Quest for the Dragon's Heart
Long ago, in the days when fierce dragons still
troubled the land of Euskadi, cold winds swept over a
village high in the mountains. The council of
elders huddled around a fire, debating what to do with
a thief. The man had just been caught stealing
sheep from the nearby pastures, a crime normally
punishable by exile or death.
Holding a tall sickle in his right hand, an old man
presided over the meeting. Only a few minutes had
passed, but he already seemed weary of the proceeding.
After first glancing at the sacred lauburu carved on
the walls of a nearby hut, he abruptly stood up,
prompting the other to follow. This was certainly a
surprise, for it was rare for a decision to be made
with such haste.
"Though the loss of even a single animal from the
flock is normally a grave matter," the old man said,
"We have more serious problems today. Someone must
go to Zugarramundi . . ."
"Ala jinko!" exclaimed another elder, rubbing his gray
beard. "That's the place where the witches live!
None of us would last long against their evil magic."
"I'm not expecting anyone from this village to journey
there," continued the town's leader. "I've decided
to send the prisoner. He must find the dragon's
heart, deep in the caves."
"What? We can't trust him!" protested a third man
from the council, "He's just like a wolf, nothing but
a beast who preys on our lambs. How could you even
consider risking our future . . . "
"We need a thief now," interrupted the leader. "One
who is clever enough to outwit the bloodthirsty
daughters of Herensuge. One who will deliver us from
the evil claws of the dragon lord."
A few minutes later, the elders gathered around their
prisoner, a man tightly clad in rough sheepskins.
He'd clearly spent much of his life in the wilderness,
roaming the hills by summer and taking shelter in the
deep valleys during the icy winter. Now it was
spring, but most of the hills were still imprisoned in
an ice mantle. The power of darkness held sway
across Euskadi. All could smell the freezing, foul
breath of Herensuge, the demonic lord of the dragons,
was behind this unnatural curse.
"I just needed something to eat," protested the
prisoner as he saw the elders encircle him. "Winter
has lasted so long in the hills this year. You must
understand, for I had no choice . . ."
"Otso, we accept none of your excuses," intoned the
leader. "All of your kind who prey on the flocks of
this village will be punished."
"Otso!" shouted the man, while he nervously stared at
a burly villager carrying a branding iron. "How can
you call me by a wolf's name? I'm no animal!"
"What do you expect us to think?" asked the elder,
staring down at the prisoner, "Only Basajuan, the Old
Man of the Woods, may freely take the sheep we send as
sacrifices. The life of any man who dares to steal
from this village . . ."
"But I can explain!" gasped the man, staring back at
an angry crowd.
"Is forfeit!" continued the elder. "But that fate's
not reserved for you, Otso. We've decided to set
you free tomorrow, as long as you promise to take a
"A road? I'll take any road you want and never look
"Otso, we want you to take the path to the lair of
Herensuge, the three horned dragon."
Shocked, the prisoner glared at the elder, unwilling
to venture to such a dangerous place. He did not
notice the villager behind him heating the branding
iron, for the mere mention of the dragon's name was
enough to evoke terror. The monster was said to have
seven heads, each one able to devour an entire bull in
a single gulp. "I'll take the path," the man said
firmly, "but I can't go in the lair, not without . .
"You will be defended by our Lady, Otso," observed the
elder. After he nodded twice, the smith walked
forward with the branding iron, blazing red-hot.
Several villagers grabbed the prisoner, shoving him
harshly to the ground. "Mari will protect you once
we have marked you with the sacred lauburu."
The prisoner gasped as the hot metal drew close to his
right hand. He could see the four points on the end
of the iron lauburu glow, steam spiraling off their
tips. Wincing at the heat, he tried to break free,
but could not struggle free of the villagers' gripping
his arms and legs. One of his guards applied a
choke-hold around the prisoner's neck, muttering,
"Otso, no one steals sheep from us!"
The smith swiftly drove his iron down, as another man
shoved the prisoner's palm forward. Feeling intense
pain, the man gritted his teeth, determined not to
show fear. The elder smiled, hoping that he would
show such strength of will when sent to the mountain
caves, the dark dens of Herensuge.
When the next day dawned, the prisoner found himself
confined to a small, well-guarded hut. Clutching his
maimed right hand, he stared at the welts gouged by
the lauburu, four deep dents into his raw flesh.
Trying to suppress the agonizing pain, he heard
footsteps approaching. Were the villagers planning
to torture him again? How could they treat another
man like a beast?
"It is time for you to go, Otso" solemnly intoned the
head elder. "The dragon sleeps in his cave during
the daytime. You must go there and smash the red
gem . . ."
Listening carefully to the elder's speech, the man
rose to his feet. Better to risk the dragon than
stay in this town, even if he was unlikely to survive.
Perhaps he could climb the icy hills above
Zugurramundi and escape. Anything was better than
staying in a place like this!
The smith approached the hut's entrance, carrying a
heavy metal object. "Not again!" thought the man.
But this time, it was different, for the elder picked
up the iron amulet from the smith, holding it in the
light of the open door. The object was a metal
circle, hanging on a heavy chain, carefully engraved
with a clockwise spiral, having four raised bumps to
suggest the shape of a lauburu.
"Otso, you must wear this lauburu over your chest to
gain the aid of the Goddess. When you follow the
path, She will guard you from all of Herensuge's
servants. Once you reach the green valley where the
path ends, you will see a crevice, a black cleft in
the rock. That's the dragon's lair."
After wondering for a moment how he could evade this
command, the prisoner saw the elder toss the lauburu
to him. Grabbing it quickly with his left hand, he
felt a twinge of heat. Maybe it really did have
magic powers? At any rate, it was best to go along
with this mad scheme, at least until he was far away
from the village. He quickly draped the chain over
his neck and stuck the amulet under his cloak.
"I am glad to see that you trust Mari's power,"
observed the elder. "When you enter the lair of
Herensuge, you will be drawn quickly to its center.
Do not be fooled by what you see, for the children of
the Dark One are skilled at deception. Remember that
you must destroy the red gem in the heart of the
cavern, for that is the only way to defeat the
Nodding his head to feign agreement, the man was
pleased to see the guards leaving the hut. If he
played along with this, maybe he truly would regain
his freedom. Then, once he was out of sight of the
village, it might not be too difficult to go off the
path and find a trail that lead away from
The head elder walked outside, beckoning for Otso to
follow him. As the prisoner left the hut, nearby
villagers cheered, happy to see him to leave. Some
pointed at the nearby hills, urging him onward, for
they heard he was the chosen one, selected by the
council to lift the dragon's curse from the land.
"May the Goddess protect you," prayed the main elder
as Otso headed down the path. "Agur."
"Agur," replied the man, clutching a pouch with some
crusty bread an elder had given him. He walked
swiftly down the path, becoming happier with each
passing step. As soon as he got over the next hill,
the villagers would no longer be able to see him, so
he could choose his own trail, one that led far away
from dragons and their accursed caves.
Upon reaching the next valley, he noticed the land
was surprisingly green. It also seemed much warmer,
even though the hills were covered with deep snow.
Looking at the verdant field, he decided to move off
the trail to the right, following a small stream.
The instant he stepped into the meadow, a loud
hissing sound made him stop. Was it a sugaar? He
jumped backwards, seeing a huge serpent coiled in the
grass, its amber eyes sparkling with malice.
Finding himself back on the path to Zugarramundi, he
looked left to see if that option was any better. A
large heifer grazed in the pasture, its crimson-red
hair shining in the sunlight. He looked to see if
there were any other cattle. It was odd for only one
to be found in such a green field, when all the grass
for miles around was still brown, like it was still
Before he could step off the path into the field, the
metal disc on his chest began to burn. Magic? The
cow stopped its grazing and quickly moved towards him,
as if ready to charge. He was shocked by its
appearance, for no natural cow should have burning red
coals for eyes! It must be Beigorri, the guardian
spirit of the house of Mari. No mortal could defy a
being having such power.
Resigned to his fate, the man decided to proceed to
the caves. He clearly could not leave the path now,
not when supernatural beings blocked his way. Could
they protect him from the dragon? The instant he
started walking forward, the amulet became cool. Had
he pleased Mari? Perhaps she would guard him, for
the power of light was said to be stronger than any of
As he trudged further and further down the path, he
noticed the plants were much larger as he approached
the hills. The low bushes were festooned with
vines, emerald green in the bright sunlight. Hot air
rose from a dark hole ahead, a cleft in the black rock
through which a small stream shimmered.
He hesitated for a moment, but felt himself being
drawn onward despite his nervousness. It was as if
he had no control over his feet, for each step
inexorably brought him closer to the cave. The air
flowing out of the crevice seemed somehow sweet,
bearing enchantment on the breeze.
After stumbling through the narrow mouth of the
cavern, the man saw a long passage stretching forward
into the darkness. Or at least twilight, for an
eerie green mist filled the air, billowing out in
clouds as it raced outside. It appeared to emanate
from the very heart of the cave, where he knew he must
As he walked down the stony corridor, he perceived
shapes along the cavern's wall. Through the green
mist, he could faintly glimpse images of animals drawn
with red ochre. There was Beigorri on the left, her
long horns confronting an enemy. Next, a strange
beast appeared with down-pointed tusks coming out of
its mouth. A parade of snakes, fangs bared,
slithered along the next rock face.
After seeing many odd creatures painted on the rock,
he noticed the walls were parting. The passage was
widening into a chamber. Could this be the dragon's
lair? Craning his neck, he peered forward, trying to
spot anything lurking in the swirling mist.
"Kaixo," said someone in greeting, "Come in to my
father's dwelling." It sounded like a woman's
voice, but he couldn't see anything beyond a faint
outline of her shape. As he walked forward, the
mist thinned for a moment, allowing him a brief view
of a gilded chalice on a table.
"Who are you?" he asked, hearing something sliding
along the ground. The mist hovered over the
chalice, glowing brightly as light streamed up from
below. The woman had moved forward, allowing him to
see her long, flowing hair. She placed a golden
comb on the table and look back at him. The vapor
had cleared enough for him to see that other than a
sash about her neck, she wore no clothes.
"I am Laminaka," she declared, "and I know that you
are called Otso. Or at least you were called that by
foolish men who have stolen my father's land."
Otso? Yes, that must be his name. For some reason,
he couldn't remember anything else. The green mist
gathered above the gleaming goblet, while the woman
stretched out her right hand, muttering an
incantation. The skin on her hand seemed the same
color as the mist. Her fingers ended in sharp claws
rather than fingernails, for she was no mortal.
"You have nothing to fear here," continued Laminaka.
"This cavern in ancient, sacred from the ancient days
when the zalzaval still roamed these hills. Breathe
deeply. Allow the vapors of forgetfulness to cleanse
Zalzaval? Now that the mist had pooled over
Laminaka's hand, Otso could clearly see the shapes on
the nearby wall. A parade of centaurs. Horses
with human heads and arms.
"What do you know of the zalzaval?" Otso asked, still
looking at the ochre drawing. "They never existed!
Horses and men have always been separate beings."
Putting her hand down, the woman murmured, "Izena duen
guztiak izatea ere badauje. Don't you know that
everything with a name exists somewhere? Drink from
the goblet and become one of us."
The air continued to clear, revealing a vast shape
behind Laminaka. Two green eyes shone behind her,
just below three sharp horns, horns that marked the
head of a great dragon.
"What do you mean, 'one of us.' What are you?" asked
Otso, feeling very uneasy.
"Something more than human," replied Laminaka, sliding
forward. Otso could immediately tell by her smooth,
gliding movement that she was not walking. Also, he
could hear reptilian scales rustle as they sinuously
moved along the ground.
"Just one sip and you'll forget everything of your
former life," she said seductively. "You'll become
one of my father's servants, ready to rule this land.
The humans will soon flee, when the cold prevents
them from having anything to eat. Then, the hour of
our destiny will arrive."
Nervously looking down, Otso saw that Laminaka's body
was entirely covered with scales below her waist.
Thick, heavy scales, like those a dragon might have on
his wings. Instead of legs, she had two writhing,
twisting coils, which resembled the bodies of huge
Very afraid, Otso held his right hand forward as
Laminaka moved closer. For an instant, he touched
her near the waist. "It burnsss!" she hissed,
slithering back to the far side of the table.
Emboldened, he clutched the metal chain on his neck
and pulled out the disk marked with the lauburu.
Surely, the Goddess would protect him from this
snakelike demoness. Seeing the mystic symbol,
Laminaka bared her fangs, scattering small bones along
"How dare you bring that thing in here!" she
growled. "When sunset comesss, my father will awake
and devour you for this insolence. Together, we
shall feast, drinking your blood and ripping the flesh
off your carcasss. No one defies Herensuge, the
Lord of this world!"
Mere seconds after Otso heard this threat, a sudden
gust of wind swept into the room. With a clatter, the
chalice rolled off the table, spilling its contents
onto the ground. The green mist was entirely gone
now, replaced by a white cloud filled with light,
streaming down the long corridor into the underground
chamber. Laminaka fled before it, seeking shelter
next to the dragon's head.
Out of the light, a tall woman clad in a golden gown
materialized next to Otso, holding a shepherd's sickle
with both hands. She had birdlike claws instead of
human feet. Her clothing was made of a mass of
feathers rather than any fabric ever woven on a loom.
Wielding the sickle in her right hand, the magical
enchantress caused Laminaka to tremble. With her
other hand, she drew a short iron knife from her gown,
handing it to Otso. "Go to the other side of the
dragon," she insisted, "for Herensuge's magic is
useless against iron. I will ensure that his
daughter cannot stop you. Drive the blade into the
red gem and you will break his curse."
Otso quickly followed these instructions, darting
past the stone table to confront the great dragon.
It was still asleep, with green puffs of steam
occasionally rising from its huge nostrils. Just
below its vast head, a maroon jewel lay embedded in
the black rock. This must be the heart of the
Laminaka shrieked as she saw what Otso was about to
do. She strove to stop him, but was soon blocked by
the powerful intruder into her father's lair. As
fast as Laminaka's coils swept across the ground,
sharp talons sank into them, pinning her down to the
Otso plunged the iron blade into the red stone,
seeing it shatter into a thousand pieces. At once,
he felt himself falling into darkness, as if the
entire wall of the cavern was collapsing. Nearby,
although he could see nothing, he could hear the
sounds of a great battle, full of squawks and hisses.
After some time passed, Otso saw a shining light
ahead. Moving toward it, he realized it was the red
of sunset, reflected over the blue horizon of the
western sea. He had somehow been transported to the
edge of the mountains, where the cliffs dropped down
to the coast.
Even more surprising, he no longer felt the weight of
the heavy chain around his neck. Nothing was there!
Looking down at his right palm, he could see only
the faint impression of a lauburu, but it was fading
fast, even more quickly than the sun was setting.
Within seconds, there was no trace of the brand.
On the precipice above him, he heard the sound of
large wings flapping against the south wind.
Thanking Mari for his deliverance, he looked up to see
a mighty golden eagle, with a flailing snake clutched
in her talons. The eagle briefly looked to the west
and then soared upward, heading high into the
Final Score: 42.5 out of 50
For those of you who don't know, Volk wrote his story in the last day
before the deadline, thanks to a freak storm that kept him snowed in --
and I have to say, Volk, that considering how quickly you wrote it, this
is quite a good story. Your skills as a writer continue to improve --
most of the dialogue, in particular, was solid, lacking the stodginess
that troubled a lot of your early work.
Technical construction was quite good throughout, though there were a few
bobbles here and there, and spelling was solid with the exception of a
handful of typos. Creatively speaking, you've constructed a good,
colorful world here -- I like the bits of untranslated dialogue scattered
throughout, and the conflict between good and evil is nicely set up.
Otso's position as the reluctant hero, sent to what is almost certain
death in order to save his world, makes him quite sympathetic as a
protagonist -- but we can also understand why his crime is taken so
seriously by the villagers, so they don't come off as being ridiculously
I only noticed one "hole" in the story -- namely, if the dragon's breath
is what is causing the land to freeze, why does the terrain become *more*
hospitable as Otso gets closer to the beast's lair? I've heard of ice
dragons before, but if that's what Herensuge is, it stands to reason that
things should be colder the closer he gets.
The plot was pretty well-executed for the most part, but I thought the
climax and ending were somewhat lacking in dramatic energy, the classic
"tension and release" that winds up the reader's emotions and then
reolves them. The instant when Otso's hand burns Laminaka with holy
power, the dramatic entrance of the Goddess herself, and Otso's race to
destroy the dragon's heart before Laminaka can stop him -- all of this
could use more "punch", an increased sense of urgency and the clash of
good and evil that is taking place. It's hard to give objective,
line-by-line advice on how to do this, but I'd suggest studying the
techniques of writers you know who write compelling action scenes.
Generally speaking, two good rules of thumb are (1) stick to short,
sharp, declarative sentences with "strong" Germanic-derived words instead
of "subtle" Romantic ones, and (2) put the reader firmly inside the
protagonist's point of view and focus more on what he sees, thinks and
feels than on the objective truth of the situation. There are a variety
of ways to do this, and none of them are universally applicable, so your
best bet is to familiarize yourself with as many different variants as
Overall, though, I think this story was a good effort. You're getting
better all the time, Volk, and it's a pleasure to see.
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