The Mustard Wyrm is final installment of a series of stories called The Great Game by James Vachowski and narrated by Barry J Northern. To find other episodes in the series search for the tag The Great Game.
The Great Game, Part 7–The Mustard Wyrm
By James Vachowski
What is that infernal screeching? In God’s Holy Name, child, leave that poor cat alone!
Eh? Music? So you say. To these ears it sounded more like a banshee being skinned alive. Do yourself a favor and quit now, while you still have your youth. Your talents clearly lie beyond the world of music, and I dare say you will need all available time to discover your true skill. By virtue of your heinous display of what I can only assume was intended to be a strain from Schubert, it is safe for us to rule out the violin as your life’s calling.
Besides, any devotee knows there is but a single instrument worthy of mastery. Which one, you say? Do you jest? Surely your music professor has taught you the wonder of the bagpipes? No? Child, the pipes are the birthright of the Highlanders, the instrument of ancient Scottish kings! Here now, be a good lad and wrap that quilt round my knees. Close the window as well. The night grows cold, and I fear we have tormented the neighbors enough for one evening, what with your attempts at harmony.
How old are you again, child? No, forget I asked. Even if you were my age, the tale I am about to tell would still be too much for your precocious ears. It happened in Ypres, that cursed town in a cursed country. Our men stood shoulder to shoulder with our boys, some very near to your age I should say, lined up to charge at the endless waves of men and boys on the opposite side. Despite all I had seen and done thus far, it was early in the War and the fighting was still furious. The job of messenger was usually left to the youngest boys, but as every set of legs was needed, my fleet feet were conscripted for running to and fro between the lines. I dashed back and forth with each shifting of the barbed wire strands, ensuring the field marshals could accurately sight their deadly artillery fire. The booming shells continued to fall as the longest day poured into night, and I wager that I killed more men using my feet than I ever had with my hands.
The stars disappeared from the sky, drowned out by the powerful artillerymens’ flares. Kitchener’s Wood itself was a casualty, the trees snapped in half from the day’s constant bombardment. The impact of the shells shook the Earth into a steady low rumbling and rocking, not unlike a ship at sea. Minute by minute, yard by precious yard, our fire rained down upon the Germans and forced them to cover. Our advance was costly but steady, and for the briefest of moments I thought that we might have won.
The stench of corpses filled the air for a few brief seconds, till a gust of wind beat forth from the east. It was a hot, steamy air, but I shuddered as I felt it on my skin. The jets of current pulsed toward us in rapid surges, as if powered by the very bellows that stoked the fires of Hell. Behind me, one of the boys in our company shrieked in terror. He held his pink finger skyward, pointing toward a looming shadow flying low in the sky. In spite of myself, I felt my legs freeze thick to the ground. Of course I had seen dragons before, my child, but never one as fierce as this!
The black beast was closing the ground quickly, spurred forward with each flap of his leathery wings. His neck twisted up to inhale great gulps of air, then rolled back down toward the earth to spew forth a thick yellow cloud. The sky around the creature became tinted with haze as the cloud sank down towards our men. It brought with it a sour, acrid taste that burned on my skin. Some of our number were already bent over at the waist, retching and gagging like dogs with the sickness.
As the dragon circled overhead, filling its demonic lungs with more fresh air for another pass, the bravest of His Majesty’s troops struggled to form a skirmishing line for our defense. What a sight it was, child! The Moors from Algeria stood shoulder to shoulder with the Gurkhas and the Sikhs. Enfield rifles were brought to bear, held at eye level among the line of fezzes and turbans. Their sharp cracks echoed out on either side, but it was no use. Even the sharp steel bullets just bounced off the beast’s hide.
For all of the times I had cheated death, my child, I couldn’t for the life of me see a way out. The battle seemed as futile as the War itself, and all of our victories were about to be for naught. The rest of our troops scattered to the trenches for cover, wrenching off their doughboy helmets to don canister masks in the hope of some scant protection. The beast blew down a second cloud of the mustard-colored gas, which swirled around us in thick plumes. Men of the fittest health were crippled in seconds, their bodies collapsing down into convulsing piles of broken flesh. Death comes to us all, I had reached that conclusion long before, but no man deserves to die like those wretches did. Dozens went down, then hundreds. Before long it was thousands.
I had tried to hold my own breath, but reached my physical limits after just ten minutes. My lungs nearly collapsed at that first inhalation of gas, and my head spun as I fell to the ground. Though dizzy, I could still see that great black dragon circling overhead, preparing to make one last pass over the battlefield. His Majesty’s troops were falling beside me in all directions, fighting a futile battle for fresh air. A lone Scotsman collapsed to my right, with a look of despair cross his fair face. Our eyes met, and we shared the same thought—that as quickly as this battle was sure to be over, the War would end just so.
With an air of resignation, the Scot pulled himself to his knees, dusted off his tartan kilt, and reached for his pipes. Breathing more of that foul air surely doomed him, but he did it still, as he pulled his pipes to his lips. With a final breath, he blew the first note of a Highland tune, no doubt intended as a funereal goodbye to his comrades. The slow, droning buzz carried out across the forest. From the corner of my eye, I spied several other mops of red hair raising themselves up from the ground, heads lifted aloft by the sound of their homeland.
And then, from above me, I saw it! The fierce dragon was beating his ferocious wings even harder, an act which sent him spiraling up in angry circles. It was clearly an attempt to distance his evil ears from the glorious sound of the pipes, and I stirred myself to nudge the Scot and draw his attention. The lad received my message, sucked in another deep breath, and redoubled his efforts. The sweet melodies of Edinborough carried out over the battlefield, sending the dragon even higher in the sky. The putrid yellow gas lifted momentarily, which allowed our men to find their legs and scatter. Several other companies bade their pipers to join in the tune, and before long the earth was shaking not from the pounding of artillery, but from the buzz of bagpipes.
Lifting my head to the night sky, I caught sight of the dragon. Above the clouds, writhing in the light of the moon, the beast was clearly tormented by the symphony of such beauty. Unable to escape it, he wrapped his wings around his head to muffle the sound. But those bony wings could not drown out the noise completely, and a shout of joy went up as the men saw the dragon stop circling. Indeed, with his wings occupied in such a defensive manner, the creature could not fly at all!
A rush of joy rose in my heart as I saw the wrym start to plummet from the sky, but the feeling turned to dread when I observed him directly above me! I tried to run, but it was no use! In less than a second the creature had collapsed to the ground, the impact sending shock waves across the whole of Europe. My legs went numb beneath the weight of its tail, twitching and shaking with rage, and my body turned cold as the beast’s head twisted around to face me. Its horrible white fangs gnashed out, and I steeled myself to receive a final blast of the deadly mustard gas.
But our troops had regrouped, and before the dragon could exhale again, it was swarmed from all sides by a squad of brave Gurkhas. Their curved blades found the mark over and over again, until finally the beast lay unnaturally still. I felt hands pulling me by the shoulders, out from under the carcass and a safe distance away. It may have been an hour before we were sure it was truly deceased, but when we were, a cry of victory rang up over the battlefield.
It was my last battle, child, for a soldier without legs is by necessity an ex-soldier. For me, the War was over. I gave my final order from a hospital litter, directing the Gurkhas to behead the fierce creature. Some days later I would present the dragon’s head, horns and fangs and all, to His Majesty King George in exchange for the Victoria Cross. A fair trade, I would say. The War continued on without me, as wars before and since have done, and now precious few seem to notice the battles a pensioner fights.
Ah, but the tales of my life have been long and hard in the making, and I tire of telling them. Bring the blanket, child, and draw the curtains. The night is growing cold.
About the Author
Hi, my name is James and for everyone out there who’s been considerate enough to advise me not to quit my day job, don’t worry– I haven’t. I currently work as a security manager for an independent traveling circus, where I strive to ensure that your next ride on the Cyclone is in full compliance with most, if not all, applicable state safety regulations.
When I’m not living my dream of seeing the great people of this great country from the parking lots of local shopping malls and Moose lodges, I write fiction.
About the Narrator
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.