The Red Witch’s Dragon
Smoke of the burning ships drifted across the hills.
They had come.
The warriors from the north and east to the verdant land. Of the people, even the Green Wizard had summed up his advice in one word.
Even the Green Wizard had told the younger, more volatile Red Wizard of the west to leave the area. They could return to the land after the raiders had left.
The Red Witch and Wizard taught the artisans the ways to perform their own brand of magic on ingots of gold, silver, copper and other metals. As they traded for and wide for the raw materials that they brought back to the village, both the husband and wife of the mountain felt they owed the village the best protection they could do.
“The best protection, my son, is to lead them to safety.”
Safety from the Dubh-Gall. Ferocious warriors that the world had not before seen. They came out of the north in high prow-ships, rowing like madmen. Swift, unstoppable and terrifying. In another age and language they went by another name.
“Move along! Quickly! The sooner we are through the hills…”
A scream echoed down the line of people. In the distance, the glint of steel shown through the forest.
They were coming.
“RUN! Drop everything that you are not wearing, carry the children and run!”
Oengus, the Red Wizard turned to his wife and they both knew what they had to do.
“Come with me.” The Red Wizard said to the most well armed of the men that did duty as the rear guard.
“Flank guard, come with me!” Assa the Red Witch said loudly. ignoring the irritated look from the Green Wizard as he herded the people through the gap.
Taking a group of adults to the rear, the plan quickly evolved to keep the Dubh-Gall from crossing the stream. They lined up in two rows, forming a giant V to keep the raiders from crossing the water ford and away from the escaping people.
The plan was to force the raiders to think they had broken through, only to cross at the deepest part of the stream where the swift waters flowed into a cataract.
Confident in their plan they deployed their under-armed and untrained warriors, painted the ruddy color of blood, they took finely forged weapons meant for trade and selling to princes and kings. This time, the people used the fine weapons to defend children, and those that could not defend themselves.
These were not soldiers, the was the leader, but the Wizard himself was no soldier.
Still, he had read the books of Alexander and Hannibal.
The rending of wood and metal upon flesh. The battle of the artisans against those of the raiders was decidedly one-sided.
Battle hardened from their many raids where the people ran like sheep. They were not ready for the she-wolf in red hair in the form of Assa, The Red Witch.
Their attack faltered as they surged forward against the raiders, the bright red hair and furious scream of a wild-eyed warrior woman bent on protecting those that have asked for it— fell.
Of all the things to happen to a person with arrows flying both directions, spears thrown and sharp instruments swung like scythes in the field.
Stepping sideways to dodge a swinging ax, she moved in front of a charging horse that killed the murderous berserker with its massive hooves and knocked her down in the process, stepping on her foot as it charged forward.
Two-hundred fifty paces from the front of the lines, she was not in the lead and her line began to falter.
Fighting and falling back, the line of home protectors, elders and the crazy aunt that everyone has, stood between the fleeing line of family and the bloodthirsty men from the sea.
In the clearing of bodies, Assa’s head bobbed up and down as she tried to make a splint out of a dropped battle club. Too far away, Oengus the Red saw his wife laying on the ground in harm’s way.
The line had moved away from her as his line was putting pressure on the raiders with archers and running battles.
But Assa was alone. Without a leader, her line began to fall back.
One-hundred fifty paces between her and the fighting line of death.
Arrows fell around her, the Wed Ritch without a weapon or tool, dragged herself to a broad shield dropped in the heat of battle and pulled it over her as three arrows hit nearby. Using it thick leather, wood and metal as an umbrella to protect her from the steel rain.
And the viking archers were finding her range.
Pulling the shield over her, broad as two men, an arrow struck the shield at a dangerous angle. This archer was spot on target and she was the bullseye.
Looking about, Oengus sought a volunteer to become a protector of his wife. Try as he might as they pushed towards where Assa was, the raiders were too strong and pushed back.
One-hundred twenty-five paces, the line grew closer to her. The defenders were retreating inexorably back, no one stopped to help her, they were all too busy fighting. Those that fell were on their own.
Such are the costs of war.
Oengus continued to search, but no one could break away, his own line unable to make headway.
Her line of defense was enough to keep safe the lives of the fleeing villagers that had moved out ahead of the landing of the high-prowed ships. Little did they realize that the well planned invasion had come in three parts, each raiding party had landed ten miles apart, north to south to cut off the refugees escape route.
The line had to reform as the fighters fell back from a wedge attack the raiders had formed.
The vikings were trying to punch through the lines and nearly did so, but Nial had other plans, half his family had yet to cross the water ford and de was not about to let the line closest to them break and endanger the people he is trying to protect.
Failure was not an option for any of them.
Seventy-five paces away from Assa.
Looking about at the melee of furious fighting, Oengus saw his love and reason for living now only steps from capture, hiding under broad shield, even from here, Oengus could see that her left foot was not in the anatomic normal position. It was badly broken by the warhorse stepping on her, the pain would be excruciating. It was no small wonder that she had not cast some spell of hiding or concealment, the agony of her broken foot kept her from focusing.
No one was able to take the time, everyone was defending to their utmost
Assa could see the individual hairs in the beard of the pig-tailed, pig nosed man who carried a sword nearly as long as he stood tall.
Two thin lines of defenders, one defender deep stood between her and death, like mighty trees standing against the storm. Screaming berserkers, by the twos and half-dozens, charged time and again against the smiths, tinkerers, carpenters and farmers, crashing like waves against stone. Steel upon steel and bronze upon leather, the screams of the dying and the momentary victorious sounded along the battle line, it all blended in an awful din.
Oengus knew that they could not keep up the defense, the archers left alive were running low on arrows. Youthful runners sprinted, some never returned, a small few returned bringing arrows in hand and in body before collapsing in death, giving the arrows that had pierced them as they had run. Each man bled to hold his line next to his brother or cousin. None of the villagers would give a willing inch to the biting axes and hissing arrows.
Their own archers gave the raiders something to respect. Time and again, even as their own had fallen to arrows that came in, they outdistanced the Viking archers with their long bows.
Thirty paces. The wounded men stood against the charging invaders of the land, like time and waves on rock, it was wearing them down.
The line retreated, but at a hideous cost to the men of the east, dozens fell with arrows jutting out of their eyes and stuck in their throats.
Oengus was in a panic, he needed a subject, someone who would willingly endure a temporary transformation and be the hero of the day.
None could turn to even engage the question. Everyone was committed to the battle.
He was the wizard of harvest, he could bring a flood and storm. But here in the vale, they were all in the floodplain. He had one spell, ten-thousand spells for the same effect, ten-thousand ways to cast each one and he had to undo what he was about to do. Once done, anyone else would be hard pressed to cast a counterspell on changes he wrought with his words.
Out of time. Oengus knew who would do the heroic deed. But the return would be so much longer than the first transformation.
Sliding his sword into the scabbard and dropping it against a tree. He readied himself for the power to flow and transform.
Oengus, Wizard of the Red Dragon of the Westland was ready.
He imaged in his mind his subject and began chanting the five-keys of spells in a specific pattern.
He awoke the land and called upon its power.
Assa the Red Witch of the Setting Sun, hid under the broad viking shield, dropped by a raider when her defenders surged forward out of the narrows where the water flowed, her ankle hurt so bad, she screamed when she moved it. Remaining still was not an option.
“Protect the Red!” The artisians yelled. A gravelly voice of the singularly talented smith in seven villages, he called himself “The Smite”, bellowed that no one would be allowed to take the Red Witch.
“Gather her! Pick her up and take her away!” As his great hammer inverted yet another Norse shield into the unfortunate wielder.
But no one came.
She was alone. In a sea of friends and family, of those she had healed, the only help could be had were those that were fighting to protect her untenable place under the broad disk of bronze and iron.
Using a sprig of a spice she dug from the ground, Assa chewed on it for the narcotic, albeit minimal, effect it had.
She needed greater magic than she had with her, her bag, torn from her body by Ulain and his bronze-armored steed when she was ran over by the thundering hooves that stepped on her ankle.
“HERE! Assa!” It was Ulain’s son with the armored horse holding out his hand whilst holding onto the reigns of the angry warhorse with the other.
They were in a semi-circle of a path, a lane really, two rows of fighters, archers on one side shooting between the ranks of the defenders on the other, into the bodies and heads of the raiders that surged to drive the villagers into the water.
It was the plan all along, to draw the heavily armored invaders into a white water grave in the rapids, but with the falling of their leader, she now needed more protection than any of them.
A loud sound, like that of a gong, sounded loud and the great black horse fell, Ulain was gone, Assa did not know if Ulain died somewhere or unhorsed and was fighting on foot. His son now lay crushed under the horse that had an embossed mark like a hammer on the side of the horse-helmet, struggled.
Assa could feel the horse remained alive, but instead of shifting emotions and feelings of the animal, it was a soft blur, the horse was unconscious.
Then Assa spied an object that made her heart leap for hope— Her medicine bag, lost in the early part of the fighting. In it she could heal a broken ankle in moments, give strength to the fighters defending their homes and heal herself.
Now she needed Oengus and he was a thousand paces away and the killers of women and children were…
The villagers would shove and battle, gaining ten steps and be driven back eleven.
If viewed from above, the line moved as a snake, writhing, biting, killing— pain.
Her bag, was fifteen paces behind her, she struggled towards it, putting distance between herself and the inexorable retreat of the line to the river.
An ax banged against the shield and bounced away.
The battle was twelve paces distant. She was getting hit with debris that flew about during battles.
A blast of wind blew her bag towards her hand, almost into her grip, but paused.
Not waiting, she lunged and grabbed the soft leather and pulled it under her makeshift roof.
Focusing as she pulled out a stone, spit on it — which was a challenge as her mouth was dry — she only needed a little moisture to have the powder stick to the stone.
And … A sound that grew louder…
The battle seemed different.
Sounds of the rage of war had changed, becoming screams of fear.
Lifting up the shield that was her savior several times in the last few minutes, she saw what looked like ruby-red tree trunks just to the battle side.
The roar of the furies combined with the sound of a thousand storms were no match for ruby-red dragons voice.
The roar echoed off the distant mountains and rolled back along the battle line.
Although in legend and by fire they bragged about being brave, but on this day, the raiders had a collective loss of bladder control at once… Then ran.
Snarling with fury the great dragon launched itself against the fleeing hoard and continued to roar and snarl as they dropped weapons to run faster. The raiders of the lands did not feel they had to outrun the dragon, just the man next to him.
Sure victory had become a race of retreat to the boats.
In legends down time, the people told and re-told the story that the roars of the dragon echoed in the hills around the vale for three days after the battle.
Those raiders fallen behind were left by their brothers, the Dubh-Gall that fought and drove the farthest inland were now the most far behind when the running began, finding themselves abandoned by the hoard of now frightened men who sailed away on the ships they arrived in. The abandoned warriors settled peacefully, never wishing to draw the ire of the red dragon of the west ever again.
In the vale, where the villagers returned, blood that had seeped into the ground from the defenders that would give their lives for the loved one named Assa that taught them all how to live, love and laugh.
In the days that followed, leaders looked for Oengus. After weeks of searching, finally identified him by his medallion of a Red Dragon hanging around his neck. No help could be rendered in by any artesian or even the great Green Wizard of the east.
Oengus had changed himself into the dragon, but unable to speak any human tongue in his condition, no one knew the spell he performed.
Finn of the White Water, where he lived on the river, was able to perform the mathematics to figure out the time needed to change Oengus back to his normal self.
One-hundred million ways to cast the spell, each one taking a half-minute to recite in a rush without mistakes.
Assa would age, pass, then be dead and gone if she had to go to the end and try every spell to get her husband back.
Such was the price of a hero.
He won the respect of every day the villagers lived in peace, but had no part in the celebration, he could never know the hugs of the children that he saved.
For dragons live forever, men and women do not.
Even witches and wizards.
In the decades that followed, if one stopped and listened in the far end of the vale, one could hear the red witch yelling at her husband, calling him names for using a spell that no one could reproduce.
Early one fine spring day, about two years after the battle, Granuaile walked to the mountain of the dragon and announced herself.
The Red Witch, always enjoying company, yelled at the husband.
Once they called her Assa, the Red. The Gentle Red Witch.
Now, she called herself Nessa, meaning “Ungentle”, she became Nessa the Red, the Warrior Witch of the Westland.
“Dragon! Show yourself! It is the girl from the village.”
Pointing to the vale, Granuaile told them of the trees that the Green Wizard had planted.
“Come see. A monument to the day you saved us all.” With that she ran off down the path, waving at the Red Witch.
In the lane, near the ford, trees now lined the path that followed where the dragon had stood and walked until the fighters and defenders that held their ground in defense of the Red Witch of the Mountain, was safe.
In the times that followed, the stream silted up and moved, the ford became a meadow, but the trees remained. When they died or fell, there were people of the land to replant the trees, eventually becoming giants, growing over the path with a protective canopy along the section where once stood a dragon that was a man who gave his life as a human to protect the jewel of his heart.
In time the vikings would return, forgetting the Red Dragon that lived in the Westland.
They would not forget for long.