THE DRAGON-SLAYERS.

How bright the morning was, how clear the air,
   How green the leaves, how sweetly sang the birds,
How soft the breeze as through the flowers fair
   It hummed (because it didn’t know the words),
How blue the sky, how perfect was the day
In early spring, it is (no doubt) superfluous to say.

It was the time of year when doughty knights
   Begin their doughty deeds of doughtiness;
They leave for foreign parts to see the sights
   (But more to kill the natives, I confess)—
At least most do, but some among the rest
Stay nearer home to earn their fame upon some parlous quest.

And so four knights set out upon their way
   To find the horrid monster that was said
To dwell within the forest, so that they
   Could kill the thing and, bringing back its head,
Earn for each one of them immortal fame.
Perhaps each one could hire a bard to celebrate his name.

Sir Gervold was the first (by alphabet),
   A bold and merry youth whose heart was true.
’Twas said that this young knight had never met
   An enemy whom he could not subdue.
Now that I think of it, if I recall,
I’m pretty sure he’d never met an enemy at all.

Sir Leo next, who had a lion’s heart,
   And who in boldness would to no one yield—
The more so for that, by heraldric art,
   The lion’s heart was graven on his shield.
To bear it on his shield he thought was best:
A lion’s heart would probably not fit inside his chest.

Sir Quintus next, confusing though it seems,
   Came third—a man of famously good cheer:
A face to haunt a courtly lady’s dreams,
   And breath to haunt her nightmares for a year.
And I can give the reason if you ask:
His famously good cheer was carried with him in a flask.

And bringing up the rear, Sir Sinderic,
   Whose lady did his heart to courage stir:
Whenever there was danger, he was quick
   To seize the chance to run away from her.
Away from her, toward the fight he ran:
Thus love, as we are told, can make a knight a better man.

Four knights, therefore, upon a forest trail
   Walked out, all ignorant of fear or dread.
Each vowed to heaven that he would not fail
   To be the one to seize the monster’s head—
Though each, in private, thought it might be best
To leave the actual killing of the beast up to the rest.

They walked along until the leafy green
   Began to yield to charred and smoking black,
And naught but desolation could be seen
   To left, to right, and down the forest track.
“I think,” Sir Quintus said with wavering cheer,
“I think that maybe something might perhaps have happened here.”

“Perhaps,” Sir Gervold said, “there’s been a fire.”
   “Perhaps there has,” Sir Sinderic concurred.
“I’ve heard,” Sir Leo said, “that in its ire
   The beast breathes flame,” and trembled with each word.
“Well,” said Sir Quintus, gulping, “I should think
This might demand some courage,” and he took another drink.

The trail wound down between the blackened trees
   Until it ended at a cave or den
Round which the knights (now rather ill at ease)
   Saw carcasses and bones of beasts and men.
Sir Leo, showing signs of some distress,
Suggested, “Do you think we might be at the wrong address?”

But lo! The monster stirs! A rumbling roar
   Comes rolling from the cave, and then the stink
Of sulfur; and at that the doughty four
   Less doughty feel; their hearts begin to shrink,
Their teeth to chatter, and their knees to quake.
Then comes a bellow loud enough to make the mountains shake.

And then—O horrible to tell!—the beast
   Appears, a dreadful dragon belching flame.
Its head alone was sixteen feet at least;
   Its claws like sabers, and its teeth the same;
Its eyes at least a foot across, no less:
It turned them on the knights and growled one single word out: “Yes?”

The doughty knights did not retreat—oh no!
   To keep each other’s spirits up, they tried
To push each other to the fore. And so
   Sir Gervold, wobbly-kneed and open-eyed,
And not as firm a pusher as the rest,
Before the dragon stood, and to the beast these words addressed:

“We are, good sir, a band of doughty knights,
   Who, um, that is, you know, are on a quest:
For, having heard that there’s a beast who blights
   This forest, well, we swore we wouldn’t rest
Till we had slain the monster. So, you see,
We thought we’d ask—um, do you know where such a beast might be?”

The dragon’s eyes took in the knights, and saw
   That they were something rather like canned meat;
It thought, “The cans would linger in my craw;
   They’d be more trouble than they’re worth to eat.”
It lifted up its talon, not to slay,
But just to point, and told the knights, “I think it went that way.”

“Thank you, kind sir,” the knights all said, or words
   To that effect, and quickly left the thing.
And soon the trees were green again, and birds
   Once more above the knights began to sing.
How glad the knights were to be on their way
It is, I’m pretty confident, superfluous to say.

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