5. Lest Old Acquaintance Be Forgot
The glow of the pale moon shone brightly through the high windows of the dormitory, bathing the mishmash of pallets and sleeping bundles in its cold light. Occupying these pallets were the squires of Camelot in varying ages, and even some poorer Knights who had yet to marry, all bunking down together for the night where they could find a space.
In the far corner huddled some of the newer squires, recently promoted from their previous role as page boys. Not long past the age of fourteen, their new duties, in service to the fully fledged Knights in order to learn the ropes, were still proving to be a challenge; each one falling gratefully onto the hard and matted hay of their respective pallets.
"I swear Sir Kay's horse pushes out more muck than any other mount in the stables," grumbled Lavain with an exhausted sigh.
"Muck's the least of my worries," replied Melius with equal dramatics, "I had to follow Sir Ector around all day in the blazing sun throughout his manoeuvres, just to bear his shield for him… and he only used the thing once!"
"How is shield bearing worse than mucking out 'Sir-Craps-A lot' the horse?" exclaimed Lavain indignantly/
"Have you seen the size of that thing?" demanded the young lad, rubbing his shoulders gingerly, "My arms have near been wrenched from their sockets today hefting that shield around!"
"You're a couple of girls, the pair of you," chided Lucan derisively, "Bors has taken it upon himself to test my abilities of endurance and will have me up before dawn tomorrow to swim in the icy lakes of Brentwith until I drop."
"That's Sir Bors to you, you filthy reprobate!" admonished Pelleas, one of the older men soon to earn his position as a Knight, "And you should be grateful that he has taken such an interest in your training."
The younger boys all grumbled amongst themselves at this rebuke and huddled in closer together, lowering their voices mutinously.
"What of you Balin, what is the worst job Sir Bedivere has asked of you?" whispered Melius conspiratorially.
Balin paused for a moment, thinking through the arsenal of tasks he had been burdened with during his short career as squire to the preening Bedivere. "I would say," he began at last, pursing his lips thoughtfully, "That the worst job by far would have to be… warming the seat to his bedchamber pot."
"What is so terrible about that?" asked Lavain in confusion.
Balin leaned forward, looking from one boy to the next before affecting the stricken look of the damned, "He makes me stand next to him and hold up his shirt tales while he does his business."
The small group of boys valiantly tried to muffle their explosive laughter, mindful of not attracting the attention of Pelleas again lest he inform their respective Knights that they were not being worked hard enough.
"Leon, you have yet to speak," urged Lucan, jabbing at his companion's side with his toe, "What duties do you most dread?"
"Oh he won't tell you," Balin cut in scornfully, "Leon's duties are sacred and Sir Caradoc has sworn him to secrecy!"
Leon reddened under the scrutiny of his peers as each exclaimed their disbelief, "Why would they give any important duties to a novice squire with hardly any training?" challenged Melius reproachfully.
"Isn't it obvious?" crowed Balin spitefully, "The magnificent Sir Leon the Elder has evidently pulled some strings."
"Take that back!" seethed Leon with rage, his fists clenched angrily into tight fists, "Any duties I perform are simply because I was assigned to Sir Caradoc who happens to be one of the King's personal guard – I did not ask for extra duties and my Father certainly had nothing to do with it!"
"But you do have special duties?" quizzed Lucan.
""There is nothing special about it," retorted the young squire indignantly, "It simply concerns a task given to Sir Caradoc that I fetch and carry for… that is all."
"You are talking in riddles Leon!" cried Balin accusingly, "If it is not a special task then surely you can tell us all what it is?"
"Leave him alone," said Lavain suddenly, kicking his leg angrily against Balin's pallet, "You are simply envious that he has been given more responsibility than you, you should respect his integrity Balin, not deride him for it."
"Listen to this one," Balin retorted sarcastically, "spouting chapter and verse of the code of chivalry as if he were already a fully fledged Knight of Camelot!"
"Enough, all of you!" shouted Pelleas again, rising up onto his elbow from where he lay in the opposite corner, "You may not be tired but there are others here who have done a real days work and need their rest."
Amid further grumblings of protest from the young squires, a begrudging silence fell among them as one by one they settled down to sleep. Lying stiffly on his pallet, Leon lay there staring sullenly at the high ceiling of the dorm room. How he wished he could share his secret with them, if only to wipe the smug look from Balin's loathsome face… but he would not betray his solemn oath… his hands were tied. One day he would be a Knight of Camelot, no a Great Knight of Camelot and he refused to give up his principles even if he was just a squire.
As the first wisps of dawn began to crawl across the walls of the dormitory, Leon sat up on his pallet, wide eyed and alert. Lucan's bed already lay vacant and Leon shivered involuntarily at the thought of his young friend plunging into the icy depths of Brentwith.
Shoving his head quickly under a cold stream of water from the courtyard fountain, Leon hurried out of the castle grounds, shaking the water from his hair as he went. Early morning mist still hung eerily to the fields and the young squire pulled his tunic tighter around him as he rounded the base of the rock-face that stood as foundation to the grand citadel and castle behind him.
Waiting patiently at the mouth of a large fissure in the rock stood the burley form of Jebediah and his young farm hand Willem. Next to the hulking shepherd was a stout wooden cart on which lay six ewes, all freshly shorn and relieved of their hooves to be boiled for glue.
"There you are boy," called the older man gruffly by way of greeting, "I was beginning to think you'd forgotten about us!"
"I would never forsake my duties!" cried Leon indignantly.
"Keep your britches on lad, I was only jesting!" bellowed Jebediah in reply, "Help Willem with that there sheep and I'll bring this one."
Returning the farm hand's impish grin, the two of them half carried half dragged the unwieldy carcass through the entrance of the rock cleft and into the depths of the cavern, pausing to light torches ensconced in the walls as they went. Jebediah brought up the rear, one of the ewes slung easily across his broad shoulders.
At the end of the short passageway a sturdy iron gate barred their way and both parties deposited their burden's before it. Pausing briefly to regain their breath, the trio returned to the surface and repeated the process until all six sheep lay in a small pile in the gloomy cave.
"We shall see you again in three days hence then lad," said Jebediah, his deep voice rebounding off the walls around them.
"That you will sir," agreed Leon, grasping Willem's arm in his right hand by way of farewell before standing respectfully in front of the iron gate.
"Do not trouble yourself young squire," chuckled the shepherd derisively, "I have no desire to know what you have locked up in your precious cave that needs feeding six sheep per half week… so long as his Majesty pays me what I'm owed I'm happy."
With that the two men made their way back out of the cave, leaving Leon by himself in the dank passageway. Ensuring that he was indeed entirely alone, Leon carefully removed the heavy key Sir Caradoc had entrusted him with and inserted it into the mouth of the lock before him. With a small clunk and well-oiled click the iron gate swung easily open and he began his solitary task of transporting the sheep into the main cavern of the catacombs.
With no one to aid him, the ewes were much more cumbersome and it took the boy almost an hour to drag each one down the rough hewn steps in the near darkness, his eyes darting about him furtively each time he approached the rocky outcrop that was the final resting place for the sheep.
As he heaved the last animal into position, his stomach clenched in anticipation of the inevitable feel of rushing air beating around him and the uncanny sound of metal softly clinking above his head. Stumbling back from the offering of livestock, Leon stared up at the fearsome beast that descended upon him, the creature that he had been sent here to feed… and the source of his solemn oath of secrecy. The Great Dragon… the last of its kind in all the known kingdom.
"Mutton again, young squire?" breathed the awesome creature, landing nimbly on top of the exposed protrusion of granite.
"The kitchen sends its apologies, but beef was off the menu," replied Leon, forcing his voice into as close an imitation of confident jest as he could muster.
"Ah… such sharp whit for a small boy!" chuckled the Dragon, his long tongue licking greedily around the six ewes, "Perhaps I should add squire to my diet?" he added with a sinister drawl, bringing his immense head suddenly very close to Leon's
With a start, the boy jumped back in shock against the sheer wall of rock face, cursing his cowardice as the reptile threw back his head in mirth at his panicked reaction.
"Have no fear child," he laughed, his long tail whipping the air playfully behind him, "I am not in the habit of biting the hand that feeds me." As if to illustrate the point the beast grasped one of the sheep between its fearsome teeth and tossed it effortlessly into the air, swallowing it down with barely a crunch of bone before licking his lips in satisfaction.
As the Dragon ate, the young boy's confidence grew once more and he tentatively approached the salivating creature, "Tell me Dragon," he called out inquisitively, "Why have you been… why are you imprisoned here?"
Halting his grisly feast, the Great Dragon turned his head to face the young squire, inclining his head toward him and contemplating his question for a moment, "To serve as an example," he said at last.
"To whom?" Leon asked in surprise, "So few know of your existence!"
"An example to other magical beings," he explained softly, narrowing his eyes as he spoke, "But so few remain in Camelot that even that seems rather redundant now."
"Then why does he keep you here?"
The Dragon smiled smugly down at him, "Uther had a small window of opportunity to slay me and chose instead to imprison me here," he explained, waving his gnarled claw at the catacombs that housed him, "And now he has no means to destroy me… and he is afraid!"
Red hot flames spewed forth from the retiles lips as he spoke these words, engulfing the last few sheep in their fiery tongues. The heavy scent of roasting flesh filled the air and the creatures large amber eyes glowed bright with impassioned fervour.
"I am not afraid of you," said Leon firmly, his small voice carrying softly in the dark cavern.
"Is that so?" questioned the beast sceptically.
"I do not believe you would kill me," he stated firmly.
The Dragon slowly brought his giant head down to Leon's level, drawing close to his wide, innocent eyes, "You are quite correct," he said at last, drawing his lips back into a sinister version of a smile, displaying two rows of formidable teeth, "You have done nothing against me… In fact… far from harming you, I can help you."
"You… help me?" repeated Leon dubiously, eyeing the large chain clamped around the Dragon's ankle.
"I am a magical creature young Squire and there is much that I could offer you," he replied silkily, "For example… I could help you to become the greatest Knight that Camelot has ever seen…. All I require is that you promise me one small thing in return-"
"No!" cried the boy urgently, pressing his hands over his ears, "Sir Caradoc warned me of your sly ways, I shall not be tricked!"
Stumbling headlong into the darkness of the tunnel passageway, Leon cried out loudly to block the Dragon's words from his mind, slamming the iron gate behind him with an almighty crash, twisting the key in the lock in haste and darting hurriedly out into the comforting light of day.
Drawing deep shaky breaths into his burning lungs, Leon turned and headed quickly back toward Camelot, wishing for the umpteenth time that he had been assigned anyone but Caradoc to squire for.
Chaos reigned in Camelot as the beast that had lain dormant beneath its walls for over twenty years now threw fire and brimstone upon its hapless inhabitants.
After three days of assault and more casualties that he cared to count, Sir Leon, decorated Knight of Camelot, sprinted down the steps from the battlements. As he ran into the castle courtyard he looked up at the retreating Dragon flying off into the sky after his last attack. Merlin stood alone in the centre of the square, head thrown back in fury as he too watched his departure.
"Why are you doing this!" the young servant shouted angrily, "You're killing innocent people!"
Leon ran quickly to his side, dragging the boy along with him and out of the square, "I admire your courage Merlin," he cried earnestly, "But I do not think that the beast will listen to reason! Come… we must shore up the walls while there's still time!"
The days that followed were a blur of panicked activity and bloody carnage as the Dragon continued his assault on the castle walls; man, woman and child alike cowering helplessly inside the failing walls. With their hopes of finding a Dragonlord dashed it was with a pounding but stoic heart that Leon stepped forward to volunteer for the final confrontation, along with twelve other brave Knights, Lucan and Lavain among them.
It wasn't until he was sat upon his charge awaiting the arrival of the beast and contemplating his time served within the Pendragon court that Leon remembered his first conversations with the Dragon. The more he recalled its smug expression and devious eyes the more his anger burned inside his chest.
As the cry went up and the Dragon approached, Sir Leon gripped his reigns in determination, clenching his jaw firmly as he awaited Arthur's command. With a valiant cry the men were dispatched, a solid line of gallant bravery and courage in the face of certain death.
The Dragon shrieked in rage and turned on the Knights, his burning flames eating up the fearless riders. Ripping off his helmet, Leon hurled the metal object at the Dragon. The small missile bounced harmlessly off the thick scales of his hide but the creature paused to see the source of this attack.
"You swore Dragon!" shouted Leon in fury, "You swore you would not kill me! I have done nothing to harm you and neither have the people of Camelot!" With an almighty heave he launched his spear at the reptiles head, again with little effect, "Why are you doing this?" he screamed hoarsely.
The Dragon made no reply, his cold amber eyes betraying no sign of contrition as he contemplated the man before him who had once brought him his food. With an impatient flick of his long bony arm, the beast deftly batted the brave Knight out of his way, knocking him clear off his horse and into the thick underbrush of the forest.
Darkness swallowed him up instantly as fire raged all around him, his unconscious form the only one spared from the heat of the flames - this supposed act of violence becoming the Dragon's only saving grace in a sea of malevolence...