The Dragon's Tale
Book Two in the Arthur Quartet
The Dragon's Tale is the second book in Lance and Arthur's story.
Lance has finally gained his freedom to join his beloved king. It’s the depth of a northern winter, but his heart and his blood are warm with joy as he sets off to the fort of Din Guardi on the coast, where Arthur is locked in negotiation with the ancient powers of the realm – warlords who could help him defend the whole country against the Saxon invaders, if only he can unite them.
But Lance knows such unity may not be possible – or even for the ultimate good of the kingdom. And although his delight at being with Art is boundless, there are other, darker forces at work in the wild dune lands. A deep and delicate balance has been disturbed, and the fort is under siege by a creature out of legend, a monster that ravages villages and leaves a trail of bodies and burned fields in its wake.
The darkest nights of winter are approaching. Arthur, with unendurable weights to bear on shoulders too young for them, only has Lance to befriend him and shield him from the bitterness of battlefield experience and loss. As their bond grows, Lance must find a way to heal the breach between the old world and the new before it devours the man he loves.
“We should start home. I don’t fancy meeting your rogue Saxons in the dark.”
Art yawned hugely. His head was comfortably pillowed on Lance’s shoulder. Even though frost was beginning to crackle in the moss and fallen leaves around them, their tangle of entwined limbs remained warm. “No more talk of worms and dragons, then, Lance?”
“Hardly. Coel must have got to me with his phantasms. I should never be surprised, when men invent some novel way of slaying one another. Come on, before we go to sleep here and freeze to…” He fell silent. “Wait. Do you hear that?”
Art listened. “Hoofbeats. Damn. We’d better take cover.”
The sounds intensified. Not the ordinary, blood-stirring rhythm of flying hooves, which to Lance was a sound of life even when it meant his enemy bearing down on him, the prelude to a good fight or a chase. This slowed his heart to a crawl of cold fear. And he’d heard it before – only last night, or the small hours of this very morning. Shaking the foundations of Din Guardi.
Art was scrambling to his feet, wide-eyed. “What in hell’s name is that?”
“I don’t know, but we need to get away from it. Grab your horse before he bolts.”
Art made a dive for the stallion, closing a hand on the beast’s bridle before he could uproot the sapling he’d been hitched to. Lance untied Balana and made ready to spring onto her back.
Too late. The rumble escalated to a roar. Off to the east, between earth and sky, somehow bigger than either, a shape stirred, so vast his mind refused to take it in. “Get down!” he yelled. “Art, get down!” He began a move to tackle him, drag him to the ground. Then there was no need – the earth heaved, knocking them both flat among the ruins.
On instinct Lance held fast to Balana’s rein, though she almost tore his arm off in her struggle to escape. Distantly he saw that Art had done the same, that the stallion was snorting and rearing, eyes rolling in terror. Then he couldn’t look anywhere but at the thing bearing down on them across the across the fields.
The worm. His mind tried to slip its moorings. His vision felt twisted, forced into a place where nothing made sense, where the angles were wrong and the veil had been torn between his familiar world and a dimension of shrieking insanity. The moon hadn’t risen, yet everything was bathed in a pale sickly light. Through it moved – or coiled, or slithered; Lance didn’t have a name inside himself for the way it covered the ground – a gleaming tube, tall as a horse, and God knew how long. It reached the foot of the hill where he and Art had taken refuge, and something – perhaps the rise of the ground – made it divert, begin a thunderous slide past, length after length with no end in sight. The earth shuddered under it, and a rank smell of rotten flesh and dying vegetation filled the air.
White, it was white. It had a luminescence of its own, a faint firefly green. In flashes, Lance saw that its body was segmented, marked here and there with things like giant scales, with flaps of skin like a bat’s unfurled wings. No end in sight… Then it narrowed, and the last few yards of it rushed past, and it was gone as fast as it had come.
It left a trail of dead grass across the moor. Lance sat up. Art was picking himself up off the ground. They looked at one another in utter consternation. Then Lance, who had never seen anyone’s face quite such a picture as Art’s, began to laugh. After an astonished moment, Art joined in.
“My God, Art,” Lance said when he could. “What are we going to do?”
“Follow it, of course. Why didn’t it eat us?”
“It was moving too fast. Don’t think it noticed us.” He coughed, and tried to catch his breath. “Follow it? What the hell do we do if we catch it up?”
“Kill the damn thing, before it gets to the villages. That’s what’s been causing all this slaughter and havoc. Come on!”
Lance felt no fear: didn’t pause for an instant to question his king’s command. They were two scraps of flesh and bone in pursuit of a fifty-foot nightmare, but he sprang onto Balana’s back, and it felt like the beginning of a ride after a deer or a hare. He and Art set off to slay the worm.
The trail was easy to follow. The places where slime remained were faintly glowing, like phosphorescence on the inside of a cave. Where flat ground gave way to trees and gorse, the creature hadn’t turned but smashed its way through, leaving a gap large enough for Art and Lance to gallop through abreast. Jagged branches stood out on the sky as if startled by their sudden maiming. Everywhere the birds were silent, a quiet deeper than sunset. The horses flew, as if catching their riders’ intent, their fear suspended by it. “It’s making for Spindlestone, that same poor hamlet where we started this morning,” Art called, pointing ahead, and Lance saw the thing like a ghostly snake on the horizon. “Take its left flank. I’ll take the right.”
“How have we come back here? I thought we were miles away.”
“Must’ve gone round in a circle.”
“I have another question. How are we catching up?”
Art shot him an unfathomable glance. “Do you want me to say I think it’s waiting for us?”
Lance absorbed this chilling idea. He couldn’t argue. The beast had effortlessly mounted the Spindlestone crags, and was coiling itself amongst the scrubby thorn trees that grew there, a constant movement like a dance, hard for his mind to grasp. Then a head the size of a horse emerged from the coils, and it was the most terrifying thing he had ever seen – a vast skull barely covered in glistening worm-skin, the bones contorted, spikes springing up and retreating all down the length and over the crown of it, rippling. “Art, pull up.”
“Why? We’re nearly on top of it.”
“We’re inside its striking range, is where we are.”
“How can it strike? I don’t even think it has a…”
Two green eyes shone deep in ridged sockets. A neck extended itself from nowhere, and the thing seemed to scan them – one at a time, thoughtfully.
For the second time that day, Lance saw the pale mask of combat wipe out all trace of humanity from Arthur’s face. Beast, Saxon, invading army – nothing mattered but his blind need to meet his foe headlong. Before Lance could draw breath to shout a warning, he’d turned his stallion’s head and pointed him straight at the foot of the crags.
Lance had a blind need of his own. He’d felt it once before, up on the dragon’s-spine ridge near Vindolanda. He’d have gladly galloped Balana off the edge of a cliff that day, if Art had leapt first. He’d been a boy then. The childish impulse of that day had become the deep will of a man, a compulsion he would carry unto death. He crouched low along Balana’s neck and set off after his king.