by Chris Buchanan
Fantasy novella, 2013
You open your eyes and roll into an inn. Before the sun is up you hope to make reality of your dreams. The dragonslayer’s axe shines above. Is that what you wanted?
It begins the way it always begins. You push your shoulder against the hard wooden door of the inn and buckle under its weight. Your cheeks get hot and it makes you angry. You dare not spit.
You push harder until you feel the old iron hinges relent and swing away behind you. There is so much smoke and beer-froth and heat and thick, candle-burnt air that it gets into your eyes and makes them sting. Hoping that nobody inside has seen you, you rub your face against your small knuckles and breathe.
It’s muggy in this room and your head is swimming. You don’t remember how long you have walked. Perhaps you are just weary, or perhaps it’s the overpowering smell of rotten, spirit-soaked wood, but you struggle to remember why you came here.
You remember that a hero is in this place.
You remember that you want to travel.
You remember that you will face great danger, and this makes you smile.
Your arm is still sore. You open your eyes.
This is the first time you have set foot in a tavern. As you glance about, your back still facing the door, you hope that you don’t look as lost as you feel. The patrons who fill-out the hall are large, sweaty and long-haired. There are a lot of braids and knotted beards, and this seems strange to you, because you are from another place. Your hair is smooth and simple.
A woman’s skirt brushes your face and you look up, startled. She seems to notice, and clutches at the thick material as though you were a dog or a mouse getting caught up in her clothes. She shuffles away with a confused look that stays on her face until a young man hands her a tall cup of drink.
Now the innkeeper is looking at you from behind the bar at the back of the room. You have not known many grown-ups so you don’t trust your first impressions of them, but this man looks friendly. He has large blue eyes, a little too close together, and a layer of thin red hairs covering his arms and cheeks the way dust covers shelves. Making your way through the crowds, you decide it would be best to speak to him first.
He never takes his eyes off you as you approach. “Good evenin’… youngster,” he says, then frowns and looks uncomfortable. Maybe he is wondering if you are a boy or a girl. It might be hard to tell, since you are wearing a hood and coat. “I don’t recognise you,” he says, “but I know a tired traveller when I see one. What’s your name?”
You tell him. He nods.
“Are you alone?”
You nod back.
“Well then. We don’t normally have children in the inn, but that’s by the by. Welcome to the Bowman’s Bird.” He looks very upset, this man. He’s thinking about saying something and he’s probably going to say it. You look at him and wait quietly.
Finally he asks, “Where are you parents?” and you tell him that you don’t know. It’s strange, but right now you can’t remember their faces. You have come here without them.
“I see. Well, make yourself comfortable for now. Will you be staying the night?”
You admit that you don’t know that either. For a moment, you can’t think at all. Everything goes fuzzy.
“I’ll get you a drink,” the barman says, turning around. There is a kindness in his voice which seems too genuine for you to doubt him. His bar is neat and tidy, more so than the tables occupied by his customers. “My name’s Alferd,” he says. “I’ve be–”
“I’m looking for the hero who lives here,” you say, interrupting him by mistake.
Alferd turns around to look at you. He seems to relax in that moment, and he dips a small metal cup into a pail of milk. He puts it neatly on the bar in front of you and wipes the side facing away from you.
“You’re looking for Talmir Dragonkiller?” he says.
You smile. That sounds heroic, all right. “When was the last time you saw a dragon?” you ask Alferd.
“I never have, I’m happy to say. No-one has! And that’s all thanks to Talmir.”
You interrupt him again. “Where is Talmir?” You pause. “Please.”
Alferd smiles and pushes the milk toward you. You reach up and grip it and this makes him happy. “Upstairs,” he says, motioning with his eyes and a jerk of his chin. “On the balcony there. He’ll be the gentleman with the axe.”
You sip some of the milk and take it with you as you turn around to follow the man’s eyes. Above the floor of the inn is a long balcony with sturdy doors leading to four bedrooms, but there are a few tables up there too. Some of the townspeople seem to have pushed them all together to make one long table, at the head of which sits a muscular man. His brown beard is split down the middle and knotted in such a complicated way that it looks like it is tied behind his ears. By his side is a solid slab of steel: the cleanest, boldest steel you have ever seen and it shines particularly brightly at the points. A battle-axe. Its silvery light stands out against the browns, reds and blonds of every other object in the room, as though it does not belong. You have to wonder how heavy it is. Probably heavier than you.
Talmir is talking with friends when you reach him and they don’t notice you. Unsure how to get the great man’s attention, you just sip your milk and look at him. The axe is even shinier up close, and his beard is even sillier. You think that trimming and arranging it must take a lot of his time in the mornings.
The big men are excited, talking about a kidnapping that has taken place in town and the villainous bandits who are responsible. The dragon killer is nodding and frowning distantly. It is hard to make-out exactly what has happened, since they are all speaking at once and trying to be heard over one-another, but the word Princess is mentioned at least once. They have worked themselves into a fever, swinging tankards and swapping boasts about how strong they are, or how many heads they will cut off, which ranges from five (from the youngest and thinnest man) to a thousand (the second-youngest and most drunk). Talmir pretends to laugh. Finally he says, “Tomorrow, my friends,” and they calm down. It is obvious that they revere him.
It is now that one of the men bumps into you, and all at once they see you and fall quiet. Five of them stagger backwards, one trips over. You feel their eyes on your face and you wonder what you look like.
“They don’t normally allow children in the Bowman’s…” someone says quietly.
“Speak, child,” says Talmir, but he does not act or sound like a warrior. He is still and bored and unhappy, like a grandfather.
“I have come to see Talmir Dragonkiller,” you say.
“Well done. You’re seeing him now,” says Talmir, and there is laughter. “You aren’t from town. Why are you looking for me?”
It is hard to answer without either seeming stupid or lying. After a moment you just open your mouth and hope that it produces an answer. “I have heard that you are a hero,” you say. No-one laughs.
“Yes.” That’s all he says. The way he forms the word suggests that he has a lot more to say but he has decided not to.
“This man,” says a fellow in a coat of chain mail, slapping his hand on Talmir’s wide shoulder, “is the saviour and protector of the town!”
You nod to show respect.
“He was the last survivor of an expedition to slay the great dragon who threatened the land, ten years ago.”
“Yes,” says Talmir again.
“What say you, boys? Shall we tell the story, aye?”
At this, the men roar and laugh. Out of the corner of your eye you see Talmir whisper something, but only for a second. The man in the mail sits you down and spills a little of your milk.
But before they can begin, Alferd emerges through the crowd behind you and delivers a plate of fresh meat and fruit with a wink. You are grateful and hungry. This seems like a good inn. A good town. It’s nice.
And so you eat while the crowd tell Talmir’s story. Each man recites a verse and you are excited to hear such an epic story told by those people who are closest to the hero himself. His silence, as they speak, makes him seem grand and above you. Not rude, but above you. It is hard not to smile.
“Talmir the Bold was the champion of his village, far to the West,” says an older man with a wispy voice and grey tips to his moustache. A few eyes turn to him. Others still watch you with an assured grin. “His home was like ours: a town that was so far from the Royal Castle that it was only barely under the King’s rule, and very rarely saw anyone from the court. So, like us, his people were simple and fair.”
“And honest, and poor!” says a heavy man. There is loud laughter.
A young member of the group then speaks up and leans on the table. “One day Talmir is out hunting, as the task was often left to him, y’see. And as he spears his last beast of the day he hears the sound of thunder. Of course the thunder doesn’t bother a man like this, so he shrugs it off. But he realises there was no lightning. And then suddenly the thunder sounds again, louder, and again, louder, and the whole sky is suddenly dark as night!”
The tale is gripping you so much that you almost forget about the food you’ve been given. Without looking, you grab some of the meat and shove the whole piece into your mouth, chewing as fast as you can.
“It’s the dragon!” the young man says. “It has arrived from the Heavens in order to destroy us all!”
There is some mumbling around the table, and the greying man mutters, “It was not from the Heavens. Dragons are not from Heaven.”
“Well then it was from a mountain, or the pits of the Earth or a far off continent, or something…” says the other. “Anyway, it was a dragon. Talmir gathered eleven of his most trusted kinsmen, see, and he charged them to follow him into battle. They marched outside the village walls and screamed as one to get the dragon’s attention, then fought it with bow and sword, until it fled. He saved his village!”
“That’s amazing!” you start to say, but you are interrupted by the man in the chain mail.
“Talmir is too much of a hero to let it go, of course!” he says. “So he and his fellowship steeled themselves, packed supplies for a great journey, and set forth to hunt the beast. They follow the trail of flattened trees and burning grassland, and every time they catch up to the filth, it turns to attack them. Every time, they lose a man to its jaws. And every time, they cut a fresh wound through the animal’s scales. In the end, they are exhausted, having battled and withstood the dragon more than any group of warriors ever could, and they lose the rest of their men to wolves and murderers, and a witch. Talmir alone survives, and he slays all these foes by himself even as he keeps up the chase.”
“Finally he…” says a new speaker, a man with a blond beard, but the old man pipes up again.
“Finally, he and the dragon met once again, and found that they were both too fatigued to run any longer. The monster flew straight upwards, as high as the Sun itself, and them slammed its body right back down into the ground, hoping to land on Talmir and pulverise him.”
“But of course…” the man in mail is grinning very deeply and you smell his breath. “Talmir leaps out of the way just in time. He falls helplessly down the great crater that has formed in the ground, no-doubt thinking that he’ll die when he reaches the bottom.”
“And what did you do then, Talmir?” you ask
Talmir does not seem to hear the question, but after a moment of anticipation the blond man hammers the table with his fist and cries, “He grabs hold of its neck and slices it in two with his hunting axe!”
There is a cheer so loud that everyone down below looks up to see what the noise is about. A lot of them smile or even join in.
“Alferd the innkeeper found me,” Talmir finally says, quietly, “on his way back from a visit to a merchant caravan. He dressed my wounds and gave me water, and then he carried me down the path of the Red River, to this, his home town.”
The man in the mail coat asks what you think and you tell the truth. You enjoyed it very much. He is pleased and grasps your shoulder. As you finish your fruit and milk, the men slowly begin to calm down. Their conversation moves to small bragging, and then to mutterings about you, and finally to ordinary town chit-chat. Talmir says very little and does not look at you, so you just finish your meal. When you are done, you hurry downstairs with Alferd’s tray.
As you are climbing down you see him talking to a group of customers at a table in the corner. He has a jug of something, with which he fills their mugs, and they seem to share a joke as one of them kicks the thin skirting board at the bottom of the wall and scratches his shin. You decide to wait by the bar and leave the tray on it.
The bartender breaks away and returns to you almost immediately, and takes the tray gladly. You thank him and he smiles. “You must have travelled a long way, little ‘un,” he says. It makes you laugh out loud when he calls you that, and you worry that you have insulted him, but he just smiles back warmly.
“I think I have,” you say.
He doesn’t pry, but sits down on a stool he has behind the bar and looks at you. “We do have a spare room, little ‘un,” he says. “You can stay there as long as you need to.”
You tell him that you don’t have any gold coins, but he calmly tells you that you won’t need any. You thank him again.
“No need for that, either,” he says, and offers you another drink. You shake your head.
“How long have you known Talmir?” you ask.
Alferd pours some milk for himself as he answers. “Since he arrived,” he says. “He stays here. I had three rooms to rent before the dragon killer arrived. Now I have two rooms, and the honour and safety that only a hero’s presence can offer.”
You ask what Talmir is like.
“Like you see,” Alferd says, simply. “He’s grand and he’s quiet. Respectable.”
“Did he really save the land from the dragon?”
“The dragon’s skeleton is still out there to the North, where it cracked the Earth and made its last stand,” he says. The innkeeper’s eyes drop to the bar and he starts wiping at a stain you can’t see.
“He must be brave,” you say.
Alferd’s smile widens and he steps away from the bar, walks out into the middle of the inn. Pointing back up at the balcony, he tells you that your room will be the one right at the end. He says it is small, but then so are you, little’un. And you laugh politely. With a chuckle he wanders off toward a hand, waving at him from another table.
Upstairs you see Talmir shuffle back and forth in his chair. Nobody else seems to be watching him right now so he keeps shuffling for almost a minute. When he is tired of this, he gets up. He slowly wanders over to the window at the end of the balcony and then rests his head against the glass. Without thinking you jump up the stairs and go over to talk to him. There are little bits of bread in that beard of his, and his eyes seem larger now.
“Talmir, what happened next?” you ask.
He looks at you, frowning a little, the way an ordinary person would look at a piece of fruit in a market. “They have… embellished the story a bit,” he mutters. “What happened after that was that I recovered here, and I sat in that chair over there and told my story to the townsfolk. And then they told me I was their hero. A lot.”
“Yes,” you agree.
“And I said nothing, and they gave me food and a ceremonial axe to replace the old, blunted one I used to carry. They do not ask me to work.”
You move a little closer to hear him better, and ask, “When will you return to your village?”
After a long pause he sighs and says, “There are other wolves out there. There are other witches. And dragons, perhaps. My little friend, I cannot go home.” He sounds weary and has begun to slur his words.
“You have eleven new companions!” you tell him, looking at the others.
“Yes, but who’s to say that on the way back, I will be the one who survives, hm?”
You don’t have an answer, so the two of you just stare at each other for a while. Eventually he coughs.
“I have never used this axe,” he says. “I ran a long way, and I survived.”
You nod, but you feel strangely empty. “What about the kidnapped Princess?”
Talmir breathes through his nose and says, “There are knights in the kingdom, child. They can do the job better. And these men here will be sober tomorrow. I will not remind them of their boasting.”
“You’re… you’re not going to fight the bandits?”
Talmir doesn’t move at all and just says, “A hero can be any man, little one. Whichever man is left at the end of a journey. The only one who didn’t make the ultimate sacrifice.”
“Oh,” you reply.
The man who killed the dragon nods and closes his eyes. You slink away, climb down the stairs and pass the empty bar, forgetting all about the room you were offered. Hurrying away from this place you push the inn doors open again. They seem even heavier this time.
It’s cold outside. You think it must be close to midnight now since the vista before you is almost completely dark. As you take a few steps on the short grass surrounding the inn, you glance around at the town. You don’t even know its name.
It is unremarkable. Surrounding it there are big tree-trunk poles lashed together with rope and pointed at the tops, and within there are ordinary wooden buildings, glowing a little in the sparse torchlight, and a couple of stone huts at the centre. You can’t see anybody outside right now but there is a grey dog tied to somebody’s house, barking at a couple of big black rats who scuttle in front of its path and into a neighbour’s floorboards. Ahead of you are some fields and small farms, and then everything else is fuzzy. On your right is a flat road leading back the way you came and on your left is what looks like a forest, but both directions are barely lit by the moon. There is a small but deep lapping stream leading into the trees and widening as it goes. This must be the Red River that Talmir mentioned, although you can already see that it is not red.
Suddenly you don’t want to stay the night in the inn. You think about going home, but you can’t remember where home is. You are aware that it is very different to this place. It’s boring. You wanted to come here…
Your life, all of your memories, are on the tip of your tongue but you can’t speak. Who are you and what are you doing here?
All you know for sure is that you want to see monsters. And heroes. And magic.
Slowly, step-by-step, you follow the water.
Perhaps because you are tired, the air feels very crisp and sharp in your lungs. There is an unpleasant taste, like snapped plant stems on your tongue, so you try to breathe through your nose. There are moths here and there, the colour of tree trunks, and sometimes you think you hear an owl behind you.
The river widens ever more and its gentle sound becomes a bit louder, a bit harsher. The path you follow becomes a downwards slope. The cold starts to hurt your nose and fingertips. After half an hour, you see a spot of colour on the floor.
Red petals, twisted and flattened at the edges and forced into the soil. You bend down to see them better and realise they are a rose. It seems very pretty at the moment.
A few minutes later there is another rose, this time caught in a tree’s leaves above your head, flapping in the breeze. And then two more appear, floating still on the river’s surface. The sky begins to lighten and clear, the more roses you find, and soon there is red in the sky where the sun has just begun to rise.A few strides further still there are seven more of the flowers, scattered about on the ground. And when you look up after counting them and squint your eyes, you see hundreds more.
The long, sloping hill you have been escending reaches its floor right ahead of you, right where the river becomes a wide, glistening lake. It is surrounded by bushes of red roses. Red roses lie scattered about the path leading up to it like a carpet. There are red roses covering thick, round, clumps of twisting stems, protruding from the water and growing up and out, like floating clouds of red. There is a thick, hardy dam of rose-bush at the river’s mouth, slowing and controlling the speed of the water downhill. There are towers of red stretching into the dark and beyond, where the roses have grown upwards and climbed around old trunks or posts, which surround the lake on all sides and in a beautifully irregular pattern. And there are red flowers floating in the water, more than you can count, all over the surface. Everything is red petals and you can barely even tell that there is water or roots beneath. Sometimes there are little bubbles at the edges or tiny ripples in the surface and you wonder what little animals live below.
But deep in the red, on the other side of the lake within the bushes, there is something larger moving. It takes you a few seconds to recognise it as a person: a man wearing a helmet shaped like a bucket and a tall piece of cloth draped over iron armour, which displays a pattern in purple and orange, like a flag. It is hard to follow him with your eyes since he constantly disappears behind the bushes and then emerges off to one side, or further along than you would expect. When he is visible he moves slowly and with his arms straight out, until suddenly he emerges from a black-dotted red tree-trunk and stops. Very slowly he pulls a long, wide sword from a scabbard.
In a moment he leaps forward, throwing the blade in front of him as he does. You see the shape of his sword more than you see his body, straight ahead of you, but too far away to hear. The weapon jams into something, a man shouts in surprise, and then the knight heaves it out and slashes it sideways. You see another man’s body now. It stumbles backwards, nearly falls, rustles all of the rose-branches around it, and then it’s gone again. The knight crouches down and then he has vanished once more.
You run. Towards what you just saw, around the side of the lake, as fast as you can. The sound of your own heavy, painful breaths is even louder than your footsteps against the twigs and piles of petals and thorns, but you don’t care. Your eyes scan the horizon carefully, looking for moving shapes against the brightening sky. The roses climb on top of everything and on top of each other, and soon you are trying not to trip as you run over intertwined clutches of brambles.
The sword reveals itself again and plunges straight down, fast, followed by the wielder’s fist wrapped around its hilt, and his straight arm in tight iron braces. You can’t see what the blade hits, but you are able to make it out more clearly. You’re getting close.
There is a shout, deep and without form, like an animal’s, and suddenly two more men stagger into your view. You can see the buckles on their belts and the shapes of their hair. And then you see the knight’s cloth raiment and his sword’s edge. The weapon does not exactly flash, but it swings very quickly. There are screams from the frantic figures at its point and a single grunt from the knight.
And far away from the men, somewhere behind the petals, there are other screams – higher and more frantic. These, you realise, belong to a lady. She screams the word ‘no’ a lot, and you find that you can’t move.
The knight’s sword-arm keeps going, slashing at the two men the way you would wave off a fly that bothered you. Sometimes it bounces off something and other times it just slows down for a moment. There are grunts that shush themselves at the end.
The rest of the sword fight is very short. The two bigger blades lunge at the quiet knight. One of them wobbles. Their intended target stabs both of his attackers faster than you can see and they fall down on twisting legs, landing with a heavy soft sound. He finally stands still and looks around, letting himself relax, and then you see him suddenly staring directly into your eyes. A second later, he ducks down and he’s gone again.
And it’s only then that you realise there is a dagger at your throat.
There is one more man, and he is right behind you. Your left hand shakes very fast and you feel a hot, painful pressure coming from behind your nose and eyes. The man’s breath is hot too, and you wonder how you didn’t hear it until now.
“You stop where you are!” the man behind you yells. Right in your ear. “You stop there and drop the sword, and you kneel down!” His voice cracks a little bit.
Nothing happens for a long time. The man shouts, louder. “You throw down the sword, I said!”
The knight climbs out of rose bushes in front of you, as if from nowhere, the sunrise shining off his metal and his richly-dyed tunic. You try not to gasp because you can feel the sharpness of that dagger’s edge. It is not as smooth as you would imagine. It’s curved and almost jagged at one end, like a kitchen knife. The man’s wrist is red, puffed-up and scabby.
You and the man stare at the knight’s sword for about seven seconds, watching it approach, bit by bit, tiny swing by tiny swing, in line with his steps. Your neck feels hot for the briefest moment as the knife’s edge presses into your skin and slides.
“One more chance,” the man behind you says. He sounds afraid. “Stop.”
Finally the knight does as he is told. You think you can see his eyes now, through the little T-shaped slit in his helmet.
“The child,” he says, “is not mine. You should have grabbed the Princess. Her rescue is my only purpose.”
And the rest of it is just a blur. You feel your whole body shaking and your throat tightening so it is hard to breathe. The knight is running straight at you and the sword flies over your head, knocking your hood off and skimming through your hair. You fall onto the ground and hear both men shouting and gasping, and then there is another sound which is horrible.
The next thing you know, the dagger that held your throat is slipping into the rose branches, covered in dark blood. You spin around as well as you can; it is very hard to make your body move, and see both men on the floor, gravely wounded.
The knight’s eyes meet yours for the second time. His helmet bobs and his eyes strain as he tries to speak, but all he manages to say is, “Stupid… brat!”
He dies, and so does the bandit behind him. When you see his face for the first time, you are repulsed: his dirty skin has several ugly red lumps and weeping sores. The knight’s helmet is still on, however, and you are glad. You just stare and wait for your body to stop shaking until you hear the lady’s voice again. Crying. Not sobbing like a maiden normally would if she were sad, but screaming in horror. Skriking, like a baby. Making herself hoarse. She carries this on and then starts yelling deep, guttural noises instead. You have never heard a person cry like this.
You just want her to stop.
Soon you hear another voice. Another young lady. She is swearing and telling the other maiden to be quiet and control herself. It is having little effect, but you find the strength to stand up again. It takes you some time to stop yourself shaking and find the women, but when you do, you see them both crumpled on the floor, leaning heavily against one-another on a little patch of bare grass. The one who cries is dressed in what used to be a gorgeous yellow velvet dress, the same colour as her hair, with small, delicate pieces of fur at its edges which are now black with mud and rain. The other lady wears a more simple brown dress and has her reddish hair roughly tied back. She watches you approach and looks hatefully at you from the ground.
It is very hard to know what to say, so you just tell them that the men are all dead. The blonde lady wails when you say this and the other one begins swearing again, under her breath.
Still not sure what to say, you ask if they need help.
“You’ve helped enough,” the more course lady says. “Virgel would still have been alive were it not for you.” She spits on the ground and bares her teeth as she buries her head in her hands.
“Virgel?” you ask.
“The knight,” says the woman, and then she calls you a name. “Evelyn’s betrothed. Here to save us from those…” another curse.
You dare not say that you are sorry, so you just ask for her name.
“Amber,” the lady says while twisting the side of her lip at you threateningly. Evelyn still does not speak, just breaks away from the other woman and collapses into a heap of her own as she groans and wails.
You wonder how long it has been since these maidens were kidnapped, but they look as though they have been wearing these clothes for a long time. The sleeves of their dresses are either torn off or in ribbons, as are parts of the front, and they have dry mud, bruises and grass stains all over them. If only you had some food and water to offer, you think, but you are empty-handed.
“Where are you from?” you ask helplessly, and Amber gives you a strange look.
Finally, she softens her expression. “Several days’ ride,” she says very quietly. “We can get back. But first we must find somewhere safe to recuperate. Where did you come from?”
“A town back through the forest,” you answer. “Only a short walk, up the hill. I followed the river.”
“A….” she seems to breathe very deeply for a moment. “Of course,” she says. “This must be Red Lake.”
“I think so,” you reply.
Amber grabs Evelyn by the shoulder, which makes her shriek in terror, but then she pulls her over and lets the blonde lady collapse into her chest, wrapping her arm around her back. This seems to help and the crying gets quieter.
“Evelyn,” says Amber, “listen to me now. We are going home. Old Oakengard is very close, and the people there are loyal to your father. All right? We’ll rest there.”
“Just… want to be alone…” Evelyn manages to say.
“I’ll make them leave us alone. We shall be safe there.”
Amber holds the back of Evelyn’s head and just shushes her, and then mutters some more curses once she has calmed her friend down enough. “Thank you,” she says, through her teeth, looking at the floor. As Evelyn shows her face to you for the first time you notice her pale blue eyes. She would be very beautiful but her face is blotchy, scratched and red and covered in long lines of tears. Amber does not seem to have fared much better.
“Are you ready to travel?” you say, but Amber just holds up her hand to silence you.
“We will make our own way,” she says. “Thank you, child. We’ll make our own way now.”
Almost immediately Amber drags herself to her feet, pulling Evelyn with her by the arms, and she holds the crying woman’s head in her hands.
“We’re going home now,” she says, staring at her friend. Evelyn looks away so Amber curses one more time, insulting her. It has the desired effect of shocking Evelyn into silence. She tells her again, “We are going home.”
Slowly, step by step, sometimes having to drag themselves, the maidens walk away from you. When they pass the body of the knight they do not stop or say anything, only straighten their backs and look at him. From then on they stride away as fast as they can, holding each other’s hands tightly.
The red sun catches the backs of their tattered clothes and marked skin, and bathes them until they reach the trees.
Once you are alone by the lake, you are struck with thirst. As much as you wish to leave this place and the bodies before you, at the same time you know you must have some water. You make your way through the brambles to get to the lake’s rim and then kneel down, filling your cupped hands and emptying them until your stomach hurts. You are not hungry, thanks to the food you were given at the inn, but you are tired.
Perhaps, you think, you should not have come here alone. Maybe returning to the town you came from – Oakengard, the maidens had called it – would be best, and from there you can think about your next step.
But when you think of the town you think of Talmir Dragonkiller’s sad face, and then you think about Amber and Evelyn. You can’t go back there. Perhaps you could follow the lake again, you suppose. There seems to be another river running down to it on the horizon, albeit a smaller one.
You have walked for two hours when you encounter a handsome white horse with sleek black patches on its eyes and body, wandering aimlessly in a field. On its back is an embroidered banner with the same colours the knight Virgel had worn. It grunts as you approach, then stamps its feet in impatience.
Presumably somebody from Oakengard will come and look for the knight. If his poor horse is left alone, who knows what will happen to it? So you grab its reigns, nod your head to show it where you are going, and try to drag it back to the lake. At first the horse is too stubborn to be led but finally it gives up, whinnying its assent.
When you return, the horse sees the body of his master before you do and trots over to it neatly. You decide you should just leave the creature by his side and let them both wait. Before you turn away to start your walk, you glance behind your back to the forest.
Between the trees you can see something black. That is all that can be said about it, because that is the only detail you are able to tell for certain. It is black, and then it is a memory. Your imagination tells you it might have been an animal. A large one, with a long black snout. Some other, more excitable part of your mind suggests a little more: perhaps this animal was following you. Perhaps it is hiding. It was wide enough to be a bear, but the head was wrong. As you think more, your imagination gives the shape a small head, a long pointed face and black, flat eyes that never blink. But that can’t be right.
Of course, you wonder, it might have been a tree or a passing shadow. Or it might have all been in your head.
But then it stands up.
It is too far away to see in any detail, and it appears more as a shadow under the canopy of the trees. But it is shaped like a tall, wide man, wearing tight clothes or perhaps nothing at all, and with no hair. It does not move like a man, though. It is stiff and precise, bending its long legs and moving in strides. Its neck is fast and agile. You can’t stop looking at that strange, rigid, pointed nose.
Acting on instinct, you duck down behind the horse and watch this thing. The nose looks like a bird’s beak, but it does not open. The thing moves slowly and carefully, its wide and muscular arms dragging something heavy behind it, away from the forest and into the roses on the far side of the lake.
Still you find it hard to see, but now it is clearer. The whole body looks shiny to you, and heavy like a vulture’s thick plumage. The hands are black and his fingers are tapered, like you imagine the hands of a devil would look. Like tendrils growing from the muscles of a burned, blackened human hand in the underworld. Its neck and head are black as well. You can’t see a mouth.
Suddenly moving very quickly, the creature strides purposefully into the trees again, then emerges later holding a small shovel.
Your blood seems cold and your neck becomes sore as you realise what this thing is doing. The lump it dragged out onto the field is only just visible through the roses, but you see yellow hair and a torn scrap of velvet. You see two pale, thin, still hands side by side, another shape in this one’s shadow, and you see the creature digging.
And then, as if it had been waiting for you to understand, you see the vulture-man sharply turn its head to face you.
All you can do is hold completely still behind the horse’s heavy hind legs. Just don’t move, you tell yourself. He might not have seen you. The horse stamps its feet again, impatient for its owner to wake up.
Just don’t move.
After what seems like forever, the vulture-man turns its unnatural, distorted head and puts its heavy, black back to you.
You run, as far away from this place as you can, following the smaller river. You run to where you found the horse and then you run until you can’t hear your own thoughts. You run until it is night again.
It seems like a dream. You are never aware of exactly how far you have gone. You don’t seem to feel fatigue. You don’t even pay attention to the sky to guess the time. You just run, your head full of heat and the sounds of your own deep breathing, until you come to a stop.
You have reached the end of the land. The grasslands that the lake led to became a set of bumpy green hills, pocked with rabbit warren exists and littered with sand in piles and clumps of dandelions, heather and nettles. The river became a narrow valley and that is the route you took, in the hope that you would be better hidden. It is only at the very end of the valley, where the hills slope easily downwards into a wet, short, soggy beach, that you look behind you.
Your mind conjures a hundred dreadful images of the vulture creeping behind you, or running behind you, or flying, or pouncing, or just standing. But when you turn it is not there.
In an instant your body finally succumbs to exhaustion and you let your top-section drop down, resting on your wobbling knees. Your face is hot. And in the few seconds it takes you to catch your breath, you are angry.
That thing, whatever it was, killed Evelyn and Amber. And you ran. You consider turning back, but you know that it’s too late. You need to rest now.
There is a breeze all along the beach which is not strong but whistles sharply and the air tastes of salt and pollen. The sun has already set, so the sky is deep indigo. It is strange, you think, to be on a beach at night time. And probably not wise considering that you began this journey inside an inn. You need somewhere to sit down.
Strolling away from the tide, hearing the sand crunch under your boots, you look for a flat rock. The sand dunes above have a shady-looking, hard face of rock beneath them, so you wander there and lean against the wall. You’re not sure where you are, or where you should be and what you should be doing. You keep frowning. Your head is full of so many thoughts, in fact, that you don’t see the fat little girl watching you from a crack in the rock by your shoulder.
“Hello?” she says. You spin around before you can think and see a green eye staring out at you through a little gap. Another crack shows her round, freckled nose. You’re not sure what you’re doing now, but you have definitely lost balance and she is laughing at you.
Her voice sounds too grown-up, though. Her laugh is modest and deep.
“Hello,” you say back. She chuckles to herself again, then the eye and nose disappear.
“Hang on,” she calls, from somewhere beneath you now, and then you see a mop of soft brown hair, tied only at the ends in a little bob, crawling out of the stone on top of stubby arms and round hands. The girl stands to greet you, patting her hands against herself to remove the sand, and again she seems amused by your reaction. She is the same height as you, almost the same build, but she is not a girl. Her face has worry-lines and a creased chin, and that certain tiredness that people get once they are no longer children, as well as another expression that you can’t read.
“A… dwarf?” you say under your breath.
“A child with no manners?” the dwarf replies.
This time it is you who laughs, and she gives you a wide, motherly smile in return.
You say you’re sorry and you explain that you have never seen one of her kind before.
“Most people have not,” she says, a little sad. “What are you doing out here by yourself?”
Your story is hard to sum-up. “I was running away,” you try. “I mean I was exploring, and then…”
“Take your time,” she says. “I have plenty.” She then beckons you to follow her and strolls down the beach, pulling her thin wool shawl around herself. She looks like nothing you have ever seen before. That dense brown hair of hers falls down to her feet. She walks awkwardly, like someone on stilts or peg-legs, dragging herself along with the force of her upper body. Everything about her looks strange.
She reaches a large, flat rock at just the right height for a seat and drops herself onto one end, studying you as you approach, until you join her.
“All right. So what brings someone so young out into the wilderness all alone?”
You don’t really want to answer. “I’m not from this land,” you say. “I came to see it.”
“Well then you have done rather badly, I should say! This is the sea. The land is behind you.” The small lady asks, “What are you looking for exactly?”
“Heroes,” you say. “Adventures.”
She does not laugh this time, just tilts her head a bit.
This slab of stone is more comfortable than you would have thought. As you run your fingers across its surface you realise that it has been carefully carved into its concave shape. As well, there are patterns thinly etched into it. Little circles and lines, all woven together. It’s lovely.
“That’s all, really,” you say, almost forgetting what you were saying.
“Heroes and adventures. Ah, to be young again.”
You’re not sure what she means.
“Are you hungry?”
You tell her yes.
“Wait here. I was about to make supper.”
When she has waddled back to the crack in the wall, the dwarf gives you a smile and then crawls back inside. A few minutes later she returns and lays a heavy burlap blanket at your feet, gesturing at it, and then when she appears again she drags a clanging sack. From it she pulls a shallow pan and a clean iron stand, then places a bowl beneath and some coals and wood. Lighting a fire very quickly, she holds the flint tight in her hand and goes back into her hole. Finally she emerges again with two large, fresh fish and a clay jug with two matching cups.
“It’s far too late for chopping vegetables now,” she says. “This will do.” And with that she pours a small amount of wine and offers it with a look. You are not used to wine, but there is only a little there and you are thirsty.
“We’ll boil some water later,” she answers, watching your face as you drink.
“Thank you, dwarf,” you say, but before you have finished saying the last word she speaks.
“Hanne is my name. What is yours?”
You answer and watch her start to prepare the fish. “It’s a nice name,” she says. You notice that the cooking pot is carefully etched, too.
The smell of the hot iron and food relaxes you, and the conversation becomes easy and enjoyable. You have questions for each other, but what you want to know most is more about her people’s culture, and what exactly lies behind those cracks in the stone. How far does that tunnel go and how much of the hillside you ran through is secretly the roofs of dwarven settlements? But Hanne doesn’t seem to understand these questions.
It is only when the fish is nicely fried and served in little bowls, and your hostess has retrieved stone eating utensils for you both, that you ask, “Could I come inside?”
“Oh,” she says. “Well, I suppose so. You’ll catch your death out here anyway.”
“Would that be all right with everyone?”
Hanne looks at you as though you are telling a joke she doesn’t understand, then pretends to look around her. “Who are everyone?” she asks.
You aren’t sure how exactly the dwarven underground cities are governed, but you are imagining some sort of king. One with a big beard and a hard face, who refuses entry to surface-dwellers.
“Well… the other dwarves?” you suggest.
Hanne laughs through a mouthful of fish and nearly has to spit it out. When she turns her head so hide the display, her lovely hair almost hits your face. “Strike me down,” you hear her say. “The things I hear!”
“Will you tell me about your people?”
Hanne nods, still facing away, and waits until she has finished her mouthful before looking back.
“Very well,” she says. “I shall tell you everything there is to know about the dwarves of the world.”
You grin, waiting eagerly.
“We aren’t very tall,” she says, and then happily forks another piece of supper into her mouth. She keeps chewing until you realise that this is all she has to say.
“I’m just teasing. But don’t worry, I’ve heard far, far sillier questions from people in my time. I’m afraid, child, there are no other dwarves.”
“Not here, anyway. Every now and again, one of us is born in some place or another. To some family. In my experience, this doesn’t sit very well with the townsfolk and the dwarf has to leave.”
“I have no idea,” she says, and pours herself a fresh cup of wine. “People see things they can’t explain and they come up with daft answers. My parents thought I was corrupted by a demon, of all things.”
It is hard to imagine why anyone could think that about this woman.
“People like stories, don’t they?” she says as she fiddles with the cooling coals beneath her pot. You nod. “Some people,” she adds, the smile at the corners of her lips fading a little, “are cast as the baddie.”
“Do you live here alone, then?”
Hanne doesn’t answer for a very long time, but then nods. “Yes. This is my cave.”
You both finish your fish. Eventually, as she is packing her things away, she says, “I suppose we’d better get inside then. Get you a proper drink and a good fire.” When she has stuffed everything into her bag, she indicates for you to follow.
“My cave,” she says simply, and then crawls through. You follow behind on your hands and knees, looking at her tiny feet as you paw your way through the tunnel, whose walls are surprisingly smooth. Soon after, you see Hanne emerge from the other end and trot away, and you pull yourself out.
The cave is about six feet high but has a lot of space. Hanne has arranged and lit simple lanterns at the ceiling, but they can do little against the hard, reflectionless stone of her walls. The room is therefore murky and everything appears a sort of dirty orange. There is an old fire-pit in one corner, which still smoulders a little from earlier in the day, with carrots, onions and some more fish in pots around it.
You sit yourself down on a soft rug made of intertwined grasses and look up. The surfaces of the walls are hard to make out but you can see markings of some sort. You’re warm and very comfortable and the little cracks allow thin, knife-like shafts of white light in, which cut through the middle of the room, across Hanne’s forehead and onto the fireplace.
“It’s a secret to everybody,” she says. You promise not to tell.
She takes a dry wooden stick and lights it in one of her lanterns, then one-by-one, lights a row of candles you had not seen, mounted all across the wall. Behind every candle is a picture cut into the stone, the grooves inside painted in bright colours. You see figures of men and women in scenes you don’t recognise. You see a herd of animals, running together and each a different colour. You see landscapes, including an impression of the beach outside, and a ring of tall white figures holding hands. And then Hanne relights her biggest lantern and you see the ceiling, with every inch coloured and cut to make room for more of these artworks. In one corner there is a castle drawn in thick channels, reaching tightly into the walls with an elegant orchard of yellow and green fruits pouring out from its foot in all directions. Some scenes depict more familiar images from the Bible, and these are rendered just as lovingly. There are something like thirty of the pictures, all in all. If this cave was ever fully lit it would be as beautiful as anywhere in the world.
“Did you paint these?” you ask, looking around, trying to recognise all the scenes.
“Some of them,” Hanne answers, and then leaves to boil some water.
When she returns, you ask, “Who else made them?”
She sighs, handing you the second clay cup again and placing the jug at your side. “Careful,” she says. “It’s still hot.” Then she looks up at the ceiling herself. “I used to have a husband,” she tells you. “He died.”
“I’m sorry,” you say, and it is true. “What happened to him?”
“Something you don’t tell children about before bed.”
You keep watching her green eyes, which are lit up by the candles now.
“But what w–”
Hanne shushes you and then rests her head in her hands. She waits, still as the rock, and thinks about something for a long time.
You say nothing.
She is still and quiet. Her voice is different than you have heard it before. “He was killed by a vampire. A month ago.”
“I’m sorry,” you say.
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
And all at once, Hanne just stops talking. She wraps a blanket around herself and just leans against a corner of her home, next to her bed which covers almost a third of the room. She looks at nothing but makes a hand gesture for you to finish your water. You do as she asks and leave her alone for a while, but you find that it is hard not to speak when she looks so sad.
“Are there really vampires?” you ask.
“Yes there are.”
“I saw a monster this morning, at Red Lake.”
“You came all that way?”
“You must be exhausted!” She gets up and starts making another bed, out of spare cloth and soft clothes. You tell her you are fine, but she gives you a disbelieving look.
A little while later, you tell her about the knight and the bandits, but you don’t mention the poor damsels. Hanne begins to smile again. The story takes all of her attention.
“And what happened to the knight?” she asks.
“He died as he killed the last man. He was protecting me.”
“That is a shame,” she whispers. “But if there is such a thing as a good way to meet your end, then that is it. Are you all right?”
You explain that you have a cut on your neck. She examines it briefly.
“And do you feel all right?”
You don’t answer.
“You’ll be fine,” she says. “You look strong enough.” As she starts to put the fires out she asks, “I suppose you’ve already found your adventure, then?”
You’re not sure.
“Well whatever it was, you made it out with head on your shoulders. That’s–” She stops herself. “Take your coat off, for goodness’ sake,” she says. “I’ve barely even seen your face.”
The pretty cave goes dark again as the lights fade. You undo your coat’s fastening and let it drop over your shoulders and Hanne appraises you. She seems a little bit surprised by your appearance, but only for a second.
“Where will you go next?” she asks. She sounds concerned for you.
“I’m not sure.” You wonder about the lake again.
The dwarf takes your coat and folds it up. “Stay with me a little while, all right? We shall work something out in the morning. You should see the world. If you must. But I don’t want you to get killed.”
“Did the vampire who…”
She says nothing.
“I mean, did you slay the vampire?”
Hanne ignores you completely and shuts her eyes. When she opens them again, she just shakes her head and crawls out of the cave.
When you decide to follow a little later, you see that the tide has come nearly all the way in. The beach, such as it is, is just a couple of feet wide now. The rustle of seaweed, getting caught up in the stones and the waves and itself, is the only sound you hear. Hanne is above you, walking slowly and calmly up a path of sand that allows the gentlest route to the top of the dunes. She comes to a halt at the top and just stands there, hands wrapped around herself, hair batted against her face by the wind, mouth straight and small.
She hears you climbing up after her but she does not look down to see you.
“His name was Durand,” she says through the wind. “He was a great craftsman. And an artist. And he was the sort of person who everybody loved. He was kind and happy and saw the goodness in things, and he did it so well that it looked as if it came naturally to him. I don’t know why he left his home and came to live with me, but he did.” She laughs again. “He had a bit of difficulty getting into the cave. He was bigger than you and I.
“We got bored sometimes and we liked to walk, so we headed West for a day and found the city of Irzebett. At least, it used to be a city, back when the roads were built. Now it’s just ruins. We were actually thinking about making it our new home. He would have carved something onto every one of those broken walls, you see. It would have been lovely.”
Hanne doesn’t seen particularly sad or anxious any more. You listen to the story and watch her staring at the sea.
“We were exploring when the vampire appeared. We knew that the ruins might not have been completely empty, but obviously we weren’t expecting… that. He jumped over the wall behind us, incredibly strong, and just,” she swallows. “It all happened very quickly. The vampire, he bit very deeply into Durand’s neck, and Durand made me promise to get away. And he fell.”
You don’t think there is anything that she would like you to say, so you let the moment last.
“I wish I hadn’t run sometimes, and then other times I’m glad I did. Do you understand?”
You say that you do.
“What I want to do more than anything is to lay Durand’s body to rest,” she tells you, but you have to struggle to hear. “Say my goodbyes. That’s all.”
You stand up.
Hanne is about your height, you think, and a bit heavier. She won’t be able to stop you.
“What are you doing?” she mutters.
“Going West,” you say. “To Irzebett.”
At that moment the colour seems to drain from Hanne’s face. She isn’t moving.
“No,” she finally says. “No you’re not.”
“It isn’t fair that you don’t have his body!” you say. She looks angry.
“The vampire, child…”
“I will fight the vampire.”
And then you are gone, sprinting through the thin valley that connects this land to the ocean and to this good woman’s home. You hear her voice calling your name but you don’t listen. Somehow you are completely sure: you have to do this. You have to help her.
It is not difficult for you to find your way. It just seems to come easily to you now. Your eyes find the North Star immediately and from it you see the way forward, almost like an instinct, something coming to you from within.
For an hour you keep it up, running and running with no thought to anything else. Sometimes you must catch your breath and think about your destination. You’re not afraid of what you will find; in fact you want to find it more than anything. You even catch yourself smiling and this brings even more fresh energy to your legs and arms.
The dunes slope down quickly to the West and become a dry expanse of grass. Sometimes there are tracks of cracked clay and weeds that might have been footpaths at one time or another, and sometimes there are little hints of civilisation: a mouldy, broken-down old wagon that has rotted into pieces, a clump of fur snagged against something on the ground, an arrow-head signpost whose surface is too scratched to be readable any more.
The mud becomes a little softer, eventually, after an hour or so of travel. A fog slowly sets-in but gets worse and worse the more you press on, stopping you from seeing anything very clearly. The walls of the city of Irzebett appear very suddenly, only a few feet from your face, at a little after midnight. Finally you stop moving and let yourself pant with exhaustion.
There are no readable signs, but you’re sure this must be it. The stone wall ahead of you is only a little bit higher than your eyes. When you peer through the many holes where stones have fallen through, and when you hoist yourself up using them as footholds, you can see what used to be streets.
You have never seen a city in a worse state of repair. There are a handful of sturdier buildings whose shape is still intelligible, but even these are either barely-held together by their central pillars and frameworks or else they are toppled to the ground, lying sideways and partially buried, with gaping chunks knocked out of their blackened sides and hanging like slack, open mouths. How long has it been since this place was built, you wonder. What did it used to look like?
Nobody is inside. There is no sound from within, nor any sign that anything lives there. At one point you think you hear a fluttering from one of the roofs nearby, but you really can’t be sure.
Thinking that it would probably be best to look around before you go in, you spend a little time following the walls around to get an idea of the city’s shape, looking for good vantage points or any sign of movement. Along the way around the long walls and sharp angles, you come to the conclusion that the city is a near-perfect hexagon, its streets winding inwards to the centre. Eventually you find a pair of massive doors, laying one on top of the other, half-buried in rocks and mud and long-since stripped of useful metal. This must have been the front entrance.
You are beginning to lift yourself over the debris here when you hear fast footsteps and angry breathing behind you. Your head spins in time to see Hanne, who grabs your back and throws you off the wall.
She pins you down, lifts your hair over your eyes, inspects you, panting angrily and sweating all over. She is wearing a wooden cross on a necklace, thrown on top of the simple dress and shawl she had on earlier. With a very soft swipe of her palm to your head, she relents and lets go.
“You’re all right,” she says to herself. You watch her pad wearily back to grab her linen bag, which she must have dropped while running after you. “You’re all right,” she says again.
You just shrug.
Hanne makes some clucking noises and lays her hands on your shoulders. “You frightened me so much,” she says in a voice you haven’t heard from her before.
You explain that you are just trying to help her.
“Getting yourself killed would not have helped me!” she scolds you. “I don’t want somebody to die for me again.”
You say you’re sorry, but you don’t really mean it.
“I only want…” she mutters, eyes closed, “to see the man I love one more time.”
“We can slay the vampire together!” you suggest.
Barely hearing you, Hanne opens her bag and foists grapes, berries and a small pigskin bag of weak mead into your hands, then tells you to sit. For a few minutes you eat and drink in silence. When you are both comfortable and steady and have only the after-tastes of juice and honey to distract you, Hanne pulls one more thing from her bag: an iron short-sword.
“It’s dangerous to go alone,” she says. “Stay behind me.”
Leaving a little space between the two of you, you follow her closely. Hanne isn’t saying anything and you can tell she is doing everything she can to keep her feet quiet as she strides across the piles of rubble on the doors, so you do the same. Once you are within the city walls she looks around as if trying to remember something and then takes a turn down the empty street that leads off to your right.
It is hard to see anything at all with only the moonlight guiding you and surrounded as you are by crumbled walls that reach just above your head, but you can see houses, kiosks and stables. All of these are either caved-in by time or dismantled by hand. Some of the smaller ones still have intact windows. You can’t see through, but you can’t help trying.
As Hanne guides you through street after street, pausing only to look around, check on you or cup her hands behind her ears, the streets grow darker. There is no colour at all in this place. You might as well be looking at the world in shades of grey like a dog, until Hanne’s face glances back at yours and you see flashes of green and pink. You whisper that perhaps you should make a torch, but Hanne just shakes her head.
“Don’t vampires hate the light?” you ask. You’re sure you have heard this somewhere.
“They hate the light of the sun,” she says. “A torch will only warn the creature that we are coming.”
You soon come to the remains of a small public house, its hanging sign still attached to its post and lolling back and forth at a strange angle. Suddenly both you and Hanne stop walking. You can hear something now. Without thinking you spin around to look behind you and Hanne begins peering into the streets that reach out from this one, raising her blade’s point to just beneath her eyes.
A long, fat, grey rat runs out of the pub’s broken floorboards, squeaking in surprise. After a moment you carry on.
Every street is the same. Every pile of softened wood and mouldy bricks looks just like the last. You can never quite see over the broken city walls, but you are fairly sure you know exactly what they contain. Hanne seems to know where to go, however. After a long walk through the bending paths and dead ends, you reach a street with a wide pit in the ground. You notice that Hanne is breathing very quickly.
You ask if she is all right.
“We’re getting close to where it happened, child. Be silent now.” At the end of this street you take a sharp corner and Hanne just stops and points. The street widens at the end and becomes a big, flat plaza. You can make out a careful arrangement of diamond-shaped flagstones in some parts of the floor, which might have been white at some point. Very slowly Hanne leads you on into a long, expansive, sturdy building with several large pillars still standing. Its triangular roof is slanted and fallen at the back, but you can see inside.
The air inside is somehow heavier than in the rest of the city and there is a faint musty smell that you find very unpleasant. Hanne, her gaze now constantly darting back and forth all around you, walks deliberately into a long room with broken glass at the edges and shreds of carpet still stuck to patches of the floor. There are even a few rusted or bent longswords and claymores strewn about in the glass, and you wonder if you should take one. At the very end of the room there are two battered suits of battle armour hanging awkwardly on human-shaped straw figures. And in the darkest corner there is a man’s body, crumpled so that his head is under his arms and with every wall around him stained with wide petal-shaped blooms of deep brown.
Hanne kneels slowly and lifts the head by its long hair, looks into the swollen, round, ruddy face and places it back down. She moves one of its hands and you see long, dirty nails and fat fingers.
Hanne looks at the body for a long time. You decide to check around the rest of the room, investigating every corner. You find nothing more except for useless, damaged household tools and cloth, until you look closer at one of the knights and see a thick wooden handle protruding from the feather-like folds of its boots. Pulling at it, you recognise the shape: this is a weapon that has become lodged in the metal. It takes some strength but eventually you manage to yank the handle free. It is attached to a small axehead which looks as if it might be made of silver. The surface still shines a little. There are even a few scratches that have been cut into one side quite recently, looking a little bit like a castle’s towers, but etched poorly and with the lines out of proportion, as a small child might have done. As you tentatively run your finger across the weapon’s edge you think it is still fairly sharp. You want to smile but you dare not.
Hanne has not heard you. She is still examining the body. She softly prods the side of its head with the flat of her sword, hangs her head for a second, and breathes. Then she just waves at you to follow her as she takes off down a corridor.
You think it would be best to say nothing.
From here on Hanne moves a little bit faster. She no longer seems to know where to go, however. She looks inside every room you find, even makes a few annoyed grunts as she searches.
And finally there is only one room left: a grand bedchamber that you imagine must have belonged to the ruler of Irzabett, long ago when this place was a home for living people and not a walled-off grave.
There is another man in here, curled up in a corner just like the other one. This one is shivering.
Hanne holds her sword as steady as she can and takes a step inside the room.
The shivering man leaps up to his feet at once like a startled animal. He must have very acute eyes, you think, to have noticed you already. Through the slant shaft of moon-glow that hits this room you can barely make out his disgusting face, but you see wide, white eyes with yellowish irises. You see thin, wild hair stuck together with dried dampness and white foam. You see a thin, muscular frame beneath the big head. And you see wet, bared teeth surrounded by shiny, crusted skin.
The vampire springs forward, howling like an injured wolf and stretching out his hands. Hanne does not move; she seems to be frozen in shock.
So you charge.
Hanne puts up no resistance to your attempt to push her out of the vampire’s path, but she is heavy enough that it takes a moment. You can see the teeth and hear the howling, and then the vampire lands on you instead.
You both roll on the floor, around and around as you try to push him off of you. He is much stronger of course, but whenever you dodge back and forth it seems to confuse him. During all this, as he swipes at your eyes with his filthy nails and tries to bite your neck and head with quick lunges in your direction, he keeps making deep noises at the back of his throat, as if trying to speak. Heavy white spit falls out of his mouth, nearly landing on your face every time his teeth snap together. His eyes dart all around you, and back to Hanne, over and over.
She is stood perfectly still in place, shaking involuntarily but not moving a single muscle by herself. She has not even raised her sword.
Pushing one hand hard against the vampire’s forehead, you desperately fumble about your belt to find the silver axe you picked up a minute ago. Gripping it by the edge, you manage to wedge the back of the metal into your hand while still trying to dodge the teeth reaching madly for your neck and wrist.
The vampire screams and arches backwards as he sees the weapon, and you jam it into his chest with both hands, shoving rather than wielding the ancient weapon.
The vampire’s body lands backwards on the hard floor with a thud, and there are more and more screams in a higher pitch. More and more foam and phlegm are spat into the air, and his legs kick fast at nothing.
Hanne appears in front of you, still shaking badly, and drops down to her knees. Staring intently at the creature’s face she slams her palms on to the back of the axehead and thrusts it fully into the heart, killing him immediately.
A long time passes. Neither one of you is counting the seconds. Then Hanne stands and retrieves the axe, dropping it on the floor next to you.
She shouts, very loud, half in anger and half in horror, at the ceiling. There is no echo.
The vampire curse, you think to yourself, is lifted forever. The beast will have no more victims. You still don’t smile, though.
It is some time before either one of you is able to do anything else or say anything to one another. Just like when the knight died, you simply can’t move. Your head aches badly and you can’t pull your fingers out of the fist shapes they have made. This feels so strange.
Hanne says “Thank you” and tilts her head in your direction. You nod acknowledgement, but you’re not sure if she can see you or not.
The triumph does not last very long and neither does your paralysis. Although she is very still now, Hanne is impatient to leave. But before you can, she does something which snaps you out of your stupor immediately.
She removes her little crucifix necklace, leans over the monster’s body and carefully places it around his throat.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
Hanne does not answer, but whispers something you can’t hear, her eyes closed. It takes a while.
“What are you saying?”
She ignores you.
“Are you mourning it?” you demand, enraged.
She gets up and gives you a softer look now. “I’m mourning this body, yes.”
“Have you ever met a good man?” she asks, stopping your protest. “A man who had no evil in his soul?”
You tell the truth: you’re not sure.
“What about a child, then? Have you ever met a good child?”
“Yes,” you answer. “Of course.”
“Then I mourn for the child who once had this body. You understand?”
Hanne waits a little while for an answer and then just asks you to come along. Picking-up your axe on the way out, you do as she asks.
Corridor by corridor, road by road, turn by turn, you trace your steps back to the ruined entrance to Irzabett’s walls and step out onto the lifeless soil surrounding it. Resting an arm on your back, Hanne guides you a different way home. She says this route will take a while longer but it will be nicer.
You walk North-East through what remains of the night, passing through greener grass as you do and enjoying the sight of tall blue-grey cliffs in the distance. You stroll through a thick, uncultivated meadow at one point and hear some animal calls, which Hanne points out for you: an owl, a fox, an ibis. As hard as you look into the distance though, you can never see them. There is another rat out here, however, for which your guide apologises. “They’re everywhere these days,” she says.
At the end of this stretch there is a dull stroll across old paving stones that lead nowhere, but Hanne has you walk a little out of the way for a while, up a long, slow incline. When you are halfway there you notice strange shapes at the floor, behind a ridge of land. They are human heads, perfectly still and silhouetted. With every step you see a little more of their forms. Some of them are missing an arm and one of them has a large piece knocked out of its shoulder. Finally when the land is flat and you reach the deserted, wide stretch of ground with only these figures in the centre, you can see them fully.
The sky behind the men and women is purplish pink. The night is struggling to maintain its grip on the sky and the day is starting to reach its fingers out to take hold, leaving the view to twist and stretch in both directions. The figures look still and eternal, even in their aged and broken state.
When your hike is finished you can see them a little better. There is still no sun and it is set to rise behind these sculptures, but you can make them out.
There are twelve. Six are built to look like men and six of them are women, just a little larger than life-sized. They are arranged in various odd poses, carrying little objects like goblets or harps. One of the men has a grand curly beard. All of the figures are partially naked, dressed only in loose and delicate-looking robes which are actually made of stiff white marble.
They are all white, all over. Utterly pale and smooth. Every inch.
Strangest of all, they have no faces. Each of the statues has a jagged gap in its head where the nose, mouth and eyes should be.
“This is Statue Plain,” Hanne says warmly. “Durand and I used to come here often when we were first married, to eat or look out at the landscape, or just to, you know, talk.”
You ask her who the statues represent. None of these robed figures seem familiar to you. They might as well be a group of people towelling themselves off after a bath, you say, and Hanne laughs.
“I don’t know who they are,” she admits. “Or why they are here. Maybe they are older than time itself, I don’t know, but I’d say they look too human to be anything like that. We used to sit and make up stories about them, give them names and personalities, like the characters in a play. The gentleman with the beard there – he was Rachen, the father. Stern and selfish, but watchful. The girl with the bare chest and the flowers in her hand was his silly daughter Aville. She was our favourite.” Hanne laughs again. “Well, we needed to pass the time!” she says. “Come, let’s sit down for a bit.”
There is nothing to do but look at the figures and let your thoughts catch up with you. These statues are very well-crafted. Even now that they are broken by time, dirtied and smoothed by rain, you can see the detail: the shape of the muscles, the curves of their chins and joints and the easy flow of the clothes and hair. It is hard to imagine ordinary townsfolk, or even citizens of Royal courts, possessing the skill to turn blocks of raw stone into such realistic and expressive human shapes. The artist responsible must have been a true master.
“I had a story once,” Hanne says, “where these were living people who had angered their God and been turned to stone. In life they were chosen to watch over the land and the sea together in this circle, facing outwards. But over time the six men and six women became lustful, or fell in love, and in pairs they turned around to see one another. Aville and her lover were first of course, but if you ask me the man started it. Men are always the ones to start it!” She chuckles and glances across to you, to see if you understand.
“Of course the moment they turned away from their duty, a great darkness crept into the land behind their backs. For the crime they were instantly turned to stone and left to stare at their lovers forever, never again to see the world they had abandoned. Good thing they were all so handsome, eh? It probably would not be such a horrible punishment.”
“When did they lose their faces?” you ask.
“I don’t know. I never came up with a story for that. Perhaps they asked the passers-by to bring a chisel and remove their open eyes and sad mouths, so that they could rest? It would be a sad ending for them.”
“But what really happened to their faces?”
Hanne shakes her head and strokes stray hairs from her eyes. “That’s a much harder question, child, and probably even sadder. They have been this way for as long as I have known them.” She gives a shrug. “I wonder what they looked like when they were new. Maybe father Rachen had a big smile and a cheeky wink for us, and Aville was horribly ugly…”
You both laugh a little bit this time. Hanne takes a deep breath through her nose.
“Well you’ve certainly had your adventure now,” she says. Her face is rather solemn though, and when you think about it, so is yours.
“It didn’t really feel like an adventure,” you tell her.
“It was just a venture, really,” you add, and this makes Hanne smile again.
“Well that’s no good! Everybody has those!”
You smile back.
Hanne’s short, round hand runs through your hair. “But at least you seek your ventures out, eh? That’s a good thing to do, even if they’re not as good as you imagined.”
“Come on, child, just a little further now.”
Step by step you stroll away from this place and toward the dawn. You’re not sure where you want to go or what you want to do now, but for the time being some food and a bed seems appealing.
After walking a long while you turn your head around to have a last look at the statues and wonder who built them. They are now so distant that they appear to you as silhouettes again, gone from white to black in just a few steps. You can just about make out all thirteen of their heads and shoulders, standing in the middle of nothing and pointing their craggy, empty heads at the landscape.
You are starting to feel the cold now. You haven’t had a moment to think about it, but you must have left your big hooded coat inside Hanne’s cave. You could do with it now.
And then, just as you turn your head back to the path before you, you see it from the corner of your eye.
One of the statues moves. The one right at the front, in the middle.
But there never was one in the middle, was there? This one is new, and though it has no eyes or mouth on show, it does have a face.
It bends its leather neck toward you and you see its long, black nose against the colours of the sky.
The man with the vulture’s head from the lake. It must be him. Now he is dressed in a heavy coat and a wide, thin hat, but it is him.
A drop of cold rain falls on the top of your head, right in the middle so it hits the skin, and makes you shudder.
The figure is moving. Muttering her name, you tap Hanne’s back. When she turns to regard you it takes her a moment to follow your eyes and see what you are looking at.
“Oh no…” she says. “Please not that.”
“What is it?” you ask her. “Do you know him?”
She just grabs your arm tight and tells you to run. She turns and bounds as fast as she is able in a straight line, dragging you along with every stride, and it is an effort for you not to trip and fall down. Before you start running you look back again. The vulture is chasing now. He is tall and looks like he is strong with it. That heavy coat of his seems slick and it billows back and forth with his movement like a black flag.
It almost seems as though your running is upsetting the sky because the faster you go, the heavier and faster the rain falls on you, and everything else as far as you can see. Great round gobs of water, not little drops, splash onto your head and your back in the hundreds, every one making a splash loud enough to hear. Hanne keeps telling you to hurry and move faster and you just keep running and hearing the rain.
You’re not even sure which direction you are going in now. Not to Hanne’s beach, you’re sure, as she deliberately made a sharp turn right away. You are simply fleeing, across the flattest land you can see, to get away from whatever it is that pursues you.
“Who is he?” you shout over the din of splashes and footsteps and breathing.
Hanne does not reply at first, but then says, “A devil! Where I’m from they were called beak men. They carry a terrible spell and when they cast it…” She lets her voice trail off to catch her breath.
“Everybody dies, child! Everybody. Like the most dreadful disease you could imagine! The beak man appears and then the town dies. Be quiet and come on!”
You turn your head again, just for a second. The beak man is standing still at the foot of the hill and the statues are no longer visible to you.
The vulture extends an arm. His long fingers are splayed out, as though he is calling to you.
And you hear Hanne trip, and groan, and hit the ground. You almost fall over her head as it lands in front of your feet.
You’re struggling to get her to her feet when the beak man gives chase again.
Hanne sees the look in your eyes. She takes your hand off hers and tells you to go.
“No!” you shout, grabbing under her arms and lifting her an inch or two. But she won’t help you and the straining seems to cause her pain.
“Let go of me!” she demands, and it almost stops you trying.
Hanne looks at your eyes in the way some people look across a beautiful landscape.
“Listen to me now. That thing is faster and stronger than both of us. You can not defeat him. I promise that. You can only get away if you leave me to slow him down.”
“No!” You say again, louder.
“Listen! You said you wanted to see a hero, yes? That’s why you came here?”
You don’t answer. You’re not listening, just watching the vulture approach.
“Then make the ultimate sacrifice for me,” she says.
Nodding, you grab the axe in your belt and grit your teeth.
“No,” Hanne says and touches your hand. “Not the final sacrifice. The ultimate one. The greatest one.”
He is getting close now.
Hanne’s skin is reddening from her running. You notice a wide sore at the bottom of her neck. As you glance back to her face, you notice for the first time how pretty she is.
“I mean the hardest sacrifice you can ever make. It’s when you let somebody else die. You understand?”
You don’t say anything. You can’t.
“Letting yourself die is easy, child. Especially if you’re lost. But letting somebody die for you – that’s the one. Martyrs will never know that kind of pain, but you must. What I’m asking you to do is to let me die and then suffer with it until you are old because even though it’s the right thing to do, it always seems wrong. You wanted to see a hero?”
You want to shake your head.
“Then run, as fast as you can, and then remember me. And look into a pool of water. Go!”
The beak man is only feet away now. Something in Hanne’s face makes you obey. You don’t know what to think, you can’t concentrate on anything important, but you turn and flee.
Every step you take is wetter and louder than the last. You feel your boots sink faster into the ground every time. Your eyes are stinging badly but you can’t even tell if you are crying because the rain is soaking you now.
You turn away and see Hanne with the shape of the beak man behind her.
His hand is on her shoulder.
It is very hard to make your legs move, but still you run.
For the second time you just flee from him, as fast as your body allows, on and on as far as you can. You don’t stop and you don’t tire. Rather each step fills your whole head and stomach with more steam and energy. Your teeth are clamped shut and your brow is knotted the entire time. This feeling is strange to you but you know that you need to hold on to it if you are to get away from him.
Hanne does slow him down, just as she said she would. Once you have gotten away from the field and Statue Plain seems like a memory, you look behind you and see that your pursuer is out of sight.
Sometimes you feel like crying or screaming and sometimes you feel like turning back, but you do neither. Still you keep going. You can’t get your head straight but you know that the only way for you is forwards and that the vulture man is still behind you.
And so you continue, through grass and clay and trees and hillsides, through rusty gates barely clinging to hinges and through overgrown stables and farms with shrivelled vegetables and scattered grain. You can no longer hold onto the passage of time or where you are. You’re just pushing your legs forwards in turn until something changes.
You run through a wood with no wolves and past the decaying walls of a tower fort with no people. You run through a temple with no windows and a tall stone archway that leads to nothing. The sky never changes in all this time. The cold never stops biting. The rain comes and goes but it never really seems to stop.
This place, this world that you have journeyed to see, is wrong. It’s not what you wanted. It’s not acceptable. It is cruel and dying and stifling and unfair. There is nothing wonderful in the air and there is nothing very astonishing to see. It is wrong and all you want in the world is to get out.
When you reach a flat stretch of brown rock which widens into what would in better weather be a mile or two of dry wilderness, you are surprised to see a pair of human figures hobbling back and forth in the distance.
At first you try calling to them, but they seem not to hear. Running to them, you wave an arm but they do not see. One of them falls onto the floor and the other one climbs down to his knees to make a show of catching her, even though he is too slow. When his juddering arms reach the woman, they just pick her up again to cradle her back and head.
“Hey!” you shout again.
The man meekly bats his hand at you. “Go away, youngster!” he calls back. His voice surprises you. From the way he moves you imagined he would be very old.
“Please, leave us be!” he says again.
Respectfully, you keep your distance. “I can help!” you yell, almost pleading.
The man makes a face and stretches painfully over to see you. “How?” he says, and you can only just hear.
Striding over, you try to think of an answer. “Are you ill?” you try. He looks ill. For a moment you wonder if he is another victim of the vampire curse but you shake that off quickly. He doesn’t look pale and wet and like an animal, rather the opposite. This is a different magic. “I can find medicine!” you try. “Tell me where to go, and…”
“There is no medicine.” His voice is flat and aimless, like that of someone half asleep. “My sister is dying from the vulture’s spell. We both are.”
The woman at his arms is coughing, as she has been since you saw her. She doesn’t stop.
“But how c–” you stutter a little. You don’t know what to say now.
The young man finally looks up to meet your gaze. He has black hair beneath the heavy piece of stiff, rough, sand-coloured fabric that he had tied around himself. His skin is waxy and pink in places and his nose looks swollen and red. As he tries to wave you off again you see his wrists are lined with bulging lumps which bleed or weep. Many have turned black and caved in a little, like mouldy food.
“What can I do?” you ask.
“Nothing,” the man says, turning back to his sister. “Just get out of here while you can and go as far away from Oakengard as you are able.”
“Oakengard?” You think about the people at the inn and all the houses you saw behind its tree-trunk perimeter.
“All dead,” he answers. “It started when Princess Evelyn was brought to us. Her handmaiden said she had caught some disease from the bandits who took them. She died in a couple of hours. And then her nurses died, and so did the rest of us. When I finally saw the bloody vulture man stalking our streets I realised that he had cast his spell on us. Or on the Princess, perhaps. Maybe she was no Princess at all but a bloody witch who cast the spell herself, or… it doesn’t matter now.”
It is hard for you to hear. The walls of your head feel like somebody is clapping their hands against them in rhythm.
“Did nobody survive?” you mumble. It doesn’t seem real. Nothing seems real any more.
“I don’t know. There are no more settlements for a long way, so if anybody else has escaped then they’d better hope the curse passed them by or they’ll never–” The man throws his head down and vomits. Horrible thick stuff the colour of blood and tar falls onto his tunic and wrappings and he just waves his hand at you again. The lady still coughs, but she is getting quieter now.
“Just go,” he manages to say. “We prefer to die alone.”
There is nothing to do. You just leave and let the grown-ups die, like always, and go on and on and wait for some other terrible thing to happen.
Your flight leads you down into the expanse of lifeless rock before you. There is enough rain to turn the surface of the rocks muddy, and so you still leave footprints. The beak man, you imagine, will be following them.
But there is nowhere for you to go. Wherever you end up, you are sure you will just be disappointed. Somebody will meet you and then you will part from them. That’s all there is in this world.
Let him follow, you think. Let him get tired.
And so it goes. The rust-coloured stone and shiny, thin silt sink lower, further toward the Earth’s heart, and you keep hammering your feet down onto them. Sometimes you think you can hear footsteps or breathing behind yours, but when you look there is nothing.
When your hair and clothes are soaked through and your mouth and head ache from frowning too hard, you reach something that makes you stop.
One step ahead of your feet is a profound canyon, gouging into the ground ahead. The ground has been parted in two, as though a pair of unimaginably giant hands has gripped some little crack and pulled with all its might. Looking down at the chasm you feel very high up and get a little dizzy. The rain from all sides trickles down and has made a pool a few feet deep at the bottom.
The gap in the Earth is too long to jump across. You will have to go around.
But you don’t want to.
Turning slowly, you sincerely hope to see the creature who follows you close behind, so that you may wait for him and get it over with.
As your field of vision shifts around, you see that your wish has been granted. You rub the rain from your eyes, just to be sure, and he is still there. The vulture man stands in front of you, breathing heavily, about a metre away. The water pours off the brim of his thin hat and off the point of his sharp beak. His overcoat and clothes are like treacle folded into a man’s shape.
You don’t see a weapon but you know he is capable of terrible magic. Staring at the flat, wide black discs on his face, you pull the silver axe from your belt and start to run again, into him. He just raises his hands.
At first you can barely feel the ground giving way under your back foot, but at the moment you notice, it is too late. Suddenly there is nothing and you feel your body pulled back by gravity, no matter how hard you will yourself to go the other way. Your stretch your arms, try to summon strength in your other leg, but it is useless. You know that you are falling. In a second it is all over.
The beak man rushes toward you and then you see rocks, and the sky, and then your leg and arm are in great pain. The axe flies from your hand.
You don’t remember the rest of the fall, but your eyes follow the axe for a moment. It shoots down like a bolt of lightning into the great crater you are tumbling into, falling toward something large and yellowish-white on the bottom. A skeleton. It looks a little like a horse, but not quite. That great head belonged to a lizard. A great one.
As you watch it get closer, you see the skull has a long protruding crest. And you see that the triangular-shaped torso has an array of long, thin bones laying above it, arranged delicately like a fan. Wings. A great lizard with wings.
You are falling fast now. Something grabs you.
From here on, you’re not sure exactly what happens. At some point you fall asleep.
Before that, you must have hit the bottom. There is a time when you can’t move and you forget where you came from and how you came here, and your head is right in front of the big skeleton, buried in cold water, soft ground and floating red dust.
You see your axe planted fast by its edge into the mud, in between the bones of the long neck.
And you grin from ear to ear.
Talmir Dragonkiller’s bane! It’s here! You found it!
And then there is another stretch of time when you forget where you are entirely.
And you look at the bones again and see that they are very old.
The skeleton is not very big, you think. Bigger than any lizard you’ve ever seen, without doubt, but not… something this size could not have split the Earth in two. Not so deep.
Some knowledge kept very far away in your memory speaks to you and this makes you very, very unhappy. You think of picture books and history classes.
You remember the look on Talmir’s face when you met him in the inn. The way he spoke. He seems to look at you again now and you watch him turn away from your gaze, back to his window.
He didn’t kill this animal.
He has never seen a dragon. No-one has, have they?
You feel your muscles give way and your eyes close.
And then you don’t know anything at all.
The sun is out. The day is warm.
You are groggy and your body feels light. Your right shoulder is sore when you lean on it, and when you look up you can see that the arm has been tied in a clean linen sling around your neck. You think you can feel bandages made of the same material around the cuts on your throat and your right leg as well. It is just loose enough not to hurt. Your clothes are dry and stiff but comfortable enough.
You lie on a cool slab of slate, looking up at the sky. As you try to recall the events that led you here, you gingerly prop yourself up with your good arm. This stone is warm to touch, though the tiny cracks and scratches on the surface are a little prickly against your fingertips.
There are a few heavy white clouds, far away where your feet point, but the sky is blue.
The slab you are sitting on is alone in a circle of green grass and daisies. On the outskirts of the circle there are strange huts. Each one is a slightly different shape and height but they are all small, round and made of wide, thin chunks of slate, all shades of grey and white, simply piled one on top of another to make a dwelling. There are so many slates, and so densely packed, that the buildings are perfectly sturdy. You guess that three or four people could fit inside each one through the little square gaps in their fronts. You see five of them, but there seems to be nothing at all behind them but more blue.
Glancing down, you see more slate piles. A slate wall leads down a spiral path, where you can make out the roofs of a few more huts and a larger, oval-shaped longhouse. You are at the top of a tall, green hill which grows wider and wider from where you’re looking, always held by its flimsy, helter-skelter curled wall, until it reaches a great mass of slate pieces that form a shore, lapped by small blue waves and spray. The hill is an island. You can only just see the mainland in the distance, or perhaps it is only another island. From this distance it is hard to tell. There is a little wooden boat tied to a post, which you can see rocking back and forth, knocking against a large piece of the stone.
There are slow footsteps climbing the twirling path around the hill.
Turning yourself bit by bit, nudging your legs to one side, you sit and wait. There is nothing else to do, you suppose. You can hardly run from this position and you’re in no condition to do much else.
A few steps later you hear the slow heavy swish of leather upon leather. Another few and you see the black hat and the point of the beak. The vulture man steps up to you and sees you awake.
“Oh!” he says. “How are you feeling?”
You answer and he nods.
“And your shoulder?”
“It hurts,” you say, “but I think I can move it.”
“Don’t. You need to let it stay still for a while. The bone needs to mend.”
In the slightly awkward silence that follows, you listen to see if there is anyone else on the island. You can only hear the wind.
“You must have a lot of questions,” the vulture says.
But you don’t have anything to say at all. Not yet anyway. Your mouth is open and you stare intently at his image, up close and in daylight, trying to understand what is happening. His voice is very ordinary and not the right pitch, with not the right inflections for such a tall man, let alone one in these clothes. He wears gloves which are too big for him, and the ends of the fingers flap slightly when he moves them. A pair of eyes is just visible behind the glass circles sewn into the ridiculous hood he wears. The beak contracts slightly when he breathes.
“I am a doctor,” he says after a moment. “A doctor of sorts, anyway.”
You say nothing.
“I tried to call after you,” he adds. “But you were right to run as far as you could.” He looks at the floor for a moment and you hear him sigh. “The plague has come to our land. Well, my land. You aren’t from here, is that right?”
You say no.
“I wondered for a while if the plague had come with you, from your home. But I see that you aren’t infected. The bandits, then. Or their prisoners. Before that, who knows.”
His voice is very hollow now, very weak. He sounds tired.
“I thought…?” you stammer, but then you stop.
The beak doctor looks up at you. “Yes?”
“I thought you were the one casting the – the plague. Spreading the plague.”
This man, this outfit, looks ridiculous in this serene setting. You don’t know what you want to do exactly, but there is a great frustration in you.
“I don’t know how it starts,” he says, trying to explain. “But not like that. Not by a person’s will. It’s a disease, you see? A very terrible one. It comes to a country all of a sudden, and then it spreads between the people faster than you’d ever think.”
“Was it the vampires?” you hear yourself ask. Your voice is too flat.
“Vampires? No, child. Vampires are just stories. I know a lot of people let their imaginations run away with them. There are sicknesses that are infectious and make dogs and men go mad, but there are no vampires, no curses. Understand? There are many illnesses. And now, there is the plague an’ all.”
Something comes to you. A memory. Despite the pain in your body you jolt and force yourself off the table and to your shaky feet.
“Did you kill Hanne?” you say.
The beak man does not touch you, or move at all except to hang his head. “Is that the lady you were with? The short lady, I mean?”
He doesn’t answer for a moment and then says, “Yes I did. I’m so sorry.”
If there was anything but slate around you you would kick it and smash it into pieces. You are shouting now, hurting the back of your throat. You demand to know why he did it. He simply says, “She had caught it somewhere. The plague. I was helping her to her feet, but then I saw the red marks on her skin. She would not have lasted much longer. The plague is very painful–”
“It was her decision,” he says, and then he stops.
For a long time you shake your head and shout. The beak man waits. You remember the last time you saw Hanne, with this man’s oversized glove on her shoulder, and her looking to him. There was no fear in her expression.
You open your mouth to demand more information but you can’t think what to say. Seeing this the beak man tells you, “I told her who I was and what was happening. She asked me to follow you and get you to safety if I could. I’m so sorry child. I think that you and I are the last survivors now.”
“Why didn’t you cure her?” you scream. “You said you were a doctor!”
“There is no cure. Nobody ever gets better once they have the plague.”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you kill the Princess and her handmaiden?”
“No,” he says. “They died in Old Oakengard. My home. Their condition had worsened a lot as they travelled. I have heard tales of this plague and how it’s swept through cities so I decided to become the town’s doctor and help as best I could.”
“How did you help?” You are incredulous.
“By burying the victims,” he answers softly. “By letting them die as painlessly and quickly as possible and reading their last rites. By explaining what I knew and trying to stop the disease from spreading.” You see him remove his silly hat and scratch his forehead through the top of the hastily-stitched hood. “These clothes are to protect me from the disease,” he explains. “The,” he mumbles, “nose here is filled with herbs from my cellar to guard against it. I don’t know how it works, to be honest, but I understand that it’s the traditional way to ward it off. It does seem to have saved my life so far.”
You keep staring, your eyes wide and painful and hot.
“We’re in an old monastery called Athenacht. Not too far from where I found you, when you fell. I thought perhaps the sea would protect us. I hope it does.”
You want to spit at him in anger, even though you are starting to realise how much he has helped you. You can’t help hating him. Not yet. “Can the sea save us from evil magic?” you ask.
The beak man seems startled. “Oh,” he says. “Well, it’s definitely not evil magic. That’s not it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well there’s no such thing, little ‘un. The only magic that isn’t make-believe comes from Heaven.”
“So there is magic?”
He doesn’t answer and for a moment he looks very uncomfortable.
“Not in this world,” he says decisively.
You could press him on it, you suppose, but you guess he is probably right.There’s no such thing. There never is, no matter how much you wish it were otherwise. There are no monsters here; just people and animals. No witches or curses. There is no evil, just death. This man is real and good, and he says there is Heaven somewhere.
You don’t even care to think about it now.
You find yourself wishing that this island was a little closer to the land. Perhaps if you could see it clearly, maybe look across to the canyon you fell into or the forest where it all began, then all of this might feel less horrible now.
“Did you bury everybody who died?” you ask him.
“Yes I did,” he says, but he won’t say any more.
“And you followed me?”
“After I saw you by the statues I did, yes. I wanted to know if you were ill. If I,” he looks away. “If I could do anything.” His silly bird nose seems to regard the sling you are wearing. It is tied well and it supports the weight of your arm. “When I pulled you out of the crack in the ground,” he says, “it was a great relief to see you in good health. A great relief.”
You say nothing and just turn to look at the sea below for a while. The beak man says you are a very fast runner and you nod. After a moment he says, “You’d do well to rest that arm. I’ll be in the hall down there if you want me.”
The strange man turns away, his leather clothes squeaking in the open, fresh air, and heads to the old path that slopes down and around the island.
Taking a few slow steps back and forth, you peer into one of the curious round huts. There is nothing there except for old candlesticks stood on a decaying shelf that someone has jammed in-between the slates.
Far off, you can actually see a little flock of gulls flitting about near the foot of the land. They seem excited. You find yourself daydreaming, wondering what they might be doing. Maybe they have caught a fish or they’re fighting for leadership. Maybe they are new to this place and they just like the view.
You take a deep breath and try to clear your head. You’re not frozen or angry or frightened or confused any more. Not as much, anyway. All of those feelings are inside you, but not all at once and not so much that you can’t think.
And it is a long time before you can. You sit there, on that rock, while the beak man mills about, up and down, fetching water every now and again and asking if you’re all right or if you need anything, looking increasingly silly in his daft clothes. He’s just a man. No man has the gravitas to look like that and expect not to be laughed at. The hours pass by and you are so completely still, so hopeless, so empty in your stomach. Your arms don’t seem to have any energy in them. Either you don’t want to do anything or you can’t; it hardly seems important which. But finally the blank, irritating sunlight fades a little and you feel the beginnings of the evening.
“I think we should go,” you say aloud.
The beak doctor stops what he’s doing and turns to you. “What was that?”
“I said I think we should leave. The water might not be enough to keep the plague away. And what will we eat?”
Your companion mulls it over, his hooded chin in his glove. “That’s a good point. I’m very hungry myself as it happens, and I didn’t bring a fishing net or anything to make a fire. It will be hard living.”
You are thinking fast now. You need to keep moving.
“We could go and find people, and warn them about the plague!” you say. “Tell them about it and tell them how to get away from it, and how to keep it away with spices and hoods and things!”
“Goodness you’re awfully eager considering everything,” the doctor says. “Some people would be happy to just wait forever, you know.” Holding his arms around himself, he regards you and says something very quietly. Something about the ‘blessing of the young’. You don’t think he is talking to you.
“How far would we have to row to reach another coast?” you ask.
“Too far,” he says grimly. “Much too far. There might be a new world out there beyond the sea for all I know, but I’m sure we won’t get to it on the little row boat we came on.”
You look around, trying to think of something else, but there is nothing.
You can’t go back where you came from and you would only starve if you went to sea. Short of a wizard’s spell, there is nothing in the world that could help you now.
You and the beak man stand there helplessly, trying to will yourselves to believe there might be a way forward.
Neither of you says a thing. There is nothing left to say. Soon there will be nothing left to think, and you will just be waiting.
One thought pops into your head.
“Who are you?” you ask.
“Me? I’m just a commoner from town.”
“Would you take off your hood please?”
You wonder why he is still wearing it.
The beak doctor says nothing but looks deep in thought.
Why on Earth is he still wearing it?
After a moment he strides over to you and grips your waist in his big hands, lifting you back on top of the slate table. As you stand there alone in the breeze, you watch him take a few strides away, back toward the path.
He lifts his head to meet your eyes and holds them for a long moment, before putting his hands to the back of his mask and the front of the neck piece.
And he stretches.
The black animal hide does not rip or come loose as he pulls at it, but it stretches and stretches. After a couple of these great tugs, the head is twice its original length, pulled out at the back in a long, stiff ridge, and pulled forward at the chin to fold into a big heavy flap. He then pulls at the ends of his gloves the loose ends burst forth into long, solid points. With these new fingers he finds purchase on the hips of his leather trousers and stretches them too, into massive, heavy, angled haunches.
He spreads and tightens his chest-piece into two thick, black plates. He yanks his arms into twice their thickness and pulls them so that the elbows point backwards. His hands, digging into the ground, force themselves outwards, doubling their length and pushing the thumbs back. With all of this, he grows bigger and bigger. Every movement makes him appear another yard higher, another stretch longer.
There is snarling and stretching and ripping and snapping and more stretching still, and he growls, louder and deeper than any man should be able to, with the pain of the transformation. When he grips his neck with his mighty hands and pulls it out and out, making massive black bones jut out along the massive new length of it. His snarls amplify, echoing down the height of the hill you are on and through the open doorways of the slate huts.
He stretches both of his boots into three wide, distinct toes, each one several feet long. From these ends, sharp gleaming black points of what look like polished granite shoot out and tauten themselves into hooks. His hands grow hooks of their own and his huge mask, resting easily on the shoulders he has grown, reveals a wide row of fangs. A thin, agile tongue pushes out of the mass behind them and a great animal roar cries out into the sky. It is like nothing you have heard before, nothing you could ever have guessed, like something you could only dream up without trying. Perhaps it might sound like the birth of the sun or something larger than the world.
With each stretch he moves faster, becomes more powerful. The black leather of his clothes becomes his skin and stretches so much that it is rendered dark green at the joints and hardens itself like plates broken off a fallen boulder across his head, his back and his legs. You have to run to the edge of the hilltop now just to be sure that you are not accidentally kicked off the hill or stamped upon by one of the colossal heels.
It shoves its round head at the floor and grows. The leather and glass seem to shake uncontrollably and grow thin, bulging out into two great spheres, until at last the surface blinks in two, giving way to two great lizard eyes, yellow, deep and unreadable.
Then with a screeching bellow that all but deafens you, the beast throws its head at the sky above and catapults the muscles of its back and the spine behind it, forcing them to jam into place. And then slowly, piece by piece, long, colossal bones yank themselves out of the shoulders. There is heavy black-green hide between these bones, and finally after an age of pushing they smash open with an almighty crack and begin to flap up and down, back and forth, with every movement of the great sails of sinew hurling air at the ground so fast that it almost knocks you off your feet.
The plates crack into scales. The scales sharpen and set themselves deep into the flesh, The animal stares you down, its great jaws wide open and the immense heat making every hair on your head curl backwards and snap at the ends.
Finally when it is ready, the dragon lifts one of its mighty forelegs and forces its talons into the front of its flat face. The beak is still there, widened and distorted. Sinking its claws in, the monster pulls its leg forward. The dragon’s whole head doubles its length to meet the great pointed snout it now makes for itself. The teeth grow twice as deep, the neck thickens-out. The great trunk of bone and muscle at the front of its head stretches and stretches and bolsters itself with a titanic skull beneath the skin, until the two nostrils at the end are each as large as your entire body.
Without missing a moment, you run forward and grab the leather with both hands, tearing your sling and throwing it off. In a moment you have pulled yourself up, finding easy footholds at the edges of the scales where they overlap, climbing to the top of the neck and screaming as loud as you can in sheer happiness.
The dragon’s wings beat with new strength. Laughing as though you have lost your mind and holding on as tightly as anyone possibly could, you slap the side of the incredible creature’s neck hard and feel it leap into the sky before you have even gotten your hands back in place.
Now you are moving faster than you could have guessed, up into the highest part of the sky and then down to the treetops. In the moments where you can see clearly, you see the whole country laid out before you. You see the plain where Hanne’s statues still stand gazing at one another and you see the cave that was her home. You see what is left of the beak man’s town as the Red River calmly laps by its side and waits for a new life. You see the empty, cold labyrinth of Irzabett and the roads that will eventually connect it to other cities and new kingdoms. You see castles and banners and homes and people and animals and birds.
And then you feel the dragon’s momentum drop slightly, slowing for a moment. You begin to worry about it but as you stand up on its soaring back to try and climb over to its head, it swoops back upwards. Grabbing the spines of its back and holding on tight you cry with laughter as it roars once more, pouring a river of pure flame from its belly into the air, whiting out the sky all around you and filling everything you can see with smoke.
As you try to get back down to the dragon’s back you feel your eyes stinging, making you lose the grip of one hand. Blinded, you cling onto the huge ridge of smooth bone with the other hand. Your shoulder aches with the force pushing against your body but you clamp your knees down too, just hoping to stay in place long enough.
Of course when your eyes open, none of it is there any more. That’s how it always ends.
And you forget. Dreams are always forgotten sooner or later. I think it makes them more precious. We only really know them in the dead of the night.
Sometimes it’s a little bit different. The dragon might appear from elsewhere to save you at the end, or you might just leave when you get to the beach and sail to some quiet place. Sometimes there is a giant, or a King, or a wandering warrior who leads you through the land.
But it’s always the same setting. The same lot of not-quite-adventure tales about medieval Europe. The knight, the lady, the doctor and that ending with the blue sky. My favourite story that you ever told me. It’s very sad in a way but I didn’t even notice that, the first time I heard it. I just saw that look in your eyes and smiled.
I hope you never lose your imagination, child. It makes you brave.