Dragon sweat

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Author: David Shaw

The early morning sun shone down on the ancient walls of Giant’s Pass castle. It fell on patches of green moss clinging to the weathered stone blocks which formed the Outer and Inner Wards. It cast small square shadows from the eastern battlements onto the rampart behind them. Shards of light sparkled uselessly against the only window in the castle, the stained glass panes now covered in dirt and hiding the long disused Royal Chapel from view. But the glittering day made a brave showing of the banner of King Argud the Defiler flying high above the Keep and reflected brightly from the string of wind polished skulls decorating the flag post. A few rays of shimmering sunlight even penetrated the arrow slits of the Prison Tower, to be instantly snuffed out amidst the pitch black stench of despair and corrupting flesh. Many more were wasted in falling on the steaming surface of the castle moat and its covering of rotting turds.

King Argud and his Master-At-Arms were no fools. Any attacking soldier who fell into that reeking gray-blue slush of slimy semi-liquid with even the smallest of wounds on his body would soon be dying a most painful and poisonous death. The smell on a warm day was truly awful but since nearly everybody in the Royal household stank like a dead goat anyway it was of no great consequence. And there was always a price to pay for magical protection.

The King should have been in his counting house, counting out his money. Unfortunately, there was hardly any to count, since there was nobody in marching distance who had anything left worth stealing. So instead the monarch had taken a newly arrived serving wench into the buttery, bent her over a table and applied double handfuls of butter to her bared hindquarters. The girl was mystified by his actions but in a few seconds time she was destined to find out two things: why he was called Argud the Defiler, and the real reason why the buttery was called the buttery.

The Master-At-Arms, on the other hand, was dealing with more delicate business. A matter of negotiations which called for diplomacy and cordiality. Not easy qualities to summon up in a proud old soldier covered in scars and past glory: in his time the Master-At-Arms had killed and raped more victims than a boatload of Ice Land Warriors. He resented having to be unduly deferential to any other official of the Royal Household. But even he had to respect the authority of Sir Tarquin as Royal Tax Collector and Keeper of the castle torture chamber.

“A fine day, Sir Tarquin.”

“A fine day, Master.”

Sir Tarquin reluctantly laid aside a series of woodcuts left behind by a visiting trader of tormenting equipment. Often and anon did he gaze at them wistfully, especially the ones showing the young lady with the long legs stretched out on a rack, the legs getting longer and longer in each succeeding picture. What he wouldn’t give to have a bit of glamour like that in his own appliances instead of the dreary peasants that were all that ever came his way in this backward apology of a backwoods kingdom. Not that he’d ever dare to let such words pass his lips, not if he didn’t want them sewn together. On matters patriotic King Argud was so right wing he was almost a Tiberian Republican.

“How can I help you, Master?

“I’d like to book a session in the torture chamber, Sir Tarquin.”

“Certainly — a personal one, Master? Ha, ha, the old ones are always the best, hey?”

The Master smiled dutifully with a twitch of his lips as the Torturer reached for his diary, a movement which paused halfway as an earsplitting scream came from the direction of the buttery. Sir Tarquin cocked his head to one side and listened with professional judgement.

“She’ll be able to carry around the mead tonight, but I hope it’s not at my table. Her hands won’t stop shaking for a week. Now, Master, was it a group booking?”

“No. Just the one, thank’ee, my lord.”

“Fine. Any particular torments in mind? Male or female?”

The Master-At-Arms grinned. To be more exact, he bared his teeth like a wolf seeing a sheep caught in a briar patch: “Definitely male, Sir Tarquin. It’s the castrating vice I want to use. Could I have a couple of hours, if that’s agreeable to you?”

“A couple of hours? That’s a long time for such a simple little job. Is this business or pleasure, Master?”

“Oh, both, Sir Tarquin — both.”

The old soldier looked as if he’d seen a divine vision of a thousand virgins, each one more beautiful than the next, and all driving carts heavily laden with wine barrels.

Sir Tarquin felt a touch of unease. As a normal thing, letting enthusiastic amateurs loose in a torture chamber was a mistake. Blood everywhere afterwards, and all the tools bent out of shape with overmuch heating. But the Master was a professional too, or at least he’d always behaved up until now as a career soldier and pain giver. And as an officer of the Royal Household there was no way he could be decently refused access to the in-castle tormenting facilities.

“The day after tomorrow? From the third emptying of the water clock until the fifth emptying?”

“Thank you, Sir Tarquin. You co-operation is appreciated.”

The Torturer fastened his weak blue eyes on the Master’s vicious brown ones.

“You’ll appreciate that you’ll still have to raise an inter-departmental invoice for the hire of the chamber. Two florins an hour, four florins in all. You’ll need to make seven copies of the invoice, all signed by yourself or your deputy and counter-signed by myself or my deputy. One copy for your files, one for mine, one for the routine-of-the day clerk, one to the Royal Accounts Office, one to me as the head of Value Added and Value Removed Tax department, one for the Royal Archives, and one for the Bureau of Births, Deaths, Marriages and Castrations. And, naturally, it’s your department’s responsibility to ensure the removal of all bodies and bodily parts from the chamber at the end of the hire period. All equipment used is also to be cleaned and lightly oiled afterwards.”

“You know me, my lord. I always leave the torture chamber the way I would wish to find it.”

Sir Tarquin suddenly realized that the Master-At-Arms wasn’t looking at him, but over his head and through an arrow slit in the wall. He turned in his chair and glanced out through the narrow gap himself. On the other side of the moat were the straggly lines of filthy wooden shacks where those of King Argud’s subjects unfortunate enough to be still alive eked out their wretched existences. But one building at least was well built, the size of a barn, close to the protection of the castle walls, with a patch of scorched grass outside it. Playing happily together on the bare ground was a young boy and a young female. The female was much younger than the boy, but a great deal bigger. About forty paces longer, in fact, bright pink in color — at the moment, anyway — and gently weaving her snout and her sinuous body like a giant ferret as the boy tickled her underneath her left wing root.

“By the Gods, Master, I still can’t believe it — not even after seeing it every day for nigh on five years. A living, breathing dragon. And when I was a boy we all thought they’d never existed. Even the witches and warlocks said the old carvings were only make believe. Just dreams and mind pictures from nearly forgotten stories. And then a dirty little sniveling son of a night soil spreader comes out of the forest with an great egg he says he found in the roots of a fallen tree.”

The Master-At-Arms nodded absent-mindedly. Everybody from far and wide knew the story, and how young Hal O’The Shitbuckets had not told anybody about the egg but hidden it inside a pile of warm dung near to his family’s hut. And how the boy had come out a few weeks later and found a dragonet frolicking around on top of the pile of shite. And by the time anybody of importance had found out about any of this, it was too late. The dragonet and Hal had instantly developed the same kind of affection as between a man and his dog, and any attempts to part them had sent the young dragon into such a state of fretful decline that the companionship had to be restored immediately. But otherwise the hatchling seemed perfectly healthy and had grown at an astonishing speed. And of all its mysteries, three had continually dominated King Argud’s thoughts.

The first was whether there was any truth in the old legends about dragons breathing fire?

The dragonet had never shown any sign of being able to do so but there had been a lingering hope in King Argud’s breast that the facility might develop as the creature reached puberty. A hope which had found triumphant resolution one night when a pack of stray dogs had gotten into the dragon hut and attacked the dragon and Hal. The resulting flames had not only burnt down the dragon’s hut but also a dozen others belonging to peasants unfortunate enough to be living nearby. As the suddenly dispossessed poor fled for their lives the King had capered wildly in delight in the snow in his night shirt, calling for his pipe to light it from the burning fragments of the huts, and then for his fiddlers three to provide the music for his pyromaniacal dance. At dawn he’d demanded that Hal demonstrate the dragon’s incendive skills again by burning down more huts, clapping his hands like a delighted child as the dragon had coughed out tiny spitballs which flew for hundreds of paces and then ignited into raging fireballs whenever they hit anything.

“By Odin, I love the smell of dragon spit in the morning!” King Argud had roared in ecstasy at the sight of so much destruction inflicted so quickly.

The second mystery was whether the promise of the pup’s nascent wings would eventually be proven. Could a dragon fly?

The answer had been yes, a fact finally determined in the last few weeks of early summer. Although, in truth, the dragon only flapped her wings barely enough to be airborne before locking them into outstretched sails and seemingly riding the currents of the air upward and upward, then gliding across great distances before turning and turning like a falling leaf in one place in the sky. Yet instead of drifting down she would drift upwards again. Nobody could explain how this could happen, except through magic. Apart from Hal O’The Shitbuckets, who thought that the air rose in bubbles from pieces of hot ground, like the bubbles in water coming to the boil, and that somehow the dragon could see or sense where these air bubbles were rising.

Under normal circumstances nobody would have paid any attention to young Shitbucket’s ideas. The one thing which did get them a hearing was that Hal was the only person in the whole kingdom who had ever flown with the dragon. At least that was what most people thought, but four people knew differently. Hal, the Master-At-Arms, and two of the Master-At-Arm’s daughters. Unfortunately for all of them, the Master had accidentally overheard Chelinde telling her young sister how she had twice been aloft with Hal and how young Shitbuckets had rewarded her with what he called a frequent flyer point.

It was Chelinde’s candid description of where young Hal had inserted his point whilst they were together in the beastling’s riding net which had resulted in Hal’s recently appointed meeting with the castration vice. The next item on the Master-At-Arm’s schedule was arresting the still unwitting boy and explaining in great detail about exactly what was going to happen to him. Hal might have spent most of his life emptying latrines but if he’d thought before he was in the shit, he was soon going to know better — or worse.

Sir Tarquin shook his head in sorrow as he kept watching the boy and the dragon at play: “Such a shame. Worse yet, a tragedy. Is there anything sadder than the sight of a promising life destined never to know true fulfillment? The King comes near to weeping every time he thinks of it. What say you, Master, are you still of the same opinion?”

The Master-At-Arms expression was one of bewildered surprise, until he realized what Sir Tarquin was talking about. It was the third great mystery about the dragon, the mystery which had King Argud groaning with despair at nights for a solution.

“Absolutely the same opinion, my Lord. Our tiny army had no chance at all of defeating the Imperial Legions. One dragon on its own might win us a battle but never the war. We’d need a whole flock of them to be assured of destroying the Emperor’s forces in the field and taking the great cities of the plains.”

“A rise, Master. The collective noun for group of dragons is apparently a rise of dragons. So the Chief Warlock tells us of the High Council from his reading of the ancient writings. And no wonder the King weeps when he looks down from these hills onto an empire he could easily conquer — if only we could find a male dragon to mate our female with. Nature can be so cruel.” Sir Tarquin sighed heavily in quiet despair.

“How many peasants have we worked to death digging up the forest floor roundabouts that fallen tree seeking another egg — a male egg, in all love? How many spells have the Witches and Warlocks cast, seeking a trace of other dragons in the great wide world? How many spies have we sent out seeking news of such beastlings? And not one trace, not one rumor, not even one tavern tale about such monsters existing. No, what you see innocently playing there, Master, are two virgins, and destined I think to stay that way for a long time.”

The Master-At-Arm’s face was pale, only two red spots on his cheekbones revealing the pure fires of anger burning within him. “My Lord, I intend to make sure one of them will certainly never have need of a mate.”

He tapped the cover of the torturer’s diary with heavy significance and Sir Tarquin’s eyebrows rose in sudden concern. “Hal? It’s our young dragon handler you’ve a mind to geld? Nay, I think the King must know of this first. Why do you want to do such a thing?”

The Master-At-Arms had no intention of telling the truth on that subject. Nor did he think that he needed to.

“My Lord, my duty is to the security of the King and the Kingdom, and that dragon is a menace to both. It cannot help us defeat our enemies but should Hal ever decide to turn on his true Lords and Masters that beastling would be a formidable threat to us. Many of us would perish and much damage would ensue before he and that confounded animal were killed. Since we cannot breed from it, better to destroy the monster and its handler’s spirit now before they acquire a taste for more than they are being given.”

Sir Tarquin shook his head: “A sound argument, Master, but not sufficient to achieve your purpose. Leave our dragon handler alone for a while yet.”

“Dragon handler? That’s not his substantive rank on the household rolls. He’s a privy purveyor, he empties the shit pans into the moat and he was only allowed to work in the castle at all because he tends the beastling a few hours each day. The dragon is of no use to us, only danger, and the sooner we get rid of it and debollock that young upstart, the better.”

The Royal Torturer waved his hand at the chair the Master-At-Arms had recently vacated: “Sit you down again, Master, and breathe no word of what I am about to tell you. For you have unwittingly touched upon decisions recently made by the High Council and it were better for you to know something of them and thus keep discreetly silent.”

Sir Tarquin leaned forward across his desk and spoke in lowered terms.

“The King and Council in secret session have decided that now the dragon has reached true maidenhood there is one last turn of the cards we can yet play. If we can’t find a male dragon, perhaps the young female dragon may. She can fly, and she can seek, and Hal that was will go with her to return a clutch of fertile eggs, be it nothing else he can bring back. Let that dragon go hang, if only he can find dragon hatchlings enough for us to breed a rise from.”

The Master-At-Arms tried to absorb the implications of Sir Tarquin’s statement: “Go? Go where?”

“Out into the wide world, wherever the winds may blow the pair of them. Over the northern mountains perhaps, or southwards over the provinces of Lyonesse to that great city itself and beyond. Or the east, to the forests of Prydein, or west wards, into the sea mists of Tintagel. Wherever it be that the great beast may feel drawn to go. Like calls to like, Master, and if there be a scaly and horny mate for her anywhere, surely that dragoness will be drawn to him like a homing pigeon to its nest.”

“But … but … Hal, that was? What do you mean by that, my Lord?”

“Why but think, man! If a dragon or dragons there be anywhere, surely they will be owned, as here, by the King of those parts. Can we send a shit-carrier’s offspring to negotiate on behalf of the Kingdom of Argud with another royal court? No, of course not. Know you, Master, that in the next issue of the castle gazette there will be a notice raising young Hal O’The Shitbuckets to the aristocracy. A lifetime peerage.” The Royal Torturer’s lips tightened in sardonic amusement. “However brief that lifetime may be.”

The Master-At-Arms looked as if he’d taken a crossbow bolt in the stomach: “That ugly little piece of trash is to be ennobled!”

“Aye. A strange world we live in, hey? But you know yourself that the boy is the only one in the Kingdom whom the dragon obeys, so he must go with her. The King sought our advice on a suitable title for him and I suggested Duke Skyrider as being apt to his station, but the Chief Warlock would have none of it. He said it sounded too foolish to be believed. So we have had to seek further. The Chamberlain said we should simply use the boy’s family name, but the Warlocks laughed at that.”

“I never even knew he had a family name. Why, he wasn’t even born into his family. The stinking brat was found newly born wrapped in a shawl at the forest’s edge.”

“True, but he was bought up by the Shitbucket emptying clan. Apparently they were given a Tiberian family name by those interfering monks before the King finally drove them out. One of the holy men must have had a sense of humor though because the family name is Merdinus. The Warlocks thought the notion of a Duke Merdinus a great jest because the word in the Tiberian language for dung is merdus. So it was proposed the boy be dubbed Duke Merlinus instead. And in a few day’s time our young Duke and his dragon will leave on his quest. What think you, Master?”

“What do I think? To speak truth, my lord, I think the whole council must have been sniffing on a platter of that white powder the traders bring from the Happy Isles. I think the young tosspot will sell that dragon as soon as he is safely out of our kingdom and spend the gold on fucking serving wenches.”

Sir Tarquin snorted with brief laughter: “So think we all, Master, so think we all. It was also said that a duke who spoke not a word of Tiberian, knew nothing of magic or ceremony and stinks of the privy would have much trouble playing the part of a nobleman. Someone must go with him, someone to make sure the quest succeeds, someone able to educate Hal as they travel together, someone who will be respected in any royal court in any land. We have now decided on a suitable escort and consort for our aspiring Duke Merlinus.”

The Royal Torturer leaned forward, even closer to the Master-At-Arms and spoke even more confidentially: “Tell me, Master, have you still any desire to see the wide world?”

The Master, the victor of a thousand vicious killing fights, whimpered like a beaten dog: “Me, my lord! Go up on one of those things? I beg you, no, no, a thousand times no! I’m a man, not a bird!”

“Ho-ho-ho! Your face, Master, your face!” The Royal Torturer slapped his thigh in glee. He was a man whom dearly loved a joke above all things, well accustomed at taking full advantage of a captive audience.

“Be calm, Master, be calm. Did we need a bulldog for an honest fight you would be our choice, but the Chief Warlock has found us something much better for our needs. A cunning serpent able to fly as well as that dragon, a serpent of fascinating wickedness and as full of venom as a nest of lawyer spiders. A serpent well versed in all kinds of magic and courtly behavior, a speaker of many tongues and a convincing liar in all of them. Best of all, a serpent whom both enchants and terrifies every man she meets.”

“She … ” The Master-At-Arms stared at Sir Tarquin. “A witch? You are sending a witch with Shitbucket? Which witch — I mean what witch?”

“Look at my finger, Master.”

The Torturer traced the outline of three letters on the desk in front of him. The Master-At-Arms blinked, blinked again, and then smiled a little. So did Sir Tarquin. Both of them looked at each other and smiled even more widely.

“So, Master, have we not found you a better ball-breaker than anything I could provide in my chamber?”

The Master-At-Arms laughed aloud, clapping his hands together as though applauding a play or an execution: “The bitch-witch! The bitch-witch herself!”

Sir Tarquin stood up again, his belly heaving at the same joke as he watched the innocent victims below, all unaware of what evil was speeding towards them.

“But what could bring her to this small place, my lord? What does a lady of her powers care about our dragon?”

“The lady has the King’s sworn promise. Bring back the eggs which will create an army of warrior dragons for him and she will be rewarded, even unto half of the Empire once he has seized it. But if ever that should come to pass, Master, be assured I’ll make sure that I’m living in the other half.”

Had Hal been able to overhear this conversation he would have been frightened witless. One part of it though would have given him a warm glow of satisfaction. For, if a member of the High Council should talk so lightly of his selling the dragon, it meant that none of the great men of the kingdom knew about the most profound of her mysteries, one of infinite more value than flying or flame throwing. A mystery he had been taking advantage of under any watching eyes from the castle walls in his pretence of playfully tickling the dragoness. What he had actually been doing was soaking a piece of rag near glands underneath her wings where a colorless liquid sometimes seeped out — a liquid which drove all those who touched it into a flaming desire to couple as madly as a March hare.

Hal had only noticed the liquid appearing in the last few weeks, as the dragoness reached her maidenhood. He supposed that it was intended for male dragons to lick and thus encourage them to mount the female. Certainly he had never suspected such a thing at first. He’d believed the liquid to be sweat, the first sign that the dragon was as other creatures.

Before then, in all the years since he’d first seen it, the dragon had seemed to live on a higher level than other life forms, including men. It never ate, but spread its wings out under the sun whenever it could, as though it drew life from the great fire like a growing flower. Thus, it never dropped dung either, a great relief to Hal. All the beastling seemed to need was a daily drink of water and lots of affection. But now it seemed able to create affection itself, uncontrollable affection in all who were touched of its sweat.

By great fortune the first trickles were of a weaker potency than was to come. But such as they were, the dampness on his fingers had driven Hal into a corner of the dragon hut with his breeches around his ankles and continually jerking at his lance, a lance which refused to droop in tiredness after the first, second, third, and even fourth eruption. It had felt as if the fires of hell itself were burning in his loins and would never be damped down.

The boy had almost killed himself before collapsing onto the straw and suffered so much soreness that every movement for days afterwards had been torment. He had quickly learned from his experience though, and took great care now never to touch the liquid directly and to mix it with plenty of water before use. A power intended for dragons was far too strong for humans without it being much weakened first. But what wonders even a trace of dragon sweat produced!

Carefully holding the rag by a still dry corner he led the beast back into the hut which housed it. Blotches of yellow appeared on the dragon’s neck from its head to its front legs like daisies appearing after rain. Hal quickly answered the unspoken question.

“Be content, Josephine, I see all the colors of your coat. We shall fly this morning. But first I must prepare.”

As soon as the dragon was inside Hal pulled the doors shut and put a bar across them. The thousands of cracks in the planked roof and walls let in enough light for the shed’s interior to be as dusky as early twilight, a million straw motes floating through the intruding rays and then disappearing from sight in the dimmer areas. The dragon ambled over to the largest pile of straw at the far end of the hut and sniffed at it. Girlish laughter and cries of mock fear came from the depths of the straw.

“Come away, my lady,” Hal said severely. “There are terrible creatures hidden in there, and I fear for your safety.”

More giggles, and a mass of blonde curly hair popped up out of the straw: “It’s true, you do speak your dragon as though it were your heart’s love. Chelinde told me it was so but I didn’t believe her, so I came to hear myself.”

“A good day between you and evil, Caelia,” Hal said, little bothered by the girl’s banter. “And is it that long tongued sister of yours who is hiding with you?”

Another head came out of the straw, more tangled fair hair filled with stalks and two faces both of a kind, round and rosy, with bright blue eyes full of mischief. “Why here I am indeed, mighty dragon master, and have been since we crept in before the first light shone.”

“And what of your father? How would our Master-At-Arms deal with me if he knew you two were here in Josephine’s pound?”

“He’ll never know,” Caelia answered lightly, brushing the problem of her parent aside, and none of the three with the slightest foreboding of the dangers closing in on them. “And anyway, I wanted to see the dragon.”

“See it, girl? And haven’t you seen it every day for years past, just as all hereabouts have done?”

“I haven’t seen it the way Chelinde has.”

Hal himself blushed furiously and unable to stop from casting a guilty look at Chelinde’s face: “And what way would you be talking about, Caelia?”

The straw pile parted and Caelia emerged from it, pale skinned and much freckled, hot eyed, wide mouthed, a cupid’s bow on the upper lip which was made for laughing and kissing. Her pleasing shape was akin that of her elder sister, short in body and leg, but as well curved as any piece of fruit sinful Adam ever plucked and as fully endowed in the bust and bottom as Eve herself must have been. The forest green gown she was wearing was much worn and overdue to be passed down to another sister, for the buttons on the bodice were all but popping off, and as her fingers stroked it, removing wisps of straw, she knew full well what effect she was having on Hal.

“Why, I haven’t been for a flight with your dragon as Chelinde has.”

Hal was speechless, not knowing how much Caelia had learnt and whether she could be trusted to keep quiet. Bad enough she knew as much as she did already, after he’d sworn Chelinde to silence by all the Gods in the mountains.

“Chelinde!”

The straw broke apart again like the pool of Venus and Chelinde rose out of it to stand beside her sister. Two buttons on her bodice were already undone and Hal remembered — as he would remember all his mortal days — what was still concealed below them, and how Chelinde had squealed with excitement as he’d taken her full womanhood in his hands. Now she was back again, her sister with her to boot, and the pair of them looking like bear cubs that had found the beehive.

“No need for hard words, Hal. Wouldn’t you like to take the both of us for a flight? Didn’t you say yourself I could bring another girl next time if I wished?”

True it was indeed he’d said some such thing — or rather, his balls had said it through his mouth when they possessed him body and soul.

Had Chelinde not the slightest suspicion of how she’d been tricked into washing with water tainted with dragon sweat? But why would she think of such a thing when only Hal himself knew of the sweat? No, she could know nothing of the magical power at his command and must still believe her seduction had been fully consummated by a desire as uncontrollable as Hal’s own. But to bring her own sister to another meeting! Had it truly been Chelinde’s idea or that little minx of a sister? And another of the Master-At-Arm’s daughters! Lunacy!

Yet when Hal looked at both pairs of bright eyes, both pairs of red lips, and at the taut female flesh underneath those gowns he knew the argument was lost before it was even debated. If Josephine could lift the three of them into the air he cared not whether Caelia and Chelinde were the Master-At-Arm’s kin or the devil’s. He could no more resist them than refrain from breathing.

“You … you have the price of your flights with you?”

“Here,” Chelinde said and held out a small white muslin bag. “I took them from a batch that our mother has just finished drying.”

Hal moved forward, took the bag from her fingers, opened it and carefully spilt the treasure inside into his hand. Three pieces of treasure in truth, three small squares of ash speckled potash mixed with fats and essence of herbs. Three pieces of soap! Hal held one of the squares to his nose and breathed in the smell from it as if he was standing by the rose gardens of Paradise. The great head of the dragon loomed over his shoulder, Josephine sniffing at Hal’s hand in her curiosity. Both girls cowered back as if they feared being bitten

“Ah, you need none of this, my lady. You are not condemned to do my filthy work. But heed me now.”

Hal carefully pointed to himself, then to Chelinde and Caelia, held an hand on each side of his head, and flicked two fingers on each one up and down. Then he made a hooked question sign with one finger: “Can you carry the three of us aloft, Josephine?”

Outbreaks of pink blossomed along the dragon’s belly, running into each other like spilt paint. Like her namesake, her coat was always of many colors. Hal cocked his head in some surprise at the boldness of the display.

“So sure, hey? I hope you may not be coming it the phoenix. But on your wings be it. Please to step this way then and oblige.”

Hal pointed to the large drinking trough and the well pump beside it. He plunged his fingers into the water inside the trough, then quickly pulled them out again and shook his hand to show how cold the water was. Afterwards he tapped his nose and stood back. The dragon waddled forward, dipped her snout into the trough and made a coughing noise. Then she apparently lost interest in the trough and slithered away. The two girls clung to each other as the water in the middle of the trough swelled up in a great boiling and moiling, with jets of steam spurting out of it and waves running along the length of the trough to splash over the ends.

“Tis nothing to fear, sister,” Chelinde reassured Caelia. “Only a little dragon spit being used to warm the cold water for us. For Hal says that the dragon cannot abide the smell of mortals close to it unless we are freshly washed.”

Hal had indeed told her that. A lie of course, but a most convenient one. As soon as the dragon’s spit had been quenched he picked up a stick, plucked the rag from his belt, pushed the rag deep into the trough, then used the stick to swirl the boiling and colder portions of water into a comfortably warm mixture. Only he knew what else was also being spread through the water from the rag.

Two buckets Hal then filled from the trough, put a ladle in each and carried the buckets to the dragon’s washing place. The dragon had scratched out the earth there and carried in the sacks of sand that Hal had spread, for the boy hated mud almost as much as he hated dung.

In the middle of the sandpit was a waist high pile of straw from which Hal drew handfuls of stalks to rub Josephine down with after her daily bathe. He set the buckets down behind the straw.

“So, do you girls wash yourselves most carefully. You may crouch down as necessary, though I will have no eyes to spare for you as I prepare Josephine for her flight.”

Chelinde giggled, and then Caelia too, exchanging knowing looks, and four rosy cheeks looking even redder. Hal handed one the precious pieces of soap to each of them.

“Go to it, girls,” Hal urged. And if the dragon sweat worked as well as before, even much diluted, the pair of them would soon enough stop blushing.

From the wall Hal took down a net made of ropes, of the finest quality the castle ropemaker could provide, furnished on the King’s direct orders. To try to ride on Josephine’s back was impossible, for along her spine were a single row of fins, each half the length of a man’s forearm, and each fin tipped with a needle as sharp and as strong as the tip of an Iberian rapier. Any saddle on her would have been ripped to shreds within minutes, and her rider with it.

As soon as she saw the net the dragon crouched down eagerly on her belly, eyeing the door of the dragon pound like a dog waiting to be released from a kennel. Hal laughed and first fetched four sheepskins which he impaled in a row on her fins, each skin pressed well down so the tops of the fins stood proud above them. Then he threw the net over the sheepskins, carefully arranging the ropes to ensure none were twisted and each fin projected through one of the wide mesh holes in the net. The load must be properly spread along Josephine’s body and the sheepskins were to protect the net from chafing, not the dragon’s hide. Her scales had never been pierced to his knowledge, not even with a pack of pi-dogs snapping and biting at her. They had been like puppies trying to chew through chain mail.

At each corner of the net was a wooden ring, triple sewn into the ropes, the rings hanging level with each wing root, front and back.

Hal fetched a second net and laid it flat on the floor, then spread more sheepskins along the middle of it. “Come, my lady, come.”

The dragon rose on her legs, scuttled forward over the second net, then crouched down again. Like the other net, the belly net had rings sewn into each corner and Hal had four lengths of rope over his shoulder, the ‘Fria und Odin!’ lashings. They were called that because if they came undone those would be the last despairing words he’d have time to shout. As he secured each set of rings together Hal totally ignored the laughter coming from across the straw pile. Only when the nets were safely secure above and below Josephine did he turn and look towards Chelinde and Caelia. And as he did so his lungs seemed suddenly emptied of air.

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