The Dragon At WarGordon R. Dickson
The Dragon At War
Gordon R. Dickson
The copper tea kettle skittered at its magic-given top speed through the woodland track. It had already polished its bottom shiny on the alternate turf and bare earth it skidded across. Its owner, the AAA+ magician S. Carolinus, had once, many years ago, commanded it always to be three-quarters full of water for tea; and to have that water on the boil. In spite of its mission, it was faithfully three-quarters full and on the boil, now.
"On the boil," in Carolinus's terms, meant that the kettle water was just below the boiling point; so that Carolinus could have his cup of tea when he wanted it, night or day.
So now the kettle continued to skitter and almost boil. Only as it bounced over the uneven ground, it occasionally splashed some of that water high against its hotter, dry, higher-up sides; and that water burst in steam out of its spout.
When this happened it gave a sharp, brief whistle. It could not help whistling, any more than it could help being on the boil, or going to Carolinus's rescue—which was what it was doing now. It was only a kettle. But if, as some folk suspected, the articles of Carolinus's cottage had personalities of their own, this kettle's heart was in its present task.
So, it skittered through the wood—at the best speed with which Carolinus had endowed it—giving voice occasionally to its sharp whistle; and the creatures of the woodland it passed reacted accordingly.
A bear feeding on all four legs stood up suddenly with a "Whuf!" of surprise as it went by. Aargh, the English wolf, who feared nothing but had an ordinary wolf's prudence where unknown things were concerned, leaped abruptly to cover behind a tree as it went by, in order to observe it from relative safety. A boar, farther down the path, who was in the habit of charging anything in sight, on general principles, blinked his eyes at it, his curly tusks gleaming in the sunlight, got ready to charge—then thought better of it, in this case.
He backed away, off the path, and let the little kettle pass.
So it proceeded. Deer fled from it; small burrowing creatures dived into their burrows at the sight of it. In short, it spread consternation in every direction as it passed. But, this was only the beginning, the preamble to what happened when at last it broke out of the trees into the cleared area surrounding the Castle de Bois de Malencontri, the castle of that gentleman, the famous Dragon Knight: Baron Sir James Eckert de Bois de Malencontri et Riveroak (currently not in residence).
The kettle skittered across the cleared area, mounted the bridge over the moat, and shot through the open great gates in the curtain wall of the castle. There was a guard on duty at the gate. But he did not see the kettle until it began to clatter across the logs which made up the bridge. When he did, he nearly dropped his spear. He was under orders never to leave his post for any reason—as fourteenth-century guards on the front gates of castles always were. But in this particular case he held on frantically to his spear and ran full speed ahead of the kettle into the courtyard, shouting at the top of his voice.
"Gone mad! I always said he would!" muttered the castle blacksmith, glancing up briefly from the open shelter above his forge in the courtyard, carefully built away from anything else it might set fire to. The blacksmith had lowered his eyes again by the time the kettle went by, and he dismissed the sharp whistles he heard as merely a ringing in his ears.
Meanwhile the guard had fled through the open door of the castle into the Great Hall, still shouting.
"A witch-kettle! A witch-kettle. Help!" His voice rang against the walls of the Great Hall and back into the castle itself, bringing other servants flooding out. "It's following me! Help! Help!"
His voice reached even to the kitchen of the castle where the Lady Angela de Bois de Malencontri et Riveroak was telling the cook—for the several hundredth time—that after returning from the outhouse she must wash her hands before cutting up meat.
The Lady Angela was a winsome sight, in a blue and silver gown, had either she or the cook cared about that at the moment; but neither of them did. Picking up her skirts with a resigned fury—resigned, because it seemed there was always something around the castle for her, as Chatelaine, to be furious about—Lady Angela headed in the direction of the shouting voice.
When she got to the Great Hall, she discovered the men-at-arms there, with other servants, were all plastered back against its walls; while the little kettle had somehow managed to mount the high table, set itself in the very center, and begun whistling steadily, as if it was tea-time—not only for Carolinus but for anyone else who was around.
"M'lady! M'lady!" babbled the gate guard, as she passed him where he was clinging to one of the pillars of the halls about four feet off the floor. "It is a witch-kettle! Ware! Go no closer! It is a witch-kettle—"
"Nonsense!" said the Lady Angela, who was from an alternate world in the twentieth century where they no longer believed in witch-kettles.
She strode decisively past the guard toward the high table.
Meanwhile, less than a mile and a half from this scene, there was the Dragon Knight, himself. He was the good knight Sir James Eckert, Baron—and in the King's name—Lord of the High Justice and the Low, for the lands of le Bois de Malencontri et Riveroak—though where Riveroak was, only James and the Lady Angela knew.
Actually, it was the name of the small town holding the twentieth-century college in which they had both been teaching assistants, before they had ended up back here, dimensions away, in an alternate fourteenth-century world—with dragons, ogres, sandmirks and other suchlike interesting characters.
To everyone else here, Riveroak was a place unknown; probably far, far away over the western sea.
At the moment, Sir James, being in direct fief from the King, and with a tendency to avoid administering any justice, High or Low, to the people of his lands, was presently engaged in picking flowers.
He was on his way back from an over-long stay up at the border between England and Scotland, in the north. He had stopped for the flowers, hoping that a bouquet, presented to his wife, might allay part of her understandable annoyance at his somewhat overdue reappearance.
He had been led to these flowers by his neighbor and closest friend, the also good knight Sir Brian Neville-Smythe, Sir Brian was unfortunately only a knight banneret, with a ruined castle which he was hard put to keep livable; but he had a name in the land
; not only as a Companion of the Dragon Knight, but in his own right as a master of the lance, at the many tournaments held about the English land in this time.
Sir Brian, full of happiness, was by this time a good four miles off; on his way to his lady-love, the beauteous Lady Geronde Isabel de Chaney, current Chatelaine of Castle de Chancy; since her father, the Lord of same, had been gone now some years in Crusade to the Holy Land.
She and Sir Brian could not marry until her father returned and gave permission. But they could most certainly get together—and did at every opportunity, Sir Brian (and Dafydd ap Hywel, the Master archer—another close friend and Companion) had been with Sir James up at the Scottish border, visiting the castle of Sir Giles de Mer, a fourth true Companion and good knight. Like James, Dafydd was also only now returning to his home, a half-day's ride away, with the outlaw band of his father-in-law, Giles o'the Wold.
Since Sir Brian knew all this countryside like the back of his hand, and Sir James was only a latecomer of barely three years, it had taken Sir Brian to direct him to this place where summer flowers might be gathered nearest to Jim's castle.
Sir Brian's knowledge had been excellent. On the water-rich ground of a marshy-edged lake there was indeed a proliferation of plants in flower, with rather loose petals of a sort of orangey-yellow color.
They were not exactly in the same class with roses, of which James—or Jim, as he still thought of himself—had vaguely been thinking. But they were undeniably flowers; and a large bouquet of them could certainly not make matters worse concerning Angie's reaction to his delayed homecoming.
He had his arms half-filled with lengths of twig with blossoms on them—for the flowers grew on a sort of bush, rather than individually—when he was interrupted by a bubbling sound from the lake before him. Lifting his eyes from the flowers, he suddenly froze in position.
The water in the center of the pond was disturbed. It was mounding upward into large water bubbles that finally burst and let a round shape poke through. The round shape grew and grew and grew…
Jim stared. Because it seemed that the round shape would never stop growing. Finally, it emerged to the point of revealing itself as ten feet across; and looked like nothing so much as short, wet, blond hair plastered to an enormous round skull.
It continued to come up; rising until it revealed a huge forehead, a pair of rather innocent-looking blue eyes under thick blond eyebrows, a massive nose and an even more massive mouth and jaw—a face that would have been heavy-boned even if it had been the face of a man of normal size. But what it was, in fact, was the face of an incredible giant. If the head was any indication, the whole person to whom it belonged must be nearly a hundred feet in height; and Jim would have guessed, from his acquaintance with such small lakes as this, that the water in it was nowhere deeper than eight feet.
Jim had no time to speculate on this, however, because just then the head began to forge toward him with its chin just above water; creating a considerable bow wave with a muscular neck thoroughly in proportion with the head. The bow wave ran ahead, leaped the margin of the lake, and splashed Jim to the knees. Meanwhile, more and more of the body belonging to the face had risen above the water to reveal a giant not as tall, but even more remarkable than Jim had expected.
Towering, this monster eventually stepped out on to the margin of the lake, to stand dripping, and staring down at Jim. Jim's estimate had indeed been wrong. Thirty feet was more like the actual height of this stranger.
Giant as he was, he still seemed perfectly human in every other respect. He wore some sort of massive piece of gray-colored hide, or skin with no fur on it. This hung from one shoulder, dropping to his knees and wrapped around him in the fashion of Tarzan's clothing in old movies. Or, thought Jim a little wildly, the way cavemen were normally pictured as being dressed in animal skins.
But there were two differences between this and a caveman. No, three. The first was his enormous size. The second was that he was apparently as at home on the land and breathing air as he presumably had been under the lake and breathing water. But the third was the most amazing of all. The man, or creature, or whatever he was, tapered downward.
In short, below that enormous head he had a relatively narrow, by giant standards, pair of shoulders, and a chest only slightly smaller in proportion to the shoulders. But he continued to taper on downward from there, until he ended up in feet that were probably no more than four times as large as Jim's.
The same could not be said of his hands, which looked not merely large enough to be buckets for a derrick, but to seem capable of picking up a derrick itself in each fist.
"Wait!" boomed the giant. Or at least that was what Jim thought he heard.
"Wait?" echoed Jim, startled into speech. "What for… ?"
Then he realized, out of his earlier years in the twentieth century when he had been an associate teacher at Riveroak in the English department, that what he had just heard was not "wait." He was being addressed in Old English; and what he had actually heard was "Hwaet!"
The only reason he made this identification with his whirling mind was because that same word happened to be the first one in the Old English poem of Beowulf, created some fourteen hundred years before Jim's own original time, on his own world.
He tried to remember what "Hwaet" meant—evidently it was some form of greeting or call to attention—but he was too bewildered at the moment to fish up any of the Old English he had once painfully learned. It was a shock to be addressed so, here on this world; where up until now every human being, and those of the animals who also inexplicably talked, including the dragons, spoke the same tongue.
"I'm—I'm sorry," he stammered, "but I don't speak—"
The giant interrupted him, talking now in the same language everyone else did.
"Of course!" he boomed. "Been two thousand years, if me memory serves—or was it three? A long time, anyhow, since last I was here. The way folk speak was bound to change. No, it's all right, wee man, I can also speak the way you little folk do. Easy as that!"
—And he snapped the thumb and middle finger of his right hand together, with a noise like that of a cannon going off.
Jim shook the ringing out of his ears, and broke out with the first thought that came into his still-stunned mind. He looked from the inversely pyramidal giant to the lake, which now seemed, by comparison, very small indeed.
"But—" he said. "Where'd you come from? How did you get—"
"Lost me way!" boomed the giant, interrupting him again. "Many centuries it is since my last faring hither. Mislaid me way among the underground waters of this isle."
Jim's only thought was that now the other was beginning to sound even more like Beowulf—but Beowulf translated, with a sort of old-seamanlike flavor.
Standing only a dozen feet apart as they were, Jim had to crane his neck to look up at the giant's face; and he got a very foreshortened view of it, even at that. To see the other more fairly, he backed off about twelve paces.
"Fear not!" boomed the giant. "Know that I am Rrrnlf, a Sea Devil. Call me 'Ranulf,' as you wee folk did the last time I was here. As then, by the Sirens, I mean you and your kind no ill. It's another I seek. How do call yourself, lad?"
"I—er—" Jim, on the verge of introducing himself simply as "Jim Eckert," caught himself just in time, "am Sir James Eckert, Baron of Malencontri—"
"Strange names you small folk do have!" rumbled the giant. "Only one 'R' and no 'L' anywhere. However, no matter. Whereaway's the sea?"
Jim pointed westward.
"Ah," said the Sea Devil with satisfaction, "then I'm lost no longer." His speech was becoming more normal with every sentence. "From here I can go anywhere beneath the ground and not be lost again. But why hold those—whatever they be?"
"Flowers for my wife," Jim told him.
"She eats flowers?" boomed Rrrnlf, staring.
"Noooo…" said Jim, wondering how to explain himself. "She just likes to keep them—to look at the
m, you know."
"Why doesn't she come here, then, to get them?" demanded Rrrnlf.
Jim was beginning to get a little annoyed with all this questioning. What blasted business of this human-shaped mammoth was it anyway about Angie and the flowers?—On the other hand, no point in making someone his size angry.
"Because she'd rather have them close at hand!" he said.
At the same moment, an idea exploded in his mind like a shower-of-stars rocket on the Fourth of July. He had been completely forgetting the—admittedly limited—magical ability he had picked up in coming to this feudal world. What was the use of being able to do magic, if a magician like himself couldn't use magic to take care of a little situation like this?
Quickly, he wrote a spell on the inside of his forehead.
MAKE ME AND MY CLOTHES → SEA DEVIL SIZE
Immediately he found himself looking into the giant's face on a level. As usual there had been no particular sensation; but he was now thirty feet or so tall himself and gazing at the other from what seemed to be only a couple of feet away.
Seen straight on this way by someone the same size, the Sea Devil appeared rather a pleasant-faced, if still heavy-boned, blond character, with only the shape peculiarity about him, except the intense, deep blue of his eyes. They were eyes which irresistibly reminded Jim of the greatest depths of sea water at which he had ever gazed, with sunlight glancing off it.
Surprisingly, Rrrnlf did not seem at all startled by Jim's sudden growth.
"Ah. A wee mage!" he said.
His voice still boomed. But now it did not seem to have the thunderous quality that Jim had thought he had heard in it, while listening to Rrrnlf from his own normal height above the ground. The other went on.
"Well met. Mage!" said Rrrnlf. "Fear not. I know magic and those who do it."
He beamed at Jim.
"—A great luck meeting you!" His voice was jubilant. "A mage is the very one to aid me. It happens I'm in search of a foul robber, whose limbs I will tear from his body when I find him; leaving him to wriggle in the sea mud like the worm he is! Only, use your magic and tell me where to find him."