“The Tale of Cincinnatus”
“You will never know until you try…” The words echoed once more through the desolate corridors of my mind. I wished that I had punched my noble lord father in the face the moment he uttered them. Alternately, out of respect for his many winters and gray hairs, I could have simply turned my back and walked away in silence. Or perhaps I could have embarked on a different quest of my own choosing in a less painful but still futile effort to earn his respect. Anything but what I actually did: allow him to bludgeon me into attempting the impossible with the blunt weapon of his decades-old disdain for me, his youngest son, too far down the family tree to even be useful as a spare heir.
Brutal experience had handed me a new understanding of the limitations of that trite adage: it neglected to consider the potential costs of trying. The greatest insult was that the demanding old bastard would never appreciate – nay, even comprehend – the magnitude of the sacrifice that I had made to achieve the impossible. After all, was he not willing to trade my life for the prospect of a few months of familial fame, a few thousand acres of additional land that our family didn’t actually need, and the fleeting gratitude of a fickle king?
“Be prepared to sacrifice all for glory and honor,” he told me unthinkingly, as if these hypothetical concepts were the sum of a man’s life. Perhaps, in his narrow, skewed world, they were.
Turning my head as I stood on the dais behind my lord father – always behind him – I glared at the thing being hoisted into position on the far wall. With its jaggedly protruding horns and dagger-like teeth, the damned creature’s skull looked as if it belonged in the armory instead of being mounted in the great hall. Even the court wizard’s preservation-spells couldn’t save the beast’s original eyes, and its empty eye-sockets had been filled with large topazes from my lord father’s treasure room. At least I would be spared that fixed, spiteful stare during court functions.
My inner vision filled with huge, glowing orbs, glowering gloatingly down at me through a curtain of flames. It was as if those awful, reptilian eyes had channeled the crushing weight of centuries of existence directly onto me. How dared I lift my hand against such a mighty being? I thought despairingly. Not that any man was capable of defeating a dragon, but the idea that I, George Lenster, despised seventh son of Duke Lucius Lenster, was worthy of even attempting it was preposterous. I could have sworn that the dragon’s toothy grin widened mockingly as it bent its head towards me.
With a forceful jolt, I shook my head, wrenching my eyes open. I knew all too well how that half-reminiscence, half-vision would end and I desperately wanted to avoid experiencing it once more, particularly here. Hopefully, none of the vassals bowing gratefully before my lord father had noticed my moment of inattention. While the men droned out lengthy recitations of the damages to their small-holdings inflicted by the marauding dragon, I felt their eyes flicker both towards and away from me, like the confused fluttering of butterflies’ wings. As they strewed thanks like flower petals along my father’s stately path, they stared at me even while they mouthed the words.
When would this interminable audience end? I fumed silently. And why was my presence deemed necessary? After all, it wasn’t as if my lord father customarily invited me to participate in court proceedings. Involuntarily, my teeth clenched into a poor imitation of the skull’s snarling grin as it occurred to me that I was now as much my father’s trophy to display as it was. Surely my current usefulness to him would fade even more quickly than the wizard’s preservation-spells, I thought bitterly. I had far more important duties to attend to than standing here and pretending to be impressive.
Even after the vassals harmed by the dragon had spoken, my lord father failed to dismiss me, leaving me standing awkwardly as he drank in the admiration of his other petitioners. In gratitude for being assigning an additional plot of land to farm, one peasant had presented a fine hawk he’d trapped and trained to my lord father. As my toes began to tap with suppressed impatience, the hawk mantled her wings and bated in irritation.
I took a deep breath to soothe myself. The last thing I wanted to do was cause problems for the poor innocent bird. Or, for that matter, for the peasant who’d brought her to the great hall. Furious at my lack of discipline, I concentrated on corralling my emotions. The hawk retreated back into neutral passivity. Thank God for small favors, I thought to myself. As if I didn’t carry enough guilt already.
Restlessly, I took a deep breath, letting the words flow past me like a burbling brook. My second daily visit to the stable was past due, I realized with a sinking stomach. I both wished myself there without further ado and flinched from the prospect like the coward I was.
Finally, the great hall was empty but for the occupants of the dais. My lord father still sat motionless on his throne. Suspecting that he’d forgotten me, as always, I shuffled my feet, deliberately squeaking my boots on the dais. Slowly, he twisted partially to look in my general direction. Chilly gray eyes met my own briefly. “You may go,” he proclaimed dismissively.
Before he changed his mind, I leaped off the dais without using the stairs and limped hastily towards the door.
“Boy.” His voice stopped me in my tracks. I clearly had not moved expeditiously enough.
Reluctantly, I paused, mere feet from a successful exit. Across the distance spanning us, I thought I saw my father’s satin-clad chest heave in a surreptitious sigh. “How long do you intend to continue to indulge your sentimentality? It serves no purpose.”
The impersonal, emotionless tone of his voice infuriated me. How dared he intrude in such a matter! My voice lashed out like a whip. “It shames you to begrudge me a few hours of the healer’s time after the rewards that my victory brought you.”
“It shames you that you believe I’m concerned about the healer’s time,” he retorted.
I struggled to breathe under the combined weight of the anger and guilt compressing my chest. Without another word, I stormed from the suddenly stifling confines of the great hall.
Outside, in the fresh breeze washing through the courtyard, I sucked in great gusts of cool air, gradually feeling my rage-hastened heartbeat slow. In the distance, a returning scouting party blew a bugle to request entry into my father’s castle. As commonplace as the sound was, my sight blurred as it rang in my ears.
A bugle-like bellow of pain and challenge ripped at me. Interposing himself between me and the dragon, Cincinnatus reared protectively before me, front hooves flailing. That scream dragged me to my feet despite my own wounds as I saw that Cincinnatus was still trying to fight for both of us. Since I was solely responsible for bringing him to this abattoir, I had no right to abandon him by succumbing to despair. The force of Cincinnatus’s raw resolve accelerated the pace of my own heart, driving blood through my enervated body. I could find enough dignity to die like a man, rather creeping on my belly like a craven worm, I decided.
One of Cincinnatus’s hooves slammed into the lowered snout of the sneering dragon. It roared in pained anger. A massive, clawed fore-leg slammed into my warhorse, sending his powerful body tumbling as if he were nothing more than a child’s toy. The impact of his landing rattled my own bones. A scream of involuntary anguish cleaved its way upwards from my lungs. Not Cincinnatus! If I’d known that the price of my father’s regard would be the life of the stallion I’d raised from a colt, myself only a lad, I would have exhausted my substantial vocabulary of obscenities in refusing to set foot on this battlefield! Yet it seemed that I had unwittingly consented to the exchange nonetheless.
Forgetting how deeply outmatched I was by a centuries-old legendary beast at least five times larger than Cincinnatus, I howled in pure rage as I yanked the last javelin from the bundle on my back. Without thinking of consequences, I decided that I would take that damned dragon’s head in remembrance of Cincinnatus. Berserk with battle-madness, I still noticed that the javelin began to glow azure blue the moment my hand clutched around it. Instinctively, I held it for a moment, letting the magic that I was not allowed to possess build around the javelin. With a mighty effort, I hurled it directly at the nearest golden orb with all my strength, both physical and mental…
My back collided with the cold stone wall behind me as I stumbled backwards half-consciously. The impact drove the air from my lungs. As I gasped, dark spots whirled before my eyes and the vivid memory fled.
No longer concerned with appearances, I leaned against the wall, breath coming in harsh near-sobs. Oh God, Cincinnatus! I thought miserably. If only the fool who had agreed to fight a dragon had been the one to pay the price for his lack of wisdom! Thinking back, I supposed that I’d been resigned that I would die in the attempt. It wasn’t as if anyone would particularly miss me anyway: anyone human at least.
Yet somehow I’d never considered that Cincinnatus would refuse to willingly witness my death. Even if a normal horse would have fled, its instinctive, visceral fear of fire overwhelming even the tightest of bonds, Cincinnatus was as far beyond such a poor beast as the dragon was beyond me. If only I’d taken another horse from the stables…
Facing the truth head on for once, I admitted that I hadn’t wanted to die alone. I might not have had the will to ride to the dragon’s cave by myself. That was the true reason I’d brought Cincinnatus with me. For I could never feel truly alone when I was near Cincinnatus. Though I saw into the minds of animals, none that I’d encountered shared the rich inner life that Cincinnatus did. I knew not if it stemmed from his longstanding bond with me or whether he truly was a monarch among horses, though I suspected the latter. What I did know was that his company meant more to me than that of any other living being. I should have had the decency to exclude him from my selfish death-march.
With effort, I ordered my feet to find and follow the well-traveled pathway through the courtyard towards the stable. My half-healed leg threatened to buckle and I was forced to slow my pace. My palms rested on the rough wooden double-doors of the stable for a long moment while I gathered the strength to shove. The doors swung open easily.
As I entered, I encountered the stable-master. “M’lord,” he muttered, yanking off his hat and bowing his head. I frowned; I’d known the man since I was a lad and he’d never stood on ceremony before. It didn’t require the sort of unnatural insight I had with animals to realize that he’d abruptly reevaluated his opinion of me. His unwonted obeisance sprang as much from fear as respect: as if by slaying the dragon I had become a new, dangerous person. But I told myself that I didn’t care about the sudden distance between me and Bart; he wasn’t the reason I was here, after all.
Dismissing it as a problem for another time, I strode past Bart and down the central aisle of the stable. In the large loose-box that we reserved for breeding mares or ailing animals who required the overnight attention of a stable-boy, I glimpsed the head of a chestnut stallion. From this angle, I couldn’t see the bandages shrouding his breast and belly, I noticed with relief. Yet his head and neck hung unusually low and the feed-bucket appeared untouched. My own ribs and abdomen ached and burned simultaneously. Gritting my teeth, I stepped closer.
Backwards-facing ears pricked forwards and wide, intelligent brown eyes met my own as the stallion’s head lifted towards me. Recognition rippled through me like a gale through the forest. Although animals did not communicate in words, it felt as if he’d cried aloud, Well met, dear friend! Cincinnatus was still glad to see me, despite it all… I swallowed hard.
Immediately on the heels of the delighted greeting followed an ocean of discomfort. That moment of fleeting joy foundered beneath waves of agony like a sinking dinghy overwhelmed by a storm at sea.
Letting out an involuntary moan of sympathetic pain, I hobbled to the stall and reached out to him, remembering just in time that Cincinnatus’s wasted, damaged body could not bear a full embrace. Gently, I stroked his head and ran my hands down his muzzle, before I leaned in to rest my forehead lightly against his. “I’m happy to see you too, old friend,” I murmured softly.
The shuffle of footsteps in the hay made my head turn. “Lord George,” the blasted healer called reprovingly. “The horse suffers terribly.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” I snarled without thinking. “I felt it the moment I stepped inside the stable!” Wonderful: I’d inadvertently admitted the truth. If he heard of it, punishment would inevitably descend from my lord father.
“How goes the healing process?” I demanded quickly.
The man let out a heavy sigh. Unlike my father’s sigh earlier, it was tinged not with exasperation, but with regret. “Lord George,” he began. “ I understand that you are deeply attached to your horse, but, as I’ve indicated for days, there is no hope of recovery. All I can do is keep him alive. His burn-wounds are incurable and the dead flesh is starting to fester. My best efforts merely prolong his pain.”
“No!” I barked. “Surely there is something more you can do!”
He reached out and rested his hand sympathetically on my arm, despite the class differences between us. He, a mere healer: higher-caste than a wizard, but still...
Immediately, I wrenched away. I did not want or need human comfort of any type!
Despite the rebuff, he still continued in an unexpectedly gentle voice, “Lord George, I must speak plainly. I know what is between you and the horse, though I will never disclose it to another. Many years ago, my sister’s magic also first manifested as animal-kindred. As a fellow mortal with magic threaded through his soul, I offer you the same advice I gave her when her cat was trampled by stampeding livestock: listen to your horse and ask what he wants. I truly believe that you will know then what you must do.”
His piercing blue eyes gazed deeply into mine. With a respectful nod, he stepped away several stalls, giving me the illusion of privacy. For a moment, the iron band that had surrounded my chest ever since my unexpected survival loosened. Someone knew the truth about me and about what had happened. Surely, others must suspect: I didn’t understand how anyone who actually knew me could believe me capable of slaying a dragon through sheer force of arms. Yet it seemed that the entire demesne had silently agreed to ignore the truth and to pretend I had defeated it by ordinary means. The nobility was never to engage in the blasphemous use of magic, after all.
Then I truly heard his words. What I must do? I thought in outrage. Who was he to tell me what I must do? Yet he had advised me to seek answers from Cincinnatus, whose counsel I cherished.
Turning towards my companion, I reached out once more, my fingers seeking out the comfort of his silky mane. Friend, I thought softly. What would you have of me?
The image of a green meadow dotted with wildflowers popped into my mind. Peace, he breathed, as clearly as if in words. Cincinnatus wanted to run on healthy legs, bask in the warm sun outside the stable and roll in the fragrant grass without pain.
My eyes filled with unmanly tears. At that moment, I knew that my greatest sin was not the selfishness of bringing Cincinnatus into battle, but the selfishness of the past few days.
Taking a shaky breath, I looked back at the healer. “Healer…” I called, then stopped. To my embarrassment, I didn’t know his name.
“Galen,” he interjected. “Yes, my lord?”
“Healer Galen, is there truly nothing further you can do for Cincinnatus?” My throat closed around the words.
“No, Lord George,” he answered sadly. “I can only end his pain permanently.”
The stable shuddered around me. I had not known a life without the consolation of Cincinnatus’s companionship for years. He was my dearest friend. Yet he abided here still, in a world of suffering, solely at my will. Was mine the act of the true friend he deserved?
Shame made my stomach churn as I stared into those luminous eyes, shadowed with pain but still possessed of a willing, noble spirit. It would be the fool who’d begun the fight who bore the full price of it, I resolved.
“I will miss you, dear friend. I pray with all my heart that we will meet again in the hereafter,” I choked. “Whatever the world may think, to me, this will always be the tale of Cincinnatus, rather than the tale of Sir George and the dragon.”
Tearing my gaze away, I felt my mouth tremble as I faced the healer fully. “Galen, it is time to set Cincinnatus free.”