The sun had just risen over the horizon and light was leaking in through the trees in the forest, illuminating two tents pitched in a small clearing. One of the tents was empty, but the other contained a snoring man wearing regal looking clothes. The empty tent’s inhabitant was a few meters away saddling horses. He was a young boy of about fifteen with black hair and dark eyes. He was currently talking to one of the horses.
“I can’t wait until I’m a knight,” he grumbled, “I’d be a lot better than that snoring oaf.”
The horse didn’t reply, it never did. The boy sighed and walked over to his lord’s tent. He was still snoring away, oblivious to his squire trying to wake him. The squire sighed and began to shake the man until his eyes opened.
“My lord, the horses are ready to go, we should go soon if you want to arrive at the dragon’s cave in three days to retrieve the sword.”
“Ah yes,” the knight said, “the Lost Sword of Eynsham. Once I rescue it from the dragon I shall be glorified forever! In the meantime, did you get fresh water for the trip, Maarken?” Maarken shook his head, “Go get some then, and hurry, we need to get going.”
“Yes Lord Ruan.” Maarken rolled his eyes, walked out of the tent and began to walk towards a small stream that was a few minutes walk from the camp and on the other side of a hill. Maarken trudged through the trees in the early morning light, wondering why Lord Ruan hadn’t asked him to get water the night before. Now they were off schedule.
While he was filling the water skins, he heard a yell of terror coming from the direction of the tents. Maarken assumed that it was just the knight panicking because couldn’t find his favourite riding boots, and finished getting the water before going back to the camp.
“My Lord I got the water. Are you ready to leave?” There was no reply. As he went to put the water skins in the saddle bags he noticed that the horses were jittery. As he tried to calm them, Maarken turned towards the tents, wondering where that idiot knight of his was.
What Maarken saw was two squashed tents, some scorched trees, a pile of ashes and a half melted sword. He gasped wondering what had happened and walked closer. On the ground there was giant claw marks. A dragon must have attacked the camp. Maarken tiptoed towards the ashes, wary that the dragon could still be near.
“Good Lord,” he muttered, inspecting the half melted sword. It was Lord Ruan’s.
Maarken felt a wrenching pang of guilt in his gut; the dragon had burnt his lord to ashes! That yell he had heard earlier was a cry for help that Maarken had ignored, it was his fault Ruan was dead. Underneath the guilt was a layer of excitement, now that the knight was dead Maarken could take over the quest. But how would he do it alone? He had no experience with quests, let alone ones that required sneaking into a dragon’s cave!
Though he felt utterly helpless, Maarken felt like he owed it to Lord Ruan to carry on his quest, so he grabbed his sword out of his squished tent and got on his horse. He looked at the map Lord Ruan had given him, the cave was about two days ride from here, three counting time for eating, hunting, and sleeping. He nudged his horse forwards hesitantly, but didn’t look back, riding farther and farther into the trees.
Maarken rode for a whole day without incident until he came to a wide, raging river and decided it was a good place to stop for the night, he would tackle the problem of crossing the river in the morning. As he lay down to sleep he knew in his heart that once he crossed that river, there was no going back.
Maarken woke to the noise of rushing water and remembered his predicament with a groan, “How am I supposed to do this?”
Maarken looked around for anything he could use to cross the river, seeing as crossing the fast, angry river on foot was not an option. Seeing nothing, he began to walk along the river bank searching for anything that could be useful and came across a giant mossy log that spanned across the water. It didn’t look overly stable but it was Maarken’s best, and only, option.
So, with a deep breath and a quick prayer for courage, he climbed onto the log. Maarken’s first instinct was to walk across the top of the log but the moss was too slippery, so he instead crawled slowly across. When he was nearly at the other side of the river, Maarken got anxious and began to crawl faster, which was a mistake because as he sped up, so did the wind. A tall wave came speeding towards him and hit with a deafening crash, knocking him into the river below.
The water was freezing, which sent Maarken into a brief period of shock during which he inhaled lots of water and hit his head on a rock. He was just barely conscious when he managed to pull himself up onto the river bank.
As his vision faded to black he vaguely noticed that the trees on this side of the river were more gnarled than those on the other and that the silence of the forest was no longer peaceful, but deadly.
A while later Maarken awoke to a face he didn’t recognize staring at him, concerned. The girl had long brown hair and wide grey eyes. When she noticed he was awake, she immediately started chattering, “Are you alright? What happened? I’m Tobin, who are you? Why are you here?”
“My name is Maarken,” he said groggily, head throbbing, “I’m fine; I just fell while crossing the river and hit my head, that’s all.”
Tobin scrutinized him, “Nice to meet you, but you didn’t say why you were here.” Maarken sighed and told Tobin about his quest.
“I’m sorry to hear about your knight, but your quest sounds interesting. That cave you’re looking for isn’t far from here. Hey, I should come along with you and show you it!” She sounded very excited, but Maarken wasn’t quite sure.
“I don’t know, you don’t have to come, I have a map. Besides, wouldn’t your family worry?”
“Any map you had isn’t going to be easy to read after your little swim,” she joked. But all of a sudden her eyes went sad, “I don’t have a family, and no one in my village will miss me. Please let me come.”
She looked so sad Maarken had no choice but to agree, “Alright, but we should leave right away.”
“Oh of course, but we should go to my village and get supplies first,” she motioned to the left with her arm, “Let’s go, it’s not far.”
As the pair walked through Tobin’s village Maarken noticed how bleak everything was. There were withered crops and underfed animals, unhappy people and crumbling buildings. Whenever he saw a person they just frowned and walked away. Maarken was very confused, his village was nothing like this, and it was always full of happy people, ripe crops, and bright colours.
In answer to Maarken’s silent question, Tobin said quietly, “Nothing ever grows here, the soil isn’t fertile and the creatures of the forest usually take whatever we manage to grow, but the village people are too stubborn to leave.”
She led Maarken into a small wooden hut and began gathering supplies. Tobin grabbed a sword and handed it to Maarken, “You’ll need this in the forest.” When she was done they quickly slipped out of town and headed into a heavily wooded part of the forest. As they walked Maarken got an odd sensation, like he was being watched by something that wasn’t quite human.
“Do feel like-”
“Someone’s watching us?’ Tobin finished, “Absolutely. Stay alert and get your sword ready, I think I know what’s coming.”
Though Maarken was confused, he did as Tobin asked and got into a fighting stance, waiting for something to happen. He didn’t have to wait long, out jumped a short, green, scaly creature from behind a gnarled tree brandishing a small sword and yelling something Maarken didn’t understand. As more of the strange creatures jumped out from behind foliage he saw Tobin grab a dagger out of her boot and heard her cry, “Goblins!”
One of the goblins advanced on Maarken with its eyes narrowed evilly. Maarken acted out of pure instinct, lunged at the goblin and sliced its head clean off. Laughing in shock at he was capable of, he began to kill others and Tobin did the same, though more gracefully than he, and before Maarken knew it there was nothing left to fight and his sword was stained purple from the goblin blood. He wiped it off in the grass and shot Tobin a grin, which she returned.
“Sorry about that, goblins don’t usually attack me when I’m alone but I guess you’re here now, they must have decided it was time for a fight.”
“It’s fine, it was kind of fun, actually, “he replied.
“Well,” she laughed, “Let’s see if you feel that way in the morning, it’s getting dark, we should probably find someplace to sleep.”
It turned out that Tobin was right, Maarken’s muscles ached in the morning from the fight with the goblins the day before and he felt exhausted. Tobin just laughed when he complained about it and told him to get going.
“If you hurry we’ll get to the dragon’s cave by lunch.” This got Maarken’s attention and he immediately stood up and asked which way they were going. Tobin just laughed and started walking. The closer to the dragon’s cave they got, the thicker the trees got and the less light came in. By the time Maarken and Tobin arrived at the cave it looked like night time though it was barely past noon.
What was a cave on Maarken’s old map was a seemingly solid mountainside. Maarken saw the lack of cave opening and was ready to give up, but Tobin had other ideas. She began feeling the side of the mountain, running her fingers along the jagged stone. After what seemed like ages of that, Tobin stopped feeling the rock and pushed in a stone that was sticking out a little from the mountain. Much to Maarken’s surprise, part of the rock began to move downwards revealing an opening into a dark cave.
For a moment Maarken felt like they were actually going to finish his quest, but something wasn’t right. It was all too simple. Tobin apparently did not feel the same way and excitedly ran into the cave.
“Tobin wait!” he yelled hoping she would stop.
“What is it now Maarken? We’re in, why are you hesitating?’
“That’s just it, we’re in. It was too easy Tobin, something isn’t right here, there’s got to be something else coming.” Maarken looked around the dark cave nervously.
Suddenly Maarken and Tobin both doubled over in pain, holding their heads. A deep, yet feminine, voice echoed in their minds, Yes little one, you are correct. There is indeed something else; to enter my domain is not an easy task, you must now answer three riddles correctly.
Maarken grimaced; he was never very good at riddles. But Tobin smiled, she loved riddles, she found them enticing.
The dragon laughed in their minds, Very well, one hatchling is clever, and one is not? Let us start with something simple: Give me food and I will live, give me water and I will die. What am I?
Tobin answered quickly, “Easy, the answer is fire.”
Maarken was astounded at how quickly she came to the answer, the dragon was only amused, Very good hatchling, shall we make it harder? I’m the part of a bird that’s not in the sky; I can swim in the ocean and yet remain dry. What am I?
This one Tobin didn’t answer immediately. Instead she stood in silence, contemplating the riddle. Maarken could practically hear her brain figuring out the answer.
“A shadow,” Tobin finally said.
Impressive, little one, such a clever mind you have. How about one more, let’s make it tricky. What can run but never walks, has a mouth but never talks, has a head but never weeps, has a bed but never sleeps?
The first thought in Maarken’s head was that it all rhymed. But then he started putting the pieces together in his head; runs but never walks, has a bed but never sleeps…
“I’ve got it!” Maarken yelled, feeling as surprised as Tobin looked, “A river!”
Tobin looked upset that the answer hadn’t come to her first.
You are cleverer than we thought hatchling. You two are worthy to move on to my next challenge.
“Next? I thought you said only three riddles!” Tobin cried in outrage.
Calm yourself little one, this challenge if for our hero. How brave are you hatchling?
At the moment, Maarken was feeling more scared than anything else, but, “Brave enough to come here.”
The dragon chuckled, You amuse me, little hero. But your challenge stays the same. Those who wish to enter my treasury must make a sacrifice of flesh. How attached are you to your left hand, brave hero?
He gulped, “At the moment, very.”
Pity, you’ve come all this way and answered my riddles and now I’ll have to eat you…
“What?” Tobin cried, “That’s monstrous!”
Yes hatchling it is. But it seems you’ve forgotten, I am a monster.
“It’s alright Maarken; you don’t have to do it!”
He looked at her solemnly, “Yes I do Tobin. I came on this quest to finish what Lord Ruan started, and I intend to finish, with or without my left hand.”
Ruan? He was your knight, little hero? That silly human could have never gotten past me, so I got rid of him before he could waste my time.
“You killed Lord Ruan?” Maarken asked incredulously.
I thought you were clever, hatchling. Of course I did, he would have never survived my challenges so I spared him the trouble and burnt him before he could humiliate himself. But it is of small matter, what do you choose hero? Pay my price, or die?
His answer was hesitant, but his voice was determined, “Shall I cut it with my sword?”
Tobin gasped, but the dragon merely chuckled. Whatever you wish, little hero.
Maarken grabbed his sword and closed his eyes. Hoping his hand would go as cleanly as the goblins head, he took a swing. He wasn’t sure what was louder, his scream of pain, or Tobin’s shriek of horror. The pain flashed white hot in his mind and he thought he was going to die right then and there. The place where his hand once was throbbed painfully and blood flowed from his wrist.
“What now?” he breathed, hoping the dragon would hear him.
Get your frightened friend to wrap your wound with the medicated gauze she has in her bag. It will numb the pain and stop the bleeding, brave hero. Tobin just stood there, still frozen in horror, so the dragon gave her a mental shove towards the bag. She grabbed the supplies and started dressing Maarken’s wound. She was pale and shaking but got the job done. Whatever the gauze had been soaked in was working, Maarken immediately felt better and stood up from where he had fallen. He was suddenly glad of the darkness so he couldn’t the undoubtedly gruesome scene on the floor and walls of the cave.
Now walk straight until you reach the end of this tunnel, then knock thrice on the wall and my treasure chamber shall open to you.
Maarken was still woozy from blood loss and had to lean on Tobin while they walked. The cavern seemed endless and Maarken’s wrist throbbed with each step but he was determined to enter the dragon’s main cave. When the pair finally reached the end, Maarken reached out to knock on the wall and then remembered his hand wasn’t there so Tobin quickly did it for him.
Just like the wall of the first entrance, part of the cave wall sunk into the floor, dragon magic no doubt, revealing a giant room full of sparkling gold, jewels, instruments and weapons. And on top of it all sat a giant pearly white dragon watching them with large, amused purple eyes.
So hatchlings, you have entered my domain, what shall you take as your prize? Gold? Jewels? Magical items?
Upon seeing the amount of riches in the cavern Maarken was overwhelmed by a strange wave of greed and he felt as if all the treasure should belong to him and was about to say so, until he saw the look in the dragon’s eyes. She looked as if Maarken was doing exactly as she willed, like she had done this before to others who had pursued the sword. Maarken snapped out of whatever had overcome him and said instead, “The sword of Eynsham is what I have journeyed here for.”
The dragon looked shocked, The sword of Eynsham? For one so young you are very wise indeed. That sword has magical powers that bring fertility and happiness to whichever lands on which it is kept, and for your cleverness and bravery, it shall be yours, little hero.
She reached behind herself with her spiked tail and it emerged with a silver sword set with emeralds and brought it to Tobin. Upon seeing the outraged look on Maarken’s face she merely said, It is too heavy for you carry when you are still weak, little hero.
Maarken nodded and leaned on Tobin again, feeling dizzy. Tobin steadied him and they walked slowly out of the treasure room. As the pair walked out of the original cave entrance the dragon spoke once more in their minds, Goodbye hatchlings. I hope that we meet again, as it is very rare that I meet such clever and brave humans.
As they walked in the forest Tobin decided to give Maarken the sword to use as a cane. Every time it touched the ground, the grass around it went greener or flowers grew. Tobin was amazed at the power the sword contained.
“What are you going to do now that this is over, go back to your village?” She asked quietly.
Maarken thought for a while. Before this quest he would have said yes, he loved his village very much, but then he thought of Tobin’s sad, barren village and had a better idea, “No, my village has no use for the powers of this sword, yours however, does. I will go home with you and make the soil fertile and the people happy, the sword of Eynsham and I will live in your village.”
Tobin looked ecstatic, “Maarken, that’s wonderful! After all that’s happened and you don’t even want to go home? You are a true hero.”
He felt his cheeks go red, “Hey, I’m not the only one. You were brilliant with the riddles and the goblins. You deserve the swords power more than I.”
It was her turn to blush, “Now you’re talking like a hero. How about we go to the village in the morning after we rest?”
“Excellent plan.” The two of them practically collapsed on the forest floor right there and immediately fell asleep.
It was early afternoon the next day when Maarken awoke to mind numbing pain and Tobin standing over him with her supply bag. She apparently didn’t realize he was awake and began to carefully unwrap his bandages. Through his half open eyes he saw Tobin pale as she looked at the wound.
“That bad, eh?”
Tobin flinched, “Maarken you scared me! It looks dreadful to me but I don’t really have much experience with missing limbs. I’m just going to rewrap it and then we should get going.” Maarken winced as she wrapped his wound but felt better when Tobin was done. Maarken grabbed the sword and Tobin led the way through the forest to her village.
The village was just as bleak as Maarken remembered it being, with sad looking stone huts with sagging roofs, withered crops and poor people. Tobin told Maarken to stay in the village square while she went and gathered the villagers. As a group of sullen villagers gathered before Maarken he became very nervous, he felt like he should give a speech of some sort but he had no idea what to say to these people.
Tobin caught his eye and smiled briefly and he began to talk, “People of the village,” he began nervously, “Yesterday myself and Tobin journeyed through the forest into a dragon’s cave.” Some of the villagers looked a tad sceptical but he continued on, “We faced many challenges and managed to recover this sword.” As he lifted up the jewelled sword the villagers gasped in awe. “This sword has the power to bring fertility to any land, and I have chosen to bestow its gifts on your village.”
“Prove that it works!” One of the villagers yelled up at him. Maarken felt a little annoyed at the man but stuck the sword into the dirt beneath him. As flowers and green grass grew on that spot, the dying crops in the area began to perk up and go from brown to green. The longer the sword remained in the ground, the more plants grew and the healthier the vegetation got. The wide eyed villagers cheered and Tobin ran up to Maarken and gave him a hug. It was in that instant that Maarken knew he had made the right decision, and he knew that if another adventure should call his name, he would gladly go and face whatever dangers it brought and he knew that Tobin would be right there at his side helping him along the way.