Aethon and the Dragon of Night

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The history of this story is the history of the Camáirtirscél, or the Saga of the Dawn of the World, a series of epic ballads told in Damryn, scattered parts of southern Norlundar and the northernmost borders of Lancereaux, Andermark and Calavria. The stories themselves vary from region to region, but most speak of the deeds of gods (of which the “older” gods such as Aethon, Zartosht, Olcan and Ferodir feature heavily, although towards the end mention Vaitera, Gebrick and Ryniss) and mortals of god-like stature in days of yore, after the shaping of the world but before the rise of empires of men or elves. The “core” legends in poetic form were written c. 550 PF on an illuminated manuscript in the Cathedral of Aethon in Caer Brennan.

The story written here is taken from there. Whilst it is in its heart a Damryan story it does feature influences from other cultures. The mixing of blood to create a kinship bond is of Norlish origin, and of course dragons are far more common in Lancereaux than Damryn proper. It is likely that the original story was changed over time as converts to the worship of Aethon were made in these areas, and the new members of the congregation brought their own stories with them.

Mural of the First Battle at the chapel to Aethon in Mandeville, presumed destroyed in the Fall

Now it came to pass when the world was new and the gods were young that a shadow crept into the world, and that shadow was named Mawrgauthyr, the Gaping Jaws, and he was the sire of all dragons that came after him. Such was his size that his maw when opened scraped sky and earth top and bottom, his claws made valleys of mountains and his wings, when opened to their fullest length, cast all lands from west to east into darkness. This he did, and as he did he roared so that every forest in the north was flattened by the force of it.

Now Aethon saw this from his hall in the heavens, and he was angered that his light had been denied to the world below, but in him woke also a hunger, for the dragon was the mightiest creature to walk the world and he foresaw that never again would its like be seen, nor would there be so great a glory as in its defeat. So he took up Lathndyr, the Sword of Morning, and Tariantirau, the Shield of the World, and he descended to Ereda in a blaze of fire. And those who cowered beneath the dragon saw and were glad, saying to each other “Now things shall be put to right.”

But Mawrgauthyr saw and he laughed, for when Aethon finally trod the green hills of the south he appeared under the dragon as a golden star beneath a stormcloud dark with power, radiant but small and soon extinguished. So the dragon descended upon him, and his coming was of such thunder and fury that even the god was cast down by the sudden winds of the dragon’s wings, and he raised Tariantirau above his head to shield himself from the venom of the dragon’s eyes.

Then Mawrgauthyr landed in front of him and spoke (for many things in those days had the power of speech, even mortal beasts and trees and standing stones, and weapons forged with magic), and his voice was a the snarl and growl of the mightiest of storms.

“Hail Aethon, most radiant and noble!” The words were mocking. “Have you travelled so far from the airy realms only to behold my greatness? It is fitting that even the gods should kneel before me.”

And Aethon rose from the ground, furious with anger and injured pride, and spoke scornfully to the dragon. “I would not know, for none noticed your coming, but it falls to me to clip your wings as the least of little tasks.”

The dragon laughed then, a sound so terrible that every living thing for a mile’s distance died, and Aethon stopped his ears. “Perhaps I should clip your beard in return, though I would rather gnaw your bones and devour your living heart. For then perchance I would rule the heavens and all the world should be mine, ere the light of the sun ever touches them again.”

“Never shall that be,” swore Aethon, and springing forward he hewed the foot of the dragon. The scream of Mawrgauthyr split the air and shivered mountains to sand, yet the wound was small, for its scales were as iron shields and it fell upon Aethon with the wrath of death. Thus the first battle of Aethon and Mawrgauthyr was joined.

This battle was of two days in length, though no change showed in the uncaring darkness as god and dragon hewed and lunged with cruel strokes. Five times Aethon wounded the dragon, and five times its cries cracked the hills and shattered the skies above it. Yet five wounds did Mawrgauthyr inflict upon him in return, with teeth and claw and the great spikes of his mighty tail. The blood of the dragon was poison, and where it fell forests turned black and crops withered in the field. Yet the blood of Aethon was as fire, and where it fell it cleansed the poison and consumed it utterly, so in time both tree and good growing things flourished there again. It is said in those hills even now that under turf and grass there is much red iron ore, where the blood of god and dragon has stained the very earth.

Yet at the end of the second day disaster struck. For Mawrgauthyr, in the strike of the fifth wound, had seized hold of Aethon’s shield arm in his jaws and bitten down, so that Tariantirau was rent in half and torn from its master. At this Aethon, feeling a dread fatigue in himself and without a defence against the dragon’s eyes or fangs, led the battle into the upper realms. Mawrgauthyr followed, but even the mighty wings of the dragon could not reach the heavens that Aethon roamed in the day, and he fell back with a snarl and a curse. Then Aethon came gladly to the Halls and cast himself down, for he was unutterably weary, and though the poison of the dragon’s jaws had been washed from his wounds by his own blood he felt still their pain. There he rested for a little while, until after five breaths he felt strong enough to seek the dragon again.

Mawrgauthyr had fallen back gladly, for his wounds pained him no less than Aethon’s did, and they burned like fire. Yet when he saw the god descend again towards him the dragon snarled gladly, for it seemed to him that the sun shone through a red haze as it fell, and his enemy was weakened.

“Now is the time this must end,” spoke Aethon, and he raised Lathndyr the Sword of Morning before him in a salute.

“Assuredly it will end,” roared Mawrgauthyr, “for now is when you die.” And he fell on Aethon like all the mountains of the world as one. So the second battle of Aethon and Mawrgauthyr was joined.

This battle was of three days in length, and the wounds that each inflicted on the other were seven. The blood of these fell over the riverlands of the north, and the dragon’s poisoned every river and stream from the High Lake to the Narrow Sea, so that every fish died and many animals and people who drunk from the rivers were sickened. But again the blood of Aethon fell and cleansed the venom from the water, though even to this day veins of jet and red gold can be found in cliffs around the High Lake as a testament to this.

On the end of the third day a second disaster struck, no less terrible than the first. For Aethon, impatient to end the battle and bleeding from a dozen wounds, struck with Lathndyr two-handed at the belly of the dragon, driving the point between two of Mawrgauthyr’s mighty iron scales. Yet the stroke went awry, for though the sword drove home Mawrgauthyr twisted in pain and so wrenched the sword from Aethon’s hands. At this Aethon again sought the upper realms, pursued hotly by Mawrgauthyr, who was now driven half to madness by the burning of his eleven wounds and the sword lodged in his belly. But Aethon again reached the halls ahead of the dragon and collapsed, spent, on the floor.

It is said in the sagas that this hour only was one in which the god knew fear, for now he was without shield and sword. No weapon could he wield unbroken against Mawrgauthyr, save Lathndyr only, nor any shield great or small, not even Tariantirau. Both were now denied to him, and still his foe rampaged throughout the world. Yet it is not said that in that hour that fear consumed him, and at its end he stood straight-backed and left the Halls, though in doubt as to whether he would ever set foot there again.

Mawrgauthyr he found in the Russedin Mountains of the east, quenching its thirst in the waters of the Narrow Sea, for the waters eased its pain. As Aethon approached it rose to its full height with wings outspread, shadowing the world again.

“Hail Aethon,” it roared, and its mockery was less. “Have you travelled from the airy realms to die?”

“Hail Mawrgauthyr,” replied Aethon, and his voice was weary but undaunted. “One death or another shall there be at the end of this, yet if it is mine then yours shall surely follow swiftly, for no other ending shall I accept for myself, or for the world.”

“You are unarmed,” it hissed, and there was something like wonder in its voice. “There is no hope for you in this.”

“It is not for me to hope, but to give hope to my people,” spoke Aethon, and so saying he went forward and with his bare hands began the third battle.

This battle was the longest, four days all told, and the wounds of dragon and god were beyond counting. They fought long above the mountains of the Russ, and the blood fell as rain, filling hollow and valley. Early in the battle a cleft was made in the heart of the mountains by the jaws of Mawrgauthyr, and as Aethon grappled him barehanded and tore the scales from his throat the blood of the dragon filled the pit as a lake, dark and chill with venom. Yet as the dragon raked Aethon with the talons of his forefeet the blood of the god dripped into the lake as tiny points of light, as though all the stars of the sky had lit the waters to mourn the agony of the sun. And so to this day it is called the Lake of Sorrow, and lights burn in its waters still, though the waters are still deep and dark and nothing will grow there.

Towards the end of the fourth day Mawrgauthyr fell back and flew north, for the burning of his wounds and the grip of Aethon like the flame of the sun had driven him to full madness, and he thought now only of easing of both in the deep snows. Such it was, and so he turned on Aethon with new ferocity. So fierce was the fury of his attack that Aethon was driven again into the upper air and Mawrgauthyr pursued him, knowing that death was near, for either it would catch the god fleeing or else it would trap him in the Halls until wounds and weariness took its toll.

But Aethon forsook his house, and the heavens, and turning back to the dragon he sprung in one final attack. And Mawrgauthyr, being surprised, had no defense, so Aethon drove it down and down, as a lightning bolt to a tree, as a hammer to hot iron, as the Sword of Morning to its foes, so that finally Mawrgauthyr was crushed to the ground at the roof of the world and its back was broken by the force of its landing, and with one final scream it writhed in the agony of death. Then Aethon fell beside it, and for a long time lay unknowing beside his fallen foe.

When he woke the dragon was still, and all the ground around them churned and cracked by the anguish of its writhing and the force of its landing. Its belly was turned towards him, and Aethon walked towards it for he saw a glint of gold. When he reached there indeed was the hilt of Lathndyr, wedged still between the plates of the dragons’ belly, and with one mighty wrench the god pulled it free.

But perhaps from this final pain, which stirred it to waking despite its mortal agony, Mawrgauthyr shifted in its death bed and opened one eye to stare at Aethon.

“Hail brother!” it said, its voice now a whisper of wind. “You have slain me.”

“No brother am I to you,” spoke Aethon. “And I have indeed slain you.”

Then the dragon laughed, the sound as of breaking steel and grinding stone. “Brothers we are, by our own making. For blood we have mixed thrice now, in hill and river and the high mountains, and so we are bound together in kinship.”

Then Aethon was stricken, for this was true by all the laws of men and gods, and so in the moment of his greatest triumph he had become a kinslayer. Then Mawrgauthyr laughed in malice again, but more softly, for he felt the chill of death upon himself.

“Fear not,” said he. “Death is not so much to one such as me. A sleep it is, long and long, and then I shall wake again to fight again... one more time.”

Aethon was now torn, for his duty was to prevent this, yet his kinship with the dragon forbade its harming by his hand. But at that moment foresight came upon him as it had before he and Mawrgauthyr had ever fought, and he spoke to the dragon in ringing tones.

“Hear me now! Indeed you shall sleep, and you wake, for so I decree. The world is yet young and I am needed, so light may continue to bring forth blooms of things that grow and life in many places, and also seeds of another kind, of courage and valour. It is not yet time for me to slay you, and bear the price of kinslaying.

So you shall sleep, and as you do your children shall spread across the world. Already they creep forth, from hill and river, forest and mountain, wyrm and drake and wyvern. Yet the spawn that are birthed from your flesh and blood here shall bear a gift none of their kin shall have, for you have tasted my blood and its fire burns in your belly. So shall it burn in theirs, and fire-drakes they shall be, the race of dragons. Ever shall my fire burn them, but of their own flesh shall it be and a weapon of theirs if so they choose. This is my gift to them and you, for the wounds I gave you when we had become kin. Yet domination over sky and earth they shall not have (for that is for the gods only), and ever shall strife arise between them and my own children, for in yours they shall find a test of courage and mettle even as I found in you. So shall all the deeds of evil be turned to good!

This shall it be, until our last battle, and on that day gladly shall I fight you to whatever end. Is this good?”

Mawrgauthyr raised his head and spoke one last time. “It is good.” And speaking such he laid his jaw to the snow and torn earth and entered the long sleep of death, from which he shall one day awaken. Then the sky and earth shall tremble and Aethon will descend again for the last time to do battle, knowing death will greet him at the end no matter what victory or defeat shall precede it.

But for that moment he stood, weary and wounded, and after a while he built a great cairn of stones over the body of Mawrgauthyr, which today has become the Mountains at the End of the World. Ice and snow cover it now, but beneath the dragon slumbers still, and his children in his stead roar and flap across the troubled world.

But above it all the sun shines still, and courage is kindled, and in the end the shadow of the dragon’s wing passes to a brighter morning.