A Way With Dragons

Dec 14, 2016 | Publisher: edocr | Category: Literature & Ebooks |  | Collection: ebooks | Views: 5 | Likes: 1

A way with Dragons By Nick Creech Text copyright © Nicholas R. Creech 2013 Nick Creech asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or otherwise used without the prior permission of the author Set in Times New Roman For the dragon lovers of this world Contents ALSO BY NICK CREECH   THE AUTHOR   Chapter One   Chapter Two   Chapter Three   Chapter Four   Chapter Five   Chapter Six   Chapter Seven   Chapter Eight   Chapter Nine   Chapter Ten   Chapter Eleven   ALSO BY NICK CREECH Galiconia Beekle Henry The Blob, the Frog, the Dog and the Girl Three-P THE AUTHOR Nick Creech is a former newspaper journalist. He has two sons, both now successful and more-or-less responsible adults who still deign to talk to him from time to time in tones of kindly condescension. He has a wife who does the same, mostly. Since leaving journalism, he has written extensively for children, young adults and people of all ages who just enjoy a story. Chapter One The icy breeze trickled out of the woods, flowed down towards the River Usk and then on towards the small town of Abergavenny. The solitary old farm-house in its desolate winter garden shivered and huddled deeper into itself. An owl, hungry, cold and thoroughly disgruntled, hooted mournfully. It was the witching hour. Inside, in her attic bedroom, Cary snuggled deeper under the covers. She was dreaming. It was summer and she and Cash were cooling off in the shallows at the bottom of the garden. The sun was hot, the sky blue, the puffy clouds purest white and it was altogether delightful. A waft of warm air tickled her nose. She brushed at it absently, refusing to open her eyes. "Go away, Cash," she murmured. "I just want to be quiet for a moment." The waft came again, and this time Cary sneezed. Still she refused to open her eyes. "Stop it," she said crossly, and again: "Do stop it." "Not until you wake up," a voice said, a voice that shouldn't be in her dream, a strange voice, one that she didn't know, speaking a language she could barely understand. "Who's that?" she said, beginning to wake up properly. She opened her eyes, expecting the familiar darkness of her familiar bedroom. Instead, there was a faint glow. She lifted her head slightly and gasped. The glow was coming from something sitting on her chest. She craned to see and then gasped again with utter astonishment. There, nestled comfortably into the eiderdown and gazing at her with lively interest, was the strangest thing she had ever seen, a creature from another age, another world. It was a dragon, a miniature dragon, tiny but complete and perfect in every detail, right down to the fire flickering from time to time deep in his throat and to his colour, which Cary would ever afterwards think of as shimmer, tending to green or to gold depending on the light. He appeared comfortably at home and even had his front legs crossed rather like Ichabod when he was hoping for a walk. And that thought made Cary wonder how the dragon had ever got past him in the first place. Ichabod would be asleep in his basket on the landing, faithfully guarding the door. She was quite sure that Ichabod, a very large Newfoundland, enormous really, and a fully paid-up member of the Canine Society for the Preservation of Young Humans, would never allow truck with dragons. She struggled to sit up and the dragon calmly rose into the air, the fiery glow increasing slightly. When Cary had stopped thrashing about and was still again he alighted on her knee. "Who are you?" Cary demanded, her surprise giving way to delight. A dragon! How wonderful, how absolutely amazing. Dragons had always seemed to Cary the most fascinating of creatures, quirky, cranky, dangerous, exciting, magnificent, marvellous. And here one was. "Who are you?" she said again. "What are you doing here?" "I," the dragon said, "am Pythagoras von Drachenstein of the House of Hydra. And I have come to seek your aid." He spoke in an archaic sort of Welsh with considerable flourish and ignored the rather unfortunate fact that the voice of so small a creature must perforce sound decidedly tinny. Cary, whose own modern Welsh was not nearly as proficient as her teacher said it should be, had to struggle hard to understand. "My aid?" she said blankly. "Indeed," Pythagoras said. "We have urgent need, I might say desperate need, of a maiden who believes in dragons. You are a maiden, aren't you?" he added anxiously. "I think so," Cary said, not absolutely sure what he meant. She found that as though by magic, the words were coming more and more easily. "You'd know if you weren't," Pythagoras said with relief. "And I know you believe in dragons or we would never be able to talk like this." "Aid to do what?" Cary said. She was a straightforward young lady with a strong streak of common sense, quite unlike her twin brother, Cassian, pronounced Kashan, or Cash for short. "To recover the Amulet of Annwfn," Pythagoras said. "The Amulet of Annwfn? What's that?" Cary asked, her eyes widening. "Ah," Pythagoras said. "It is a huge golden torq set with the Jewels of Destiny. It is the… the symbol of the nation." "And you've lost it?" "We've lost it," Pythagoras said sadly. "Well, that was pretty careless of you," Cary said tartly. "Not lost lost," Pythagoras said. "It was stolen. By Morgan le Fay." "Who…?" "A sorceress. An evil sorceress. She has stolen the Amulet of Annwfn, and without it the Britons, that is to say the Welsh, that is to say your people, are imprisoned in apathy and ruled by despair, that is to say by Morgan le Fay and her Saxons." "Saxons?" Cary asked. "Who are Saxons?" "Cruel invaders from Europe," Pythagoras said. "Will you help? Please say you'll help. Or the Britons are doomed." "Now just a minute," Cary said crisply, her Welsh improving miraculously with this totally unexpected stimulus. "I might believe in dragons but I'm not the sort of person to go rushing off with one who hasn't even been properly introduced. You might be wicked for all I know. Most dragons are, you know. And how do you even know who I am?" "You're Carys Cadwagan…" "I am not," Cary said indignantly. "You're quite wrong. My last name is Cadogan." "Oh phht," the dragon said crossly, a small spurt of flame erupting from his mouth. "In proper Welsh, Cadogan is Cadwagan and for your information, that means glory in battle." "Really?" Cary said. "And you were recommended by my good friend, Y Ddraig Goch." "I don't believe you. Not the real Red Dragon?" "Indeed the real Red Dragon. The Red Dragon of Wales." "Oh," Cary said. "Well that's different. He's my favourite dragon of all." "Wounding," Pythagoras said. "So wounding." He sniffed and another tongue of flame shot out. "Well, except for you of course," Cary said hastily. "And do mind the bedspread. If it gets singed, Mother will never believe what happened." "Oh phht," the dragon said again, with yet more flame. "I've got much more important fish to fry than your bedspread. Will you come? That is the question, Miss Glory in Battle. The only question. Will you come, or will you not?" "Of course," Cary said without hesitation. "But…" "No buts." "But," Cary insisted. "Only if Cash can come too. My brother," she added. Pythagoras cocked his head to one side and raised an eyebrow. "We're only recruiting maidens," he said. "No Cash, no Cary," Cary said firmly. "This was not part of the plan, not part of the plan at all." "Well, it is now," Cary said. "We do everything together." "He probably doesn't even believe in dragons," Pythagoras said discontentedly. "He's a boy. Boys only believe in dinosaurs." "I'm sure he believes in dragons," Cary said with her winningest smile, the one she used on her father when he was trying to be severe. "Oh, very well," Pythagoras said. "I'm prepared to ask him, but it's a waste of time. He's a boy and boys are always a waste of time by definition." And good as his word, the dragon waved his tail in a complicated pattern and the next second they had magicked across the landing and were inside Cash's room. Outside in his over-sized basket, Ichabod whimpered a little as the rabbit he was chasing in his sleep momentarily took on a very strange shape. Cary knelt by Cash's bed and whispered in his ear: "Wake up, Cash. Wake up. My dragon wants to talk to you." Cash stirred and opened an eye. He made to speak but Cary put a finger to his lips. "I said, my dragon wants to speak to you." Cash's eyes went wide and Cary winked meaningly. "What dragon?" Cash said. "There aren't any such…" "You see?" Pythagoras said. "That dragon," Cary said. "And in point of fact," Pythagoras continued fussily. "I'm not your dragon. I'm not anybody's dragon…" Cary was rather too excited to register the fact that Pythagoras suddenly seemed to be bilingual. "A real dragon?" Cash demanded. "Of course a real dragon," Cary said. "And he wants our help." "I don't see any dragon," Cash said. "Where? Where is it?" "Oh Cash," Cary said. "You have to believe. Please believe. If you don't believe, you can't come." "What dragon?" Cash said. "What does it look like?" "Well, it's very small. Tiny." Cary stopped and switched to Welsh. "Are you always this small?" she said to Pythagoras, who was now perched on her hand. "What do you mean, small?" Pythagoras bridled. "As it happens, I can assure you that while I may be small at this precise moment, I am nevertheless perfectly formed and I try always to adopt a size appropriate to the occasion." "Who are you talking to?" Cash demanded. "Why are you talking to yourself? And why are you speaking Welsh?" "The dragon," Cary said. "I'm talking to the dragon. Pythagoras von Drachenstein of the House of Hydra. You must be able to hear him at least?" "Have you gone nuts?" Cash said. "Oh stop it, Cash," Cary said, frustration welling up. "Stop being such… a boy." "Can I go back to sleep now?" "Cash," Cary said desperately. "Do you want to come on this adventure or not?" "Not if I have to believe in dragons," Cash mumbled. "Think of him as a pterodactyl." "Oh puh-leese," Pythagoras said. "So humiliating. I refuse to be a pterodactyl. A quetzalcoatlus at least." "All right," Cary said. "A quetzalcoatlus…" "Quetzalcoatl was a proper dragon, after all," Pythagoras sniffed. "If a trifle primitive." "All right!" Cary said. "Why do you keep talking to your hand," Cash demanded, waking up a bit. "Because there's a dragon sitting on it," Cary snapped. "Think of a quetzalcoatlus," she went on. "Can you do that?" "Of course," Cash said. "Now think of him breathing fire…" For a moment, nothing happened, then Cash snapped bolt upright. "Cary! Cary…!" he shouted. "There's a dragon sitting on your hand…" "Oh for goodness sake," Cary said. "Haven't I been trying to tell you that for the last five minutes?" "Quick," Cash said with great excitement. "Catch it. We'll put it in a shoebox and keep it. We can charge people to…" Of a sudden there was great roar and the dragon swelled hugely until he seemed to be filling the whole room. Cash cowered into the bed and a tongue of flame licked out, doing dreadful things to his eyebrows. There was a distinct smell of brimstone and burning hair. "Py!" Cary said sternly. "You stop that this instant or you'll wake Ichabod and he'll wake our parents and then…" The dragon shrank back down until he was again perched on her hand. "…And then we'll never be able to go with you," Cary finished. "Go with him where?" Cash said warily. "So don't ever do that again," Cary added for good measure. "Not without warning anyway." "And why's he called Pythagoras?" Cash demanded, regaining his courage as the dragon hung his head, just like Ichabod when Cary was using that particular tone of voice. "Pythagoras did theorems or something," Cash added. "Excuse me!" the dragon retorted, suddenly recovering. "The Python, after whom I am honoured to be named, happens to be the earth-dragon who guarded Delphi, the navel of the earth, long before some jumped-up philosopher stole his name, our name. Really! Such ignorance. I told you boys are a waste of time." "Now, look here," Cash said. "I've had just about enough…" "Oh do shut up," Cary said. "Or you'll ruin everything. Again." Cash subsided, but very mutinously. "Now," Cary continued. "Pythagoras, I apologise for my brother's rudeness and will you please tell us how we can help. What do we have to do?" "You," Pythagoras said. "Not him. You have to recover the Amulet of Annwfn. Morgan le Fay has concealed it in the Labyrinth of Lamentation. Only a maiden, a small maiden, may enter the enchanted tunnels and confront the guardian." "And what exactly is this guardian?" Cary asked, thoughtfully. Pythagoras paused. "Think of your worst fear," he said at last, "And then double it." "Oh dear," Cary said. "That does sound rather grim." But Cash let out a hoot of laughter. "Easy, peasy, Japanesy," he said. "Your worst fear is failing an exam." Cary and Pythagoras looked at each other with exactly the same, long-suffering expression. "Phht," Pythagoras said. Cash reared hastily back from the spurt of flame. "Are you sure you want him to come?" Pythagoras went on. "I could just send him back to sleep." "Sorry," Cash muttered. "Perhaps it would be best," Cary said austerely. "I said I was sorry," Cash said. The others regarded him with strong disfavour. "I'll behave," he said. "I promise. Really." "All right," Cary said reluctantly. "So where do we have to go and what should I wear." "A long way," Pythagoras said. "We have to go a long time from here. And I think we should consult your wardrobe." "What about me?" Cash said. "What do I wear?" "Clothes," Pythagoras said waspishly. "Whatever you like. It could scarcely make any difference. But the Lady Carys will be meeting a prince and should look her best." In the end, practicality won and they settled on Cary's best pair of jeans, stout riding boots, a crisp white shirt, and navy-blue pullover to set off her short blonde hair. On being informed that it would still be early winter at their destination, Cary also insisted on taking her waterproof down parka. Pythagoras gave one last, longing look at her special party dress sitting lonely and unloved on a hanger right at the back and sighed. It was actually pretty enough in a most old-fashioned way, but as it happened Cary hated the frock, all frou-frou and frills wished on her by her great-grandmother, a lady so ancient and acid that Cary had decided she must live exclusively on lemon juice. She had worn the dress once under protest, after dire threats from her mother, and had no intention of ever wearing it again. "Oh do be sensible, Py," Cary said. "I'm not crawling through any Labyrinth of Lamentation in that, prince or no prince. Besides, it would look even more stupid with riding boots." "But…" "No." "It's so…" "No." "I could pack it…" "No. And what sort of a dragon is so interested in clothes, anyway?" "A refined, civilised dragon with a classical Greek education," Pythagoras smirked. "Well then, you ought to have more taste," Cary shot back. "So cruel," Pythagoras said. "Can we go?" Cary demanded. "Can we please just get Cash and go?" Pythagoras made a moue, which Cary thought, all things considered, was downright alarming. However, the dragon sketched another pattern with his tail and an instant later, Cash had joined them, rather breathless and dishevelled. He was dressed much the same as Cary and bundled up in their thick jackets it was hard to tell them apart. But unlike Cary, Cash had thought to put a few useful items in his pockets, or at least items he thought might be useful: the excellent pocket knife his father had given him for his birthday, the length of cord and the small can of waterproof matches that his father had also taught him always to carry, half a packet of chewing gum and his favourite, all- time champion cats-eye that had never lost a game of marbles and never would even if he had to cheat, as he had no intention of ever surrendering it to anyone. "Right," Pythagoras said, suddenly all business. "Pay attention. What's about to happen is not without danger." He allowed himself to expand until he was about the same size as the twins. "Each of you stand behind me and take hold of one of my wings down at the shoulder, and whatever you do, don't let go. Are we clear on that?" He looked sternly at Cash. "Are we very clear on that?" "What happens if we do let go?" Cash said with interest. "You will be lost forever in the mists of time," Pythagoras replied with satisfaction and Cash was instantly very serious. "So," Pythagoras continued. "Hold on for your lives." This time he put his tail through a very elaborate dance indeed, and a second or two later they were engulfed in thick, swirling fog that jerked and tore at them. From time to time they would catch glimpses of strange places and events. Once a squadron of mounted riders with muskets and half-armour came cantering out of the mist to vanish an instant later. At another moment they seemed to be in the middle of battle between fleets of antiquated, square-rigged ships popping at each other with ineffectual cannon. Then, finally, the fog cleared and they found themselves hovering above an army on the march. It was a Roman legion in full battle order swinging along a Roman road. "Whoops," Pythagoras said. "A bit too far, but close." The fog descended again and this time when it cleared, they found themselves in a dank, dripping forest. "Where on earth are we?" Cary asked, recovering her breath. A drop of water ran down her neck and she hurriedly put up her hood as the rain came on again. "Home," Pythagoras said. "Oh no," Cash said. "I knew I never should never have believed in dragons." "Phht," Pythagoras snapped, flame gushing. "Feel free to cease any time you like." "Stop it both of you," Cary said, and then: "Where exactly is home?" "Temporary home," Pythagoras said. "We are in the forest near Isca Silurum. You might know it as Caerleon." "Where they have King Arthur's round table?" Cary said. "Rubbish," Cash said. "It's not the round table, just an old Roman amphitheatre. For the fort. They just call it the round table." He looked to Pythagoras. "That's all it is, isn't it?" he demanded. "Just an amphitheatre…We went to the museum there. With the school." The dragon cocked his head. "Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't," he said. "We don't know yet. Not until we know if the Lady Carys survives. Come on." "Where are we going?" Cary asked, suppressing a sudden shiver at the mention of her survival, or more ominously her lack of it. It would be all right, she told herself firmly. Pythagoras was bound to be exaggerating the danger, just trying to frighten her. "To find the others," Pythagoras said. "The others? Who are they? And why can't you just…?" "They have to move around," Pythagoras said. "The Saxons are hunting them. Morgan le Fay's Saxons. I don't know where they are exactly, so we have to walk." "We could fly," Cash said hopefully. "And if you know more or less where we are, then when exactly are we?" Cary said. The question suddenly seemed the most important of all. "The trees are too thick," Pythagoras said to Cash. "We might miss them." "When are we?" Cary insisted. The dragon looked distinctly caught out and uncomfortable. Cash felt a flush of fellow feeling. "When?" Cary said unrelentingly. "492 AD," Pythagoras mumbled. Cash and Cary looked at each other, their eyes widening. "When?" Cash said. "492 AD," Pythagoras said a little louder. "Or CE if you must." "What's CE?" Cash said. "Never mind," Cary said. "We're a long time ago. A very long time. We haven't even been born yet. Our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandparents haven't even been born yet. Or theirs." "Cool," Cash said. "Does that mean we're older than Mum and Dad and we can tell them what to do?" "Honestly!" Cary and Pythagoras both said simultaneously. "I told you," Pythagoras added. "But no. You said he had to come too." "I'm hungry," Cash said. "Can we go? I mean if we have to walk, can we please get a move on?" And a weary walk it turned out to be. Pythagoras shrank himself down as small as a mosquito and perched inside Cary's hood to give directions. His voice now sounded so much like a whine that she found she had to keep resisting the temptation to slap at him, a temptation that became stronger and stronger the longer they tramped on through the mud and the dripping fir trees. Cash was already down to his last piece of chewing gum and firmly resisted the temptation to offer it to Cary. It was altogether miserable - grey, wet and freezing cold - and Cary, herself, was longing for the warm bed and the cosy quilt she had so recently left behind. At last they heard a sound that didn't belong in the wilderness. A distant axe-blow rang through the forest, and again. Pythagoras zoomed out from Cary's hood and expanded to the size of a swallow. He perched on the top of her head, using a wing as an umbrella. He listened a moment longer and then let out a satisfied puff of smoke. "That's them," he said. "Who?" Cash said. "And I don't suppose you could dry off my jeans a bit? Breathe a bit of fire my way?" "Nothing I'd like better," Pythagoras snarled and Cash very quickly dropped back to what he conceived to be a safe distance. "Who are we talking about?" he asked again. But Pythagoras made no reply and Cary just ploughed on, trying to ignore the saturated undergrowth that whipped and tore at her. They emerged finally into a clearing that had been recently carved from the woods. There were numbers of stumps still sticking out of the ground and smaller logs set about them for stools. It rather had the look of a very down-at-heel al fresco café, Cary thought. A group of men were gathered in the centre listlessly watching what was apparently meant to be a fire as it grudgingly leaked forth a faint tendril of smoke and steam. "Phht," Pythagoras said, flame sparking. "Calls himself a wizard and he can't light a fire to save his life." Men turned at the sound of his voice, and the bent figure crouching before the pile of wet wood making cabbalistic gestures looked up. "About time," he said. "Do something about this, will you?" From his perch on Cary's head, the dragon let loose a jet of fire that sent the wizard tumbling hastily backwards on to the soaking ground. The pile of wood began to crackle and flame. The wizard picked himself up and shook his robes fretfully. "That was quite uncalled for," he said. "Downright uncouth." "My dear sir," Pythagoras retorted. "You are quite the last person to call anyone uncouth…" "All dragons should be drowned at birth," the wizard snapped back. "And then who would ever light your fires for you…" Cary listened with amusement. The wizard she could see, now that he was no longer crouching, was tall and skinny but also twisted and gnarled like an old tree. He waved his arms around distractedly, branches thrashing in the wind, and his straggly beard and sparse grey hair might have been wisps of mistletoe if only they had been green. His robes resembled nothing so much as bark, very crusty, lived-in bark, and it was clear that he and the dragon were long accustomed to bickering with each other. The wizard eventually stopped fussing over his muddy robes and began to inspect Cary. As an afterthought he also paid some passing attention to Cash. "Introduce me," he said at last. "Immediately, your wisdom," the dragon said sarcastically. "Lady Carys, may I present the Wizard Myrddin Wylt. Wizard, I present the Lady Carys Cadwagan." The wizard stepped forward and offered his hand. His eyes, unlike the rest of him, were clean, sharp and of a blue so piercing that one expected to find an eagle circling there in the vault of the midday sky. "So," Myrddin said. "You're the young lady sent to save us all from perdition. Think you're up to it then?" Cary's mouth opened foolishly and she groped for a reply. Then she heard her mother saying as she had once before when Cary had suffered a particularly bad day at school: "Little flower, when all else fails, attack." "I have no idea," Cary said. "But by the look of it, I could hardly do a worse job than you." There was a guffaw from the men standing round the fire and the dragon let out an appreciative spurt of flame. Myrddin said nothing, just continued to gaze at her. Cary felt herself beginning to flush but she refused to drop her eyes. At last the wizard spoke. "Good," he said. "And who is this?" He indicated Cash. "My brother," Cary said. "Cash, that is Cassian…" "And precisely why is he here? We don't need him. We don't want him." "I want him," Cary said. "Besides, he'd never forgive me if I had an adventure like this without him." Now that the conversation had turned to him, Cash could contain himself no longer. "If you're who I think you are," he said to the wizard. "Shouldn't you be called Merlin?" The wizard spluttered angrily and raised his hand threateningly above his head as though to cast a deadly spell. Pythagoras laughed. "Merde, Myrddin," he said. "You can't blame the boy for Geoffrey of Monmouth…" "That charlatan!" the wizard roared. "Liar! Hack!" "Geoffrey who?" Cary said. "Journalist!" Myrddin sneered. "A chronicler," Pythagoras said. "A long time in the future. He decided that Myrddin sounded too much like a very rude French word, so he changed it to Merlin…" "Without so much as a by-your-leave," Myrddin added. "Typical journalist. They never, ever get names right." "Oh," Cash said politely. "I'm sorry you have a rude name…" Pythagoras spluttered. The men by the fire spluttered. Myrddin spluttered but in a different key altogether, his eyes sparked dangerously and he raised his hand again threateningly on high. A striking young man stepped forward, tall, well-built and every inch a warrior, though like everyone else his clothing was dirty and ragged. "Enough," he said. "These people brave unknown dangers and risk their lives to help us. They are our guests. And we will treat them as such," he added, with a meaning glance towards the wizard. "I am Arthur," he went on. "Which is Bear-man in the old language. A lot of people still call me Bear for short." "You're not King Arthur?" Cary asked, wonderingly. "Merlin… sorry, Myrddin… Arthur… You must be…?" "Not yet," Pythagoras said. "And not likely to be," Myrddin said morosely. "At least, not without your help," Arthur said. "At the moment, I am merely a prince. A prince without a throne or even many subjects. Just these few." He gestured at the men standing behind him. The rain had stopped, Cary realised, without her noticing it and the now roaring fire was at least giving the illusion of heat. The light of the flames danced and flickered about the clearing as the night drew in. From somewhere, men had dragged out the flayed carcass of a deer and were setting up a spit to roast it. Cash eyed it hungrily. "Come," Arthur said. "Come Lady Carys." He gestured to the stools about the tree stumps. "We will sit and eat and talk. And you shall hear, if you will, how it may be that you can help us." "Phht," Pythagoras muttered with a subdued spark but loud enough for everyone to hear. "Another night at the round tables." Cash chuckled. Despite himself, he was beginning to like the dragon. And he must remember to find out why his name had suddenly been changed to Cadwagan. What did it mean, he wondered? Chapter Two With ceremony that seemed to conjure a whole court of lords and ladies from the dank clearing in the forest, Arthur escorted Cary and Cash to a tree stump table near the fire and its grateful warmth. A warrior pulled up seats for them and Cary was suddenly concerned to arrange herself as gracefully as possible. Cash, quite unabashed, slumped down in his usual careless fashion. Myrddin joined them and Pythagoras, again about the size of a swallow, came to sit on Cary's shoulder. Unthinkingly, she reached up to stroke his chest. His skin, despite the scales, felt surprisingly smooth and silky. He let out a small sound of pleasure which, if he had been a cat, might have been a purr. Dragons would not often find someone to stroke them, Cary thought. It must be a rather lonely life. "So," Arthur said. "I expect there are matters you wish to discuss." "No need to bother their heads," Myrddin snapped. "Send the girl in to get the amulet and then send them home. Let's get on and be done with it." "What amulet?" Cash demanded. "What's Annwfn? Why can't you use your own maidens? I don't understand any of this." Cary looked superior but as usual was grateful for Cash asking the awkward questions. It was her most irritating habit. Arthur looked at Myrddin, who shrugged. "Too tedious," he said. "You tell them." Cash was about to make an angry retort but Arthur put a hand on his shoulder. "Gently, young squire," he said. "Wizards are best not provoked, unless perhaps you happen to be a dragon with magic of your own." He paused. "Annwfn, we believe, is the world beyond this. A place of delights and eternal youth, where there is no disease or war and where there is all the food you can eat for the taking." "You mean heaven," Cary said. "If that is what you call it," Arthur said. "We believe the gateway is to be found at Ynys Witrin, which some call Avalon. And we believe that on a chosen day of the year the gateway would open and that all who were near would be invited within to feast and drink and dance, on condition that no one would return to the real world bearing anything that belonged to Annwfn. All was well until one year a maid put a flower in her hair, a white orchid, a star, and in the joy of all that took place, forgot to remove it before returning. The gateway never opened again." "Oh dear," Cary said. "But what happened?" "The orchid was taken by a magus and set by enchantment within a diamond of great size. He called it the Star of Hope, our hope of again reaching Annwfn. And he set the diamond within a great golden torq, together with a great ruby he called the Flame of Courage, a great emerald he called the Clear Green Pool of Knowledge and a great pearl, the Pearl of Wisdom. And the torq, the Amulet of Annwfn, he presented to my forebears as the pride of the nation and the symbol of all we hold dear." Arthur paused again. "It has been stolen," he said. "A certain party," Pythagoras chimed in. "A certain party, naming no names, was not quite so clever with his warding spell as he might have been." "That wretched woman," Myrddin said angrily. "How was I to know she'd stolen my recipe book…?" "The one that just miraculously fell out of your sleeve…" Pythagoras said. "It could happen to anyone," Myrddin said. "Anyway," Arthur said. "Morgan le Fay now has the amulet." "But what does that matter?" Cash said. "I mean, I understand that having someone nick your best jewels would make you pretty cross but…?" "Ignorant boy," Myrddin snapped. "Why is he here?" "Phht," Pythagoras said with what the twins already recognised was his signature spurt of flame. "To keep you honest, of course." Cash looked at him sharply. The dragon winked. "It matters," Arthur said, "Because my Britons are bereft. Without the magic amulet of their fathers, which also happens to be the mark of the king, they have lost their hope and they have lost their courage and without hope, without courage, without knowledge and wisdom there is no changing your fate. These few brave men who follow me are no match for Brogan and his Saxons. They are no match for Morgan le Fay. Without the people we are just a tiny band of rebels, we are doomed, but the people have no more stomach to fight and never will without the amulet to give them heart." "Which," Pythagoras said to Cary, "Is where you come in." "But what about your own maidens?" Cash insisted. "Alas," Arthur said. "Of those who had the courage to try, when my people still had their courage, none has returned." "Whoa," Cash said, his voice rising. "You want my sister to risk her life…?" He leaped to his feet. Cary flashed him a look of gratitude. Whatever his faults, Cash could always be relied on to spring to her defence. "She doesn't really have a choice," Myrddin said quietly, unusually quietly for him. "See that tall man by the fire. He is Cai Hir. He will be known as Kay in years to come. He is your ancestor. Without the amulet he too is doomed, as are you in turn. You will never exist. Y Ddraig Goch has seen it." "Who?" Cash said mystified. "The Red Dragon," Cary said. "The Welsh dragon. The one on our flag." "So where is he if he knows so much?" Cash demanded, still standing, his jaw thrust out belligerently. "In the Cavern of Cold Despair," Pythagoras said. "He was lured into a trap." Myrddin snorted. "Drank himself into a stupor, you mean." Cash and Cary both looked to Arthur. He sighed. "Things have not being going well," he said. Myrddin snorted again. "It was Morgan le Fay," Arthur continued. "She had Brogan and his men dig a great pit where she knew Y Ddraig Goch would pass. They filled it with mead." "And the great fool of a dragon drank the lot," Myrddin said gloomily. "Can you credit that, my young wide-eyes?" "What happened?" Cary asked. "Morgan le Fay happened," Pythagoras said. "Y Ddraig Goch fell into drunken sleep and she enchanted him into the cavern. He can't get out. He's too big for the entrance." "But can't he change…? Like you…?" Cary said. "Phht," Pythagoras said. "He's a rough, northern dragon. All sturm and drang. No subtlety. I tried to show him but he's stuck. At least until that… wizard gets back his recipe book. The best Y Ddraig Goch could do was to send me to look for you." And Pythagoras shot Myrddin a withering glance. "He can see the future?" Cary asked. "The Welsh future. The future of the Celts, the true Britons." "Hang on," Cash said. "If we're there in the future then everything must have turned out all right here without us. We can just go back. Right now. Come on, Cary…" "But," Arthur said. "I'm afraid you're not in the future yet, that you won't be, unless somehow things do turn out all right here." "Oh," Cash said and then: "It still doesn't make sense. If things haven't turned out, then we're not in the future, and you can't bring us back…" "Unless you're figments of our imagination," Myrddin said. "Which I'm beginning to think would be infinitely preferable." Cash looked at Cary in despair. "My head hurts," he said. "I think I understand," she said. "Things turned out because they did bring us back and wouldn't have if they hadn't. Or something. Anyway, don't you want to find out what happens…?" "Not if you have to risk your life." "But if we don't exist, if I'm just a… figment, then it doesn't matter." Cash suddenly reached out and pinched her. "Ouch!" Cary said crossly. "Why did you do that?" "Did it hurt?" Cash demanded. "You know it did." "Then it matters," Cash said. "It matters very much." "Phht," Pythagoras said with his regulation squirt of flame. "There might actually be some hope for the boy, after all." The aroma from the roasting venison had been growing steadily more irresistible and just when Cash thought he might faint with hunger, men began to hand around rough clay platters of bread and meat. "You are fortunate," Arthur said to Cash and Cary, pulling his knife from the scabbard on his hip and cutting their food for them. "We eat well tonight." Cash looked at him, his mouth full. "We often don't eat at all," Arthur said. "But Peredur brought down a deer this morning." Myrddin inspected his plate with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. "I asked for well done," he said discontentedly. "This is still half-raw. Lend me the dragon, girl." Pythagoras huffed up on Cary's shoulder. "No," he said. "I won't do it. I categorically will not." "You will if you know what's good for you," Myrddin said. "It's so undignified," Pythagoras sniffed, but nevertheless allowed Myrddin to pick him up. A moment later he was breathing fire on the wizard's plate like a miniature blowtorch. Smoke began to rise. "Turn it down," Myrddin said. "I said well done, not burnt to a crisp." The dragon abruptly stopped. "Do it yourself then, if you're so fussy," he said. Cary remembered the question she'd been meaning to ask almost from the first. "So Py…" she said. "Py," Myrddin snorted. "Dragon pie, and it might be better than this at that," he said, surveying his now charred venison. "Py," Cary said again. "What are you doing here? How do you fit into all this?" "I," Pythagoras said with aplomb, "am on a quest." Myrddin tittered rather nastily. "For what?" Cary asked. "That is my secret and my burden," Pythagoras said. He returned to Cary's shoulder and again she stroked his chest. If anyone had been paying proper attention they might have realised that the dragon had quickly closed his eyes to hide the look of bliss sparking deep with them. "And there's another question," Cash said. "The most important of all. That nobody wants to talk about. What is this guardian exactly? The one you want my sister to pass." The people about them dropped their eyes and Arthur looked extremely guilty. Pythagoras shifted uncomfortably on Cary's shoulder and abruptly stopped purring. "We are not sure," Arthur said. "We are not sure," he said again, after a long pause. "But…" Cash prompted. Cary watched her brother with surprise. She was suddenly seeing a side of him that she had never dreamed existed. No longer was he the klutzy boy everybody dismissed out of hand but serious and determined and apparently not the least bit afraid of these strange adults, strange in every sense of the word. She had always loved Cash dearly and looked to him for fun and mischief, but now she found that she was also proud of him, and grateful. "But…" Cash insisted. "But we think it's a Donestre," Arthur said at last. The twins looked at each other blankly. "Head of a lion, body of a man," Myrddin said abruptly. "And charming habits." "And you expect Cary…" Cash was suddenly shouting with indignation. "Gently, young squire," Arthur said. "Deal with it yourselves," Cash fumed. "We would if we could," Arthur said. "The labyrinth is enchanted," Pythagoras said. "Even I can't enter. Only a maiden, a small maiden…" "And Myrddin's lost his recipe book," Arthur said quietly. For once, the wizard had the grace to look uncomfortable. There was a long silence. "What do Donestres do?" Cary asked at last in a small voice. This adventure in which they had somehow become entangled suddenly seemed altogether too real. "It might be better if you don't know," Arthur said. "What do they do?" Cash demanded doggedly. "You tell them, Pythagoras," Myrddin said. "You've actually met some." "I'd rather not," Pythagoras said. "Tell them," Myrddin said. "Donestres come from an island in the Red Sea," Pythagoras said at last, most reluctantly. "They are suave and charming, they have second sight and they speak every language ever known which makes it easy for them… to gain the confidence of and then to prey on travellers." "What do they do to travellers?" Cary asked, her voice now the merest whisper. "They eat them," Pythagoras said sadly. "Everything but the heads. Then they weep. Inconsolably. From remorse." "But that's just a story," Cash said after a long moment. "It has to be. Just a stupid story." "We call it the Labyrinth of Lamentation," Arthur said. "Because if you wait at the entrance, sometimes you may hear the sound of weeping. Weeping to freeze the blood." "And you expect Cary…?" Cash shouted. He was furious. "How…?" "We don't know," Arthur said. "We only know she must," Myrddin said. "Somehow." "She can't," Cash said. "I won't let her." "But I must," Cary said. "They're right. Or we won't exist." It was an easy enough thing to say, but later in a rough bough shelter trying to huddle between the drips, Cary felt very small and alone. She had never thought about whether she was brave or not, she had never really needed to. She had certainly never needed to think about risking her life in cold blood and she was not at all sure whether she would be able to go through with it, whether when the time came she would ever be able to walk up to the entrance of the labyrinth and then bring herself to head down the narrow, twisting tunnels towards the Donestre. Somehow the other girls had faced the fear and marched in to their doom and Cary felt a tear or two gathering as she thought about how courageous they had been and how much they must have loved their families and their way of life to volunteer for such a dreadful fate. What had they been thinking? What plans had they made to try to defeat the Donestre and recover the amulet? What could she do? How could she avoid becoming just another useless sacrifice? Cash stirred. The twins were lying back to back, still in all their clothes on a layer of pine branches. It was freezing, even colder now they were deep into the night. "Are you awake?" Cash whispered. "Shsh," Cary whispered back. He sat up and lent over her. "This is crazy," he said. "They can't make you do it." "They're not making me," Cary said. "I have to do it or we won't exist." "I don't want to exist," Cash said. "Not if you have to go into those tunnel things." Cary groped for his hand and gave it a squeeze. It was icy cold, she noticed. "It's all right," she said. "It will be all right." "It's not all right," Cash whispered fiercely. "It's all that stupid wizard's fault, losing his recipe book…" "He couldn't help it. Accidents happen." "And that dumb dragon. Why did he ever have to come and get us?" "I love Pythagoras," Cary said, and realised as she said it that she was speaking the literal truth. Pythagoras was the most marvellous thing that had ever happened to her. "It's not all right," Cash said again and then had a sudden idea. "I could go," he said. "If we muss our hair the same way, they'll never tell the difference." Cary squeezed his hand again. "I love you too," she said, touched beyond measure. "But even if they don't notice, I think the enchantment might. You have to be a girl to get through." "We could try," Cash said and then, "I have to do something." "Well help me think how to beat the Donestre." They fell silent, a silence that became gloomier by the second. "A challenge?" Cash said at last. "A riddle game, maybe?" Cary laughed despite herself. "You might win a riddle game but I never would." "A spelling contest?" "They know every language and have second sight." "Well then," Cash said. "Just a spell?" "A spell?" "Magic. Can they teach you magic? Wake up the dragon. How can he sleep at a time like this anyway?" Cary reached inside her parka to where a tiny Pythagoras was snuggled up in the hollow of her collar bone, which was lovely for him but a touch prickly for her. Nor was he best pleased at being woken, but Cash was in no mood to apologise as the dragon expanded himself to a reasonable size. "You got her into this," Cash said bluntly. "So you've got to get her out of it." "Or at least help, please," Cary added as diplomatically as she could. "How?" Pythagoras said grumpily. "You can't send her in there with no way to defend herself," Cash said. "She'll just get eaten alive like all the others and you'll be no better off. What's the point?" "Y Ddraig Goch said she would be able to find a way." "Ridiculous," Cash said. "He has faith in her," Pythagoras said. "And so do I." "So how would you fight the Donestre if you were Cary?" "I… I… I would…" Pythagoras came to a stop. "See?" Cash said. "Py," Cary said. "Could you teach me some magic?" "If we had 20 years to spare…" "Or give her a potion or something?" Cash said. "What do you mean a potion?" Cary said. "I don't know," Cash said. "Poison or…" "A potion?" Pythagoras said. "I don't do potions, far too smelly, but Myrddin…" "Has lost his stupid recipe book," Cash said. "Then maybe we should get it back," Cary said. "Phht," Pythagoras said with the usual spark of flame. "Sounds like a plan," Cash said. He and Cary lay down again, pressed against each other for warmth, and Pythagoras sneaked back inside the girl's jacket. Already Cary was very dear to him. He was grateful the boy was so determined to help her and reproached himself for not seeing the necessity himself. It was all very well for Y Ddraig Goch to express confidence in her native wit, but Pythagoras of anyone knew that a Donestre was no light adversary. The morning was distinguished from the night before only by a slight shifting of the black to grey. If anything it was even more miserable. The twins were handed bowls of gluey oatmeal and rough wooden spoons. "Hurry up," one of Arthur's band said to them. "We don't have enough spoons to go round." Cash took a tentative taste and almost retched. "I don't think I'm hungry," he said. "I'll just have some water… please," he added as an afterthought. Cary, watching his face, handed back her bowl without a word. Arthur grimaced. "I'm sorry," he said sympathetically. "It's all we have. You should try to eat some." "Maybe later," Cary said. "But only if we're actually starving," Cash added without thinking. "Cash!" Cary said. "Sorry," he muttered. Arthur laughed. "Let us hope things don't get quite that bad then," he said. Pythagoras came up. At the moment he was about the size of a large Shetland pony, which was as big as he could make himself. "Where is the wizard?" he said. "Here," Myrddin said. He was huddled morosely by the smoking fire. "Do something about this, will you?" Pythagoras lashed at the wet wood with a jet of flame until it was blazing. "So what do you and Arthur intend?" he said at last. "Take the maiden to the labyrinth," Myrddin said shortly. "Send her in. What else?" "Not good enough," Pythagoras retorted. "None of your business," Myrddin snapped back. "On the contrary, the Lady Carys is under my protection." "Since when?" Myrddin demanded. "Have you gone soft on the girl?" "Since it became clear to me that you're an old fool and he's a young fool," Pythagoras said, indicating Arthur. "You're just sending another maiden to a pointless death." "Y Ddraig Goch said…" "Y Ddraig Goch is a bigger fool than both of you. A drunken fool." "He prophesied," Arthur said. "He has seen. She is the one. You brought her." "How would you, O mighty princeling, confront the Donestre?" Pythagoras demanded, picking up on the point Cash had made. It was clear the dragon was working himself into a temper. "How would you, a maiden, fight a creature half man, half lion, and four times your size for your life?" Arthur said nothing, but his face grew thoughtful. It was Myrddin who was unwise enough to answer. "What's that got to do with it," he said testily. "The prophecy is clear. She's the one." "Is that all you can say, old man?" Pythagoras roared. Abruptly, he reared up on his hind legs, lashing his tail, and another jet of flame shot from his mouth, close enough for Myrddin to step back hastily. "Do you dare to threaten me?" Myrddin roared back. He raised his hand high above his head. Cary stepped between them quickly and hurried to the dragon. "Py," she said. "Please." She came only a little above his waist now and could be swatted aside effortlessly should the dragon choose. "Pythagoras," she insisted. "Down, sir! I'm very grateful but this isn't helping." There was a long, tense pause and then the dragon allowed himself to subside. "Thank you, Py," Cary said. "Dear Py…" Something glowed deep in the dragon's eyes and no one in the clearing was in the least doubt that henceforward they would deal with Cary at their peril. Myrddin huffed to himself for a moment and then had enough sense to sit down again. "What do you suggest?" Arthur said at last. "That we give the Lady Carys means to defend herself," Pythagoras said. "How?" Arthur said. "We tried weapons with the others. They could not pass into the labyrinth until the swords were discarded." "A petrification potion," Pythagoras said. "The wizard shall provide." "I can't," Myrddin said tiredly. "You know that." "Phht," the dragon said. "Then it's time we recovered your book." Arthur scratched a rough map into the floor of the clearing. "Here," he said, "is the old Roman fort and the city of Isca Silurum, which we call Caerleon, by the Afon Wysg…" "That's our Usk," Cash said. "The River Usk… I'm sure it is. And where we live must be way up here…" "As may come to pass," Arthur over-rode him. "And this is the side-stream, the Afon Llwyd and there the Sor Brook. Now here on the south bank of the Wysg, where the water has cut deep into the hillside, is a precipice and the entrance to the labyrinth. We are here, to the north, hidden in the hills and the forest. Morgan le Fay and the Saxons now hold the city and have enslaved my people." "Where is Y Ddraig Goch?" Cary asked. "Dragons," Myrddin muttered. "With this girl, always dragons…" "Many leagues distant," Arthur said. "Many, many league

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