A strapping young man strides toward the rounded stones at the foot of the waterfall, his blood racing with danger.
There is a water dragon that lives at the base of the mountains which shelter the town of Soulein, a relative of the flying variety knights used to have to slay to prove themselves. None can pass through the mountain range without invoking its wrath. More importantly (at least to the townspeople), the water dragon sleeps curled in the bed of the river from which Soulein is supplied with life-giving water.
The beast of the river is a territorial creature, and for the anyone to get water they must distract it with food. The townsfolk believe the dragon is the devil and feed it only symbols of purity lest it fail to take the bait- most often a lamb, but on days when no lamb can be found a maiden is chosen by lots to sacrifice herself so her town may have water. Gærich, whom the history books will call George, knows the dragon will eat anyone, and would in fact settle for a cow or goat, but the townsfolk are devout Christians and will not be dissuaded.
Gærich himself is a hero for the old gods, the son of a sorceress, though for his courage at Soulein he will be called and mistakenly remembered as a saint. The wooden pendant he wears around his neck has heathen runes burnt into it all around the edges. Soulein had been unable to replenish its dwindling water reserves for four days when he came; people were beginning to sicken with thirst. Even the cheiftain had spoken in a hoarse voice, as if her throat were dry, when at last he reached the end of his two-day journey and bowed before her on one knee.
"Stand," she'd croaked, and so he had stood. "Stand, godless warrior, and tell me where all the good men have gone."
Gærich found himself struck speechless then. Perhaps it'd been their surroundings: the cheiftain is a secular ruler, but her judicial seat (which can hardly be called a throne) is topped with a large and ornate cross. Gærich will be composed in the face of a dragon, which can only kill and eat him, but confronted with the symbol of the new religion, which he knows will one day swallow his entire culture up, he had become quite uncomfortable.
After a painful pause the cheiftain had crossed to the window and peered out across the town, freeing him from the obligation to say something reassuring. "Four dozen!" she choked bitterly. "I command four dozen warriors and not a one will brave the dragon for the sake of my only daughter!"
Gærich still hadn't known what to say, so he settled for, "But I will."
He turned around to find that the chieftain had moved to stand behind him. She wears no ornament to show her status- not a crown, not a circlet nor even an embroidered dress. The other women of the town wear long plain dresses that at least allow them their femininity, and their plaited hair cascades down their backs. The chieftain wears her hair tied up under a twisted handkerchief and has to be content with a pair of worn breeches. Looking at her there, a he had felt saddened by more than her daughter's plight. He hadn't heard the two scruffy youths she'd called guards leave the room, but he knows they must have.
"Yes, of course you will," rasped the chieftain, and she tenderly ran a work-roughened hand along his face. "My late husband and his father brought the townspeople into the church, and would each be mortified by what I'm about to do for different reasons." It was then, he recalls, that she'd begun untying her breeches. "But my own father followed your gods and were it I you had come to rescue from a dragon, this is how my mother would have given you her blessing."
A growl is heard from where the waterfall hits the river, and it jars Gærich back to the present. Water splashes in all directions as the snout of the dragon plunges above the surface. It's bigger than he could have imagined, so big he can hardly believe even a river this deep conceals the entire beast. Gærich draws his sword while his heart leaps in his throat. Nobody can slay that thing- he's going to die, he's sure of it.
The monster is a true river-dragon; its otherwise green-blue hide is speckled in all the colours of river pebbles to blend in. When it lunges from the water the splash soaks Gærich to the bone.
Then its forefoot is on his chest, having pierced his armor, and he cries out in pain. It's all he can do to hit the thing with the edge of his blade. The dragon thrashes, tearing its claws out of him as it does so. It rears to loom over him as he hurries to stand. Gærich sees that he's managed to wound it in what might be considered the left armpit.
The serpentine monster comes further out of the water, and he knows one good bite from those jaws would be the end of him. Gærich leaps out of the way just in time, the rapid rise and fall of his chest stinging his gouged flesh. Before the dragon can pull its neck back he has time to raise his sword high and bring it down with all his might. There's a moment of triumph as he feels it sink in, but when the low-slung body of the beast slinks around him, hemming him in, he sees that the bloody slash is a mere scratch to a foe of this size.
The water dragon bites down on him, metal crunching easily against his shoulder, but the teeth don't pierce the armor. The blunt force still wounds him beyond hope of using his off-arm.
He stumbles. The entire town has gathered to watch.
The dragon has its entire massive body out of the water, and its short legs walk along the circle, tightening parameters until there's hardly room for Gærich to take a step. Its scales are still dripping, and so are his clothes. He tries to take a swing at it and drops his weapon. There's hot blood soaking his shirt under the crushed plates. Hopelessly trapped, he does the only thing he can think to do: tugs at the talisman around his neck with his sword arm.
The wet leather string breaks easily, and just in time- the dragon is coming for him. Gærich tosses the amulet into its gaping snout, and silently begs every god but one for a miracle.
The dragon snaps its jaws shut. Swallows. Shudders. Gærich is also trembling, and the townsfolk hold their anxious breath as one. The chieftain's eyes are wide as she watches. The river-dragon has eyelids; Gærich sees them flutter as its movements begin to slow. It's weird that this is what he'll remember most, not the pain or the victory but the dragon's eyelids.
The water dragon lays its giant head on the earth at his feet, so big that its quivering shakes the ground, and the opponent too great to be defeated by Gærich's blade falls to his mother's magick.
The people of Soulein erupt into cheers, already praising the gods they cursed as false idols and demons that very morning. As the injured hero climbs clumsily over the slain beast, he wonders through a haze of pain and adrenaline whether popular opinion has always been this fickle. By the time he's crawled over the last scaly coil, taken his helmet off and and fallen to his knees on the wet ground, someone has forded the river to stand next to him. It's a pretty woman around his own age; she kicks him in the ribs multiple times.
"Cad!" she shouts. "Heathen! Bastard! Dog! Blasphemer!"
"Wha-" Gærich begins.
"You've damned me for all eternity, you and your wicked spells!" She kicks him again. "Better to be eaten by the devil than saved by evil means!"
When he realizes this is the chieftain's daughter, Gærich's expression of outrage and horror turns to a grin. Looking the maiden square in the face, he points to the chieftain with his good arm.
"Look, lady," he says. "I may be a heathen, but I'm doin' your mom."