Chapter One

“Bring back our sword, boy. Nothing else matters. We Willards were great once, and with our sword back we’ll be great again.” Rolf’s father sat stoop-shouldered by the smoky kitchen hearth. Grizzled hair hung over his eyes like a sheep dog’s. “My grandfather—no, his grandfather got that sword from the emperor hisself … and a book and a horse. That sword proves we’re nobles.”

“But we have other swords,” protested the youth standing before him, working to stand still during another repetition of the family legend.

“None worth anything. And none like that one. That sword’s special.”

“But it’s not magic.”

“Magic to us. Without that sword—and the book—we can’t prove our right to Willardhof. We’d be landless. Poor. Starving. Everything depends on that sword … and the book. And the horse.”  His father sighed.

“But we’ve got none of them now,” Rolf said.

“That’s why you’ve got to get our sword back.” His father’s voice boomed in the empty kitchen. The Willard had ordered Mother and the girls out. “That one who was to be the Willard stole it. He’s not my son no more. Now that you’ll be the Willard when I die, you have to get it back. Without that sword we’re nothing.”

“But that’s impossible. Will left—”

“You bring back that sword, and you’ll be the Will.”

“But Will—my brother left before Epiphany. He took it to go serve the Dragon.” Even to his own ears, Rolf sounded shrill.  Not for the first time he wished for a manly voice like his older brother. “We can’t get it back now.”

 “If you’re to be the next Willard, you’ve got to bring it back. And, while you’re about it, get us another horse. Then we’ll be great again—and not have to pay rents to that fat lout who lives in the tower.” The father nodded northward toward Ubermulde, crumbling tower of Baron Augustus.

“But we don’t have the book either.” The lad stepped back, knowing he risked boxed ears for contradicting, but this constant talk of greatness made no sense to Rolf. His family barely survived. Why worry about greatness when only their sheep stood between them and starvation?

“Aye, but we know where that book is, don’t we?”

“The holy brothers have it.” Rolf wasn’t sure which holy brothers possessed the much-talked-about book, which he’d never seen. 

“Aye, and they can keep it. Tain’t even the Holy Book. Fat lot of good them Roman words ever did us. It’s the words in the back that are important. But so long as they admit it’s ours, it’s ours.” Bits of breakfast bounced on his beard. “You just get our sword back. My father’s father’s father brought that sword back from the war—and the horse, too. With it, he conquered Con-sti-nople and Jay-ru-sa-lem. He stood before kings. Emperor Frederick the Red-haired called him by name. He was great. When we get that sword back, we’ll be great again.”

“Having the sword didn’t make us great before. We’re poorer than even Baron Augustus.” 

Rolf dodged a flat-handed blow.

“That lout’s sire did us out of our greatness. We should live in that tower, not him. We should collect the rents, not him. We should be called before the king, not him.”

“But Will said he was taking the sword to win back our status.”

“That lying thief’s no longer my son.” His father’s eye disappeared under his thatch of grizzled hair. “All proud and puffed up.”

“He said he was going to become a knight.” Rolf knew that was wrong. Why couldn’t he keep still?

“Nonsense. He heard them dragon tales and off he went to follow the Dragon. I tell you, boy, no dragon never did no good for no one, especially not for us. The Dragon isn’t even our lord. If Will—I mean that thief who chased after the Dragon—has my sword, there’s no way it’ll serve us with our king. The Dragon’s valley don’t even belong to our king. It’s in Bohemia.” 

“Then how’m I to get the sword back?”

“You think you’re smart. You’ll think of something.”

“But I’m just a shepherd.” 

“You’re my son.” His father lifted his bulbous nose.

“I’m only a boy.”

“It’s time you became a man.”

“But—” Rolf stopped when his father raised his hand.

“It needs doing, boy. Only a Willard can do it. I can’t, so you must.”

“But it’s the middle of Winter. If I get caught—”

“Been passingly mild. You’ve been out in worse with the sheep.”

Rolf wasn’t so sure he’d reach the Dragon’s tower. Oh, he knew where it was. Everyone knew. Burg Altz stood in a sheltered valley to the south. And everyone knew about the Dragon, too. A man named Konrad with incredible power who took over the fortress after the former baron disappeared on Imperial duty. He called himself the Dragon. Many local brothers and sons had flocked to follow the Dragon, but Rolf didn’t want to go. 

He almost toppled when a hammy hand slapped his ear.

“Pay attention when I’m talking. Tomorrow morning. First thing. You get our sword back or don’t bother coming back yourself.” 

“Tomorrow? But I—”

“No more ‘buts.’ Tomorrow, and that’s the end of it.” His father glared at Rolf through his graying hair.

“You’re willing for me to die for some stupid sword?”

“Everything depends on that sword. Don’t get yourself killed, but don’t come back without it neither.” 

Rolf squared his shoulders, but tried again. “I’ve never been beyond these hills. I don’t know the way to the Altz valley.”

“Southwest a couple day’s walk if the weather holds. Down the Bache to the Mulde, then over to the Weisse Elster or the Altz.” 

“Or … or where to stop or who to trust.”

“Stop nowhere and trust no one.” His father looked back at the fire. “As for finding Burg Altz, all the world is running to the Dragon, hear say. You follow those other fools. They’ll lead you to it. Only don’t get caught up in their foolery. Get our sword and come home.”

“What if I’m attacked?”

“Run. If you can’t run, you attack first. You’ve fought wolves. Take out the biggest in one blow if you can. If not attack the lesser ones, to even the numbers. Go for their nose. They hate that.”

“Attack men’s nose?”

“No, their face. If you poke rather than swing, they can’t block you so easily. A smashed nose or ruined eye discourages men just like it does wolves.

“Run, attack, even the numbers, poke,” Rolf repeated. His father had been out of the Bache valley many times, and sometimes Will—his older brother who had been the Will—had gone with him. Rolf had only been up to the highlands with the sheep. He knew those hills all the way to the Elbe Mountains, but that was the wrong direction.  And he certainly couldn’t go alone. “Will you send someone with me?”

“And waste another man? We’re shorted you and your brother as it is. We can’t spare another. Lambing’ll be upon us soon enough.”

“No. I suppose not.”  Not that his older brother ever bothered with the sheep. Since Will became strong enough to lift the black-bladed sword, he’d practiced with it every day, chopping up who knew how many poles. And never lifting a hand to do aught else. Rolf had admired his brother then; wanted to be like him. Now that memory tasted sour. He drew a deep breath. “Yes, Father, I’ll do it. I’ll get the family sword. I’ll bring it back in honor.”

“Honor never fed no one. Just get that sword.”

Rolf looked around the big kitchen. The remains of morning food preparation scattered across the big oaken table. A pot of porridge steamed on the hob. His mother, sisters, and the kitchen girls had left at his father’s command, but he knew they listened beyond the low door into the hall. He looked back at his father, who poked at the glowing coals. Openly ignoring him. No point arguing more. Rolf half-bowed and stepped back a pace before turning toward Willardhof’s hall.

The Willard family lived next to the Elbe Sandstone Mountains near the intersection of Saxony, Bavaria, and Bohemia. Their wealth and security centered on sheep. Lambing, sheering, and slaughter were significant and perilous times. The family’s fortune depended on sheep. Family sons and daughters plus a dozen hired and indentured laborers struggled to survive. But two centuries earlier, a Willard had touched prominence, returning from the Crusades with a dark sword, a grey horse, and a shining reputation. Rolf could recite the tale, he’d heard it so often. Now he was going to become part of it.

After the warmth of the kitchen, the hall felt frigid and dead. The great hearth had been cold since Epiphany. Despite closed and chinked shutters, the great room felt cooler than the barns, filled with sheep and cattle as they were every evening. After the warm porridge and bread smells of the kitchen, the great hall assaulted his nostrils. Dank and a bit of wet ashes.

Rolf’s mother, sisters, and the maids flanked the door. His mother signaled for the girls to return to the kitchen and waited until they’d gone before opening her arms. He wanted to stand tall and be a man; after all, he was almost sixteen. But right now he wanted comforting. He laid his head on her shoulder and sighed as she hugged him. 

“Mother, can’t you—”

“I tried to talk him out of it.” He felt her sigh. “That sword is more important to him than his oldest son. Either of his older sons.”

Rolf heard his parents arguing the night before. Father got these ideas and nothing swayed him. Not even the possibility Rolf might not return. He straightened. “His mind’s set, and … and he’s right: we have to recover our sword.”

“Maybe he could appeal to Augustus.”

“You know he can’t. Won’t.” Rolf had thought all that through. “If he went to the baron, he’d be laughed at. He can’t go to the count either. Nor can he appeal to King John or the holy brothers or the bishop. It’s just a sword, they’d say. And it is just a sword … to them. It’s so much more to father—to us. I’ll get it. I don’t know how, but I’ll bring it back. I swear—”

“Don’t swear, son. Our Lord says to let your ‘yes’ or ‘no’ suffice. Anything else comes from the Devil.” His mother made the holy sign, then embraced him again. 

“God willing, I’ll do it. I’ll get his stupid sword.”

“And please bring your brother home.”

“I will.” He felt his mother shudder. Would she cry for me if I was lost? He lifted his head from her shoulder. When he realized she wasn’t going to release him, he touched her. “Mother.”

“Yes, son.” She pulled back, wiping the tears from her cheeks. Only this year had he become as tall as his mother. “Go prepare. What can I get for you?”

“I don’t know.” He knew nothing about preparing for quests. Well, he’d prepare as for a season on the slopes. He already had most of what he’d need for that. Except. “Can you get me a knife? My skinning blade is shorter than my finger. It would serve no purpose, if … if I need it on the way.”

“I’ll get you a kitchen knife. And some food.” She reached forward and twined a lock of his brown hair around her finger. “How long will you be gone?”

“At least a week. I’ll trap game along the way. Of course, I have no idea what to do when I reach Burg Altz. Walk up to the gate, hammer it with my staff, and say, ‘Let me in. I want my family’s sword.’” He shared a smile with his mother, but he had no better idea than that. Oh, he’d heard the stories—the lives of saints and soldiers—how they dared by faith and boldness to confront their enemies and win great honor serving lord and Lord. He thought about those tales often, but mostly with his brother as the conquering hero, not himself. His father had as little use for heroes as he had for dragons.

“A week’s food then, and I’ll look for a coin or two. At that, your father’s advice may be best, avoid others as much as possible. Our roads aren’t safe even for armed parties. Most people will take you for a pilgrim. Everyone knows pilgrims have no money.”

“Save the money. I’ll depend on my staff and my wits.”

“By them you have survived in the wilds. All the shepherds praise you. Depend on yourself to know and do what’s right.” His mother’s smile looked forced. “And God. Depend on Him. Receive now your mother’s blessing and my prayers that an angel will protect you.”

Rolf wasn’t sure God cared about him or his quest, but was happy for any help he could get. “My guardian angel?”

“I should hope so. I’ll pray for you every day until you return.”

“Thank you, Mother.”

“Woman!” His father’s voice roared from the kitchen. “Where’s my wife?” 

She ran her fingers through his tousled hair. “Go,” she whispered. Without waiting for Rolf’s response, she stepped through the door, closing it behind her. “Here I am, Willard. How may I serve you?”

“Bless you, Mother.” Rolf whispered after her. He let his shoulders slump as he stood looking at the closed door in the dark hall. He sat on one of the benches, trying to keep from crying. He knew nothing of quests and people. Less about swords. He was a shepherd, not a hero. He stood, breathed in, and released a great sigh. Maybe not, but I can do this. I must.

He climbed the ladder to the loft and searched under the eave for his small stash of personal possessions: his sling, his pouch, a long cloak, his hooded cowl, and his small knife. He’d take his felt boots. No sense taking the hide shoes, they’d only stretch and dissolve in the wet. 

He sat in the straw and examined his meager possessions. He realized his meager pile was more than most of their men owned. Him sleeping in the keep beside the chimney; them sleeping in the barns above the sheep and cattle. Warmer and not so hard on the nose.

He gathered his hoard. It would be enough. It would be plenty for staying in the hills a day or two from home. He’d spent weeks on end in the upper pastures during the last few summers. How was he to fare for a week or more away from home in the middle of winter? And how was he to approach the Dragon? What other dangers lurked? All he knew was that he didn’t know what he didn’t know.

God had better look out for him because he’d be pretty much alone.

Copyright © 2022 by Ron Andrea.  All Rights Reserved.