The Snake and the Mirror

The King Beneath the Mountain

September 30th, 2024

Jana stood, rigid as a statue, as the great dragon unfurled itself before her, wings spreading to fill the dim caverns as the dull light of the shining garnets illuminated the dark scales of its thin sinewy body. It, or rather he, was built like a lion, with a barrel chest and massive muscular legs that were covered in a smooth carapace of armored iron-grey scales. His eyes, bright as gold, stared down at Jana as he lowered his head to get a better look at her.

“And who are you?” The great dragon Calroch asked as it looked her over, and Jana had never felt so exposed standing there with no cover under the gaze of a dragon.

“Jana Tule,” It was all she had to keep her voice steady, though it still had a slight tremor. “Daughter of Jarl Hod Tule.”

“As you have said,” The dragons voice was booming, summoned up from thunderous lungs. “Your given names mean nothing to me, only that of your family do I recognize.”

“Long has our family served and governed on Thule,” Jana nodded her head. “We have kept its people safe and kept the legends of your presence alive and strong.”

“And how do the stories compare, child of Thule?” Calroch had risen to his full size, filling the cavern as the edges of his wings were lost in the dark cave, his tail wrapping around the floor and great claws digging into the stone.

“They hardly seem sufficient…” Jana all but felt herself shrinking. “Though the legends did not say that you were…”

“That I was a dragon?” Calroch asked. “One of the last and mightiest from the time before your words were written?”

Jana could only manage a nod.

“And does that make you afraid, child of Thule?” Calroch asked. “To know that your people have lived and died at the whim of a dragon?”

Jana took a deep breath to steady herself before speaking. “I am not afraid of you, Lord Calroch. The stories say you are mighty, and clearly those were true. But they also say that you have protected Thule. From fire and storm and conquerors. I may fear the man with the sword, but I do not fear the man who holds the sword in my defense. So, I do not fear a dragon that has protected Thule for eons.”

There were many ancient stories of the great spirit of Thule, the King beneath the Mountain. While most revolved around making the fields fertile and stopping the raging storms from sweeping the towns away, the more colorful stories had the spirit raining fire down upon Thule’s many would-be raiders and conquerors. The revelation of the great spirit being a dragon shed those in a different light.

“Mmm,” There was a low rumble in the dragon’s throat that echoed through the chamber. “Good, they sent a thoughtful child to me this time.”

Jana bowed her head again. “Thank you, Lord Calroch.”

“Though I sense it has been a very long time since another was sent to me. How many years has it been, Jana of Thule, since the last one was sent before you?”

“I…cannot tell you in years, Lord Calroch,” Jana said slowly, ever aware of his burning eyes upon her. “It has been many centuries to be sure.”

The dragon considered her words for a few silent moments before speaking again, moving past her astride four great legs as he began to move towards the passage she had come down.

“Then that is why the mountain feels so cold.”

“Cold, Lord Calroch?” Jana had to hurry on her feet to keep pace with him, trying not to outright run as she hurried alongside the massive dragon. With each footfall, she felt a quake run through the ground, though for his size Calroch still seemed to move with almost cat-like grace, long legs held beneath him rather than sprawled on his belly like some ancient worm or legged serpent.

“Not to you perhaps,” Calroch said, his head well ahead of her but his voice still booming. “But it is to me.”

Jana had to admit the cavern was still immensely hot, and even standing next to Calroch felt like walking alongside a furnace. Soon the pair of them made it back to the vast treasure room beneath the volcano, and Jana realized that it was not only just a repository, but a full-blown dragon’s hoard. She watched his eyes move over the piles of gold and precious stones.

“I touched nothing, Lord Calroch, I assure you.”

“I would have smelled it if you had,” Calroch said. “But it is not for my own satisfaction that I keep this gold here.”

“I had heard that dragons like to hoard gold.”

“Some do,” Calroch said. “Those of my weak-minded and avaricious kin. But the richness of Thule is not only in gems and gold.”

The dragon turned and began walking off the path, massive feet easily moving through the low hillocks of gold that sent avalanches of coins scattering around. Jana struggled even more to keep pace, needing to clamber over gold piles, which led to her tripping and sliding down more than once.

After the third time, when her foot caught on the handle of a gold amphora and sent her rolling down a bank of painful golden goblets, the loud clattering and echoing of a dozen metal cups rolling over the stone floor was loud enough to give Calroch paused as he turned to look at the source of the noise, seeing Jana rise to her feet and adjust her dress.

“Sorry…” she said, red-faced. “These shoes aren’t meant for gold-climbing”

“Of course. I suppose I wasn’t paying attention.”

Calroch brought himself up, sitting on his hind legs like a cat as his tail and wings curled around himself into a great egg-shaped leathery mass. Before Jana could ask what he was doing, the dragon’s entire form seemed to dematerialize, solid scale and leathery wing disintegrating into dark fog as it was scattered through the cave. When the last was gone, all that remained of the enormous dragon was a lone figure standing where he had been.

“I occasionally forget the scale humans operate on,” The man spoke with Calroch’s voice, but without the ground-shaking thunder of a dragon. Jana hurriedly stepped over to him to get a closer look.

He was undeniably a human man. He had a square face with broad jaw covered in a short black beard, coupled with a long mane of straight black hair the same color as his dark scales. His skin was pale, and the only features he seemed to have carried over were his bright golden eyes. He was dressed in the ancient regal garments of a king, with a suit of golden lamellar armor over a richly patterned gray gambeson. His shoulders were adorned in a mantle of wolf fur, and a cape of dark grey hung to the floor. It was a regal (and very old) fashion, but still had glimpses of his draconic nature, from the horned pattern of his gauntlets to the scale-like structure of his armor.

“W-wait, so are you…?” Jana was confused. She had never heard stories of a dragon who could take the shape of a man.

“I am a dragon, through and through,” Calroch said, and he began to walk again. At this size, however, Jana had a much easier time of keeping pace.

“Dragons, like all creatures made of more than flesh, grow with power the longer they live. Some who live long learn to think and speak as humans do, the ones who live longer still can even learn to take human form. If find it…convenient for meetings such as these.”

“Of course, thank you for the consideration,” Jana nodded her head. “Though if I may ask, where are we going?”

“This mountain is my castle, and there are many places in it. For now, I wish to see my domain.”

Though her question had not quite been answered, Jana followed him through the great cave of gold, carrying the torch to light their path, though it seemed as if Calroch didn’t need it, as he would move beyond the reach of its light without any change of pace, prompting Jana to hurry after him to avoid losing pace.

He led her down a different tunnel than the one she had come in through, which led to another spiraling staircase. They climbed and climbed for so long that Jana soon went from winded to exhausted after what felt like fifteen solid minutes of steady stair-climbing.

By the time, they reached the top Jana was exhausted and dehydrated. Sweat was running down her neck and back and her hair, so carefully kept that morning, was coming loose and sticking to her neck and face. With growing horror, she realized she must look awful, and likely smell worse, while Calroch didn’t even seem slightly phased by the climb. It was only when he turned to face her that he seemed to notice how exhausted she was, and Jana could feel her face flush as she tried her best to stand prim and properly while feeling like she’d just run a marathon.

“There is a basin of water connected to a spring in the third chamber down,” Calroch said. There was no hint of admonishment, merely a statement. “I will meet you in the fifth chamber when you are ready.”

“Thank you, Lord Calroch,” Jana managed to sputter as he turned and left, cape whirling behind him. She sheepishly hurried to the pointed chamber and found it to be a small sort of washroom carved into the stone. The stairs, the hall, and this room were all sized for a human, and the rocks here were relatively cool to the touch. At the center of the room on a broad dais was a basin filled with the purest water she had ever seen.

The first thing she did was dip her hands into the blessedly cold water and bring it to her lips, relishing the feeling of something that was finally cold, before taking a quick glance around and simply lowering her head to the water level to eagerly drink straight from the source. Not her most elegant moment, but no one was watching and she had never been so thirsty.

After her thirst was sated, she set about washing her face and putting her hair back in place as best she could. It was a far cry from what it had been upon entering the mountain, but it was still an improvement, and she left the burned-out torch she had carried in the corner of the room before finally washing her hands and going to meet Calroch again.

The fifth chamber turned out to be the entrance to a stone balcony looking out over the island of Thule, skillfully hidden in the rockwork to make it all but invisible from the outside, with a banister of stone encircling the edge. It was late evening now, and with the clouds beginning to disperse the sun was free to bounce a myriad of colors across the sky.

“Pardon the delay,” Jana said as she joined him on the balcony. She reveled in the feeling of the cool wind as it swept over her face and through her clothes. She stood next to him, and passed him a glance as he stared out at the island. Now that she could see him better in the light, she saw that he was younger than he had looked at first, somewhere in his early thirties. Rather than a crown he wore a thin circlet of gold on his head, the front marked by what looked like the cast image of his draconic horns. He was, she quietly noted, strikingly handsome.

“It has been a very long time,” Calroch said, his hands grasped together as he leaned over the edge of the balcony. “The world has greyed and grown old while I slept. I wonder why it is I awoke at all.”

“Something is changing,” Jana said. “The mountain bellows fire and the storms and mists have begun to fade. Thule is re-entering the world.”

“Then it will need to be ready,” Calroch said. “I told you that Thule’s wealth is not in its jewels or in its gold. It is in its people. Many centuries before, your forbearers and I made a compact. While my kind were being slayed in droves by famed dragonslayers, I chose instead to become a protector rather than a destroyer. The gold in my lair will give this island wealth rivaling the most prosperous nation, and you shall use it to grow that influence. Thule does not need to be a nameless island backwater.”

“If people know we have mountains of gold,” Jana said. “They will come to raid it.”

Calroch’s lips curled into a somewhat cruel smile “I welcome it. But we should be wary with the gold we spend. Too much will decrease its value. Thule shall be given enough to buy its influence; the rest will stay with me.”

“You seem quite eager to take charge again,” Jana said, slightly worried how the people in town would take the plans of an ambitious dragon.

“Do you know why they send a child of Thule to my lair, Jana?” He turned to ask her.

Jana shook her head.

“Because I need an ambassador, someone who can speak to the people on my behalf but without the booming voice of a dragon. You will be the go-between for the people of Thule and myself.”

“That’s…quite a position,” Jana said hesitantly, head spinning. She had been planning on a day-long ritual, now she would be serving as the speaker for a dragon?

“And responsibility,” Calroch said. “But you seem like a clever and thoughtful girl, and you will find the mountain to have all the pleasure and amenities of life in the town. In time, perhaps you will speak on my behalf to other peoples and nations as well.”

“I suppose it is in a dragon’s nature to think in the long-term,” Jana said.

“It is,” Calroch said. “And Thule has a long future ahead of it.”

 

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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