MAN OF MOLDANIA, by Richard Marsden



Golorus von Zekwit, last surviving member of the Most Catholic Order of the Claws and probably the last dragon slayer in existence, stared at the crude map, glancing up with a furrow of a white brow to take in the sight of the town.

The term ‘town’ was, in his opinion, abundantly generous. A handful of huts and a solitary structure of stone did not make a ‘town’. The Carpathian Mountains loomed in all directions; their snow-capped, menacing, gray shapes boxed the settlement in, emphasizing the isolation of the place. Golorus seriously doubted there would be any wine on hand and the prize the people offered was bound to be very paltry indeed.

Rolling up the parchment, he stuffed it into one of the many satchels adorning his steed. With a gentle kick, the nag plodded down the muddy road toward Moldania. Cutlery, a lance, a shield and all manner of past battle-prizes jingled and jangled upon his overladen horse.

There was no reception for him as he arrived, save for a pen of sheep who bleated at him. Frowning, Golorus stroked his long white moustache and fondly thought back to the days when children would flock to him, maidens would throw garlands of flowers, and men would stare in open awe at his armored frame. Since those heady days of youth, he had sold off his armor — except for a rusted breastplate and a Spanish helm he won in a card game several months prior.

Smoke piped from the chimney of the stone house, and through its open wooden door Golorus could hear the chatter of the community’s inhabitants. Exact words were difficult to make out, but they sounded agitated. Agitated was good. Agitated folk would spend money.

He slid off his horse with a wince and dropped the reins. Trusty Gwen would stay put. He puffed himself up and strode with a confident, well-practiced smile. He didn’t need to know exactly what they were saying; his speech had been delivered plenty of times.

“Dragon.”

The room was small, the people clustered about the tables wore drab attire and looked suspiciously related, each and every one. The women shied behind their men and the men, sporting curled black moustaches, stepped forward in a sign of challenge.

Passing through them, Golorus ignored the crowd as he removed his helm and walked to what served as a bar. He set the helmet down heavily. “A scaled beast put forth on this earth by the devil himself. An agent of Satan who openly defies holy Rom — ” remembering where he was, Golorus adjusted his speech, “Constantinople. Lost to the Turks, but not forgotten. Were its walls still standing, its people and the holy Patriarch himself would cry out to you good people to banish the creature. Luckily, here I am.” He looked over to a sweaty man behind the bar, whose cheeks were red as apples. “Beer.”

A firm hand gripped his shoulder and a younger man, who wore a gold ring, turned him about. “Who are you to lecture us, old man?”

Golorus never lost his smile. He stared at the man, whom he judged to be of some importance considering his tone and size, and said, “I am Golorus, and I am a dragon slayer.”

He had come to the far east of Europe because there was no work elsewhere to be had. Spain had its own holy orders who dealt with things like dragons. England’s wyrms had long ago vanished and in France they refused to even believe in them. Golorus couldn’t blame them; he hadn’t slain one in that country for over twenty years. The Hapsburg kingdoms were in the throes of religious turmoil; some loud priest was objecting to a Pope who just happened to be related to a family steeped in crime, corruption and its fair share of murder. Despite his charter from Rome, Golorus had no interest in picking sides in a religious conflict. Italy was long emptied of lizards and Ivan’s Russia was too cold for his aching bones. The little kingdoms of Eastern Europe were all that was left and it had taken him a year to find a lead.

“Who told you?” one man asked.

“Gypsies.”

An angry murmur rustled through the room, broken by the heavy clank of a mug of beer on the bar-top. Golorus took up the drink, toasted the town’s inhabitants and took a swig. Terrible.

“How do we know you are a dragon slayer? You look . . .” The young man asking the question scratched his head, apparently seeking something polite to say.

The man wearing the ring snorted and didn’t bother. “He looks old. Your armor is dingy, your hair is white as the snow of the mountains. I see more wrinkles on your face than there are stars in the sky.” The laughter of the room spurred him on. “I am Dimitru, the man of Moldania.”

Golorus deemed ‘man’ to indicate Dimitru was in charge, perhaps because of his size. He had broad shoulders. Perhaps because of his wealth, he bore a golden ring. Then again, perhaps he was just a braggart. He guessed the latter. Dimitru still hadn’t removed his grip on his shoulder. Casually, Golorus removed the offending hand. “Golorus, dragon slayer.”

The man of Moldania crossed his arms. “So you say.”

Taking another swig of beer, Golorus scooped up his helmet and walked toward the exit. Without looking back to the people he said, “Come see.”

They followed him out quickly enough, gawking and mumbling. Golorus placed his helm back atop his head and opened one of the heavy satchels draped over Gwen. With a grumble, he reached in and felt the smooth texture of an object within. Gripping tightly he pulled it out and tossed the bone-white thing onto the muddy ground. Grime spattered the legs of the men standing outside the stone house, but they did not object, for their eyes were firmly rooted upon the skull of a wyrm.

“A fake,” Dimitru said after a long silence.

Snorting, Golorus looked the crowd over. They were a sorry lot, except for a woman in the back with dark eyes and a small smile. If she didn’t look so much like Dimitru, he might have called her pretty. With a shrug he said, “Fine, I’m a fake. Enjoy your beast and see if you can find me when it’s moved on from sheep to maidens and children.” He bent down to pick up the skull.

The townsfolk burst into conversation. Golorus was no master of their language, but he couldn’t hide a smile at the panic in their tone. He really should thank Dimitru; he had made them deliciously nervous.

A mud speckled boot stepped on the skull. “Wait,” Dimitru said. “Yes, we have a dragon. Will you slay it?”

Golorus hid the pain in his back as he rose. “For thirty pieces of gold. Talents. Ducats. Doubloons. I’m not picky.”

“Robbery! Ten, old man.”

“Twenty-five or let me be. I’m too old — as you noticed — to barter for long.”

With a grunt, Dimitru acquiesced. “Twenty-five, but I will come with you. I will see it done.”

Golorus rubbed his jaw in thought. He preferred to work alone. Spectators tended to distract him and there was one occasion when a dragon had eaten his potential benefactor. Towns weren’t as happy about a dead beast when the price was a dead mayor. Still, work was work. “Fine.”

* * *

The lair was less than half a day from the quaint town with its seemingly inbred population. Up against the craggy Carpathians a lone mountain jutted out, separated from the rest of the range. A great crack, as if split open by some titanic force, revealed an inky blackness within. Bones of sheep lay scattered about the blue-green grass carpeting the rugged valley. Sliding off the saddle, Golorus looked the area over. The cave entrance sported a ledge above the great crack, upon which a round boulder sat; a few sharp rocks poked through the earth, akin to teeth. He mulled over a few options.

“Have you seen the dragon?” Golorus asked idly.

“Yes,” Dimitru said, hopping off his own horse — an animal that was clearly more accustomed to pulling a plow than carrying a man. The horse pawed uneasily at the earth, and its ears flattened back. Meanwhile, Gwen lazily nibbled at the grass.

After a dramatic pause, Golorus rolled his eyes. “Well? Describe it.”

“A dragon. You’ve have slain them before, what does it matter what it looks like? It has scales, wings and has been eating our sheep. One a week so far for ten weeks.” He pointed up. “It comes out at night and against the moon I have seen its shape.”

Unsatisfied, Golorus pointed to the cave. “Well, how long and tall would you say it was? Half the height of the cave?” He certainly hoped not.

“No.”

He nodded. “Good. So a small one.”

Dimitru laughed darkly. “No.” He gestured to the cave. “My eyes are healthy and strong. I saw it well enough and I know that it is lucky it fits in that cave. Is that considered big?”

In all his years, Golorus had seen only one dragon that could have been described as huge. It was in a small Welsh duchy and the creature had been the size of a large coach or wagon. It had taken three of them to slay the thing, and not without cost. Looking at the size of the cave, Golorus grinned. “You must be mist — ”

For something so absolutely monstrous, it moved with great speed.

* * *

Golorus wheezed. He planted his hands upon his knees and bent over, sucking in great, cool breaths. Sweat dripped off his long nose and the wind teased his white locks. His helmet lay somewhere behind him.

Gwen pranced and wandered nearby, the old horse sparing several glances back the way it had bolted. Half of its saddlebags had fallen off in its mad flight from the cave.

Dimitru breathed heavily. His eyes were wide, his skin flushed with the effort of the run. He crossed himself.

Golorus’ own hands went through the gesture, at which Dimitru retained sense enough to stare. Correcting himself, Golorus crossed himself right to left — the proper Orthodox way.

The man of Moldania gave a curt nod of approval. “It’s big.” He pointed to his eyes that were the same color as the mud-coated roads of his village. “My eyes are not wrong.”

“They are not,” Golorus concurred. “It’s big. Biggest I have ever seen.”

The younger man drew his hands along his body. “Did you see the scars? The nets hanging from its pale hide? Its teeth?”

“Aye, and the broken lances and the ragged hole in its wing as well. I saw it.” Sitting down heavily, Golorus looked toward the gloomy peak and let out a long breath as his mind played over the event. The dragon had moved swiftly, canny enough to sense interlopers plotting its demise. Despite its size, power, and obvious resilience, the wyrm had a weakness. In attacking them it had revealed too much.

“Thirty coins,” Golorus said, turning his bleary eyes to Dimitru. “And call it a bargain.”

The man laughed and stared back. “You ran like a woman from it.”

“We ran,” Golorus corrected.

“I am not a dragon slayer though. You ran and you said yourself it is the largest you have ever seen. I do not think you can kill it.” Dimitru shook his head.

“But if I do, you’ll make it thirty?”

“Kill it and I’ll give you thirty gold, ten sheep and free ale till God claims your corrupt soul, Golorus the dragon slayer.” Dimitru smoothed out his full moustache. “What makes you think you can defeat it?”

Golorus smiled. “Because as it ate your horse I noticed something.”

“It’s hungry?” Dimitru said with no humor in his voice.

Golorus pointed at his own eyes. “No. It’s blind.”

* * *

The town’s meager population assembled in the stone alehouse that night at the behest of Dimitru and continual bellowing on his part kept them cowed so that the plan could be discussed. Golorus doubted they would like it.

Sure enough, the moment he explained how the beast was to be killed the townsfolk balked, all except Dimitru who thumped his chest and much to Golorus’ amusement steadily changed it from ‘the dragon slayer’s plan’ to ‘our plan’ to ‘my plan’. Golorus offered no complaint and so long as the man of Moldania paid up, who was he to deflate his ego and efforts to browbeat the people?

Hesitant agreement came two hours into deliberations. Overall, the plan was a simple one in Golorus’ opinion. A rope would be tied about the heavy stone that sat upon the ledge overlooking the cave entrance. The beast would be lured out with bait, and while it lowered its head to feed on some hapless sheep the townsfolk would give a mighty heave of the rope and send the great rock crashing down upon the dragon’s head.

It wasn’t typical and certainly not very sporting, but Golorus saw too many old wounds on the beast to try anything else. It bore marks indicating it had eaten numerous dragon slayers in the past and he didn’t want to be added to its tally. Besides, he doubted if his wooden lance or small sword would do more than irritate the thing.

Given how long it had been since Golorus had seen a dragon, he pondered if today’s was the last as he went to sleep on a little cot the peasants had been good enough to provide him in the corner of the alehouse.

* * *

Golorus dreamed of past glories; of his first victory over the Drake of Lake Kochelsee in the Bavarian Alps, of the slaying of the flame-wyrm of the French town Cassel and the difficult task of bringing down the scaled-horror in the catacombs of Palermo. They were fond dreams of fond moments, all from nearly a lifetime ago.

He felt himself being lifted up and was jarred rudely from sleep. It was still dark and no light seeped in through the room’s two windows. The fire was low and Golorus dimly made out the shapes of men. Before he could say a word, a heavy fist powered into his stomach.

He doubled over, which earned him a knee to the face. The pain and shock nearly sent him back into the world of dreams. A tight grip yanked him up by hair that had lost its luster and was stringy and brittle. Other hands joined in gripping him, dragging him, and pushing him out of the stone building.

A hefty push sent him sprawling facedown in the cold mud. Grunting, Golorus tried to rise, but a heavy weight straddled him. He gasped as his arms were forced behind his back and firmly tied. Once more he was hauled to his feet.

“Start walking. Keep a good pace and we’ll be there by late afternoon. They’ll be ready by then.” It was Dimitru’s voice.

The morning sun had not yet crested the Carpathians and the air was frigid. Golorus tasted coppery blood in his mouth and blinked the mud from his eyes. He could see more clearly three men, amongst them the town’s chief man. If that wasn’t bad enough, Dimitru was wearing his breastplate and Spanish helm.

It seemed prudent to ask a question. “Why?”

Dimitru shrugged nonchalantly and adjusted the cuirass which fit him a bit too snugly. “You have cost me a horse already. And this town doesn’t have thirty gold coins to give you. Why should we suffer anymore than we must? Why must another sheep go to waste to lure out the dragon when you can do it?”

Golorus narrowed his eyes. “You’d kill a man to save livestock?” He wasn’t much of a man of faith anymore, merrily switching from whatever phrase or ritual the locals used without any concern, but it didn’t hurt to try. “You’d kill a fellow Christian?”

“I saw how you crossed yourself,” Dimitru chided.

It never hurt to try, Golorus thought. “Fine, I suppose it is only fitting the last dragon eats the last dragon slayer.”

The man smiled. “Is it the last? I thought as much the way you described it. Surely the biggest is the strongest and the best of its kind. Only the biggest could be the last.” He laughed. “Too bad the slayer is not so big. He is decrepit and poor.”

Without further conversation, Dimitru mounted Gwen and ordered his men to follow. Golorus lowered his head and trudged along, trying to not focus on the pain and certainly not on his imminent demise.

* * *

The townsfolk had prepared the trap in the night, exactly as Golorus advised. He had reasoned that the beast, having gorged itself on Dimitru’s horse, would not bother them if they worked quietly and quickly. They were a hundred paces in front of the lair, gripping a thick rope that had been wrapped around the base of the teetering boulder by one of the more nimble peasants.

A wooden post — an iron leg manacle chained to it — had been planted just underneath where the rock would fall when the rope was given a good heave. The sun was high in the sky, making the bones around the cave shine and the mostly eaten horse carcass glisten. Flies buzzed about it, though no carrion birds were stupid enough to draw near.

The townsfolk were silent and Dimitru spoke in hushed tones. He ordered two men to bring Golorus to the stake.

Their nervous refusal brought a grim smile to the dragon slayer’s swollen lips. “Cowards,” he said. “The town is full of cowards — that is why they listen to you, Dimitru.”

The big man jumped off Gwen. With one hand he pulled the lance from the ropes which lashed it to the steed. Walking over to Golorus, he drew his empty fist back to strike. “Quiet.”

“Why should I be?” Golorus asked. “Why don’t I holler at the top of my lungs and invite that old beast out?”

“See the people at the end of the rope? Women and children are amongst them. Though I think you are a bad man, I think you are not so bad as to risk them.” The man of Moldania opened his fist and patted Golorus on the cheek. “If I am wrong, then scream and let’s watch the dragon eat his fill.”

“You’re right.” Golorus sighed. “I’m not so wicked as to let women and children end up as wyrm food.”

“I thought so.”

“Fine. Untie me and I’ll latch the manacle myself. It isn’t as if dragon slayers don’t expect to be killed by what they hunt.”

Twirling his moustache in thought, Dimitru nodded. “Untie him. I’ll take him to the post.”

Golorus grit his teeth as one of Dimitru’s men freed him with a rough pull of the rope. Feeling it go slack, he wriggled his arms and rubbed his sore wrists. He jerked his head in the direction of the post. “Let’s get this over with.”

“You first,” Dimitru said and with his stolen lance pointed toward the ominous darkness that split the mountain.

Golorus trudged on, following the path of the rope to which the frightened villagers behind him tightly held. He heard Dimitru’s heavy footsteps behind him. Halfway to the post, Golorus tripped over his own feet and landed on his hands and knees.

A moment later a kick to his hindquarters had him standing once more. He glared over his shoulder.

“Keep moving,” the man wearing his pilfered armor growled.

The post was made of flimsy wood and barely planted into the soil, but the manacle and chain looked sturdy enough. The shadow of the mountain coated the mouth of the cave and the blackness within was impenetrable by Golorus’ eyesight. He could smell rotted meat and the distinct odor of the gigantic winged lizard. Cocking his head, he swore he could hear baritone breaths.

Creeping to the side of the cave, Dimitru peered down the yawning depths. His face had gone pale and he swallowed deeply. Licking his lips, he cast a quick glance to the rope which limply hung above the post, connected firmly to the boulder. “Lock your ankle to the manacle. You might change your mind and run.”

“Dimitru,” Golorus began, not unkindly, “are you sure you want to carry this out? I’d rather no one die.”

“Too bad. Do it. Do it now or I’ll strangle you myself and your dead body will serve just as well.” The threat wavered on Dimitru’s lips.

“I don’t think so. You could have done that earlier.” Shaking his head sadly, Golorus latched his booted ankle to the post via the manacle. He rested a hand upon the wooden pole, while the other he kept at his side, curled up. “But I understand.”

The man of Moldania shifted from foot to foot as he searched the pitch void. “Eh? Shut up,” he said and then paused. “No wait, keep talking. Make the dragon come out.”

“Sure,” Golorus agreed. “You see, my friend, I know your town. It’s full of cowards. I say that without exceptions.”

Dimitru shot him a dangerous look.

“Yes, you,” the dragon slayer said. “Biggest coward of them all. Too afraid to let another man solve your problem because it lets the others know you’re weak. Too weak to protect them, but strong enough be a bully. Strangle me, you say?” Golorus barked out a laugh that echoed down the cavern. “It has taken all of your willpower, pitiful as it is, to walk a man up here to his execution.” He sneered. “I know your kind.”

He grinned as he saw Dimitru’s face turn a rather unpleasant shade of scarlet.

“I won’t be baited!” Dimitru bellowed. He stepped away, out of the cave and well away from the rigged boulder. “Hurry up and die. The people want to see me save them.”

“They will,” Golorus whispered to himself. He clenched the hand at his side tighter. Staring into the abyss he shouted, loud enough so that even the townsfolk grasping the rope could hear him. “Dragon! I am Golorus von Zekwit, last surviving member of the Most Catholic Order of the Claws. I have come to slay you, the last dragon.”

Silence greeted him.

“The people are waiting, lizard!”

It was as fast as he remembered it. From the inky black, its pale, white form emerged, the long neck ending in a head as large as Golorus himself. Its bulk was draped in torn nets and adorned with the tools of former dragon slayers. It halted, not quite emerging from the cave. Pale, sightless eyes stared at nothing, while its mouth opened to let forth a hiss.

Golorus was still; still as a lake on a calm day, still as the boulder above him. He was even still as the beast crawled forward, its head almost clear of the cave mouth.

He slowly turned, careful not to make a sound while he heard the wyrm sniff at the air. Dimitru was standing several paces to the side of the cave, staring in awe at the sight of the dragon.

Golorus held up his hand, catching Dimitru’s attention. He opened it slowly, revealing the rock he had plucked from the ground when he had fallen. The brute of a man tilted his head in confusion.

The dragon slayer flung the stone and it sailed true. It clanged off of Dimitru’s stolen breastplate.

The ancient dragon charged from the cave, its tail knocking Golorus — pole and manacle along with him — bodily into the air as the beast turned to the side and snapped its jaws about Dimitru before he even had time to scream. Tearing through metal and flesh, the wyrm spat the corpse to the ground and proceeded to pluck at it with its claws and nibble with its yellow, faded teeth.

The peasants cried out in horror.

Groaning, Golorus rolled onto his back. He guessed he had a few cracked ribs, but felt sure about a splitting pain in his head. He slid his boot off, leaving it and the manacle fastened to the post behind. For good measure he removed the other boot as well.

In his bare feet Golorus picked his way toward the head of the dragon. He was not interested in the way it used its tongue to pull out pieces of his would-be murderer, it was the lance the dead man had dropped that caught his eye. Waiting for the sounds of breaking metal and snapping bones to cover his movements, Golorus snatched the weapon from the ground.

He was standing directly next to the enormous monster’s head. He felt his heart beating rapidly and grasped the lance in a two-handed grip, raising it above his head. The pale, sightless eye of the dragon reflected his own worn features, bruised and battered, as well as his wild white hair. He saw more than the reflection of a man in the serpent’s gaze. He saw the last vestiges of an era: the last dragon and the last dragon slayer. The creature, oblivious to the slayer that stood so close, blindly ate.

Golorus grasped his weapon tight, reared his arms back and braced himself for what would in every way be the final strike; the old man couldn’t help but frown.

* * *

Dimitru hadn’t been lying. The town didn’t have even ten gold coins to its name, let alone thirty. Not that it mattered — Golorus wasn’t going anywhere.

He sat upon a broad chair, once reserved for the man of Moldania, and gratefully sipped his mug of ale. A handful of similar looking children clustered about him, while the woman with the pretty eyes stroked his hair.

“Tell it again!” one of the young boys pleaded.

Smiling lightly, Golorus let out a long breath. “One more time and then let me sleep.” He cleared his throat. “Let me tell you about the last dragon slayer and the last dragon. A long time ago, meaning last week, a very old man came to town . . .”

___________________________________________________________

Richard Marsden was born in Canada and currently is a resident of Arizona. He has been fencing with the rapier for fifteen years, dabbles in economics and holds a Masters Degree in Land Warfare courtesy of AMU.

To learn more about Richard and his writing, you can visit his website here:

http://www.freewebs.com/rmarsden/


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