More writing from me. An old story from the history of Rothganar.
Once long ago, when Rothganar still belonged to the People, there was a dragon; his name was called Lightor son of Hadafan. He was not so very old or great, being at the shoulder the height of a tall Man, but he was lovely to look upon. From the top of his crest to the tip of his tail he was scarlet as nothing else could be, all a-shining with gold like the licking of flames when the light struck his scales, and gold was his underbelly also, and all the web of his wings. As was fit for one of his years, he had marked out for himself a cave in the mountains which Men name The Spine of the Dragon, and there he did hoard his treasure. All manner of things gold and red he collected, for such was his vanity; and in all the valleys round about, which by fire and talon he mastered, no Man would challenge him, nor would any of the People who are named, by some, Elves.
A day came to pass when a dragon-slayer took note of Hadafan’s son, and made a quest from that great city, the Port of Dreams, for to slay him; and the slayer spoke not his name to Lightor, lest he be enchanted, but in the end it profited him nothing, for Lightor slew him instead with fang and claw and breath a-flaming. But Lightor also was nearly slain. The blow of the bold knight’s spear was not his undoing, but the spear itself. For the spear lodged deep in a bone of Lightor’s wing, and when he made haste to pluck it forth, the haft he broke, but the head remained.
How sorely it pained him! He retreated to his cavern-hole, all the way afoot, like the peoples that go a-crawling upon Yriah’s face. His feet were unsuited to carry him any farther from the place the knight fell, and the shameful thing that had befallen him would mean his death should he reach Hadafan’s lair. For days he rolled about in his gold and his gems, first prying at his wound with a claw, second biting at it with his great dagger-teeth, but all in vain. To change form to a Man would surely slay him before he made use of a Man’s dexterous hands. He could not reach the accursed spearhead, and in a very little while his wound festered. Very soon indeed it stank, and his blood began to burn within him, and the fever-dreams came upon him, so that at times he would not have known a gem from the commonest rock.
Xavier found him thus. Being of mixed blood, his mother of Men and his father of the People, he was outcast, and could not find shelter in any place from any one, of Man or of the People. In the mountains and the forests did he make his home; he came on the cave of Hadafan’s son while a blizzard was in the making, and did go in to save his own life. It was not in his mind to venture very far within, for even near the mouth of the cave it was quite warm, but from afar off down the passage came a great light, and he wondered at it.
So he went down to the trove where Lightor’s body burned hot. All about him was the light cast by scales aglow with fever. And he perceived the stink of the wound, and saw how the dragon writhed, and he laughed to himself. “Now here’s something fine,” he said aloud. “Treasure enough to ransom the highest king, and a fine cave where I can make a home, and the dragon who guards it a-dying! At last my luck turns.” From binding his own wounds many a year, and sometimes those of others (though they would have scorned his help had they known his hands tended them), he knew that the dragon would be dead in not too many days.
Xavier sat down in a great red-velvet armchair to wait for the dragon to go into Hell. He ate of his store of dried meat, and drank of the melted snow in his canteen, until his belly was filled; and then in the warmth of the dragon’s fever he fell asleep. While he slept Lightor again became lucid. This was the way of his fever, that he burned a long time and every so often came out of his dreams and saw what was real. Lightor wondered at the creature in his favorite armchair — there he had liked to sit, when he shaped himself a Man.
It was a strange creature dressed in hide and rags, with long wild hair, so dirty the color could not be named, and dirt upon his face and hands and feet also. At first Lightor thought to roast it and eat it, for his stomach had been empty this past however-long. But then he looked again, and thought better. This thing, this Man-thing, tall and broad though it was, had a Man’s clever little hands.
He spoke up with a weak voice. “You — Man!” The Man-thing stirred but did not wake, and again Lightor tried, as loudly as he could though he was faint with sickness and hunger. “Man!”
It did wake then, and said in a voice deep enough for a dragon, “Oh, it’s you. Die, and be quick about it. I’m already tired of waiting.”
“Nay, wait not! Have mercy on me instead.”
“All right then,” said the Man-thing, and got up from the chair. In his hand he held a spear all of wood, with the tip hardened by fire. “Mercy? That much, I’ll give to you.” And he came to Lightor, slipping a little on the coins of the hoard, but keeping his feet. He drew back the spear to plunge it just behind where the dragon’s shoulder began, into Lightor’s heart.
Lightor gave a great cry, saying again, “Nay!” That sort of mercy was not his wish. “Oh Man, slay me not, I pray you!”
“What then? You’d have me wait a little longer? This is the only mercy that I know.”
“In my wing, there is a spearhead.” Lightor gulped down his dragon’s pride. “I beg, do you draw it forth for me, that my wound might heal.”
The Man-thing made a loud shout, laughter that rang off the walls of the treasure-trove. “Ha! It’s more than that you’re needing. Your wound wants washing and a poultice, Scaly One, at the very least. Even if I draw out the spearhead, you are going to die of the fever.”
“Tend me then, oh Man, with your little hands. Make me to live and not die. I must not die.”
“Tend you,” said the Man-thing with his jaw all slackened. He shut his mouth and spoke again, saying, “And for what, Scaly One? When you pass into Hell, all that is yours will be mine. If you offered to give it me, it would mean nothing, for I shall have it in any case. What more than you own can you render to an outcast?”
“Service,” gasped Lightor then. “And my fealty. If you make me to live, I shall swear to you as a knight to his liege-lord. All that I now have will be yours, and my faithful support. You need not be an outcast. With me at your back, you can be a king of kings.”
“A dragon for a liegeman?” The Man-thing caressed his beard. “An interesting thought. But for how long? If I can rejoin the world of the People and Men, perhaps I shall wish to take a wife, and get heirs on her like a lord in fact. And perhaps my heirs will take wives of their own. What then, Scaly One?”
“I shall make you a covenant. I shall make it with my blood and your blood together, and write it on a parchment, and make my mark with my own blood, and you with yours. As long as I live, so long shall I serve your blood.”
“Rather, I shall write it,” said the Man-thing. “And the parchment will be mine to keep.”
“Very well, very well!” Now Lightor was truly desperate. He was in agony and he feared that the fever-dreams would take his mind again, before their bargain could be sealed. He cared not what terms the Man-thing wanted, only that he might live. “While you tend me, take my blood, and mingle it with yours to write the covenant — there is parchment aplenty in that chest-of-drawers. And when I am well we shall sign it together, you and I.”
He smiled a smile that put Lightor in mind of the wolves that howled in the night; and he said, “We’re in accord, Scaly One. Before I begin I shall wash my hands. Only give me your name, so that I may weave it into the covenant.”
“My name is called Lightor, Hadafan’s son.” So Xavier bathed his hands in the snow outside, and returned to the trove. Lightor stretched forth his wing as far as his wound would allow, and Xavier dug out the spearhead, and the green pus came with it. When only Lightor’s golden blood came forth he washed it clean, and covered it with a poultice of dried herbs, and waited again.
Full a week Xavier waited, all the while thinking on the covenant, and how to make it perfect. For he knew dragons to be cunning, and he wanted no holes in the words for Hadafan’s son to slip through even a single talon. And when he had made it perfect he took Lightor’s golden blood, and mixed it with his own that was red, and used it for ink as Lightor had said. He weighted the parchment to dry with two great rubies which he already counted his own.
“I, Lightor, Hadafan’s son,” it read, “do swear my fealty unto Xavier the Outcast. As long as I live, even if it be to the end of time, I shall do no harm to him nor to any of his kin by blood and by wedlock, nor shall I work or plot against him or any who claim his blood to the smallest degree. Instead I shall help him and all his kin by blood and wedlock, and require nothing of them. Whatever he may order me, or whatever any head of his house to the end of the ages may order me, so shall I do. And if ever I go contrary to the terms of our covenant, by deliberate malice, indirect agency, or any other means, may I forfeit my life and soul for ever. So sworn to everlasting, and signed in my own blood, of my own free will and by my own hand; and by Xavier likewise.”
When he read this, the dragon was much amazed at what he had done. He hardly knew how long he had burned, or how long Xavier had tended him; this only he knew, that he had made the very devil’s bargain with a Man-thing, whose cleverness he had not reckoned. He was weak still from his journey through the fever, but when he looked on Xavier’s visage in the glow of the tiny fire the Man-thing had made, he thought he might yet outwit the thing. For now that he looked closely, without delirium, Xavier seemed not much more than a youth, boy-faced but for the beard upon the round and unlined cheeks.
Lightor’s teeth showed not, but within him was a smile. He was certain now that he could beguile this Man-thing, yes, with little difficulty. Once he spoke Xavier’s name he could enchant the fellow to leave him be. So thinking, he turned his head, and saw at once the Man-thing standing close by, holding forth in one hand a pen, and in the other (loosely, but at the ready) a wooden spear.
“Sign,” said Xavier, with no expression at all upon his round face, and when Lightor thought to speak his name, he said further, “Name me not, lest I kill you before you finish speaking.”
Lightor cast his eyes over the spear, the point of which was hard from the fire, and looked, though not sharp as a needle, sharp enough for the task. “Let us treat reasonably together,” he began, and fast as lightning Xavier changed his hold on the spear. It pricked Lightor’s throat just so.
“Sign,” said Xavier again, and his voice and his face were harder.
“Alas,” Lightor said, with the abashed look he had much practiced upon Hadafan when he was a nestling, “I cannot. Look you here. I have no thumbs to hold the pen.” He lifted his forefeet, showing Xavier his claws.
The Man-thing scowled thunderously, but he spoke in a quiet voice. Again the spear prodded at Lightor’s throat, where the scales were small and soft. “We had an accord, and you will not wriggle free, you miserable worm. Sign.”
Dragons like to speak of their great hearts, but at bottom, any dragon is a coward. Lightor quailed at the spear, and his soul shrank into itself, until the sinew and bone no longer filled his skin. From his own mouth he struggled forth in his Man’s shape, as small and slender as a lad of twelve, and as naked as any little child; his head was bald and smooth like a brown egg; on his body was there nowhere a single hair, and his claws and his yellow eyes betrayed what he had been born. “Give me the pen,” he said then, and Xavier smiled the wolf’s smile and gave it him, already loaded with the dragon’s golden blood.
For a moment, Lightor thought to sign a name other than his own, but how was he to know that Xavier would not also read the runes of his people? The pen hovered just a heartbeat above the parchment, and then, feeling in truth a little ill, he signed himself Lightor son of Hadafan upon the covenant Xavier had scribed. When he lifted the pen he very nearly expected thunder would roll, but there was no sound in the cavern other than that of Xavier’s breathing and his own.
He looked up, not knowing what he might expect. Xavier seemed much larger now and it was suddenly in Lightor’s mind that he was no little Man-thing after all, but one with stature and strength, and Lightor was much afraid. But Xavier said only, and mildly, “Now you must dress, and warmly. Out in the world is cold winter, and it’s northward we’ll fare.”
Lightor did keep clothing for his Man’s shape, and now he donned it, wool tunic and fur-lined cloak, and warm boots which he cross-gartered over thick hose, while Xavier watched, smirking, from the red velvet armchair. “Come here,” said the Man-thing, “and hold out your hand.” Lightor wanted to protest, and to protest leaving his safe lair, but he dared not. Instead he drew near to Xavier. “Since you are so partial to red things, you must have this,” Xavier said as he adorned Lightor’s thin Man’s finger with a great ring of ruby and gold (which had lately belonged to the dragon in any case), “but you may not remove it.” Now he chuckled, a chuckle which was again as mild as a spring drizzle, but to Lightor seemed terribly sinister, and japed, “Now we are wed! Come, wife, we’ll fare to the Port of Dreams, there to make my fortune.”
“Won’t you first claim my maidenhead?” Lightor’s voice snapped forth, for he had not thought to be used as a wife, and the suggestion made him wroth indeed.
Xavier looked upon his countenance and said, “It was a jest only, Wormling! We are bound together now, for good or ill — can I not make you laugh?”
“I cannot command you; try as you like, o my lord, but I promise no laughter.” Lightor folded his arms, looking for all the world like a petulant child. His bowels yet writhed, most like always would writhe, with the shame of his servitude, but he said no more. For his part, Xavier laughed and began to scoop coin from the floor into a fine leather satchel. When it was filled, he pressed it upon Lightor, whose heart ached to see any of his hoard about to depart, and filled another also, and another, as much as his great thews could carry.
Then they left, with Lightor staggering under his satchel of coins. “What will you do with all your wealth, in the Port of Dreams?” he asked sourly. The Man-thing, having no finer tastes, would certainly spend the coin as fast as he could.
Xavier’s voice, when he answered, was lighter than air. “I have always wanted a fine piece of steel. Now I shall have it.” And he would answer no more all the way down the snowy mountain.