THE FIRE HOSTAGE
The stench of death hung heavily about the entrance to the dragon’s lair. Above that cheerless pit it lingered, the odor of a thousand rotting things; smoldering brimstone, blood, and ordure, failed courage, sorrow, and despair.
“Not far now!” the dwarf led on like an impatient waif, taper in hand as he scurried through a warren of narrow-winding tunnels, the most capacious scarcely broad enough to admit a child, save a man full-grown. “Make haste!”
“So eager to meet your doom?” Ducking low, his back to the wall, Garin expelled the breath from his chest, barely able even then to squeeze beyond a treacherous restriction.
“Nay! Zvergrotz will surely live!” The dwarf’s voice echoed dully in the gloom. “As richly as a landed lord when once the treasure’s mine.”
At last the way widened before them, for they had reached a cavern deep within the earth, where, long ages past, the hands of men had hewn a city from the living rock. Through high-vaulted corridors they passed, great halls of carvéd block and gravéd stone, so vast that one might wander for many days without ever coming to the end.
Yet, even now, the path was not without its perils. For, here and there at intervals along the passageway, flickeringly illumed from dreary fires far beyond, dust-smoking heaps of human bone loomed up like morbid mountains, disgorged from glutted catacombs through buckled fissures in the walls; obstacles impassable, compelling rashly-improvised retreats through lightless galleries where only skittering rodent hosts remained to rule the gloom. Their red eyes peeked out covetously from amongst the rubble, precarious mounds of shattered masonry where, from time to time, an interloper might espy the detail of a pallid human face, shards of statues toppled from upended plinths, once-proud features immortalized in marble now fractured into voiceless infamy.
Presently through the branching halls there came a sound like the lonesome keening of the wind, desolate in its melancholy rise and fall.
“The serpent wakes.” Zvergrotz ran to cower at Garin’s back. “Have a care lest we be roasted alive!”
“Which way then?” The hero drew his sword.
“It matters not.” The little man blubbered in fear as flame leapt from a hundred hearths throughout the city. “Doom comes for us anon!” And surely it was true, for the fire spilled forth in a great torrent before them.
“In time,” said Garin, withdrawing into an alcove along the wall, whence the flames scorched neither man nor dwarf. “But not this day.” The niche into which they had retreated was itself a disused antechamber. Beyond this stretched a curving thoroughfare, a spiral ramp leading still further into the depths.
“S’blood!” The dwarf held his nose, for the vile stench of ordure waxed more keenly the further they descended.
“Ah!” The hero brightened at a thought. “Mayhap we’ll yet outwit the beast!” So saying, he bade the dwarf climb upon his back. Thus, like a steed with his rider, far and fiercely did bold Garin hasten, and for a while until, at last, he came to the place where the monster held its solitary sway, keeping drowsy watch o’er all its vast ill-gotten hoard.
And what a treasure it was! As far as the eye could behold it lay in such extravagant profusion as might seduce the noblest mind: bricks of gold in gleaming heaps, plate of silver piled high, and gem-encrusted drinking horns, gilt armor, scabbards, helms, and swords with jeweled hilts; even noble crowns, purloined from the heads of kings and princes, scattered carelessly about the floor like the cast-off trifles of a spoiled child. Beyond these, coin of every weight and value spilt forth from ancient yawning chests, more than the greediest of men might dream to covet.
Yet all that shone was not fair or wondrous, for here and there amongst that vast surfeit of wealth, jutting up above the glittering peaks, enormous skeletons might be beheld, the hulking remains of mighty monsters, spines like gargantuan tree trunks, and broken ribcages like the frames of houses, ravaged and burned, limbs twisted and broken, sharp and deadly as a phalanx of spears.
And in the very midst of it all, a towering massif thrust up amongst those grisly hills, the dragon itself, still half aslumber, coiled jealously around the spoils it favored most. Perpetually bereft of light, its flesh shone with a ghostly gray pallor, appearing to glow in the subterranean gloom. Its sides were as battered shield walls, scales singed and blackened by a hundred battles. Its claws were each the size of a heavy broadsword, and twice as deadly; its legs, short and stout as gnarled roots, but powerful and swift. Most terrible of all, its hingeless, wormlike jaw, a yawning pit of death, edges studded with row upon row of venomous fangs.
Garin could only marvel at the sight, for he had never stalked so fearsome a beast before. “Wait here,” said he, “for I shall steal around behind ere the curséd creature stirs.” So saying, he took his leave of the dwarf and made his way, half-crouched among the shimmering mounds of booty. Thus, creeping forward with artful stealth, would he surprise the serpemt in its wakeful torpor. And, sure enough, at last he stood within a hand’s breadth of the monster’s side.
But ere he raised his sword to strike, there rose a great commotion in the hall.
“Halloo!” The dwarf stood atop a heap of treasure as he called out loudly to the beast. “See what Zvergrotz has delivered just as he promised?”
The monster yawned by way of answer, sending a voluminous ring of smoke into the air. Garin scrambled to keep out of sight as the dragon stirred.
“Remember the bargain that was struck between us!” Zvergrotz demanded. “Have I not kept my part in full with this offering? Ah! See what a fine morsel he will make!”
The dragon spewed forth a bolt of fire that lit the cavern all about, the light redoubled in the shimmering mirrors of yellow gold and pale silver littering the floor. Yet the monster itself was quite blind, responding in no way to the sudden brightness.
“And you shall keep your word as well,” cried the dwarf, though his voice quavered now with doubt and trepidation. “As much as Zvergrotz can carry in payment for this feast. Be we yet agreed?”
The serpent roared as if in ascent, whipping its tail about like a mighty flail with which to send the interloper to his doom.
But even now, having lost the element of surprise, the youth kept his wits about him. Thus with bold alacrity, he leapt upon the dragon’s back, whence the beast thrashed about wildly, determined to be rid of its tormentor. Yet the more furiously it struggled, the more adamantly the hero held fast, keeping his grip with one hand, while, with the other, weilding his enchanted sword, biding his time to strike.
At last, the daring hero plunged his blade through the back of the serpent’s throat, bracing himself for what he knew must follow. In fury did the beast rear up, vomiting fire from its gullet, though grue-ish ichor followed soon enough. Yet still, not altogether vanquished, the dragon charged forward at an ungainly gallop, smelling at the air as it cast about with its head, determined in its blind agony to be avenged upon the trespasser.
Thrice more did the hero strike, and thrice more did he wound the beast, though its ferocity was not abated in the least. At last, Garin rose to his feet, riding the serpent’s back as one might bestride the heaving deck of a ship at sea. Thus, clutching the hilt in both hands, the youth stabbed downward with all his might, striking so forceful a blow as to rend the monster in twain, cleaving head from shoulder with a single fearsome stroke. A river of gore flowed forth from the stump of its neck even as the carcass juddered in the final throes of death. But ere the curséd head did strike the ground, a roar of despair escaped its broken maw like the tolling of a broken bell above a sepulcher.
Then Garin saw that some of the dragon’s blood had spilled upon him in the fray, and now lay spattered o’er his face and hands. Unthinking, the lad licked the blood from his lips and fingers. Yet, no sooner had the blood been tasted upon his tongue, then he heard a strange voice resounding in his mind:
How now shall I slay him? But not too soon, for who else will help carry the treasure from this place? Curse that foolish beast!
In a moment, Garin came to understand that it was the dwarf’s own thoughts he was hearing.
I suppose I’ll have to do it myself. Once the treasure’s been removed, and he is weary from his labors, after he settles down to rest… Yes! I’ll creep up to the place where he sleeps and plunge a dagger deep into his heart… Only for now, let him believe all’s well…
“A silver pffenig for your thoughts,” Garin said slyly. “What’s to become of all these riches now that their guardian is gone?”
“It’s ours at last!” Zvergrotz turned about to face the hero, feigning innocence, dancing and skipping about like a merry child, though his thoughts remained as dark as the pit about them. “The treasure is ours!”
“Ours?” Garin spoke coldly.
“Aye,” cried the dwarf. “Plenty to go around…” Especially once I’ve slain you in your sleep…
“So much wealth,” said Garin. “You wouldn’t be tempted to betray me?”
“What’s this? Nay! Zvergrotz is a dwarf of his word!”
“Indeed? You’re not tempted even a little? Not thinking of burying a dagger in my heart?”
“Zvergrotz would never…” The dwarf affected outrage. “Zvergrotz is noble! Zvergrotz is loyal to a fault, and ever generous… See?” He tossed a handful of silver coins in Garin’s direction. “Let the gods bear witness to my munificence!”
“Verily.” Garin approached the faithless halfling, wading hip-deep through a lake of blood and steaming viscera. “Let me likewise be generous and dispatch you quickly.”
“Mercy!” cried the dwarf. “Spare poor Zvergrotz his life!”
“And what should I have in return?”
“My gratitude and… half the treasure?”
“When you had already sold me to the serpent, just as you once sold me to the ogre? Surely so noble a life is worth more than such a pittance?”
“I beg you, son of Lotharing,” the dwarf croaked piteously, “pray, stay your hand! Zvergrotz will be as good as his word!”
“How well I know the worth of your word,” said Garin, still coming on, sword drawn and ready.
“Nay!” Zvergrotz began to pelt the hero with whatever missile came most easily to hand; volleys of gold and silver coin, the merest handful a fortune; sacks and purses groaning with jewels and precious stones, sapphires, diamonds, and pearls, gilt trinkets, chains, and baubles, flung with ruthless desperation in some vain hope that his doom might be delayed.
“Cease, feckless fool!” Garin cried. “Today your pathetic destiny is decided. This cavern has become your tomb, and so shall it be, both now and forever more.”
“Keep away!” Zvergrotz shrieked in terror. But as he endeavored to flee in the face of the hero’s relentless advance, the dwarf tripped and fell. The heap of treasure on which he had made his stand suddenly gave way, collapsing in a treacherous landslide, carrying the little man headfirst towards the bottom. “No!” he cried, “Surely this cannot be my fate! Surely Zvergrotz will—” But his words were stopped in his mouth, and in their place a trickle of blood spurted from between his lips, for the dwarf’s body had been impaled on one of the sharp bone pikes half hidden like a hunter’s snare amongst the dragon’s shimmering hoard. He lay, gasping and panting, his eyes bulging in disbelief as his fate dawned upon him.
And now the rats came swarming, drawn by the odor of looming death, hungry, ravenous things, they descended upon the little man, and the last sounds Garin heard ere he turned away were the wordless screams of that craven soul being devoured alive.
Thanks for nothing, little man, Garin thought as he turned his back upon the dwarf, making his way as best he could, holding the enchanted sword before him like a glowing lantern in the gloom. Moving cautiously along, he cocked his ears, listening for the telltale sounds of wind or water, some sign that might forebode escape. At last, he heard the roar and rush of an underground river somewhere far away. But before he could reconoiter the pathway ahead, he found himself falling, a portion of the floor having given way beneath his feet. He plummeted like a stone into the darkness below until, at last, after what seemed a fall of many leagues, he came down, splashing and spluttering in the icy churning waters, still clutching the hilt of his sword. The fast-moving stream bore him along through narrow tunnels and yawning caverns turned to lakes, roofs open to the starlight far above, and yet again into the blackness, down rocky chutes and over plunging cataracts, his limbs bruised and sore.
In time the river carried him out into the world. Washed clean in the flood, the hero stood upon a stony bank and turned his eyes again to the east. The strange light still shone upon the moutainside, and there, bold Garin knew, his destiny awaited.