The Lies of Legends
By Masoud House
The day that The Knife of Wailing Edge came to Bucks Ford should have been a day of wonder. Nothing had ever happened in the one-stream forest town. Boys ran in from the forest saying that a demon hunter neared. The denizens of Bucks grew hungry. Hungry for a legend, for glory, for something new. It had to be The Knife. But when he did arrive, it wasn't with glory or nobility. It was with horror.
The legends said that he was a mountain of a man, with pearlescent skin and starry eyes. The legends were wrong. This gnarled man, if he was The Knife himself, was anything but divine.
He was short and stocky. Wide, like a bull. His skin was sunburned and leathery. His back was blackened and welted. He was an ogre of a man, brutish and feral; a hound of hell.
Behind him he dragged the head of a boar beast. Its eyes were cold and lifeless, staring into the darkness of the cloudy sky. He betrayed no pride or fear, happiness or grief. His were brooding, survivor's eyes.
The beast's tongue hung from chapped lips. One tusk was broken at the tip; the other dangled loosely by a thread of sinew. Like the beast, this gnarled man said nothing as he walked.
He limped into town, covered head to toe in blood and viscera. Some of it was his, wounds savaged open by fangs. Some of it was the beast's, dark and heavy like putrid tree sap.
He didn't look at anyone as he approached. He didn't shrink in modesty when they saw his nudity under the frenzy of blood and organs draped over his body. His only possessions were sealed in a knapsack on his back and a pouch around his neck. He was adorned with the bones of fantastic and terrible beasts; a large avian skull covered his shoulder, cracked wolf ribs lined one arm, rings of serpentine tail bones protected his toes. He wasn't a warrior, a barbarian, or a monster slayer. He was a monster himself.
Wearily, he marched into the center of town. He dropped the head. Then he sat.
The sun rose and fell with him sitting there, bathed in blood, and nude, but he didn't move. The whole day, no one dared approach.
Instead, they whispered.
"Are you sure that's The Knife of Wailing Edge?" asked Dashing Thom.
"Heard he's killed dozens of the same beasts before. Heard it from my cousin in Weeping Oaks," Waryl said. "Heard he he's been coming for the last few weeks."
"Can't be him," said Old Man Gregor. "His hands are too human. Heard he rips their jaws open with clawed hands. Bear hands."
"Don't you mean, bare hands?" said Mariah. "That's not what that means you old fool."
Gregor grunted. "Take a look at those paws and tell me different." Mariah groaned.
"Man looks like a beast himself," said Errol.
"More like a demon," said Broad Luke.
It was at moonrise that little Kay approached the grizzled warrior. Flies danced on the innards of the beast, laying their eggs. The blood-caked man sat in silence, eyes closed to the world. Meditating, it seemed.
Kay tiptoed through the trails of muscle and tissue that stained the ground. He was a small boy, slight of size and cautious by nature. He didn't know whether to poke or prod or whisper or yell. But he didn't need to.
"Come no further," the gnarled man growled. Kay jumped. "State your business."
"My mother wants to know if you'd like to eat," Kay said. "And maybe bathe. At the inn."
The man nodded. "Is there anyone in town who will pay for this beast's head?"
"You can ask the chief," Kay said.
The man grunted.
"Can I ask you something?"
The man remained silent. Kay continued.
"The whole town's fussing. We can't decide. Are you The Knife of Wailing Edge?"
He didn't answer.
"I mean, we think you are. No one 'round these parts could be as fierce. It's just that the legends say you're taller than a grizzly and have eyes like pools of stars."
The gnarled man opened his eyes, rose up, and heaved the boar's head onto his back.
"The legends lie."
He didn't say anything else. Kay nodded. "You can follow me, mister The Knife. But feel free to leave the head. It'll make an awful mess on momma's floors."
Momma Sondra welcomed the gnarled man into the inn. Tattered rags covered the floor, leading to the bath. The water was scented with copious amounts of precious oils. He reached into his pouch, removed a handful of silver coins, and dropped them onto her counter. The other guests gasped. That was enough for a month in most inns.
"I'll be out by tomorrow," the man said.
And then he went into the bath.
"Where does a man get that kind of silver?" Aleks said.
"Must be The Knife," Broad Luke said.
"I still have my doubts," Dashing Thom said.
"Be sure to voice them to that demon of a man when he gets out from his bath," Mariah said.
"He never claimed to be The Knife of Wailing Edge, did he?" asked Errol.
"Didn't claim anything at all," said Waryl.
"Sounds to me like we should keep our mouths shut and let the man be," said Momma Sondra. "Seems like the least we can do."
The inn shut up, staring at each other, embarrassed.
"We need the gossip," Old Gregor said.
The inn erupted in chatter again.
"S'not like anything happens here," Aleks said.
"I think that head in the center of town is enough for a lifetime," said Mariah.
Dashing Thom grimaced. "Don't the legends say he was so big that he ripped open the jaws of the pit troll of Deluth?"
"His arms look mighty big," said Broad Luke.
"The legends say that he burst open the Iron Gates of Jurich with one kick," said Old Gregor.
"He doesn't look tall enough to kick open a bush," Dashing Thom said.
"Aren't the Iron Gates actually bronze?" Mariah asked.
"It's what I heard," said Old Gregor. "What do you say to that?"
"I'd say that the legends are full of horse droppings."
Half a dozen pairs of eyes turned as the small man emerged from the bath, draped in wool. He had shaved, washed and oiled his skin, and stood upright. His body looked ten years younger. Yet his gaze was still hardened and guarded.
He limped to Momma Sondra, who uncovered a modest meal. There was a bowl of carrot stew and a plate of potatoes and lamb's leg. It was just enough to feed his hunger. But he didn't complain. He humbly nodded, took his dishes, and sat in the farthest corner of the room.
Everyone watched in silence as Momma Sondra brought him his ale. The only sound was the tearing of meat from bone and the slurping of soup from spoon. By the end of his meal, he'd drunk two pitchers of ale and smoked a pipe of humdrum stems.
"Go ask him," said Thom.
"You're the one who wants to know," said Errol. "You go ask him."
"Gregor, you're the oldest," said Broad Luke.
Old Gregor huffed. "What's that got to do with the price of the King's copper?"
"What if the man's a cold dead killer?" asked Waryl. "Gregor could lose his life."
"He's got the least to lose," said Aleks.
"Wait, where's Kay?" asked Mariah.
They turned to see Kay sitting at the table with the gnarled man and gasped.
"The kid's fearless," said Errol. "May his name live on in glory."
Momma Sondra slapped Errol across the back of his head. "That's my boy you're talking about," she said. "Darling, give the man some space," she said, calling out to Kay.
Kay stared at her, and then he stared at the gnarled man. The gnarled man stared back.
"What do you want?"
"We're still curious about you."
"Why should I care?"
Kay thought for a moment. "Could get you more gold for that beast's head."
The man took his last gulp of ale.
"Good point," the man said.
"So is it true?"
The man stared silently at the wall. He was as still as ice.
"Is it true," Kay prodded, "that you defeated Grilla the Gruesome Giant? Stared down the Lynx of Arrow's Hill and wrestled the diamond tooth out of its maw?"
The man said nothing. Kay leaned in. The inn's tenants strained their eyes and ears.
"Is it true," Kay started, "that you took on the Dread Dragon of the Dim Drake Den, the deadliest dragon in the known world?"
The others couldn't help themselves. They erupted one after another, fearless in their excitement.
"The dragon that killed the four hundred Nameless Nomads in one night!" shouted Errol.
"The dragon that devoured the babes of Badger's Keep!" yelled Waryl.
"The dragon that hoarded the riches from the kingdoms of North Riggyl!" piped Mariah.
"The dragon that stole the ageless maidens from the Arches of Ashanti!" croaked Old Gregor.
"The dragon that tore Mount Moral in two with one furious, burning breath!" said Momma Sondra, to everyone's surprise.
"The dragon that you battled as but a boy, empty-handed, for seven days and nights until you were bathed in its blood?" said Thom.
The man stood. They froze.
Their eyes rose and followed.
He carried his dishes and mugs to the counter. Their bodies turned as he neared, watching him feverishly, desperately waiting for a word of confirmation.
His gaze passed from person to person.
They thirsted for stories. For glorious and grim details. For legends to tell their friends for the rest of their lives. But under his stare, their enthusiasm turned into embarrassment, then unease. His face told many stories, and none of them were of glory and legend. His face showed pain. And loss. And loneliness. And under those eyes, they wilted, and turned away.
When he did speak, he spoke softly. Not like the bear of a man he was said to be, but with the wisdom and remorse of a wizened sage. "I did some of those things. Others are lies. None of them should ever be spoken of again. Especially of the Dread Dragon."
And then he left to his room.
That night, the gnarled man slept at the inn, his window opened to the full moon night. Villagers waited outside his room and outside the inn expecting adventure to seek him.
But instead they found his memories.
The gnarled man dreamed that night. Dreamed of horror and sacrifice. His night terrors woke the entire village. Names of forgotten loves. The trauma of near death. Murder, maiming, pillaging. Destruction. Through it all, his whispers became screams. "Leave me! Leave me be! Don't touch me!" But his cries never seemed to escape the flames of the Dread Dragon of the Dim Drake Den.
When he woke, the village was silent. They'd heard his pain. His nightmares would give them their own for years to come.
When he left town, there was a bag with a note at the village center. They weren't sure if he could read, but no one could approach him. Not even brave little Kay. They left him their finest rewards, some food, and kindly asked him to remove the monster's head. He complied.
Weeks later, he'd traveled through similar towns and inns with similar results. He killed more monsters. Ate more food. And tried to bathe his troubles away. To scrub the blood from his skin. To scrape the thoughts from his mind. Each memory brought him back to his worst moments.
As much as he wanted to get away, he found himself retracing his steps back to where it all began. He tried to avoid it, but he was compelled to follow his memories to their source.
He crossed Grilla's cave, where he slaughtered an innocent man under false pretenses.
He found the skull of the lascivious Lord Lynx hanging over Arrow's Hill. The people there nodded their thanks to him but said nothing. They knew the rules.
He crossed the barren land where four hundred graves were dug, by hand, for nameless victims. His scarred fingers trembled. His nails had never grown back the same.
He shivered as he came to the village of Badger's Keep. His former home. Now nothing but ash. The ash of the Dread Dragon.
He climbed Mount Moral, split in two from war and battle. He covered himself in thick hides to brave the freezing squalls. But the hides didn't protect him from the fear tickling the back of his neck. He spent many nights hoping to escape the Dread Dragon here. But there was no escape.
On the edge of the mountain, he paused. Few people knew this was the famed Wailing Edge. It's where he found her plaque, still there, untouched. A little memorial dedicated to his mother. It had two parts: "To the fairest maiden of Ashanti," its first line said.
He broke down. He couldn't restrain his grief. He sobbed for hours. It wasn't her true grave. He looked over the cliff's edge and stared down into its abysmal depths. Anything to get away, he thought. Then he whispered the second line. "Only in death did she find peace."
He hiked further up the mountain, through the tunnels, to the Dim Drake Den. Its pillaged riches were still there, scattered for all to see and none to take. Too much pain and anguish befell those whose homes were destroyed by The Dread Dragon for those treasures. No one should ever benefit from them.
Finally, at the highest peak, under the hanging bones of conquered foes, was the throne of the great Dread Dragon. Not a drake at all, but a man and his throne and his grave.
There, The Knife of Wailing Edge knelt, as if in prayer. His fears rose in his body like a drum beat, rattling against his bones.
Sweat soaked his skin; shivers turned into seizures. The pain turned to rage, running up his spine and to his throat. And then he bellowed. The Knife was called a god and a devil; he thundered with the anger of a god and the fury of a devil, so loud that his roar echoed well beyond the confines of the Forge. Animals heard it beyond Badger's Keep; villagers heard it beyond Arrow's Hill; and the inn's people even heard it in Bucks Ford. He let it ring from the deepest depths of his soul until he was exhausted and emptied. This den was made to create terror, and he let his terror sing to the moon and the sun and the stars.
With his remaining strength, he plunged his blade into the gravestone of The Dragon, splitting it in two. And then he threw himself over the stone and spoke with wearied, dry, trembling lips.
"Damn you, father."
And there he wept.