The Dragon Slayer’s Helper
by Gary Clifton
“Master, it has grown so dark, I cannot clearly see the monster.” Gilbreath, bulky and muscular, whispered hoarsely, lowering his taut bow. The thick forest had quickly consumed the last hint of sundown. Visibility was nearly zero.
“Quiet, idiot. If we hear it thrashing around in the brush yonder, it hears you.” The Dragon Slayer, a balding, arrogant little man with a permanent sneer, answered in his high-pitched voice. He held the exalted position because he was the son of a prominent member of the Belnarian Royal Court.
“Yes, master.” Gilbreath was a captured Nomidian, the next land north of Penuvia. A captain in the Nomidian Guard, he had been taken by the king of Belnar’s raiders two years earlier while hunting in the forest. Carried across Penuvia into Belnar, he was awarded to the Chief Dragon Slayer of the Belnarian Realm. Gilbreath’s warrior spirit sustained him with the notion that one day he would slay the weak, foolish tormentor and escape to his family.
Gilbreath lowered his voice. “Master, I saw no dragon flame coming from the creature’s nose. And it’s too small—”
“Quiet, Gilbert, you coward. I have not been credited with a dragon slaying in over a year. This monster is mine.”
Gilbreath ignored the urge to remind the Dragon Slayer of his name but knew better. As a slave, he was a non-person. The Dragon Slayer must prevail at all costs.
“Nomidian lummox, that bow will penetrate two feet through a black oak tree. Shoot, fool, shoot to kill before it escapes.”
Gilbreath, concentrating on the center mass of movement in the near total darkness thirty yards away, let fly. The agonized wail confirmed that he had struck home. The continued tortured scream and crashing about in the underbrush further said his shot had not been fatal.
Gilbreath turned an ear closer. “That doesn’t sound like a dragon, master.”
“Another arrow, quickly, you fool.” The Dragon Slayer drew his broadsword.
Gilbreath unleashed a second shaft. The cry of pain was loud but the beast ceased flailing. After several attempts to light his oiled torch with a flint, the flame was as bright as noonday sun in the now pitch-black forest.
The beast was down, helpless, and wallowing in agony, but not dead. The Dragon Slayer grabbed the torch, rushed forward to the small clearing where the prey lay, and hacked at the head of the dying creature with his broadsword. After several strokes, it was decapitated.
“By the gods, master!” Gilbreath gasped. “We’ve slain a unicorn.” He knelt to look closer. “It’s female and appears to be some sort of dwarf, master.” He pointed in the flickering light. “It was tethered to a tree. Its master had probably kept it in that cage yonder. I fear we’ve slain some child’s pet. Master, the owner might return at any time.” Gilbreath held the torch high to better see the open cage door. “Perhaps the Unicorn was left outside intentionally, for fresher air.”
“Nonsense, fool, it’s a dragon. At least we’ll advise the king that it was. If someone returns to challenge my kill, I’ll expect you to deal with him.”
“Yes, m’lord.” Gilbreath saw ashes of a recent fire and discarded scraps from a meal. Someone had camped while tending the unicorn.
“A unicorn’s horn is as dangerous to the kingdom as a dragon,” the Dragon Slayer smirked.
Gilbreath knew better. Unicorns were passive and widely thought to have certain mystical powers. “Yes, master. You’ve bravely slain a huge dragon. The king will reward you with a fatted calf.”
“Gilhad, I’ll not wipe my sword. The blood on the weapon and splattered on my face, will confirm evidence of my conquest. Here, I’ll cleave its horn. Such a magic trophy will bring a pretty penny at the next market at St. Balthazar Square.” Mustering all his strength, he swung the broadsword again, lopping off the unicorn horn near the base. “Here slave, carry this back to the castle.”
“Master, I fear possession of this foul trophy will bode poorly in confirming that we... you have slain a dragon.”
“Fool, you’ll dig a hole and bury it. I’ll still tell the king I’ve slain a dragon.”
“Yes, master.” In his two years as the Dragon Slayer’s slave and assistant, Gilbreath had never seen a dragon in Belnar and doubted that such creatures existed that far south.
A short distance outside the castle’s moat, the Dragon Slayer ordered Gilbreath to dig a hole with his hands and a sharp stone, then bury the unicorn horn. Gilbreath was disappointed that after holding the magic bounty for some time, he felt no euphoric effect.
Midnight had passed when the Dragon Slayer pounded on the massive castle door. He found his way to the royal kitchen and supped on a huge chunk of roast beef, occasionally tossing a fatty tidbit outside to Gilbreath who sat quietly on the cold ground near the door.
The following morning, the Dragon Slayer was granted an appearance before the young king. He expounded at length on “his” conquest. Boastfully, he advised the king the triumph had taken place in the timber in the St. Hammit woods several miles north of the castle at the junction of the Rapid River and the Penuvian Road.
“You should have brought me the monster’s head.” The king peered closely at the Dragon Slayer, then, greeted him with much favor. He instructed one of his palace lackeys to make certain the Dragon Slayer was awarded another generous portion of beef.
With a wave of the hand, the king dismissed the Dragon Slayer, who, followed by his vassal, Gilbreath, hurried to the Royal smokehouse to claim his prize.
* * *
At well past daybreak, Gilbreath was sleeping fitfully on the stone floor beside the Dragon Slayer’s cot in the bowels of the castle. Hunger, a familiar companion, gnawed at his stomach. As loud pounding on the door roused them, they recognized the voice of the Sergeant of the Guards. “Up, men, we’re forming a legion to march into the forest. The king himself will lead. Out, quickly!”
The Dragon Slayer groused sleepily, “Probably another illegal hunting intrusion by those barbarian Penuvians to the north. Perhaps, Gilder, my slave,” he boasted, “I’ll be rewarded for more gallantry this day.”
“Hopefully so, master,” Gilbreath replied, eyes dutifully downcast. As always, he pushed out of his mind the thought of breaking his tormentor in two.
The pair joined a troop of the King’s Own Guard in the courtyard, all fully armored. The king appeared on horseback, the fleshy Sergeant of the Guard jogging along behind afoot, puffing in his armor. The king, also fully armored, appeared to be in a dark rage. Having been issued no armor, both Gilbreath and the Dragon Slayer were unfettered with the weight.
Gilbreath leaned close to the Dragon Slayer. “It is known throughout the kingdom that the king is to be married to the Fair Livia next week. Pray nothing has befallen her to cause this alarm.”
“Fool,” said the Dragon Slayer, “she is safe inside the castle, unreachable by any enemy. I tell you, man, this tomfoolery is Penuvian poachers, seeking game on the king’s land. We’ll pursue and slay them all. Make certain you have an adequate supply of arrows, the better to provide me with more glory.” Without warning, the little man reached up and slapped Gilbreath across the face.
Gilbreath remained silent, mindful that the Dragon Slayer, who he always found to be rather dull, might realize their pursuit in broad daylight would carry him much closer to his homeland of Nomidia. All he needed to do was cross Penuvia to the north of the foul Belnarian land of the Dragon Slayer and he would be home.
Gilbreath’s keen mind was alive with the opportunity. A subtle move into the heavy forest, a further trek of twenty-five leagues, and home to his wife and children. That he’d have to travel the width of Penuvia, inhabited by barbarians and real dragons, was a problem he would confront with his bow if trouble arose. To finish the trek, he would first have to find a way to begin.
Without explanation or fanfare, the king led the entire group out the gate and over the moat. The heavily laden troops, all on foot, struggled to keep up with the king, angrily cantering his horse.
The king veered north on the Penuvian Road. At the rear of the procession, Gilbreath whispered hoarsely to the Dragon Slayer. “Master, we are treading the same path you and I followed after you slew the, uh, dragon.”
“I see, fool. If the king finds the carcass of the unicorn, we’ll tell him the dragon must have killed it. Then, predators in the forest ate the dragon we slew. Perhaps the king will reward me with a second slave.”
“Master, we’ll need to find a reason a dragon would have the proper broadsword to lop off the unicorn’s head. Thank the gods I retrieved my arrows from the animal.”
“Stop that nonsense, you foolish thrall. We’re pursuing poachers. If perchance the unicorn’s carcass is found, it will already have been partially eaten by wild animals of the forest. No matter, we will stay with our story that one of the many dragons who inhabit this dark forest killed the unicorn. We’ll say Penuvian poachers stole the unicorn horn. That’s job security, idiot. Are you apt enough to understand?”
Breathing heavily from the pace, Gilbreath gasped, “You are wise at all times, master.” Gilbreath plodded on, with steadily increasing dread.
Shortly, Gilbreath, his forward vision partially obstructed by the phalanx of troops ahead, saw the king raise a hand and rein in his horse. He recognized with horror that it was, in fact, the exact spot where they’d slain the unicorn. Then he heard the king’s angry roar. “By the gods, I’ll have that Dragon Slayer’s head. Deliver him to me immediately.”
Several troops dragged the Dragon Slayer before the king. “Where, idiot, is the body of the dragon you reported slain on this ground?” The unicorn’s body, the horn severed, and its head clearly decapitated by a sword, lay, incredibly undisturbed by forest predators. No sign existed of any additional creature having shed blood on the spot. The king roared, “The unicorn’s magic has kept scavengers at bay. Your falsehood is apparent, Sir Dragon Slayer!”
The Dragon Slayer went into his planned tale. But pursuant to long habit, he could not remember Gilbreath’s name. “Sire, my useless slave must have—”
“Silence,” the angry king quickly interrupted him. The Dragon Slayer, in claiming all credit for the slain “dragon,” had made no mention of Gilbreath’s having taken part in the slaying. Miraculously, Gilbreath had not yet been included in the king’s wrath.
The Dragon Slayer slumped to his knees.
From a saddlebag, the king withdrew the unicorn horn. Holding it aloft, he roared, “The royal hounds discovered this this very morning buried beside the castle road.”
Gilbreath knew his safety was temporary.
“What has happened, sir?” Gilbreath asked an officer of troops.
“The king’s slave was sent out this morning to feed and tend to the pet unicorn the king was training as a gift for his new bride.”
“How on earth did he capture a unicorn?”
“He captured the animal by the normal procedure of having a naked virgin sit beneath a tree until the unicorn approached her, laid its head in her lap and went to sleep. Everyone in the kingdom knows that is the only way a unicorn can be caught.”
Gilbreath felt the tale was more Belnarian fantasy than fact but nodded his head to feign understanding.
The officer continued, “The animal was to be the bride’s pet to provide its mystical powers of purifying water and assuring immunity from poison. The king’s slave returned to the castle to report it had been slain by a sword. On the way, the dogs discovered the buried unicorn horn. His majesty was mightily angry. It seems the Dragon Slayer reported killing a dragon at the very spot where the pet unicorn’s carcass now lies.”
Gilbreath, sorely aware his life had less value than a barnyard animal, eased himself in the great forest’s edge and crept slowly past the troops. Soon, he drew abreast of the king’s entourage, visible through the underbrush. The quaking Dragon Slayer was prostrate before the king, tears coursing down into his scraggly mustache.
A few more steps and Gilbreath could attempt his desperate gamble to disappear into the thicket and make for home. Again, well hidden from the main group by heavy foliage, he continued moving carefully north.
Suddenly, the Dragon Slayer sprang to his feet and bolted to the north, stumbling past Gilbreath who had already made his way some distance ahead of the king. As the Dragon Slayer struggled through thick brush, all eyes in the king’s party were upon him. In Gilbreath’s haste to avoid detection, he stepped through a clearing, temporarily visible to the mounted king.
Not recognizing the non-person, Gilbreath, as the Dragon Slayer’s slave, the king roared again. “Bowman, it’s a king’s prize for you if you can bring that fleeing fraud down.”
Gilbreath was now confident that in the confusion he could be halfway home to Nomidia before he was missed. No one among the troops, save the Dragon Slayer, could associate him with the slaughtered unicorn. The king had just ordered Gilbreath to stop the only witness against him. The king must be obeyed.
The Dragon Slayer’s short legs had only carried him thirty feet north of Gilbreath. Gilbreath had slain many men. He despised his tormentor, but his sense of honor gave great pause to shooting at an unprotected back.
“Master Dragon Slayer,” he called out. “Are you aware your mother lay with dogs? Nomidian dogs?”
The Dragon Slayer whirled and drew his broadsword. Gilbreath drew back his bowstring and smiled wanly as he loosed an arrow.
The shot was dead on, pinning the Dragon Slayer to a black oak out of view of the king’s entourage. Gilbreath advanced. Again, obscured by thick brush, he shouted, “Sire, he’s wounded but still fleeing into the forest. Your armored troops will not be able to maneuver in the thicket. I’ll capture and return him to you for judgment as you wish.”
“Go!” shouted the king. “Quickly!.”
Gilbreath approached the still quivering Dragon Slayer dangling upright against the tree. Life had not fled the sobbing little man. “By the gods, slave, help me!” he commanded, gasping for breath.
“My name is still Gilbreath, you Belnarian imbecile.” Gilbreath picked up the Dragon Slayer’s broadsword and lopped off the pinioned man’s head.
“Welcome to Hell, Master Dragon Slayer, by the king’s own command.”
He slid the sword through his waist band. “This might be of great use in the journey ahead.” The sounds of the king and his army thrashing in the brush faded as he quickly moved farther into the vast forest.
Copyright © 2019 by Gary Clifton