Legends speak of a time when the world was different. For better or worse, it is impossible to tell, for none are alive who remember what was. All we have left of that time are dreams that were lived before they were written and the truths they hold for each of us.
Listen closely, for this is one such dream.
Thunderstorm rain pelted against the thick, oiled canvas of the tent as Lord Philbreck closed his eyes and rested his head in his hands. He breathed deep, inhaling the summer scent of outside atop the musty odor tents never seem to lose no matter how often they are aired. The desk upon which he leaned and the chair in which he sat were both extravagances on a march, especially one as short as this, but they were touchstones of a sort, a comfort Philbreck refused to travel without. They were there for moments like this, when the weight of the past and the hope of the future were too much of a burden for one man to bear.
“Tomorrow,” he said, the word barely audible over the late evening storm raging outside, “it will all be over.” Philbreck sat with his thin arms drawn close, his back hunched over the table. He sat folded up, as if he were hiding for fear of the storm raging outside. He would stand in a moment, unfold himself into the tall man whose iron will took up more space than he ever would, but for now Philbreck protected something that he had not dared to feel in a very long time.
“I pray it is so, my lord,” said Abraham from the far corner of the tent. He sat upon a simple stool, wrapped in a philosopher’s robes and marked with a philosopher’s ink upon his forearms. The skin around his eyes was wrinkled with time, and his beard had moved beyond gray to the white only great age bestowed. His long, slender fingers looked as if they were made to hold the kind of thick book which now rested in his lap. They trailed along the edges, a silent wish that he could return to his reading rather than take up the thread of an argument he knew would not benefit either of them.
“Is that doubt I hear, Abraham?”
“It is faith, my lord.”
“Faith.” Philbreck laughed, but it was a gentle, teasing laugh. “You can’t have faith without doubt. Otherwise, you’d know for certain, and you can’t have faith in what you know for certain.”
“Certainty breeds mistakes. You would do well not to be too certain of what you think you know and to be more certain of what you don’t. A man could spend his entire life exploring the distance between those two points and count it well spent.”
“I’ll count my life well spent if no one ever has to lose their son the way I have,” Philbreck said.
For all his learning, Abraham never quite knew what to say in these moments. Silence wrapped itself around Abraham’s heart. He wanted to speak, but even the right words, for all their power, wouldn’t affect the young lord. Philbreck’s father had listened to Abraham’s advice. He had believed in magic and in the old ways that Abraham embodied and Philbreck was determined to set aside. Abraham had promised to look after Philbreck, but the young lord had long since turned away from his counsel. The old man remained with Philbreck more out of a sense of duty to his father than loyalty to the young lord who thought him a relic of bygone days.
The sounds of the storm intensified for a moment. Philbreck felt mist and wind for a brief moment before the sensation died away but gave it little thought. His men had finished setting camp just before the storm hit. It likely wouldn’t last long, but it made campfires and a hot meal impossible. He figured most of them would climb into their tents and take advantage of the foul weather to catch up on their sleep. He wouldn’t begrudge them that. They would need it tomorrow.
“My lord…” Abraham said.
“Yes?” Lord Philbreck looked up.
The man who stood before him lowered his cowl and looked first at Abraham and then at Philbreck, who stood and carefully placed his book upon his stool. He was not sure whom to address himself to, the elder who dressed like a philosopher of old or the man who was little more than a boy sitting at the table. “I am here to speak to Lord Philbreck,” the newcomer said carefully, not wishing to offer disrespect so early in their meeting by making assumptions.
“Then speak,” said Philbreck.
“I am the Knight Who Carries a Sword in His Heart,” he said. He spoke his name like he was telling a story, and he hoped the weight of each word was enough for them to understand who he was. Abraham sat up straighter. “I’ve come to ask you not to slay the dragon.”
Philbreck almost laughed. His first thought was the man was feverish and sick and needed help. His second, less charitable thought was that the man must have been mad to brave the thunderstorm, walk through a small army’s camp, and barge into a lord’s tent spouting nonsense.
But his third thought checked the first two. The man stood before him calmly, his eyes clear of all madness. He was bald. His face was bearded and strong, though lined with years. His cloak was simple. Beneath it he wore plain brown pants and a tunic befitting a peasant, not a knight. He was unarmed. There was no blade belted to his waist and there certainly wasn’t one sticking through his heart. He looked like a scholar or a monk, but not a knight. There was nothing overtly threatening about him Philbreck could name, yet the tent felt smaller for his being there.
“Not slay the dragon,” Philbreck repeated. “Why?”
“Because he is my friend.”
Rain pattered against the tent. Thunder rumbled off in the distance. The storm was passing.
“A dragon is no one’s friend,” said Philbreck.
“He has witnessed ages and carries their wisdom. There are none left like him in the world. Byatt deserves to end his days peacefully. I’m asking you not to end greatness in bloodshed. Let him die in his own time. Please,” the Knight’s voice softened, “do not kill my friend.”
The sincerity of the Knight’s voice gave Philbreck pause, but only for a moment. He recognized pain when he saw it. He felt the Knight’s pain echo in his own heart briefly before it reflexively hardened.
“He is a relic. The last in a long line of creatures holding us back from what we can be. They’ve ruled over us for centuries, but their time is over,” said Philbreck.
“Byatt never claimed a kingdom. None of them did.”
“They claimed our thoughts. Haunted our dreams. Made us fear the dark when we should have been carrying light into it. What could we have been? What could we have built without dragons binding our thoughts to superstition and magic?
“No,” Philbreck shook his head. “It all ends tomorrow. Byatt’s death will bring an end to the old ways. Take away the living talisman and all these misguided tales and superstitions will eventually go the way of legends, where they can do no harm.”
Abraham spoke from the far corner of the tent. “My lord,” he said gently. “This will not bring your son back. Nothing will.”
“I know that.” There was the echo in his heart again. Philbreck gritted his teeth against it. “But in a generation, maybe two, there will be minds free of magic and ghosts and old wives’ tales and room for science and medicine. Someone will find a cure, so someone else’s son won’t have to die from a cough.”
The Knight bowed his head. “I am sorry for your loss. I understand grief can be…”
“Do you have a child?” Philbreck cut him off.
“Then don’t tell me you understand how it feels to watch your son cough his lungs up while the so-called wise men wave herbs in his face and burn sage and promise a cure they can’t deliver because they’ve studied superstition instead of physic. Don’t tell me you know what it feels like to lay your son in the cold ground. Don’t tell me you know what it feels like to curse God with one breath and pray your son is safe in His arms with the next.
“I would have pulled every star down from heaven and drowned them, one by one, in the ocean if it would have meant he lived, but all I could do was watch him die. If killing a dragon means no one else has feel this, then so be it.”
Outside, the rain stopped falling as the storm slid out of the full moon’s path.
“I am sorry for your loss. I meant no disrespect. You are right. I cannot imagine what you must have gone through, but that doesn’t change what I must do. I am the Knight Who Carries a Sword in His Heart. Byatt has long been my friend, and I name him thus. I will stand between him and all those who seek to do him harm.”
“What exactly are you going to do about it?” Philbreck asked.
“If you pack up your army in the morning and leave, then we will part ways in peace. But if you and your men attack Byatt, I will draw my sword in defense of my friend and kill every one of you before I die.”
“There are 200 of us,” said Philbreck, scorn evident in his voice. His first suspicions had been right all along. The man was mad.
“Even so. I have been to The Dreaming Tree. I carry my purpose and your death in my heart.”
“What the blazes are you talking about?”
“It is of the oldest tales, my lord,” said Abraham. “Few know it now, but it is a tale that bears attention.”
“That’s exactly the kind of nonsense I’m talking about.” Philbreck waved a dismissive hand in Abraham’s direction. “You read a fairy tale and want to fight an army? Fine. Go ahead. But we will show you no mercy if you stand before us tomorrow.”
“Nor I, you.” The Knight spoke quietly, even regretfully. There was no bravado in the threat, only the certainty of man who saw a task to be completed before him.
He turned to leave.
“Sir Knight,” said Abraham.
The Knight inclined his head and took note of Abraham’s robes. “Philosopher,” said the Knight.
Abraham keenly felt the burden of knowledge upon his heart in this moment.
“I know the old stories, and I know the tale of the Knight. Know that I am not your enemy.”
“Then why are you helping him?” The Knight nodded in the direction of Philbreck, who glared his disapproval but did not give it voice.
“Because I treasure what he has lost.”
The Knight considered this for a moment before he bowed to Abraham and left the tent.
The entrance to the dragon’s mountain chamber was small and easy to overlook from the outside. It was barely wide enough for two men to walk abreast, and a tall man would need to duck. In stronger days, Byatt could shift into human form. When he had made the entrance, he kept it small. No one looked for dragons in tiny cracks.
The Knight found the torches where they had always been hidden, tucked into shadow just around the first bend in the tunnel. He spoke a word of magic, one borrowed from Byatt, and the torch came to life with a flame that gave off light, but not heat. The Knight took a deep, cleansing breath and felt time and weariness fall away from him.
He was home.
The path meandered only a little. The stone beneath his feet was level and the walls around him were smooth and dry. It was cool inside the mountain, but comfortably so, like the chill of blankets when you first slide beneath them.
As usual, Byatt smelled the Knight long before he entered the chamber.
“You smell of thunder.” Byatt’s voice was low and deep, but the power it once held had faded, like a receding tide reaching for a seaside cliff. “But you reek of Old Magic.”
The Knight stepped from the tunnel and into Byatt’s chamber. Torches on either side of the entrance bloomed to flickering life, giving him just enough light to see the dragon’s face before him.
The Knight’s heart was lifted by the familiar gruffness. “It’s good to see you too, old friend.” The Knight fought to keep his concern from showing in his voice. Only a few days had passed since he’d left Byatt, but the dragon looked as if he had aged further in that brief span. His once shimmering golden scales were grayed around the edges. The ones on his snout were entirely gray. As big as he was, Byatt looked smaller than he should, as if his insides had been hollowed slightly and he was settling in on his bones. Worse yet, the chamber was cooler than it should have been. Dragons were hot creatures by their very nature, but the fire inside Byatt had been banked down to embers buried beneath ash, unlikely to ever blaze to life again.
Byatt snorted. “I look old.”
“You are old,” said the Knight.
Byatt chuffed out a breath. “You found The Dreaming Tree. I can smell it on you.”
The Knight stood before the dragon like a wayward son confessing his sins to a disappointed father. “I did.”
Byatt sighed. “Why would you do this, when I asked you not to?”
The Knight lifted his gaze from the floor to meet the dragon’s eye. “Because I’ve made a lot of wrong choices in my life. Let me make this right one.”
Byatt closed his eyes in resignation. As much as he wished otherwise, there could be no going back. “I wish you hadn’t done this.”
“He’s outside with 200 soldiers. They’re coming for you in the morning.”
“You should let them come. He isn’t wrong in what he believes.”
“Doing the wrong thing for the right reasons doesn’t make it right,” said the Knight. “But his son died. I think he lost himself a long time ago.” The Knight shook his head. “I wish tomorrow didn’t have to be.”
“It doesn’t,” said Byatt. “My time is near anyway. Let me be. Let Philbreck have his way.”
They both knew the Knight would not abandon his friend, but some words needed to be said for the comfort of having said them.
“We are who we are, my friend. There’s nothing either of us can do about that.”
“Then let tomorrow keep until morning,” said Byatt. “Dark nights are better weathered with tall tales than quiet fears. Let’s fill our hearts with something better than what awaits us tomorrow.”
The Knight smiled. “What did you have in mind?”
“Would you read me a story?”
“Any story in particular?”
Byatt thought for a moment. There were many to choose from, but he realized there could only be one story for a night like this one. “How about,” he said slowly, “the one that inspired you?”
The Knight looked into the darkness overhead. “If I’m going to read you a story, then I’m going to need more light.”
Byatt’s smile should have been terrifying, but the Knight found it comforting to know his friend could still smile. “I think I have enough magic left for that.”
The dragon closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The torches extinguished themselves, casting the two of them into the true darkness that can only be found inside a mountain. The Knight held still, but kept his eyes turned upward. Slowly at first, moonlight soaked through stone and soil until it seeped into the cavern, filling it with the gentle light and soft shadows of summer’s last full moon.
Above them, the chamber stretched to the mountain top, and its every wall was lined with stone shelves of books in neat rows. Ladders and walkways allowed access to every level in a maze of metal and stone.
Byatt’s treasure had never been anything as cheap and pedestrian as gold.
“Can you find it?” Byatt asked. To the Knight’s ears, he sounded more tired than he had a moment ago.
The Knight nodded. “I know exactly where it is.” He’d been to the top of the library only once. There were more books here than a man could read in a lifetime, even if that was all he did with his life. But he knew the lower shelves well, and he could remember the exact location of every book he’d read. He’d spent many days here, and many nights reading to Byatt when the dragon was uninterested or, as of late, unable to shift forms to read for himself. The best books, like the one with the tale of The Knight Who Carried a Sword in His Heart, echoed within him long after he finished reading them. He could remember exactly how it felt to sit with Byatt and be humbled by the sense of awe such tales poured into him. What must it have been like to take up the sword? What drove a man to such extremes?
Now he knew.
Unwilling to waste any of their precious time, the Knight jogged through moonlight to a ladder leading up to a second level shelf. He climbed it and two more before a short walkway led him to the slender, green volume that contained his favorite story. He held it up to show Byatt, but the dragon wasn’t looking. He almost called out before he realized that Byatt wasn’t focused on anything. He was waiting patiently, absently staring into moonlight’s middle distance because eyes that once pinpointed mice from miles above the clouds could no longer see across their own chamber.
The sudden ache in the Knight’s heart had nothing to do with the sword he carried there. He made his way back down the ladders, taking care to make as much noise as possible so Byatt could track him easily.
“Found it,” said the Knight.
“Good.” Byatt stretched his forelegs out before him. His hind legs did little more than shuffle as he tried to rise. Massive tendons creaked like ropes on a ship. Joints popped like cannon fire. Scales scraped against stone as he laid his head down upon his forelegs.
It was easy to imagine what Byatt had been, especially where moonlight erased the gray from his scales, but his face held onto the weary understanding that came at the end of a long life.
The Knight stepped around Byatt’s paw and climbed into the crook of his elbow, where he could sit comfortably and lean against the dragon’s head.
“Comfortable?” asked Byatt.
The Knight willed time to slow down. Even better, to stop altogether. He wanted to preserve the perfection of this moment, when everything was quiet and still and he was home safe with his friend, reveling in the peace they’d stolen from the outside world.
But the moment was only perfect because they both knew it for what it was, and time had to pass for this to be true. Life could only be lived in motion until it stopped, and they both knew this was an ending.
The Knight began to read. His voice cracked. He cleared his throat, wiped his eyes, and began again. Byatt closed his eyes and listened intently.
“Legends speak of a time when the world was different. For better or worse, it is impossible to tell, for none are alive who remember what was. All we have left of that time are dreams that were lived before they were written and the truths they hold for each of us. Listen closely, for this is one such dream.”
It was a faerie tale, one of the first, about a neglected boy who grew up to become a solider who, being unfamiliar with kindness, angered his fellow soldiers until they left him to die on the battlefield.
“He cried out with his last breath, as all soldiers do, for anyone who could ease his pain or end it. It is said that in times of great desperation, or great need, The Dreaming Tree will hear us and answer our calls. The soldier’s desperation was pure and his need grievous, so, in the space between final heartbeats, he found himself looking up at glimmering stars through the winter-bare branches of The Dreaming Tree. He was in too much pain to speak, but The Dreaming Tree understood his need.
“The soldier awoke once more on the field of battle, carrying a sword in his heart. He knew it was powerful, and that it would allow him to defeat his enemies if he drew it, but the soldier knew he would die soon after his battle was finished. Rather than seek revenge, he took up the life of the knight errant. He wore no armor, and never again touched a bladed weapon. He travelled the land, lending strength and kindness where he found it lacking and, with each deed, the sword in his heart cut away a piece of the anger and hurt he carried.
“One night, as he looked up at winter’s stars from his bedroll, he realized he had been his own greatest enemy. He found himself at The Dreaming Tree once again. He knelt before the tree, drew the sword from his heart, and lay down at the roots of the tree to rest at last.”
The story at its end, the Knight closed the book quietly. Byatt’s eyes remained shut. His breathing was shallower than it should have been. The old dragon was asleep beneath a blanket of moonlight, his body pressed hard against the cool stone floor of the chamber. It was hard for the Knight to imagine his sleep was restful, and harder still for him to see his friend reduced to such a hollow end.
Byatt’s time was nearly over.
The Knight leaned his head against Byatt’s. “Thank you for being my friend.” Tears splashed against gray scales as the Knight wept silently. Byatt did not stir. The Knight was determined not to be angry at this end, though it was hard. Byatt deserved better, but there was no changing what was. There was only facing it.
Carefully, so as not to wake Byatt, the Knight clambered down from the dragon’s embrace and left the chamber without speaking again.
They had lived their goodbyes. Let that be enough.
The Knight Who Carried a Sword in His Heart stood before the mountain and watched the sun rise for the last time. Patches of fog streamed along the valley below, pushed by a breeze so gentle it was almost nonexistent. He caught the barest hint of autumn’s chill in the stillness of the morning. The Knight nodded, satisfied. He would not live to see the season come to pass. It was good that he could feel it, even if only in the slightest way.
The Knight waited. Armies, even small ones, take time to move. He could see the soldiers in the valley below, stirring about as they ate breakfast and readied weapons. The Knight could have walked down to their camp, but he was content to wait. Every passing moment was a moment stolen from death, and it was a beautiful day.
It was still early in the morning when the army formed ranks and marched in his direction. There were three men at the front, carrying banners. The Knight assumed Philbreck was the one in the middle, framed by his colors and bearing only the sword at his waist. The soldiers marched in orderly ranks behind the colors, save for one lone figure who followed behind the column. The Knight didn’t have to see the figure’s robes to know it would be Abraham who marched alone.
In time, the army reached the mountain. It was indeed Philbreck who rode between the colors, and he gave the order to halt. He stepped forward with the bannermen while the rest of his army waited within earshot. Philbreck wanted to make sure they heard what passed between the Knight and himself.
“Lord Philbreck.” He looked tall this morning. He was confident in who he was and what he was about, and he wore this confidence like armor. He believed in what he was doing. That made him dangerous.
The Knight did not quail before Philbreck and his army, for he believed, too.
“I told you last night there would be no quarter,” Philbreck said. “This is your last warning. Stand aside. Let us pass, and we will part ways in peace. But know if you raise a hand against me or my men, you will be cut down.”
This moment was not an honest one. It gave all appearances of being the last point at which the bloodshed to come could be avoided. That was a lie; the moment was a formality. There was nothing honest about it. What was about to happen had been decided long ago by two men who had not seen where their path would lead when they first stepped upon it.
“We are who we are,” said the Knight. “I will not stand aside any more than you will walk away. Let’s not make a show of this.”
Philbreck nodded. “So be it.” He drew a deep breath to bellow the order to advance.
The Knight Who Carried a Sword in His Heart raised his right hand to his chest, closed it around a hilt he could not see, but believed was there, and drew the sword from his heart. He felt every inch of it slide through his chest, a freezing, searing agony that stiffened every muscle in his body.
The Knight gritted his teeth against the pain. He believed in stories. He believed in magic. He believed in The Dreaming Tree and dragons and in himself. The blade came free, and the Knight held it out from his body. Silvered edges caught the morning sunlight and cut it in two. The sword was simple, as befitted a powerful weapon. It was marked only by a rough, broad crimson streak running the length of the blade, like the heartwood of a great cedar. A single drop of blood rolled off the tip and fell to the ground.
The Knight moved. He went from standing still to being in motion without appearing to move through any of the steps in between. Blood arced. Three men fell to the ground screaming, dying from wounds that appeared like magic. The Knight moved past them, secure in the knowledge they were no longer a threat.
The first rank charged, but they only had time for a single step before the Knight smashed into them. In seconds he was through that line as well, and every single soldier along the line was down. He moved through the ranks like blazing fire. His sword cut through armor and steel as easily as flesh, and it leant him both power and speed to fulfill its promise. No man could stand before him. Those farther back in the ranks had a few precious seconds to ready themselves. They struck out at the Knight, who wore no armor. The Knight accepted his wounds as the price of his decision and struck back with inhuman ferocity. He should have died quickly, but he fought with borrowed strength. The sword would keep him alive until his battle was finished. That was how the story went.
When the ranks broke, the Knight followed. He was violence given human form. No one who raised an arm against him could stand, and he left a river of blood in his wake that stopped only when he raised his sword against Abraham.
“I am not your enemy,” Abraham said.
The Knight quivered with effort of holding back. He fell to his knees, bleeding from too many wounds to stay on his feet. The sword fed him strength, but every breath was agony, every movement torture.
Abraham slipped under the Knight’s shoulder and bore his weight as he took the Knight back up to the mountain. He pressed a hand to the Knight’s chest and felt the magic of the sword fading. At their feet, dying men moaned, begged for mercy, and clamored for help, all to no avail, but Abraham was intent upon assisting the Knight. The Knight had no mercy to give them.
A bloody hand grabbed the philosopher’s robes. Abraham looked down to see Philbreck on his back, his other hand clutching at a terrible stomach wound. He gently lowered the Knight to the ground and knelt beside his lord.
“You promised…my father…you would watch out for me.” Philbreck gasped out the words.
Abraham’s heart hurt. He cupped Philbreck’s face with his left hand so that the lord’s eyes were focused on his face. “I tried, my lord.” He had done his best, but in the end, Abraham could not save Philbreck from himself. The stomach wound was fatal, though death would be agonizing and slow to come. “All I can offer now is a vulgar mercy.”
Philbreck’s eyes widened. Abraham told himself it was a sign that he understood, though Abraham could not bring himself to believe Philbreck welcomed his end.
The knife in Abraham’s right hand found Philbreck’s heart. Abraham’s vision blurred as he helped the Knight to his feet and led him to the mountain pass. The Knight tried to speak, to offer condolence or apology for Abraham’s loss, but he was in too much pain to do so. He closed his eyes and trusted Abraham to guide him.
The next voice he heard was Byatt’s.
“I never wanted this.”
The Knight stirred at the sound of his friend’s voice. He tried to speak, but he could only moan.
Byatt shifted, helpless. He desperately wanted to ease the Knight’s pain, but there was nothing he could do for his friend in this form. He stilled himself, though his heart trembled as he watched the philosopher help the Knight lay down in the crook of Byatt’s arm.
“You are safe, and you are home. You may rest now,” Abraham said, the words the only benediction he could give.
The Knight opened his eyes and looked upon the sorrowful face of the dragon. The strength of the sword left him. The Knight knew his friend was safe and his battle was finished. He closed his eyes to rest at last.
“I did not ask for his,” Byatt sobbed.
“You did not have to ask, Great One,” Abraham said. “There is no greater love than this. He made his choice freely, and you bear no guilt. He wanted you to live in peace.”
Byatt nuzzled the Knight. He lowered his head and rested it upon his forelegs, just as he had the night before. “A broken heart will have to be its own peace,” said the dragon, and with these words, the last of the dragons passed from the world.
Grief overcame Abraham. He wept for Philbreck, for having failed Philbreck’s father, for the men whose lives had been needlessly spent, and for the friendship that ended before him. Such moments were rare, and Abraham wept in awe of what he had witnessed and in regret for having seen it.
He knelt before Byatt and the Knight and pressed his palm to the stone floor. He spoke a word of magic, one he had learned long ago. Stone shifted and flowed like water, and the remains of the dragon and the knight sank into the floor. In their place rose a great statue, big enough to take up the entire chamber floor, of a dragon listening intently to a Knight reading from a book. There were no words inscribed upon the statue’s base. The statue would speak for itself to any who cared enough to listen.
Abraham left the chamber, his heart heavy. When he left the tunnel, he turned back long enough to press his hand to the mountain. He spoke the word of magic again, this time with a different intonation, one that would add a layer of requirement to the stone that flowed like water.
Abraham sealed the mountain against the hope that someday a different dream would come to pass, one in which the world would again treasure everything that lay within, and left this dream behind.