The sound of the wind in the trees and the surf on the shore were barely distinguishable from one another; high above, the sun danced out from between the clouds, illuminating the rocky coast of Loch Na Keal, though it never seemed to burn away the fog that roosted on the peak of Beinn Mor. Tall, ageless pines and winding yews swayed nearly right up to the water, but in a rough clearing, the proud pennants of clan DunBroch snapped and lashed in the shadow of the new, growing castle on the cliffside. Among the hastily pitched tents, a young king was terrifying his dozen vassals with tales of battles overseas.
"And there I was," exclaimed Fergus, his broad shape aggravated by his far-flung arms and cape of dark fur. "Surrounded by four of the most wretched, godless Viking devils ye've ever seen. They bristled with pointy bits, had blood on their faces, in their mustaches!" For emphasis, he pointed one meaty finger at his own mustache, and the prickly beginning of a beard on his chin. "I had nothing but me bare fists, and as the head o' them raised his axe for the killin' blow..."
The circle of enthralled men were suddenly scattered by the appearance of their fierce, four-legged hunting companions; great grey deerhounds burst through their midst, howling at something in the loch. Answering barks rang out over the water as brown speckled seals, their coats shining, dove beneath the waves and out of reach.
Fergus guffawed at the dogs as they splashed, kicking up pebbles and mud in their enthusiastic pursuit of the seals. One of his men returned to his side, grinning up at the Bear King with the mixture of wariness and warmth that he stirred in all of his subjects. "Ye ken, Highness," said the man, a wiry spear-thrower named Bran. "Of the selkies, yeah? The women who wears a sealskin an' lives in the sea. Legend says if ye catch 'un, and hide her skin, she'll be yer wife until the end o' her days..."
The king snorted through his sizeable nose, clapping Bran on the back. "I ne'er put much stock in legends, lad," he said. "Don't trust anything ye can't get yer hands around."
Bran raised an eyebrow doubtfully, but didn't press. He didn't have time, as a large shadow passed over the camp and set the dogs to barking again, followed by a woman's high-pitched scream.
Men began running pell-mell, tripping over hounds and each other as they scrambled for their weapons. Fergus looked skyward and saw a black shape appear between himself and the sun: a long and serpentine body with enormous, sail-like wings dove until it just brushed the surface of Loch Na Keal. A crooked maw opened up, black teeth gleaming as the beast let out a roar that chilled the clan of warriors down to their very bones. Great yellow eyes that exuded malice and contempt had their eyes on the men of DunBroch, and the dragon's claws reached forward, ready to snatch them up and deliver them to a terrible, painful fate.
Fergus bellowed, unsheathing the broadsword slung across his back, running to meet the dread beast as it landed on the shore, the ground shaking under its weight. The other DunBroch warriors were not far behind, a flurry of arrows bouncing harmlessly from Mor'du's flank as he gnashed his teeth to meet them. As his mouth opened, a spark seemed to roll forth from the creature's black throat.
"Get down!" Fergus bawled, turning sharply to the left and circling around as the dragon belched fire over the camp. The screams of men not fortunate enough to get out of the way were cut off by their untimely demise, but Fergus would not let their deaths be in vain. Long had the dread dragon Mor'du plagued the Island of Mull, and long had Fergus yearned to have the beast's head on his wall. The Bear King had faced Mor'du before, and he swore this time would be the last.
His men kept the beast busy as Fergus circled around, looking for a weak spot in Mor'du's impenetrable scales. Nearly as large as Castle DunBroch, and seemingly carved from glassy black stone, the dragon's body appeared to have no outward weaknesses. Broad wings were kept close to the ridged back, and sharp claws made it unwise to try and venture near. A long, whiplike tail whistled overhead, a spiked ball of bone at its end, promising to crush even the most armored Scot with only the slightest blow. It came down, rushing along the ground like a black river, forcing the wind out of Fergus as it crashed into his chest. Fueled by protective outrage, the Bear King hung onto it with one arm, the other hacking uselessly with his sword. The blood rushed in his ears, the sound mixing with the cries of pain and anger of his men as the beast cut a swath of destruction through their ranks.
Over it all came another lady's shriek, though no women had accompanied Fergus and his entourage to the loch that day. Fergus held on tight as Mor'du swung around, looking for the source of the voice; a girl scrambled on the shore, evidently searching for something among the rocks instead of making her escape. Mor'du snapped his tail like a stalking cat, finally shaking Fergus free; the king went flying through the air and into the roof of a tent, bringing the canvas construction down with a riotous crash. His men rushed to assist him, but he yelled, pointing, "Not me, ye fools! The girl!"
Her long brown hair streaming in the wind, the girl had given up her search and was now trying to run into the loch, but Mor'du had blocked her path. His front claws circled her prone form, and though his face was far from human, he seemed to leer at her. A grey forked tongue snaked out between his fangs, tasting her fear in the air.
He was interrupted, however, as rocks, spears, chairs, and whatever the warriors of DunBroch had on hand began to rain down on his body. Raising his head, Mor'du craned his neck around in time to see Fergus, his fists raised in a challenge, come running up and leap onto the dragon's head. Though he'd lost his sword in the impromptu flight, the Bear King had no fear in facing the beast unarmed. As he clung to the horns on Mor'du's snout, Fergus discovered the creature's weak spot at last: its eyes.
He punched the beast's glaring left eye, feeling it give away under his fist like a day-old platter of fish. Mor'du roared in pain, rearing onto his hind legs and gnashing his teeth. He whipped his head about, shaking Fergus's grip; with a yell, the man felt himself slipping, uncomfortably aware of the distance between himself and the ground. The fear, however, quickly turned to blinding pain as Mor'du caught him between his own saw-edged teeth.
Blood welled up and bones crunched in Fergus's left leg. The Bear King snarled, trying to pull himself back up; if Mor'du threw him now, it really would be over. But below, his men rallied to his aid, throwing ropes over the dragon's limbs and neck to try and keep him on the ground. It seemed to be working for an instant, and as the beast roared, he dropped Fergus a greatly reduced few feet to the earth.
Now unburdened, Mor'du reared up once more, snapping the ropes the DunBroch men held as he stretched his wings over their heads. For a moment, beneath the beast, day became night; then Mor'du was airborne, flying over the loch and toward the sea.
Fergus cursed under his breath; he had failed to kill the dread dragon once again. Laying on the ground, he could see the blue sky and clouds continuing on merrily, as though the battle had never happened. Soon, though, his view was blocked by his men, pushing each other in their eagerness to help him.
"Is he dead?"
"His leg! Get somethin' for his leg!"
The king sat himself upright, unable to think through the agony of his mutilated leg. However, one thought managed to make it from his muddled mind to his mind:
"The lass. Where's th' lass?"
His men took a step back, momentarily confused by their king's demand. But Bran was pushing a path through them, accompanied by the strange girl on the shore. Now that she was closer, Fergus-and all the men-could see she wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing.
Her limbs bore long, shallow scratches; Mor'du's claws had probably struck her in his flailing. Though she was pale with fright, her face and voice were steady as she knelt beside Fergus.
"Thank you, brave lord, for saving my life."
Fergus felt as though all of his pain had vanished; all of his rage at Mor'du's appearance and subsequent escape soothed away as the young woman touched his shoulder with a soft hand.
He found himself at a loss for words. The lady's gaze was a very solemn one, quite unlike any he'd encountered at DunBroch or abroad.
"'S nothing," he finally managed, aware of their large, rapt audience. Finally, frustrated by his own dumbfoundedness, he waved his men away and fumbled with the clasp of his cape.
"Here, lass, before ye catch yer death," he said, throwing the heavy bear skin about her shoulders. "And will you lot stop staring? Pick this mess up, we got ta get home."
Grumbling about the excitement being over so early, the warriors of DunBroch obeyed. Several were called to help their king to his feet-or foot, since the left one couldn't be saved. No one questioned that the young lady of the loch, who gave her name simply as Elinor, accompanied them to the castle. What became a real topic of conversation, however, was the fact that Fergus seemed unable to leave her side.
It amused the people of DunBroch to no end that a soft-spoken, upright young woman had at last tamed the indomitable Bear King. Elinor appeared to be just as in love with Fergus as he was with her, and their marriage came as a surprise to no one. She also proved to be as fearless as her husband when Vikings threatened the northlands; alongside clan DunBroch, the clans Macintosh, MacGuffin, and Dingwall gathered their men and marched to meet them. Queen Elinor held the castle together, aiding in the gathering of supplies, the repair of weapons, and the movement of forces.
Mor'du's absence during the conflict did not go unnoticed, and he still did not return when the Vikings had been routed and King Fergus came home. It was a relief to all of the DunBrochs, since the sound of small feet would soon be heard throughout the castle. Though Fergus still wanted to avenge his leg and assure the safety of his family once and for all, he didn't mind that the war with the dragon was over.
But he was wrong. It had only just begun.
I liked Brave a lot, but I wish there had been a bit more of all that dark, mystical Celtic/Gaelic mythology involved. So I'm writing this.