The story about dragons that I've been referring to almost since I started this blog is almost ready to be published, so here's a sneak preview for it.

The story's origin pre-dates almost everything else I've published. The idea came from a mailing list that I used to subscribe to. Someone's signature was a quotation, "Do not meddle in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup." (This of course is a mangling of a quote from Tolkien, "Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.") It caught my eye, and I wondered whether I could get a story out of it. Sometime around Christmas 1999, I wrote down a scene of a man on a hilltop, trying to persuade a dragon to help him.

Then I got stuck and stopped writing it. I wrote several other stories, but this one kept nagging at me. Every year or two, I looked over it again, getting no further with it. I had a few ideas for later scenes, but no overall plot.

Eventually, I started writing The Mirrors of Elangir. For no very good reason, I decided that dragons existed in this world, and humans used them as airborne cavalry. (Spoiler alert: there are no dragons on-stage in that book.) About halfway through writing it, I realised that this little scene of the man and the dragon on the hilltop could work if I set it in the world that I was now creating. For reasons that'll become apparent when you read the complete story, I set it about a thousand years after The Mirrors of Elangir.

It's taken longer to finish than I expected, because I worked on it between my full-length novels. I thought it would be a short story, which are difficult to market on their own. But it ended up being a novella (a shade under 29,000 words), so I feel able to sell it as a standalone book. There might be a sequel or two eventually, but I'm not making any promises at this stage.

Anyway, without further preamble, here's chapter one.

A great rush of air from above knocked Iko to the ground. A shadow blotted out the sun. As the wind subsided, he became aware of a hulking presence in front of him, heavy beyond mere physical mass. Expecting it to be the last thing he ever did, he looked up.

The tip of the dragon's nose was about three feet in front of him. Its head and body were covered in jet black scales. Its eyes were the palest gold, with a narrow vertical slit in the middle, black as the bottom of the ocean, seeming deep enough to contain worlds.

The dragon shifted its weight slightly, and its nostrils dilated. Air moved past Iko as it breathed in. This was it, then. How long might it be before someone noticed he was missing? If they came up here to look for him, would they work out the meaning of the blackened patch of grass where he now lay?

Man-thing. The voice reverberated inside his skull. The legends were right: dragons had no voices like humans, but spoke directly with their minds. What the legends hadn't mentioned was that the dragon's mindspeech was incredibly loud. Perhaps he should move further away? Given his present circumstances, that might not be a wise move.

Crawling, said the dragon. Grovelling, as befits your kind. Were you another dragon, I should kill you for this insult. Yet one such as you is scarcely worth that trouble.

The dragon paused and breathed out. Iko's head reeled as if from blows. The ground seemed to spin underneath him. Still, he had survived a lot longer than he had expected to after the dragon's arrival. At the moment, he wasn't sure whether that was a good thing. Carefully and distinctly, he framed words in his mind.

O great dragon, he said, I offer my most humble apologies for disturbing you.

It speaks! The dragon seemed quite startled. Its pupils widened fractionally.

Iko hadn't been sure his mindspeech would work, so that was a relief. Would the dragon hear everything he thought? No, his sources said that you had to want your thoughts to be audible. O great dragon, Iko said, I have made some study of the ways of your kind, but there is, of course, much of which I am still ignorant. I assure you that I mean no offence. I would be most grateful to learn the correct manner of addressing you.

Polite, too. There was an uncomfortable pause. He imagined that the dragons had never had to consider such a question, at least not when it was being asked by a human. "O great dragon" will suffice, it said eventually.

Perhaps, o great dragon, you wish to know why I summoned you here.

You did not summon me, said the dragon, and Iko sensed anger behind the words. I chose to come.

As you wish, o great dragon. Iko bowed his head.

Look at me, said the dragon, and Iko complied. He knew that he couldn't have disobeyed. I am nevertheless curious to know why a man-thing happens to be on this hilltop, far from its own kind, at the very same moment that I choose to visit it.

That is quite simple to explain, o great dragon. I wish to propose an alliance.

An alliance? To what end?

O great dragon, a fleet of pirates are preying on the people of the Lenis Islands, attacking our settlements and ships. We are a peaceful people, not used to fighting -

And you wish me to destroy these... pirates for you, said the dragon.

Yes! Remembering his manners, he added, Please.

You would have me burn their ships with my fiery breath? Capsize them with a sweep of my tail? Pluck man-things from the sea and carry them aloft, shrieking, before I flip them into my mouth to crush them and swallow them whole?

He winced at the dragon's suggestions. I had thought, o great dragon, that the mere sight of you would terrify them into leaving us alone.

Perhaps. And what do you offer me in return for ridding you of these vermin?

The pirates have a great horde of treasure on their ships and in their home port - gold, silver, precious jewels. If you defeat them, it is yours.

The dragon did not reply. The corners of its mouth lifted, revealing glistening white teeth. Its nostrils narrowed, and a sound like a tree falling filled Iko's mind. You know far more of our ways than I would have expected of any man-thing. But there is much of which you are ignorant.

A gale rushed past him, pelting him with dust and twigs. By the time he could see again, the dragon was no more than a spot in the sky, an odd-shaped bird spiralling upwards. Almost at the limit of sight, there was a violet flash, and the dragon was gone. Iko brushed the worst of the dirt off his clothing and started the long walk back to the village.

What now? This outcome had never occurred to him. He hadn't seriously expected the summoning to work, but had thought that if it did, the dragon would most likely kill him immediately for his impertinence. He imagined the taunts of the children, the pitying looks of the monks and the other teachers. Typical Iko. Can't get anything right. He decided to say nothing about it. If anyone asked where he'd been, he'd simply climbed the hill to admire the view. Stretch his legs. Clear his head.

He saw no one on the road that led into the village from Samdurath, the next settlement along the coast. That wasn't so unusual, but when he saw no one in the main street, nor any of the side streets that intersected it, he began to worry. He jogged the rest of the way to the house that he still shared with his mother.

The door stood open. Smoke hung in the air - the fire had gone out. A half-eaten meal lay at one end of the table. Guilt tugged at him as he noticed the place she'd set for him at the other end. He didn't have any classes today - he should've come to have lunch with her, not chase after creatures of legend that didn't care what happened to decent people.

"Mother!" he shouted.

No answer came. He opened the door to the bedroom. She wasn't there. Sweating, he squeezed between her bed and the linen chest to reach the back door. She wasn't in the garden either.

Iko tried to calm himself. She must have gone visiting. But why leave her lunch unfinished? Realisation crept up on him. Not only had he not seen anyone on the way here, he hadn't heard anyone. The pirates had attacked while he was away. Everyone was dead or taken captive.

His knees gave way, and he fell to the ground. Tears fought for release. Was this why the dragon had refused to help? Because it knew he was already too late?

He forced himself to stand. If Mother's fire was still smouldering, they couldn't have gone far. He scrambled through the house and ran for the harbour. He couldn't do anything for his own people, but if he could see which way the pirates were going, he might be able to warn whichever village they were heading to next.

The two jetties were intact, with boats moored at both of them. Nets, crab traps and coils of rope lay neatly next to each boat, as if everybody had gone to the tavern to share a few bottles of wine. One boat still had a couple of buckets of fish next to it. No vessels were visible at sea.

Panting, Iko tried to make sense of the scene. The pirates' ships were too big to moor in the gaps between the villagers' boats. If they'd used the jetties, they would've cut some of the boats loose and made a mess of the villagers' fishing equipment. If the ships had stayed further out and lowered boats of their own, there should be keel tracks and footprints on the beach, which there weren't. Now that he thought of it, he'd seen no sign of a struggle anywhere in the village. More than that, he'd seen no dead or dying people. The pirates couldn't have taken everyone - some of the villagers would have put up a fight, and the pirates would have killed them.

Not daring to hope, he turned and ran back inland. The people must have seen the pirates coming and taken refuge in the monastery. They could stay safe for weeks there. But then why had the pirates not ransacked the rest of the village?

As he turned the corner onto the long approach to the monastery, he saw that the gate was closed. His heart leapt - it was always open except in the presence of an immediate threat. He sprinted the last hundred yards and rattled the bars.

"Hey! It's Iko! The pirates have gone!" Through the gaps in the bars, he saw that the courtyard was deserted. "Open up!" Shouldn't there be men with swords and spears waiting there? Or at least a couple of lookouts?

A young man peered around the edge of the gateway. Startled, he gawked at Iko before saying to someone behind him, "Yes, it's him."

Relieved to see someone alive, Iko grabbed the bars for support.

"Figures," said an older man. "I suppose you'd better let him in." Iko recognised the voice of one of his mother's cousins, though he couldn't recall the man's name. The younger man was his son or nephew, who'd passed through Iko's classes a few years ago without much learning settling on him. He went back behind the wall and started to turn the wheel that operated the bar that held the gate shut.

"It's all right," said Iko, raising his voice over the squeaks and scrapes of the gate swinging open, "the pirates have gone. The village is empty."

"Pirates?" said the older man, coming into view. "As if we haven't got enough to worry about with a bloody great dragon flying around the place."

Staring at him, Iko almost forget to let go of the gate when it swung open. "Yes. Of course. Dragon. Big. Black. Flying. I... I believe I can explain that."

Check back soon for chapter two!
2 likes ·   •  0 comments  •  flag
Twitter icon
Published on October 18, 2014 14:01 • 292 views • Tags: preview

No comments have been added yet.