The Dragon's Tale

Book Two in the Arthur Quartet

The Dragon's Tale is the second book in Lance and Arthur's story.

Book One is When First I Met My KingBook Three, The Greenwood And The Grail, will release in August 2018.

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.

Excerpt

“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.”

 

“No, it’s…”

 

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.

Excerpt

(Rufus has finally arrived, on a very delayed train. Drusilla - now Lady Birch, of course - has brought them a festive gift, in the form of a huge stag's skull.)

“I’ve never done this before. I’ve never had this.”

“What, my love?”

Archie swallowed hard. His heart was thudding in astonishment that Rufus would risk the endearment, here on the path where the yellow roses had closed over their heads in the summer, and the green leaves provided such sheltering shade. There was no concealment now, only thorns. His fingers on one hand were laced tight through Rufus’s. He had to wait before he could answer, and his words came through gritted teeth. “Waiting for someone. Long enough to wonder if they were alive or dead.”

“Oh, God.” Rufus turned to face him. He lifted his face, and Archie wouldn’t kiss him, not out here, but somehow their brows were resting together. Giles had discreetly vanished, all the noisy new arrivals briefly quenched. If the house itself had a power of protection, channelled through his transformed spirit and the watchful souls of Drusilla and Maria Nettles, they would be safe. “I’m so sorry. The railways seem to like to keep their most urgent work for the busiest time of the year, and...”

“And what?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“No, not nothing.” Archie picked up and followed the glimmering threads of unease, his keys to the labyrinth of his lover’s mind. “Why else are you late?”

 

“Oh, Archie. Someone jumped in front of the train. One of the reporters who... who went into Belsen and took all the photographs, the guard said it was. Another one.”

 

Archie closed his grip tighter. He said, for want of a wiser or more consoling word, “Fuck.”

 

“Sorry. I wasn’t going to tell you.”

 

Archie gave him a gentle shake. “Why on earth not?”

 

“Because I’ve come home for Christmas. And there’s nothing festive about...”

 

“A body on the railway line. For such awful reasons.” Quickly Archie checked around. He’d learned that one glance wasn’t enough, that observers could congregate without a breath or shoe-scrape of warning. He hated his vigilance, but he’d pay the price a thousand times over if it meant he could lay a hand on his lover’s face, give him that comfort right now when he needed it, not half an hour later when – knowing Rufus – he’d have found a way to choke the trouble down. “I’m so glad you did tell me. We’re being called post-war England, you know. I read it in the Times.”

Rufus pushed his cheek against Archie’s palm. He’d closed his eyes, and the relief of the loving touch at the right moment had softened the lines of pain on his brow. “So everything’s over, is it? Shall I break out my demob suit?”

“Oh, did you finally get one of those?”

 

“Yes. I shouldn’t have, really, because they more or less shipped me home in a bucket, and I never did get to trade in my uniform for civvies at one of the centres. Still, they issued me one, and sent it care of the museum because they didn’t have my address down here. It’s rather dapper, I have to say – pinstripes, with a little waistcoat to match. I should have brought it with me. It’s just that...”

 

“It’s just that for you, it won’t ever be over. Not for you, not for the Jews, not for anyone who saw what happened in the camps. Not for me either, and that’s the good part, dear Rufus – we don’t have to hide from each other. We never have to pretend that everything’s all right.”

 

Rufus let go of an unsteady breath. Then he looked up, and gave Archie a smile of such brilliance that for a moment summer returned, and the scent of golden roses. “But the strange thing is that... knowing you feel that way, everything is all right for me, somehow. Come along, Squire Archie. You’d better introduce me to your house-load of Christmas guests.”

 

“I didn’t invite any of them, you know. They just descended. And you mustn’t call me squire, love!”

 

“I suppose you shouldn’t call me love, out here in the open, if it comes to that. Ah, if you could have seen yourself, though – standing on the doorstep surveying your domain, and all the birds flocking to you for shelter!”

 

“For Mrs Nettles’ mince pies, is more like it. Very well, then – come on in, if I’m not to be allowed half an hour with you in the bike shed first.” He took hold of Rufus’s wrist, drew his arm through his own. “We’re allowed this much, aren’t we?”

 

“Yes. We’re allowed this much.”

 

Together they made their way into the house. Archie’s whole attention had focussed on the link between them, where human warmth had made its way through tweed and cotton and was sending up bright signals to his heart. He barely noticed the new shadow falling across the hallway: stopped with a jolt when Rufus did, clamping one hand tight to his arm. “Good Lord, Archie. What’s that?”

 

Archie followed his gaze. The huge stag’s skull had been hoisted over the archway that led to the kitchen, and expertly lashed into place there, tinsel and all. “Ah. Drusilla brought us that as a kind of Christmas gift, although she doesn’t hold with new-fangled modern festivals. He’s for Yuletide, I gather. I’ve no idea how he’s ended up there so quickly – although, having said that, the house is full of able-bodied young men at the moment.”

 

“Oh, really? Who have you got? Captain Meredith must count for one.”

 

“Several, if being an adoring husband qualifies him. Billy Prescott is around here somewhere, come to show off his constable’s uniform. And then of course there’s...” Their eyes met, and they both finished out the thought in rich amusement. “There’s Giles.”

 

Stifled giggles exploded from the living room. Archie’s reflexes weren’t fast enough to pull his arm out of Rufus’s grip, and damned if he would anyway: we can have this much, Rufus had said, and Archie was ready to defend their small permissions and privileges to the death. Straight-faced and steady, he turned to the source of the noise. “Ah,” he said, as urbanely as he could manage. “Rufus, I haven’t yet had the chance to introduce you to...”

Oh, hell. He couldn’t remember their names. Worse, he couldn’t think how to define them, these glittering, silk-clad apparitions. And that was ridiculous, because if they’d been men he’d have simply said that they were Giles’s friends. Distress began to shadow the younger woman’s face, and Giles, as if receiving a silent summons, shot out of the kitchen. He edged past Archie and Rufus, smiling, and went to put an arm around her waist. “My fiancée,” he said firmly, making her beam in pleasure and relief. “And this is her sister, Greta. Ladies, this is Dr Denby, the famous archaeologist I told you about.”

“Oh,” said Loretta, “I’ve read about you in the papers, Dr Denby. Ever so interesting. Such an honour to meet you.”

 

Rufus would always have trouble with women, Archie wryly reflected. Despite his wholly restored reputation and growing fame, he brought a shy charm to introductions which inevitably bowled them over. He had let go of Archie and was stepping forward now, hand outstretched. “I’ve made your acquaintance too, in a way,” he said, and Loretta took his hand and looked as though she’d have liked to kiss it. “Yours too, Miss Lombardi. Archie and I saw you in a film, the last time we were in London. Highly...” He paused, and no-one but Archie would have detected his brief struggle for a word. “Most diverting. It’s my great pleasure to meet you both too.”

Trust Rufus to remember the womens’ faces, to pick out the one link between them. Over time, Archie had learned how close he’d come to losing him to Alice Winborne, who even in her grief had come down like a weary dove in response to his diffident kindness. Greta’s mouth had fallen open. She said, in what might have been meant as a whisper but carried clearly across the room,”Oh, my God, Lorrie. I know what you said, but I can’t possibly choose!”

 

Loretta went scarlet. She grabbed her sister’s arm. “That was a joke,” she hissed. “A joke between us, and a private one, you fool!”

Archie and Rufus watched in bewilderment as she dragged Greta to the door, then out into the hallway. Their voices faded off in a series of yelps and snarls. Giles, left behind and blushing vividly too, turned to face them. “I’m very sorry, gentlemen,” he said. He really was the pink of post-war English perfection, Archie thought, with his handsome, open face and immaculately cut motoring gear. Again over time, the memories of his emergence from the pit beneath the church had begun to seem like a dream. “I’m very fond of Greta, but the truth is that she’s travelling with us because Lorrie is so keen to help her find a husband, and... well, when I told them about the two of you, they had their little joke about which of you Greta would prefer.”

 

“Oh,” was all Archie could think of to say, and was relieved when Rufus added a slightly more articulate, “Good grief.”

 

“I know,” Giles agreed, nodding fervently. “I’d be angry with her, only I do remember how it was when... well, when I was like her. A man in his thirties has the world at his feet, if he’s talented and hardworking, which she is, in her way. An actress that age has to look around her. Most of them jump out of the business to get married, you see.”

 

Archie rubbed his brow. “And... she thought to land here?”

 

“Not seriously. It’s my fault really. I talked to them so much about you both – how kind you were, and how good. One of you a country squire, and the other getting so well known for making all those discoveries... I suppose they’ve come to think of you as what they call a catch.”

 

But I’ve already been caught. Archie didn’t know why he didn’t just say it. He hadn’t dreamed the transformation in the pit, the turning castle where his lungs had been healed by Rufus’s kiss and Gillian had turned into Giles. He was certain that Giles knew. “I’ll tell you what,” he said, keeping a tremor of laughter out of his tone, trying to imagine either himself or Rufus pairing off with such a bird of cinematic paradise. “You and your Lombardis stay here for Christmas. And perhaps you can find a way of telling Greta that, lovely though she is, she’ll find better opportunities...”

 

“Archie, look.”

 

He swung round. For a minute or so he’d been aware that Rufus’s attention had detached itself from the discussion of Greta’s hopes and dreams. Archie was used to these shifts. They happened more and more often, as Rufus healed and regained the gifts that had put him in the archaeological spotlight before his terrible war. He was standing with his hands in his pockets now, to all appearances just a quiet man at the end of a long journey, but his eyes were shining. With one hand he indicated first the great stag’s skull, just visible through the doorway to the hall, and then the painting over the fireplace – George Mount, the vast hilltop labyrinth he had discovered, now visited by historians, folklorists and historians from all over the world. He caught and held Archie’s gaze, smiling. “Look.”

 

Archie couldn’t look anywhere else. After a moment, Giles said, quietly, “Thank you, then, Squire Thorne. Dr Denby. I’ll go and help the ladies unpack.”

 

He strode away. Archie allowed himself a moment to wonder at his powerful movements, the air of sheer masculinity that had brought his polar opposites, the flickering, glittering moths, to flutter around his flame. Then he focused on Rufus. “You’ve discovered something.”

 

“Yes. Isn’t it strange? I could do this before the war, but only occasionally. Then when it all got knocked out of me, and I came to Droyton and...” His voice shook slightly. “And you put it back, you must have added something extra. Because now it happens all the time.”

 

Archie held himself stiffly back. Rufus’s gift for landscape archaeology, for picking out a site without so much as sinking a trench or turning a trowel-ful of soil, had flown them both off to all the round Earth’s imagined corners. Then he saw that Giles had carefully, lovingly closed the door behind him, and he crossed the lily-patterned carpet in four big steps and pulled him into his arms. “Rufus. Dear fellow. Thank God you’re home.”