For centuries, he stalked among the villagers at their smithies and spinning wheels. He haunted their dreams with the fear of his ever-growing appetites for treasure and for flesh. They crafted swords with jewel-encrusted hilts, stitched crimson robes with gold brocade, raised ever plumper cattle, all for one wicked dragon.
Legend held that the dragon’s scales were once as white as milk. But over the ages the blood of all the men and beasts he had slain seeped from his belly to every patch of skin, every nail, every scale. Those scales glistened and glittered like blood and like jewels, so the people came to call him Blood Garnet. And so brutal were his deeds and so fresh the memory of them that the villagers cowered, even after the dragon had grown so old that he soon did naught but limp into their village, without even the strength to carry his spoils. The men of the village began carting the loot to his cave in the northern mountains and did so every autumn for almost fifty years. One year the sword-smith’s son and apprentice, Radwin, joined the procession.
Radwin had never seen the dragon, had only feared it because of the tales his father told, because of the quavering in his father’s voice whenever he told them. Tales of brave men and women torn asunder when they tried to defy Garnet. Babies lapped up from their mother’s arms and swallowed whole. His father’s voice never quavered so about any other hardship or tragedy in life.
So Radwin saw, for the first time, the aged dragon lying in its barren cave, watching the men as they brought in his tithe, watching Radwin. And Radwin, whose heart had held its beat at the mouth of the dragon’s cave, felt not fear but curiosity. And Radwin, who had smeared pig fat in his clothes before venturing up, so the dragon would not learn his scent, wondered at the fearfully quiet movements of the men as they unloaded the treasure. And all the way back home, he pondered.
“Why have we all stayed here?” he asked at breakfast the next day. “Why did everyone not leave here to settle somewhere else, out of the dragon’s reach?”
“This is our home,” his father said.
“This land is rich,” his father said with a smile. “Even with the dragon’s hoarding, we live in comfort and peace.”
Because of the dragon, their village of smiths, tailors, and farmers could live without protection from the surrounding lands, which were filled with jealous lords and their fierce armies. That much was true.
“He does not ask anything of us that we cannot give.”
“What of all those who have been devoured by him? His tithe of flesh?”
“He hasn’t asked that of us in years. We are fortunate. All he demands now is treasure, and that we can give him. And so long as we pay his tithe, the dragon will let us be.”
“Of course he will, father. He can hardly lift his head now. No one has seen him fly since grandmother was a child. He has not come down from the mountain since before I was born.”
His father sighed with such resignation that Radwin did not say what he had wanted to say next. He wanted to ask why they did not strike the dragon down so they could retrieve their treasure, live in real peace, and make the village as prosperous and vital as it should be. He wanted to argue that with the riches they would save the village elders could buy their own army, a skilled one, able to defend their lands and share in its riches instead of taking them.
“He is dying,” his father said. “You will soon have the peace and prosperity you seek. We all will.”
But Radwin wondered how soon. And he pondered the stories of the dragon’s youth, and the times when Garnet demanded tithes that the village could not give, but did give. Sacrificing a few to save all the rest. And he wondered where the village’s treasure was, for dragons did not spend riches but only hoarded them. And most of all, he wondered where the bones of their lost were, the ones whom the dragon had devoured before age forced mildness upon him.
The villagers had seemed to forget and to forgive the dragon his crimes, or perhaps they were still afraid. Radwin, who had nothing to forget and nothing to forgive for himself, carried a quiet rage in his heart on his people’s behalf. In his father’s smithy, night after night, Radwin forged a sword. When the sword was ready, he climbed the northern mountains and found the dragon asleep in a barren cave. No treasure was to be seen anywhere. Smoke streamed from the dragon’s nostrils, black smoke with scarlet tendrils woven through. Radwin saw no need for honor. He made no noise when he raised his sword.
At the same moment, the dragon raised his hoary head. “Stay your blade. I will not be struck down by a man. Let Nature reclaim what she has yielded.”
Poised between wrath and sorrow, Radwin wanted to say that Garnet had not been created by gentle Nature, but by some fouler force for foul purpose. But the boy spoke not, for fear his voice might tremble with anger. The dragon would mistake the trembling for fear and gain boldness. Instead, Radwin hoisted his sword.
“Stay, stay,” the dragon implored. “I have cursed my hoard. If you slay me, your people’s fortunes will vanish forever. Then you will be the cause of their misery, not I.”
Radwin stayed, though he mistrusted the dragon. He stayed his sword.
“Let me die by Nature’s hand, and the curse will lift. My hoard will reappear.”
“Then let Nature hold you to your oath.”
The old dragon sputtered smoke and phlegm the scorched maroon of dragon’s blood. Radwin sheathed his sword, but he did not leave. He sat on a nearby boulder and watched until he grew tired and drowsy. But the dragon did not die. And so Radwin went home and returned to the cave the next day, and the day after that. As each day passed, so did any remaining caution he had. But one day, the dragon seemed worse. Both eyes had turned milky and wisps of smoke rose from his mouth, which remained parted. Radwin watched every breath the dragon drew, and he stayed past his usual time that night.
The dragon died. True to his treachery, Garnet had lied.
Radwin searched the cave, but found no sign of the hoard. He stayed in the cave and watched the whole night to be sure the dragon was really dead. Then he left the carcass and climbed down the mountain to bring the news to his village. The villagers rejoiced at the dragon’s death, but the elders scolded Radwin for being too merciful. They commanded him to recover the dragon’s massive heart, which would keep fresh and regenerate for a year and a day, so that the villagers could eat its meat and grow strong. The villagers feared even Garnet’s remains. So Radwin returned alone to the cave, all the while torn between duty and conscience. He did not desire to violate a corpse, even the corpse of a vile dragon, nor did he desire to feed his people the heart of the ruthless beast. He raised his sword three times. Three times he stayed. His dilemma tired him and he fell asleep.
When he woke, he saw that the dragon’s body had petrified. Somehow Radwin’s sword had become stuck in its side. He braced his foot on the dragon’s stony hide and pulled the hilt of his sword. As the blade came free, the dragon’s flank crumbled. Within Radwin saw an organ with the girth of ten men, the dragon’s heart. It was a giant glittering garnet.
As more of the stone crumbled away, Radwin found that the dragon’s scales too had become flakes of garnet. The beast’s entrails were snakes of gold and jade, its lungs were sacks of opals, its teeth were daggers of diamond, its eyes had turned to milky pearl. Radwin found enough riches to sustain his village for generations to come. And most precious of all, in the beast’s stomach, he found the bones of all its victims, whose spirits could now be laid to rest, free of the dragon’s tyranny. Thus had Radwin’s patience and mercy been repaid.
Afterwards, whenever anyone asked him how he thought his sword had become stuck in the dragon’s side, almost as a signpost to lead him to the treasure under the stone, Radwin, who had pondered the matter himself, always said it was Nature who struck Garnet down and Nature who avenged his village and held the deceitful dragon to his oath.
Copyright © 2013, story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Radwin and Garnet” and “Garnet’s Heart” by Nila L. Patel. “Dragon BG” by Sanjay Patel. All rights reserved.