Conversations with Dragons
C. L. Holland
It was said that beneath the ridge a dragon lived, like the one Beowulf fought, smooth-scaled and dreadful. It slept in darkness, guarding its hoard, and only a fool or desperate man would wake it.
Cynewulf and Athelstan dismounted at the edge of the trees and led the horses far enough not to be seen from the road. In silence, Cynewulf lifted down the saddlebags while Athelstan tied the reins to a nearby tree. They continued the rest of the way on foot, as they’d been told, in case the dragon chose to feast on the horses.
They walked into the woods until they reached a clearing. The air was still and too quiet, no rustle of small creatures in the undergrowth or birds singing. There they dug a hole, still not speaking. The dragon would, with luck, be more interested in finding out what they were doing to eat them. Idle chatter would just irritate it.
The ground was hard with the coming winter. Cynewulf wiped sweat from his brow. He felt like they were being watched, as if some giant cat were deciding whether to pounce. From the pinched expression on Athelstan’s face he guessed his sword-brother felt the same.
It didn’t help that neither of them were armed, or armoured. It felt unnatural, like he was going into battle naked. But the priest, hiding the old beliefs behind the mask of Christianity, had cautioned to take only as many men as were needed, and to go unarmed lest the beast think it was under attack. All their protection was back with the horses.
Behind them the animals snorted and whinnied. Cynewulf and Athelstan exchanged a glance, then Athelstan withdrew to calm them and see off any intruders. Cynewulf peered into the trees, trying to see the dragon hidden there. He could almost feel its amusement radiating across the clearing. There was time yet before it grew bored with them.
He knelt before the hole.
“Great Dragon,” he began. His voice cracked and he cleared his throat. Now was not the time to whisper like a child afraid of the dark.
“Great Dragon, we do not come to rob your hoard. We bring this offering, gold and silver from our warriors in the mead-hall, to ask that you grant us your strength. The Mercians are at war with everyone, all their neighbouring kings and the Waelisc in their foreign lands. It is said they fight with the might of dragons, so to hold against them we need the might of dragons ourselves.” It occurred to him that here on the Mercian border with Wealas, this dragon itself might be the reason for the Mercians’ strength.
Cynewulf put the treasure into the hole. To win a dragon’s aid they offered gold and silver stripped from their war-gear: hilt plates, cheek pieces from helmets, decorations of garnets and glasswork. All the men had contributed the best they had. Even the priest had given up his cross and the strip of gold from the front of his Bible.
They’d given up their gold, but the smiths had removed the blades with their rippling patterns like tiny snakes. Rare metals and jewels were treasure to a dragon, but to a man at war a good blade was more use.
“Gold has become scarce since the Lǽdenware went back to their Empire and left their wealth behind. What gold we have is yours, and silver too. All we ask is that you help us defeat our enemies. Rise up in glory and flames, and scorch the earth of those who would take everything, and strip these riches from our war-gear themselves.”
The wind shifted and Cynewulf was bathed by a warm breeze that stank of burning villages, all woodsmoke and charred flesh. When it ceased he felt the sweat cool on his brow. There was nothing left to say so he pushed the dirt over the offering, smudging dirt into the whorls of his fingers, and walked back to the horses.
It was only when they reached the road that Athelstan spoke.
“How do we know the offering is accepted?”
Cynewulf remembered the priest’s words. “Because we’re still alive.”
They turned the horses towards home, to wait and see what form a dragon’s aid would take.