‘Stop thinking!’ Jane could hear the command chasing around in her head as she ran up the stone steps from the catacombs that lay deep beneath the castle. Robert was at her heels, trying to keep up, shouting questions at her, but all she could hear was the command she was silently repeating to herself. ‘Stop THINKING!’
Action was better. Thought froze the muscles. There would be time later to sort through all the consequences of what she had just heard. A life of complete servitude to Dragon. Servitude to a single compelling duty to preserve the unborn life he was carrying in his belly, to protect his precious egg. Perhaps the last dragon egg in the entire world. A life dedicated to being at Dragon’s side, ready at any moment to cut the egg free if Dragon should die in the hatching of it. To take care of the egg, to slice it open and then take care of the tiny life it carried. To be the puppy’s teacher, its parent. Or worse still, to spend a lifetime waiting for this event, to grow old and find and train a new Dragonblade to take her place one day. Someone else to carry the burden.
STOP THINKING! No family, no husband, no life as a knight here at the castle. No growing old amount her friends, no seeing Rake and Pepper getting married and having children. A lifetime of complete servitude to another creature. One single mission. For life.
No, not right now! Focus on THIS mission, her duty to Lavinia. Keep running up the steps, one at a time. Save the thinking for later.
Some minutes earlier, Dragon had been locked in a very different conversation. Not with himself, but with Squeaky.
‘There’s plenty of room for all of us!’ Dragon had glared at the small bat who was giving a heart-wrenching display of utter misery. Dragon could converse with a wide range of creatures. A long life meant he had spent a great deal of time listening to a great many animals. The complexities of bat-squeak had been challenging at first, until Dragon had realised bats moved their ears to add nuance to the squeaks.
‘Cruel!’ shrieked Squeaky.
After dropping Jane and her new friend at the castle, Dragon had escorted the flotilla of homeless bats up to his cave. He had expected Squeaky to be delighted. So many new friends. Hundreds of them.
‘They smell!’ Squeaky waved a wing in front of her nose.’
‘You DO know you’re a bat, right?’
‘Yes, but I am a very special one-of-a-kind bat.’
‘Special, how? You have the same odorous droppings, the same nibbling fleas, the same ear-scratching voice.’
‘I am the only bat who lives in a cave with a dragon! That makes me feel special.’
‘Ah, good insight. You are magnificent by association. You are special because you live with a VERY special creature and some of that specialness has splashed over you like spray from a spectacular mountain waterfall.’
‘Then fear not, my little ball of special smelliness, the others bats can hang out at the back in the west cavern. Only you can share my sleeping cave. No snoring, squeaking or poo dropping allowed.’
Squeaky had appeared somewhat pacified by this, so Dragon had gone outside onto his ledge to do some pacing and thinking.
Had he made a terrible mistake allowing Jane’s new friend to ride on his back? Had doing this made Jane feel ‘less special’ too? Dragon was not given to introspection. He prided himself on being a creature of action. Why shortlives wasted their existence thinking themselves into knots of worry was a mystery to him. Was that why he enjoyed Jane’s company so much? She was a creature of action too. He had never really considered this until today. The pair had muddled along together because it suited them. He helped Jane with her royal duties and helped keep her safe from vagabonds and from the consequences of her own remarkable self-confidence. In return she had pledged to help him discover everything they could about dragons, or to be more precise - the lack of dragons. What had become of them? Could he be the last of his kind?
‘YOW!’ Dragon screwed up his eyes, shook his head and, without a second thought, threw himself from the ledge. In the next heartbeat he folded his wings like paper darts and dived towards the castle. The jump had been instinctive, as if he had been yanked from the ledge by an invisible force. In truth he had. He had responded to the shrill cry of Jane’s sword. He had been summoned.
Lavinia had expected Dragon to respond. The short history of her life had taught her that everyone, except her mother, would leap into action to make her every wish a reality. The princess, in contrast to her brother, had discovered early the pitfalls of this expectation. Her every wish, if voiced aloud, would come with a cascading sequence of consequences.
Which was why she needed to unburden her worries to Dragon. He wouldn’t lie to please her, or take it upon himself to deliver instant justice on her behalf simply to ingratiate himself.
However, whilst she had expected Dragon to respond, she had not expected him to respond so quickly. She had taken Jane’s blade up onto the tower roof, opened its complex mechanical handle and released the summoning device. That had been easy enough. Jane had taught her the sequence for unlocking the handle. A matter of trust between them, Jane had said. Lavinia knew it was more than that. It was the logical extension of Jane’s sworn duty as a knight. Protecting the princess by giving her the power to summon Dragon to her aid was not just an act of friendship, it was an act of service. Yet Lavinia also knew that no one else in the royal family had been entrusted with the secret. It was one of the many mysteries about Jane which fascinated and infuriated the young princess.
So, opening the handle has been easy. Twirling the small carved summoner in circles above her head on the end of its thread of twine was another matter entirely. She tried for a third time, swinging it above her head, faster and faster, forcing air through the summoner until it began to vibrate. To sing. The next moment, the flagstones of the turret roof shook beneath her feet.
‘There you are,’ she looked up to see Dragon standing over her; arms folded; fingers drumming on his elbows; irritation written into every crease of his expression.
‘Hmmm. Indeed. Here I am young lady.’
‘We need to talk, Dragon, it’s very VERY important.’
‘Where is the danger?’ Dragon strode to the battlements and made a theatrical display of squinting around at the horizon. ‘No fire, no invading forces, no thunderbolts.’ He turned back to the princess. ‘The only danger I can see is a large, fire-breathing dragon with a short temper and a compulsion to squash a shortlife for being very irritating with Jane’s sword singy-thingy.’
‘I have no time for this!’
‘This!’ The Princess pointed up at Dragon’s mouth. ‘For all your silly talk!’
‘My..?’ Dragon leaned in. ‘You are not helping your cause.’
‘Dragon! The whole castle is searching for me, I need someone I can talk to, someone I can trust.’
‘Yes. Something very bad is going to happen, but if I warn my father about it, then two people I care for, will be in more trouble than I can bare to think about it.’
‘Soooo.. don’t tell your father.’
‘That is not an option. If I hold my silence the trouble will get worse. Much, much worse. I don’t know what to do or who to speak to. Except you. You don’t give a fiddle for the politics of the court. I believe it is all an amusing distraction for you, nothing more.’
‘Perhaps.’ Dragon nodded slowly. The girl was right of course. Wisdom was his middle name.
‘There she is!’ A courtier pointed up at them from the Royal Gardens. Within moments, the air was filled with the clamour of voices as castle staff called out to each other and hurried towards the base of the tower.
‘Please Dragon. Take me somewhere we can talk. PLEASE!’
Jane and Robert came racing into the training yard as Dragon took to the air.
‘Stop! Wait!’ Jane screamed. It was dark now, but a full moon was rising, bathing Dragon’s underbelly with silver light as he beat the air and gained enough sky to clear the Keep.
‘Madness.’ Robert was right beside her as Jane altered course and ran across the training yard toward the stables. ‘Did you show her, or did she figure it out?’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Not to me.’ He grabbed her elbow to slow her down. ‘It might to Dragon. What if he’s chosen Lavinia for his Dragonblade.’
‘What?’ Jane turned and stared at him.
‘He doesn’t understand any of this yet. Not the true nature of what’s to come. When he does, he might choose any one of us!’
‘Perhaps,’ Jane shook herself free of his grip. He was right of course, yet none of it mattered in this moment. What mattered was to get on a horse and get up to Dragon’s cave, to keep the Princess safe, to bring her back and sort out the mess Gunther had created, a mess that had driven the girl to follow such a desperate course.
Jester was pushing his way towards the training yard when he saw the Princess climb onto Dragon’s neck and take off. To his right, on the steps up to the Royal Gardens, the Queen let out a scream of utter anguish. It tore at Jester’s heart and he fought the urge to be at her side. Instead he hurried through the archway into the training yard. Jane and Robert were already on the far side, sprinting into the stables. Jester ran to catch up, almost bumping into Smithy as the young blacksmith came racing out from his forge.
‘What a day,’ Smithy slapped Jester on the back as he raced beside him. ‘I’ll help Jane saddle up, she’ll be following them up the mountain, no doubt.’
‘No doubt.’ Then Jester spotted Gunther. The young knight was stumbling up the dungeon steps in the far corner of the yard. ‘You help Jane, Smithy. I need to speak to this idiot!’
Gunther staggered as Jester approached him. He put both hands to his head, and tried looking around. ‘My head! I think a cart rolled over it. What time is it? And why is everyone shouting? What in the name of all sanity is going on?’
‘There is little sanity to be found right now Gunther. No thanks to you. Look.’ He pointed up at the night sky where the silhouette of Dragon flapped its dark form across the full moon.
‘Dragon? What of it?’
‘Princess Lavinia is up there, holding on for dear life I hope, and most of the castle has turned out to witness it.’
‘What?’ Gunther dropped his head. ‘That makes no sense, why would she do such a thing? Not that my head can make much sense of anything right now. I think that Robert drank me into oblivion.’
‘He did. Now he and Jane are in the stables. No doubt intent on riding up the mountain to bring the Princess back.’
‘Good. Then I shall stumble to my bunk and make peace with my head.’
‘No. You must make peace with your King first. Go to him and tell him of your father’s schemes right now, before this whole mess comes to light.’
‘What have you said?’ Suddenly, Gunther looked very sober.
‘Nothing. Lavinia was in the hayloft when you were laying bare your plans to me. She heard every word.’
Gunther didn’t reply, he stared blankly at Jester, as if none of this had registered. Then he dropped his head as the weight of understanding struck home.
‘Focus, Gunther. The Princess must be distraught and confused beyond measure. So I urge you, tell the king everything you know, tell him right, now before Dragon does. So far, your only crime has been your silence as you wait for your father to dig a hole he cannot climb from.’
‘No. I can’t.’
‘You must. Tell the king and take what comes, you might lose your role in the King’s Guard, but your father will lose his freedom. He will be imprisoned or banished for this. You can be free of him.’
‘No,’ Gunther spoke quietly. ‘You underestimate him. He will talk his way out of this, at worst he will make the whole scheme out to be mine. He will win through. He always does. And I will be dead.’
‘Dead? Too dramatic Gunther.’
‘Then you really don’t know my father,’ Gunther took a deep breath and placed a hand on Jester’s shoulder. ‘Look to yourself, Jester. Everything we see here, everything we love, it is smoke, my friend. An illusion of vapours that can never be ours, try as we might to bring the fates into line for us.’
Dragon stared into the flames. He had made the campfire for Lavinia, not himself, adding more wood with every twist of the tale she was telling. He forced himself to pay attention, but it was hard. Shortlife issues were so tedious and foolish. Once or twice he had given a knowing nod and shared words of encouragement, words such as ‘interesting’ or ‘fascinating. He looked up from the flames occasionally to watch Lavinia pacing up and down, waving her arms as she spoke, becoming ever more loud and theatrical as if she sensed he was losing interest. Perceptive little thing.
‘Is that it?’ he asked when Lavinia finally stopped talking.
‘Yes. So what should I do?’
‘Let me think for a moment,’ he said, and he looked back into the flames. By the time that moment had come and gone, he had forgotten everything she’d said. How could he have done otherwise? The prattle of a shortlife’s conversation was as deep and meaningful as the rustle of dry leaves.
‘Your advice, please.’
‘Ah, well. I have lived a long time, young lady. I have seen a great many things already and yet I have hardly begun my life. Like you, I am at the very beginning of my story.’ He looked up at her. The child was hanging on every word. How very inconvenient.
‘Your point is?’
‘My point is - I have learnt one thing well enough. I write my story for myself. I do not allow others write it for me. Do I make myself clear.’
‘Not entirely, no. In fact, if I may say it. Not at all.’
‘Then I will be more direct. No one tells me what to do, and I advise you to do likewise. Don’t let anyone, not even a wise creature such as myself, write one single line of your story. You say that you need my advice. I say, you do not. Only YOU know what you know, so only YOU know what to do when a little problem comes skipping into your life.’
‘This problem isn’t little.’
‘All shortlife problems are little, how can they be otherwise.’
Dragon glanced up at Squeaky. Had he been listening? Had he seen how magnificently he had handled this shortlife creature. Job done. Now he could relax and focus on the serious matter of deciding what to eat tonight.
‘So,’ Lavinia put her hands on her hips, pushed out her chin, and glared at Dragon. ‘Your advice is - that I shouldn’t take advice?’
‘I shouldn’t listen to anyone, not even Jane?’
‘Listen to whoever you like, but do whatever YOU like.’
‘Alright, I will. Take me to the Merchant.’
‘I said do whatever you like, I did not say command ME to do whatever you like.’
‘Very well,’ Lavinia got up and started walking from the cave. ‘You stay there by the warm fire. Goodnight Dragon.’
‘What are you doing? Oh I see. Well, go on, walk out into the darkness. Stumble your way down that very narrow path with about a thousand places to fall to a splattery death. Go.’
‘I will. Goodnight, and thank you for your help.’ She paused as she stepped out into the night, then she turned, peered back inside, and waved. ‘Should anything unsavoury or dreadfully sad happen to me; if I should fall headlong from the path, please tell Jane I forgive you for sitting by like this.’
Dragon did his best to stare into the flames and ignore the girl’s irritating remark. Then he glanced across the cave as Squeaky tumbled to the ground and rolled around in fits of bat laughter.
Jane rounded the corner of the Southern Wall, urging her horse into a gallop. Up ahead, the moon hung like a bloated lantern next to the black outline of the mountain. It cast a strong silver light, strong enough to show the track ahead. Jane tossed aside the torch Smithy had urged her to take, its spluttering flame preventing her eyes from adapting to the night.
She was alone. Robert had tried to come too, but Smithy had argued against it, refusing to give him a horse. They were almost at blows over it when Sir Theodore had come storming into the stables.
‘Enough!’ he had grabbed Robert by the shoulders and pushed him up against a wall. ‘You are going nowhere! You are staying right here, young man. We have a great deal to discuss! Jane, bring that girl safely back by horse. You lead her back down. Are we clear?’
She was. In daylight the ride up to the cave could take less that an hour. At night, only a fool would push their horse that fast. The track had too many blind turns, too many switch back angles where nothing stood between solid ground and a drop into oblivion. That was further up, down here on the lower slopes, the track was wider and a fast canter was safe enough.
Jane had been riding for less than a mile when she saw a movement against the sky. She slowed to a trot, stretched out her hand to block the direct moonlight from her eyes, and saw the dim outline of Dragon gliding his familiar slow spiral around the top of the mountain. What was he doing? She dismounted and scanned the sky again. There he was, taking off again from high up on the track. Jane could see immediately that the princess was sitting astride his neck. They were too far away for Jane see the girl’s outline, but she could tell she was there from the way Dragon held his neck outstretched, his head steady.
‘Dragon!’ She screamed up to him, knowing it was a waste of breath at such a distance. She tracked their slow looping descent, waiting till they were closer before she called again. Then suddenly Dragon was low overhead, swooping out from behind an outcrop. Jane’s horse reared in fright.
‘Maggots!’ Jane leant forward, kept her seat, and turned her horse in time to see Dragon descending over the village, not the castle itself. Why? Even as the question arose, the answer came racing with it. The Merchant! Of course the princess would go to the Merchant! Jane felt her stomach turn to ice. Lavinia was bold of heart, but she had been sheltered from the brutality of the world. Her fearless nature was in part the bravery of innocence. Lavinia was going to demand an explanation from the Merchant himself.
‘Please no!’ Jane screamed into the night and urged her horse back down the path. For most of her life, Jane had lived in fear of the Merchant. There was nothing Gunther’s father wouldn’t do to protect his many malignant plans for taking control of Kippernia. Now his ambitions would come crashing down if the Princess told her father everything she knew of the Merchant’s latest scheme. What would the man do to stop that? What would he NOT do?