Once upon a time there was a village called Harvestville. It was in a land similar to Switzerland with the same grandiose topography featuring northern peaks which kissed the heavens and lush valleys mantled in rainbow-colored flowers. Its raw, unbridled beauty inspired countless volumes of poetry and song.
The citizens of Harvestville were a simple and happyfolk, content to work all day for a hearty supper in the company of friends and family and a strong cup of ale. Their climate was kind to them, bestowing upon their fields of grain a heavenly mixture of sunshine and rainfall. In almost all respects, the citizens of Harvestville were a blessed folk.
There was, however, one thing which cast a shadow over their bright lives. It was the dragon of The Sleeping Mountain.
The Sleeping Mountain got its name from ancient stories which told of great fire demons which descended from the sky to its peak. It was a magical place, feared by all in the neighboring countryside, because it was believed that the demons still slept in the mountain, waiting for the day when they would once again rise up and inflict terror and chaos on the world. The first recorded dragon raids started shortly after the demons' arrival.
Randomly,the dragon of The Sleeping Mountain flew from its lair and snatched a child from the neighboring countryside. It was said that the abhorrent creature found their flesh to be the sweetest. No one knew when the dragon would come, and no one could prepare. The villagers just went on with their lives until the day that some poor soul saw the serpent flying away from his fields with their struggling child nestled securely in its talons. There was always a day of mourning in the village after a raid because none of the children had ever returned from the dragon's lair. It was the duty of the child's father to journey to the lair and combat the monster. The people of Harvestville were not warriors, but they had managed to retain some of the knowledge of weapons and combat they had gained in the historical Border Wars to turn the fathers of the missing children into makeshift warriors. Most, however, were still clumsy and undisciplined by the time they left for the dragon's lair. Some, as it might be expected, were just plain out of shape.
A true r statement could not have been made about Ralf, the village baker. Ralf was a joyful, robust man who engineered multi-tiered chocolate cakes so rich it was considered sinning in Harvestville even to think about them before desert, and creamy strudels so warming that most citizens of Harvestville would feel guilty about consuming them on a warm day. His hearty grain breads were easily found on the dinner tables of his fellow villagers on any given evening. Ralf was everything one could want in a baker and more. Unfortunately, Ralf made a horrible warrior.
A week ago Susan, Ralf's eight-year-old daughter, was snatched out of his back yard by the dragon of The Sleeping Mountain. Susan was the blonde-haired, blue-eyed jewel of Ralf's life. He lived for her puzzled looks, endless questions, and sunlit smiles. He cherished every moment hespent with her, bouncing her on his great belly after dinner to make her giggle and reading her stories as her eyelids lowered towards sleep in the evening. She was his only child, and he would do anything for her, including fight the dragon of The Sleeping Mountain. Ralf, however, knew his limitations. The last time he had had an adventure was when he and his sweetheart were caught kissing in old man Buckingham's hay loft. Old man Buckingham had almost raised the dead that night with his cursing and yelling. It wasn't long before he had the dogs barking, the horses kicking, and his wife outside with a rolling pin. Although even then Ralf had been portly, he and his sweetheart were able to escape unharmed.
These thoughts of his youth brought a smile to Ralf's lips as he lay in bed on the eve of his journey, and soon he drifted into a warm sleep, but his dreams were soon plagued by winged shadows and imagesof Susan disappearing between huge jaws lined with razor sharp tooth.
The morning of Ralf's departure was sunny and bright. Birds sang soft melodies and the petals ofthe flowers glistened in the morning dew. Ralf was depressed and irritable from his uneasy sleep, and decided that fog and rain would have suited his mood much better than the blue sky and golden sunshine. He felt that nature’s display was set-up to mock him, to paint an ironic setting of joy and beauty on the day of his bleak and hopeless mission.
Ralf's wife had already gone into town, as he expected she would. It was all part of the game the village played when a father left for the dragon's lair. Carry on as usual, don't show your fear for him because it's bad luck. Pretend he's coming back home.
Ralf pulled on his breeches and tunic. The villagers would have hardly recognized him. His face was weary and bleak, and the color in his cheeks had been replaced by a pale paste. He buckled in the heavy broadsword the blacksmith had forged for him several days ago. Even that now seemed to be part of the cruel joke for it was slightly too long for Ralf's squat body and its tip dragged along the ground as he walked.
Ralf walked out into the common room and took one last look at his humble abode. His baker's hat and apron hung on a wooden peg beside the doorway. They would not see him at the bakery today. His carefree days of sinful pastries were over. Ralf stared into the doorway of Susan's room. He imagined she slept there, her soft breath rising and falling like a summer's breeze. He walked into the room his eyes brimming with tears. The room was barren, desolate, empty. Ralf strode out of the house and slammed the door behind him.
His face was a mask of grim determination as he walked towards the road which led to The Sleeping Mountain.
Ralf's home was on the outskirts of the village, close to the road which led to the dragon's lair. The few villagers Ralf passed were silent and reserved, and they averted his eyes when he greeted them. He was glad when he reached the edge of the village.
The road which led to The Sleeping Mountain rose out of Harvestville's valley and continued over the lip of the eastern hills. It was a rugged uphill climb, and soon Ralf was red-faced and panting from the exertion like a woman in labor. The sword at his waist felt like an anvil, and its weight constantly threatened to pull down his breeches. How many of his own friends had he seen disappear in the distance down this very road, never to be seen again? There had been Tom the Miller, Drake the Blacksmith, and Sam the Barrel-Maker to name three. Drake had even forged a special suit of fire-resistant armor for his confrontation with the dragon, apparently to no avail. The hopelessness of Ralf's situation struck him like a fist, but he continued ascending the hill, his heart dragging as well as his sword.
As the sun began to set, Ralf looked in apprehension at the thick woods before him. He was scraped and bruised from his day-long journey. He found relief for his parched throat at a spring several hours back, and that had lifted his spirits to the point of whistling a village drinking song called, "Tip Them Up and Pour It Down." But ever since Ralf had emerged from the forest on top of the hill his journey had been a silent one, because upon emerging from those woods he was greeted by the awesome sight of The Sleeping Mountain. It was black and barren, like a huge, charred piece of wood. Its base was completely encircled by a lush stretch of woodland which looked like a green collar surrounding a black ebony throat. It was rumored that the demons which slept in the mountain had created devilish creatures to protect them while they slept and let them loose in the woods around the mountain's base.
Ralf felt small and insignificant before the towering trees
of the cursed forest. He felt that he was being watched, and to hide his fear he raised a fist at the forest and yelled, "I'm coming for my daughter, you cursed reptile!"
Several startled birds flew out of the nearby trees, and Ralf dived on his stomach and covered his head, cringing, already regretting his weak display of courage. He remained on the ground for several moments before opening his eyes and standing up. He was covered in leaves and twigs. After making sure he was alone Ralf entered the woods. He tried to whistle, but his mouth would only play the dry, cracking notes of fear.
The thick canopy loomed over Ralf's head, blocking out any possible light the twilight would have offered. A chorus of alien cries assaulted Ralf from every direction; low growls and horrible ear-splitting shrieks. Ralf could hardly see the path in front of him, and movement in the foliage sent undulating spasms of fright throughout his body.
It wasn't long before Ralf started to notice something was wrong. At first he couldn't place it, it was more of an intuition of danger than a physical manifestation of it. But then he understood. He felt closed in. He increasingly had to duck below a branch or sidestep a patch of briars on the path. He began to realize that the plants were consciously trying to obstruct his passage.
Ralf used both hands to draw the broadsword from its scabbard. It felt solid, reassuring. Several feet in front of him on the path the branches of a large tree waited. As Ralf crept forward, he could see that the branches were moving, although no wind was blowing to stir them.
Ralf raised the broadsword above his head like an axe. He let it fall on the closest branch. The end of the branch was cut off, and the remaining part of the limb immediately retreated off of the path. The tree issued piercing cries of pain as Ralf continued to hack off its branches. The whole forest was alive now, moving as one away from the path and speaking in low hisses of discontent. Ralf waited, his arms aching from the weight of the broadsword. He was breathing heavily and covered in sweat. He was just about to slide his sword back into its scabbard when he heard it.
It was the sound of wings against the wind, of creatures in
flight. Ralf slipped his sword into its scabbard and ran down the path in terror. The sounds seemed to be coming from every direction, and they were coming in fast. Ralf abandoned the path and ran tripping into darkness.
Ralf could not flee fast enough. Roots appeared in front of his feet, making him fall down every other step. He tore through briar patches which slashed his exposed skin like a thousand tiny knives. Finally Ralf reached a clearing, and as he ran across it he heard his pursuers break through the trees behind him. He chanced a look back, and made out indistinct shapes in the air the size of small cattle. The only thing he saw clearly were their crimson eyes.
As Ralf dove into the undergrowth on the opposite side of the clearing a branch swung out and hit him on the face, knocking him back into the clearing. Ralf scrambled to his feet. He clutched his nose which was bleeding profusely. The creatures shrieked in hideous delight as they neared their prey. Ralf's vision was blurry, and he spun about wildly looking for his attackers.
Ralf cried out in anguish as one of the bat creatures sank its hungry fangs into the sweaty flesh of his neck. A warm, euphoric sensation swept over him as the creature's venom coursed through his veins ...
Ralf lay on his back and looked up into a world of unrivalled beauty. Four angelic birds swam above him blinding him with their brilliance. The first was a phoenix, enveloped in reddish-orange flames which left trails in the air as it descended. The second was a swan of eloquent composure which swam downwards towards Ralf in wide, gentle circles. The third, a marble dove, drifted through the air with such delicate motions it seemed not to move at all. The fourth was an eagle composed entirely of precious gemstones.
The firebird and eagle moved to gently grasp Ralf's head and feet in their talons while the swan and dove took Ralf's wrists gently in their mouths. The angelic quartet bore Ralf upwards through a forest of crystalline formations which absorbed the light of the sun and shot it back into the air in a showering array of explosive color. Ever so gently the birds carried Ralf up and out of the rainbow forest.
All at once, an incredible burst of heat shot forth blinding Ralf completely. Ralf thought, “Heaven must be the sun,” as he heard the flapping wings of something far larger than the bat creatures descend upon him...
Ralf had a very bad headache. He attempted to stand and was immediately seized by an intense rush of nausea. He placed his hands on his knees to steady himself and was still for several moments as he fought the urge to vomit. As his head began to clear he began to examine himself. His clothing was covered in dirt and black soot. He had a throbbing pain on the right side of his neck and blood had dried around his nose and mouth. One thigh was badly bruised making walking somewhat painful. Slowly it came back to him: the chase, the collision, the bite, the beautiful dream he had mistaken for death, and the burning blast of heat.
“But what god’s hand do I live?” he asked out loud in confusion.
Looking around Ralf was shocked to find that he was on the far side of the woods at the base of The Sleeping Mountain. He sincerely believed that divine intervention had prevented his death, and now he was instilled with a confidence and determination he had rarely known in his life. He discarded his damaged scabbard and boldly strode up the mountain with broadsword in hand.
Ralf spied a rough-hewn entrance some fifty yards up the rocky slope. The Sleeping Mountain is said to contain a labyrinth of caves in which slumber the demons who shot columns of fire into the sky so many years ago. The entrance was too small for the dragon, but it is rumored that the dragon uses a secret entrance to gain access to the mountain’s interior.
After sidestepping up the loose rock and shale Ralf reached the cave. He was unsettled by the absolute darkness within. He used his sword to sweep away cobwebs as he proceeded carefully into the mountain’s depths. Suddenly he stepped into thin air.
His scream was cut short as he hit a strange, viscous surface which felt like intertwined vines. It yielded under his weight but did not fracture. He discovered in horror that although he could move his arms his back was firmly attached to the strange flooring. Very close to his head Ralf heard the scuttling and clicking of many legs against stone and he suddenly realized that he was trapped in a web.
Hacking wildly at the webbing he began to swing free just as he saw two luminous green eyes on the wall above him. As the massive spider began to descend Ralf fell completely free and hit the floor some ten feet below. His sword followed him down and clanged loudly beside him before sliding away down the corridor. Ignoring it, Ralf retreated from the chamber as the giant spider twittered, clicked, and raged behind him.
Ralf continued to flee in panic for several minutes before his bruised thigh began to protest. Looking back and assuring himself that he was not being pursued he journeyed ahead at a cautious pace. The passage began to slope downward and Ralf studied the stonework of the floor for pits. After a quarter of an hour Ralf began to hear the strangest of sounds in this dark place -- sounds which were undeniably human voices. Hurrying forward he approached a well-lit chamber full of sounds he could only describe as merry-making.
He rushed into the chamber and stopped dead in his tracks at the sight before him.
A circle of people were singing and dancing around what was undeniably a dragon; a dragon of captivating beauty. It stood twelve feet high, and it was covered in violet scales. Its black, leathery wings were folded on its back and it was singing. Looking closer Ralf saw familiar faces. Tom the Miller, Drake the Blacksmith, and Sam the Barrel-Maker...all with expressions of profound joy and goodness alighting their faces.
A small shape left the circle and rushed towards Ralf. Ralf’s eyes brimmed with tears as his little girl ran to him with a magical look in her eyes.
“Susan! Are you well?”
“Oh, yes Daddy! The dragon makes us so happy...it was he who killed the bats which tried to eat you! He did it for me!”
“The dragon? The dragon saved me from the bats?”
“Well, yes. He had some help from the ones who made the fire so long ago. They are very powerful, and they make us happy. The dragon serves them.”
“The sleeping demons?”
“Oh, Daddy! They’re not demons! They’re from sky.”
“Are you ready to go home, Susan?”
Susan started to cry. “Daddy, I can never go home...that is the price of joining the circle. Oh, Daddy, please stay...life is better here than in the village. The ones from the sky study use, they say we don’t exist where they come from. They took a ship here and landed on top of the mountain. That’s what made the fires. They won’t let us leave but we really don’t want to go back. All we know is happiness. Life in the village is hard. Oh Daddy, please join the circle!” Susan hugged Ralf tightly.
Ralf’s thoughts spun wildly. Everything for nothing! I can’t bring her back! But the look on their faces, my god! The way they dance and spin, so careless and joyful! What do I have to go back to? An old wife? A bakery? Ralf looked into his daughter’s eyes. There was real love there, the genuine love of a daughter for her father.
Susan took her father’s hand and led him to the circle. The dancers make space for one more, and Ralf the Baker spins around and around in The Sleeping Mountain which teems with life.