Long ago, when King Arthur ruled at Camelot, his cousin Mark, King of Cornwall was being pressed by his lords to marry. But none of the ladies he met seemed right. Some were beautiful but graceless; others were amusing but foolish; others were wise, but not loving. Mark wished he had not promised to make up his mind by that evening. In his heart, he did not want to marry anyone.

As Mark gazed out at the setting sun, two swallows flew in through the castle window. They circled around and dropped something down to him. Then they twittered good-by and flew away. Mark picked up their gift - a lock of perfect golden hair. As the lords lined up to hear his choice, Mark gave a sly smile. "I have had a sign from heaven! I shall marry the lady whose hair this is!"

The lords passed the hair from hand to hand; none of them knew whose it was. But Tristan, Mark's nephew, knew at once: "Only one lady in the world had such beautiful hair: Iseult, daughter of King Gormond!" The lords gasped aloud; Gormond, the King of Ireland, was their king's enemy. He would never give Mark his daughter's hand. Some suspected that Tristan wanted to stop Mark from marrying so he could inherit the kingdom himself. But Tristan spoke up bravely: "Tomorrow I shall sail for Ireland and fetch her!"

The lords knew that Tristan was risking his life. Last year, Tristan had killed Iseult's uncle, the evil Morholt, and Gormond wanted his life in exchange. His sword had lost a chip of steel in the fight. Some called him a fool, but he stood his ground. Sadly King Mark gave Tristan permission to sail.

Tristan landed at Wexford and found the people gathering their possessions and fleeing as fast as they could. A terrified merchant told him they were running from a man-eating dragon. King Gormond had promised his daughter's hand in marriage to the man who killed it, but all who tried had died.

Tristan saw his chance and rode toward the dragon's lair, deep in a lonely marsh. Suddenly another knight galloped past in the opposite direction, too frightened to stop and speak. A sulfurous stench filled the air - and the dragon came into view!

Tristan spurred his terrified horse. He had surprise on his side. The dragon had just defeated one challenger and did, not expect another so soon. Tristan thrust his lance into the monster's throat and drew blood. The dragon stiffened, breaking the lance, and bIew out a torrent of fire.

Tristan's horse died under him and he retreated from the flames. He was half - suffocated, and his hands were burned. Acrid, blinding smoke stung his eyes, he could not see to beat off the dragon's vicious claws. He fell down thinking this was the end.

The dragon, sure,of winning, rolled its vIctim over and opened his mouth to eat him up. But Tristan, with one last burst of energy, sat up and stabbed his sword into the soft flesh of the monster's mouth. The dragon howled and crawled away to die.

Tristan forgot his pain; victory roused him like wine. Rejoicing, he cut out the dragon's tongue, as proof that he had killed it. Next he looked for a stream, to quench his thirst and soothe his burning skin. But he had not gone far when he collapsed in agony, poisoned by the dragon's venom.

Hiding under a tree some distance away was The king asked each knight to show the knight who had passed Tristan on his way. Now that the dragon was silent, and it was safe to go out, he went to see what had happened. He found the dragon's body, but no sign of its killer.

The dragon must have eaten him, he thought, and then died itself from its wounds. What a chance! The knight cut off the dragon's head and rode quickly to the king's palace.

Surprised that this cowardly knight should have killed the dragon, when so many brave men had failed, the king decided to wait before he gave Iseult away. Iseult, aghast at the thought of marrying this man, slipped out with her mother and maid, to find out what had happened for herself.

The women crossed the evil dragon's land, until at last they came to its stinking, headless body. There they found Tristan's shield and searched until they found him. Though unconscious, he was still just alive. They took him to the palace and bathed him in the healing juices of magic herbs. Slowly his wounds healed, and his burned skin grew whole again.

Iseult found herself attracted to this strange, handsome knight, and she sat for hours by his side. To pass the time, she cleaned the dragon's thick blood from his sword, and recognized the chip in its blade. It fitted a fragment of metal which had lodged in her uncle Morholt's skull. Tristan must have killed him! To avenge her family Iseult moved toward the sleeping knight, to stab him with his own sword.

But as the blade touched him, Tristan woke - and Iseult hesitated. She recognized him, now, even though he had been disguised as a minstrel on his earlier visit. But he was very ill and she pitied him. She asked why he had come back. Moved by his story, she persuaded her father to forgive him Morholt's death and hear his case against the other knight who claimed to have killed the dragon.

The king asked each knight to show his evidence. The cowardly knight showed the dragon's head, but Tristan had its tongue! Convinced by Tristan's story, the king banished the other knight from his kingdom.

Tristan had achieved his quest. The king agreed to let Iseult marry Mark, and to make peace between Ireland and Cornwall. But Iseult's heart was disappointed; she had fallen in love with Tristan. Her mother realized this; to make her daughter love her husband, she mixed a magic potion, which she gave to Iseult's maid. But the maid - who knows why? - put it into a drink which Tristan and Isuelt shared during the voyage to Cornwall. Its power made them love each other so much that they would die if parted.

Tristan's triumph had ended in tragedy, Iseult married Mark - who never wanted to be married at all - but loved Tristan, who could ever leave her side until death.

From: Myths And Legends Of Dragons
By: Gilles Ragache
Illustration: Francis Phillipps