for them. And the dreadful thing seems to be coming this way”.
I looked past Jurgo to the giant shadow that was Wulfred standing behind him. He was dressed still in furs with an enormous battle axe in the northern tradition swung across his shoulder.
“We will take a bite and then go find this monster,” the Northman said. Jurgo nodded to the landlord and stepped into the room as that man scuttled away, still wringing his hands. Wulfred seemed even larger, if possible, in the small room.
“I spoke to some refugees,” The Norseman said, “as they came in during the early hours. It only takes about two hours to travel from their village to here. If we leave within the hour we will be there well before lunch”.
“Ah, yes.” I thought, “But whose lunch? Ours or the dragon’s?”
We packed and went into the common room. It was now crowded with poor souls in varying states of fear and depression. In the corner a woman held a small child while she wept silently, her hood pulled over her head. The child, a girl of two or three years, stared wide-eyed at the strange world.
We took our food and ate as we pushed our way through the crowd, outside and then north. Before us the mountains rose in the distance and before us the road disappeared into the dark woods. We set out calmly enough, Jurgo leading the way with Wulfred striding behind glancing from side to side. I led the small horse we had bought from the Landlord, laden down with our goods. My bow and arrows. Spare food and clothes. Jurgo’s light helmet (he wore his breastplate and swung the sword across his hips, Roman style). Wulfred carried the huge axe across his shoulders with seeming ease. The dark trees swallowed us up all too soon and we lost sight of the village.
The dark trees did not last as we travelled towards the hills. As the road rose we left the forest behind and the trees beside us grew fewer and smaller. The surge of people had stopped almost before we had entered the trees. Either all the people had escaped or the dragon had trapped them. We fell to talking of dragons and dragon lore. Jurgo - as always - saw them simply as daemons or evil monsters sent to try the sons and daughters of Adam’s race. Wulfred was convinced that such creatures were natural in the sense that they were part of the world as he saw it. Full of gods and extraordinary creatures. I inclined to Jurgo’s view but kept my peace mainly. Wulfred was explaining how his grandfather had killed a giant worm in the northlands with nothing more than a barbed club. We all decided, however, that killing any kind of dragon was going to be easier in the talking than in the doing.
The road grew steeper and the hills began to close in on either side. I unstrapped my bow from the pony and Wulfred pulled his axe into his hand. He was lefthanded I saw and he stepped away from us to swing the cruel weapon a few times around his head. A man would be sliced in two by a single blow from such an instrument.
Jurgo loosened the sword at his hip. The sky was coming over very dark again and I felt the slightest mist of cold rain against my face. I was about to make one of my usual pithy remarks about the dreadful weather when Jurgo lifted his left hand while his right went to his sword and he stopped dead in his tracks. Wulfred and I came quickly up to him. We were near a bend in the road and Jurgo waved us silently to the left against sharp rocks as he crept forward to quickly look around the corner. I had heard nothing and looked at Wulfred who shook his head to indicate the same.
Jurgo crept up the embankment slightly and quickly stuck his head out. He froze there as though transfixed for a moment and then climbed quickly back. As he did I became aware of a dull noise, almost below the threshold of my hearing. A grinding noise like rocks being scraped together. Wulfred heard it too as his head swung around and a puzzled look crossed his face.
Jurgo crept back to us.
“I can’t see it ”, he whispered, “but I believe the dragon to be close”.
As if to support this comment there was a hideous noise like a wild dog screaming against the world. It froze the blood to the marrow. The horse panicked and reared and tried to bolt, nearly wrenching my arm from it’s socket as it tore it’s head around. I fell against it and tried to throw my arms around it’s neck to no avail. Still screaming with fear it tore loose and bolted back down the road the way we had come. I fell to the ground as Jurgo ran to me. As I staggered to my feed I saw Wulfred jump into the centre of the road, his axe before him and his eyes fixed on the bend ahead of us.
Not a moment too soon.
The dragon came around the corner.
How simple to say and how hard to describe. What is a dragon? All I know is that this monster was over twice the height of a man, perhaps thrice the height. A lizard, certainly. But such a lizard! Grey and huge: A mouth full of teeth like spears. Breath so foul that men might truly believe it to be flame. Tiny eyes in a great head that swung back and forth like a monstrous pendulum, watching birdlike as the tiny men below ran to and fro. Skin of rancid leather. Bred out of time into a world that has grown beyond myth and legend. Monster: Daemon Lizard. Claws still wet with blood. Looking for flesh to rend and tear. A daemon come to life in a waking nightmare.
The dragon came around the corner.
I think I cried out with the shock. What is certain is that Wulfred ran straight at the monster, his axe singing through the rain. (Is it raining? I can’t remember when it began. All I know is the sight of this huge beast filling my vision and my nightmares). The dragon swung around and it’s huge tail swept around barely missing Wulfred, who darted between giant legs and let fly with a massive blow that slashed straight into the lizard’s leg. Just below the groin, which is what he had obviously been aiming at.
The dragon gave a scream that nearly shattered rock and bloodied the brain. I came to myself and began to fire my paltry arrows at the thing. Jurgo .... where was Jurgo? I quickly spun around as the creature began to fall to the ground, still screaming it’s pain and wrath: thick red blood bubbling and oozing from the great wound in it’s leg. Jurgo was climbing up above us on the sheer cliff. I was so staggered that I almost forgot the dragon. I could not believe that Jurgo was a coward. So frightened that he had to run away. But wait ... no coward at all. I saw what he was doing.
At the top of the cliff was perched a great rock, looking as though it was placed there for the very purpose. Jurgo had crawled up and over the lip and was now heaving against the rock with all his might. It began to rock back and forth dangerously. I shouted at Wulfred to come away but he was too far gone in his berserker rage to hear me as he darted in and out, striking again and again at the dragon. My arrows stuck out of it’s head like needles on a pine tree but still the monster was trying to get up and destroy it’s tormentors.
I jumped back barely missing being swiped by one of the forelegs. I ran around as far away from the beast as possible. How to get a mad Northman to listen? I threw some small stones.
One hit Wulfred on the back of his head and he stopped yelling long enough to turn around at me. I thought he was going to throw the axe at me then and I prepared to die but suddenly I heard the sound of Jurgo’s shout as the great rock gave way. Wulfred looked up, his eyes clearing. But, as he began to move into a run, the dragon lashed out again and caught him a glancing blow across his back. The huge Northman flew forward and lay, prone, on the ground. I ran to him and began to pull him away. He weighed far more than I did so I made only a little progress, especially with the dragon crawling behind us, still bleeding and howling, reaching out with those dreadful upper arms.
The great rock fell.
Guided by a fate far stronger than our foolhardiness deserved, the boulder smashed into the dragon’s neck and I heard the sound of it’s spine snapping and splintering. It gave a tremendous howl, the like of which I hear still in my darkest dreams and began to spin on it’s back for all the world like a small kitten that has been crushed beneath a cart’s wheel. But so large was the monster that even in it’s death struggle it was breaking the rocks and causing shards of stone to fly in all directions. One barely missed my cheek as Wulfred began to grown and help me to pull him away from the danger.
We moved only a short space when Jurgo came hurtling down the cliff face like a spider and helped us. We half dragged - half carried Wulfred a distance away from the scene and fell to the side of the road beneath a twisted pine.
It took over an hour for the daemon lizard to die, screaming and bubbling it’s breath away into the cold rain. During that time Wulfred passed in and out of consciousness as Jurgo and I ministered to him. I bound Jurgo’s hands where the rocks had cut him, but we two were almost unhurt. Wulfred came round very slowly and was quite weak at first. The monster had gone from a deafening scream to a low bubbling misery to final silence.
In many ways, that silence was the worst of all. Jurgo and I crept back to the road and looked.
The huge carcase straddled the path. Small trees and bushes lay shredded by the creature’s dying might. There were rocks strewn everywhere. We stared in horror at the pieces of flesh and the pools of flesh going cold in the rain. My nose was beginning to block again with the wretched sickness that followed me everywhere in this horrible land.
We stood there - Jurgo and I - for a long time, looking at the monster, amazed that we had killed it so easily. I imagine that Jurgo did - but I know I certainly did - give thanks to the good God for our survival. Men surely cannot beat such creatures without help from the divine realms.
The silence grew deeper as night began to fall and the rain eased to a drizzle as the clouds came down from the mountains.
I nearly screamed when a huge hand landed on my shoulder. It was Wulfred. White as a ghost, sweating in the cold rain, a look of fierce joy in his eyes, he had dragged himself to the scene of the victory. He was a man who had taken great hurt but had survived. He took hold of the little cross that was hanging by it’s chain around Jurgo’s neck and pulled it out to look. Jurgo stood quietly, watching him with those deep eyes. Then, to my wonder, the giant Northman gently kissed the small gold symbol and let it fall back against Jurgo’s chest. Then he smiled against the pain and placed a heavy hand on each of our shoulders.
“Well, my friends”, he said, “We have killed us a dragon. What shall we do now?”