Breathing heavily, a thin veil of moisture layered the inside of his rusty helmet. The constant chafing of the harsh metal had pursed his lips, reddening them. Tibbott sheathed his blade and desperately poked his fingers through the gaps of the mouth guard, squirming and stretching to wipe away the condensation. Wincing from his efforts, he envied all of the bearded knights. His supple, clean-shaven skin continually suffered at the hands of all the abrasive textures.
'Squire.' snapped a commanding voice. Standing not twenty yards ahead of Tibbott, his knight and master, Sir George posed. Sunlight broke through the forest canopy bathing the knight and his armour. Dancing and glistening, light played across the protrusions on his pauldrons' engravings. Silvered gauntlets, pointed sabatons and a close helm etched with gold, illuminated the surrounding area with a rich reflection. A red cross, his family's emblem, was centred on the knight's brilliant white tunic which fluttered in the steady breeze. Yamya, a grey Turkoman stallion Sir George brought back from the Crusades; waited for his master's spur, snorted and flicked his tail. The knight removed a gauntlet and scratched his crotch with fervour.
'Are you well, sire?' asked Tibbott plodding awkwardly up the mired path.
'I fear I suffer the curse of foreign whores my boy. I have unsightly lesions where they ought not be. Look!' Sir George shifted his armour and produced the affected part from his leather trousers. Tibbott averted his eyes. Out of the ambient forest a guttural roar bellowed, sending birds panicking in all directions. Yamya reared backwards nearly flinging an exposed Sir George to the ground, however, clasping to the reins and gripping with strong thighs, he managed to remain seated.As roaring cacophony dissipated, Sir George readjusted himself upon his steed. His squire was nowhere to be seen. The tree line returned to calm, nothing appeared to be out of the ordinary save a leather-bound knee poking out from behind an old twisted oak. The knight howled with laughter at the sight of such bravery. Tibbott peered around the flaking bark and, deeming it safe, returned to his master's side dutifully suffering his torments. They continued cautiously down the vague forest path. The moisture that had condensed on the tree leaves began to fall and mix with a late morning mist.
As time passed, Sir George noticed Tibbott's head trembling; twitching like an eagles from side to side at small noises emanating from the murky forest. 'Squire, if you are troubled, I offer you permission to speak freely.' Tibbott pondered for a few moments then timidly replied,
'Yes sire. I know nought, about are purpose here, and that noise, that terrible noise… That dreadful noise could not have been a rhino as you suggested back in town. What are we hunting?' Sir George chuckled,
'Was that the excuse I used back in town?' Clutching his side, he breathed deeply to keep his laughter under control, 'Young cur, we hunt not a rhino but a dragon.' Tibbott blanched. 'Sir George continued and pointed, 'Up yonder, beyond the forest lies the city of Silene. It was once a prospering, pious city until Gauss the foul, our prey, took to nesting at the forest spring. A city without a water supply does not last and with all but the retired or wounded knights on the crusades, only the town's militia remain and they were not skilled enough to defeat the beast. So the citizenry submitted to the dragon's will, and ever since have been diverting the dragon's attention by appeasing Gauss with livestock.' Sir George leant down and whispered, 'Word has it the supply of livestock is nil and the townspeople have resorted to offering maidens to the beast. My contact informed me they recently offered a fair maiden named Eve to whom the dragon took a special liking and imprisoned. Now his captive, she waits for a brave knight to rescue her.'
'Really?' Tibbott's eyes bulged. Sir George burst out laughing again.
'So foolish! You have a long road to walk before manhood. 'Tis a fable young squire! But think, what finer way to seduce a virile or foolhardy knight into partaking in this suicide quest. Although, should we slay the beast, I do not doubt that a young lass will forge a man out of you for a small charge.' What was left of the knight's rotten teeth surfed waves of his laughter as he spurred Yamya and lurched forward; grudgingly Tibbott followed. With the wind now on their backs and rain filling every footprint left in tow, the two struggled along the track.
After half a days trudging, the dim light of the stormy day grew darker and the sun took cover beneath the horizon. The forest thinned as the pair reached a grassy clearing. Luscious grass housed a bog which pooled with the gradient of the slope. From the pool, the plain swept up to a single hollow trunk which must have been hundreds of years old when it fell. Around the log sat a collection of flat rocks surrounding a stain of ash revealing many travellers had camped here before them.
Sir George tethered Yamya to one of the logs extremities and laid out blankets within the hollow. After removing all excess armour and covering themselves in blankets they attempted to light a fire. Sir George sent Tibbott into the trees to gather any dry wood he could muster whilst the knight prepared their rations. Entirely saturated, the forest yielded no dry wood, except for a few splinters of kindling. Tibbott returned in defeat.
'Useless boy.' shouted Sir George, infuriated. Tibbott stood in silence and let his master's curses beat upon his ears. He had long since dulled to the insults. 'It matters not. We have no meat to cook and our bread is pudding with all the moisture.'
'I have an idea, sire,' squeaked Tibbott. Sir George folded his arms and impatiently tapped a foot. 'Why not use some of that trunk for timber? The base should have been protected from the rain.' Sir George glared at him quizzically.
'Fine, you will cut the wood from your side of the log, and start the fire.' Tibbott nodded and proceeded to carve out dry wood from beneath his sheets, leaving a muddy puddle in its wake. After some effort he managed to spark a flame which soon became a flickering, rasping fire. The two men settled down in as much comfort as they could find and watched the bonfire in silence. 'Your face is twisted with thoughts. Speak and entertain me with your anxieties.' announced Sir George as he reclined on his rock and gazed at the freshly washed sky.
'Is… is this really a suicide quest, sire? Are we both, truly doomed?' Doubt's masterful work left Tibbott's face distorted by anguish and exaggerated by the glow of the fire.
'It is known as a gambit, squire. Mature up this evening and leave your childish fears in the dying embers of the fire. We are no more than half a day's walk from our battle.'
As the fire died Sir George and Tibbott retired to the hollow trunk to sleep. Tibbott however, tossed and turned; the mud was cold and seeped into his skin, additionally, a terrible draft ran down his neck causing him to shiver violently. Finding no comfort, he waited until Sir George's snoring echoed around the clearing, took his blanket, and felt his way into the pitch black trees. Blindly searching, he stumbled and felt around until he found dry bushes to bury himself amongst and shut his eyes.
Minutes warped to hours, slight rustlings planted hyperbolic fantasies, a nervous mind racing. Grasshoppers scratched and unknown demons danced and fornicated around him, humiliating the young squire. A thin layer of sweat, sat upon his skin and each gust of wind caused him to shudder violently. Yamya shrieked. Tibbott's eyes opened wide; blurred and confused he composed his thoughts. The ground trembled periodically, as heavy footfalls approached. Blaring breaths resounded from the far edge of the clearing, like the expulsion and recession of scalding water from a pair of geysers. He distinguished the horse through the trees as Yamya kicking and screaming. Behind a giant, bloodshot, red eye emerged; the remainder of the creature hidden in the gloom of night. The eye bore through the night, staring directly at Tibbott in his bush. Sir George emerged from the trunk; dressed only in leather trousers and his breastplate. Gauss erupted, incinerating the tree line behind the knight. He drew his sword and approached the dragon. Gauss hissed and snapped, a forked tongue flicked and slithered in between serrated teeth. Sir George lunged with his holy blade at the dragon's nostril. Gauss bit, Sir George twirled to avoid the blow and brought his weapon down upon the dragon's eyelid creating a gushing trench. Gauss recoiled and flailed a claw in rage causing the trunk to explode in a rain of timber. Freed, Yamya galloped away, down the path. Sir George swung again at the dragon's eye, but before he could land the blow, Gauss seized the knight in its claws. An uncomfortable ooze filled Tibbott's breeches as he lay shaking. He watched helplessly as Gauss pinned the Knight to the ground, a mere tin bucket full of meat. With articulate precision the dragon peeled away Sir George's armour to reveal his hairy pale belly and with a single claw, pared his flesh. A wriggling, writhing, eruption of grey intestines exploded through the gash. Sir George continued to scream as his useless body was hurled against a nearby tree. In the silence that followed, Gauss gorged on the corpse, and then slowly retreated backwards until the dragon's entire body was swallowed by the darkness. Stillness returned as the woods crackled and burned. Tibbott passed out.
'Sir George? Sir George? My liege?' A hooded man dressed mainly in rags stood over Tibbott shaking him. Morning had come; the fresh, damp air was spoiled by the stench of charcoal. 'I found your horse, sire. He came charging out of the darkness in an awful fright. I see you have suffered as well. Who was the old man who lies dead over there?' Covered in foreign fluids, Tibbott clambered to his feet and tried to compose himself as he scanned his surroundings. Half the clearing was reduced to a blackened stain decorated by scattered glowing embers. The gory remains of Sir George rested in a seeping heap near the still smoking tree line. Where the hollow trunk once sat stood the ragged man's horse and cart, carrying a variety of goods poorly concealed by an old patchwork sheet. Tethered quietly to the cart was the one other survivor of the night's events, Yamya. Panic began to set in as Tibbott realized he was alone in a foreign country and Sir George was dead. His legs wobbled; he felt like a single grain of barley being blustered by a gale. The stranger took his forearm and steadied him. Out of the corner of his eye, Tibbott noticed a perfectly rounded puddle carved out by the rain. His reflection gazed back at him. Breathing steadily he regained his focus. Upon his forehead, a brown crust of dirt formed a cross, a gap in the vegetation revealed the sun over his shoulder. The stranger looked at him with concern and admiration. Admiration… for the first time… Tibbott knew exactly what to do.
'I am Sir George of Lydda. The old man to whom you refer was my mentor Sir Tibbott; he was slain by the dragon. The loathsome creature ambushed us in our sleep. Thank you for saving my horse, Yamya; he is a fine Eastern stallion who would not be easy to replace. Name yourself stranger so I may thank you properly.'
'Names Leatherly, sire; traveller, bard, tradesman, man of the world at your service. My brother is the mayor of Silene, he spoke of a veteran of the Crusades seeking to slay Gauss the dragon; I am honoured to meet you. Although, and I mean no disrespect sire, but may I say you are rather young of face for a veteran.' Tibbott grunted and walked into the clearing and gathered up his remaining possessions. 'Please accept my sincere apologies, sire, I meant no harm.'
'Help me with him.' Demanded Tibbott, with Leatherly's assistance, he buried what was left of the old knight. After sparing his master a few thoughts, Tibbott turned his attention to rifling through his inherited possessions. He retrieved Sir George's tunic and covered his own rusty breastplate. The red cross proudly fluttered once more in the low morning breeze. He collected the knight's gleaming helmet, his white and red shield and the Lydda family broadsword, with the cross at the hilt. Once fully dressed in his new regalia, Tibbott strode back to Leatherly and untied Yamya from the cart.
'Judge the man, not by his looks but by his actions.' said Tibbott who mounted his stallion and trotted along the path towards the dragon's lair. Leatherly called out after him,
'You are truly brave sir knight. The people of Silene will know of your heroism should you return in triumph.' Tibbott stopped on the path, half turned to the traveller and drew his sword, then he dug his heel into Yamya who reared backwards onto his hind legs and Tibbott raised his sword to the air in a valiant salute. Backed by Leatherly's cheers, he proceeded. After turning the corner he relaxed and was able to sort out his sodden underwear before shakily cantering towards his goal.
Yamya's hooves squelched through the brown mess. There was no longer a path, the trees on either side melded and entwined amongst each other in an orgy of nature, shrouding the intruders from the sun. Ahead lay the dragon's cave, the path distorted as Tibbott's mind played tricks on him until he felt dizzy. Blackness festered around the entrance, dancing and enticing the lone knight inside. Tibbott dismounted and left Yamya untethered with honour and freedom. He gripped his righteous shield tightly in front of him, drew his blade carefully and marched slowly until the shadow engulfed him.
Metal clinked and scratched against hollow rocks with each footfall; Tibbott winced and shuffled to the edge. He hid, waiting for a few moments until his disturbances dropped back to a deafening silence, then he continued. The entire chasm was filled with blinding obsidian which took several minutes for Tibbott's young eyes to adjust to. Nervous knees shook violently, causing his plate mail to rattle. A powerful gust of air, it was stronger than wind, forced its way out to the entrance. Tibbott gathered himself and felt his way along the wall until he caught sight of his foe. Out of the shadow, the monster emerged. Gauss' hellish eyes pierced the gloom. As he drew closer the dragon's form became more apparent and separated from the darkness. A matte of thick brown scales covered its face. Huge nostrils flared. Fangs, each one a giant, ivory stalactite, lined its mouth and a crown of horns displayed at the rear of its head. Legs, the size of columns, were attached to a heaving corpulent body which supported two half folded membranous wings of thick leather. The body ended with a tail of spines that snaked off into the darkness. Tibbott froze; the dragon gazed directly at him but did not move. He peeked over the crest of his shield; Gauss' breathing was sporadic and shallow. He took another step forwards then looked down. Liquid covered the floor of the cave, at first Tibbott assumed it was a stream, but as he crouched to get a closer look, he quickly recoiled and coughed violently from the stench. A pale, puddle of bile filled the base of the cavern. Chunks of half decomposed flesh, digested shrubbery and blood, too thick to be human, created icebergs of detritus in the dragon's repulsive expulsion. Tibbott approached Gauss inquisitively. The scarred eye stared vacantly at the entrance seeing nothing. Failing to react to his advance, Tibbott smiled to himself. 'Sir George really did slay his dragon, that rank body was too much for even the devil to handle.'
Tibbott immediately set about claiming trophies of his victory: a tooth, a horn and a claw, before embedding Sir George's blade into the vacant jelly of the monstrous eye. The dragon writhed weakly; Tibbott didn't cease. He stabbed repeatedly at Gauss' gushing eye socket until he breeched the skull and buried the steel into its brain tissue. The breathing stopped, and his enemy was finally slain.
Covered from head to toe in water, dirt, urine, faeces and gore, Tibbott sheathed his sword and carried his trophies to the entrance. There he found the noble steed Yamya nibbling complacently on tufts of grass around the rocks and stumps. Tibbott carefully placed his trophies in the saddlebags, mounted his horse, and began the short trek to Silene reflecting upon his journey. Tibbott entered the forest a boy, a squire, a servant but left a man, a knight, and a legend: Saint George the dragon slayer.