by Judson Ellis
Five or six huntsmen went ajourneying in the woods, as huntsmen are wont to do. The first was Sir Barnaby Ledgers, a knight six feet tall, ten if you count the horse, and decorated in the finest of linen and tunic and rifle. The second was Conan Stark, who held a hunter’s dagger at his waist and a spear in his hands. Other folk mocked Conan for his choice in weaponry. “People wield guns now.” they would say, “What need has Conan the Huntsman for that barbaric spear?” Yet Conan did not mind the jeers of these other folk, because Conan was the only one with a spear. The third man was Bumblebrick, the king’s fool, and the only man to escape the hunting expedition alive. In his later memoirs, Bumblebrick described this particular journey as “exciting at times.”
As for the two or three other men, they are rather unimportant to the story. In fact, having completely overestimated the length of this tale at the beginning of its account, I have failed to assign any name or characterization to these huntsmen. For brevity’s sake, I shall tell you that they were picked off by wolves immediately upon entering the forest.
There. Now you should be intimately familiar with our main characters. Perhaps I should introduce you to the story you are about to read.
One of the first questions a reader always asks his narrator is this: “Why should I read your particular story? There are so many stories I could be reading. What makes yours different?”
To that inquiring reader I can only answer this: There is nothing that makes my story unique in any discernible way. However, I have made sure to include all the cheap thrills that the average reader expects from his fiction.
We open this story on three men: the very tall, brave, and morally straightforward huntsman, the shorter, more brutish, and quiet spearman, and the talkative fool brought along to lighten the mood: all of whom I have already taken the time to describe. What I failed to mention is that they were on a quest to slay a dragon hidden away at the heart of the highest mountain in the deepest, darkest part of the woods.
“Oh, wonderful.” said Bumblebrick, “My mum always told me if I worked hard enough at my juggling I’d get to be burned alive by a dragon.”
Oh, Bumblebrick, you silly man. Expect plenty more wisecracks like that out of Bumblebrick.
Barnaby trotted ahead of the pack, his horse easily stepping over the bodies of two or three dead huntsmen.
“Dangerous woods.” Said Barnaby, and Conan grunted in agreement. Ahead of the party was a dark green matte. Trunks punctured and twisted through this matte like worms, and the only way through were openings like murderous black maws.
“I imagine it gets much better up ahead.” Bumblebrick said, as the party marched into one of the less murderous maws.
With swinging sword and slicing dagger Barnaby carved a tunnel deeper into the belly of the woods. The leaves rattled and the trees slithered around him. With each mile the canopy thickened, and with each mile the shadows grew darker, longer. Soon Barnaby was enveloped in shadow, a blanket of shadow that covered all root and branch, all man and beast in a dark bog. Shadow sucked at man’s feet and horse’s hooves. Shadow draped over them and poured over them in a steady torrent. Shadow ruled this wood, and so dark and mighty were the shadows that, upon sunset, when that cruel Helios could no longer cast a shadow upon the forest floor, the woods seemed to get a little brighter. In this light, Barnaby spied a watering hole, and the party stopped for a drink and a wash.
“I can see why no one’s come through these woods before.” Said Bumblebrick.
“Ay, the woods are dark and menacing,” Replied Barnaby, “But the light of our quest guides our way.”
“A torch would have done just as well.”
“No longer shall the dragon’s terrible claws grip this kingdom.” Barnaby continued, “No longer will fire burn our crops, our sheep, our friends and countrymen. No longer must our brave king be forced to pay his ransoms of gold and jewels.” Barnaby caressed a gold cross that hung on his chest by a thin rope.
“The king was paying this dragon in jewels?”
“Of course not. If he had, the dragon would have had no reason to pillage.”
Conan grunted in agreement.
It was late noon, so the hole at which Barnaby, Conan, and Bumblebrick stopped was soon shrouded in the sulphurous fog of mortality. These men were most likely mortal long before they passed beneath this fog, but they had never had the opportunity to prove it until now, and, looking back on all the times they had not died over the course of their lifetimes, they had a hard time ignoring the fear that they had just lost something very precious. Fortunately, the pleasant gray and slow meandering of this fog had the consoling effect of smothering such fears in their sleep.
Barnaby took the canteen from his saddlebag and dipped it into brown water. His canteen scraped the side of the pond, collecting all the vital nutrients that stagnant water and mud could offer. As a hunter, Barnaby understood how many beasts had trod these waters before him, had drunk, had died, had fed the water with their blood. Yes, pond water surely was a special nectar, the wood’s own natural soup. Barnaby raised the canteen to his lips and slurped at the nourishing goo of the forest. It was almost orgasmic. Watching this ceremony from upon a stump, Bumblebrick decided to pass on water for the day.
Conan had no patience for canteens. He dunked his head into the brown pond and opened his mouth. When he re-emerged he paused, and pricked his hears to the sound of a distant splash, a thrum, a bubble gurgling to the surface of the murk. Conan reached for his spear. He nudged Barnaby, who unsheathed his rifle. He beckoned to Bumblebrick, who stepped back a few feet.
Another thrum from deep below the waters, like a bow fired in molasses. Another bubble, this one closer than the last. Silence, as the huntsmen reared their arms to strike.
A roar burst through the silence as a flash of sanguine streaked the grey-green night. Long and scaly was this flash, black and toothy the jaws that formed the roar. Those jaws rushed toward Barnaby and closed upon his gun. That long tail followed those jaws and formed a coil where the great snake landed. As the tail twisted and jerked upon the ground, the jaws opened once more.
The leviathan roared and roared. Barnaby clutched his ears at the sound. Conan roared back. He leapt spear-first into the coils of twisting tail. Down plunged the spear into the hard scaly flesh, and down plunged Conan after it.
The spear scratched at the leviathan’s scales, but the snake moved too quickly and avoided a piercing blow. Instead, the spear struck the ground beside the snake, and Conan fell into the monster’s embrace. Serpent, blood, and huntsman wrestled in the dirt. They writhed in red and orange and brown. Now there was Conan: red, tense muscle pounding, gripping at the flailing mass. Now there was serpent: teeth snapping, tail wrapping, crushing Conan with its bulk. They were like one emotionally disjointed man-beast, unsure of its own identity, fighting the very internal unity that should have made it stronger as a person.
Understanding this conflict, Bumblebrick watched the writhing beast with pity and empathy, yearning for a peace within himself. Presently, Bumblebrick shook his head in denial of my astute observation, but deep down he knew it to be true.
Conan’s spear lay dormant on the mud. Freeing an arm from the leviathan’s grasp, the huntsman clawed for his weapon, his fingers feeling desperately for the smooth wood of the hilt. It was just out of reach.
Barnaby pulled his own rifle from the mud. He lifted it, aimed, and fired into the man-beast. Yet round after round of metal glanced off the scales of this monstrous orange worm. Only two bullets penetrated flesh. One hit Barnaby’s horse in the chest. Barnaby’s horse whinnied and collapsed. The other struck Conan’s probing arm. Conan’s arm was unperturbed. I don’t mean to say that the bullet didn’t do physical harm to him. Of course, the hot iron ball, tearing skin and wedging itself in Conan’s bone, made a rather effective gash. But Conan was preoccupied with the jaws of a hundred teeth that were opening before his face. Conan saw the void beyond a hundred needles. Then he saw only void, as the snake covered his head with its mouth and shoved its needles through his neck. Sir Barnaby Ledgers dropped his rifle and screamed in rage and shock. Bumblebrick was less dramatic because he saw this one coming.
But today would not be the day Conan died. How could it be? There were only two other huntsmen in the party at this point, one of whom was a coward who wouldn’t progress the plot, and the other some boring nobleman. After all, it was at that moment, alone with his thoughts in the confines of a serpent’s jaws, that Conan remembered the knife at his belt.
He fiddled with his non-probing arm until he could finally dislodge it from under the weight of scaly flesh. He reached his arm above the beast and brought it down in furious might, up and down, again and again into the scales of the leviathan. Finally, the knife cracked scale, and when Conan brought it down again he brought it down through flesh.
The snake released Conan in surprise and roared its vibrating roar. Conan rolled the snake onto its back. He grasped the spear, tore it from the dirt, and with both arms drove it through the snake’s black mouth.
Barnaby rushed to his huntmate. “Conan, your neck, your arm. You are bleeding. Your wounds are too deep. You cannot possibly stand.”
Conan turned his head to Barnaby, blood streaming from his throat. He opened his mouth and let more blood fall. Then he turned away from Barnaby, he bared his teeth and plunged them into the knife-wound of the monster. He sucked at the blood of the leviathan, and as he drank his wounds closed, his veins engorged themselves, the bullet popped from his left arm. But that same arm, bone further splintered by Conan’s two-handed spear maneuver, now hung limp at his side.
As any seasoned hunter knows, the only two things a leviathan’s blood cannot heal are bone and a broken heart. In fact, the only way to fix a shattered bone is to sprinkle essence of the yarrow flower over the body of a fallen comrade, and that only under the light of the second full moon of January. The cure for a broken heart is yet unknown.
So Conan rose with blood coating his face and his arm hanging like a prize salmon by a hook. Conan did not mind. He only needed one arm to wield a spear.
“Are you sure you don’t need to rest, my compatriot?” Barnaby asked.
Conan shook his head. He replaced his knife by his belt, then lifted his spear with his right hand and pointed it up. Above the corpse of the pond leviathan was a patch of open sky. The sun was just rising. Splitting the crimson and purple of the sunrise was a dark-stoned mountain. Conan looked once more at Barnaby, then to the dead horse. He gave a scornful flick of the eyes at Bumblebrick before nodding towards a game trail headed towards the mountain and beckoning for Barnaby to follow.
“Quite the mouth on that barbarian there. He must have some problem.” Jested Bumblebrick as he caught up with the horseless Barnaby. While Barnaby missed his old horse, he had to admit that walking vastly reduced the number of branches he had to duck under.
“Indeed.” answered Barnaby, “His family and his homestead were burned to the ashes by the dragon.”
Bumblebrick immediately regretted bringing up the subject.
“Ever since he has sought revenge. He vowed long ago never to fire gun or bow. To do so would make him no better than that cowardly dragon, a murderer from afar.” (To be fair, it was quite hypocritical for Conan to think this way, given the number of deer he himself had slaughtered, without second thought for their families) “No, when he kills the dragon he will look it in the eyes as he thrusts his spear into its hide.”
For twenty miles the hunting party followed the game trail. For the first three of those miles nothing tried to kill them.
By the fifth mile their sense of security had been ruined by a black-taloned harpy-eagle.
By the eight, they had faced an eight-foot lion and run from a scourge of spiders each as large as Conan’s head.
During the tenth mile an unapologetic ground worm took Barnaby’s ring finger.
During the course of the twelfth mile two trees fell just short of crushing Bumblebrick. Of course, trees are not known to deliberately strike out at travelers, and if only one tree had fallen I would not have paid it any heed, but two trees suggested a hint of malice.
During the fourteenth mile a pack of carnivorous horses tried to intercept the party.
During the fifteenth mile the hungry Conan tracked a herd of deer that, to the chagrin of the whole party, turned out to be carnivorous as well.
During the sixteenth mile, they were swarmed by bees.
During the seventeenth they encountered another leviathan, and engaged in another session of blood-drinking. The flesh reformed itself around Barnaby’s lost finger, but it was a floppy and boneless finger, and Barnaby knew if he wanted the whole thing back he would have to wait until January.
During the eighteenth, they fought a direwolf.
During the nineteenth, a rogue centaur and an anteater that spit fire from its proboscis.
During the twentieth, three stone trolls.
When that twentieth mile was done, the party came at last upon the foot of the mountain.
The mountain was a wall of dark stone: black, grey stone. Conan put his spear hand to the rock and felt the murmur of a fire raging within.
Conan closed his eyes and felt the fire course from dragon to rock to flesh. He opened his eyes and Barnaby said: “Here, Conan. On the north face of the mountain there lies a hidden passageway to the dragon’s lair.”
And hidden indeed was this passageway. Ten full minutes passed before the trio could discover the dull brass knob that opened the cave door. Barnaby turned the knob, and pulled hard with both arms. He pulled and pulled until his arms could take no more.
Conan, scowling by a tree, lay his spear on the grass. He marched to the door and unfastened Barnaby from the knob. He grasped the knob in his spear arm and heaved the door ajar. From the cavern within came a squall of air like a blow-dryer set to its maximum setting. Of course to Conan the heat of the dragon’s breath was like nothing he had ever felt, but as a modern audience we have the luxury of making such a simple comparison.
The party marched together through the fiery gusts of the dragon that pulsed through the cavern, the mountain’s own heartbeat. The closer they came to the monster’s lair the more scalding the dragon’s breath against their faces. It was pushing them back like a fiery hand that understood the doom ahead and was concerned with their well-being.
Now the walls of the cavern opened, and the three men found themselves at the heart of the mountain, a dome full of gold, full of that yellow glinting light. And over it all was the dragon. Each man looked up in awe. So massive was the beast before them, so glorious its burning scales, with such light it pierced their eyes. When it stood it stood as tall as Heaven, when it opened its wings it swallowed them in bloody light and charcoal shadows. They stared at me witless, in horror and in veneration, for they knew I had already won.
“Monster, devil of the skies!” Cried Barnaby. “We have come to slay you.” He unsheathed his sword and his rifle and aimed the rifle to my face.
Of course, I knew why these three had come, and I told them just that. I told them about the monsters I had sent, the leviathans, the falcons, the spiders and all that. I told them I had been watching with my third eye and was quite impressed. Conan seemed less impressed. He scowled at my comment, his left arm still limp at his side, his right arm clenching his spear. Always a silent type, that Conan. He opened his mouth and screamed. He lifted his spear high above his head as he screamed. He really looked quite silly that way. I told him I could see why Bumblebrick kept calling him a barbarian.
“You have played with us!” Conan screamed. “You have been playing with us like toys! I will take my spear and torture you before I kill you!”
Conan had a more annoying voice than I had expected. In fact, it was very grating. You will not be surprised, then, that I opened my mouth and unleashed the hellfire upon him. His screams of pain while eyes melted from his face and flesh melted from his bones were far more tolerable than his screams of rage.
Barnaby yowled. He closed his eyes to the searing flames but could not close his nostrils to the smell of roasting comrade. He dropped his sword and gripped his golden crucifix. That cross sparkled in the firelight as Barnaby whispered his prayers. I figured the gold would make a splendid addition to my collection, so you will not blame me when I reached out to it with my claw and closed my talons tightly around Barnaby’s corpse.
Then there was Bumblebrick. Oh, Bumblebrick. A man after my own heart. It was he who heard my voice the clearest as I followed the hunters through the woods, he who had made those silly comments I so adored. I lowered my head to Bumblebrick and asked if he would stay. I told him I needed a jester of my own. Unfortunately, he denied my offer on the basis of a poor working environment.
“And besides that,” he added. “You’re quite cruel.”
I thanked him for his kind words and sent him on his way. Perhaps his account would stop the king from throwing knights and hunters at my doorstep every few months.
But, alas, this was not the first time hunters had come to slay me and it would not be the last. I would face so many heroes in my day until the nearby castle finally collapsed in that freakish and unexpected conflagration.
I suppose there is a moral to this tale. Don’t go wandering into unknown woods without proper preparation; that could be one. Or maybe don’t declare your intention to murder someone as soon as you walk into their house. But mostly, without moral in mind, I simply wanted to share with you a story from my younger days. I found it quite entertaining to write, and I hope you found it just as fun to read. And if you ever find yourself at the doorway of a giant black mountain, why don’t you step in? Trust me when I say that time has taught me the virtue of restraint. I simply have an excess of tea on the stove and no one to chat with.