Robert was sitting beside the sarcophagus, his back to the cave wall, his face lit by the flame of a torch. The torch was upright, it’s wooden shaft propped against the side of the stone coffin, its head of spluttering pitch causing shadows to shiver across the walls of the cavern. A large book lay open on Robert’s lap. Jane stayed back, away from the light, her fury tempered by curiosity.
‘Congratulations,’ she tried to keep her voice level. ‘You found what you came for.’
‘Indeed I did. And you found me, so congratulations to us all,’ he glanced up, smiled briefly, and returned to his reading.
‘What in the name of sanity have you done?’ Jester marched across the cavern and stood over their guest. ‘Are you completely out of your mind?’
‘No.’ Robert didn’t look up.
‘What if Gunther or Sir Ivon had found you?’
‘I would have greeted them with surprise and praised them for their miraculous sobriety.’
‘How can you make light of this?’ Jester waved his arms about in irritation. ‘What you have done is..’ he paused as he struggled to find the words, ‘..beyond foolish!’
‘My dear Jester,’ Robert sighed and looked up. ‘How delightful a commentary that is, coming from you of all people.’
‘Me? What do you mean by that? What has any of this to do with me?’
‘If you wanted something with all your heart, if you were driven by a desire to see some precious project through to its end, what lengths would you not go to? Beyond foolish?’ He looked from Jester to the shadows behind him, to Jane. Then back to his book.
‘Enough!’ Jester took a step forward. ‘The princess has gone missing, the entire staff are out seeking her. And here you sit! If one of them found you down here, robbing the final resting place of their Scholar King, I can’t imagine what punishment you would receive.’
‘I can,’ Jane tried to get a grip on her emotions. She was angry at Robert, but she was furious at herself. Despite all these years of training, she had let her guard down; she had endangered everyone she cared about! Yet it was more than simple anger she felt. A stew of complicated feelings were churning inside her. Bile was in her throat and her stomach felt sour, just as it had back at the ravine.
‘Really? Please elaborate. Jane. What crime will I be charged with? Solving a riddle? Reading a book?’
‘Grave robbing?’ Jester pointed to the tomb.
‘Not guilty,’ Robert tilted his head back to look at the wall above him. ‘Look there. The book was hidden in the carving, the archway. Just as depicted in the tapestry. The key stone pulls out and..’ he tapped the book on his lap. ‘…here we are. The Truth About Dragons, penned by your very own Scholar King.’
‘You used me.’ Jane took a deep breath, crossed the cavern, and stood over Robert.
‘How exactly? I told you there was a secret book hidden here in the castle. I told you it was my duty to find it. I told you I believed it was my destiny to be the dragonblade to this dragon you have befriended. Then Haroldus advised me that I might be wrong, that you might have taken up that mantle in all innocence. I had to test you, and I did. One of us, Jane. You or me. We need to know, and the answer might be here in this book.’
‘How? He was a scholar, not a sooth sayer. The future’s hidden to everyone, to king and to cobbler.’
‘Let me put it very plainly. A sound decision requires sound knowledge. Will you blindly commit to being a Dragonblade without understanding the nature of that commitment.’
‘No, and the only commitment I made to Dragon was to help him find out what happened to all of them? Is he the last, and if he is, how did they die?’
‘Good. I believe everything he wants to know is in here Jane, and a great deal more. Including the role of a Dragonblade? Why did dragons need to cultivate this odd dependency on a shortlife?’
‘And then you can decide if you want that role, or if you think it belongs to me. So, I say it again - if you are going to commit to something, it would make a great deal of sense to know the scale of that commitment?’
‘I should arrest you right now and be done with it!’
‘A knight would, certainly, but what will Dragon’s friend do?’ He scanned their faces, their eyes glittering in the darkness of the cavern, the light of his torch dancing on their skin. ‘Let us read this together. If I am to be put to the sword for reading a book, at least let me know what secrets the king was so set upon preserving.’
‘You would risk your life for a book?’ Jester reached up and pulled his hat off. ‘I take my hat off to you, for that, at least. It is not the stuff of ballads. And yet..’ he turned to Jane. ‘Sorry Jane, I am torn, I have to admit.’
‘Good man! Jane has chosen her friends well. The pursuit of knowledge cannot be stifled by edicts from the throne, or threats of punishment. The Scholar King didn’t burn this book like he did so many of his volumes. He held it to be far too important. He even told us where to look for it. He behaved like a true scholar and held such knowledge to be precious.’
‘In the right hands,’ said Jester.
‘Do you really believe that?’ Robert levelled his gaze at Jester. ‘How is such a matter decided? Though I agree in part. This king took the view that the army besieging his castle was not to have it. He knew the attack was to plunder the wealth of dragon lore he had amassed over the years.’
‘The Great Siege was for this?’ Jester shook his head. The dark emotion he had been wrestling with all day, the sense of foreboding that a great change was coming, suddenly clicked up a notch, like the ratchet on a Sir Ivon’s giant crossbow.
‘What else? Do you think they wanted a small port town and a fleet of herring boats? No, Jester. They wanted what was in here.’ He tapped the leather cover of the book again.
‘I feel sick.’ Jester took a step back. ‘I’ve had this odd sense of dread building up in me all day as if the ground’s tilting around me.’
‘Hold your nerve, Jester. Whatever lies in these pages cannot hurt you.’
‘That’s just it. I believe it will.’
‘Well, for good of for bad, the moment has fallen to us. So before you raise the alarm and throw me in chains. Let us read it here together. The three of us.’
‘Madness!’ Jane folded her arms.
‘Is it though,’ Jester turned to her. ‘This is what you promised to Dragon. Is reading it a betrayal of your duty to your King? No, not directly. You have been given no instruction regarding this as far as I am aware.’
‘Are you serious, you support us doing this?’
‘Yes, I think I do. The King will be angry when you tell him, and Sir Theodore will be upset by your delay. What is so new about that? You make impulsive decisions everyday based on your best judgement. You have to, and while our King will often speak severely to you, he always argues for you. As does Sir Theodore. As do I. You swore to Dragon that you would uncover the true history of dragons and what became of them. If your duties were in conflict you would be entitled to stamp your feet and rage at the fates, but they are not, Jane. They are not!’
‘That is quite the speech,’ Robert set the book on his lap and gave Jester a slow clap. ‘Only a true friend would dare to offer advice that might put him in chains too. No wonder Jane has such a deep and complicated affection for you.’
‘ENOUGH!’ Jane threw her arms up and stared at the roof of the cavern.’ And you are right of course, Jester. You are right far more often than you are wrong.’
‘A reluctant compliment but I will take it. Now let us sit and read the book together.’
‘Very well!’ Jane reached down, took the book from Robert, and gave it to Jester. ‘You read it to us.’
‘Because I only have one set of eyes and they will be locked on Robert’s face.’
‘Oh,’ Robert grinned. ‘How oddly romantic of you. Is it my dark brow or my engaging smile?’
‘To see if anything in this book is truly of value to you. Not the history of dragons or the duties of a dragonblade. Something else. You think this book holds a secret of great value to you. A secret you have risked your life to discover.’
‘Then let us begin, shall we?’ Jester sat down, his back to the stone sarcophagus, and angled the open book towards the light of the spluttering torch. Jane sat beside him, opposite Robert, folded her arms of her knees and prepared to study his face the way Sir Theodore had taught her.
‘Know your enemy Jane, truth is written on every face, you just have to watch for it.’
‘Shall I start at the beginning, or here?’ Jester tapped the open page where Robert had been reading. It carried a heading that read:
The need for the Dragonblade. The Reason and the Role.
‘From there,’ said Robert. ‘The early pages have nothing new to offer, they talk of the ancient times when Dragons filled the skies and kept their distance; of how dragons grew more scarce over the centuries. I believe the next pages will tell us why.’
‘Very well,’ said Jester. ‘Then let us begin.’
‘As outlined in my earlier pages, dragons kept their distance for most of recorded history. Their bodies were prized by traders for the unique qualities of their scales, teeth and bones, and knowledge was confined by the limited study of such remains. In most cultures the living forms were venerated and often given the status of gods or spirits. Dragon runes were an invention of humankind, a language created by an ancient priesthood who sought to contain all learning within the confines of their scriptures. The sharing of dragon lore was, for centuries, forbidden, and the priesthood created an army of warrior priests who’s duty was to put to death anyone who dared to share or to steal the secrets of dragon lore.’
‘Oh good,’ Jester looked up from the book. ‘If such priests still exist, I respectfully suggest we close this book and read no further.’
‘I doubt we have anything to fear there, Jester. They sound like an ancient order.’ Robert leant forward as if to stretch his back a little. Jane watched the move, it looked like an act of distraction.
‘Have you ever heard of their like?’ she asked.
‘No. And given your very visible behaviour with Dragon these last five years, they would surely have been swarming all over this castle by now, executing their license rather freely.’
‘Perhaps,’ Jane said. ‘Or perhaps you are the first of them to arrive here.’
‘An interesting notion,’ Robert laughed, but Jane saw she’d touched a nerve. His eyes had turned inward, as if he was giving the idea consideration. ‘You would be wise to keep all such notions open, Jane. Perhaps Sir Theodore’s touching story of his oath brothers is nothing but a fable. Perhaps Haroldus, my father and Sir Theodore are the last of that priestly order.’
‘Shall I read on?’ asked Jester.
‘Yes,’ said Jane, ‘the sooner we are done the sooner we can join the search for the princess.’
‘Some eight centuries ago, this balance changed. It is clear from several account that dragons, once a distant, but common sight in the skies, grew ever more scarce. A group of warrior priests from the drylands south of the great pyramids were tasked with making contact and establishing the reasons for this decline. Their efforts were rewarded. They learnt that dragons were at great risk of dying when laying their eggs. The reasons were unclear, but the problem had started centuries ago, growing worse over the decades. By the time of this discovery, it was estimated that only one in every five dragons survived when laying their egg.’
‘What?’ Jester paused and looked up. ’One in five? No wonder dragons have died out. Gunther offers better odds at his dice table!’
‘Tasteless,’ said Robert. ‘I don’t think the passing of a species is a fit subject for brevity.’
‘I’m a court jester, that’s what I do. I speak the unspeakable truths the court would rather not hear. I am their conscience, and as such, every shadowy corner of this world must subject itself to the bright scrutiny of my wit.’
‘Well, in this instance, I agree with Robert,’ Jane pointed to the book. ‘Keep reading.’
‘Very well!’ Jester gave a long sigh, but carried on.
‘A period of scientific cooperation followed. Warrior priests and dragons worked together to find the reason for this decline. Their first discovery was a surprise, they found that dragons, like several other types of lizard, are all female.’
‘What!’ Jane stared at the others. ‘I always took Dragon for a male. He talks like a male, deep voice and full of self-importance!’
‘Is that so?’ Robert’s teeth flashed white. ‘I feel slighted by that remark. Jester, do you feel slighted?’
‘Slightly slighted, yes. But this is hardly a surprise, is it Jane? Dragon got very maternal when you found that ancient egg, he tried to hatch it, but it was too ancient.’
‘Yes, he did, didn’t he? And Gunther has often remarked at the visible lack of male equipment between belly and tail. I know Smithy explained that away, he said many creatures have deep folds of skin to protect their more tender parts. But read on, Jester. I need to understand a Dragonblade’s duties and commitments.’
‘Read on? Should we not spent a little time discussing how we explain this to Dragon?’
‘Why? He’ll be delighted to learn he’s female.’
‘She will be delighted.’
‘Yes. Exactly. Now, read on.’
Jester looked from Jane to Robert, shook his head, but carried on reading. ‘A pact was made between the dragons and the warrior priests. Blades were forged in dragon fire, blades so sharp they could slice open the belly of a dying Dragon and later, the shell of the egg itself. These blades were made for a chosen few, priests who became known as Dragonblades. In return, these Dragonblades received the gift of flight, they could ride the length and breadth of the world astride the dragons they had sworn to serve.’
‘And you?’ Jester looked up at Robert. ‘Did you know all this?’
‘Some of it,’ Robert nodded, ‘my father was obsessed with the idea that he was such a warrior priest, intent of finding a dragon he could serve. He spent much of his life searching for dragon lore, just as the Scholar King had. He learnt of the king’s research, and of the book we are reading now. Please continue.’
‘The duty of the Dragonblade was to be at the dragon’s side at all times, so be ready when the dragon tried to lay it’s egg, ready to carve the egg free should the dragon perish in the attempt.’
‘Cut Dragon open?’ Jane reached out and grabbed the book from Jester. ‘Let me see.’ She read the passage again. Then carried on reading, silently, tracing each line with her finger as she read. At the end of the page she paused, and looked up at Jester.
‘What?’ He tried to read her expression, and couldn’t. There was a look in her eyes he had never seen before. He took the book back and read the passage aloud.
‘..ready to carve the egg free should the dragon perish in the attempt. Most dragonblades never see the laying of an egg in their own lifetime. Their final duty will be to help their dragon find a successor, a new dragonblade. This is their sacred duty, to ensure the survival of a species; to be at their dragon’s side at all times; to go where their dragon goes; to forsake all other duties; to forsake their families. No dragonblade can have a human partner or child of their own. The dragon is their family, their purpose, their lifelong commitment.’
Jester stared at the page. He couldn’t look up and meet Jane’s eyes. He just stared down at the book, his tears welling with tears.
‘There we are,’ Robert broke the silence. ‘The price to be paid.’
‘Yes,’ Jane said quietly. Then, for the briefest of moments, she felt a dull pain deep in her stomach. It was gone as quickly as it came. Imagined?
‘Oh,’ Robert’s face creased slightly. ‘What was that?’
‘I felt nothing!’ Jane lied. She stretched her legs out. Perhaps she’d been sitting too long in one position. Then it came again, the same dull pain. She saw it in Robert’s eyes. He had felt it too. What was this?
‘Your sword!’ Robert jumped to his feet! ‘Someone is using your sword, don’t you feel it Jane? The pull?’
‘Lavinia!’ Jane was on her feet now. So Robert HAD felt it too, exactly as she did. More so, since he knew what was causing it. How in the name of madness could they both feel this?
‘What are you talking about?’ Jester closed the book but kept his head bowed, angry at his tears, blinking to wipe them away.
‘Someone is summoning Dragon,’ Jane raced for the stairwell. ‘It must be the Princess, she’s the only one who’s watched me open the handle to call Dragon.’
‘Wait for me?’ Jester started to follow her, but Robert grabbed his elbow.
‘The book, my friend, set it back in its hiding place before you follow us.’ Then he slapped Jester hard on the shoulder. The gesture was an odd mix. It hinted at friendship, yet it also sent a very clear message. Feel the strength of my arm, Jester, do not cross me, you are no match.
Jester climbed up onto the lid of the sarcophagus, the only way he could reach the secret niche in the wall above.
‘Sorry for this,’ he said, apologising to the carved image of the scholar king as he stepped on its face. He stretched up, replaced the book, and swung the keystone back across the hiding place. Then he jumped down and raced for the stairwell.
He could hear the commotion when he was a dozen steps from the top. It sounded like the entire court and castle staff were up in Rake’s garden. He sprinted out into the evening air and stared about him. The king and queen were on the far side, standing on the steps that led up to the Royal Gardens, courtiers hurrying to join them. In front of Jester, a thick jostle of castle staff were pushing their way forward, a dozen at least, including Pepper.
‘Jester!’ Pepper called to back to him and pointed up at the battlements above Jane’s room. Princess Lavinia was climbing onto Dragon’s neck.
‘What in the name of madness!’ Jester scanned the backs of the castle staff and saw Jane and Robert pushing their way through, trying to get to the tower steps.
‘NOOOO!’ A wail of anguish from the queen cut through all the clamour and the crowd fell silent. Jester watched in horror as Dragon leapt into the sky with Princess Lavinia sitting astride his neck.