The River Dragon
By: Michael A. Arnold

"There was another attack last night. I'm so glad you've come today."

Elan's old face looked like stone, but Geoffrey could feel that he was scared.

"Was anything killed?"

"Yet another calf, it happened during the night. The watchman only heard the poor thing screaming by the water, and when he got to the scene Ingeld's cattle were distressed, running in every direction. It was chaos."

"And who is Ingeld?"

"A young farmer in the village, he's a good man — a true man of God. Not the most common thing around here," Elan said, and smiled. It was a weird smile, Geoffrey did not know how to take it.

"What do you mean?"

"You are quite a long way from Rome, my friend," Elan said with a little chuckle. Geoffrey knew that much already, when he entered the village of Wlacam he saw a mist–shrouded willow tree arching into a river gray in the cold air — that was not seen back in Rome. And he found that he was not quite warming to Elan, the local knight, in the way he hoped. Despite being English himself, he had been finding other English people were just not dancing to his particular music anymore. He could, however, enjoy the fire crackling beside them, while listening to the sound of rain pummeling the windows and the stone walls of Elan's home.

"How many have been killed by the demon so far?"

"Several chickens, two cows, and a young man. And curiously there are less fish in our river these days —I cannot help but think the demon is the cause."

"A young man?" Geoffrey had heard this before, but hearing it said now made it more horrifying somehow.

"Yes, no one knows quite what happened. He went out fishing and never came back. The only reason we know he is dead is because we found … a bit of him left. But that does not make for comfortable conversation right now … wine?"

"Please," Geoffrey said, too quickly for his own liking. He had always prided himself on steady nerves.

"I've heard wine was no longer drunk in Rome?"

"You do not know the Romans," they laughed at this, and Geoffrey started feeling more settled.

"What can you tell me about this demon?" Geoffrey said after a sip.

"Only what my people tell me, they say it stalks the river — they say it has great swords for teeth, scales like a fish as thick as plate armor, green as the grass so it can hide in the day and stalk at night, and eyes that burn red like the fires of hell. Quicker than an eagle, more fierce than a lion," Elan said, then took a sip of wine, "The people call it papolstan wyrm, or "pebble dragon" – the "dragon of the river'. And it does not distinguish between people and beasts — it is a foe of life."

He said this he seemed to affect a deeper voice which resonated through the room, and through Geoffrey's body. It had a gravitas that terrified Geoffrey.

"Deus, me iuva," Geoffrey said, and crossed himself.

"God help us, you mean," Elan said, "and it's better to speak English with the local people. Not many will understand Latin here. And they might think it's French".

"Who will be accompanying me?"

"A man named Amer. He's very strong, a pagan, but loves this village as much as Edward loves chickens.

"As much as what?"

"Just a local saying. And my son William — he's a capable fighter, fought in the crusade. Helped win Jerusalem."

"Good man," Geoffrey said, "the bastard king's name."

"Yes, you had to do things like that back then, when he was born. What news from the Holy Land?"

"Little, the new kingdom of Jerusalem seems stable."

"Ut deus vult!"

"As god wants" Geoffrey nodded in agreement. He glanced at the window. The night looked bleak.

XoXoXoX

Morning awoke with a clear, bright sky. Geoffrey was late getting out of bed. He had not quite accustomed himself to the cold English air, and so waited for the world to warm up before getting up and walking around. On his feet the world felt slightly uncertain, but that might have just been a small hangover. Priests in Rome, like he, were not exactly strangers to wine — but wine always seemed to strike him hard when he had not eaten very much, and Geoffrey always found travel made him lose his appetite.

After a prayer he grabbed his tiny short sword, which was purely for self defense, went downstairs to meet Elan. Elan got up from the kitchen table with the more energy than Geoffrey felt was in himself, and Geoffrey was easily half Elan's age. Geoffrey had a quick breakfast of eggs and bread, and then without saying much they went out. Things were happening quicker than Geoffrey was comfortable with, but he was here to bless the demon and drive it from the area — and that was important work. Fear is a hard beast to tame, and hearing how dangerous this demon was was greatly unsettling him.

Even though it was very bright the world was still quite chilly. Geoffrey and Elan walked through Wlacam's narrow streets, stopping occasionally to bang on a door and call on someone to follow him. Geoffrey's skin seemed to tingle in the cool air. The men Elan were gathering talked to each other in a strange, heavily accented English accent that Geoffrey could barely comprehend. As far as Geoffrey could tell they were just making small talk, but occasionally someone would glance in his direction. This made it obvious to him that he was the outsider.

Elan led the group to a sign post just outside the village, and turned to formally introduce Geoffrey. "This is Father Geoffrey. He has come to exercise our demon, and bless our village — Geoffrey, this is my son, William". The young man, around Geoffrey's age, was handsome and stood proudly. He smiled warmly.

"Hope you like our town," he said.

Geoffrey instantly liked him.

"And this is Amer, perhaps the strongest man in the village," Elan said, gesturing to a large man holding a spear about the same height as himself.

"Wes–hole," Amer said, or at least that was what Geoffrey heard.

Elan must have seen a flash of confusion in Geoffrey's face. "He's saying a greeting," Elan said.

"Be well, Amer, with God's help we will prevail," Geoffrey said, and then immediately regretted it remembering Amer was a pagan.

Amer smiled politely and grunted while nodding.

Finally Elan cleared his thought and spoke up, addressing them all at once. "Well, fellows, somewhere down there (he pointed into some dense thickets) there's a demon. Now I know I don't need to tell you what it has been doing to our small community, but now we have a priest all the way from Rome here to help us exorcise it. This if Father Geoffrey Sonman — an Englishman, a Londoner, coming all the way from Rome, so be nice."

"Is the church man … good, with weapons?" Amer said. London English was not the local dialect.

Elan looked at Geoffrey with an eye that said "I should have seen this question coming, sorry".

"Why yes!" Elan said, "He's a keen swordsman. Do not worry. Now, let us pray."

Geoffrey was sure he had never said he was keen with a sword. He knew how to use one, but it was not something he had ever had to actually use. He knew well that knowing something in theory and doing it in practice often had little connection with each other.

After a quick prayer for God's blessing which Amer joined but did not say any part of the prayer, and a "good luck" from a departing Elan, the three man group started walking down river. Then it all became real, in a way it had not before. Geoffrey felt a weight of fear fill his soul.

XoXoXoX

A mile down river the land turned into marches.

It was ghostly cloudy, the midday sun could not be seen. Distant trees had a strange blue hue to them. The world was quiet.

Geoffrey had always thought marches were naturally creepy places, it was land not meant for humans. He did not think this attitude was born during his childhood in London, or was something he had picked up in Rome, but it had always been there inside him. It was something in the quiet, he thought, and how the occasional bird would crow but little else. Or the way it was in a sense deceptive, because the the water would pool the land, causing everything but strong grass to rot; it made the land look from far away rich and fertile, but close up look diseased and useless.

They walked the edge of the march, but it was still very muddy and hard going.

"There's something wrong with this marsh," Amer said, "it feels different."

They walked in silence, and that only made Geoffrey feel worse. Even though he knew talking was not exactly an advisable thing to do, he talked quietly to himself. It was, he thought, something that would make a good shield from the darker forces working in the world: "num per umbra mortis ambulo, non malum timebo, num per umbra mortis…"

"What's that?" Amer said, "that's the church language?"

"Latin, yes?" William said.

"What does it mean?" Amer said.

"Now I'm walking through the shadow of death, I will not fear evil," Geoffrey said.

"Oh."

They continued walking in silence. Only the wind and the slumping sound of the cold mud on their legs accompanied them through the marshland. Amer had been right, there was an atmosphere in the marshes, and Geoffrey was scared. He could almost images of what he thought the demon looked like, and nothing he was imagining was very pleasant.

"I've heard this thing," William said, "has wings". He paused his sentence to pull his leg out of some thick mud.

"I've heard it can breathe fire," Amer said.

"I don't think it's good to talk like that," Geoffrey said.

They crossed the marsh, and moved back to the riverside. They had entered thick woodland and the sounds of bugs and insects could once again be heard.

"I feel like we've gone too far," William said. The group stopped. The marshland behind them looked peaceful in the sunlight, opposed by the forest where the ground was darker because of the shield cover of the tree leaves high above.

"Isn't that just a feeling?" Geoffrey said.

"Never doubt the instincts of a warrior," Amer said, in a way that was slightly upbraiding.

They went back, deciding (Geoffrey assumed) to prod their way through the marshland for a little bit. Geoffrey did not join in this, but stood and watched where the ground was more stable. He did not want to get his feet damp and dirty with more mud. All the air went quiet around them again.

Then Geoffrey could sense it. He felt like he was being watched. There was something in the marshes with them.

Nature itself seemed to tense up. It was like the whole world was expecting something to happen.

The first thing Geoffrey heard was an almighty splash of water, and suddenly distant birds were blasted out of their trees as Amer started screaming. "It's the demon!" William was screaming, "It's the demon!"

Geoffrey pulled his small sword out and ran toward the attack, but stopped shortly after his burst of speed began. The water had settled, and Geoffrey could see a huge mouth wrapped around Amer's arm who was desperately trying to tug it free. "Meus deus!" Geoffrey shouted, but because of fear he could not get any closer. His legs had frozen in place. "Help him!" William, his long sword high in the air, waded quickly though the water and grass reeds toward Amer. Amer's screaming became louder, and was being dragged lower to the earth.

Amer was submerged when William reached him. William slashed the water — but Geoffrey could not see what was happening. The water seemed to turn an unnatural color as it sprayed upward. "Geoffrey, COME!" William shouted, Amer resurfaced — yelling incoherently, and trying to reach dryer land. Red blood began flowing all down his large arm. He screamed, and it looked like he fell over, but Geoffrey knew the demon had got him again.

"O my god!" Geoffrey screamed.

"Geoffrey, help me!" William screamed.

Suddenly Geoffrey had new strength, and he rushed into the marshland, sword in hand.

When he got close he could see Amer, obscured by a cloud of red–coloured water hugging a bulky green shape. Amer was dead, Geoffrey seemed to know that instinctively. With a strength he did not know he had, he speared it. The demon wriggled in a fish–like way, and William dived into the water, falling onto it. Geoffrey was panicking so much he had no idea what to do.

William pulled the demon up, and then it looked more understandable.

"Spear it! For the love of god, spear it!"

Geoffrey rushed to the front of William and the demon, and shoved his sword deep into the chin. The demon was driven mad by this, and William was clearly struggling to keep the thing up in his arms. William's strength was failing, and Geoffrey knew that if William failed they both would be killed.

Geoffrey saw Amer's spear under the water and lunged his arm in to pull it out. Now he was at the demon's side, and drove the spear into to the side of the demon's head. William finally let go of it.

Then the demon wriggled no more.

XoXoXoX

After the battle, Geoffrey and William pulled both Amer's body and the demon out of the swamp, and onto dryer land. They then collapsed, and sat looking at the two bodies as breath returned to them. Their breathing was a labor, and Geoffrey felt a bruise on his side that he knew would be worse in the morning. They sat in silence for a long time, and then William looked to Geoffrey, almost smiling — but like his father Elan, William's smile was hard to read.

William turned to look at Geoffrey. "I guess we do not need to bless it, right?"

Geoffrey looked over to the demon.

"We've both been to the Holy Land," William said, and then he let out a slightly forced laugh, "a crocodile, it's a crocodile!"

Geoffrey was silent a moment, and then said "how did it get here?"

William thought about it. "I suppose it could have come on one of our ships, I have no idea." Geoffrey had heard of something similar happening in Pyrenees, not too far from Toulouse — some story about a man named Bertrand of Comminges who found a crocodile living in a nearby river. There a crocodile had made it from the Holy Land, and almost to Hispania?

"What will we tell everybody?" Geoffrey said. William looked at him oddly. "I mean, most people here will not understand what a crocodile is, and we do not know how it got here."

"Yes," William said, "I think we should just tell the villagers it was a demon. Why over–complicate things? After all, isn't metal a good defense from demons?"

"It is?' Well, iron is said to be a ward against demons," Geoffrey said.

"In this case that has been proved, right?"

"Yes," Geoffrey said, "I guess that's true.


THE END

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