Baldwin could not help but drag the tip of the broadsword through the dank cavern and over dunes of gold. The sword had belonged to his father and his father before that; it was a family heirloom he hoped to become worthy of. It was almost as big as Baldwin, though, and weighty. A weapon worthy of a king, it had certainly seen more bloodshed than the fledgling knight. Today, this boy on the verge of manhood – this boy just more than half his father’s stature – hoped his heart could help bear the load. For today he was going to slay Black Veritas, the dragon that once every hundred years laid waste to the kingdom. Today his victory over the beast would come before its latest awakening, thereby winning the heart of the princess, Princess Ardel.
Upon summiting the largest mound of gold coins yet, Baldwin held a hand out to stem the glare of treasure as a single ray of light from above bounced around infinitely. He stood in awe of the wealth strewn across the hundred meter cavern floor; pearls, jewels, crowns, even long-thought-lost paintings. He, too, was lit up like treasure, glinting with golden light off his polished metal armor. It buoyed his hopes. He scanned the cavern for something deeper than treasure, though.
There, between the spilled chest of silver and a small sea of trinkets; a burning red eye with a slitted dark pupil – Black Veritas.
If the beast were awake Baldwin did not know. Perhaps Baldwin’s noise had stirred the dragon but it had not yet come to its full senses. The knight figured he best not delay. He would strike before Black Veritas could come around. Taking the beast’s eye would give Baldwin an advantage. He just had to close the fifty or so meters with the heavy sword before the dragon was rousted.
Baldwin slid down the mound of gold precipitating a cascade of coins. The noise would awaken the most slumbering animal! Baldwin thought. The dragon’s eye did not waver, though, and this gave Baldwin more hope as he lumbered toward his target, flagging under the weight of his armor now. The boy-knight gripped the sword’s hilt with both hands, raised the bloodthirsty steel over his head with youthful vigor, and promptly fell backwards unable to counter his own momentum. He crashed down on a bed of silver almost deafening himself.
“Go away. I’m trying to rest, man-child,” a muted voice came from beneath the landscape. The eye did not move.
“Be still, dragon, so I may slay thee and preserve the kingdom!” Baldwin’s voice cracked as he scrambled back to his feet. He struggled to lift the sword much less keep it steady. His heart pounding against his breastplate, Baldwin’s own sweat stung his eyes and clouded his vision, though he could see the beast had not risen yet. “There, keep steady now!”
“I don’t want to kill you, man-child. I merely wish to sleep a bit longer. When I wake, we can battle properly if you like,” the dragon offered. “Besides, wouldn’t slaying me while I slept be less than honorable for an esteemed knight such as yourself?”
Baldwin approached the eye slowly but surely. “I am not esteemed, yet, but I am my father’s child and will see to it that you are vanquished. You will trouble the kingdom no more!” The young man steadied the broadsword with all his strength and let out an unintelligible battle cry as he plunged the sword’s tip towards the beast’s vision.
The sky was engulfed in coin and treasure as Black Veritas rose with lightning speed. The dragon was as large as twenty men, covered in glossy black scales hard as diamonds, with talons and teeth sharper than anything Baldwin had ever seen. The knight’s sword clanked off the belly of the beast, causing a reverberation that saw the weapon leave the hero’s numbed hand. A grimace flitted across Baldwin’s face as he saw his heritage fall short of its mark. Pain streaked across the young man’s face as he was batted away by the flick of a talon, the armored knight no more than a flea to Black Veritas.
Baldwin crashed as junk among the treasure, the impact made worse by being ensconced in metal. Driven by the spirit of his father’s disappointment, the knight spat a river of blood and unlatched his breastplate and tossed his gauntlets aside. He drew a breath as deep as this cavern and lunged for the sword, the only armament he’d brought. Black Veritas swiftly closed a knived fist around Baldwin’s body and laid the young man into a pile of silver coins. The dragon pierced the knight’s left shoulder with a talon, pinning the young man down. Baldwin let out a high pitched scream before throwing his head back in anguish. Black Veritas lashed his tongue in the knight’s face.
“Why are you so eager to die, lad? Did I not say I didn’t want to kill you?”
“I…I was sent by Princess Ardel to dispatch you! It would preserve her father’s reign and for that she promised to marry me.”
The dragon looked at the knight sideways and snorted. He withdrew his talon from the young man’s shoulder as quickly as he’d brandished it. Baldwin’s mouth opened but he made no sound as he clutched his wound. “You’ve been sent on a fool’s errand,” the dragon said. Black Veritas circled round his treasure and curled up like a cat.
Baldwin could barely breathe but he glanced at his sword a few meters away. The dragon was the fool for not taking him seriously. “What do you mean, beast?” Baldwin asked as he noisily inched towards the weapon.
“Take hold of the sword again and there will be nothing left of you, not even ash. Do you wish to be vaporized, knight, your existence erased altogether?” Baldwin rested still. “Good. A wise man seeks to live. A brave man seeks to die,” Black Veritas remarked.
Accepting defeat, the knight must know before imposing exile upon himself. “What is this fool’s errand you speak of?”
“Princess Ardel has no intention of marrying you. She is secretly betrothed to Lord Benningfield. She sent you here to die, no doubt tired of your advancements.”
“Scandalous liar!” Baldwin insisted. “How dare you say such a thing of a princess! And Lord Benningfield is her cousin. Such a thing could not be!”
“She’s not even a virgin,” Black Veritas said casually. The dragon licked his bloodied talon clean, leaving it gleaming white once more.
The knight wanted to sit up and raise a fist but he’d lost too much life. “Dare you! How could you know such things?”
“I always keep one eye and one ear open, boy. Do the same and maybe you’d hear the ravens talk. They’re more than mere gossips, I assure you.” The young man looked confused. “Oh, did you think before this day only humans could talk? But now you know differently.”
Weak words fell from the knight’s tongue. “I am dying, hallucinating. I’ve lost too much blood.”
“So dramatic,” the dragon rolled his eyes. “I’ll mend your wound,” Black Veritas spoke as he got up and stepped to the young man. Again he pinned the knight down and breathed a narrow stream of flame onto the wounded man’s shoulder, cauterizing the injury. The dragon casually walked away and curled up in a fetal position again. “You’ll live.”
Wracked with pain but alive, Baldwin turned over on his right side, his head slung like a tankard of mead. “Spared by Black Veritas. I am humiliated. I cannot go back now.”
“Why not?” the dragon asked.
Baldwin let loose with a grunt without bringing his head around. “One does not return from battling a dragon unless they have slain the dragon. It is the Knight’s Code.”
“Says who?” Black Veritas asked putting his head down.
“That is the way it is. That is the way it has always been. Who am I to question the wisdom of elders?”
“Indeed, that’s the way your elders and nobility wish you to think,” the animal mentioned. The dragon lifted its head and directed it towards the knight. “I ask you; if I surpass your elders in age does that mean you should heed my every word? Am I wiser than you because of age or station? Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
Baldwin managed to lift his head and rear it towards the dragon. “You speak in a strange way. And you behave strangely. Why have you not killed me?”
“Because I don’t have a ‘code.’ Nor are you ready to face a ‘beast’ as terrible as myself. And so I am merciful. If we are lucky, this mercy will shed light on the darkness that has been instilled in you since birth.”
“Darkness?” Baldwin queried. “You lay waste to the kingdom every hundred years, killing scores of people and livestock. How is it that I have darkness within me?”
“Darkness, ignorance; whatever you want to call it,” Black Veritas answered. “I have never laid waste to your silly kingdom. All the treasure you see here are offers to appease me so as to ensure I don’t do exactly that. Strangely enough, the offerings weren’t even my idea. I’ve never had reason to attack your encampments. Perhaps it is my power they fear and hope to keep me from coming around at all. They don’t realize they interrupt my rest. If anything, this is what makes me want to slay them, though I do not.”
“I don’t understand,” Baldwin simpered.
There is wool that has been pulled over your eyes in order to obscure the reality of your life. Do you know what my name ‘Black Veritas’ means? Part of my name is from the ancient language known as Latin, making my name something of a metaphor for ‘Ugly Truth.’ It is a joke your nobility thinks is clever.”
“Another language? English is the only language other than the mindless chirps and squeals of animals,” the young man stated.
“Do you know what a library is?” the dragon asked. Baldwin’s eyes shifted away and he gave a curt head movement. “It’s where books are collected in large quantities and arranged by subject matter. I’m sure your noblemen and women have a library. At least the noblemen do. Your clergy sometimes likes to speak in Latin; it’s a trick they pull to pretend they have a deeper and greater understanding of English than you do.”
“Why would the clergy engage in such deception?” the knight tisked.
“The same reason powerful people always lie – to maintain their power over you. Let me ask you a question, good knight; why do you fight for them?”
Baldwin needn’t mull it over. What a dumb question from a seemingly intelligent dragon. “It is my station. My bloodline demands it. Just as the blood of our God runs through the nobility, so knighthood runs through my bloodline. I am compelled to perform a duty through both antiquity and fealty. It is the way of things.”
“Again, says who?” the animal wondered observing its talons. “The nobility? Isn’t it interesting that the rules they say you must obey are rules that benefit them the most. This I know, for I’ve been around much longer than any of you think. I am also not an idiot.”
“Your mockery of me does not persuade me, dragon,” Baldwin replied.
“Oh, don’t be so touchy, boy. You were born into ignorance and were never taught to question it. What are you to do but accept a lie you are told all the time? If a big enough lie is told frequently enough, it will be believed. But you do not have to go on being an idiot. You do have a choice.”
“What choice?” the young knight laughed humorlessly. “If I go back wounded they will ask me what happened. If I tell them the truth, that you let me live, they will make me the court jester. I cannot lie and I say I slayed you because they will ask for proof. If I say I never found you and I was attacked by bandits they will say I am unworthy. You may be right, though, that I do have a choice; I can go into exile. They will assume you killed me.”
“Do you not want the princess’ hand anymore?” Black Veritas queried. “I’ve heard she is quite fair, though her deception does leave something to be desired.”
Baldwin looked away and lowered his eyes. “Is it really true, that she is betrothed to Lord Benningfield?”
Black Veritas’ mercy suddenly turned to pity. He sat up. “It is true. The nobility always marry within their family tree. They believe this keeps their bloodline pure. Even they are not capable of telling themselves the truth.”
“What shall I do? All is lost,” the young man bemoaned.
“You’re correct that you cannot tell them the truth, for they shall kill you before you can recite our conversation before the public’s ear…” Black Veritas studied the knight from head to toe. He regretted wounding the lad though on the other hand the man-child was quite determined upon the onset of his attack. The situation was not impossible to turn around.
“You believe in the decency of telling the truth, knight. But the truth is that the truth is a matter of perspective. If you are willing to tell a small lie, you can have your heart’s desire. You can become the king,” the dragon offered.
“This small lie sounds like it will be a matter of perspective,” Baldwin chewed.
“You are a quick learner, Baldwin, Son of Halfred. Yes, this I know as I know much. Here,” Black Veritas said as he plucked one of his scales from his hide. The animal rolled his eyes wide as he did so.
“I did not think that was going to hurt that much,” the dragon spoke. “Take my scale and fashion it into a shield. You can say you took it from me in battle and used it to protect yourself from fire, proving your resourcefulness and that you’ve slain me. But do not go back to your kingdom first. Take as well any of the riches you see here and go to Fort Blackwater. There, you can inform Captain Langford of your wish to overthrow the nobility, which he’s been wanting to do for almost two decades now. He’s too old to challenge you for the kingship but he will gladly accept the post of captain of your royal guard.
“When you are king, then you can tell the truth. But with the nobility too powerful right now, your own deception will be necessary to overthrow them. They are too clever in taking advantage of the truth and so you must fight fire with fire, so to speak.” Black Veritas slunk away and buried himself under a mountain of allegedly enchanted runes.
Baldwin took the scale which seemed amazingly light. How could it deflect his father’s sword? Magic, or something more truthful?
“Why are you helping me, dragon?” the sweat-matted blonde youngster asked.
“You are young and your mind is not so corrupted that it cannot change. It is not too late to improve your station and elevate your kingdom in the process. For I do not believe in telling lies unless it is necessary to do so. Your necessary lie will overthrow liars whose lies kill your brethren and cause untold misery. I am sympathetic to the suffering of all animals,” Black Veritas answered from below. “Such is the Dragon’s Code.”
“I thought you didn’t have a code, dragon,” Baldwin remembered as he stood up.
“You are beginning to think independently. Today you have claimed a victory,” a muted voice returned.
The young knight turned and started away, then stopped and cocked his head back. “And why should I trust this lie of yours. Is this game for the throne a joke to you?”
“Some of your philosopher think all of life is but a game. You can play the game and take it for what it is worth or be dead now. Leave me and let me sleep, knight, least I feed on all your cattle the next time I wake.” A single eye opened from beneath the runes. “You are a pawn now but this does not mean you cannot become a king.”
Baldwin nodded and leaned over to pick up his sword. He fastened it to his back and started off. “Thank you for opening my eyes, Black Veritas.”
“May they never rest, o’ noble knight. Be they open to lies that grow like giants in the darkness.”
Baldwin never did become king. He did overthrown the nobility but understood that to hold onto power as king, lies were required to navigate the ever-present but secretive maliciousness of the court. Thus he dispatched nobility altogether and relinquished his title as Sir Baldwin to become instead Baldwin the Wise. But that is a story for another time.
All rights Reserved © November 2019 John J Vinacci