THIS STORY IS INTENDED FOR ADULT READING ONLY
Some kids get to be apprenticed in the sorcery business by going to a posh school -- others have to do it the hard way. But then again, there are games you can play in a dragon's riding net which are a bloody sight more interesting than chasing a winged ball on a broomstick . . .
The early morning sun shone down on the ancient walls of Giant's Pass castle. It fell on patches of green moss clinging to the weathered stone blocks of the Outer and Inner Wards. Shards of light sparkled uselessly against the only window in the castle, the stained glass panes now covered in dirt and hiding the long disused Royal Chapel from view. But the glittering day made a brave showing of the banner of King Argud the Defiler flying high above the keep and reflected brightly from the string of wind polished skulls hanging below the flag. A few rays of shimmering sunlight even penetrated the arrow slits of the prison tower, to be instantly snuffed out amidst the dark stench of despair and corrupting flesh within. More glittering rays were wasted in falling on the steaming surface of the castle moat and its covering of rotting turds.
King Argud and his Master-At-Arms were no fools. Any attacking soldier who fell into that reeking gray-blue semi-liquid with even the smallest of wounds on his body would soon be dying a most painful and poisonous death. True, the smell on a warm day like this was truly awful but since everybody in the royal household stank like a dead goat anyway it was of no great consequence.
The King should have been in his counting house, counting out his money. Unfortunately, there was hardly any to count, since there was nobody in marching distance who had anything left worth stealing. So instead, the monarch had taken a newly arrived serving wench into the buttery, bent her over a table and applied double handfuls of butter to her bared hindquarters. The girl was mystified by his actions but in a few seconds time she was destined to find out two things: why he was called Argud the Defiler, and also the real reason why the buttery was called the buttery.
The Master-At-Arms, on the other hand, was dealing with more delicate business. A matter of negotiations which called for diplomacy and cordiality. Not easy qualities to summon up in a proud old soldier covered in scars and past glory: in his time the Master-At-Arms had killed and raped more victims than a boatload of Ice Land Warriors. He resented having to be unduly deferential to any other official of the royal household. But even he had to respect the authority of Sir Tarquin as royal tax collector and keeper of the castle torture chamber.
"A fine day, Sir Tarquin."
"A fine day, Master."
Sir Tarquin reluctantly laid aside a series of woodcuts left behind by a visiting trader of tormenting equipment. He often gazed at them wistfully, especially the ones showing the young lady with the long legs stretched out on a rack, the legs getting longer and longer in each succeeding picture. What he wouldn't give to have a bit of glamour like that spread eagled in his own tormenting implements instead of the dreary peasants that were all that ever came his way in this backward apology of a backwoods Kingdom. Not that he'd ever dare to let such words pass his lips, not if he didn't want them sewn together with a hornet in his mouth. On matters patriotic King Argud was so right wing he was almost a Tiberian Republican.
"How can I help you, Master?
"I'd like to book a session in the torture chamber, Sir Tarquin."
"Certainly -- a personal one, Master? Ha, ha, the old ones are always the best, hey?"
The Master smiled dutifully with a twitch of his lips as the head torturer reached for his appointments diary, a movement which paused halfway as an earsplitting scream came from the direction of the buttery. Sir Tarquin cocked his head to one side and listened with professional judgment.
"She'll be able to carry around the mead tonight, but I hope it's not at my table. Her hands won't stop shaking for a week. Now, Master, was it a group booking?"
"No. Just the one, thank'ee, my lord."
"Fine. Any particular torments in mind? Male or female?"
The Master-At-Arms grinned, displaying his ill colored teeth like a wolf finding a sheep caught in a briar patch: "Definitely male, Sir Tarquin. It's the castrating vice I want to use. Could I have a couple of hours, if that's agreeable to you?"
"A couple of hours? That's a long time for such a simple little job. Is this business or pleasure, Master?"
"Oh, both, Sir Tarquin -- both."
The old soldier looked as if he'd seen a divine vision of a thousand virgins, each one more beautiful than the next, and all driving carts heavily laden with wine barrels.
Sir Tarquin felt a touch of unease. As a normal thing, letting enthusiastic amateurs loose in the torture chamber was a mistake. Blood everywhere afterwards, and all the tools bent out of shape with overmuch heating. But as an officer of the Royal Household there was no way the Master-At-Arms could be decently refused access to the in-castle tormenting facilities.
"The day after tomorrow? From the third emptying of the water clock until the fifth emptying?"
"Thank you, Sir Tarquin. You co-operation is appreciated."
The Torturer fastened his weak blue eyes on the Master's vicious brown ones.
"You'll appreciate that you'll still have to raise an inter-departmental invoice for the hire of the chamber. Two florins an hour, four florins in all. You'll need to make six copies of the invoice, all signed by yourself or your deputy and counter-signed by myself or my deputy. One copy for your files, one for mine, one for the routine-of-the day clerk, one to the Royal Accounts Office, one for the Royal Archives, and one for the Bureau of Births, Deaths, Marriages and Castrations. And, naturally, it's your department's responsibility to ensure the removal of all bodies and bodily parts from the chamber at the end of the hire period. All equipment used is also to be cleaned and lightly oiled afterwards."
"You know me, my lord. I always leave the torture chamber the way I would wish to find it."
Sir Tarquin suddenly realized that the Master-At-Arms wasn't looking at him, but over his head and through an arrow slit in the wall. He turned in his chair and glanced out of the narrow gap himself. On the other side of the moat were the straggly lines of filthy wooden shacks where those of King Argud's subjects unfortunate enough to be still alive eked out their wretched existences. But one building at least was well built, the size of a barn, close to the protection of the castle walls, with a patch of scorched grass outside it. Playing happily together on the bare ground was a young boy and a young female. The female was much younger than the boy, but a great deal bigger. About thirty paces longer, in fact, bright pink in color -- at the moment, anyway -- and gently weaving her snout and her sinuous body like a giant ferret as the boy tickled her underneath her left wing joint.
"By the Gods, Master, I still can't believe it -- not even after seeing it every day for nigh on five years. A living, breathing dragon. And when I was a boy we all thought they'd never existed. Even the witches and warlocks said the old carvings were only make believe. Just dreams and mind pictures from nearly forgotten stories. And then a dirty little sniveling son of a night soil spreader comes out of the forest with an great egg he says he found in the roots of a fallen tree."
The Master nodded absent-mindedly. Everybody from far and wide knew the story, and how young Hal O'The Shitbuckets had not told anybody about the egg but hidden it inside a pile of warm dung near to his family's hut. How the boy had come out a few weeks later and found a newly hatched dragonet frolicking around on top of the pile of shite. And by the time anybody of importance had found out about any of this, it was too late. The dragonet and Hal had instantly developed the same kind of affection as between a man and his dog, and any attempts to part them had sent the young dragon into such a state of fretful decline that the companionship had to be restored immediately. But otherwise the hatchling seemed perfectly healthy and had grown at an astonishing speed. And of all its mysteries, three had continually dominated King Argud's thoughts.
The first: was there was any truth in the old legends about dragons breathing fire?
The dragonet had never shown any sign of being able to do so but there had been a lingering hope in King Argud's breast that the facility might develop as the creature reached adulthood. A hope which had found triumphant resolution one night when a pack of starving wolves had slipped into the dragon hut and attacked the dragon and Hal. The resulting flames had not only burnt down the hut but also a dozen others belonging to peasants unfortunate enough to be living nearby. As the suddenly dispossessed poor fled for their lives the King had capered wildly in delight in his night shirt, calling for his pipe to light it from the burning fragments of the huts, and then for his trio of fiddlers to provide music for his pyromaniacal prancing. At dawn he'd demanded that Hal demonstrate the dragon's incendive skills again by burning down more huts, clapping his hands like a delighted child as the dragon had coughed out tiny spitballs which flew for hundreds of paces and then ignited into raging fireballs whenever they hit anything.
"By Odin, I love the smell of dragon spit in the morning!" King Argud had roared in ecstasy at the sight of so much destruction inflicted so quickly.
The second mystery was whether the promise of the pup's nascent wings would eventually be proven. Could a dragon fly?
The answer had been yes, a fact finally determined in the last few weeks. Although, in truth, the dragon only flapped her wings barely long enough to be airborne before locking them into outstretched sails and seemingly riding the currents of the air upward and ever higher, then gliding across great distances before turning and turning like a falling leaf in the sky. Yet instead of drifting down she would drift upwards again. Nobody could explain how this could happen, except through magic. Apart from Hal O'The Shitbuckets, who thought that the air rose in bubbles from pieces of hot ground, like the bubbles in water coming to the boil, and that somehow the dragon could see or sense where these air bubbles were rising.
Under normal circumstances nobody would have paid any attention to young Shitbuckets ideas. The one thing which did get them something of a hearing was that Hal was the only person in the whole kingdom who had ever flown with the dragon. At least that was what most people thought, but four people knew differently. Hal, the Master-At-Arms, and two of the Master-At-Arm's daughters. Unfortunately for all of them, the Master had accidentally overheard Chelinde telling her young sister how she had twice been aloft with Hal and how he had rewarded her with what he called a frequent flyer point.
It was Chelinde's candid description of where young Hal had inserted his point whilst they were together in the dragon's riding net which had resulted in Hal's recently arranged appointment with the castration vice. The next item on the Master-At-Arm's daily schedule was arresting the still unwitting boy and explaining in great detail about what was soon going to happen to him. Hal might have spent most of his life emptying latrines but if he'd thought before he was in the shit, he was soon going to know better -- or worse.
Sir Tarquin shook his head in sorrow as he watched the boy and the dragon at play: "Such a shame. Worse yet, a tragedy. Is there anything sadder than the sight of a promising life destined never to know true fulfillment? The King comes near to weeping every time he thinks of it. What say you, Master, are you still of the same opinion?"
The Master-At-Arm's expression was one of bewildered surprise, until he realized what Sir Tarquin was talking about. It was the third great mystery about the dragon, the impasse which had King Argud groaning with despair during sleepless nights for a solution.
"Absolutely the same opinion, my Lord. As things stand our tiny army had no chance at all of defeating the Imperial Legions. One dragon on its own might win us a battle but never a war. We'd need a whole flock of them to be assured of destroying the Emperor's forces and capturing the great cities of the plains."
"A rise, Master. The collective noun for group of dragons is apparently a rise of dragons. So the Chief Warlock tells us of the High Council from his reading of the ancient writings. And no wonder the King weeps when he looks down from these hills onto an empire he could easily conquer -- if only we could find a single male dragon to mate our female with. Nature can be so cruel."
Sir Tarquin sighed heavily in quiet despair.
"How many peasants have we worked to death digging up the forest floor seeking another egg -- a male egg, in all love? How many spells has the castle warlock cast, seeking a trace of other dragons in the great wide world? How many spies have we sent out seeking news of such beastlings? And not one trace, not one rumor, not even one tavern tale about such creatures existing. No, what you see innocently playing there, Master, are two virgins, and destined I think to stay that way for a long time."
The Master's face was pale, only two red spots on his cheekbones revealing the pure fires of anger burning within him. "My Lord, I intend to make sure one of them will certainly never have need of a mate."
He tapped the cover of the torturer's diary with heavy significance and Sir Tarquin's eyebrows rose in sudden concern. "Hal? It's our young dragon handler you've a mind to geld? Nay, I think the King must know of this first. Why do you want to do such a thing?"
The Master-At-Arms had no intention of shaming his family by telling the truth on that subject. Nor did he think that he needed to.
"My Lord, my duty is to the security of the King and the Kingdom, and that dragon is a menace to both. It cannot defeat our enemies but should Hal ever decide to turn on his true lords and masters that beastling would be a formidable threat to us. Many of us would perish and much damage would ensue before he and that confounded dragon were killed. Since we cannot breed from it, better to destroy the monster and its handler's spirit now before they acquire a taste for more than they can ever be given."
Sir Tarquin shook his head: "A sound argument, Master, but not sufficient to achieve your purpose. Leave our dragon handler alone for a while yet."
"Dragon handler? That's not his substantive rank on the household rolls. He's a privy purveyor, he empties the shit pans into the moat and he was only allowed to work in the castle at all because he tends the beastling a few hours each day. The dragon is of no use to us, only danger, and the sooner we get rid of it and debollock that young upstart, the better."
The Royal Torturer waved his hand at the chair the Master had recently vacated: "Sit you down again, Master, and breathe no word of what I am about to tell you. For you have unwittingly touched upon decisions recently made by the High Council and it were better for you to know something of them and thus keep discreetly silent."
Sir Tarquin leaned forward across his desk and spoke in lowered terms.
"The King and council in secret session have decided that now the dragon has reached true maidenhood there is one last turn of the cards we can yet play. If we can't find a male dragon, perhaps the young female dragon may. She can fly, and she can seek, if we let her go hence to try her fortune."
The Master tried to absorb the implications of Sir Tarquin's statement: "Go? Go where?"
"Out into the wide world, wherever the winds may blow her. Into the northern mountains perhaps, or southwards over the provinces of Lyonesse to that great city itself and beyond. Or the east, to the forests of Prydein, or westwards, into the sea mists of Tintagel. Wherever it be that the beast may feel drawn to go. Like calls to like, Master, and if there be a scaly and horny mate for her anywhere, surely that female dragon will be drawn to him like a homing pigeon to its nest."
"But what use will that to be to us? We shall never see the dragon here again."
"Our young duke Hal will go with her to bring back a clutch of fertile eggs. Let the dragon go hang, if only he can find dragon hatchlings enough for us to breed a rise from."
"But . . . but . . . what young duke is it that you speak of, my Lord?"
"Why but think, man! The dragon obeys only Hal O'The Shitbuckets, so he must go with her. But if a dragon or dragons be anywhere in the world, surely they will be owned by the King of those parts. Can we send a mere shit-carrier's offspring to negotiate on behalf of the Kingdom of Argud with another royal court? No, of course not. Know you, Master, that in the next issue of the castle gazette there will be a notice raising young Hal O'The Shitbuckets to the aristocracy. A lifetime peerage." The Royal Torturer's lips tightened in sardonic amusement. "However brief that lifetime may be."
The Master-At-Arms looked as if he'd taken a crossbow bolt in the stomach: "That ugly little piece of trash is to be ennobled!"
"Aye. A strange world we live in, hey? But you know yourself that the boy is the only human in the Kingdom who has the dragon's obedience and love, so he must go with her. The King sought our advice on a suitable title for him and I suggested Duke Skyrider as being apt to his station, yet the Chief Warlock would have none of it. He said it sounded too foolish to be believed. So we have had to seek further afield. The Chamberlain said we should simply use the boy's family name, but the Warlock laughed at that."
"I never even knew he had a family name. Why, he wasn't even born into his family. The stinking brat was found newly born wrapped in a shawl and abandoned at the forest's edge."
"True, but he was bought up by the Shitbucket emptying clan. Apparently they were given a Tiberian family name by those interfering monks before the King finally drove them out. One of the holy men must have had a sense of humor though because the family name is Merdinus. The Warlock thought the notion of a Duke Merdinus a great jest because the word in the Tiberian language for dung is merdus. So it was proposed the boy be dubbed Duke Merlinus instead. And in a few day's time Duke Hal and his dragon will leave on his quest. What think you, Master?"
The Master-At-Arms snorted in anger mixed with disbelief at what he was hearing.
"What do I think? To speak truth, my lord, I think the whole council must have been sniffing that white powder the traders bring from the Happy Isles. I think the young tosspot will sell that dragon as soon as he is safely out of the Kingdom and spend the gold on bribing serving wenches to let him fuck them."
Sir Tarquin snorted with brief laughter: "So think we all, Master, so think we all. It was also said that a duke who spoke not a word of Tiberian, knew nothing of magic or ceremony and who stinks of the privy would have much trouble playing the part of a nobleman. Someone must go with him, someone able to educate Hal to courtly ways as they travel together, someone who will be respected in any land by any ruler. We have now decided on a suitable escort and consort for our aspiring Duke Merlinus."
The Royal Torturer leaned forward, even closer to the Master-At-Arms and spoke even more confidentially: "Tell me, Master, have you any lingering desires to see more of the wide world?"