Prologue: Childeric's Curse

The world was once filled with monsters. At least, that’s what you would call them if you saw them today. They weren’t the imaginary monsters that some children (and even adults) fear may be hiding under beds. Nor did they delight in making strange noises from behind closed doors. No, these creatures had grander ambitions for they lived in a grander age—an age defined by hardship, sacrifice, and above all, courage.

Some of these monsters were good and some were evil. Many of them, like us, were a mixture of both. If they differed from you and me in an important way, however, it would be this: they didn’t doubt for a moment who or what they were or whether or not they belonged in the world. They did not spend their nights, as some do, doubting their purpose, their worth, or their way of life. These creatures simply acted according to their nature. If that made them more fortunate than we are—or less so—you will have to decide for yourself.

Long ago, when our ancestors were new to this world, they discovered these monsters. They met the giants first, learning from them how to work with metal and stone. With the giants’ help, men quickly mastered the art of building strong castles and crafting iron weapons. As men pushed into the forests, they met the centaurs, who loved to wander along narrow, leaf-laden paths. Though centaurs generally kept to themselves, they took pity on the short lives of men, and patiently taught them geometry and astronomy. Using this knowledge, men learned to sail the seas, trading with distant countries and fishing far from shore.

Perhaps most impressive of all, gryphons, who were naturally very solemn, flew down from the mountain peaks where they made their nests to instruct men in the arts of medicine and herbology. (For those of you who have been forced to drink cod liver oil, you can thank the gryphons, for they taught men of its healing properties.) What was a gryphon, you ask? Imagine a beast with the body of a lion but with the head and wings of an eagle. A gryphon could fly faster than the wind and was deadly to his foes—but you would never mistake the creature for a bird. Those unfortunate enough to have met a gryphon in battle always wondered which was worse: trying to avoid the beast’s cruel claws or his razor sharp beak. It was rare to see a gryphon—even in ancient times. You would never have a more loyal ally, however, if one chose you as a friend.

Other creatures our ancestors met in the early days, I’m afraid, were simply wicked. These included ogres, who mainly lived alone in caves or under bridges, gnawing on the bones of ill-fated men who were unlucky enough to meet them alone in the wild. (This is why we still think of monsters hiding in dark places.) In fact, ogres had become so solitary that they had forgotten the art of speech, and grew hairy like animals. Some say that ogres were once a race of giants, but that they had slowly changed, becoming wilder and their hearts harder after centuries of living alone in the shadows.

Trolls, on the other hand, were more social than ogres (though no less wicked) and preferred to live in tunnels deep in the mountains. Over time, they developed excellent vision, and could see in the dark. Though they hated sunlight—it was too bright for eyes grown accustomed to darkness—trolls quite enjoyed the moonlight. In fact, they worshipped the moon, for its lonely, pock-marked face in a sea of darkness reminded them of themselves. When the moon was full, the trolls would climb out of their holes by the hundreds and dance for hours bathed in the moon’s soft, silver light. The sound of their stomping feet and rhythmic chanting would fill the mountain passes and distant valleys below, causing men to lock their doors and stoke their hearth fires. For trolls weren’t very fond of fire, though they used it on occasion to suit their purposes.

There was nothing, however, more feared than dragons. These scaly beasts lived—well, they lived anywhere they pleased—but they often chose dark, closed spaces so that they could more easily keep an eye on their treasure. As you may know, dragons were greedy, and had a passion for precious stones. They also loved to collect the weapons of those they killed, keeping them as trophies. A successful dragon could have hundreds of swords, shields, axes, and bows from men brave or foolish enough to do battle with him.

Above all things, however, dragons loved gold. They loved to touch it, smell it, and sleep in it, settling into a pile of gold coins the way a bird settles into his nest. Where did dragons get their treasure? I’m afraid they stole it—mostly from men. For men also shared the dragons’ narrowing lust for gold. The beasts could breathe fire and their skin was thicker than any shield. They smelled of sulphur. What isn’t so well known, however, is that dragons could live for centuries. As a result, they often grew to be very cunning and intelligent, and some were even skilled in the art of magic.

Unfortunately, the knowledge they gained from experience didn’t make them any kinder or more compassionate toward men or any other creature. (Intelligence and kindness don’t always go hand in hand, as you may have already learned.) Most of all, dragons caused fear in all living things—except perhaps in very brave gryphons—making it very difficult to think clearly when one stood before you or hovered overhead.

***

This story begins with a young king who was lucky enough to meet a gryphon, unlucky enough to anger a dragon, and crafty enough to leave a mysterious legacy that would cause his great-grandchildren to guess at his secrets. The king’s name was Childeric, and he ruled over a kingdom in the northern part of Valmar, a small island that has since been lost to time.

Valmar was a beautiful place. In the northern part of the island, where men lived, fields of wild flowers hummed with bees during summer. Clear rivers thick with salmon meandered through forests of oak and beech and pine. Small farms and hamlets dotted green valleys, yellow plains, and the rocky-soiled foothills. Far away to the southwest lay the Great Desert where, blown by the fierce ocean breeze, the sand dunes shifted restlessly, regularly remaking the landscape the way a potter reshapes wet clay. To the southeast sat the Solitary Marshes, swarming with deadly insects, poisonous frogs, hungry alligators—and worse things that didn’t like to be seen above the murky waters. Finally, a range of snow-capped mountains—the Skeldings—ran up the island like a great spine from north to south, hiding forgotten volcanoes deep below the earth.

Childeric was just returning from an unsuccessful afternoon of hunting in the forest at dusk when he heard a deep-throated cry. Spurring his horse onward, he came to a clearing and saw a young giant, about twelve feet tall, being attacked by two trolls. How did he know the giant was young? Well, you see, the three creatures were all about the same size. If the giant had been fully mature, he would have stood about a head taller than the trolls. Unfortunately for the giant, the others were armed with cruel-looking scimitars while he was without a weapon. (Trolls never did favor a fair fight.) The larger of the two trolls wore an eye-patch that covered part of his hideous, green face, while the other had a bone through his nose, apparently on purpose. Now, the two converged upon the giant slowly, with the business-end of their scimitars pointed at him.

The poor giant was clearly not ready for this fight. He had been innocently picking blueberries when the trolls stepped out from behind some trees. Now, the berries lay scattered under his feet as he held out the basket in front of him like a shield, blinking rapidly as he tried to decide what to do next. The trolls, for their part, were not impressed. They wanted to capture him quickly so that they could return to the mountains with him before dawn.

Suddenly, the one-eyed troll lunged forward with his scimitar. The giant dodged the brunt of the blow, but the blade still grazed his shoulder, drawing blood.

“Be careful!” grunted the smaller troll. “We need him alive!”

“We’ve already tried it your way!” shouted the other, and attacked again. Before his stroke fell, however, an arrow came whizzing out of the forest and buried itself in the one-eyed troll’s throat. The beast fell backwards, clutching at the arrow as he gasped for breath, twitching a few times before he died. The giant and the other troll looked up in surprise. Childeric jumped off his horse, stepped into the clearing, and fit another arrow on his bowstring. He had never met a giant or a troll before but he didn’t need to be told which side to take.

Seeing his companion dead, the smaller troll forgot the giant for a moment. Raising his weapon in both hands, he charged Childeric, snarling as he came. The young king, however, expected this. He raised his bow carefully, aiming at the troll’s right eye, and let his arrow fly.

He missed.

Instantly, the troll was upon him. Childeric stumbled backwards and raised his bow to ward off the inevitable blow, knowing he would probably not survive. The stroke, however, never fell. Instead, the troll’s eyes grew wide and his mouth slack as the creature paused. Then he crashed forward, bowling over Childeric in the process, before he lay still.

The giant had seized the one-eyed troll’s weapon and stabbed him from behind when the beast was attacking the young king. Now, the giant pulled Childeric to his feet and set him down as one would a small child.

“I am in your debt,” said the giant, grinning broadly and revealing a mouth full of sharp teeth. (Childeric wasn’t alarmed by this, however, because he knew that all giants are, strangely enough, vegetarians.)

“I believe we are even,” he replied, looking at the dead troll that had nearly beheaded him, before returning the giant’s smile.

The giant shook his head. “No,” he declared, ruefully. “I would have been killed—or even worse—captured by these horrible creatures had it not been for your bravery. Thank you.”

Childeric swept his cloak aside and bowed. “Childeric, king of Valmar, at your service.”

The giant also bowed. “Ollom, prince of the Western Giants, at yours.”

Childeric was surprised. The Western Giants were rarely seen this far north. They mostly kept to themselves, living in a mighty castle called Grimstad that had stood for generations in the mountains to the southwest.

“What did they want with you?” asked Childeric.

“I don’t know,” responded Ollom. “I was out gathering blueberries when they attacked.” He held up his ruined basket and looked down disappointedly at its scattered contents. “As you may know, we regard berries as a delicacy, and I came a bit farther than normal in search of them.”

“It’s been years since trolls have been seen in this forest,” said Childeric, frowning. “If I had known they had grown so bold, I would not have risked hunting alone.”

“It concerns us too,” said the giant grimly. “They grow in strength and number in the mountains, and we now guard passes that were once safe. Still, I was unwise to be travelling without my spear—especially during a full moon.”

Childeric realized it would be dark soon. He asked the giant if he would like to return to the castle and spend the night. Ollom laughed. “I doubt you have a room large enough to hold me! In any case, I must decline. My father will already be wondering what’s become of me. Farewell, Childeric of Valmar! If I can ever repay you, I will!” Before Childeric could ask him to reconsider, the giant turned and disappeared into the forest.

***

A few months later Childeric was once again travelling on horseback far from home. This time, however, his chief steward, Goran, accompanied him. They were both armed with swords and crossbows in case they should meet any trolls. The two men were surveying some land near the uninhabited foothills on Valmar’s southern border, looking for a spot to plant a vineyard. The valley near the castle was already cultivated, but they both thought grapes could grow well at a higher elevation, even in rocky soil. Childeric slowed his horse and looked up at the foothills.

“Clearing the trees and bushes will take some work, my lord,” said Goran, not realizing that the king had fallen behind. “But it will be well worth it.” Then, noticing the king’s absence, he circled back and then wrinkled his nose. Something stank. “Where is that smell coming from?” he asked, covering his nose with his sleeve and scanning the surrounding countryside. “Could it be a dead animal?”

“I’m not sure,” said Childeric, looking closely at a grove of trees. Then he saw it. A large cave sat nestled in the hillside, obscured by many bushes and several large oaks. As they drew closer, the smell grew worse. Childeric dismounted. “Wait here.”

Pushing past the undergrowth, he ambled toward the cave’s entrance and sniffed again. Yes, the cave was definitely the source of the odor. He took a few more steps and noticed the scorched, blackened walls on either side of him. The markings were much too large to be made by a campfire. “A dragon’s lair!” he whispered to himself in wonder. “Is it possible?” Childeric had always been taught to avoid the mountains, for this was where many strange creatures made their homes. But he knew he was still relatively safe in the foothills—and the sun was still high in the sky. There was no need to fear trolls or ogres out in the open at this time of day. Of course, dragons were a different matter. Still, he had never heard of a dragon’s lair in Valmar.

He listened for any hint of movement at the mouth of the cave before deciding that it was empty. Then, drawing his sword, he ventured into the darkness. Why? Perhaps he was braver than most men—or greedier. For he knew that where there are dragons, there is gold. Ruling over a modest kingdom, Childeric could always use more of that. Surely a dragon wouldn’t miss a few coins? And what sort of king would he be if he weren’t ambitious?

As he walked into the cave, his stomach tightened in fear. There was no doubting it was indeed a dragon’s lair. In addition to the scorch marks on the walls, bones littered the stone floor and, of course, it stank worse than ever. Childeric temporarily forgot his fear, however, when he saw more riches than he had dared to imagine. Dimly concealed by the cave’s shadows lay piles and piles of gold. In addition, there were smaller piles of gem-encrusted stones. Scattered elsewhere he saw rings, amulets, swords, and other objects he couldn’t even recognize. If he had been more careful or had known more about dragons, however, he would have known that this lair was fairly new. A well-established dragon would have had ten times this amount. But to Childeric, the king of a small island with an equally small treasury, it was a fortune.

Gripped by a sudden madness, he could not resist jumping into the pile of gold nearest him, wading into it, and picking up large handfuls of the stuff as it slipped through his fingers. He smiled. First, he would build a navy. That would allow him to establish stronger trading ties to the Moaning Isles without fearing pirates. He could also pay for a larger army, which in turn could drive the troublesome trolls further south, toward the giants. Let Grimstad deal with them! His farmers would now be able to cultivate much more of the island’s fertile valleys. And of course he needed a new castle—not the modest structure he had now. He wanted a grand castle with spires that would challenge the sun itself.

As he imagined himself ruling over a large empire, with emissaries from distant kingdoms bringing him tokens of tribute, a gleam of green light caught his eye at the very back of the cave. He sheathed his sword and walked deeper into the darkness where he discovered a green stone hidden behind a rocky crag. It was about the size of a watermelon and it sparkled like a star in the night sky. He touched it, admiring its smoothness. To his surprise, he felt a thrill of warmth go up his fingers. In a moment, the feeling spread to his arm and then to the rest of his body. It was a very pleasant feeling, almost electric. Just as quickly as it had come, however, the feeling disappeared.

His eyes widened as he admired the stone. “I’ve never seen a jewel this large before,” he thought to himself. “It must be priceless.” Then his thoughts grew suspicious. What if Goran were to secretly return to this cave and take some of the gold for himself? For a moment, Childeric reproached himself for such a thought. He had never known his steward to be anything but faithful and true. However, the risks were too high. He could not trust any man in his kingdom with the knowledge of the cave’s whereabouts until he had more time to think. Still, he would be sorry to lose so precious a jewel as he now held. Where had the dragon found it?

The dragon! How could he have forgotten! How would he ever succeed in taking all of the gold back to his castle? Even if he managed it, the dragon would surely come to reclaim the treasure. Then another thought occurred to him. What if the dragon was on his way back to the cave at this very moment? Childeric had already lingered too long. But he couldn’t leave empty-handed.

He picked up the sparkling green stone and found it surprisingly heavy. Nevertheless, he staggered out of the cave with it much to his steward’s wonder, claiming that it was all he had found. Then, with Goran’s help, he tied it to the back of his horse.

“What do you think it is?” asked Goran, marveling at the king’s find but glad to be leaving behind the horrible stench as they galloped back to the castle.

“Who knows?” replied Childeric, smiling like a child on Christmas morning. “For the moment, I’ll call it a souvenir!”

***

That night, Childeric awoke to the unmistakable sound of a dragon’s roar. It was distant, but the terrible noise still caused him to sit up in bed and shake with fright. He ran to the window and looked out from his tower to the southern mountains beyond. He could see nothing but the moon in the night sky. Then he looked down at the large town below. All appeared calm. Outside and below his window, a few torches on the castle’s ramparts burned brightly to aid the guards on duty. He could neither see nor hear anything more.

“Perhaps it was only a dream,” he thought, settling back into bed. Just as he had begun to convince himself that he was imagining things, he heard the roar again. Then he noticed the green stone sitting in the corner of his bedroom, washed in pale moonlight. “Childeric, you fool!” he thought frantically. “What have you done?”

The dragon roared a third time. The sound was definitely coming from the mountains. He quickly pulled on his clothes and boots, and snatched up the stone which somehow felt lighter. Strangely, his hands and arms grew warm, just as they had earlier that day. This time, however, the warmth grew into a burning sensation. Ignoring the pain, he ran downstairs and outside into the courtyard, cradling it carefully. Fortunately, the moon was full and he saw his destination. It was the courtyard’s main well, surrounded by six pillars that supported a dome directly overhead to shade those who used it to supply the castle with water.

More of the guards were gathered together now on the ramparts. They were all looking toward the mountains and murmuring to one another. None saw the king emerge from the doorway below and hasten to the center of the courtyard. Lifting the stone, Childeric pushed it over the well’s edge and watched it disappear into the darkness below. He closed his eyes in relief and slid to the ground, letting out a long, slow breath. The well was very deep, he remembered. In the morning, this would all seem like a dream.

“I’m afraid it’s too late for that,” croaked a strange voice.

Childeric opened his eyes and saw a gryphon standing in front of him. He cried out and tried to rise but slipped and fell backwards on the cold stone. He had never seen a gryphon before. In fact, he was not even sure what he was staring at until he remembered his grandfather’s description of one long ago. The beast had folded his great, feathered wings but they still seemed to span the entire courtyard. Though it was dark, the moonlight showed the brilliant red and yellow plumage that covered the gryphon’s head and neck. Childeric would have marveled at the creature’s beauty if he had not been so frightened by his fierce expression. The beast took a step toward him and the young king noticed for the first time his large claws that gripped the cobblestones.

“There is little time,” the gryphon continued, calmly. “Cynder will be here soon.”

“Cynder?” said Childeric, confused.

“That is the dragon’s name,” he explained. “A particularly nasty one, too. You must warn your people to flee this place. Otherwise, they will not survive the night.”

Childeric could see the flicker of candlelight in more and more of the castle’s windows. Clearly, others had heard the dragon’s roar and were now stirring. What would they think if they knew he had stolen from a dragon? That he was the cause of this terror? Fear gripped his heart. But Childeric was still a king. Now that he had gotten over the shock of the gryphon’s sudden appearance, he resented being told what to do.

“Why should we flee?” he asked defensively, rising to his feet. His hand would have gone to his sword hilt, but he realized that he had none. “I have done nothing wrong! Who are you to command a king?”

 Childeric knew immediately that this was a very unwise thing to say to a gryphon. The creature’s eyes flashed and he made a low sound in his throat as he took another step toward Childeric. “You have stolen a dragon’s seed,” the gryphon said, angrily. “You are a fool to deny it just as you were a fool to take it.” Childeric was about to demand how the gryphon knew this but he was interrupted by the dragon’s roar. It sounded closer.

Fear can sometimes cause us to deny the obvious. It can, however, also force us to see things as they are. In Childeric’s case, the gryphon’s words—combined with the dragon’s roar—made him understand the hopelessness of his situation. He realized that his decision to trespass into the dragon’s lair could very well cost everyone their lives. Then Childeric did a very wise thing. He told the truth.

“You are right,” he admitted. “I am sorry for insulting you. I will tell my people to flee to the woods immediately.” He started to run back to the castle. Then he stopped and turned. “What is your name?”

“Men call me Eldon,” replied the gryphon. “I will help you if I can, though you have done nothing to deserve it. Now go!” The beast unfolded his giant wings and leaped into the air. Childeric saw his majestic silhouette against the early dawn as the gryphon streaked away south.

Childeric ran to the guard tower and ordered his men to sound the alarm. They were to quickly escort everyone from the castle and town into the forest. There, they were to divide into small groups, making no sound, and remain under the forest’s dense foliage until the danger passed. He knew it wasn’t a very good plan but there was no time for a better one.

A short time later, hundreds of frightened people were running into the nearby woods with what few possessions they could carry, directed by Childeric’s knights. The young king knew it was no use trying to defend the place. A dragon could smash wood and stone the way a child knocks down a sand castle. Childeric shuddered at the thought, and concentrated on helping his people reach safety. The work, however, could only distract him for a short time. Soon, he saw something dark and horrible approaching in the early morning light.

Cynder had come.

The beast was in such a rage that he made no attempt to surprise them. Instead, the dragon screamed in fury while still a mile away, causing those who heard him to cover their ears or cower in fright. As he drew nearer, his wings beat the air with such force that wooden shingles peeled off the roofs in the town below the castle. Peering out from behind a tree at the edge of the forest, Childeric noticed the dragon’s bright, yellow eyes. Even from a distance, they glowed with a strange, hypnotic radiance. “Come out where I can see you,” the creature seemed to say. “I will give you a quick death.” With an effort, Childeric looked away, focusing instead on the stragglers running across the field to the forest’s edge.

“Hurry!” he yelled as he ran out to help an old woman who was struggling to carry a hen. “You must hurry!” The rest of the terrified peasants, however, needed no encouragement. They sprinted toward Childeric as the dragon dove toward the village, dousing the buildings below with his fiery breath. Several houses burst into flame. The beast then rose into the air and swung his great tail, smashing a large section of the castle’s north wall before wheeling about and torching the royal stables.

As Childeric witnessed the dragon’s destruction from the forest’s edge, he wept. A king was responsible for protecting his people but he had brought this ruin to their very doorstep. For what? A stone? A souvenir? Even if they endured the dragon’s wrath, how would they survive the winter with no shelter?

Then Childeric felt the ground shake. He looked up, expecting to see more of the castle crumbling as a result of the dragon’s attack. But the creature had not landed. Cynder still hovered over the castle, raining down fire from above. If not the dragon, what could possibly make the earth tremble?

He gasped at what he saw next.

Giants. Dozens of giants were marching toward the castle. Was it possible? Clad in armor and carrying enormous shields and spears, they emerged from the forest, their faces grim but determined. Childeric guessed there must have been about forty of them. He looked more closely, and saw the familiar face of Ollom, the young giant whom he had helped, leading the charge.

Cynder saw them too. The dragon soared high into the air and roared. Then he attacked, diving towards them, breathing fire as he descended. Before the dragon could reach the giants, however, something large and feathered streaked directly into his path. Eldon! The gryphon had momentarily distracted the dragon, slashing at the beast’s head. Then Childeric understood. The gryphon must have roused the giants, knowing the dragon would come to take his revenge. But how did the giants reach the castle so quickly? And why would they help him?

There was no time to ponder these questions as he watched the dragon and gryphon collide. Eldon had caught Cynder by surprise with a kick to the ribs, knocking the dragon backwards. However, Cynder beat his wings furiously and soon recovered, breathing fire at the gryphon before giving chase. Circling upwards, Eldon avoided Cynder’s deadly flames—but he could not escape the dragon’s tail. It struck the gryphon’s body, stunning the mighty creature in midair. The next moment, Eldon crashed to the ground and lay still. Sensing victory, Cynder did not give his enemy a chance to recover. He dove straight down, his cruel claws outstretched. Using his massive weight, the dragon planned to crush the gryphon just as he had done to other beasts countless times before.

The giants, however, had already begun to move. Ollom shouted an order as he and six others quickly formed a ring around the wounded gryphon. Childeric looked on in confusion. Were they going to attack the poor creature? Then the giants knelt down, dug the shafts of their spears into the earth, and pointed the sharp tips upward. Suddenly, everything became clear. Too late Cynder realized he could not stop his momentum. The dragon scorched the giants with his breath as he descended but they raised their shields and avoided the flames.

What happened next would haunt Childeric’s dreams for many years. Cynder fell like a lightning bolt, screaming in pain as he impaled himself on seven iron spears, his own strength spelling his doom. Cynder’s landing crushed three giants, but the others were able to dive out of the way, including Ollom, as he dragged Eldon to safety a second before the dragon crashed to earth.

Cynder roared again. However, it was clear that the beast was mortally wounded, pierced with spears that not even his scaly armor could turn away. Childeric dared not approach. Instead, he stood with the rest of the giants as the dragon thrashed about, his tail coiling over and over like a wounded snake. The beast tried to rise but collapsed again, broken and exhausted.

Cynder raised his head. “I know you’re near, little king,” he hissed, casting his baleful eyes this way and that. “I can feel my seed’s magic in you—and I can hear your thoughts.” Childeric realized the dragon had stopped, and was now looking directly at him. The beast’s yellow eyes glowed ominously in the twilight. “Ah,” Cynder smiled cruelly. “There you are.”

Childeric froze, unable to look away. He was under the dragon’s spell.

“You desire a dragon’s power?” said Cynder. “Then take it, fool, though you may find wielding it more than you bargained for. May you and your descendants share this power until it destroys you.”

Then he laughed. I don’t know if you have ever heard a dragon laugh but it isn’t pleasant. There is no mirth or joy in it, only malice and mockery. Soon enough, however, the dragon’s laugh sputtered into a fit of coughing, the light went out of his great eyes, a last wisp of smoke rose from his nostrils, and Cynder died.

***