Gawania, Knight of the Rose, raised a clenched fist behind her. “Hold!”
Tom Bannerman cut the engine. The small motorboat slowed. He glanced over the side, looking for movement or dark shapes in the water. He didn’t see anything.
“What is it?”
Gawania shushed him. She slowly rose to her feet, holding the pole of the red battle standard that was fixed to the bow.
“Listen, it isn’t safe to stand up in a boat. You should really sit back down.”
“Be silent, banner man!”
Stupid kid, Tom thought. Didn’t know the first thing about boating. She didn’t want to learn, either. At least she wasn’t wearing the plate armor anymore. He’d convinced her to leave it back at the campsite before setting out.
The boat drifted forward. Gawania kept her attention focused ahead, at a cluster of partially submerged logs near the shore. She took up her spear as they drifted closer, balancing it in her right hand.
Tom scanned the logs. The dragon couldn’t possibly be hiding in them. He hadn’t seen it in years, not since he was a teenager, but he still remembered the sheer size of it.
What the hell could she be aiming–
With frightening speed, Gawania threw the spear. It lanced through a tiny opening between the logs, one no larger than a softball. Small splashes and frantic noises followed. A half-dozen shapes darted through the water, quickly scattering in different directions.
“Congratulations,” Tom said. “You just scared a family of beavers.”
Gawania shot him an icy glare. “Bring the boat around, banner man. I need to recover my spear.”
Tom grumbled, but he fired up the engine again. As he steered the boat closer to shore, he found himself wondering how someone Gawania’s age got into dragon slaying. She wasn’t much more than a kid, couldn’t be more than two or three years out of high school.
Maybe the ancient orders recruited like colleges nowadays. Maybe they sent out scouts, looking for the best and brightest talents they could find.
Tom guided the boat around the cluster of logs. The butt end of the spear stuck from the tangle on the other side. Gawania crouched down, reaching for it.
At that moment, Tom looked to the north. He saw it then: a large, scaly head on a serpentine neck. It rose out of the water beyond the shallows. It coiled backwards to look at them, pausing for a moment, before slowly sinking down again.
Tom held his breath. It was as majestic and as beautiful as he remembered. Please, dear God. Please don’t let her see it.
“Banner man! To the north!”
“It’s nothing,” Tom lied. “Just one of those beavers you scared.”
“Take me there,” she ordered. “Now!”
Tom brought them around, silently cursing.
“Faster!” Gawania climbed to her feet again. She hooked her left arm around the pole of the battle standard, using the free hand to shade her eyes against the sun. She raised he spear in her right.
Less than fifty yards ahead, the water rippled. The rolls of the dragon’s neck broke the surface, followed by the swell of its body. It ignored them as it swam peacefully along.
Tom’s mind raced. He couldn’t just slow down. That would be obvious. Maybe he could cut the engine; say it happened all by itself. No, she wasn’t stupid. She’d never believe it. His attention flicked up at her left arm, the one wrapped around the pole. He remembered the way she threw the spear. It was a long shot, but…
They were less than twenty yards away. Gawania widened her stance. She’ll let go with her left, Tom thought. Just before she throws.
Less than fifteen yards away, now.
Less than ten.
Gawania loosened her grip on the pole. Tom seized the opportunity and violently threw his weight to the starboard side. The boat pitched. Gawania dropped the spear and both hands fumbled to grab the pole of the battle standard. Then the pole-mount snapped and Gawania dropped over the side, taking the standard with her.
Tom cut the engine. Ahead, the dragon dipped below the surface. Tom glanced back. Gawania thrashed and struggled in the water.
She wouldn’t try to kill a dragon in a lake, he thought. Not if she couldn’t swim. She’s young, not stupid.
Tom watched, horrified, as Gawania started to sink.
“Damn it!” He fired up the engine and spun the boat around.
It was almost evening by the time they got back to Tom’s campsite. Gawania sat next to the fire, wrapped in Tom’s spare sleeping bag. Her leathers and gambeson hung nearby, drying on a line tied between two trees. Next to them hung the red battle standard. She had refused to abandon it when Tom pulled her out of the lake, nearly drowning both of them in the process.
Tom, now in his own dry set of clothes, handed her a steaming mug. “Drink this. It’ll keep the chills away.”
“What is it?”
Gawania sipped. She immediately made a face. “Ugh! What’s the rest of it?”
“Mostly whiskey.” He fixed one for himself and sat across the fire from her.
The young warrior was quiet for a time. When she finally spoke, it was in a careful, measured voice. “You are sworn to help me in my quest, banner man. Are you not?”
“I guess so.”
“You are bound by family oath.”
No guessing about that one. The Bannerman family had served the Knights of the Rose since the Dark Ages. They swore similar oaths to the Brothers of Saint George, the Sons of Sigurd, and over a dozen other ancient orders. Tom had memorized each of them by the time he was twelve. The wording was different, but substance of them was always the same: If a hero rode out to face the monsters, a Bannerman carried the battle standard.
That was the tradition. That was the promise.
“Yes,” he said.
“And you know the punishment for breaking that oath.”
He did, all too well. A secretive order of knights could do a lot of damage if they put their minds to it. They could ensure that businesses failed, finances disappeared, and personal reputations were ruined. There was no need to get violent; they could destroy somebody without ever getting their weapons bloody.
“Cross the ancient orders,” dad had warned him, “and you can kiss your life goodbye. ” That warning had only taken on more weight over the years. First with Marybeth. Then later, with the kids. Life started to look a lot more fragile when you had other people to feed.
“Yes, I know the punishment.”
“Then do not do what you did earlier. Ever again.”
“I saw something in the water. I swerved to avoid hitting it.”
“I know you’re lying, banner man. And I will forgive it. Once.” She fixed him with a hard stare.
Tom avoided her gaze. He swirled his coffee around in his mug. He drained the rest of it in a two swallows.
“Why do you want to kill a dragon?” he asked.
Gawania’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“I mean they don’t bother anybody. What good does it do to chase one all the way up to the middle of nowhere? Especially when it’s just minding its business.”
She set down her mug before she answered. “Do you know where dragons come from, banner man?”
“I’ve heard stories.”
“So have I. Draconolgy was one of the subjects I studied at the Abbey of the Rose. They’re born from the unholy union of a demon and an earthly serpent. They have devils’ blood. They are monsters, banner man. They do not ‘just mind their business.'”
Tom didn’t buy it. He’d lived near the lake his entire life. His father and grandfather had lived here before him. The lake dragon was peaceful. So was the other one, for that matter, until one of these overzealous thugs killed it off.
“I’ve never heard of one attacking anybody.”
Gawania let out a short, harsh laugh. “There are thousands of recorded attacks against humans.”
Tom jabbed a stick into the fire, stirring the embers. “Legends, you mean.”
“Most people think they’re only legends. But they’re mistaken. The archives at the Abbey hold accounts of entire cities being wiped out.” Tom noted the lecturing, holier-than-thou tone she adopted.
“So? When was the last one?”
Gawania didn’t answer right away. From the way she fumed, Tom was sure he’d offended her. He wasn’t at all sure he cared.
“The dates are vague,” she admitted at last.
“Have you seen any of these archives yourself?”
Her voice took on a hard edge. “The Knights of the Rose would not keep false records, banner man.”
Tom decided to let the issue drop. You couldn’t argue with a true believer.
Gawania abruptly stood up, keeping the sleeping bag wrapped around her. “I’ll need to borrow a set of your clothes until morning. I’ll return at sunrise. Have my battle standard and my armor prepared.”
Tom sighed. He could say no. But then what? The Knights of the Rose could take a lot of things away from him. Away from Marybeth. Away from the kids. He jabbed the fire again.
“Whatever you say.”
When Gawania returned the next day, she was carrying a large poleaxe over one shoulder. She had a green duffel bag slung over the other, the kind you could buy at any surplus store. She still wore Tom’s borrowed clothes. Except for the poleaxe, Tom thought, she could be a college kid out for a day hike.
He let her use the tent to change back into her leathers and gambeson. Then he helped her into the plate armor she’d abandoned before yesterday’s boat ride. He started to protest, to remind her how close she’d come to drowning even without the extra weight.
She only gave him a stern look. “Remember your vows, banner man.”
Tom nodded. So it was going to be that kind of day. He helped her finish tightening down the straps.
“Where are we going?” he asked without enthusiasm.
“Nowhere. Fetch my battle standard from the boat.”
Tom disconnected the pole, grumbling. He’d just reattached it last night. At the same time, Gawania produced a large horn from the duffel bag. It was bigger than a steer’s horn, but it wasn’t smooth-sided. It was knotted and textured, more like a goat’s horn. Tom couldn’t readily tell what kind of animal it came from.
Gawania stood on the bank. “Take a your position seven paces behind me. Do not allow the battle standard to touch the ground. Only lower it if I fall. Understood?”
Tom nodded. He stood where he was told and held the standard high overhead. Then, as he watched Gawania raise the horn to her lips, he realized exactly what it was. Of course he hadn’t recognized it. He’d never seen one before.
After all, the dragon in the lake didn’t have horns. She was female.
Gawania blew the horn. It made a sound like a conch shell, only deeper. Not deeper in octave, deeper in memory, deeper in time. More primal. Yes, that was it. The sound called up images of things that used to prey on the hairless apes, back when fire was an uneasy ally. He heard the sound and understood their fears. He understood why they huddled together on the grass plains, watching the skies with wide, terrified eyes…
Gawania lowered the horn. “I stand ready, hell-spawn! Come for me! Come for one who will stand and fight!” She raised the horn and blew it again.
From out over the water, a sound rolled back to them, a sound very much like the one made by the horn. Then a dark silhouette appeared out beyond the shallows. Tom strained to see. It drifted slowly, the long neck and the large body making Tom think of a distant Viking ship.
He felt a sense of dread, then. He’d seen the dragon nearly a dozen times in his youth. It was always a quick, fleeting glimpse: the hump of its back, the coil of its neck. Each time it quickly dove or rolled back down into the water. But now it glided openly across the surface.
“What is that horn?” he asked. “What’s it doing?”
“Not now, banner man.”
The dragon got closer. Soon it was in the shallows, pulling itself along on its legs rather than swimming. Its movements seemed lethargic, slow, and almost trancelike. Tom saw details now that he’d never seen before. The body was longer than he’d imagined, and the end of the tail was slightly forked. The scales were two-tone, beginning as an emerald green on its back, gradually darkening to brown on its underside. The front legs were longer than the rear ones. There were two leathery flaps near the shoulders, and Tom at first mistook them for gills.
Wings, he thought. Those are old, atrophied wings.
Gawania threw the horn aside and took up her poleaxe. “Remember, banner man. Only lower the standard if I fall.”
“Please don’t do this.”
Gawania ignored him. She let out a battle cry and charged into the shallows, quickly sinking to her knees. She sloshed forward, still shouting, until she was within swinging distance. She raised her axe and–
The dragon struck like a cobra, its massive head moving almost too quickly for Tom to follow. It clamped its teeth around Gawania’s shoulder and upper arm, and reared up on its hind legs. It violently jerked its head from side to side, shaking her the way a dog would shake a chew toy.
Tom dropped the battle standard. He sprinted for the horn, reaching it in four long strides. Before he could think or talk himself out of it, he raised the horn to his lips and blew.
The sound was nothing like the conch-shell note that came before. It carried none of the weight and stirred none of the buried, ancestral memories. The noise had more in common with a trumpet, blown by a man who’d never seen one before.
Whatever it was, it was enough to get the dragon’s attention. It opened its jaws and let Gawania fall. As she collapsed into the knee-deep water and began scrambling backwards towards the shore, the dragon swung its head around to face Tom. He blew the horn again, and the dragon took a step in his direction.
Tom wound up and threw the horn side arm, pitching it as far out into the water as he could. The dragon’s gaze followed as it dropped into the lake. It started after it. Then the dragon shook its head. It almost seemed to snap out of something. The dragon blinked twice, and looked around as if confused. Then it plodded towards the deeper part of the lake, where it disappeared below the surface.
Gawania came around again, and she immediately hissed in pain. “What happened?”
“Lie still,” Tom said. “I’m going to bring the jeep over. Then I’m going to take you to a hospital.”
Gawania had managed to pull herself out of the lake before passing out. Tom had gotten her armor off and splinted her arm. He’d also used most of the gauze in his first aid kit to stop the bleeding. The dragon’s teeth hadn’t punched through the armor in many places, but where they had they’d bitten deep. Fortunately they’d missed the brachial artery.
“You’ve got a broken clavicle, some deep punctures, and a broken arm. And probably some other injuries I don’t know about. You need a doctor, Gawania.”
“No doctors.” Her voice sounded weak, but her eyes held a fire. “I’m going to rest here. Then I’m going to fight the dragon. Where is the Horn of Ragnar Lodbrok?”
“I threw it in the lake.”
“You need to recover it, banner man.”
A flash of anger crossed her face. “Remember your vows.”
“Screw my vows. You’re lucky to be alive right now. I’ve never seen a dragon attack anyone before today. But whatever you did you with that horn drove her nuts. I’m not bringing it back.”
“I’ve been lenient with you until now, banner man. If the Knights of the Rose hear that you’ve disobeyed my orders, they’ll–”
Tom cut her off. “I don’t care what they’ll do.”
The muscles around Gawania’s jaw tightened. Her eyes were like daggers. “You should choose your next words carefully. I am not making idle threats.”
Tom thought of the haunted look in Dad’s eyes. He remembered how much it used to kill him to see it there. Do I want to see it look in the mirror, too? Do I want Marybeth and the kids to see it?
“Tell the Knights to take whatever the hell they want to. I won’t be a part of this anymore.”
“Coward,” she said. “Coward on the field of battle.”
“What battle?” Tom was on his feet and yelling before he knew it. “What is it you think you’re saving people from? Some secret club keeps an archive full of fairy tales. And you think that’s cause enough to throw your life away? To go stirring up trouble?”
“The dragons have attacked people for centuries. You saw how dangerous they are.”
“I saw you provoke her. And if you do it again tomorrow, she’s going to kill you.”
“At least I’ll die fighting.” Gawania tried to prop herself up on her good arm. She grimaced in pain and fell back down.
“No you won’t. You can’t fight. You can’t even stand up. Please, Gawania. Just let it go. Let me get you to a hospital.”
“Bring me my battle standard. I will not have a coward for a banner man.”
Tom shook his head. Kids. These knights and dragon slayers were nothing but kids. The ancient orders promised them secrets, gave them vows and traditions. But in the end, they were kids dressed in armor, fighting battles no one needed fought. He brought the standard over and propped against a tree.
It was night. Gawania slept soundly by the fire. Tom crept to her side and gently shook her uninjured shoulder. She startled awake and grunted in pain.
“Come with me,” Tom said. “I want you to see something.”
“What is it?”
Tom held up a finger, signaling quiet. Soon the sound, long and low, rolled over the water. It was almost like a whale’s song. Or a foghorn.
“Just come with me,” he said.
“Why should I follow a coward, banner man?”
Tom grimaced. He almost told her to forget it. But letting a stupid kid die for no reason would be just as bad as helping her kill a dragon.
“I’m not asking you to follow me. Hell, I’m not even asking you to trust me. I’m just asking you to get in the boat and take a ride. There’s something you need to see before you throw your life away tomorrow.”
Again the long, low sound rolled over the water. Gawania climbed to her feet, refusing Tom’s help. She reached for her poleaxe.
“Leave the weapon. You won’t need it.”
Gawania ignored him. She tried to lift the axe in her good hand, but it was to heavy and awkward for her to maneuver one-handed. She fumbled with it for a little while, trying more than once to use her splinted arm for leverage. Each time she hissed in pain and dropped it.
Frustrated, she whirled on Tom with an angry look. “If this is some trick, banner man…”
“It’s no trick.”
Gawania climbed into the boat, leaving the rest of her threat unspoken. She lowered herself gingerly, hissing and wincing, until she finally settled onto the forward bench. Tom pushed off from the shore and climbed in after her. But instead of using the motor, he locked a set of oars into place. He sat on the bench and began to row. Once again, the sound rolled towards them.
“What is that sound, banner man? Is it the dragon? Did I wound it?”
“No talking,” Tom said. “If she hears us coming, she’ll swim away.”
“This could be our chance! We need to go back. I need my weapons. You have to fix the standard to the bow.”
Tom held a finger to his lips, shushing her. He rowed, following the sound and occasionally stopping to check his position. His father had showed him the spot once. It was in that tiny inlet, past the mid-point on the north side of the lake.
“This is where she goes when she remembers, ” his father had told him. “When you hear her out there, stay clear. She deserves her mourning, same as anyone. ”
They were close now. The sound was much louder. Gawania sat anxiously in the front of the boat. She was plainly nervous at being unarmed, constantly fidgeting with her uninjured hand. Tom considered handing her his pocketknife just to get her to stop.
He brought the boat into the small inlet. There was a rock in the middle of it, a glacial boulder that was mostly submerged. Only the top part rested above the water. The dragon sat perched on it.
At the sight, Gawania sat stock-still. The dragon arched her neck, raising her head to the sky. She opened her mouth and once again let out the long, low cry. It was a mournful sound, filled with sorrow, longing, and loneliness. They sat in the boat, watching as the dragon called over and over again into the night.
It was the sound of the lost.
It was the sound of the frightened.
It was the sound of a creature that knew it was alone, but didn’t understand why.
Slowly, Tom lowered the oars into the water. He pulled as quietly as he could, moving the boat away from the tiny inlet. The dragon’s cries followed them, rolling over the water, echoing between the pines. They were nearly halfway back to the campsite when Tom finally spoke.
“There used to be two of them,” he said quietly. “Back when my dad was a kid. He told me you could always see them swimming in the lake, rolling and playing like dolphins. In all those years they never hurt anybody. He didn’t know if they were mates, or if they were the last survivors of a herd, or what. He only knew they seemed happy. And why not? They had each other.
“Until one summer, when someone like you showed up.”
“Please, don’t–” Gawania began.
“Dad never forgot them hauling the body out of the lake” Tom continued. “He told me the dragon slayer was a proud, smug son of a bitch. He said the man’s armor never even got a scratch on it. The dragon didn’t fight him. It probably didn’t even know what he was there for.”
“That inlet was where it happened.” Tom unlocked the oars. He put them in the bottom of the boat and started to prime the outboard motor. “You’d hear her on that rock after that. Not always. Usually it was after a thunderstorm. Sometimes it was when a train rolled by, and they hit the air horn. She’d crawl up on that rock where he died, and she’d cry for him until morning.”
The motor puttered to life. Tom steered them back towards the campsite. “The other one’s been gone for more than sixty years,” he said. “And she still cries every time something reminds her of him.”
“Why did you show me that, banner man?” Tom couldn’t be sure, but it sounded like she might have been crying.
“I just wanted you to have a better look at your monster, Gawania.”
In the morning, Tom woke to find her standing on the shore, staring out over the water. Even with the broken arm and collarbone, she’d partly dressed herself in her armor. Tom couldn’t even imagine the pain that must have caused her. He stayed quiet, stoking the fire, boiling the water, and getting ready to make coffee. He watched Gawania.
Slowly, she removed her helmet. She held it up with her good hand, looking at it, twisting it, as if she were trying to see herself there. Then, with very little ceremony, she threw it into the lake. Next she awkwardly wrestled the poleaxe into an upright position, butt resting on the ground. She looked up at the blade, perhaps seeing it for the ugly thing it was. She let it fall in after the helmet. The armor was last. She struggled with it, making several pained sounds and uttering some curses. Tom stood back, knowing she wouldn’t want any help from him. Soon the armor joined the helmet and the poleaxe.
After a time, she came and joined Tom by the fire. Without a word, she took the red battle standard off of its pole and dropped it into the flames. Tom offered her a steaming mug.
She took it without smiling. “Mostly coffee?”
“No. Mostly whiskey.” He sipped his own, letting her enjoy it for a bit. “What will you do now?”
“That hospital doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”
Tom nodded. “And after that?”
“I don’t know. I might have to go into hiding for a while. The Knights of the Rose are pretty harsh on disloyalty.” She looked up at Tom. “What about you?”
“I’ll make it. We’ll probably have it rough for a while. We’ll have to start over. But Marybeth will understand. So will the kids, when they’re old enough.” Even so, he wasn’t looking forward to breaking the news when he got home.
“I’m sorry I got you involved in this, Tom.”
“Listen, Gawania, I–”
“Trish,” she said.
“My name’s Trish. If I’m giving up the knight business, then I’m giving up the name.”
“Alright, Trish. I’ve got a sister-in-law with a guest room. I can call her up if you need someplace to hide for a while.”
“Thanks.” Trish polished off the rest of her mug. She smiled ruefully. “So, do you know any good employment opportunities for ex-knights in shining armor?”
Tom looked out over the water. He thought he saw the surface ripple in the distance, but he couldn’t be sure. “How would you feel about wildlife conservation?”
“Maybe. Let’s talk about it on the way to the hospital.”
Tom quenched the fire, and helped her into the jeep.