Swiftly dodging between bushes and patches of tall grass, Victor pounded down the hill with Valour outstretched. With a bellowing roar he raced up to the side of the creature and drew back for the first, and hopefully last, blow.
With a sound like a whipcrack, one of the sinuous heads lashed around and snatched Valour out of his hands, hurling it some distance away. Victor gasped and skidded to a stop inches away from his intended target. Three of the heads turned away from Jer now, surrounding him evenly. A thin tongue flashed out of one of the immense mouths and snaked around the needle-sharp teeth that filled all the mouths. Even in the darkness, Victor could see the frills that flickered up and down at the corners of the immense mouths, and the dark orbs that served as eyes; the sulphurous stench coming from the six nostrils seemed to fill up all the air, choking him. He glanced over at Jer who was still standing stock still, a damp patch on his trousers.
“Lad, run!” Victor said. With a grunt, he planted his boot into the side of the hydra, kicking with all his might.
All three heads reared back slightly at the impact. The fourth head let out a roaring bleat and turned around, completing a menacing circle around Victor. “Run!” he shouted, and Jer finally snapped out of his daze. He turned and fled into the night, vaguely towards where Victor had left his father.
Victor looked around quickly. The hydra heads had surrounded him neatly, leaving little room for escape. With the bulk of its body it had effectively blocked the route towards the lake, and he could see Valour glinting off to one side, laying uselessly on the sandy shoreline.
“Jus’ you and me now,” he said, cracking his knuckles. “If that’s how it’s gotta be, it’ll have t’do.”
He dropped into a crouch. All four heads reared backwards slightly, then came in for the attack. With a tremendous yell, Victor jumped, bringing his legs up tight to his body, then stamped on the first head to pass under him. Its jaws snapped shut on empty air and it buckled slightly as he landed on it for the briefest moment, then pushed off. The second head came in a moment later, biting down on the air where he had just been; again, he landed, pushed off and leapt. The third and fourth heads came in together to attack the space just below him and he was able to plant one foot directly onto each scaly forehead before leaping into a graceful somersault off.
He landed on two feet and looked up. Valour’s hilt was lying invitingly close, just a short sprint away. Victor dug his toes in to the sand and lurched forward.
Suddenly he was dragged off his feet as something grabbed his ankle. He looked back; the hydra’s tail was wrapped firmly around his leg and beginning to drag him away. Desperately he thrust his hand out, but Valour was still an inch away. With an almighty roar Victor clawed at the sand and dragged himself the tiniest fraction forward. It wasn’t much, but it was enough; His hand came down on Valour’s leather grip and, with another growling shout, he swung the sword in a glittering arc. It came down squarely on the tail holding him in place and severed it cleanly; the hydra roared with all four heads and thrashed around, trying to turn its bulk towards him.
Victor unwrapped the remaining length of tail from about his leg and scrambled quickly backwards as the heads came down, one after another, slamming down onto the sand and throwing up clouds of the stuff. Victor spat and clawed at his face with his hands, trying to clear them from the gritty sand.
The hydra reared back on its stubby hind legs and brought its front legs down in a tumultuous crash that shook the ground; Victor, jolted almost upright, got his legs under him and was finally able to stand, sword in hand, toe to toe with the beast.
There was the briefest moment of silence as man and creature stared at each other across the moonlit beach. Then both exploded into motion.
Heads coming from left and right, Victor was forced to dodge and duck, bringing Valour up to block the worst attacks; teeth clanged against metal and, more than once, droplets of acidic spittle splattered out of the hydra’s gaping maws to land, sizzling, on Victor’s clothes.
Victor allowed himself to fall into a rhythm, lulling the hydra into the same religion. Duck, parry, retreat, dodge, feign attack,parry. Though fatigue was beginning to weigh at his arms, Victor grinned as he turned the pattern against the creature: duck, parry, retreat, dodge, attack! Bringing the sword up with both hands, Victor let his momentum carry the sword clean through one of the creature’s necks.
Almost immediately a gout of thick black blood spouted out of the severed neck, but Victor was already away, passing down its side. He parried three strikes, one from each head, and grabbed a knobbly protrusion on the thing’s back. As it tried to shake him off, like a wet dog drying itself, Victor let himself be dragged upwards and, at the precise top of his arc, he simply let go.
Flung up into the air, Victor seemed to see the world slow down. Below on the sand, the severed head was flopping backwards and forwards, churning up the bloody sand. The three very-much living heads were darting back and forth, sinuously curving in and out of each other, and the hydra’s body was just finishing its shake and he could see several small wounds in its scales that he hadn’t even realised he had inflicted.
Then time came back and as he flew between two of the heads, he spun in a full circle, sword out. Two more heads went crashing to the ground and he landed, rolled and jumped to his feet.
The single remaining head howled into the night air and, lumbering now, the hydra turned and began to wade back into the lake.
“Oh no you don’t, you beast,” Victor shouted. “You ain’t growing those heads back! Turn and face me!”
He grabbed a fist-sized rock and threw it at the escaping monster, but it ignored him. In a sudden rage, Victor ran at the hydra. As it began to sink into the water, he jumped onto its back, ran up its entire length from severed tail to ravaged neck, and sliced through the last neck before jumping into the lake.
The water was cold and suddenly murky as thick gouts of blood poured out of the hydra’s beheaded corpse. Keeping a firm grip on Valour, Victor swam for the mirror-like surface. As he broke into the air, he could see the last of the creature’s bulbous corpse sliding beneath the lake’s surface. A few bubbles rose to the surface, then silence.
“Guess you can run,” Victor muttered, “But you can’t hydra.” He smirked at his own joke and started to swim for the shore.
The next morning, Victor was up before the sunrise. His bag, already packed, was leant up against the doorway with Valour slung into its straps. He looked around the small guest room, certain that he had left it the way he had found it. The bed was made, the windows were open slightly and even the small bloodstain that he had tracked in the night before was wiped clean.
Nodding in satisfaction, he picked up the heavy pack and shouldered it, then closed the door behind him. Moving quietly through the house, he grabbed a small loaf from the stove nearby and went to the door. Opening it, he looked quickly around. He would miss these folks; they had been generous hosts and their ways were good, but he wasn’t one for long goodbyes. He walked out and quietly closed the door behind him.
He hadn’t gone fifteen feet from the door before he heard it open and close again, then small unshod feet pattering on the path. He stopped.
“Mornin’, Jer,” he said. The feet stopped.
“How did you know it was me?”
Victor turned and smiled. “Magic,” he said, ruffling the boy’s hair. Jer was dressed in fresh nightclothes, sleep dust still in the corners of his eyes. His feet were grubby from the night before and his blue eyes glittered in the pre-dawn light.
“You saved me last night, Mr Junn,” Jer said. “I’d’ve died if you’d not’ve been there.” His eyes glistened with unwept tears; he sniffed and rubbed his nose defiantly.
“Come now,” Victor said. “You’d have been fine. Why, I saw you lookin’ at that hydra, about to give it what for, but I din’t want you to get blood on your nightclothes, was all.” He smiled and Jer smiled back, little rivulets running down his face.
“Thanks, Mr Junn,” the boy said, then he hugged Victor tightly. Surprised, Victor jerked backwards, but then he smiled again and hugged Jer back. As the sun rose, the two embraced.
Jer backed away, wiping his eyes. “I’ll do better next time, Mr Junn. Going to train to be like you. I want to be strong, like you.”
Victor knelt down and tapped Jer’s arms. “Strength’s not what happens here,” he said, then tapped Jer’s chest and head. “It happens here and here. What you feel and what you think, and how you treat others around you. There are lots of different sorts of hero, but the everyday hero is the kind I want to see more of.”
Jer nodded, his expression serious. “I won’t let you down, Mr Junn.”
Victor smiled. “I know you won’t. And, call me Victor.”
Without another word, he turned and walked off into the sunrise. A new day was dawning and, with it, a new adventure waiting to be had.