[Fortuglio, if I’m allowed to sound snooty on my own blog, begins what I refer to as The Silver Age of John-Michael’s writing. Back when I started doing security, I wrote a number of short stories and comic book scripts on my laptop. I was pleased with Fortuglio and did what some would consider the “wrong thing to do”. I posted it on my MySpace page. You see, once I did that, I threw away first publishing rights to Fortuglio. Now, anyone I presented this short story to could make a quick Google search, find it printed somewhere else, and toss my story in the trash pile. Funny thing is, the laptop broke and my information was irretrevable. I wish I did the wrong thing to all those stories. Ah, well.
Oh, also, a word of warning. This story is PG, as in Parental Guidance suggested. There’s nothing that bad in it really, but it isn’t the sort of story I would tell a bunch of kids on their way to sunday school. I’m just saying.]
Beyond the doorway, rain crashed on a drenched brown tunic sprlayed about the head and hung across his body. A set of reigns lead from his hand to a horse who snorted at the indignity of hooves buried in mud.
“Good evening, sir,” the stranger said. His voice struggled against the pounding of the rain. “My name is Gregori, and am a pilgrim traveling through your countryside. I’m in need of a dry place to sleep, and perhaps some food? I have some money I can part to pay for my expenses.”
Dobbins was annoyed. Helping pilgrims was not how he planned to spend his night. His back throbbed from scurrying about the farm, harvesting the last of the squash before the storm broke. He finished eating, he was tired, and could not read this man’s intentions for all the damned rain. Dobbins couldn’t turn this man away, though. He would suffer no end of bad luck if he did, and the man might catch his death from drowning in this weather. “Let’s put your horse up. The stable isn’t far from here.”
After Dobbins grabbed his boots and a lantern they chased to the stable. Dobbins lit some candles and tried to catch a look at Gregori, but the stranger’s tunic obscured his features as he settled his horse and fetched some hay. The horse, however, was a fine specimen. It was well trained and looked strong. Dobbins was feeling better about helping the man out. If he was to judge a man solely on his horse, this man was well-off… or lucky… or could just be a good horse trainer, Dobbins supposed. Or, he could be a good thief. Suddenly, helping the stranger didn’t seem like a great idea. He must have seen the inn on the road a couple of miles back. If this man was so rich, why didn’t he just stay there? As he lead Gregori back to the house, Dobbins rationalized his decision. It was true, this would-be thief picked a bad house to rob. Dobbins didn’t have much in the way of valuables. He had just given the last of his money to the tax collector. By the time they were inside the house, Dobbins put his mind to rest about it. Poverty was protection enough against thieves.
When both men reached the kitchen, they found May preparing another meal. Dobbins offered his chair to Gregori, and Gregori peeled his wet tunic from his body. Gregori was a strong man of his late thirties. The very action of pulling his tunic over his head caused Gregori’s muscles to bulge and expose occasional scars. Blond balding hair clung to his sopping pate. There was little color in his face and eyes… as if the rain outside had washed it away. Despite this demeanor, though, Gregori had a light touch. He carefully slung his tunic over the woodpile and warmed himself by the hearth’s fire without getting in May’s way.
“Thank you for your hospitality, good sir. I’ve been carrying a missive between two churches and would continue past your house, but have pressed my horse too hard.”
“My name is Dobbins, and there is no need to thank me. There’s plenty enough space and even more food to go around.”
May set some bread, potatoes and cured ham before Gregori and he ate voraciously. Dobbins winced at the thought of having May serve the stranger. After all, she was seventeen, and it was hard keeping young men off the farm. Gregori, however, seemed more interested in the couple slices of ham before him than May’s petite form. Dobbins found this odd, and was insulted for May, but knew Gregori traveled a distance without stopping to eat. Dobbins noticed he was staring. “So, what church are you heading to, Gregori?”
“Not too far from here. The truth is, my order isn’t even sure the church is still standing. If it is, I’m to warn the clergy that they are indebted and the tax collector is coming to reclaim the property.”
When Gregori was done, May took his plate, and he thanked them both again. “I had a husk of bread in my saddlebag, but eating stale bread is hard on the stomach after four days travel. If it wasn’t for that, I would have walked my horse into the grove a way back to sleep for the night.”
“And it’s a good thing you did not!” Dobbins said, despite himself.
Dobbins looked to May for help, but she pretended not to eavesdrop as she washed the dishes. He looked back at Gregori. “There’s a dragon terrorizing the village. Animals and people have gone missing from those woods.”
“A dragon? A living, breathing dragon resides in those woods? Are you sure? Have you seen the beast?”
“No, I haven’t seen it. I know plenty of townsfolk who’ve seen it move through the woods. I’ve heard him braying in the distance as well. If you had seen his tracks or the disaster he leaves behind when crashing through the trees… well, there is no doubt that he is out there.”
“But all this could have been done by pranksters. Are you sure there is a real dragon out there?”
“Animals don’t lie. Mine have been incorrigible. I need to kick my horse to lead him off the farm. If I ride him by the forest he spooks straight through. A large predator in the area will make the stock edgy, but a huge one like this? I’m surprised the pigs haven’t broke out of their pen yet.”
“That’s horrible. I mean, a dragon! I’ve never seen such a thing! How do you stop a problem like that? Has there been talk of assembling search parties or are local knights amassing an army?”
“Ha! Who would join such an army? Fools who don’t believe in dragons, that’s who. They’d be in for quite a surprise when they marched into the woods and came face to face with the Devil’s Own! He’d route every last one, until their bodies were little more than charred bones. No, you need dragonhunters to fight dragons. The lord of the land has sent for a battalion of them. He said it was a church supported relief effort and would cost us very little in taxes. I doubt the lord has done anything, though. He probably thinks us farmers are creating wild stories this autumn and that we’ll forget the whole thing next spring. Then, he can say the ‘dragonhunters’ came, did their jobs and left while we were shaking under our beds. Sounds good, yes? In the meantime the tax rate will increase taking more money out of the pockets of farmers who left the last of their crops rotting in the field. Except, there really is a dragon out there, so the problem won’t go away while everybody hides, and the taxes will just keep increasing. Any farmer who protests about the new taxes will be found guilty of taking the side of the dragon. Perhaps such-and-such a farmer is a witch who summoned the dragon in the first place, and doesn’t want to pay his dragonhunting tax because he’s planning on conjuring up a dozen more? Balderdash!
“The funny thing is, in the end, it would be the Lord that suffers most. Farmer’s are hearty men with large extended families. If enough of them lost their farms to the dragon, they’d just leave. Life would be tough, but they’d survive. The Lord, though, is tied to his land. If he packed up and left, a neighboring lord would claim his property, and have the dragon exterminated. What would be left of the fallen Lord then? He’d be a commoner. Not only that, but he wouldn’t fit in anywhere he goes with all his queer antics and strange expectations. He’d become the fool of the town!”
Gregori and Dobbins talked of dragons, politics and local news into the night. After some time Dobbins looked haggard, so Gregori excused himself, saying he should get some sleep before his trip tomorrow. May lead Gregori to a small bed that squeezed into the attic. As Gregori lay in the dark cramped bed, he heard the power of rain as it pulled him to sleep.
Gregori’s dreams were awash in fire. The flames ripped across the landscape, spilled over him and drowned him in their seas. A long serpentine neck drew out of the inferno. Surfacing amid the fire was a hideous head of scales, smoke and teeth. The face’s sunken eyes aimed at Gregori while the shape of the beast imposed and its breath threatened to engulf.
“You know I exist Gregori. I’ve been around for a very long time; longer than your Christ. Denying me would be to make a mockery of history. I’ve shaped your earth into a fetid pile of waste, and now I hunt you Gregori. Every day I am closer. Soon, you will fall within my clutches. Then, I will wrap my claws around your soul and squeeze the life out of you. Your body will satiate me temporarily, but your soul will amuse me for centuries. Do not think the death of a martyr will give you free passage to heaven. Your death will not register a sigh there. No angel will note your absence after the terrible things you have done.”
Gregori tried to speak, but felt like he was tearing open a beehive. “They were practices of the order to protect us from our enemies…” He could feel the honey trickle down his throat… too many bees were escaping, “the rituals were designed so that when forced to commit sins with our bodies, we would keep our souls clean and focused on God.”
“But they were terrible things weren’t they?” The Dragon elongated his mouth so that his teeth spread into a mock smile, “A full itinerary of sacrilege and sin: worshiping the head of a demon, spitting on the cross, cursing the name of god…”
“This was so if we were captured, we could commit sins of the flesh, but not of the soul, so our bodies would survive after capture to serve Christ once again. Once we had escaped the heathens who…”
“Oh Gregori… the things you’ve done with men! The unnatural acts which were supposed to be committed by your body alone. Yet, your body yielded supplely, didn’t it? Do you honestly believe that yours is the kingdom of heaven after you’ve done such base carnal things? You have fallen so far, Gregori, that you can no longer see heaven’s light. Your soul lies wasted on the pathway to Hell. You are damned, Gregori, and are the devil’s plaything. He shall do as he pleases with you.
“You can avoid total devastation, Gregori. Take Lucifer as your Lord and the Master of your heart and you can rule in his domain as a duke. You need not spend your days in eternal agony, just in shallow remorse for what you have done. You will have a legion of devils at your command. Even I will bend my will, and follow your bidding as my master.”
Too many black bees built between Gregori and the Dragon’s faces. They filled Gregori’s ears with the buzz of hidden whispers. He tried not to listen, but it was too hard to focus. Too many bees crowded into his head to tell him what every bee knew. They swarmed into the fore of his head and stung, stung, stung. He knew that there were passages in Matthew about rocks and men and bread. He knew this, but he couldn’t let the bees continue escaping. Yet the bees continued to crawl out, and fly into his ears to sting inside his forehead. He whispered “Get thee behind…” while a trickle of honey pooled out.
“How pathetic. I offer salvation to you, and you offer pithy quotes from that book of fiction you follow like some drunken sheep! I am the Demon Fortuglio! Lord of Dragons, Razor of Life, Bearer of Destruction and Purge! Heed my words fallen one: I am coming to shred your body in twain and swallow your soul. I am close at hand. Prepare for Damnation!”
The insects ignited and roared in Gregori’s ears and mouth, setting his insides alight. He burst into a fireball – the black smoke rose out of him and fed Fortuglio’s open mouth. That foul monster sucked every ash that flung from Gregori until there was nothing left but a sharp constant pain in his forehead that he woke up in the farmer’s house.
Morning light glowed through the fog. The amber mist prevented Gregori from seeing the grass he rode on, though he could hear the frost crunch beneath his horses’ hooves. He hadn’t traveled far from the stable when a figure stepped through the mist before his path. Gregori’s fingers itched for the hilt at his side, but relaxed when he recognized the girl. It was the farmer’s daughter from the night before.
“Good morning,” Gregori began, “what there is of it, at least. Why are you up so early an hour?”
“I should ask you the same,” May replied. “Don’t you know it’s rude to leave your host without saying good-bye?”
“I had a bad dream and needed to move. I left some money on the table for your father. It should more than cover my meal and lodging.”
“I know you’re a Dragonhunter.”
The sentence hung in the air, crystallized, and spread among the fog, exhausting the space between them. Gregori waited. He knew how to dislodge thoughts. He waited for May to explain to him at length how she was clever and how she assembled the clues, so he could argue against them, point for point. May said nothing. Her eyes locked Gregori’s and waited. The more time they spent in silence, the more true the sentence became, until Gregori responded in the only way possible: “Yes, I am.”
“How many houses in the village have you visited already?”
“Your father’s was the first. Word travels fast in small villages. By the time I interrogate my next house, my story will need to change.”
“Do you… I mean… is it hard? Traveling from house to house, calling yourself something you’re not… teasing rumors?”
“I don’t enjoy lying. But, people talk about themselves to complete strangers. I’m a blank piece of paper. They write what they want on me.”
“Take me with you.”
Gregori soured his face. “I spend my time with people you’d rather not meet. I commonly deal with criminals, vagrants and fools. Sometimes, I sleep in the woods. Sometimes, I don’t sleep at all. I own little and call no place home. I drift from town to town like a specter hunting dragons that never appear for an order that no longer exists. If you joined me, you’d learn to hate your life. You’d age quickly, and no one would be about to take care of your father as he grows old.”
“Father can take care of himself. Mother died delivering me, so he taught himself how to cook and sew. Anyhow, I’m seventeen now. How long do you think my father would have before I ran off with another man?”
“I can’t,” Gregori said, “that is, I’ve taken a vow of chastity. You could never have… a family… if you followed me.”
“Oh?” May arched an eyebrow, “Getting a bit ahead of ourselves are we? Besides that doesn’t matter. I want to know what it’s like to not be myself. Does that make sense? I want to leave myself at this farm. I might come back someday, but, for now, I want to be someone else. Someone new. Besides, I want to learn. I’m a fast learner and I can mend your clothes and cook your food. You would have someone to talk to. I promise, I won’t get in the way of your hunt…”
“I doubt you could get in the way. I’ve never found a dragon.”
A strand of fog lingered about May’s face. She frowned. “How long have you been hunting them?”
“Since I completed my training, sixteen years ago. I’ve been hunting dragons ever since, and yet I’ve never seen one. Sometimes instead of a dragon, I find a shepherd who is trying to save his job because he fell asleep and the herd wandered off. Sometimes the dragon is a barmaid that refused to tell the truth, that she didn’t put out the fire in the hearth and the tavern burned down. Sometimes the dragon is a den of thieves who found a convenient way to keep people out of their lair. Sometimes the dragon is only a bear and a tale told by an idiot. Sometimes, it’s none of these, but the dragon is still not to be found. Perhaps the Devil sends dragons away when a hunter arrives. I don’t know.”
“Do you believe they exist?”
“What does it matter whether I believe in their existence? There will always be people, like your father, who will live in fear of the monster in the woods. As long as people believe their lives are threatened, they are threatened; either by the threat, or by their irrational fear. People need assurance no matter how fantastic their problem is, that there is someone to absolve it. Without this, they panic. Then they riot. What difference does the dragon make? The end would be the same: Death.”
The misty air was fading. May’s father would be out to feed the pigs. “But, it does matter. If dragons existed… If there was only one dragon in the entire world, then it would be your duty to find that dragon and slay it, wouldn’t it? The only goal worth achieving in your life is the demise of that instrument of evil. All the other deeds you perform between now and that day would be a means to achieve that singular goal.”
Gregori smiled. “Come along then. We will have to think hard to explain why you are following me around in this village.”