The call of the birds formed a symphony discordant with that of the sea. For that was where the angels had brought him – to the mouth of the Bewer. But where was the sea? Beyond that bank of glistening sand that blocked the river and forced its flow to spread over the neighbouring land to the north. Where had been fen and marsh, now was a lake, as far as his eyes could see, with an occasional low island protruding.
She creates of these marshes a nursery safe for her new-born, said Zadki.
In procreating all dragons are she. The dark angel’s voice boomed. Micha tells you, when that one arrives. Micha knows of dragons most. This one but commands that one’s host.
She creates her nursery, Amphora said. Already she is in skima-mode.
As before, Amphora answered Guy’s question even before he formed it: Skima-mode, when dragon must procreate. Then she is beautiful.
“To attract a mate?”
Amphora laughed and again those ripples and the echoes and the disturbed flocks of birds, all a-wing, loud with screams. Her myrrh-scented gustlets joined the sea breezes.
Zadki spoke, adding his boom to the already babel. Dragon mates not with dragon. Dragons are breed apart.
But . . . if not with their own kind, how?
Apparently Amphora had not heard him. Or preferred not to answer. Now finding her lair will be no hard task, she said instead.
No hard task for an angel. No task at all for those knowing of dragons. He didn’t like the thought that was forming. He glanced at Toli, chubby legs wide over the bay’s barrel-chest, as if seeking support. But though he could see his Saxon squire, the lad seemed not wholly there. The thought formed and lodged and wouldn’t be shifted. A vision, not words, it shimmered before him, of ripples outflowing from a thrown stone. Only it wasn’t a stone at the centre, but these angels. Himself, he was a leaf caught in the motion, a burr snagged, a trailing cloak to be dragged along by them.
Finally the word came. Superfluous. It stayed in his mind. Guy swallowed. They know well at they were doing, what need had they of him.
And he had thought—no, more than thought, he had hoped that he alone would perform some vital deed. He had imagined the glory, imagined the praise. How the lords who held manors for far around here would present him with gold and with weapons and men and with land, and . . . and all would thank him for slaying the ravening dragon. He had imagined that land would lie upon Hreppessey, close by the burgh. Then let his brother scorn him.
But – and this was the thought that so troubled him – if they’d no need of his aid, why had they fetched him? He was suddenly glum.
You are wrong. Amphora turned full face to him.
~ ~ ~
Late afternoon. How far had they travelled? Guy had no notion except when they had left the bar at the Bewer’s mouth the sun had been ablaze amid the clouds. Then, at the abbey’s hemming, as they veered eastward, the sun had been slipping beneath the horizon, tarnishing trees, the black closing around them. Blackness, no memory of passing the night except perhaps a vague recall of seeking out Toli, so desperate his need of a human companion. Now dawn flooded a land that was changed, not fen, water and marsh, but hills that were rising though still the road followed alongside a river.
That river took them upon a high moor. A million puddles, many mere glimpses between and beneath the ferns and the yarrow and rust-seeded dock, others large and open and fringed with horsetails. Impossible to know, beneath the reflections of a storm-clouded sky, which were shallow surface water, which disguised deeper pits. Guy wouldn’t stray; he followed the angels on a labyrinthine path through patches of golden trefoil.
“Why would the dragon chose here?” Guy asked.
Four rivers fall, Amphora answered.
Guy nodded, though he lacked understanding. Was it an allusion to the Garden of Eden? It still rankled that they’d not speak out so Toli could hear them. He felt . . . alone, yes, alone with them. He felt . . . not all was as it seemed. He wanted to ask Toli, what did Toli see, and how did Toli assess the situation. Amphora denied it, yet Guy was convinced, these angels were using him. But he didn’t know to what purpose.
The angels halted their horses before a wide black mere. Guy frowned, for no cloud-folded sky was reflected there. Sedges straggled around it, black like the earth that lay blackened beneath them. He drew in a breath. Mingled with the sweetness of distant wood burning, another scent seeped, so it seemed, from the water. Incense? But not bitter myrrh. Instead, heady, cloying, though it failed to disguise the other smell there: less pleasant, of fatty flesh rotting. Guy eyed the freshly-made mounds scattered around there.
“What are they?” His voice was hushed with horror, reluctant to ask.They were not high mounds yet heaped higher than graves.
Dragon-nests, Zadki said with unusual emotion. Disgust. Now these ones must report without delay.
The words were still sounding as he and Amphora blinked out of vision.
~ ~ ~
Guy shivered as a chill breeze slithered around him, seeming to leach the heat from the day. He called Toli in closer. He was in a quandary of what to do now. Wait for the angels? Set a camp here? He looked at the mere. Though the angels had not said, yet he knew what lurked there.
“Wights and fetches,” Toli said with a nod to where they’d last seen the angels. Then at Guy’s scowl, “Well they are, Sir Guy. I only speak as I see.”
“Angels,” Guy said, as much to convince himself. “Angels of our Lord God. But were you able to hear their talk?”
“Some, though I tried not. Not addressed to me, Sir Guy. And were I you I’d not trust them a lot.”
From the mere came a plash! Guy and Toli both turned their eyes there. Bubbles and ripples.
“Rain,” Toli said, a glance up at the sky. “I’ll find you the wool cloak.”
He slipped off his bay gelding . . . and squealed and jumped back. The horse nickered and trampled away.
“What?” Guy asked, unnerved beyond the situation.
“Nothing, Sir Guy. Only an adder; it’s gone.” But apparently he’d seen something more.
As soon as he’d helped Guy with the felted wool cloak he was off, into some leggy gorse bushes. Guy, still mounted, cautiously followed the lad.
“What is it?” he asked.
Toli offered up a silvery tatter.
Memories, a long-ago visit to the shore-side village of Haimes. Fyren had explained their strange trade in the sloughed skins of snakes. The Dane warriors wore them as wristbands so their arrows flew fleet, their swords killed swiftly as venom. But this tatter was no lacy ribbon. And the only warrior to wear it would be a giant. Guy swallowed, a waste of his spit from his fear-dried mouth.
Another splash sounded from the pit. More bubbles were breaking.
They couldn’t stay here, those accursed angels for deserting them. Guy ordered the boy to mount. But before they’d yet turned from the pit, and with no murmur of thunder, light rent the dark sky.
Blinding, it lasted but a moment then night returned with absolute blackness. Except – at a spear’s throw from them, bestride a dandelion horse, sat an angel amid a flickering blue light.
Complexion pale, golden hair, lamellate-armour of some celestial-making that captured and fractured the light, he carried a lance, presented erect – to pierce and to shatter with God’s white fury, the words swam into Guy’s head.
“Micha,” the angel said as he came closer, and bowed his head.
Not yet shock-recovered, Guy’s mouth remains slack and non-working.
“I am your mentor. Your pedagogue. Your tutor.” He spoke his words using lips, Guy felt a smile growing, begun at his heart. “You accept for this mission that you are my squire?”
Guy’s head turned, a look flicked at Toli.
“Let him be as a squire to my squire,” Micha said.
Guy grinned, his misgivings dismissed. Warmth, like the glow from mead half-an-hour drunk, spread through his body. His muscles loosened, his face lifted, engladdened.
“I come to train you,” said Micha. “For in that pit lurks a foul dragon, and you are her slayer.”
“My lord,” Guy said, surprised at his own boldness. “It is late, it is dark, I am tired, my squire too, this rain doesn’t lessen, the moor festers with vipers; we need some place warm, safe and dry for the night.”
Micha clicked his fingers. And there amongst a stand of birches south of the gorse was erected an Eastern styled tented pavilion.
It appeared of moderate size. Yet inside were three folding chairs, two beds, five braziers, ten hanging lamps and, on a table, a platter of meats, steaming dishes, baskets of Eastern fruits, and seven stone flasks containing warmed wine. The horses had a stall of their own. Micha was host, his armour gone, replaced by a loose white silken shirt and breeks. He handed to Guy a full goblet. Confusion raked him, to grin or to let his jaw drop. Toli sat at once, wine in hand. No confusion with him. He grinned.
“Sit,” Micha directed almost absently, though for himself he still paced. Great strides that seemed to Guy too long for the pavilion’s bounds. “You await explanations. How mates a dragon if not male to female, each of its type?”
He paused while he drew several long breaths.
“Dragons worked well when terrible-lizards alone walked the land. But then came along Man.”
Again he paused, now to chew on his lip.
“Mating . . . how much does Man know?” Thought creased his brow. Then up shot his fine angelic finger as if he’d then something resolved. “Dragon ova impregnate through ingestion of sperm-filled vesicles. The geno-mark there contained – have you heard of this geno-mark? – directs the development of the beast’s several parts. Ergo, she ingests an eagle to beget eagle wings; ingests a goat for goat-horns. Yet the basic form is the snake.”
Warm wine slithered down Guy’s parched throat, full and fruity and alcohol laden. At least, that was Guy’s explanation for his reeling head. His excuse for how long it took to grasp implications.
“So, Sir Micha-Lord,” said Toli, grin breaking, eyes popping, “the dragon gets knocked-up just by eating?”
Micha nodded. “Succinctly paraphrased, yes.”
“My Lord Micha . . .” Guy fretted, was that the correct way to address an archangel? Yet the angel allowed it. “Do I understand that the dragon eats more than one . . . mate?”
Again Micha nodded. “One mate per part. An astronomical number of permutations.”
“So . . . many mates make one young? Or . . . ?”
“You saw the mounds.”
Guy’s eyes shot wide. “A young in each one?”
“No. No, no. No. Each is a store, so to speak. As a landsman makes clamps for his neap . . . or perhaps they don’t do that as yet. No, those clamps—mounds–contain secondary food-source – for when the young have their eye-teeth. Count the mounds. One is for each ovum. Every ovum to be impregnated. Perforce, a feature designed to compensate for maternal redundancy.”
Much of this was as clear to Guy as the priests’ Latin exultations. So he clutched to the parts he could understand. “Oxen, sheep, goats . . . ?”
“This particular species favours the horse.”
Guy had grasped sufficient. “You said, my lord, all worked well until Man? I can understand disgruntlement at loss of stock, but . . . ?”
“The dragon, created prior to Man, can make no use of sperm-filledMan’s vesicles. Yet the young must feed.”
Guy shuddered in sudden revulsion. “The food stored in the barrows?”
“In the barrows,” Micha agreed.
It took not a moment for Guy to imagine the human-faced bodies hid in those barrows, there to feed the young. He saw Adele’s face there. His belly, sickened, threatened eruption. He turned away from the meat-laden table. He tried to think of something other. Any other. But nothing would take away that image.
“My Lord Micha, you say of training to slay it. But how to train without its waking?”
“Waking? No, it is already awake. But Amphora will provide for us illusions. We shall start with one small.”
“How? I mean, I am a knight trained to kill, yet . . . how kill a dragon?”
“As one kills a mailed man.”
“Find a gap in the armour?”
“The soft belly-parts,” butted in Toli. “That’s how Wade did it. Sirs.”
“Hush, that’s a heathen tale,” Guy hissed at his squire.
“So Samson then; Samson was a saint who slew a dragon. But he used no sword, Sir.”
Guy started to say to be quiet, but Micha raised a hand and stayed him. “I should like to hear this lad’s tale. Heaven doesn’t know all that happens on Earth. Our dimension is spirit, light and song. In Heaven stories do not belong.”
Guy inwardly groaned. How now to keep his Saxon squire in order, keep him humble, when an angel invites him. The lad was grinning.
“See, Sirs,” Toli began, rubbing his chubby palms together, “there once was a troublesome dragon. Eating oxen and maidens – you know how they do. So the folks thereabouts thought to fetch out the holy man, Samson. Well, the holy man Samson duly arrived, and duly advanced upon the horrible dragon. But was the dragon frightened at all? No, it was not. It breathed its fire upon the holy man Samson. It tore up the earth to throw at God’s man.
“So now the holy man Samson made a second advance, now singing God’s psalms. Well, this worked much better. The beast rolled round in pain, it did, and ate off its tail. And seeing, the folks thereabout set about making their plans for a huge celebration. For they thought the deed already done.
“But had the beast died? No, it had not.
“So now the holy man Samson drew him a circle around the dragon, using his staff and a cross fixed upon it. The folks all watched and they scratched their heads. For did this encircling kill the dragon? No it did not, no more than had God’s psalms. But now that circle had the dragon contained. It was magic, see, Sirs, and magic does that. Contains.”
Guy wanted to hide, he wanted to be gone. He didn’t want to be here when the lad finished his tale. For this wasn’t the Church-told version of the tale. The squire had heard it off Rainald’s men. All sorts in that company: Saxons, Easterlings, even Irish and Welsh. Guy must stop the telling. But how, when Archangel Michael himself had commanded it of him.
Oblivious – or maybe not – of Guy’s growing dread, Toli continued his tale. “Around and around that circle the dragon now prowled. And no matter it tried, there was no getting out. But was this the solution the local folk wanted? No, it was not. They wanted that fiery dragon dead. So, the holy man Samson did the only thing left to him. ‘A fuk upon you, then!’ he said – because that’s a curse to bring down an ice-storm. Then, ‘For All-Father’s sake, just swive and die!’ And the beast stood on its tail, wrapped twice round its neck, spat poison, strangled itself and was dead.”
Guy hardly dared look at his Lord Micha, expecting his squire to be struck down dead.
. _____ .
Next episode, The Unslayable, 19th February 2013