Author's Note: So - this idea may have been ill-advised, but what the hell, I wrote it anyway. Possibly my thesis work is going to my head...
This particular tale has survived in only two manuscripts of the Lives of Frankish Dragons: the fragmentary St. Gall MS of the eleventh century, and a complete but error-ridden decorated manuscript from the fourteenth century, currently in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek of Munich with a Tours ex-libris; the eight other MSS of the primary text omit it. Previously considered apocryphal due to its fantastic nature, the unprecedented recent discovery in an archaeological dig at Uzès of armor fragments with a definitive non-terrestrial origin has given the story fresh credence, but the lack of a proper edition and full translation has hindered a proper understanding of the text...
Draco Hruodlandi: An Excerpt from the Vitae Draconum Francorum
IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 788 peace reigned over the Frankish lands through the grace of Christ and the might of Charlemagne, because there were many tamed dragons in his service. Of these dragons the greatest were three alike in size and form: Cortana, a northern beast and steed of Ogier the Dane; Joyeuse, Charlemagne's own companion; and Durendal, who had borne the noble count Roland into many a contest. Fairest of these three was considered Cortana, whose scales shone brilliant blue, and wisest was scarlet Joyeuse, who had been schooled in the seven arts by the learned Alcuin himself, but the strongest and most cunning of the three was Durendal, who had no match in battle.
Yet his master Roland, the nephew of Charlemagne, had fallen during the battle at Roncevaux many years previous while fighting on foot, and in a fit of madness Durendal had fought alone and slain many Saracens, but since that day he would take no other rider, though every knight and lord who served Charlemagne had begged for the honor. Many said it was only natural, for Roland had raised Durendal from the egg and no dragon ever hatched has taken easily to another master when its first has perished; some whispered that in truth Roland had been too close to the beast, and in raising him had impressed him with Roland's own stubborn nature and brash temper, so that from pride rather than grief he refused to bear another man. Indeed he would suffer no man to approach him, nor any other dragon, save Cortana, whom Durendal considered as a sister, and a minor duke who had once been a companion of Roland called Bernard, a sly and cunning man who concealed great evil within his heart.
This duke spoke often to Durendal with much sophistry and talk of philosophy, and with heretical ideas that he had learned from a wandering priest, that dragons ought to be considered equal to men, or even men's masters, because of their great size and strength and ability to speak. For he thought that by encouraging rebellion in one of Charlemagne's mightiest dragons and by making himself the teacher and inspiration for that rebellion, he might gain the confidence of Durendal and thereby seize more power for himself, without care for his vows to the great king. Durendal gave ear to many of his words and took them to heart, becoming sullen and ill-tempered; yet though he refused the company of other men, neither did he accept Bernard as his master, and so the peace of Charlemagne had an uneasy foundation.
In these days there came an enemy from the south, whose like had never been seen before in all of the known world: strangely colored beasts who walked upright like men, but they had three red eyes set in their faces, and they spoke no human tongue and fought with magic staves, against which few could stand. They swept across the country like a scourge of locusts and as many of the populace as they killed, they took away an equal number as slaves who were not seen again. So swift was their advance that before the great king could gather together his forces they had reached Aachen itself, and a terrible battle was joined in Charlemagne's very city where all his dragons could do him little good, and blood ran down the streets and a great lamentation was raised by those who could not escape the invasion.
Now among the palace guards at that time there was one whose name has not been recorded, but whose deeds that day outshone those of all other men. He was a tall and sturdy man of unknown family, and on that day he slew uncounted numbers of the strange beasts, smashing their staves and their peculiar armor with a great war hammer, and by his example he inspired many other warriors and even the common people of the city to fight back as well, so that they began to drive the invaders out of the city to an open area where Charlemagne with Joyeuse and Ogier with Cortana were able to fight and do much damage to the enemy.
It seemed that the attack would be turned back thanks to this guard's efforts when Durendal, who had held back from fighting, now entered the fray, yet the dragon took no part in the battle, but instead seized the guard in his claws and carried him away from the fight, and what conversation they held at this time is not known...
The guard didn't struggle in Durendal's talons, because a fall from his current height in armor would kill him, but he cursed the dragon out at length, in his own tongue and with the deeply satisfying English words he had once heard Alcuin use during some disaster in the scriptorium. Durendal only laughed, the sound rumbling deep in his scaled chest, and flew on till reaching a large clearing in the forest. There he back-winged and landed on three of his feet before setting the guard down upon the ground.
The guard leaped to his feet at once and faced the dragon with his hammer upraised. "Take me back! Take me back to the battle at once, you wretched beast!"
"You are either bold or very foolish to threaten a dragon," said Durendal, settling to the earth in a crouch and regarding him, "and the dragon of your king's nephew, no less."
The guard was suddenly aware of how strange he looked, waving a hammer at a beast that could devour him in two bites, but he would not be intimidated. "Then I humbly beg you to return me to Aachen," he said, softening his tone, "so I may rejoin the battle."
Durendal did not move. "Such a pleasure, to observe you at work," he said. "You fight very well, for a human."
"I only do my duty," said the guard, "as should you. Are you not ashamed to sit aside while your king fights?"
"I have sworn no loyalty to Charles," Durendal said, and his tail swept across the clearing. "Hruodland's oaths died with him; now I owe no man my allegiance."
"Then in God's name, what interest have you in me?"
Durendal raised his great head high, considering the guard, and then said, "Vere, I grow somewhat weary of my isolation, and tire of no conversation but Bernhard's and Cortana's. I do not decline to fight from cowardice or hatred of the king, nor because I lack the inclination to fight, but I will not consider any man my master, and no lord or duke or count would consent to be anything less than such, even Bernhard. And should I join the battle without a human companion..." He bared his sizable teeth in an approximation of a human grin. "Well, I am sure you realize what would happen."
The guard lowered his hammer for the first time and took a step back to lean against a tree. He looked Durendal over and saw that his green hide was dull and dirty from neglect, like that of a wild dragon, and that he had grown lean and bony; were he to appear again in Aachen in such a state with no rider, he might well be mistaken for feral and attacked, rather than welcomed as an ally. "And what aid do you expect from me? I've no influence in the court."
"You are neither lord nor duke nor count," said Durendal, snaking his head closer to the guard, "and you are not like other men, either. You do not reek of ambition, like Bernard..."
The guard swallowed, uneasy under Durendal's gaze, and said, "I am no rider of dragons; only a guardsman who desires to serve his king and protect the people."
"We shall see about that," Durendal said.
...then Durendal returned to the city bearing the guard upon his back and flew over all the streets and drove forth the barbarous invaders with a mighty roar; and they all fled the city to the open fields, and there Durendal and Cortana and Joyeuse had their fill of battle, slaughtering legions of the enemy. Thus were the invaders defeated for the day, and in the temporary peace Charlemagne called together all his lords and advisers and ministers to discuss what was to be done if the enemy came again.
But Durendal in his pride insisted that not only should he and the other dragons attend the meeting, but so should the guardsman, despite his low birth. This caused great consternation among the lords and ministers, who did not wish to share counsel with a common guard, and even less so with the dragons. Were they now to invite every man who could lift a sword to the councils of kings, and to bring their horses and hounds with them?
Charlemagne gave ear to their objections and it seemed at first he would agree with them, but Durendal spoke and said, "You were not so quick to refuse my help on the battlefield; shall you now refuse it at the council-table?"
The learned Alcuin agreed with this, saying, "Joyeuse has been as a good a student as any I have taught; if I would not refuse her counsel because of her nature, why should I refuse that of any man or dragon?" and so Charlemagne being an equal-minded man assented, and Durendal attended the council with the guard, as did Joyeuse and Cortana and the rest of the dragons serving Charlemagne at that time. And they all took counsel with one another regarding the best defense of the city, and there was no further trouble until after their plans had been made, when Durendal demanded that both he and the guardsman be granted command of the defense forces, to answer to no one save Charlemagne himself. The lords again were displeased and protested, for no dragon had ever held command over men before, nor did they wish to take orders from a common guard.
Durendal then waxed wroth, saying, "Am I to be treated as no more than a beast of burden, when I have greater strength and wit than any human? And shall you disregard the bravery of this man I have chosen as a companion, when it is he who rallied your fighting men? Without him you would not have prevailed this day, and the carrion crows would be feasting upon you rather than the enemy."
Then for the first time Cortana spoke, and she said, "So you have indeed chosen this man for yourself? It is long past time, but I am sure you have seen some good qualities in him."
But Joyeuse did not approve, saying to Durendal, "You now choose to bear a common man to bear when you have refused every noble who has asked for the honor? It seems to me that you have no care for your duty or your king, but only scheme to achieve greater freedoms for yourself, by selecting a man who does not understand the discipline that is required or the customs of dragon-riders, and will be guided by your whims instead."
The guard objected in an unmannerly fashion, but Durendal said, "It is true I desire freedom, and to be given my right due, but I intend no mischief; I have simply chosen someone who best suits me, when I have not before. Would any of you, even for duty, so easily allow another man to reign over you when the one who has been your constant friend has gone?"
And to that no dragon made reply, but Cortana curled one forearm around her master Ogier, and the tip of Joyeuse's red tail wrapped tightly around Charlemagne. And after some deliberation it was decided that Durendal and the guard should have the command after all, and the council dispersed to await the next attack.
The invaders did not come again that night, however...
The guard had politely refused the offer of a room in the palace and chosen to take a night watch, in case the enemy returned. He wanted to be ready to fight again if necessary, and he doubted he would be able to sleep, anyway, after the day he'd had.
Also, Durendal wouldn't have fit into any of the rooms.
The dragon had curled himself around one of the watchtowers, directly below the guard's post, where he could easily keep an eye on the guard. It was convenient for conversation, as well, though there had been little of that so far; the guard was not much for talking in the general course of things, and Durendal seemed more interested in the remains of the sheep that Cortana had generously shared with him earlier.
After some time, the guard said, "Was it true what you said at the council - that you didn't choose me only to further your own interests?"
"Of course it is true," Durendal said, without looking up from his meal.
"Only I would be more certain of it," said the guard, "had you asked me my name at any point."
At that Durendal did raise his head. "Well, I know it now," he said irritably, "it is Marcus, which is not quite what I expected; you have more the look of a Dane or a Saxon than a Roman."
"My mother was Roman, my father was not. She always said I had the look of him, though he died when I was only a boy; I barely remember what he was like." He could call to mind only impressions of a tall, quiet man with rough hands, and half-understood stories of heroes from the north.
"I see." Durendal considered him for a moment, then sat up and extended his forearm to the parapet. "Come and join me down here; it will be be more comfortable for us both."
"I would be abandoning my post," Marcus said.
"Nonsense," said Durendal, "I can see far better at night than you, and for a greater distance. Should anything approach, I will see it first anyway."
Marcus thought it over, running a thumb over the prayer embossed in the low brass crest of his helmet, then stepped into Durendal's grasp and allowed the dragon to bear him to the ground. There he settled himself somewhat uneasily against Durendal's flank while the dragon returned to his meal. It was rather pleasant to have the warmth radiating from Durendal at his back in the chill of the night air, though the smell left something to be desired; he wasn't entirely sure how dragons went about grooming themselves, or being groomed, but should the peace hold another day he would see if there was some way to arrange a bath for Durendal.
Durendal swallowed the last bite of his sheep and said, "Have you ever met an enemy like these before?"
"Never in my life," Marcus said, "and may I never see such again, God willing, though I would still face them if I must." The damn beasts had not even had the decency to bleed like men, but instead with a stinking yellow-green liquid like squashed insects. He doubted he would ever get the stains entirely out of his tunic.
"Yet you did not hesitate to fight them, when many fled, and they were not considered cowards," Durendal said.
"I only did my duty," said Marcus.
"You are indeed a strange sort of man," Durendal said. "You are not clever like Bernhard nor rash like Hruodland, but you are more than a match for either in bravery..." On a sudden he stretched one wing out over Marcus as if it were a blanket, and he chuckled. "You will suit me very well, indeed."
Somehow, Marcus did not find this reassuring.
...there came reports from the south of the kingdom that the invaders were making many small raids upon the villages and towns and even monasteries, but where they were attacking from no one could say, for they would appear without warning and disappear just as suddenly with their prisoners. And as the king consulted his advisors to determine the best plan to fight them, Durendal and the guard came to him and asked that they be allowed to go and hunt down the enemy by themselves.
Now Joyeuse and Cortana were present at this council, for they had taken Alcuin's words to heart and wished to take part in all the same matters that their masters did, and the duke Bernard was there also. And he objected very strongly to this suggestion, for he feared that being away from his influence Durendal might become feral, and moreover he had been one of the lords most displeased by the dragon selecting a mere guard for a rider, since he had hoped to master Durendal himself. Joyeuse took his side as well, though she did so out of concern for the kingdom rather than personal ambition, for she had not been entirely swayed by Durendal's earlier speech; but Cortana considered it to be an excellent plan, saying that a small company would surely have better luck in tracking the beasts to their lair, and she offered herself and Ogier as companions in the expedition.
But Durendal refused her aid and said, "Shall Aachen be left defenseless? Better that only one of us goes, so that should we fail in our search or fall to the enemy, there will yet be a strong guard for the king."
Then Cortana was displeased with him and rebuked him, saying, "You always wish to keep what is enjoyable for yourself, and leave the dull or difficult work to others," but she could not disagree with his reasoning.
Duke Bernard still opposed this plan, however, and he argued most persuasively that no dragon should be risked on such a mission where no one knew if it should succeed, and that it would be better to send only a small force of men, and he suggested sending the guardsman as their leader because of his boldness. At this Durendal again became enraged and accused Bernard openly, saying, "Now you claim to care for my health, when before you were interested only in convincing me to throw off all my previous bonds and accept yours; but since I have made my own choices you seek to spite me by separating me from my rider and to prevent me from doing as I wish, although it was you who first gave me that desire."
Charlemagne was taken aback at this accusation and asked if it were true, but Bernard dissembled, claiming that the dragon had misunderstood their conversations and twisted his words. This infuriated Durendal further, but the guard spoke up for the first time and said that he would not go on a hunt for the enemy without Durendal's aid, since their full strength was unknown, and that he considered Durendal to have the best plan and trusted his word over that of Bernard. And with this Cortana agreed again, for she had no great love for Bernard, and after some further argument the king gave permission for Durendal and the guard to seek out the enemy and destroy their stronghold, if they could, and he bade them return to Aachen for reinforcements if they could not.
So Durendal and the guard set out alone, and for a month they searched the entire realm for signs of the enemy, and it is recorded that they took part in defending many places from raids and by their valor saved a great number of people who would otherwise have been killed or enslaved, so that they are still remembered fondly in the country in peasants' tales and songs. And after a month they fought in a great battle with the beasts near the city of Uzès and drove them back and no more of the beasts were ever seen again, but when the battle was done Durendal and his rider had disappeared, and no one afterwards could discover where they had gone or whether they had perished, and to this day their fate is not known...
"I still think that we should have allowed Cortana to join us," Marcus said from his perch on Durendal's back.
Durendal's attention was focused on the wriggling, shouting purple beast trapped beneath his left forefoot. Between enemy exclamations, he said, "Cortana is a fine warrior and I would not speak ill of her, but she is very talkative at the most inconvenient times. As, it seems, are you."
"Just squash the thing and be done with it," Marcus said. He was not feeling very charitable towards this particular beast; instead of a staff, it had carried a strange device that shot forth metal pellets with exceeding strength and swiftness, like a very powerful slingshot. It had hit him in the arm and penetrated his hauberk before he could knock the weapon out of its claw-like hands, and he was now occupied with trying to pull the pellets out of his flesh and bandaging the holes with his spare tunic, which was painful work. A pity, he sometimes thought, that Durendal could not breathe fire or spit acid, as he'd heard some dragons could do; it would make life somewhat easier.
As if he had heard Marcus's thoughts, Durendal said, "A clever mind is often the best weapon of all. I shall dispose of it when I have finished trying to understand it, and if you would be silent, I should do so much faster."
Marcus muttered a complaint under his breath and concentrated on his arm. By the time he had finished with it, the beast's shouting had grown weaker, and he dared to ask, "Well? What is it saying?"
"Nothing very interesting, I fear. 'Release me, release me, you foul ztn'iegr' - I believe that may refer to some sort of lizard, but it is difficult to tell. Their tongue is like none I have ever heard; it is a wonder I am able to understand them at all, even after listening to them so much."
"Kill it and seize another one, then," Marcus suggested. He looked back towards Uzès, but the battlefield was clear of both enemies and allies; they had done their work well that day.
"I have not seen another of this kind," Durendal said, "and we may not again; there may yet be information I can get out of it, if you will let me work in peace. Perhaps if I speak to it in its own language..." He bent his head down closer to the beast and spoke several strange, warbling words. It ceased struggling for a moment, then gave a defiant-sounding reply and tried again to escape from Durendal's grasp. "Fascinating."
"You've learned something, then?"
"It referred to a ship of some kind, I think," said Durendal.
"So they sailed here from elsewhere?" Marcus considered Uzès again, and its lack of a port. "They don't seem the seafaring type."
"It is possible, though I doubt it," Durendal said, and he warbled at the beast again but this time received no answer. "They resemble no creature on the earth; I begin to think they are not of the earth at all."
"Then where would they come from?"
"The stars, I suppose. Perhaps one of them is in truth another earth, and life such as these beasts has grown there."
"Heretic," Marcus said, crossing himself.
"Superstitious," Durendal said, not unfondly. "Anyway, I cannot say that I have ever cared much for religion; it seems in the main to be empty words, for I have yet to see anything that I could call without question the work of God."
"Perhaps these beasts hail from the pits of Hell," Marcus said, "and were sent by God to punish you in particular for your blasphemy."
"Also unlikely, since they have shown far more interest in capturing farmers than in me." Durendal shifted his weight to press down further on the beast, and Marcus was forced to grip the harness tightly with his uninjured hand. The beast shouted again in its barbarous tongue. "Well, here is something of use; it claims it has some swift method of returning to its ship that it cannot use while I have it captured."
"Then release it, and we can follow it back and destroy them entirely."
Durendal looked back at him. "It has not even been an hour since we last fought, and you are already prepared to fight again?"
"The sooner the beasts are gone, the better," Marcus said. He checked that his bandages were secure, his hammer cleaned, and his hauberk mostly intact, then reached for his helmet to replace it on his head. "Do you not agree?"
"I knew there was something I liked about you," Durendal said with great satisfaction. "As long as you are ready, then," and he lifted his foot from the beast.
...brought to my attention by my esteemed colleagues in Qusqu that may shed further light on the veracity of this tale. It seems that some time well before the establishment of their empire, there was a great explosion deep within the mountains, and when it was investigated by the people inhabiting the mountains at that time, they found many strange devices, as well as an injured dragon who was unable to speak their language. They tended the dragon and taught it their language and eventually adopted it into their tribe, but how it had come there, they never learned. All of the devices they found have since been lost, as has the precise location of the explosion, but a single stone remained in the tribe's possession and eventually found its way to Qusqu as a sort of a marvel; it was elaborately carved in a style unfamiliar to their people but which can now be recognized as an early Frankish style of decoration, and bore an inscription in Latin characters, which the learned scholar Chaska was kind enough to transcribe for me:
HIC IAC(ET) MARCUS VIR FORTISSIMUS