Cuthwulf’s Dragon

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It was a warm spring day when the dragon took Cuthwulf’s father. The family had been roused from a breakfast of boiled oats and peas pottage by a clatter of metal and the drum of hooves outside. A loud voice was shouting. “Dragon ships on the river! The fyrd is raised! All able men to their lord!”
Inside the hut, Cuthwulf’s mother looked at his father. “Do not go again, Averill. What do kings ever do but take our crops and our men?”
His father shook his head. “You know it is the law, Cwen. We would forfeit what little we have.” He nodded at Cuthwulf. “Fetch my shield, son. I will be leaving for a time.”
Cuthwulf ran to the wooden shield leaning against the wall, lifted it carefully and brought it to his father.  “\Where are you going, father? Will there be a battle?”
His father grimaced, pulling a heavy leather jerkin over his tunic. “Our masters go to war, boy, and we go with them. Still, better to fight the Danes far away than in our village. It will not be long, I think.”
Cuthwulf pushed out his chest. “I want to go with you. I’m not a baby – I am six.”
Averill chuckled. “No doubt Alfred would take you, were you an inch taller. But you’ll stay here and look after your mother. She will need you for the planting, if I’m not back soon enough.”
Cwen reached into her hair and pulled out the comb made of sheep’s bone that had been given to her by her mother. Uncommonly among the villagers, Averill had learned to read and write from an uncle who was a monk, and he had carved his wife’s name into the comb handle.  “Take this token, my love” Cwen said. “It will bring you home safely.”
Averill tucked the comb into his belt. “I will return, though every Dane in the land stand between us.” He walked to the door and took the long spear that was always propped at the entrance to the hut.
Cuthwulf followed out the door behind him, to see a man on horseback in mail and a helmet shouting at a group of some fifteen men from the village. Most were carrying spears and wooden shields, while Edburga, the largest landholder, boasted a helmet and sword.
In a few minutes the men filed out of the village, the young men laughing and singing, the older ones resigned, with sombre expressions and backward glances.

Ten days later, Cuthwulf and the other boys were playing when they heard a woman’s voice shouting. “They are returned! The men are returned!” 
Cuthwulf’s heart leapt with joy, and the boys sprinted to the edge of the village to see a group of men trudging down the path.  But as they drew closer, Cuthwulf saw that his father was not among them.
That night, he heard his mother talking to the other women around the fire as they prepared the evening meal. 
“He is gone, Cwen. There is no use pretending otherwise. It was a great battle and many died.” said Sibbe, an older woman who looked after the young children when the villagers were all in the fields.
“A great victory, Sibbe. The Danes fled the field. And no one saw Averill fall. He could be injured, or captive.”
“If he was injured, he is dead by now. And the heathens do not take prisoners unless they can be ransomed for silver.”

Soon after, Cuthwulf was sitting alone on a stone at the edge of the village, watching and waiting, as he had done every day since the other men had returned.  In the distance he saw the figures of a man and an animal approaching. 
As they neared he recognized an old man of some forty years, who traveled from village to village with his donkey, trading tin plates, cups and other wares for spun wool and cloth. He was known to be a seer, and when in the mood, for a piece of bread and some cheese, he would tell you of your past and your future. He stopped as he reached Cuthwulf.
“Why are you here alone, boy? Should you be helping with the chores?”
“I am waiting for my father. He went to fight the Danes, and has not yet returned.”
“Ah” said the old man. “He was at Ethandun then. Many men did not return that day.”
“I know, grandfather. But he promised.”
The tinker looked at Cuthwulf with solemn eyes and nodded. “Can you come closer, boy? You need not be afraid.”
Cuthwulf thrust out his chest and stepped closer. “I fear nothing.”
The old man smiled and took Cuthwulf’s hand “I see.” He closed his eyes and was silent for a moment.
“You are right, lad. Your father lives. He was taken by a dragon who holds him captive.”
Cuthwulf pulled his hand back. “Where is he? I will find him.”
 “Dragons favour mountains and caves to hide. This one lives near the hills, by Cyrneceaster.”
Cuthwulf frowned. “I have not heard of it.”
The tinker shook his head “It is many miles in the direction of the rising sun. It would be too dangerous for one so young to travel there. Leave it, he may yet escape and come home.”
Cuthwulf looked at him without expression. “A boy may slay a dragon.”
The old man shook his head. “So say the stories told in the great hall, but in truth… come lad, let us go into the village. Your mother will wonder where you are.”

That night, while his mother slept, Cuthwulf rose quietly from his straw mat on the floor.  He took a flint and iron strike-a-light, his sling, and the small dagger his father had gifted him, and placed them in a small bag belted at his waist. He looked down at his sleeping mother and whispered “I will bring him back to us, mama.” The moon was full enough to see clearly as he headed off through the fields.
Cuthwulf walked east for days, keeping to the woods and fields, and away from villages and the camps of strangers.  He drank from ponds and streams, and ate the roots and plants he had learned about from his mother, or small animals he killed with his sling.
On the sixth day the landscape changed from flat woods and fields to rolling countryside. In the distance, he saw tall hills which he thought must be the mountains of Cyrneceaster. And vast as the landscape seemed to the young boy, he reasoned that a dragon must be easily found, giant creature that it was and always roaring, growling and belching smoke. That night he made a bed of leaves underneath an oak tree and slept, hopeful that the next day he would find the lair of the beast which had stolen his father.

He was awakened early in the morning to the rough touch of a foot pushing him. A tall, fair-haired man stood above him, speaking words that Cuthwulf could not understand. Seeing his incomprehension, the man nodded and spoke in Cuthwulf’s language.
“A Saxon? What is your name, boy?”
This must be a Dane, thought Cuthwulf, and his heart began to pound. He had heard that the pagans roasted Saxon children to eat at their victory feasts.  He rose to his feet and tried to look brave and fierce.
“I am called Cuthwulf, lord” He reached into his bag and snatched out his dagger, holding it in front of him as his father had taught him.
The Viking laughed. “A wolf indeed. I am no lord, boy, just a warrior finding my way home.  And you may put down your sword. Not all Danes are beasts.”
Cuthwulf eyed the man towering over him, and the battle-axe hanging from his belt, and lowered the knife.
“Why are you sleeping in the woods alone, lad?”
“I…I…seek my father. He was taken by a dragon, and is held in the hills near Cyrneceaster”
“A dragon? I have not seen such here, but there are many hills so who is to say? Come, lad, join us in our camp. We will be at Cyrneceaster tomorrow, and perhaps we will see this dragon along the way.”
Cuthwulf nodded. “I will join you, lord…er …”
“You may call me Birgir.”
“Birgir, then. But fair warning that we are still foes.”
“Indeed, young wolf, I will sleep with one eye open.”
They walked for a short distance through the woods to a clearing, where a fire had been laid in the centre of some rude tents. A half-dozen men sat by the fire talking or cleaning weapons. They looked up at Birgir and Cuthwulf. One, a large dark-bearded man with a fresh scar on his cheek, called something in Norse.  Some words were close to Cuthwulf’s own tongue, and he heard one that he recognized as “slave”.
Birgir shook his head no, and replied quickly, saying something about “Saxon”.
The bearded man scowled, and stalked over to them. “Are you a spy, boy?” he growled in heavily accented Saxon.
Cuthwulf wanted to cry but held his ground. “I am neither slave nor spy, Norseman. I am a warrior!’
The man crouched down and looked Cuthwulf directly in the face. “Are you, boy? Because we kill enemy warriors.”
Birgir stepped between them. He spoke in Norse, but Cuthwulf could understand enough to know that he was asking the big man – whose name, it seemed, was Einar – to leave him alone. Einar scowled and spit on the ground, but went back to his seat by the fire.
Birgir gave Cuthwulf some dried meat and weak ale, and the group broke camp to begin the trek to Cyrneceaster.

They walked through the woods for half a day before coming to a road which would take them into town. Cuthwulf walked swiftly, and his captors generally ignored him. As he listened to the men speak among themselves, he realized the language was close enough to his own that he could understand much of it.  It seemed these men had fought at the great battle, and were retreating ahead of the victorious Alfred.
Cuthwulf kept a careful watch for any dragons in the sky or roaming the nearby hills but saw nothing. At midday, they stopped to rest, and Einar approached him.
“You say your father was stolen by a wyvern?”
“He was. And I will find him, and bring him home.”
“No, boy, there are no dragons in these hills. I think your father was in the shield wall at Ethandun, and was slain. I myself took the heads of three Saxons before the cowardly Swedes broke and we were forced back. But we killed thousands, boy, thousands. ”
He strode away, chuckling.

Cyrneceaster was a bigger town than Cuthwulf had ever seen, crowded with people and movement.  Both Norse and Saxon could be heard in the crowded marketplace through which Birgir led him to a small building. They entered a room stuffed full of all types of goods, from weapons to cooking pots.  A stout, compact, man greeted them in Norse from behind a counter.
“Gentlemen! Have you something to trade with me today?”
“What is this place?” Cuthwulf said to Birgir.
The small man looked down and spoke in perfect Saxon. “Lad, this is where the spoils of war are brought and tallied. I buy and sell and keep the accounts for King Guthrum, so that he may have his share.”
Birgir reached into the leather bag at his side and retrieved a large dagger, the hilt inlaid with intricate designs.
“How much for this?”
The man looked at it closely. “Very nice. One piece of silver.”
Birgir shook his head. “Two pieces.”
As they spoke, Cuthwulf spied something on a low shelf, and almost cried out. It was a comb, with “Cwen” carved into it, the same one his mother had given his father when he left for war.
“Where did you get this comb?”
The bookkeeper turned.
“It just came today. It belonged to a man who was taken at Ethandun.”
For a moment Cuthwulf could not breathe. “The man is… dead, then?”
“No, lad. He could read and write the Saxon language so they brought him here as someone who might be useful to Guthrum.  He is being held in the gray house across the road with some other slaves.”
Birgir grunted. “Do you like the comb, lad?”
Cuthwulf nodded.
Birgir looked back at the little man. “One piece of silver, then, and the comb for the boy?”
The shopkeeper nodded. “Fair enough”.  Cuthwulf grabbed the comb from the shelf, and thrust it into his pouch.
The sun was falling as the two left the building and walked to a nearby inn. Birgir spoke with the landlord, then brought Cuthwulf out to the stables. He pointed at a pile of straw. “Time to rest, young wolf. Stay here, the streets are not safe for you.”
Cuthwulf lay down and closed his eyes. As soon as he heard the footsteps receding in the distance, he leapt up from the straw and ran out of the stable, racing through the narrow streets to the building where the new slaves were being held.
Out front, a bored-looking man with an axe stood guard. Cuthwulf, remembering a story he had once heard around the fire, approached the guard and spoke in Saxon. “Please, lord, my sister asked me to speak with you. She saw you earlier, and wanted me to ask you to visit with her. She is in the inn with the three lanterns, over in the next street.”
The guard understood enough. He grinned, and replied in Norse. “A Saxon wench, eh?” He cast a look at the locked door next to him, and shrugged before sauntering off down the street.
When the man was out of sight, Cuthwulf took out his dagger, pried open the lock, and entered the house. Five men sat against the wall with their eyes closed and hands and feet bound with ropes.
Averill opened his eyes. He was thinner, and his arms and legs were covered in bruises, but he was otherwise unharmed.
“Praise God, Cuthwulf…how did you find me…you should not be here, the Danes will kill you!”
“I will cut you loose.”
Cuthwulf used the dagger to loose his father. The pair freed the other prisoners and slipped out of the building as darkness fell.
The Danes were busy licking their wounds, and no one pursued them. In seven days they were home, and Cuthwulf’s mother hugged him so tight for so long that he thought he would die, and then shouted at him for so long he wished he had. And for years afterward, the villagers told the tale around the fire of the boy who had saved his father from the dragon.