Tracy & Laura Hickman present their Dragon's Bard story just in time for the holidays… Duke Wenceslas is freezing in his castle, demanding that some brave knight will bring him the head of the dragon who is keeping his woodsmen from gathering firewood. At the same time, Emperor Dragon Quarg is roasting in his lair under the mountain, demanding that some brave dragon from among his brood will bring him the head of the knight who is preventing them from gathering cows to eat. Meanwhile, in the village of Betwixt, young Nicholas wants only to deliver his gifts this Yuletide Eve but can't until he can find a way to convince the knights and the dragons to make peace. Will young Nicholas find a way of keeping his head while all others seem intent on losing theirs?
Tracy Hickman is full of dragons—best known for his seminal work in the Dragonlance universe, and also developing games, serving as a writing instructor, and building his own huge fan base. Tracy told me about his special project, "St Nicholas and the Dragon," two years ago, and I never forgot about it. He was one of the first people I asked when I was building this bundle. I'm so glad to have this piece as part of it. – Kevin J. Anderson
missing image filence or maybe twice upon a time – it being difficult to remember which since it was so long ago – there was a castle that was very, very, VERY cold.
It was also true that the castle was very OLD, but that fact was not what concerned Duke Wenceslas, the ruler of the Duchy of Grand Wences, as he sat shivering on his throne. It was the cold in the Great Hall of his keep not its age that kept his teeth chattering and caused his crown to shake on his head.
Duke Wenceslas looked mournfully over at the enormous hearth to one side of the hall. It was almost twenty feet across and ten feet tall in the center. The plinth base was polished granite. The legs and header around the firebox had been carved with a procession of the Duke's ancestors, lords, knights, and peasants who had come to claim the duchy uncounted years before. The mantle was festooned with bows for the Yuletide while the overmantle and crown framed a wonderful tapestry of the Duke and the Duchess Wenceslas.
Yet there was no cheery blaze within its carved stone maw of its firebox. No warm radiance filling the hall. No dancing light from its flickering flames. The fireplace was as cold as the room before it.
In the Duke's hands he held a bundle of thyme. He traditionally awarded it each Yuletide Eve to the bravest of his champions. Tonight he was wondering, as he stared at the hearth, how well it might burn.
Before Wenceslas in the enormous room stood all the gathered courtiers, summoned at his command. They were as miserable as the Duke. The knights rattled in their armor. The squires squirmed in their hose and doublets. The ladies trembled in their long gowns and thick wraps.
You might suspect that St. Nicholas was in the hall shivering as well – although he was not yet considered a saint at the time – but you would be wrong. Nicholas is not yet to be found either in the hall or our story here as yet.
Who were in the hall, however, were Lord Erok and Lord Ayhard – the two freeholders of farmland in the Duchy – stood in their long, heavy coats before the Duke, each of them speaking with heated eloquence though their words did nothing to warm the room or the Duke's disposition.
"...And I'm sure that Your Grace will readily acknowledge that it is the duty of his royal personage to address our grievances at once!" Lord Erok had worked himself up to a frenzy of speech which made him rather proud of himself but did little to endear him anyone else in the room. "Too long we have waited..."
"Far too long!" piped up Lord Ayhard who rarely got a word in between Erok's long winded words without either taking advantage of Erok catching his breath or, barring that, the calculated wedging of words in those spaces where Erok actually tried to think rather than speak.
"Far, FAR too long," Erok shouted in continuance, his words billowing out in puffs of breath that hung as icy clouds between him and the frowning Wenceslas. "We have waited for the crown to do SOMETHING to safeguard the lives of the peasants and the serfs working our land and more importantly our CATTLE!"
"And our SHEEP!" Lord Ayhard wedged in, insuring that his own holdings were represented in the grievance as it was presented.
The increasing order of precedence given by Lord Erok and his neighbor Lord Ayhard was, as everyone in the hall knew, entirely intentional.
"And now what is the result?" Lord Erok exclaimed. Frost from his own breath was starting to encrust his beard in the chilly hall. "Our peasants cannot even enter the forest and harvest wood for our fires to keep us warm through this dreadful winter! The axes are silent as the falling snow, the stores of firewood are utterly depleted. There is not a stick left of any table, bed, chair or stool to be found among the peasant cottages for their being burned in the hearths."
"My Lords," Duke Wenceslas raised his hand as though trying to deflect the frosty words of Erok and Ayhard. "It is truly a terrible hardship on the peasants..."
"Aye! But worse still," Erok shouted, "what about Yuletide?"
"Yuletide?" Wenceslas squinted. The Duke was wondering if the chill had somehow effected his hearing. "What of Yuletide?"
"The feast, My Lord!" Erok responded.
"Yes, I understand what the Yuletide Feast is," the Duke snapped. "What does that have to do with..."
"He means, sire, however shall we hold the Great Feast if we cannot even build a fire to cook it?" Lord Ayhard sputtered as though he were stating the obvious.
Duke Wenceslas shook though it may not have been from the cold. "The peasants are freezing, burning their furniture to keep warm and you're worried about your revelry?"
"It's a tradition!" Lord Erok asserted, puffing up his chest.
"A FINE tradition!" Lord Ayhard affirmed, trying to puff his own chest out further than his neighbor.
"And a tradition that I believe can be saved!" Lord Erok affirmed. From within the folds of his coat, the freeholder produced a large scroll of velum. Erok approached the throne and, kneeling, presented the scroll to Duke Wenceslas.
The Duke groaned, laying the bundle of thyme in his lap as he reached out and took the scroll. His gloved hands fumbled with it for a moment before he managed to open the unusually long document. The illuminations were very pretty but the writing was also so small that even the Duke (whose sight was actually quite good) was having trouble reading it.
"And what is this, Lord Erok?" the Duke asked.
"It is a decree, My Lord," Erok replied.
"A ROYAL decree," Ayhard added.
The rest of the courtiers in the room groaned.
"Again?" the Duke asked though his eyes never left the velum scroll.
"Yes, Your Grace!" Lord Erok nodded. "It creates, by your will, and appoints an emergency commission tasked with the procurement and distribution of all types of wood within the borders of your kingdom. It grants to this commission emergency powers over the knights, militia, bowmen, men-at-arms, and guards and extends the provision to the labor procurement of serfs and peasants...
"As well as essential services such as axe makers, sharpeners, smithies and miners," Lord Ayhard added.
"And thereby addresses this imminent threat to our Yuletide celebrations," Lord Erok concluded.
The Duke looked up over the top edge of the scroll. Frost coated his thick and normally dark eyebrows so heavily that his scowl was somewhat softened. "And just who, I fear to ask, do you suggest to head this emergency commission?"
"We believe that freeholders should head such a council," Lord Erok said without batting a frozen eyelash. "Men who know how distribution of goods may best be administered for the betterment of the kingdom."
"And the preservation of our Yuletide Feast," Lord Ayhard piped in.
""We shall put an end to any slackness on the part of your subjects and get the job done," Lord Erok concluded with a slight bow.
Duke Wenceslas turned to the throne next to his. The Duchess Wenceslas was the most beautiful woman the Duke had ever beheld although it was difficult now to behold her very well, wrapped as she was in so many layers of ermine robes, wraps and blankets. Still, her sweet, narrow face peeking out from above the shawl and below the cowl was frowning. Her blue eyes were bright and disbelieving.
"The problem is not our subjects," the Duchess insisted. "Certainly not with the peasants."
"No, it is not," Duke Wenceslas agreed. "The problem is the dragon."
Lord Erok stammered. "But this commission, Your Grace..."
"Why do the axmen not go into the woods?" Duke Wenceslas asked without waiting for an answer. "It's because of the dragon! Every time they enter the forest, the dragon attacks them, driving them back to their villages!"
"Yes, My Lord," Lord Ayhard nodded his head. "But if you'll look under section fifteen, subsection thirty-two, paragraph five of the commission's mandate..."
"I've read it," Duke Wenceslas replied, casting the scroll down at the feet of Lord Erok and Lord Ayhard. "It gives the commission authority to muster the knights to defend your cattle, Lord Erok and your sheep, Lord Ayhard, from the incessant abduction of your stock by the dragon!"
"Our livestock," Lord Erok snarled as he snatched up the scroll from the frosty stone floor at his feet, "are strategic national resources!"
"And essential to the Yuletide Eve Celebrations!" squeaked Lord Ayhard.
"And our knights have been out guarding your cattle and your sheep," Wenceslas countered, "and has this gotten anyone a single stick of wood?"
"Well, not as yet, Your Grace," Lord Erok replied.
"What is the cause of our problems? It is the dragon!" Duke Wenceslas said forcefully as he rose to stand before his throne, grasping the bundle of thyme in his hand as though it were a sword. "Who keeps us from harvesting the bountiful woods of our duchy? The dragon! Who is it that takes the cattle and the sheep from your fields, my Lords? The dragon! My people are freezing and starving and what is the cause? The dragon! I hardly need a commission of Lords to tell me where my duty lies in this matter!"
"But, Your Grace!" Lord Erok said. "The entire point of this commission..."
"Sir George!" Duke Wenceslas called out into the hall, his own breath condensed and drifting into the frigid air. "Sir George!"
From among the knights in their clattering armor stepped a single warrior. His own armor was quite different from the rest. It shone brilliantly even in the dim light of the frozen hall, polished to perfection. A great red plume swept backward from the crest of the helmet which the knight held firmly in the crook of his left arm. His face was carefully shaved, exposing the dimple of his strong chin. His chiseled features were beautifully framed by long locks of curly hair.
"My liege," said Sir George with a rakish look. "I am here, sire!"
"Are you the greatest knight in all the land?" Duke Wenceslas demanded.
"Why, yes, my liege," Sir George agreed, smiling with a wink as he tossed his curls slightly in affirmation.
"Then tonight you will go out and slay this dragon!" Duke Wenceslas commanded.
Sir George blinked. His radiant smile dimmed slightly but his eyes were fixed to the bundle of thyme in the Duke's hands. It was an honor he had hoped to win that night. "I beg your pardon, My Lord?"
"You will go out to the fields on the other side of the village where Lord Erok keeps his cattle," Duke Wenceslas went on. "We will withdraw the knights from their guard duty and when the dragon comes to take the cattle you will slay it."
"Of course, my liege," said Sir George, holding up a polished, steel-clad finger on his right hand. "But, Your Grace, tonight might not be the best night for dragon-slaying. The conditions require..."
"You will go out into the far fields," Duke Wenceslas demanded, "you will slay this dragon and you will bring his head to me here in the hall tonight! If you were looking for a gift to give to me this Yuletide then this is what I ask!"
"Yes, my liege!" Sir George nodded, and bit his lower lip even as he smiled.
"Tonight!" Duke Wenceslas demanded. "The dragon's head in my hall tonight!"