“Did you really kill a dragon, Gran’ma?”
Hepsy had to hide a smile and scooped her youngest grandson into a hug. It was the end of his fifth birthday party and he had been running around waving the wooden sword his grandfather had made for him, pretending to kill imaginary monsters in the vegetable patch. Now the family sat at table eating a simple birthday meal. Hepsy and her husband, Poll, their middle son and his wife and five grandchildren ranging from mid-teens to the birthday boy.
“Who’s been telling you tales like that?” she asked.
“Was Da. He said you killed a dragon, you and Gran’da. Is it true?”
Something in his tone made her realise it was not just a question wanting a story. She released her grandson and caught her son’s eye. He swallowed the mouthful he was chewing and sat back in his chair.
“Word is there’s a dragon back on High Top. Been taking cows from Vasserdale and burned a farm to the ground. Shal willing, it won’t fly this way.”
“Dragons don’t just turn up places,” Poll said. “They have to be hatched and that takes a lot of magic. It means they will have a master.”
“Or a mistress,” Hepsy put in. “Is there any word of a dragon being seen on Prank’s Peak or Scale Height?”
Her son shrugged.
“Those places are the other side of the mountains. We don’t get word from there often. Was a minstrel up from Durmouth though. Seems there’s war over the Marches again. Hobs and trolls.”
“When I’m grown up I’m going to fight hobs and trolls.”
Hepsy mussed her grandson’s soft hair.
“That’s just what your da said at your age, and now look at him, the finest carpenter in Wyvernvale.”
After the family had gone, Hepsy went into her still room where she made potions and poultices, pickles and jams and pulled out the chest from beneath her work counter, where she pushed it away over thirty years before. Opening the lid she took out the two pieces of her staff and fitted them together, murmuring some words as she did so.
Then she went out and stood in their small garden, shielding her eyes from the low sun to look towards the mountains. High Top could be seen piercing the sky with its needle spire of rock. What she could not see from below though was the steep path that wound up to the plateau from which the steeple of stone began. Nor could she see the cave mouth that led to the lair. But memory told her they were there. Memory and loss.
A sound made her turn.
“You gave me a promise you’d not be using that anymore,” Hepsy said, as Poll came out of the house, her gaze rested on the sword he held in one hand, it’s blade shimmering with a blue light so the runes etched into it stood out. Then she gave a little sigh. “But then I gave you a promise I’d not be using this.” She hefted the staff and small sparks shimmered like dust motes in the air around it. “Looks like we both done broke that vow. But the big question is, what should we be doing?”
“We knew it would happen again,” Poll said, his voice heavy with sorrow. He slid the sword home into the loop on his belt and the blue light faded. Hepsy noticed the buckle was three notches up from the mark showing where he used to wear it. It was not all that had changed since he last took up that sword. His hair then had been thick and black, now it left the top of his head uncovered and was thinning and grey. But then her hair had once been the colour of a wheatfield before the harvest and now was nearly as white as the melting snows.
“We knew,” she agreed. “But I’d not thought t’would be in our lifetime. I thought we’d won the right to have our peace. We’re too old to do it all again. Not now.”
Poll put his arm around her and held her close.
“If not us – then who? The children? The grandchildren?”
Now that was a thought too terrible to dwell upon and Hepsy shook her head. “No. But it’s a dreadful long walk up to High Top and my back and your knee…”
“My knee will bear my weight long enough for what we have to do,” he said gently. “Besides, we’ll take horses this time. Hue owes me for last winter still, he’ll let us have two of his hill ponies.”
Which was a comforting thought because it really was a parlous long way and a terrible steep climb up the mountains. She shivered slightly at the memory and Poll hugged her.
“Less of that, woman. You pack what we need and I’ll go see Hue. We can set out tomorrow with first light. We’ll have to try to find the others and that won’t be easy.”
Hepsy nodded and he released her, his gnarled hands gripping her, work-worn fingers for a moment as he did so.
“They might be dead,” she said. “Do you think we can do it without them?”
Poll drew in a deep breath and looked out towards the mountains, his gaze homing where hers had, to the needle of stone above High Top. “I don’t know, love. I think we need four of us to unlock the seals, but… Well, let’s put out that fire when we can see if it’s burning.”
He was right. Of course. Which left just one question in Hepsy’s burdened heart.
“What do we tell the children?”
For a moment she wondered if he had heard her. She hadn’t spoken loudly and his hearing was no longer so perfect. But then he looked down at her and smiled sadly.
“I think we should tell them nothing,” he said. “They wouldn’t understand.”
The next day they were up before the dawn and Hespy fed the chickens a final time and explained to them that Hue’s wife had promised to come feed them in her absence. That done she went inside and searched deep in her clothes chest. It was still there. At the bottom. She looked at the long robe with its split skirt and fingered the heavy fabric, embroidered with gold and silver symbols with regret. She would no more fit that any more than she would the wedding dress she had given to her eldest daughter. Instead, she chose her most practical clothes and a pair of Poll’s old breeches and decided that maybe looking the part wasn’t so important anymore. She put her hair into a braid and studied the weather-worn face that looked back at her critically from the small hand mirror.
“Still as beautiful as ever,” Poll told her and for a moment his face and hers were captured in the same glass. This mirror never lied and it showed him as he was, which was always a reassurance.
“You and your silver tongue.” She laughed, slipping the mirror into the pouch at her belt where she had already secured some of her most potent potions. You never knew, after all.
They rode out under cloudy skies without a backwards glance.
The countryside swept down from their village to where the River Wyvern wove its way along the bottom of the vale. It was the picture of peace and rustic harmony, with cottages and houses dotting the landscape, roofs tiled with the blue flecked slate from local quarries and walls built from the dark grey rock brought down from the mountains.
The mountains themselves lurked like ominous misshapen giants, stretching fingers or lifting shoulders towards the sky. From the gentle slopes of the vale, they rose to bleak and desolate heights.
The two barrel-shaped hill-ponies seemed happy enough to set a smart pace. Poll had managed to find his old dragonhide targe which he looped over his back and Hepsy was pleased to see the gemstone set in the pommel of his dagger was not glowing. Maybe things were not so desperate as they thought? Maybe it was all rumour and no truth? Maybe…
The artwork was inspired by a description in this piece and is by Ian Bristow. You can view the creation of it here and enjoy the music he composed that the story also inspired, perhaps whilst reading…