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She let the slave girl brush out her hair so it lay like a shimmering black veil down her back and blinked as the over strong perfumed oils caught in her nostrils. The king was ageing and his sense of smell fading. Alas, little else of his senses did so.
She took the walk from her cloistered seraglio to his bed chamber with the same heavy sense of foreboding that she carried with her every night. She did not need the sly, pitying looks from the other women – each waiting her turn for the same honour. But as long as she still lived, they were safe.
She reached the doors of the bedchamber and the two armoured men who guarded them stepped aside and pushed them open so she could go in – alone. The sound of the huge doors as they closed behind her was soft compared to the thumping of her heart. She must please her lord and master.
As always she began with a dance. Her accompaniment, the tiny finger cymbals she wore. She moved her body in the swaying motions of the dance and wove her way to finish standing beside the canopied bed, it’s cloth of gold coverlet cast casually aside.
By day the king at least looked regal, clad in fine robes and with a jewelled crown lightly set on his greying hair. But naked he looked simply ugly and she shuddered at the thought of his hands touching her. He hated women as much as he desired them.
Now he looked at her with hungry, expectant eyes and she made herself climb onto the bed to lie beside him, fighting the revulsion and fear, forcing a smile on to her face. Tonight would be worse than usual because she had not managed to prepare herself fully.
“Where did we get to?” he asked, his voice low with anticipation.
She drew a quick breath.
“My Lord I – ”
“No excuses – you know what I want.” This time there was a bite of anger and the dark brooding look the courtiers knew so well to fear.
She swallowed and made herself begin.
“Well, the djinn was about to kill the fisherman when…”
With half her mind she told the tale, the other half rapidly inventing another for when this one was finished, her life depending on it. But how long she could keep inventing these cliffhanger stories to please a mad man, Scheherazade did not know.
The path he chose was only crossable in the middle of the short summer season and even though it was nearly three moons since the last rush of spring flood, the steep pass was still a treacherous mixture of loose stones and turbulent streams. At its highest point there was still snow and ice underfoot and even leading the ponies, there was danger in every step on the slippery rock. But this was the land of his youth and Durban knew it well. He had grown up in the wild vastness of the Garia mountains and had sometimes managed to escape from the pressures of his intense and unusual upbringing by vanishing alone for days at a time into the natural wilderness around his childhood home.
He contemplated making a detour to the remains of that strange place, now demolished, where he had endured an upbringing unique on Temsevar, learning of things no other child on the planet was taught. But his work was urgent and he could not afford the delay. Besides his last encounter with the imperious guardian and mentor of his youth, by the temple of the gods in Alfor had left him with little appetite for another.
The choice was taken from him. He woke to find her ancient body warming itself beside his night fire. A skeleton pressed with flesh. The woman he knew only as Alize.
“Do not trouble yourself,” she said, as he got up quickly to build the fire, the voice was a wisp of frost. “This body is almost done.”
“And then?” he asked. He had to know.
And then you will have to bring me what I need.
The words formed in his mind even as the over-bright eyes gripped his gaze.
“I will if I can,” he said.
You can and you will. This has to be. More than you can begin to imagine rests on what you have to do.
“My imagination is very good, you could try me sometime.”
There was a sensation of contempt.
You had your chance to ask me and you refused it.
“I was a child,” Durban protested. “That is beyond unfair.”
You were a child then, yes, but you have not changed. I came to remind you of what you must do. That is all.
It dawned on Durban, belatedly, that there was no way the woman he had spoken to in Alfor could be sitting here in the mountains with him. He opened his mouth to say as much, but closed it again immediately. The space where Alize had been sitting wavered as if it were a reflection in a still pool and someone had dropped a small pebble in the middle. Then he was sitting alone by the fire.
FOLLOW THAT DRAGON
In Dragonheart, there is no such word as impossible
“And keep your eyes open for a dragon on a Harley Davidson.”
Constable Willet stopped in his tracks.
The desk sergeant looked up from his computer.
“You heard me.”
Outside the station, the young policeman looked down at his partner. Badger cocked an ear.
“What’s your problem?”
“Dragons can’t ride motorcycles.”
The canine cop stopped in his tracks.
“You may have a point.”
“See, I’m not completely stupid.”
He wasn’t to know what Badger thought of that because the distinctive note of a Harley Davidson engine split the air. The motorcycle careered around the corner, rearing up onto one wheel and mounting the pavement before hurtling down the road bouncing off street furniture as it went.
Badger sat back on his haunches.
“That proves your point. Dragons really can’t ride motorbikes.”
Willet grasped Badger’s harness in one hand as he unfurled his wings.
“Operation intercept,” he said happily as they took to the air.
It didn’t take long to overhaul the motorcycle, as the riding became more and more eccentric with the Harley yawing from side to side and scraping its footrests at every movement. When they caught up, it had just made a sharp left onto a mercifully deserted football pitch. Willet made a long arm and pulled out the kill switch. The engine died and the bike slewed to a halt before slowly toppling over onto its side. The stubby golden dragon just managed to slip from the saddle in time to avoid being trapped by the fallen machine.
Badger gave the rider a very stern look.
“What’s on here, my laddo,” he said firmly.
“Steady down Badger. It’s only a hatchling. And I don’t think it’s a laddo.”
And then the sky was full of panicky dragons bugling their alarm and distress. A good dozen circled Willet, Badger and the hatchling making agitated noises.
“Thief, thief,” the biggest one cried in a strangely high-pitched voice. “Thieves and kidnappers. Where are the rest of our little ones?”
Willet knew that dragons broadcasting distress could easily spark a riot, so he stepped forward.
“Calm down and stop being silly. Nobody kidnapped anybody, although it does seem that those charged with the care of your hatchlings have failed in their duties.”
The lead dragon turned an unfriendly eye on him.
“How does a human dare to so address a dragon?”
Badger laughed sardonically.
“Hush now,” Willet admonished, “and stand back, I’m going to have to make the change before this lot get right out of hand.”
Badger backed off and Willet flowed into his true form.
The dragons quieted appreciably as a huge winged centaur stood facing them with condemnation writ large on his classically handsome features.
“Are dragons too proud to converse with a centaur?” he asked coolly.
The big blue female dipped her head.
“We are not.”
The dragonet meanwhile was watching the happenings with multi-faceted jewel-bright eyes.
“Mama. Where Mama?” The voice was hesitant but definitely female.
“Mama will be here soon,” Willet assured her. “Now tell me where your friends are.”
The dragonet shook her head.
“Mustn’t tell,” she whispered.
Willet concentrated briefly then smiled.
“N’a’mma tell Willet,” he cajoled.
The centaur laughed, then turned to the hovering dragons above.
“I have seen this little one’s thoughts. The hatchlings found a portal, and while their nursemaid slept they all sneaked through.”
There was a rustle of agitated leathery wings and voices were raised in condemnation of a nursemaid who slept on duty.
“Quiet,” Willet commanded. “Instead of flapping about like chickens, you should be asking yourselves some searching questions.”
One of the smaller blue dragons seemed a bit quicker on the uptake than her sisters.
“Questions like why was there only one nursemaid. Questions like who opened the portal in the first place. Questions like who knew enough to send us here.”
“Yes. Questions like those. But the first question is where are the other dragonets?”
The blue dragon changed her wing shape and landed neatly beside the bemused N’a’mma.
“Where friends? Must tell…”
The dragonet wrinkled her brow.
“Auntie say must not tell.”
N’a’mma closed her mouth and looked mulish.
“Where’s her Mama?”
“We need her. Can any of you bespeak A’a’shanto?”
The little blue pointed to the big female with the squeaky voice.
“She can. But she probably won’t do it.”
“She will.” Then he raised his voice. “Dragon. Will you bespeak my friend A’a’shanto, or would you have me do it?”
The big female looked about as offended as a dragon can.
“I will bespeak our master.” Then she looked at the centaur in some puzzlement. “What must I say?”
“Tell your master that there is an unregistered portal that the hatchlings found and escaped through. That we need this little one’s Mama in order that we can find out what she knows…”
“Oh. Very well.”
Badger flattened his ears and Willet looked at him with some sympathy.
“Bloody loud isn’t she?”
The subliminal buzzing stopped, to be followed by the snap of leathery wings. Two more dragons appeared and landed with minimal fuss. One was the black-skinned master, the other a truly spectacular golden queen. As soon as they set claw to the ground, the atmosphere seemed to thicken, and the mating instinct hit Willet like a mailed fist. He only just managed not to swear. The queen was in season, and they would be lucky if they managed to prevent a city-wide orgy. He ruthlessly squashed the heaviness in the pit of his own stomach and looked briefly at Badger who was already communicating with headquarters.
Willet pulled himself together and faced the dragons, at least one of whom was hugely amused by the situation. Willet bowed respectfully.
A’a’shanto stopped smirking and inclined his head.
Before anyone else could speak or react the dragonet waddled over to the queen as fast as she could go.
Her mother looked down a long draconic snout at the rotund form of her hatchling. She smiled a maternal smile.
“N’a’mma. What have you been up to now?”
The dragonet shuffled her feet.
“Tell Mama, and stop fibbing.”
“We finds portal. Auntie shows us. And we comes through.”
“Where are your friends?”
“Me don’t know. Me plays with hrrrdudu…”
“And where did you get the hrrdudu?”
“Man talking to Auntie has. N’a’mma borrows.”
Willet looked at Badger.
“Can you backtrack it?”
Willet called up two beat rats to guard the motorcycle, before Badger sniffed the tyres of the Harley, then the now giggling dragonet. He scented the air for a moment, then he put his nose to the ground and headed off in the direction from which the motorbike had come.
“Got you, you bastards,” Willet murmured and followed the upraised tail.
A procession of dragons followed Willet and Badger as they zigzagged across the city. People looked skywards, following the iridescent bodies with their eyes, even as they felt the draconic sexual pull in other parts of themselves.
Eventually, Badger stopped at the entrance to an insalubrious alleyway.
He pointed with his nose.
“What’s down there?”
“Sorry. Baby dragons. Lots of. I think they are being held against their will.”
“Why’d you think that?”
“Because they smell afraid.”
“Fair enough. Now we have to figure a way of getting them out unhurt.”
Badger squinted at the circling dragons.
“We have. I really don’t fancy explaining injured dragonets to that lot.”
The master dragon spoke in Willet’s head.
“You need a decoy. My sister is willing for N’a’mma to be that decoy if you will answer for her safety.”
Badger obviously heard too, because he bumped his head urgently against Willet’s hocks.
“Don’t do it matey. They are asking you to put your life on the line.”
“I know they are. But what alternative do we have?”
Badger looked as if he was eating something that tasted bad.
“None. I suppose. But I don’t like it.”
Willet bowed. “You have my word. My life for the safety of the little queen.”
Badger sighed. Then brightened slightly.
“I think I may have a plan.”
“First thing is the Harley man. I can smell him down there, and his gun. I’m thinking if somebody brought his motorcycle to where he could hear it…”
“Yes. Good. And?”
“If a couple, with a dog, was to find a lost dragonet and be walking around this area with it in tow. Auntie more or less has to come get it. I dunno why that particular hatchling is so important but my nose tells me that she is.”
“She’s important for two reasons. One: her mother is the hatch sister of the master dragon. Two: she’s a golden queen.”
“Means she is a fertile female. They are rare. Aside from the master dragon’s mate, who is a shifter so not the same thing at all, there are only two adult queens that we know of.”
“Oh. So. Whoever went to all the trouble and expense of getting an unlicensed portal probably wants to breed dragons.”
“That would seem to be about the size of it,” Willet said wryly. “Now I need my wife.”
He sent his thoughts spiralling outward, to find Wenda none too pleased to be interrupted by the husband she barely tolerated. But once she understood the situation she was much more amenable.
“Be there in five.”
Willet looked down at his partner with an unspoken plea in his eyes. Badger flattened his ears, but managed the canine equivalent of a shrug.
“I’ll behave. Not my business.”
“Thanks. I’ll have the Harley fetched.”
By the time the female centaur arrived the plan was ready to put into action. A’a’shanto himself had taken human form and was standing beside the bike; the alley was ringed with angry fighting dragons; N’a’mma had been persuaded to cooperate; and Willet was in human form dressed in jeans and sneakers.
Wenda caught on quickly and shifted, becoming a slight brown-haired woman in a floaty summer dress. She rubbed N’a’mma’s head knobs reassuringly.
“You will be all right with us little one.”
“Me know. Wil-let gives blood oaf.”
For a moment the centaur swayed on her feet, then she got herself together and managed a strained smile.
A’a’shanto grinned dragonishly and fired up the Harley. He rode to the open end of the alley and sat astride the machine revving it idly.
“I bloody hope this works,” Badger muttered. “Come on you evil carrion, come and get your hrrdudu.”
They didn’t have long to wait. A bulky shaven-headed gent all but flew out of a green-painted door about halfway down the cul de sac and ran towards the motorcycle. A’a’shanto dropped it into gear and moved away slowly, followed by the frantically cursing man. Once the motorcycle had rounded the corner into the square the rider stopped the engine and manhandled the Fat Boy onto its stand.
The man rushed up to him.
“Oy. That’s my bike.”
“Is it now? So what was it doing on its side in the road halfway across town?”
The heavy grunted, then decided he had talked enough and groped for the gun at his hip. That wasn’t the smartest move anyone has ever made as the master dragon shifted himself two sets of razor-sharp talons with which he gripped the man’s wrists. A’a’shanto forced his adversary to his knees and then smiled down on him.
“Talk to me human,” he growled.
The thug whimpered.
“You can have the Harley.”
A’a’shanto’s laugh sounded like the tolling of a cracked bell.
“I can have whatever pleases me,” he whispered, “right now what I will have of you is information. Who is behind that door?”
Badger ghosted up behind the kneeling man and snapped his long white teeth together just beside the thug’s ear. The man jumped and squeaked, then visibly gave up.
“There are loads of baby dragons who are hungry, thirsty and a bit afraid. And there’s two adult dragons, a fat old female and a proddy young red. He’s dangerous on the surface. She’s dangerous underneath. They are angry because they have lost the baby dragon they want. It ran away with my bike. They’ve about worked their way around to blaming me. But the gun keeps them quiet.”
“And who is behind them?”
“I dunno. All I know is that they pay in gold.”
A’a’shanto looked at Badger who lifted his lip. The dragon smiled and let go of his captive’s left wrist. The man looked down at his lacerated arm so he didn’t see the draconic fist that caved in his skull.
Willet winced and offered his wife his arm.
“Come N’a’mma let’s go rescue your hatch mates.”
The dragonet leaned confidingly against his shoulder, all but pushing him over as the quartet casually wandered down the alley and past the green door. They hadn’t gotten far when a female voice accosted them.
“There she is,” it said with saccharine sweetness, “there is my little girl.”
Two humans and a German Shepherd turned to look at a fat elderly dragon with calculating red eyes, while N’a’mma carried on walking. The dragon glared at her fat rump.
“Where are you going you naughty girl? Grandmama has been worried.”
The dragonet kept going.
Willet kept his voice neutral.
“That’s funny,” he remarked “that hatchling was crying for her Mama when we found her. You’d have thought she would be thrilled to see her grandmother.”
“You would indeed,” Wenda picked up the conversational ball. “Why doesn’t she want to speak to you?”
The old dragon made a feeble attempt at a smile.
“She’s been a very naughty girl. Probably afraid I will punish her. I’ll just go and get her.”
“Oh. I think not.” Willet allowed his anger to show and, as the dragon reared up to confront him, he plunged a syringe into the place under her arm where the skin was thin enough to make an injection a possibility. The drug was quick acting and the dragon slumped on her side snoring stertorously.
A small blue dragon landed on the side of the unconscious figure that would be invisible from the green door.
“Help, help!” the blue called in a pretty good approximation of the old female’s voice. “The gold is getting away.”
The door flew open and a red dragon erupted out onto the cobbles. His whirling eyes darted between the slumped body of his confederate and the waddling figure of N’a’mma. He was a quick enough thinker to recognise that the dragonet was heading for a dead end so he turned his attention to the old one.
“What happened, human?” he snapped.
“How should I know?” Willet was deliberately insolent. “We was just on our way home.”
At first the dragon didn’t know how to react, but then he glared at Wenda.
“Perhaps I’ll just have a bite of your mate to teach you manners,” he snarled.
“Piss off lizard. You just sort your mother out and leave those of us who live hereabouts to get on with our business without your interference.”
The red dragon rumbled dangerously and Willet laughed.
“Come on pinky. Let’s see what you got.”
The dragon lifted himself onto his hind legs and Wenda put a dart in the soft flesh around his penis. He dropped across his partner in an obscene parody of the sexual act.
Willet mopped his brow. To his intense surprise Wenda came and burrowed her way into his arms.
“Blood oaths,”’she muttered, “deliberately angering dragons. You nearly stopped my heart.”
He looked down at her bent head and felt something soften inside him. He hugged her and she looked up with a wry smile.
“We have to talk.”
“We do, but right now. Dragons.”
Willet whistled shrilly and dragons appeared from every direction. Some rushed to the aid of the bleating hatchlings, others gathered around the unconscious conspirators. N’a’mma waddled back to where the two centaurs stood handfast. She looked at them with whirling dragon eyes then chuckled.
“Thank you Wil-let and…”
The dragonet shook her head then dutifully repeated Wenda’s name.
“I think we maybe should get out of this alleyway. There’s too much dragon flesh here.” Wenda shivered then licked suddenly dry lips, and Willet led her out into the square. The populace was being held back by a cordon of watchmen.
“You gonna be much longer?” The sergeant spoke over his shoulder. “This many dragons about is already causing trouble. And there must be a queen in season among them. We’ve had to arrest several for public decency offences already.”
“I’ll go ask.”
Wenda sat down on a convenient low wall with Badger at her side.
“Go on, say it,” her voice was weary.
Badger wagged his tail and cocked his handsome head to one side.
“Can’t. Willet made me promise to play nicely.”
“Good. But. Why aren’t you all hot and bothered?”
“The dragon/sex thing don’t work on dogs. Just as well. Our females don’t tolerate us sniffing around if they aren’t in the mood.”
The centaur shivered.
“Is it the dragons making me feel so impressed by Willet?”
“I wouldn’t know.” Then he relented. “Probably not. I think that’s down to you seeing him working, instead of being humble and trying to keep out of your hair.”
“And why does he do that?”
“Because he knows you didn’t want to marry him.”
“I didn’t. But.”
“What did you expect him to do? He’s a centaur not a dragon.”
She thought that one through then nodded briefly.
Badger gave her a shrewd look.
“How would you feel about a piece of advice?”
“Don’t let the dragons know about the problems you two have. Your average dragon is likely to take it as a challenge. And I don’t think you want that…”
Willet strode out of the alleyway followed by the master dragon, still in his human form. Wenda drew a tremulous breath.
“Thanks Badger,” she whispered.
A’a’shanto smiled a dragonish smile and Wenda fought down a taut feeling in the pit of her stomach. Willet gave her a sympathetic look. While the master dragon went and spoke to the sergeant of the watch the centaur came and sat beside his wife. She grasped his hands strongly and he smiled a sad sort of smile.
“I’m going to have to go to Dragonheart. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”
“I don’t want to. But I’m coming anyway. Somebody needs to watch your back.”
He looked down at their joined hands.
“I have to ask. Is this just….”
“Dragon sex? No. Though I must admit to an unfamiliar itch.”
Willet looked into her face, and whatever he saw there seemed to give him ease because he smiled much more naturally and gave her hands a little squeeze.
“We have to talk.”
“We do but not in front of the dragons. I don’t like the way that big black one looks at me already…”
“Me neither. But as long as he thinks you are mine he will at least keep his hands off.”
“I am yours,” Wenda said firmly, “we just need to talk about terms and conditions.”
A’a’shanto strolled back towards them, moving with purposeful grace.
“We will leave now.” He looked searchingly at Willet. “You must come as a witness, but even I cannot stand surety for the safety of your partner at Dragonheart.”
Badger bared his teeth and the dragon laughed at his discomfiture.
Wenda spoke up.
“It ill behoves the master dragon to bait one whose assistance was freely given.”
A’a’shanto had the grace to blush, but Wenda wasn’t letting him off the hook.
“I will accompany my husband to Dragonheart. I mislike the gratitude of dragons.”
The master dragon and the young female centaur looked each other in the eyes for a long moment and it was the dragon who dropped his eyes first. He lifted his hands in a gesture of defeat.
Wenda nodded just once.
A flight of dragons appeared in the sky overhead, many of whom carried chattering hatchlings on their backs. N’a’mma rode in stately solitude between her mother’s glistening wings and she raised a pudgy paw before the whole flight winked out through the portal they had brought with them leaving an empty blue sky.
The sergeant of the watch heaved a sigh of relief.
“You going to Dragonheart Willet?”
“I am. With my wife for company. Can you leave a handful here to guard an unregistered portal down that alley. Badger will show them where.”
“I will. Badger can take command.”
With that he turned back to crowd control, which was becoming easier by the minute as the dragon-induced pheromones dissipated leaving people unsure of why they were standing in an insalubrious part of the city looking at the mouth of a scabby alley. The few enterprising whores who had been taking advantage of the upsurge in interest in their wares were the first to slink off, being unwilling to catch the eye if the watch. The rest of the crowd soon followed with not a few left wondering just exactly why they were in a truly immodest state of undress and scrambling to cover themselves as best they could.
A’a’shanto laughed sardonically.
“Humans,” he snorted, before changing into his draconic self.
Willet and Wenda flowed seamlessly into their true forms and Badger looked up at them.
“Take care, you pair.”
Then he was gone, trotting down the alley to where his detachment of bored watchmen awaited him.
The three winged monsters took to the sky and A’a’shanto opened the portal.
The cold and blackness was like sticking your head in a bucket of ice water, and it made Wenda question her own motivation. Was the change in her attitude to Willet any more than dragon pheromones? Was it fair to offer him the hope of a happy ending she may not really be ready or willing to give? But then they landed on the velvet-smooth turf of the Master dragon’s own garden and she looked into her husband’s shadowed eyes. It was a sorrow to realise those shadows had been put there by her coldness and pride, and she understood that it was for her to put things right. However, she allowed none of that to show in her face, merely putting her hand in his as they stood together.
“It would be rude to shift before the master,” Willet whispered.
“It’s no hardship to wait, and I don’t think it’s a power play.”
“No. I’ve been told about this. It’s a ritual and to do with the master’s connection to Dragonheart itself.”
A’a’shanto finished communing with the stones of the castle and his consciousness returned to the sunlit afternoon.
“I thank you for your courtesy,” he said gravely. “I will not take human form for what must follow, but you are welcome to make the change if you so wish.”
The pair flowed into their human shapes, each choosing formal attire. The dragon’s brief nod approved their politeness.
“Follow me if you please.”
Willet offered his arm and Wenda put just the tips of her fingers in the crook of his elbow.
She had never been to Dragonheart before and it was hard not to gape at its sheer magnificence. The wide corridors were richly decorated and hung with priceless tapestries, and everything was built to dragon scale, making her rather regret having made the change to her inferior human size. But then she looked at the polished marble beneath her feet and had a mental image of hooves slithering and sliding on the cold, hard floor. Human form was best suited, she thought.
“The Hall of Judgment,” A’a’shanto intoned formally. “Will you enter to witness dragon law?”
They walked onto a granite platform upon which sat the scratched black stone of the double throne. There was already a female on half of the seat, who Wenda surmised was the master’s mate. The female dragon inclined her head in greeting, and a shifted dragon in the form of a narrow-featured elderly man escorted the centaurs to a pair of ornately carved chairs placed to the left of the throne. They took their seats just in time to see a duo of armoured dragon guards escorting the first of the accused into the chamber.
It was the red dragon. He hung upside down from a pole which was carried on the shoulders of two shaven-headed beings that Wenda would have hesitated to call human.
“Ogres,” Willet breathed.
There was a stir at the back of the hall accompanied by the by now familiar pheromone shock.
“Mama’s come for her pound of flesh.”
“And she has brought N’a’mma,” Wenda said in a sick little voice.
She grabbed for Willet’s hand, which felt cool and firm and seemed able to anchor her to reality.
The ogres dumped their burden like a trussed chicken and left, shouldering their pole. For a moment there was no sound except breathing and the gentle sussuration of draconic scales
The master dragon broke the silence.
“Who speaks the charges?”
An elderly dragon in a black robe spoke slowly and in doom-laden tones.
“The red dragon Z’o’raster is charged that he did aid and abet others in the theft of hatchlings.”
“How do you plead?”
Z’o’raster hissed his defiance.
“I make no plea. I am a free dragon and I do not recognise your petty laws.”
A’a’shanto regarded the red with some distaste.
“Untie me and I will fight you to the death,” the red taunted.
The master dragon’s mate spoke.
“You will fight nobody with your poisoned claws.” She raised her voice. “Kill him.”
One of the armoured guards swung what was obviously not a ceremonial axe. There was surprisingly little blood.
“Dragons know they are dead quite quickly,” Willet explained.
N’a’mma crowed her delight.
“Bad dragon dead.”
“I do believe he is,” Mama purred.
The clean up was brisk, efficient and practised, which made Wenda feel more than a bit queasy.
“I think it’s the contrasts,” Willet remarked quietly.
“Pheromones, and hatchlings, and razor-sharp axes, and the sheer pragmatism of elderly servitors with mops and buckets.”
She nodded, and for a moment just hid her face against the fine white lawn of his shirt. He rubbed her shoulders gently, if a little nervously, pleasantly surprised when she relaxed under his hands.
“I’m sorry Willet,” she whispered. “I’m finding this difficult, and I don’t suppose it is going to get any easier.”
“No. I don’t suppose it is.”
As if by some unspoken signal, the chamber fell silent and the doors opened to admit ‘Auntie’. She was not being carried but walked on her own feet, although she was tethered to four of the giant ogres. When she passed N’a’mma she snarled and tried to pull towards the hatchling, who stared her in the eyes unblinkingly.
Dragging their charge to the front of the chamber the ogres kept a uniform tension on the leashes so the female dragon was unable to do more than snarl and swear.
“Who speaks the charges?”
The same black robe clad dragon stepped forward.
“The female V’a’zza is charged that she did conspire with others of her family to steal and enslave an entire clutch of hatchlings.”
“How do you plead?”
The female looked around her as if seeking support, but seeing nothing but stony faces and dragons who refused to meet her eyes.
“It’s strange how those whose greed for gold produced this plan are only too willing for me to take all the blame. Should I name you?”
There was some shuffling of feet and as a full squadron of dragon guard filed into the chamber and lined the walls.
A’a’shanto spoke with the full weight of his mastery of draconic mysteries.
“The names are known. Each will face judgement. For now it is your own fate that should concern you.”
V’a’zza’s face was twisted with hatred as she stared at him.
“Oh yes. And will you kill me?”
He smiled slowly, and even the defiant old female wasn’t proof against the sheer malice of that smile. She dropped her eyes to the floor and stood in silence.
“Kill you? Why would I do anything as merciful as that? You will be crippled and live out what remains of your life chained in the castle forecourt as a warning that the dragon master is not minded to leniency.”
For a moment, Wenda thought the old female was going to faint, but she pulled herself together and stood straight.
“And who will be brave enough to maim a member of the master dragon’s own clan?” she sneered. “Who will you get to do your dirty work?”
A’a’shanto did not deign to answer her.
One minute he was on his throne, the next in the air above the prisoner. He dropped his head to a place between her wings and bit once.
The awful sound of crunching bone and the single scream of draconic agony almost brought Wenda to her knees. Willet braced her.
“I’m sorry you had to witness that,” he murmured.
Wenda stared steadily at their joined hands while she gathered enough voice to answer him.
“I’m not. It’s a reminder of what dragon beauty hides. I just wish it hadn’t happened when I was under the influence of sex pheromones. The juxtaposition is disturbing.”
“It would have been worse without the sexual excitement.”
She looked up intending to argue, only to see how rigid was his jawline and how hard he was working to keep a lid on his emotions. He put his free hand behind her head and turned her face into his broad shoulder.
“This you really don’t need to see.”
Wenda had no will to argue and when she heard a horrible slithering sound accompanied by the muffled cries of a creature in agony she was glad to be not looking. The sound of a slamming door was the cue for Willet to remove his hand. She sat back in her chair and the master dragon’s mate regarded her steadily.
“We are not unnecessarily cruel,” she said slowly. “The old one would have crippled N’a’mma in exactly that same way. You do not need to walk or fly in order to lay eggs.”
Wenda wondered just how much more she could take, and if it hadn’t been for her husband’s hand holding hers she thought the world might have slipped from her grasp entirely.
She was saved from possible embarrassment by N’a’mma who bustled up to the base of the dais.
“N’a’mma can come?”
A’a’shanto reached down with one clawed forepaw and the dragonet heaved herself up onto the throne between him and his mate. She pointed.
“Mine friend Wil-let and Wen-da. Haves silly names, but me likes.”
“Should they have dragon names?”
“Should. Can give?”
The master dragon nodded.
He stood to his full height on the black stone throne and the room fell silent.
“The winged centaur Willet and his mate Wenda are declared dragon friend. I name them S’a’aaha and S’h’aaha.”
There came a roar from the floor of the room as the assembled dragons greeted their honorary siblings.
“The names are appropriate. You would say strong flier and pretty bird.”
The centaurs bowed their heads humbly and let the waves of draconic emotion wash over them. By the time the chamber had quietened slightly, Wenda felt like a piece of flotsam that had been battered by a raging storm.
Willet stood and bowed.
“It is our honour,” he said steadily and Wenda was proud that he could stand on his feet and speak with such clarity whilst being battered by dragon thought.
As if aware that the centaurs were right at the limit of their endurance T’i’asharath spoke from the obsidian throne.
“Enough now,” she said softly. “We have unfinished business here.”
“We do,” A’a’shanto signified his agreement. “Read the names of those accused of conspiring with the maimed one.”
The black-clad functionary stood and read out a list of about a dozen draconic names. As he spoke each one, the dragon guard unceremoniously grasped the named one and dragged him away.
“And that just leaves whoever wanted to breed dragons.” Willet looked enquiringly at the master dragon.
“It does indeed.”
Willet and Wenda were vouchsafed the image of a man. A man sitting in a richly decorated chamber, with a priceless glass of deep red wine in his hand watching as a mostly naked woman danced to a sensuous rhythm. Willet swore and Wenda looked at him in some surprise.
“He is known,” Willet grated.
“Known and yet still he weaves his vile schemes,” T’i’asharath spat.
“He does. Believes himself untouchable. And thus far it has been no more than the truth. Our justice cannot touch him. Perhaps it would serve all of our purposes if he was brought to face the might of draconic law.”
A’a’shanto smiled. “What a splendid idea,” he all but purred. “However it would require a certain amount of turning of a blind eye.”
“That could be arranged.” Willet turned to Wenda. “Will you await me here? I won’t be long.”
Wenda didn’t want to be left alone in a chamber full of excited dragonkind, but she could see no alternative. She set her chin and nodded.
N’a’mma sensed her disquiet and smiled in reassurance.
“S’h’aaha will be safe. N’a’mma gives oaf.”
There was a moment of shocked silence in the chamber before the whispering broke out.
The dragonet lifted a pudgy paw.
“Be silent,” she commanded. “Would shame by behaviour.”
A’a’shanto snapped his teeth together and the room come to order.
“Did you not hear your princess?” he asked with deceptive mildness. Then he spoke formally. “I name S’h’aaha guest friend.”
After having dropped his bombshell he snapped his wings and was gone, with Willet on his tail.
“Temper, temper,” his mate was openly amused. “I suspect that he had plans for you, my lady.”
Wanda felt herself flush uncomfortably.
N’a’mma reared up on her hind legs.
“Not do,” she said firmly. “N’a’mma give oaf.”
T’i’asharath bowed her proud head.
“I stand corrected little one.”
After that it got easier, and Wenda managed to not cringe in her chair although she still mentally counted the moments until Willet returned. She was beginning to feel that she may have been abandoned when there was a small disruption in the light and a rather flustered Badger appeared in the seat next to her. The room fell silent as the dragons stared at him. He sat up straight and snarled.
“I am sent by the master dragon A’a’shanto. He would have a cage prepared and placed on the stone of judgment.”
For a second nobody moved, then T’i’asharath hissed.
“Did not my lord send an order?”
Two of the dragon guard bowed very low and scuttled off.
N’a’mma smiled her baby dragon smile.
“B’a’dger,” she crowed delightedly. “You still got hrrdudu?”
“No. Master dragon took it.”
“He big feef. Is mine.”
Her mother spoke from the back of the hall.
“It is not yours miss naughty.” Then the golden queen’s voice changed from motherly affection to high formality. “I name B’a’dger guest friend. Hear this well.”
The shock in the room was palpable as the queen made her way to the front of the room and ascended the platform to stand beside Badger and Wenda.
For once in his life Badger said nothing, merely regarding the room with his round golden eyes. Wenda put a hand on his head and he turned to favour her with a canine grin.
“Who’d a thought it,” he breathed. “A dragon with some sense of decency. And now we wait. Shouldn’t be long.”
The first thing that happened was the return of the dragon guardsmen accompanied by half a score of ogres who were manhandling a sturdy iron cage. The ogres carefully set the cage on a particular spot in the floor, then bowed to the dragon throne and went to wait quietly in the rearmost corner of the chamber.
Badger twitched his wet black nose.
“They are coming.”
Wenda looked into his eyes and receive the ghost of a wink before there came an enormous bang and the smell of sulphur.
The empty cage now housed a nobleman dressed in claret velvet, who still held a Venetian glass goblet in one hand. He looked about him in surprise and some hauteur. Because he was facing away from the dragon thrones, he saw only a room full of well dressed people all of whom were regarding him with unfeigned interest.
“To what do I owe this dubious pleasure?” he drawled.
Nobody bothered to answer him, and he frowned in displeasure.
“I asked you a question.”
T’i’asharath hissed and the man’s head snapped around. He found himself looking at three dragons, one woman, and a dog. He focused on Wenda.
“What is the meaning of this outrage?” he demanded.
She found herself unwilling to bother with such arrogance, so she just looked limpidly into his furious eyes.
“What’s the betting he throws the glass?” Badger was amused.
Almost as he spoke, the priceless vessel flew through the air, only to be neatly caught by an athletic male dressed in smoke grey robes.
“Finders keepers,” he said as he tossed off the small amount of wine left in the bottom of the glass. “An excellent vintage. I do so hate to see good wine go to waste.”
“Quiet fool,” T’i’asharath spoke mildly enough, but even so the young dragon subsided.
The man in the cage began to swear, before he collected himself and started to weave a spell. One of the watchful ogres peeled himself off the rear wall and approached the cage. He shot a snake-quick arm through the bars and clasped a thick-fingered hand about the man’s throat.
“Naughty, naughty,” he rumbled as the man’s eyes started to bug out. “Live or die ma’am.”
T’i’asharath looked at the struggling human and her eyes were pitiless.
“Live. For now. But don’t tolerate any disobedience.”
The ogre loosened its grip and the prisoner drew in a laboured breath. He opened his mouth and the ogre squeezed.
“You only speak when you are told to speak.”
The man’s face was turning blue before he was allowed his next gulp of oxygen.
“Be careful not to break its larynx,” the golden queen dragon recommended, “my brother may want words with it”.
The ogre laughed.
Came the sound of wings outside and A’a’shanto shouldered his way into the room followed by Willet. They shared a particularly draconian grin.
“I wasn’t even sure that would work,” the dragon remarked.
“Well it was certainly impressive. Now they know he’s gone, I wonder how long the party at his house will go on for?”
“Days. Maybe even weeks.”
The master dragon looked at his prisoner.
“Is he not behaving?”
“Not. Sweared rudely.” N’a’mma piped up. Her uncle smiled down at her, but this was a completely different expression from the pitiless draconic smile he had bestowed on the prisoner.
“Does N’a’mma want the hurrdudu?”
“I do. It mine.”
“Let Mama take you home then. The hurrdudu is at the place where you play.”
The dragonet gave a crow of delight and scrambled up to sit between her mother’s wings.
“We go,” she announced dramatically and there was a sudden flaw in the light.
A’a’shanto looked at the centaurs and Willet nodded.
“My mate doesn’t need to see this, and to be quite honest neither do I. If you have no further need for us.”
The master dragon laughed wickedly.
“You cannot be persuaded to remain for our own party?”
“Least of all that.”
T’i’asharath looked at her mate in some exasperation.
“Leave them. We owe better courtesy than that.”
“It is only to joke my love. The centaur and I understand each other well enough.”
“You do?” Wenda was openly incredulous.
“We have spoken,” Willet explained, “spoken of our differences and our agreements. But now would you like to go home?”
“I would. Although I will confess to a desire to know what comes to that creature in the cage.”
“He dies,” T’i’asharath was coldly dismissive, “and it will not be an easy death.”
“Oh. Good. I think. As long as I don’t have to watch.”
“You do not. B’a’dger will bear witness.”
The German Shepherd shook his blonde ruff.
“I will so do. If the master dragon will declare me guest friend.”
A’a’shanto drew himself up to his full height.
“I declare B’a’dger guest friend. To disrespect him is to disrespect the Dragon Thrones.
The silence was as deep and dark as a forest pond and T’i’asharath looked at Badger for a long moment.
“Have you ever wished you could fly?”
“Almost every day of my life ma’am…”
Wenda gripped Willet’s hand as if her life depended on that connection.
“Surely she cannot. That’s an impossibility…”
“I don’t know, love, they say that nothing is impossible to those bonded to Dragonheart.”
Badger walked over to the basalt thrones and the dragon mistress leaned forward to blow her cold draconic breath into his nostrils.
“I name thee brother,” she intoned and somewhere in the bowels of the castle a deep-toned bell sounded.
Badger sneezed, then turned himself almost inside out trying to look at his own shoulders. His wings didn’t grow as Wenda and Willet remembered their own wings growing it was just that one minute Badger was an ordinarily handsome canine, the next he had white feathered wings. He flexed them experimentally then lifted himself off the ground to hover about three feet in the air.
“I can fly,” he cried in a great voice. “I can fly.”
Willet looked at his friend and a smile spread from one cheek to the other.
“At least you won’t be needing a lift home.”
“Cheek. I could still bite you.”
The unspoken love she heard in those few words made Wenda feel once again how near she had come to pushing Willet away and nursing her own bitterness into a lonely old age. Badger looked into her face and winked.
“Just keep a hold of him now.”
The dragons all looked suitably bewildered, although Badger privately thought that A’a’shanto understood a lot more than he was prepared to give away. He gave Willet a little push with his nose.
“Take Wenda home. She’s had about as much as she can take.”
Willet looked at his drooping wife.
“Will you trust me to carry you?”
Wenda nodded and he flowed into his true form. She clambered onto his back and wrapped her arms around his naked torso.
And so they went home, leaving Badger to bear witness – both to the messy and protracted death of one who sought to breed dragons for his own profit and to the wild orgy that followed.
Much later, as she lay in her husband’s arms, Wenda asked the question that was uppermost in her mind.
“Was there going to be a wild party in Dragonheart?”
“Probably. I hope Badger is enjoying it.”
“Would you have stayed if it wasn’t for me?”
He laughed and rubbed his face in her soft brown curls.
“Not me. Didn’t we have our own party here?”
Wenda stirred and writhed against his warm skin.
“Correct answer my husband. Correct answer.”
© jane jago 2017
Welcome Tim Walker
The Waters of Time
“I don’t get it,” Del said, making no effort to conceal his boredom. “It’s just a bath with dangling coloured tubes.” He was only two weeks into an enforced work placement.
“Modern art, mate; now pay attention to the punters, not the items,” Brian growled. The grizzled ex-cop had bellied-out with a face-saving job as security guard at a prestigious London gallery following his retirement from the Met. They drifted away from The Waters of Time.
“My gran used to have one of those old iron bath tubs,” Del commented as he scanned the steady flow of tourists and corralled school kids.
“Might be worth a few bob now,” Brian said, tapping his young colleague on the arm and pointing. A woman in a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses was looking about furtively as she reached into her bag. They closed the distance across the crowded galley floor, but not in time to prevent her spraying a political slogan across an old master in yellow paint.
“Oy! Come here!” Brian yelled, as he broke into a waddle. “Del, head her off!” he shouted, pointing to the exit.
She exploded into the modern art room, and seeing her way blocked by the young guard, lost her balance and tumbled into the iron bathtub. The two guards converged, and Del instinctively reached for his i-phone, snapping the flailing form as she battled the tubing in her struggle to escape from The Waters of Time. Brian looked over his young apprentice’s shoulder at the picture.
“Nice; but is it art?”
Give Tim a rousing Working Title welcome as he kindly agrees to answer our three searching questions
Your latest series ‘A Light in the Dark Ages’ is set in the Britain of Arthurian Legend. What attracted you to the period?
The idea for the first story, Abandoned, came about during a visit to the site of what was once the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) in Hampshire. The site, maintained by English Heritage, is little more than a square patch of grass surrounded by the remnants of an earth bank and stone wall. The town was mysteriously abandoned some years after the Romans departed. I came away thinking, ‘what would it have been like being here after the Roman garrison marched out?’
From this starting point I began researching and writing the first story, and then developed the idea of writing a series that links the exit of the Romans between 409-410, with the coming of King Arthur. My idea is to build a story based around the few surviving accounts of the fifth century and incorporate elements of the Arthurian legend in a manner that will make it realistic and believable. Whether I succeed will be for readers to judge!
Which author would you say has been your greatest influence?
The short answer is NONE. I am very poorly read, at least in recent times, and most of the books that have stimulated my imagination were read when I was a teenager into my twenties. During my working adult life I lost interest in reading for pleasure, with a few exceptions, such as reading Heart of Darkness by Conrad and Blood River at the time I worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I guess I like to have a reason to read a book – I’ve just returned from Edinburgh where I attended the Rebus30 Festival, and visited locations mentioned in Ian Rankin’s excellent novel Fleshmarket Close – as I was reading it. Perhaps it’s linked to my journalistic background. Having read this back, I now feel compelled to say, I do enjoy reading!
I have also made a conscious decision to not read too much in the genres I’m writing in, so that I write what I want without external influence. There is so much out there already. It was only last year that I dared to read my first Bernard Cornwell historical fiction novel – The Last Kingdom. Now that I’ve made my plans for my series, I’ve dared to start reading The Winter King and it’s driving me mad! They are both soooo good, I’m almost ready to throw in the towel on my own stumbling efforts. Another reason to not read too widely. Self-doubt often sits on this writer’s shoulder, so I try to filter out external influences wherever possible.
What makes you laugh?
Visits to Liverpool and Jack Dee make me laugh. I hail from Liverpool and have inherited the city’s cheeky, ironic humour. Whenever I meet up with friends and family on rare visits there I seem to be laughing none stop until I leave. It’s the place and the people that crack me up (with the exception of the over-exposed John Bishop)
When I open my mind and look inside, the gifts left by the passing of the Arganti stare back with their dark, pupilless eyes. I watch myself being watched, as the parade of the dead I cut down in their name, as their High Priestess and Avatar, grin from ivoried skulls.
The promise of the Arganti was a grant of immortality, bestowed on those I slew. Each soul-mind human patterned into ripples of sentient fabric and fused together into a patchwork cloak of human consciousness. Thus did humanity, at last, reach the stars, not as explorers or conquerors, not even as refugees or travellers – but as regalia, bestowing status on the Arganti who wore them.
And I am the one left abandoned. The one who gave up my very essence, an outlaw in my own brain, afraid they would find me and crush out the last spark of my ‘I am’. Perhaps I should have let them. It would be better than this endless opening of my mind to find what they left within…