Saint George and the Dragon's
He heard her soft whimpering before he saw her. The night's musky air brought the small sound to him with the heavy scent of the marsh. Seeing his horses ears stand high he knew he wasn't hearing things and pulled back on the reins. Without the clanking of his own armor and hooves he could hear it clearer than ever: that sad, childish whimpering. His white stallion turned its head back to him to exchange glances with him.
"Think it's a witch, Brutus?"
The horse held his gaze, then shook his mane as though to say, 'I sure hope not.'
Sir George readied a hand to his sword before prodding his horse onward once more. The marshland trees bowed low with curtains of moss draped over their arms like gauzy shawls. Frogs and crickets clicked and croaked within the shadows. He never much liked going this way. But it was the quickest way to Libya he knew of.
Still tense, he rounded the corner to see a slender figure in white with her face in her hands and knee length golden hair. He peered through the darkness wearily. He could feel his horse's tail flick nervously at another mosquito. How could you tell with witches anyways?
The woman's head shot up. Her crying stopped with a hiccup of surprise. On seeing her face he realized this was no woman, but a young girl that could be no older than fifteen. Despite her youth, the pale ivory face and bright eyes spoke much beauty—more than he could ever remember seeing in his life. He halted his horse, feeling his heart stop at this terrified, beautiful face. Shaking himself out of it, he dismounted.
"Child, what is the cause of your distress? And why are you out here all alone?"
As he spoke, he looked sidelong to his horse for signs of suspicion. His horse, however, looked quite calm—curious even.
"Ah, sir! Do not wait to question me, but continue on your journey, quickly!"
"But it's nearly midnight! This is no place for a young maiden and…" he looked down, "where are your shoes?"
"Do not mind me; I am suppose to be here. But, please, you must move on for your own safety! For in the marshes here lurks a fearful dragon that has been the death of many a noble knight such as yourself." Her voice had lowered to a whisper. "Press on, I beg of you, before it comes." Her wide eyes slid to the marshland before her. A breeze rustled through the willow branches. A crow cawed loudly.
He stared at her, perplexed and disbelieving.
"A dragon? Truly?"
"Yes!" Wringing her hands she looked back to the shadows. He exchanged another glance with his horse. The stallion shrugged.
"I'm sorry, dragon or no dragon I can't let you stay out here in the chill like this. Come on—on the horse. Oh, where are my manners. I'm Sir George." He bowed. "And you are Lady…"
"Lady Cleodolinda, but that doesn't matter—please, flee. I can't allow another death on my part. I just can't, I can't!"
"Death? What do you mean?"
Suddenly, the marsh fell into an eerie, unearthly silence. The hairs on his neck stood on end. He hadn't noticed the racket all that lived there made till now. Brutus snorted and pawed the ground, eyes beginning to roll. His hand returned to the hilt of his sword.
Cleodolinda wrench the roots of her gorgeous hair.
"It's upon us! Flee!"
"Now hold on a minute, what's going—"
"The dragon! Oh dear God…"
A horrible stench rose to his nose. At the same time, Brutus reared up on his hind legs, screaming. Following her eyes into the shadows he found himself eye to eye with two, glowing red pits of hellish fire. A huge, black form slithered towards them in the darkness. He was so transfixed with bewilderment and horror that the thought didn't even cross his mind to stop Brutus from bolting, bronze hooves thundering on the soft marshland.
On spotting him with its ember-like eyes the beast hesitated, seemingly surprised to see him there. Sir George starred back.
The dragon growled, raising its hackles. White fangs gleamed in the moonlight. Then it shot forward with a screech, black wings stretching wide.
Sir Gavin, his brother, had always insisted that he should've joined a clergy or a monastery rather than become a knight. It wasn't that he was no good at what he did. His honor and swordsmanship had always been acceptable, if not excellent. But Sir George was, in his brother's own words, "just too damn preachy."
A monastery actually hadn't sounded so bad starting out. He loved the quiet, the dedication, the daily study of scripture and hymns and the sense of divine satisfaction. George had always been the God fearing one of the two knight brothers. However, there was one weakness he knew his brother, and therefore everyone else, didn't know.
He was farsighted.
Because of this, he loathed reading. He couldn't look at a page longer than three minutes before getting a splitting headache from trying to decipher the tiny, fuzzy print. Being just as inclined towards the adventure of knighthood, this was enough of a negative to stop him from becoming a monk or a priest, where he would be forced to read volume after volume of texts. It wasn't that he couldn't read. He just avoided it, (bringing most to believe that he, in fact, really couldn't). Despite this fallback, George knew his scriptures impeccably. He'd attend all the sermons he could get to till he knew the Latin words so well he could quote them at the drop of a dime—and he did whenever the occasion seemed to call for it. Thusly, the title of preachy.
Though this doctrinal regurgitation of George's got on Gavin's nerves at times, the Emperor Diocletian saw it as a great sign of wisdom and righteous desire. This, along with his kind, compassionate nature, strength, and skill at the blade, brought George promotion after promotion, much to the confusion of his brother. It never came across to George that Gavin became jealous, however. Sir Gavin was completely comfortable not having too much responsibility get in the way of a good night with his tankard and a pretty maiden on his knee. What was he to be jealous for? His nutty little brother had to go on living as a virgin.
"You might as well be a priest with how celibate you are." He had told him once. "Why the hell are you so afraid of sex?"
"I'm not. It's called the law of chastity. And will you please stop using so much profanity?"
Gavin had blinked hard at this before crying, "Wait! Don't tell me. This is that whole after marriage thing. I know that. I'm not an idiot."
"Yes, I am withholding myself until the sacred bonds of marriage."
"Good God!" Gavin said, roaring with laughter, "you're twenty-eight and have never even given a pretty woman a bat of your eye! Marriage!"
The memory of his brother's laughter still bothered him. It wasn't that he didn't like women. He was just…
After a thrilling (and lucky), defeat of an opposing kingdom's assassin, Sir George was given the highest honor in the army one could get to without being the High Royal Captain himself. Emperor Diocletian had taken it upon himself to dub George as a royal knight and commander in his great army. After several days of getting introduced to his new duties and responsibilities, Sir George was sent off to Libya, where a legion of two thousand men waited for his command.
"While you're there, brother, find yourself a good woman!" were his brother's parting words, said with a lifted flagon of wine.
He had just smiled. Smiled and clutched a small golden crucifix around his neck.
Wicked claws scraped at his light armor as he scrambled away frantically, yanking out his sword. Cleodolinda's screaming rang through his ears.
"Stay where you are!" he shouted just as the dragon lashed out its long tail to his legs. He jumped just in time, reflexes spurned on by adrenaline.
"Run!" she shrieked.
He couldn't have even if he wanted to. The dragon had already curled itself about him, trapping him in a round cell of black scales. Fruitlessly, he pummeled the hide with his sword, which bounced off as though he struck plates of steel. An angry hiss issued from the monster's long mouth as leathery wings spread over them like a great, black tent. Fumes began to billow from the dragons wide nostrils.
"Knight, you die."
With a great heave he swung his blade across the dragon's face. The metal skidded off its scales, yet sliced upon the dragon's right fiery eye. With a terrible roar it flung its great head back, tongue lashing towards the sky and jaws gnashing. Moonlight poured back in.
"Die, die, die!" he heard.
He dived for the opening, rolling from the dragon's grasp. Seething, it writhed back with one eye closed. A long, bright red forked tongue licked the injured eye. Before the dragon could recuperate for another attack he lunged blindly, aiming for anything. Again the blade glanced off the tough hide. In fact, the dragon simply lifted up its hind legs to bat him away, as though he were an irritating fly. It was in the midst of this annoyed kicking that he realized an odd consistency throughout the dragon's movements: it always kept its right side to him and its left wing lowered, even though it was the right eye that was injured. The dragon even went to the lengths to twist its head all around to keep its left eye upon him. Even when he had managed to scramble onto the other side of the dragon did it, without fail, pivot on the spot and keep its right side to him and its left wing lowered, ever at full extension. The young maiden had been smacked aside into the grass once or twice from this same wing, and mud now spotted the beautiful white dress. She weakly cheered him on.
The air smelled awful with a mixture of rotting flesh and something crude. By the time he had recognized how the dragon favored its left side he had begun to wheeze as his lungs were burned by the pungent air. Fumes continued to rise from the dragon's nostrils.
"Soooo small. Slippery." hissed the dragon. At this, with a great inhale, the dragon reared back just to come down with a terrifying belch of black and blue flames. George could feel the flames licking at his armor, heating it to the point of melting. Gasping with pain he struggled to tear off his once shining armor as his flesh burned. He could smell scorched hair. Cleodolinda half sobbed, half screamed at the sight. As the dragon reared up for another attack, he whipped out his dagger to slice the leather straps that held on the plates. In a few swipes he found himself surrounded by blackened metal and a dragon striking down from the sky, long fangs extended like a snakes.
He desperately raised his sword to the sky.
The assassin he had fallen upon—the one who had intended to kill the emperor—he had known. The man had once been a knight, actually, turned assassin for greed. At least, that's what he was able to gather. His name had been Jerome.
George met Jerome as a youth in the training grounds, which were situated on the property of the Duke of Catheway. Though they had been close to the same age, if not the same, Jerome had been advanced several ranks ahead of him and was admired by all for his extraordinary skill at, not just the sword, but any weaponry the boy touched. At the time of their meeting, George had actually been seeking out his tutoring after a humiliating defeat by nearly every boy in the camp. The young man had stood strong and firm, waiting for him in the courtyard where he had requested. He had short cropped black hair and narrow, dark eyes, and a thick body that could take on a mountain.
"Still want some help?"
George glared as thought to say 'why do you think I'm here?' He didn't care to say much. After his humiliating defeat by a boy four years younger than him he had spent the past week wishing he were invisible. Silence was included in that package.
"Don't look at me like that. What do you need help in?"
Again, he didn't answer. He thought it should be obvious. Everyone had seen it.
Jerome folded his arms. "If you want me to help you're going to have to talk. I don't care how embarrassed you are. Be a man."
George raised an eyebrow, but spoke. "Everything."
At first, the relationship had been a mutual respect between a teacher and a pupil. It was odd to have to listen to someone the same age as him, but Jerome turned out to be just as remarkable at teaching as he was at learning. He was strict—demanding that George meet him at before the crack of dawn every morning before practice and every evening after dinner till late into the night. He quickly reached the point where he was so exhausted that he'd fall asleep at every opportune moment, especially when a book was involved (for knights were expected to read as well). Slowly, but surly, it began to click, and he began to improve slowly. Soon, every time he picked up a weapon or faced a peer in hand to hand combat he could hear Jerome's voice in his head, hard and collect. Every waking moment seemed to be filled with Jerome and the burn of muscles.
Then, one morning he would never forget, Jerome failed to come. The lightening sky was already turning rosy in the east. George waited a half hour before he decided something was wrong. Jerome was as punctual as he was skilled. He often attributed his success to his punctuality and often lectured George on it. A man like that would never let ten minutes pass his deadline, let alone an hour.
After wandering for only a few minutes, he found him at the front gate, a knapsack thrown over his back and several weapons hidden beneath his cloak.
"Where are you going? We have practice this morning, don't we?" He had asked. Jerome had flinched at the sound of his voice, whirling around as though in danger.
"Uh…no. No, I think you're good. I was just going to go…out. You know, to town."
"What town? The next town from Fort Catheway is a two day journey away. You'll be missing drills as well as the tournament on Saturday. And Jerome, I still suck and you know it."
"Can't I just have a break for a night?" he protested.
George fell silent. Jerome never asked for breaks, that's how disciplined he was. But even if he did, his once concrete voice quivered at the edges.
Jerome turned to leave.
"What's going on?"
He acted as though he didn't hear him.
"I know you aren't deaf, Jerome. If you don't tell me what's going on now I am going to make an alarm and wake the guards. They'll chase you down."
"For the love of God, George, why do you even care? This has nothing to do with you."
George paused. Why did he care? It was in that moment that he realized that in all the time Jerome and him had spent time together, sparring and talking, he had come to see him, not only as his goal of who he wanted to become, but his friend as well. His best friend, even.
"Because you are my friend. I…Jerome, I'm concerned. This is unlike you."
"You just don't want to be left to your mediocrity. You don't know what you'll do without me."
"No, that's not it. If you want to stop giving me lessons after this, that's fine. I never wanted to be such a burden on you. But please, why are you leaving? What has happened?"
The dark young man hesitated, hand pale grey in the wakening light of dawn. He looked back at him.
"I have never known you to lie. George, I…" then he spotted something over George's shoulder and his expression blanched.
"I—I need to go."
But he was already running, cape bouncing off of his calves. He yelled back as he left.
"Watch over Hermione for me!"
Hermione? What did the Duke's daughter have to do with this?
No sooner had he thought this and turned around, debating on grabbing a horse and chasing after his friend to demand his return, when he spotted a pale, slim figure making her way across the grounds towards him. She stopped, puffing, her eyes frantic and bright. It was Hermione of Catheway herself.
"Why didn't you stop him?" she said breathlessly.
"I tried, but…my lady?"
Her whole body was shaking. She reached trembling hands to him like a child.
"Why didn't you stop him?" she mouthed before collapsing into his arms in a dead faint.
Eight months later she bore a baby; a daughter, strong and lusty for life. Though ashamed, her father could not bring himself to kill the illegitimate child in attempts to save her ruined virtue. He had always been a kind hearted, charitable man. Her chances for marriage, though, were destroyed.
And George never saw Jerome again.
Until that day when he beheld him dressed as a servant outside the emperor's chambers with dead men littered at his feet.
For some reason, when he saw that impact with the dragon was unavoidable in that flash of a second, he clenched his eyes shut. But then he dropped to the ground and rolled, as though that would do anything.
Surprisingly, it did. With a sound like clashing metal against stone the dragon collided besides him, showering him with moldy earth. His eyes flew open and he scrambled to his feet, wheezing. Every part of him burned and ached. Its burning eye was instantly on him. Jaws snapped. He leapt aside. His vision was growing hazy. Claws flashed.
"Its breath is poisonous!" he heard Cleodolinda shout.
Just great, he thought. So if the dragon didn't fry, squash, or filet him, he would die anyways if he didn't kill it in time.
"Feeling….quesiezzz?" The dragon laughed a horrible, crackling sound. "Give up, you stand no chance."
But it wasn't the dragon's words that he heard.
"Give up," Jerome said, voice quiet and soft, "you stand no chance. I was always better than you."
"Why did you leave her?"
"That was twelve years ago, George. What does that have to do with anything?" He clenched the dagger in his hand, leaning against the emperor's door.
"It was wrong. You destroyed her life. You of all people!"
"Oh damn, this is funny. Are you still so naïve to be stunned by something like that? George," he chuckled silently, "women are left every day."
"Not her, then, the baby. Your daughter, for heaven's sake!" He remembered the infant then as a bouncing two year old escaping down the halls, full head of black curls bouncing against her rosy, round cheeks.
"Oh, so she had the baby? That's good to know."
"You act as though you don't care!" despite George's indignation, and despite the fact that he was now a ripe adult and seasoned soldier, he felt stupid and demeaned. He didn't know why he was even bringing this up. This was stupid. Why did it bother him so much? Men killed and raped in war, though the land had been peaceful in his time as a knight. Was it Hermione's devastated face that haunted him so? Or the forever fatherless, beautiful child? Was this the worth of a knight's honor?
"Well, I don't. Now, do I have to kill you too or are you going to get on your way?"
Pain ripped across his chest. He had waited just a fraction of a second too long and the dragon's claws had found their mark. Water and mud splashed over him as he was thrown off the path and into the marshes waters.
Blood dripped and bled beneath him as he pushed onto his hands and knees, wheezing. Something slipped from his shoulder, glittering in the moonlight and catching droplets of scarlet blood as it came to a slow swing around his neck: a little, golden crucifix.
A hiss—heat—he dropped into the water right as a burst of more black blue flames shot above him. The dragon roared, snatching the back of his tunic and flinging him aside.
"Sir George! Please, stand!" he felt slender hands grasp him and heaved him to his feet. He only had the time to give a brief nod to Cleodolinda before the dragon lunged, maroon mouth gaping wide for him. He ripped off the crucifix from around his head. Jumping aside at the very last moment, ignoring his protesting body, he flung it. The cross flew, golden and glittering, to wrap itself securely about the dragon's left horn.
The beast flung its head away, screaming in agony. Tail and wings floundered about. Red eyes clenched shut as it writhed.
Sir George drew his sword and leapt towards the now exposed left side. With a war cry he made a wild stab, crying to God to guide his sword. As always the scales were like steel as it struck. But with his strength moving it, the tip slid past the bump of scales to slide into the one soft spot behind the dragon's left wing. The double-edge blade ran deep.
The flailing black mass froze in a blood curling shriek. Great spurts of ruby red blood gushed out, fizzling and melting the ground where it splashed. George scrambled back, alarmed. But the dragon, giving one last puff of poisonous smoke and vapor, collapsed, shaking the earth like thunder. Those hellish eyes watched him approach half closed. The great black head trembled beneath the almost miniscule golden crucifix.
It was silent as he stopped before it. There was that look in its scaly, reptilian expression much like Jerome's that night: stupefied, dazed, disbelieving, and edged with fear. He hated that look. Yet…
George glanced behind him to see the beautiful young maiden making her way towards him cautiously, dirtied, but otherwise unharmed. Though fair rather than dark, she still reminded him of the beautiful young girl that had grown from the rosy cheeked infant. Since that night twelve years ago, George had fulfilled Jerome's last request and had regularly checked up on Hermione and the girl, helping wherever he could. The twelve year old girl was just as lusty for life as she had been as a babe and knew George as a sort of benevolent visitor.
He looked back at the black dragon. His body ached, sweat dripped down his face, and his clothes were charred and torn.
"Cleodolinda," he breathed, coughing, "could you possibly refresh me on why you had to be out here again?"
She flung her mud stained hair behind her, then said "That dragon came upon us and began to kill off our townspeople by breathing poison through our castle walls. The only way it would agree to stop is if we fed it two lambs a day. Of course, we didn't have infinite sheep, so when we ran out it began to demand children and began breathing its poison again."
"Oh, sir, many did try to kill it. All our valiant, brave knights attempted to kill the dragon, but it slew them all. So we…we drew sticks to who's child would go and eventually, after many children were taken…my father, the king, drew the lot for me to be given."
"You? But you could pass off as a young adult, not a child."
"The age limit was fifteen, and I am fourteen. And if a peasants child can be thrown to the dragon, as many were," she looked down, thick pale lashes fanning across her cheeks, "a king's child should not be exempt."
George looked back to the dragon.
"Why did you do it?"
The dragon didn't respond. He thought he saw it look up to the heaven's as though exasperated by the question, however, though still it said nothing. He turned to Cleodolinda, but she merely stated her father had asked the same thing of it and received the same. Sighing, he whistled for Brutus, who came trotting cautiously around the corner a few minutes later. The stallion nickered fearfully at the sight of the fallen dragon and held back with nervous pawing of the ground.
"My lady, where would your village be?"
"Just up the hill there, sir."
"Good. Take your girdle and wrap it around the dragon's neck. You can have the honors of bringing it to your people. I wouldn't worry. With the crucifix against its face and that wound in its side, it should be harmless."
She did as told, acting quite brave as she slid off the long linen cloth about her waist and flung it around the dragon's neck. As she bundled the ends in her hands, she glanced up at the dangling crucifix. Moonlight reflected off of its golden surface.
"How did you know its weakness? If our knights had only known…"
"I guessed." He heaved his bleeding, weak body onto his horse, which had knelt to assist him. "Maybe because I recognized some…thing in it. Care to lead the way, my lady?"
"How can we ever repay you, oh noble Sir George?"
The squat king clung to his fair daughter in the faint, morning light. The townspeople, those who had awakened, stood gathered about the decapitated bulk of the dragon, stunned and joyful. George wondered if he should warn them about the acidic blood, which had pooled about the foot of the castle gates. His knees felt weak beneath him from loss of blood. All symptoms of the poison, however, had fled him the moment he had reached the fresher air above the marshes.
"Give him money, that's for sure!" cried a citizen within.
"No! Glory! A nobility!"
"Have him marry the princess!"
Cleodolinda blushed heartily, but looked up at him questionally.
But these weren't what was on his mind. His eyes held to the king, who wept openly with tears pouring down his face in gratitude as he clung to his daughter. The princess clung to him equally tightly. From within he could spy other parents clinging to their children and to their spouses, relief upon their faces. He straitened the best he could upon Brutus's back.
"I do not care for money or glory. And dear fine princess, you deserve someone better, preferable younger than I."
She smiled weakly, yet kept her bright eyes to him. Such beautiful eyes.
"But…I do care for your souls and for the care you hold to your loved ones." Jerome's haggard face rose before his mind's eye. "If you will allow it, please let me tell you and your people of the goodness God's word and His love. And if it pleases you, my king, allow your people to be baptized in His name, which is Jesus Christ, the Father and Savior. Let me teach you of goodness and ensure your hearts of peace and love. For, dear king," and at this he bowed, wobbling upon his horse, "your love for your daughter has filled me with joy, for it reminds me of the love of another Father—that which is Father to us all."
Quite moved by his speech, the king agreed, ushering him in to be washed, bandaged, and fed. Where before the dragon they might have ignored him, the townspeople now paid heed to him, listening with rapture, for the princess professed that it was by the power of God that he had slain the dragon. She described a great, golden light about him that had given him strength through the clouds of poison and flame. So they listened. By the time he left, all had been baptized, the royal family among the first.