Riddle of the Golden Dragon

This is one of the oldest surviving things I’ve written in my life–a story I wrote in high school, set in the universe that eventually became the setting for the Rebels of Adalonia novels. I turned this in in class on February 6th, 1987, and transcribed it on June 14th, 1995. I posted it to annathepiper.org on June 19th, 2001.

And now, on July 12th, 2015, I’m sharing it with you here. Sharp-eyed readers who have read the Rebels of Adalonia books may recognize the city of Shalridan being mentioned here. Equally astute readers will note the echoes of Tolkien’s “Riddles in the Dark” chapter of The Hobbit here, because oh my yes, I had my share of mimicking Tolkien all over the place as a young writer.

On the longest day of the summer the dragons attacked Varnn. There were three of them: a blue one which breathed lightning bolts, a green one which breathed a poisonous gas, and a golden one, twice as long as the other two, which breathed hot yellow streams of flame.

They came with the first light of dawn and began to terrorize the village. In that first siege they burned six houses, knocked down three more with their lashing tails, and flew off with twelve cows of the village herd grasped in their huge claws. Half a score of warriors were charred to ash while trying to fight them off; that same number were slain by the green dragon’s venomous breath. Then, just as suddenly as they had come, the dragons flew off.

Panicked, the people called for a meeting of the Elders. All old men, the seven Elders of Varnn had no idea what to do about the dragons, but yet the wrath of the villagers frightened them almost as greatly. They agreed to an assembly of all of Varnn’s adult citizens, in the village meeting-hall.

The gathered people were restless and worried as the Chief Elder rose to speak: “Good people of Varnn, a dire calamity has fallen upon us–”

“Hear the brilliant Elder!” someone shouted mockingly.

The Chief Elder flushed and went on, “A dreadful menace has come upon us, three winged terrors which will surely destroy us if we do not act–”

“Such brilliance dazzles the mind!” came another sardonic shout.

“Please, good people,” the second Elder adjured, getting to his feet, “hold your peace! We are doing all we can against the threat of these dragons!”

“What can you do?” cried a third voice. “Those beasts have already slain our best warriors!”

Someone else yelled out, “We must flee before the dragons attack again–before we are flamed to our deaths!”

“Send to the king for help!” shouted a fifth voice.

The Chief Elder pounded his fist on the table for silence, and when the shouts died down he went on: “We do not have time to send a plea to the king–his Majesty’s city of Shalridan is many leagues distant. Therefore, we must make plans to flee–”

“Hold a moment, Chief Elder.”

The voice came from the back of the meeting-hall. Stunned, the crowd turned to see the figure standing there: a tall young figure, clad all in greens and browns, with a quiver of arrows on his shoulder and a long ash bow in his hand. As he strode purposefully to the front of the hall murmurs of surprise broke out among the assembly, for there were none among them who did not know the youth.

He stopped before the table of the Elders, turned to face the crowd, and stated solemnly, “I will slay the dragons.”

The murmurs of surprise erupted into shouts of amazement. A gray-haired old man demanded, “Boy, have you taken leave of your senses? How will you succeed where the finest soldiers of this village failed?”

Steadily the young man answered, “I know how the dragons may be killed.”

“How?” shouted a woman. “Will you battle them all singlehandedly, Brendynn?”

“He’s mad,” said a scornful voice. Its owner was a black-haired, swarthy youth, and he glared at Brendynn as he got to his feet. “I always knew the wood-brat was mad, and now he’s proven it! Well, wood-brat, how do you propose to save our menaced village?”

Those nearest to the young man standing at the front of the hall saw a flush of red burn across his cheeks. It was no secret to anyone that Brendynn, as an infant, had been found in the forest and adopted by Tobas, the woodcutter. His hair, dark golden but streaked pale in places by the sun, clearly proclaimed that he had not been born of the dark-haired people of Varnn; the villagers had nonetheless accepted him as one of their own. All, that is, except Kemlir, the scornful youth who faced him now.

“Kemlir, if you would speak,” Brendynn said tightly, “then hold your peace.”

“To hear the words of a madman? You must be a fool as well!”

The Chief Elder, whose surprise at the interruption of his speech had been replaced by an overwhelming sense of relief, put in reproachfully, “Sit down, and let the woodcutter’s son have his say.”

The dark-haired youth reluctantly obeyed, and with an acknowledging nod to the Elders, Brendynn continued, “People of Varnn, a dragon may be slain in one of two ways–by powerful magic, or by another of its kind. We have no powerful magic here in Varnn; therefore, we must turn the dragons against each other, make them fight.”

“How, Brendynn?” came a disbelieving shout.

“Nothing inflames a dragon to fury more than the scent of the blood of another dragon. If we can even wound one of the creatures, the other two will attack it, and the ensuing battle will destroy them all.”

The third Elder said dryly, “You sound sure of your words, young one. How did you come to learn dragon-lore?”

“My father taught me the legends, while he lived.”

A derisive laugh burst forth from Kemlir. “He bases his wisdom on legends! Tell us then, wood-brat–who shall deliver the fatal wound?”

Brendynn stared at him levelly. “I will.” Reaching into his quiver, the golden-haired youth drew out an arrow almost as long as his arm, painted dark red and tipped with a point of sharpened iron. “With this arrow I will injure one of the beasts, and I have two more like it to wound the other two.”

“How good an archer are you, boy?” the fifth Elder asked doubtfully.

“Look to that door–in the exact center of its upper half, there is a knot in the wood, about fifty feet from me.” Taking a smaller arrow from his quiver, Brendynn strung the shaft to his bow, gauged the shot, and fired. The arrow whizzed through the air, striking home in the very spot he had named. “An easy shot, I know,” he finished, “but it is the best I can show you now.”

The Chief Elder said, “You ask us, then, to allow you to attack the dragons alone, with no weapon but your bow and arrows?”

“I ask nothing; I came only to tell you of my intentions, so that you will know my fate should I not succeed.” The youth slid his red arrow back into the quiver, then took up his bow and headed for the door. Pausing to retrieve the arrow he had shot, he added, “Proceed with your plans to abandon this village, people of Varnn, for there is a chance I will not return.”

And with that, he left.

Brendynn walked without hesitation out of the ravaged village, his quiver slung across his back, his ash bow gripped tight in his hand. No one came after him; he hadn’t expected that anyone would. He knew with a sort of grim humor that all of Varnn must have decided he was mad indeed, after the announcement he’d just made. Who but a madman would think to battle one dragon, let alone three, with only a bow as his weapon?

He was certain, though, that the villagers would not have understood if he’d tried to explain his intentions. They would not have belived him if he’d tried to tell them of the dream he’d had the past seven nights, the vision of a beautiful fire-haired maiden. She had spoken no word but her azure eyes had carried a message: Your fate, threefold, shall fly to you on wings of fire; brave this peril, golden youth, and find what you desire.

The words had burned themselves into his mind, into the depths of his young soul. His one great desire was to find out the truth of his birth–and if he had to kill three dragons to do it, then so be it.

I wonder if madness runs in my family? he thought, grinning a little, but sadly.

He knew exactly where the dragons were; he’d seen them light on a hill only a few hours’ walk away from the village. If he hurried, he told himself, perhaps he could steal upon them while they slept, and–but then, his father had always told him a dragon could scent almost any unfamiliar creature, even in its sleep. Better, as the old proverb advised, to let sleeping dragons lie–

“Brendynn, hold!”

The sudden voice made him start in amazement; he whirled to find Kemlir running to overtake him. As soon as the other youth drew near Brendynn demanded, “Why did you follow me, Kemlir? This will be difficult enough without you mocking each move I make.”

Kemlir waited till he’d regained his breath, and then he replied, “I’m curious, woodling–I want to see what you’re really about.”

“You heard what I said in the meeting-hall.”

“The entire village heard it. But I want to see if you’re really mad, or just a braggart.”

Brendynn lifted his eyebrows. “I know you have no love for me, Kemlir, but have you ever heard me brag?”

“… No,” the other admitted, after a moment or two. “You actually intend to do this, then?”

“I am no braggart, Kemlir, and neither am I a liar.” Brendynn turned away and headed on down the path, but the dark-haired youth came after him.

“Why are you doing this, gold-hair?”

He gave Kemlir a long, level stare and finally answered, “I think that you would not understand.”

“I’ve never understood you,” said Kemlir in a slightly mocking tone, “but I’ve never believed you mad enough to attempt something like this.”

“Then I’ll not attempt to explain it to you.” Brendynn tried to continue on his way, but the other youth grabbed his arm.

“Do you feel guilty over the deaths of those you called your parents, Tobas and Girelle? Is that why you’re trying to kill yourself?”

Whirling back to face Kemlir, Brendynn shouted, “My parents are none of your concern!”

Infuriatingly, the other youth leaned against a tree and began to laugh. “I thought I’d strike a responsive chord there. I’ll warrant this escapade of yours has something to do with your parents–your real ones, whoever they are. Am I correct?”

Not willing to admit that Kemlir was very near the truth, Brendynn growled, “Leave me, Kemlir, or you may find me attempting to slay something other than dragons.”

“Hold a moment, tree-spawn.” Oddly enough, Kemlir’s usual sarcastic emphasis on the insult was not apparent. Brendynn saw with surprise that the other youth’s expression had become grave and serious. “Forgive me–for once in my life, I didn’t mean to offend you. Brendynn, I want to come with you.”

The fair-haired youth’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”

Kemlir hesitated. “I–well, perhaps I’m beginning to understand you. Besides,” he added, his tone growing sardonic again, “two will have a better chance at this than one.”

A smile spread slowly across Brendynn’s face. “Very well then–come along.”

The sky was growing lighter in the east when the two companions came upon the hill where the dragons had lighted. Brendynn motioned to the other youth that they should stay downwind of the creatures as much as possible, and Kemlir nodded; then, they found a place in the bushes where they could hide and watch their quarry unobserved.

In the graying dawn the three dragons slept, their breath coming forth in faint rumbles, their forms huge and indefinite shadows sparked by occasional glints of light. All around the area was a hot, charred stench of ash and soot, mingled in with the smell of spilled blood and things slaughtered. Scowling in disgust, Kemlir whispered, “All right, woodling, how do we do it?”

Brendynn shot him an annoyed glance and answered, “We’ll have to wait till they wake up.”

“What?! Why can’t we wound them now? We could go up and run my sword thr–”

“And be flamed to ash before you could even draw your blade. Those creatures have an astounding sense of smell–they could scent us with no trouble if we get any closer. For now, we wait.”

When dawn had fully blossomed into morning the golden dragon stretched its wings and lifted into the air. Brendynn was somewhat relieved, for the gold dragon was the most dangerous of the three; perhaps he and Kemlir would have an easier time with the other two. As the two youths watched, the blue and green dragons roused themselves, letting out roars that sounded like faint thunder; then, the two winged beasts turned to lift into the air themselves.

“Now,” Brendynn murmured, just loud enough for Kemlir to hear. The golden-haired youth pulled the first of the three red arrows from his quiver, and strung it to his bow. As quickly as he could manage he crept forth from their hiding place and aimed at the green dragon, the nearer of the two. As the creature spread its wings Brendynn breathed a prayer, and let the arrow fly.

It struck home in the dragon’s unguarded neck. Howling in agony, the creature crumpled to the earth, convulsing violently, its tail lashing against trees and rocks and smashing them into fragments of dust.

“Good shot,” Kemlir said as Brendynn rejoined him. “Now let’s get out of here, before that lashing tail finds us!”

“Not yet–we have to make sure the blue scents the green’s blood.”

The blue dragon had already climbed into the air. Now, though, it swerved in its flight and dropped, circling over the hill. Suddenly it let out a thunderous roar and dived for the body of its fallen companion.

A smoking ichor was streaming forth from the green dragon’s wound, but as soon as it saw the attacking blue, the green snarled and slashed at it with its foreclaws. A fierce battle ensued; with fang and claw and breath the two dragons fought, and their roars were as loud as five thunderstorms. At last the green sank its fangs into the neck of the blue, and they went rolling down the hill. Brendynn and Kemlir, scrambling from their hiding place, narrowly avoided being flattened by the tumbling bodies. The two young men looked on in amazement as the dragons reached the foot of the hill, and lay still.

“Do you think they’re dead?” Kemlir asked.

Brendynn nodded. “See how their bodies are beginning to blacken?”

The motionless forms were smoking and growing rapidly smaller, almost as if they were burning themselves. Kemlir watched with wide eyes; then suddenly he asked, “But what of the gold?”

– I am here, human! –

They whirled. Finding nothing behind them, they looked into the sky–and there was the golden dragon, its form sparkling in the light of the morning sun. It was a massive creature, nearly sixty feet in length, the span of its wings that and half again. The voice they had heard had spoken in their minds, a voice scaly and thunderous.

– Humans, I have come! Which of you slew my brethren? Answer! –

“I shot the arrow which wounded the green,” Brendynn shouted, “but they killed each other!”

– Lies! You are a human. Humans never speak the truth. –

“Brendynn does,” yelled Kemlir.

The golden dragon circled above them, glaring down at them like a falcon eyeing two helpless mice. And then, without warning, it spat a hot yellow stream of fire, and Brendynn and Kemlir had to dive out of the way. The winged creature shot down bolt after bolt of the flame, but each time the two youths were agile enough to dodge the fiery spears.

It was then that Kemlir, in mid-dodge, suddenly tripped over a half-buried rock, and went sprawling to the ground. Alarmed, Brendynn hurried to his side. “Are you hurt?” he demanded.

The dark-haired youth’s face was twisted in pain. “I-I think I’ve twisted my ankle–get back to the village, Brendynn!”

“No, Kemlir, I said I would slay the dragons–all three of them–and I’m not leaving you here, anyway.”

His gold-green eyes sparking, Brendynn leapt onto a boulder, strung the second arrow to his bow, and fired up at the hovering dragon. But a blast from the creature’s mouth reduced the crimson arrow to ash, and the voice of the dragon laughed in his mind.

– Foolish human! Do you think to destroy me with that simple dart? –

“I must destroy you any way I can!” Brendynn shouted back defiantly. “You are threatening the lives of my people!”

– Your people, mortal thing? The people of Varnn are your people? Those I flamed were dark of hair, not fair like you. –

“They–” Brendynn halted, stunned. How could this creature know of his mysterious birth? “Two among them made me their son, and so they are my people.”

– But not by blood! Why do you defend a foreign people against a creature you have no chance of defeating? –

“Because… such is my fate.”

The dragon lifted a little higher into the air, and if a dragon can be said to look thoughtful, this one did. And then it said, – You are quick with your tongue, human. Answer me this, if you can. – It went on:

– This thing is a spark which no river can quench,
A treasure that from you no bandit can wrench,
Revealer of secrets, a giver of sight,
A guide that will lead through the mazes of night;
Of all the world’s knowledge it lies at the core,
In the quest for high wisdom it comes to the fore.
Of the unsighted it will open the eyes,
Cast aside falsehoods and conquer all lies. –

Brendynn stared up at the dragon, astonished–what in all the lands was it up to? But he knew better than to argue with a being who could burn him to a cinder, and so he put his mind to the riddle.

“Do you know the answer?” Kemlir asked, his voice a half-groan.

– Do you, human? – came the dragon’s taunting voice.

Suddenly Brendynn found himself caught once more in his dream, the vision of the flame-haired, blue-eyed maiden. It was because of that dream, the vague promise that he would find what he desired–and that was the truth of his birth. Could that be what the dragon meant? Struggling to hide the tremor of nervousness in his voice, he declared, “It’s truth.”

Then, startling both of the youths, the hovering dragon shrieked out an ear-shattering roar, and its golden length began to blaze white-hot. Slowly the shining form began descending toward them, growing smaller, until at last it touched the earth as a figure smaller than Brendynn himself. But now it had a face framed by curls of fiery red, and eyes that were bluer than the morning sky overhead. Brendynn knew immediately that this was the maiden from his dream, but he could do nothing but stand and stare at her in disbelief.

Her blue eyes meeting his, she laughed merrily. “Are you all tongue-tied now, my deliverer?”

“I… who are you?”

“I am called Adhara, and I was under a witch’s enchantment–doomed to fly in a dragon’s form till a brave young hero rescued me from the spell.” Her voice was soft and musical. Brendynn, attempting to pull himself away from the magic of her voice and the blue shine of her eyes, noted with some surprise that she had the pointed ears and slanted eyebrows of an elf. But his gaze went of its own will back to her eyes, and she went on solemnly, “Might I know my rescuer’s name?”

“B… Brendynn,” he answered. Then Kemlir, who had managed to pull himself to his feet, pretended to cough; with a rueful grin the fair-haired youth added, “And this is Kemlir, my companion from the village of Varnn.”

Adhara regally nodded and smiled. “I am indebted to you both. It appears that I found two brave heros with the dreams I sent to Varnn–I’d feared I would not find even one.”

“You sent the dreams?” Kemlir asked incredulously, and Brendynn’s gaze shot to the other youth.

“Did you dream as well?”

Kemlir nodded. “I saw this maiden, and she told me that you were going to attempt a perilous deed–and if I did not try to help you, I would lose the best friend I could hope to know.” Brendynn’s eyes were wide with amazement now, and the other youth added sheepishly, “I wanted to see if she was right.”

Brendynn stared at him a moment or two, and finally smiled. “Perhaps she is–but what of my dream, Adhara?” He turned back.

She answered, “I cannot tell you want you desire to hear, Brendynn–but I think that if you and I journeyed together, we might discover it somewhere.” Her eyes were clear and earnest. “I read only a little of what you are when I sent you the dream, but I saw enough to know that I would welcome you as my companion.”

He blushed, the only reaction he could manage after being astonished so many times in the last five minutes. In a way he had always known that if he were to find the answer to the riddle of his birth, he might have to journey far and wide to do it–but with this flame-haired maiden at his side, the search might be all the sweeter. “I-I think I’d like that.”

Kemlir put in, “Brendynn, let me prove the friend I can be. I want to journey with you.”

Brendynn looked to Adhara, and she nodded to the dark-haired youth. “I would welcome you as well, friend of my rescuer, but the journey would have to wait till your injury has healed.”

“I’ve waited twenty years,” Brendynn said cheerfully, looping one of Kemlir’s arms around his shoulders to help the injured youth walk; Adhara took Kemlir’s other arm. “I can wait a little longer.”

“Agreed, then,” said Kemlir. “But what shall we tell the village, when we do finally leave?”

Adhara’s eyes twinkled. “The truth, perhaps.”

“We’re going to kill one more dragon,” said Brendynn, his own eyes subtly bright. “Mine.”

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