The fire danced and crackled in the hearth at the back of a salt-and-pepper bearded man, dressed in the leathers of a woodsman. The wind howled in the chimney as the winter storm raged, but all was warm and dry within the inn. The man made as if to rise, but the children seated at the floor around him immediately protested, clamoring for just one more tale.
"One more," he reluctantly agreed, "and then it's off to bed with all of ya'. Now, let's see. What shall I tell?"
There was no shortage of suggestions from the children. On these long, dark winter nights, the grizzled woodman's stories were often the highlight of an otherwise dreary and boring day. Finally the man raised his hand, signaling for silence.
"Ah, I know just the story. A very special story. One I have been saving for just the right time." Eager eyes met his, expressions of delight and wonder staring back at him. Their enthusiasm was infectious. "Have I told you the story of when I came face to face with a great red dragon..."
* * *
I rode out that day with Lady Catrin of Traegond, who had chosen to winter at Alwen Keep. It was a cold but clear day, which gave her the opportunity to fly her dragonets. Unlike the other ladies of the court, Lady Catrin preferred solitude on her hunts. So it was just the two of us, miles north of the keep, riding along the edge of the heavily forested wilderness to the north.
I remember that we spent most of that day in silence. But any excuse to be out the keep was welcome, and certainly her dragonets were magnificent to watch. She used neither hood nor bindings, but merely flung the winged, serpentine creatures from her wrist, as if they hawks and not dragonets at all. She rode that day with both a red and a blue, and their scales glistened in the sunlight reflected off the snows. Three hares and a black squirrel already dangled from my saddle, and with the light fading, it was time to be heading home. But Catrin had insisted on one more kill. And so we rode on.
Gradually, we crested a short ridge overlooking a particularly sinister grove of trees. The tranquility of the coming evening was suddenly interrupted by the cry of a large falcon, diving to the ground after prey. Both dragonets immediately reacted, leaning outwards from her lap where they were perched, as if greedy to attack this more challenging foe. Catrin lowered her arm to the blue, which quickly crawled onto the leather armguard. "Attack!" she cried, then flung the dragonet into the open skies. With a loud cry, it soared straight as an arrow towards the falcon. Somehow realizing the sudden danger, the falcon broke off its dive and banked towards the trees, seeking protection within the thick branches.
But the dragonet was faster, diving with talons outstretched. Within moments it collided with the falcon, and with a loud cry both plummeted down and crashed into the trees. Catrin stood up in her saddle, trying to see what had happened. We waited expectantly for the victor to emerge, but both falcon and dragonet had vanished. After a moment, Catrin shook her head and exclaimed, "I suppose we must ride down there then and see what's become of them. Come on."
Without another word, she rode off, plunging down the slope with seeming abandon. I had no choice but to follow.
We quickly reached the edge of the grove, and at last Catrin slowed her horse and clambered down from her saddle. The red dragonet was coiled around the saddle horn and hissed at me as I pulled my horse adjacent to hers.
"Are you sure this is wise, my lady?" I asked.
She looked up at me intently, and for the first time I noticed the strange violet color of her eyes. "Wise or not, I will not abandon her."
I should have expected nothing less. So I slid from my saddle, checked the short sword at my belt, and retrieved the spear from its place on my saddle. "Then we best hurry, Lady Catrin. It will be dark soon, and I do not like the look of these woods."
She gave me a strange half-smile, then replied, "After you, ranger."
"I have a name you know," I muttered, but did as she bade.
Within only a few steps, I knew we were in trouble. The sweet smell of decay hung heavy in the air, and thick strands of cobweb were strung among the trees. I had heard stories of the monstrous spiders that inhabited the wilderness to our north. I had no desire to encounter one.
Catrin stopped behind me, and she whispered, "Do you hear that?"
I paused, then I heard it too. It sounded like a large creature, struggling as if caught in a trap.
"We must hurry!" she cried.
Against all reason, I plunged quickly through the tangled branches of the trees, drawing closer to the sounds. And then I saw it.
A massive spider web, with strands of silk as thick as my arm, was suspended between two large trees. Blobs of flesh and silk hung suspended all around it. And both the falcon and the blue dragonet were caught within the web. Both thrashed wildly, but their struggles only seemed to trap them further.
And then, in a sudden blur of motion, the giant spider pounced.
It moved impossibly fast, leaping upon the struggling falcon. It bit down once, twice, and then a torrent of silk rushed forth from its abdomen. Guided by its long limbs, the silken strands quickly enveloped the hapless bird. Its struggles quickly slowed, and within moments it was only other bulbous sack of silk hanging from the web.
"Do something!" Catrin shouted.
I drew my blade and sliced into the web, expecting it to shear apart effortlessly. Instead, it felt like chopping into a snowbank. The strands split, but my swing lacked the force to slice neatly through them. With all my effort, I managed to pull it free. I took another swipe, hoping somehow to cut the dragonet free, but I knew my chances were slim.
"Watch out!" Catrin cried.
I leapt back, sword tumbling from my grasp as the spider leapt towards me. It barely missed, and immediately I lifted my spear and sought to impale the monstrous creature. But it effortlessly leaped back across the web and out of my reach. And there it paused, its bundle of eyes staring back at me.
At that moment the dragonet, which had stilled for a moment, gave out a pitiful cry and renewed its struggles to free itself from the web. In response, the spider cautiously began to crawl in its direction, but its attention was clearly focused on me. I raised the spear, as if to throw, and it dodged to the side. Perhaps if I could keep it distracted long enough...
Then it leapt straight at me.
Somehow it knocked aside my spear, its massive body knocking me to the forest floor. I struggled to throw it off, but for all my efforts all I managed to do was keep its fangs from clamping down on me. One bite, I knew, and I would end up rotting in my own silken sack.
"Enough!" Catrin suddenly cried. I watched, dumbstruck, as she grabbed the spider in both her hands. There was a sound like the cracking of an egg, and she ripped the monstrous creature in half, green gore flying in all directions. In the fading light, her eyes blazed violet as she flung the corpse down. Then she grabbed the web and pulled hard, ripping it free. With surprising gentleness she took the thrashing dragonet in her arms and methodically pulled the strands from it.
I lay there, in shock, my mind refusing to accept what I had just seen. I tried to speak, but all I could mutter was nonsense.
Catrin turned her bright gaze upon me, and suddenly there was a flash of light, brighter than lightning crashing down. In that instant, the noblewoman disappeared, and I found myself staring into the maw of a great red dragon.
* * *
The man let the silence grow, as the faces of the gathered children peered back at him. He smiled, then said, "And that's where we'll end the story for tonight."
The children groaned and protested, but the man would not be dissuaded. Parents herded them away, bidding him goodnight. As they departed, a noblewoman rose from one of the far tables, gliding over to the woodsman still seated by the fire.
"You take a great risk, you know, telling that story here," she said.
He smiled, and stared intently into her beautiful violet eyes."It is no risk, beloved. For who would ever believe that a woman is a dragon?"