A Story of Ethshar

Portrait of A Hero

"Portrait of A Hero" is a novelet about a young man sent to find a hero who can rid his isolated northern village of a dragon. The person he brings back is not quite what the townsfolk expected.

The story first appeared in Once Upon A Time, an anthology edited by Risa Kessler and Lester del Rey, published by Del Rey, November 1991, ISBN 0-345-36263-2. It's part of the Ethshar series, consisting so far of thirteen novels and eleven shorter works.

"Portrait of A Hero" is copyright 1991 by Lawrence Watt Evans.

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Portrait of A Hero

by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Dedicated to my youngest sister, Charlotte Hotchkiss, because one Christmas I promised her a story with a prophecy in it.

The dragon atop the mountain loomed over the village like a tombstone over a grave, and Wuller looked up at it in awe.
     "Do you think it'll come any closer?" he whispered to his aunt.

Cover of Once Upon A Time
Cover by Michael Pangrazio
Interior illustration for
"Portrait of a Hero."
Interior illustration by Michael Pangrazio
     Illure shook her head.
     "There's no telling, with dragons," she said. "Particularly not the really big ones. One that size must be as experienced and cunning as any human that ever lived."
     Something was odd about her voice. Wuller glanced at her face, which was set in a rigid calm, and realized that his aunt Illure, who had faced down a runaway boar with nothing but a turnspit, was terrified.
     Even as he looked, her calm broke; her eyes went wide, her mouth started to open.
     Wuller whirled back in time to see the dragon rising from its perch, its immense wings spread wide to catch the wind. It rose, wheeled about once, and then swept down toward the village, claws outstretched, like a hawk diving on its prey.
     For a moment Wuller thought it was diving directly at him, and he covered his face with his hands, as if he were still a child.
     Then he remembered how high that mountaintop was, and his mind adjusted the scale of what he had just seen--the dragon was larger and farther than he had assumed. Ashamed of his terror, he dropped his hands and looked up again.
     The dragon was hovering over the village, directly over his own head. Wuller felt a tugging at one arm, and realized that Illure was trying to pull him out from under the great beast.
     He yielded, and a moment later the creature settled to the ground in the village common, the wind from its wings stirring up a cloud of grey dust and flattening the thin grass. The scent of its hot, sulphurous breath filled the town.
     A swirl of dust reached Wuller, and he sneezed.
     The dragon's long neck dipped down, and its monstrous head swung around to look Wuller directly in the eye from a mere six or seven feet away.
     He stared back, frozen with fear.
     Then the head swung away again, the neck lifted it up, and the mighty jaws opened.
     The dragon spoke.
     "Who speaks for this village?" it said, in a voice like an avalanche.
     "It talks!" someone said, in tones of awe and wonder.
     The dragon's head swept down to confront the speaker, and it spoke again.
     "Yes, I talk," it rumbled. "Do you?"
     Wuller looked to see who it was addressing, and saw a young man in blue--his cousin Pergren, just a few years older than himself, who had only recently started his own flock.
     Pergren stammered, unable to answer coherently, and the dragon's jaws crept nearer and nearer to him. Wuller saw that they were beginning to open--not to speak, this time, but to bite.
     Then a man stepped forward -- Adar, the village smith, Wuller's father's cousin.
     "I'll speak for the village, dragon," he called. "Leave that boy alone and say what you want of us."
     Wuller had always admired Adar's strength and skill; now he found himself admiring the smith's courage, as well.
     The dragon reared up slightly, and Wuller thought it looked slightly amused. "Well!" it said, "One among you with manners enough to speak when spoken to -- though hardly in a civil tone!"
     "Get on with it," Adar said.
     "All right, if you're as impatient as all that," the dragon said. "I had intended to make a few polite introductions before getting down to business, but have it your way. I have chosen this village as my home. I have chosen you people as my servants. And I have come down here today to set the terms of your service. Is that clear and direct enough to suit you, man?"
     Wuller tried to judge the dragon's tone, to judge whether it was speaking sarcastically, but the voice was simply too different from human for him to tell.
     "We are not servants," Adar announced. "We are free people."
     "Not any more," the dragon said.

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Origins:

Ever since I was in high school and first started reading a lot of heroic fantasy, I had the feeling that fantasy heroes relied too much on strength and courage, and not enough on guile. It always seemed to me there had to be an easier way to take out an evil wizard or virgin-devouring monster than hacking through dozens of guards and climbing over walls and all that physical stuff.

I also thought that the default assumption of "hero"="big strong young man" got tiresome.

I put my thoughts on those subjects together and came up with the plot for "Portrait of A Hero."

Unfortunately, there was, at the time, no market for short fantasy adventures -- the old Fantastic had been cancelled by then, and Realms of Fantasy was still many years in the future. If I wanted to sell the story I'd need to turn it into a novel.

So I wrote it up as a proposal for a novel, and was told by my editor that there wasn't enough plot there for a novel, I'd have to pad it shamelessly.

This was true, so I shelved the project.

But then Lester del Rey and Del Rey's special-projects editor, Risa Kessler, came up with the idea for Once Upon A Time. They'd found this artist, Michael Pangrazio, they wanted to use, and hit upon the notion of doing an anthology of "modern fairy tales" that he would illustrate. Lester picked the ten authors he wanted for the project, and invited us all to send stories.

And there was the market I'd been waiting for, so I wrote the story.

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Publishing History:

"Portrait of A Hero" first appeared in Once Upon A Time, an anthology edited by Risa Kessler and Lester del Rey, published by Del Rey, November 1991, ISBN 0-345-36263-2. It was written specifically for the anthology, and was accompanied by a full-color painted illustration by Michael Pangrazio. British and book club editions of the anthology also exist.

The story is reprinted in the back of the 2001 Wildside Press edition of The Blood of A Dragon, ISBN 1-58715-357-2, with cover art by Dalmazio Frau . It was chosen to accompany that story because the two are directly related.

And it's included in my collection, Tales of Ethshar.

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