For Michael, who earned a bit more than he asked for though his incredible generosity.
“Dragon! Dragon!” The cry broke the quiet. Lyna froze. She looked up. A few dozen yards away, Gerla stood frozen too. The cry came from further away, from the look-out standing in the long yellow grass at the edge of the forest, close to the line of trees that marked a little brook. If you looked hard enough, on a clear day, you could see for miles from there, on up the gently sloping fields towards the line of hills in the distance that were the moors. There were dragons up on the moors. There was a time when there had been dragons everywhere.
“Dragon!” The lookout was Lyna’s little brother, Pazile, although everyone called him Paz. She could see him now, running up through the grass, lifting his little legs up so high it looked like he was dancing. Paz was nine years old, and in places the grass was taller than he was. Gerla had already started to run, the other women from the village too, all of them bolting deeper into the trees, to the shelter they had waiting for them. Lyna should run too, she knew that, but Paz was her brother and he was only little. It wasn’t fair, when you were nine, to be the last. So she ran towards him, out into the fringes of the grass.
He waved frantically at her. “Lyna! Dragons! You have to run!”
“I’m waiting for you!”
She wasn’t supposed to and they both knew it, but she could see the relief on his face. He was terrified. Paz had never seen a dragon before. Neither had Lyna, not close enough to be anything more than a dot in the sky, but some of the village men had. Dragons had come once, with men on their backs, right to the edge of the forest. The stories of that time were the most terrible stories Lyna knew, of fire and murder, of men and women dragged screaming from their huts and the whole village set on fire. Dragons were death. Them and the men who rode them.
Paz reached her. He clutched at her shirt and bent over, catching his breath. After a moment, he half turned and pointed up at the sky and looked at her, all at once.
“Dragon!” he said.
He had good eyes, that’s why he’d been chosen, but Lyna could see them now. They were coming from the moors, high up in the air, and not just one or two, which was how dragons usually came. No, today there was a whole cloud of them, a swarm. There must have been a hundred, a haze of distant dark specks in the air.
“Come on!” Paz pulled Lyna’s arm. “They’re coming this way!” And he was right, they were coming straight towards the forest. They were miles away, but dragons flew fast. Lyna turned to run.
Lyna’s village was, if it wanted to be, invisible. A man on the ground could walk right through it, and if the ladders to the tree-houses had been pulled up and the trapdoors down to the tunnels pulled down, he wouldn’t even know it was there. There were plenty of reasons why the forest-dwellers would want to hide. When men came, more often than not it was with swords and nets and cages, and they came to take slaves. The worst menace were the snappers, the man-eating lizards that tore through the forest in packs. Too fast to flee, too strong to fight, so Lyna and her kin hid up in the trees, out of their reach and out of their sight, and if a snapper pack came through, that’s where they stayed until the lizards moved on. Dragons, they were another matter. Dragons didn’t come into the forest much, not unless men led them and that hadn’t happened for years. The towering trees, hundreds of feet high and as wide as a house were too large even for a dragon to push down. The canopy above was a single unbroken sea of leaves and branches. A hard place to land and hard to get around, but that didn’t mean that dragons never came, and if they did, they could simply reach up with their long necks and pluck Lyna’s tree-house out of the branches. So for dragons, the village had tunnels. They were old and dark and smelly and hardly ever used, but Lyna’s kin had a long memory, and dragons in the forest hadn’t always been so rare.
When Lyna and Paz reached them, there were still men up on the surface, the village hunters, the handful strong enough and fast enough and brave enough (or stupid enough, if Lyna listened to her mother), to leave the forest and go foraging in the grasslands. They stood together, wary but not afraid, holding their long spears.
“Come on! Hurry!” they snapped at her, then saw Paz. “Was he your watcher?”
Lyna nodded, and when the men smiled, even if it was a grim smile, she knew that that meant everyone had come home. There wasn’t anyone missing, left out there, either lost or hurt or else strayed far enough that they simply hadn’t heard the warning. If there were women left behind, it was these men who would have gone searching.
“There were hundreds,” gasped Paz. The nearest of the men rolled his eyes and cast a glance at Lyna. He didn’t say a word but he didn’t have to – his eyes did it for him: how many really?
“He’s right!” Which wasn’t what they wanted to hear, so Lyna quickly added: “Well, maybe not hundreds, but there were lots, too many to count. They were coming off the moors and they were heading this way!”
The nearest man snorted and pushed Lyna and Paz towards the trapdoor. Lyna scurried down the steps. They were old and made of stone, worn by feet over countless years. All the tunnels were like that, lined with stone except in some places near the surface where tree roots had made cracks and split them apart and sometimes even crumbled them to bits. Where that had happened, the tunnels had been repaired with wooden beams by Lyna’s clan, the people who’d lived in the village here for more time than any of them could count. The stone – that had been there even before. As far as Lyna knew, it had been there when the world was made.
“Is it true?” whispered Paz. “Are the fire-times coming?”
Lyna held his hand and squeezed. Down in the tunnels there wasn’t much light – wasn’t any at all when the trapdoor was closed. “Who told you that?”
The trapdoor closed above them. Lyna had to feel her way down the rest of the steps, but she’d been down here enough times to know where things were. The steps were all the same, down and down, until there was a wonky one that wobbled a bit and then a few steps later they’d come to the bottom; then a passage to the right to get to the big hollowed-out place where everyone simply sat and waited for however long it was they needed to wait. By the time she reached the wonky step, she could hear the murmur of voices. Quiet. In the dark, everyone whispered.
“Uncle Bedev spends too much time out on the plains, that’s what it is. Fire-times?” Lyna laughed. “That’s just stories. Dragons burning the world? That’s silly. Everyone knows that dragons only come with men sitting on their backs and it’s the men who says what’s to burn and what’s not. Dragons, I reckon they’d be nice and friendly creatures if it wasn’t for their riders making them so mean.” The last bit was said for Paz. Secretly, Lyna hoped it might be true too, but no one had ever told a story with a dragon that was nice.
She whispered her way through the darkness and the huddle of villagers until she found their mother and their little brother and settled in beside them, all squashed together. The village was getting too big for the tunnels.
“The fire-times were long ago,” she whispered to Paz. “Not like now. That was when men were fighting men and they’d fly their dragons to war. There used to be great castles, huge things, with walls as high as the trees and thick as houses and towers as tall as mountains, and there were knights with shining silver armour and lances that gleamed in the sun, but all of that was nothing when the dragons came, because they just flew right over those walls and landed inside and they knocked down those towers with the lash of their tails, and they picked up the knights in their shiny armour and squeezed them tight in their fierce claws. Like squishing an egg, it was, when you hold it your fist and you give a bit of a squash and nothing happens and so you clench a bit tighter and there’s still nothing and so its bit tighter still and then squish splat and there’s all egg running over your fingers. Only it wasn’t eggs and bright yellow egg yolk but knights and dark red blood . . .”
“Lyna! Enough!” That was her mother. “You’ll frighten him.”
“Paz stood dragon-watch and he’s seen dragons too. Nothing frightens him now.” Paz gave a little snort of agreement. That was the way it was when you were children. You got bigger and faster and bolder and then one day they set you to dragon-watch and after that they all treated you a bit different, like you were more grown up.
“It’s just a story,” sniffed Lyna.
“You ask your uncle Bedev what happens when dragons come,” growled a voice in the dark. She couldn’t tell who it was. One of the old men who’d seen dragons close, back when the village had burned in her grandfather’s time.
“People die,” rumbled Bedev. Lyna jumped. She hadn’t heard him come down and settle close by. The hunting men were like that, almost like they could see in the dark.
“Bedev! Don’t frighten Paz,” snapped Lyna’s mother.
“He’s not a boy any more, Lianna. Dragons come, people die. Yes, maybe when the old dragon-knights fought each other then it was like Lyna says, but mostly they don’t fight, they come here, to people like us, and then it’s them in their armour with their swords and their monsters against us with nothing to do but scatter and run. You youngsters, you’d be the lucky ones. They’d take you as slaves to sell to those black-skinned bastards from over the sea. Pazile, they’d chain you to the oars of a galley and whip you every day . . .”
“They’d take you too, Lianna. But your aunt, your little brother, all the ones they can’t sell, do you know what they do? They round them up and murder them and then they have their dragons burn the bodies. It’s a smell you don’t forget, not ever, that burning.”
For a while, a silence fell. Then Bedev spoke again. “You want to know what we saw? Little Pazile was right. There were maybe a hundred of them. They were coming this way. And they were fighting. Dragons fighting dragons, even as they flew. I saw a pair of them fall together. It’s all changed out there. Something’s happened. The potion men don’t come any more. We saw their place last time we left the trees. It had been burned. They’re fighting each other again.”
There was thunder in the air the next morning. Dark clouds scurried overhead, barely seen past the canopy of leaves. The sun didn’t shine and the forest floor was cast into gloom. Rain and low clouds meant there wasn’t much chance of a dragon-watcher seeing anything until it was too late, and so Lyna and the other village women stayed away from the edge of the forest. Instead they went the other way, deeper in among the trees. There was plenty of food to be gathered that way too – hamberries later in the year and sometimes they’d work together to scale one of the mighty trees. Took half the village and all the rope they owned to do that, but when they came down again it was with basket after basket of delicious sweet sunfruit. Other times of the year they went looking for the dragonnut trees. This time of year there wasn’t much to be had up in the trees and so Lyna and the women kept their eyes on the ground. There were mushrooms – goldcaps and the like – and if you were lucky, the rare treat of a nest of spider-ants and the sweet syrup they fed to their grubs, if you didn’t mind the stings.
A distant rumble growled above the canopy of leaves. The air was thick and dim. Lyna walked quickly, following trails she’d learned as a child. There were places to go for mushrooms, over by the great caves where a stream twisted its way out from the depths of the forest. She never liked the caves because they were large enough that almost anything could have gone in there looking for shelter and a place to sleep. A bear was one thing, a pack of wolves she might have faced down, but there were snappers out here and nothing faced a snapper down except maybe a dragon, and even then Lyna wasn’t so sure.
There were fallen branches on the trail today, a few small ones at first, then getting bigger, as though there had been a raging storm the night before. The storm was coming right enough but it would be tonight – last night had been still as a mirrorpond; but as she came closer to the caves, she saw what had happened. One of the giant trees had fallen.
No, that wasn’t right – what she was seeing were still branches, but they were the massive branches that sprouted from the tops of the trees, still fifty feet long and as wide as uncle Bedev’s belly.
It started to rain. Under the canopy that didn’t matter much. The trees caught the water. Here and there, fat splats fell around her. She looked up. The canopy was ripped open as though some lightning bolt had been hurled from the sky and smashed through the branches up above. She could even see the scars on the trees, the long bright marks where branch and bark had been ripped away.
Closer still to the cave, the path petered into nothing. The rain was coming down steadily now, the distant thunder getting closer. In front of her, the ground had been ripped to shreds. Fresh earth lay scattered for dozens of yards either side of two great furrows, each as deep as a man and a hundred yards long. A huge gouge had been taken out of the trunk of one of the trees.
A dragon. A dragon on the ground! They’d have to hide in the tunnels for days! Weeks! What would they eat? But that didn’t matter because there was only one thing for it when a dragon came by and that was to hide. She turned back the way she’d come, the first shout on her lips . . . And froze. Back through the trees, fifty paces away, no more, a snapper was staring at her. Long strong legs, vicious sharp claws, all scales and fangs and muscle, bigger and faster and stronger than any man.
She screamed. Turned back and ran. That’s what you did. With a dragon, you hid. With a snapper, you ran and you climbed. She bolted for the caves, for the rocky crags above them. If she could reach them and climb . . . but she couldn’t – as the largest of the caves loomed in front of her, she could hear the ground shaking as the snapper pounded after her, gaining with every step, and she knew it was so close that she could never climb high enough before it reached her and so she went for the cave instead. She knew these caves. There were places she could hide. Nooks and crannies too small for a snapper to reach inside.
She sprinted into the gloom. The air was warm and damp. She didn’t dare slow down, and so she didn’t see the ridge of rock that lay across the flat bottom of the cave. It caught her foot and sent her flying and she screamed because she knew the snapper must be right behind her now and she’d never get back to her feet quickly enough . . . She closed her eyes but the bite didn’t come. When she opened her eyes again, the snapper was standing back at the cave mouth, staring at her. It took a step towards her and then danced nervously back again. Lyna watched it, didn’t dare take her eyes off it as she backed away.
Her hands touched the stone behind her. It was warm, almost hot.
There shouldn’t have been any stone behind her. She’d been coming to these caves since she was a child. She knew them, but how could they change? A rockfall?
The snapper started to come towards her again, slow and cautious steps. Lyna looked frantically around her. The cave was blocked! All the cracks and crevices she remembered, they were gone!
The snapper came on, still strangely wary. It stepped over the ridge that had tripped her. A ridge of stone that hadn’t been there the last time Lyna had come this way.
The ridge moved. She saw it clearly, rising up into the air behind the snapper, a silhouette against the light coming in from the mouth of the cave, slowly slowly lifting off the ground. She screamed again, and as she did, the hot stone behind her quivered and the ridge of stone that was now floating in the air whipped like a striking snake and grabbed the snapper around the neck. The snapper shrieked and scrabbled at the ground, but the thing coiled around it lifted it up now so it was hanging, twenty feet away from Lyna, and now the stone wall behind her was shifting. Lyna jumped away. She didn’t dare run out of the cave because that meant going past the thrashing snapper, but the rocks were moving. They were falling!
The snapper rose higher, and that was when Lyna saw that the moving rocks behind her weren’t rocks at all. They were the dragon. She’d walked right into a sleeping dragon, and the ridge that had tripped her up hadn’t been a ridge at all but a tail, and now the monster was rising up. She could see the shape of it, dark shadows within the gloom, a long neck, the endless tail, the huge head with the opening jaws, fangs as long as her arm, eyes like moons, towering over her.
It’s tail carried the squirming shrieking snapper to its mouth. It bit the monster in two and ate it. Lyna couldn’t move.
I will not eat you, little one, said the dragon. Lyna didn’t know how the dragon spoke – it’s mouth was still full of snapper, but the words were clear as though it had whispered them into her ear. Go. Run away. I do not wish to devour you, little one. The dragon moved again, lowering itself down, settling its head back onto the cave floor. Go! I am dying. Leave!
She bolted for the forest, too witless to even think, but at the edge of the cave, she stopped. Out of reach of the dragon’s tail, she paused. It was a dragon, the most terrible thing in the world, but it hadn’t eaten her. It had saved her from the snapper. And there was something about snappers that every forest girl knew. When you saw one, the first thing you did was look for its friends, creeping around behind you, because there were always more, never just the one. She hovered by the cave mouth, lingering, uncertain what to do. There would be more snappers between her and her home. That was almost sure. And there was a dragon behind her. She sat back against the stone and held her head in her hands.
“I don’t know what to do!” she cried to herself.
I do not wish to eat you, little one. Not today. So go!
“Well the snappers do wish to eat me,” she said. “So no.”
Do not come any closer. I am hungry, little one. As hungry as ancient mountains. My last days are here and it will do me no service to eat you, for I will die nonetheless, but we are as our makers intended, and the hunger cannot be denied for long.
“My name’s Lyna, not ‘little one’.” Lyna sat and shivered. If she didn’t look back into the cave, she could pretend that the dragon wasn’t quite real, that it was something she’d half-imagined, even if she knew that wasn’t true. That made it easier not to be scared of it. The snappers stayed real, though. They were out there. Everyone knew snappers and everyone knew someone who’d been eaten by one. There were plenty of people in the village who’d seen it. The dragon – much easier to pretend it wasn’t real.
I am Irresistible Song of the Wind Through the Waves, not ‘dragon’.
“Are you the dragon that fell out of the sky?”
“Why? Why did you fall.”
We fought. My wings were broken and so I fell, and now I die. The dragon must have sensed the twinge of sadness to Lyna’s thoughts. You mourn for me, little one? That is foolish. We are not like you. Already, a new egg awaits me. I will travel through the realm of the dead and find that egg and give my spark of life to the flesh within it and be reborn. Death for us is not as you know it. It is not the end. Save your tears for your own kin, little Lyna. You will need them in the years that are to come.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The Black Moon is coming. Some will try to stop it, but it will come nonetheless. Your kind will find a way to call it. It will be the beginning of the end of the world. All will fall to the dark and the cold. Even us, though we may be the last.
“I saw you. Coming off the moors. There’s never been so many dragons.”
There are more, little one. We are called to war, as we were made. But our guides are gone. Some chose the Black Moon, others do not, but the Black Moon will prevail. It is written in the stars, little one. Soon there will be none of our kind in this land.
The dragon seemed to sigh. Lyna turned away from the cave, put her back to its darkness and scanned the forest. High above, the rain was forcing its way through the canopy. The light between the trees was grey and the air damp. She couldn’t see any snappers but that didn’t mean much. Could be anywhere. When they stayed still, they were hard to spot at the best of times, with their stripped skin that seemed to merge with the endless tree trunks. And snappers excelled at staying still.
They are out there, little Lyna. There are four of them.
She jumped. “What? Snappers? How’d you know?”
I feel their thoughts. They are watching you. They know I am here, so they do not come close.
“How do I get home?”
I do not know, little one. Wait until they are gone.
“That could be ages!”
They are patient. It is their nature. They are not like us.
She pulled at her clothes. If there were snappers out there, she ought to be warning people, but if she shouted a warning, it would get lost over the hiss of the rain on the leaves overhead. Or maybe someone would hear something, but they wouldn’t hear what and then they’d come looking and the snappers would eat them.
A rumble of thunder rolled overhead.
They do not like the dark. In that way we are the same. They become sluggish and slow.
“If I wait until it’s dark, I won’t be able to see past my own fingers,” Lyna snapped. “Have you seen what it’s like under these trees at night?”
Yes, I have. I will make a bargain with you if you like, little Lyna.
I am dying. If it were not so, I would have eaten you and these snappers too. I feel others of your kind are here and I would have torn their hiding places from your thoughts as I devoured you. But the little death comes. I feel the heat inside me and I welcome it. I feel hunger too, but I do not wish to die alone, little Lyna. Stay with me a while and I will tell you stories of the world as I have seen it. When the darkness is full, I will guide you to your home. Stay with me, little one. I will not forget.
So Lyna stayed where she was, sitting against the mouth of the cave, staring out at the trees as twilight fell, watching in case the snappers came, and sometimes she would ask the dragon if they were still there and the dragon would say yes, they were, but mostly she listened as the dragon told her tales of the world as the dragon remembered it. It told her of the life it had led, this life, filled with fire and death, of all the men it had eaten, the towns and cities it had burned, the fearsome ire that raged within all dragons against the races of men. It told her of awaking, as if from an almost endless sleep, of lifetime after lifetime of dreaming, dull-witted by the potions of the alchemists, the very same men who had once come to the forest and sold knives and arrow-heads to Lyna’s people as they foraged among the plants and mushrooms. It told of a time before, of a creator clad in silver. It told her of the realms of the dragon-kings, of their places of power and what they held, back and back, lifetime after lifetime until the world was much as it was now and men hid in caves and among trees and dragons ruled the skies, and then back further still, back to the beginning, to the war that broke the world, to the Silver Kings, the half-gods, the sorcerers who walked the land and raised mountains with their breath and the war they fought between them that had split earth apart. It told of battles beyond imagining, of creatures like hills that walked, or armies that flowed like rivers across the fields and blackened the skies with their numbers. It told stories of gods that Lyna had never known, stories that made no sense, so strange that she could barely understand what the dragon was saying, never mind perceive any meaning. But she listened because there was nothing else to do, and the last light of the day had yet to fail and there were still snappers among the trees. She listened until it was quite dark. The dragon’s thoughts, she realised, had changed. They were losing their strength. It seemed to forget, now and then, that it was speaking.
“I think I can go home now,” she said, when the air was chilled and it was so dark that she could no longer see her own hand in front of her face. She had to wait before the dragon answered.
She walked straight for a bit and then a bit to the right. Each step was slow and cautious, her hands held out in front of her. Sometimes, the dragon seemed to fade right away, but it was always there, in the end.
No. Go a different way. There is a beast ahead of you.
So she went a different way, feeling her way in the night, as good as blind, sure she was going to die, or else walk all night and find she was lost and far from home; and yet the dragon kept its word, and it guided her, and as the first light of the morning touched the trees above and she began to see again, there was her home, there in front of her.
I will not forget, little one, that you stayed.
“You saved my life,” she said, and felt strange and a little silly that she was talking to the empty air. Maybe there were no snappers at all. Maybe the dragon had made them up. She didn’t know. It didn’t really matter, did it? She started to run, towards the tree that was home. Towards Paz and her mother and her little brother and uncle Bedev. Shouting their names.
The Black Moon comes, little Lyna. Do not return to me, for in the end, the hunger will always win and I will eat you. But when I am reborn, when the final battle is done and the earth is dying, I will find you here again and I will bring you a gift.
“Corn cobs! Bring me corn cobs!” She laughed as Paz’s bleary face peered out of the tree-house home above her. Laughed for joy as she saw his face light up.
Good-bye, little one.
The dragon was almost forgotten. Uncle Bedev lowered the ropes and she climbed up and they all held each other, sobbing and laughing.
“We all thought you were dead,” sighed her mother. “There were snappers. Another girl taken. And then you didn’t come back.”
“I hid,” said Lyna. “In a cave. Until it was dark.” And she said nothing of the dragon, for she knew no good would come of such an unlikely tale.
It was the last time any of them saw a dragon. Seasons passed and then one day a Black Moon rose and blotted out the sun and cast the world into shadow. The forests grew dark, even the daylight no brighter than evening twilight. Food grew scarce and the air grew cold and the snappers grew hungry and bold. Many died, until in the end, Lyna and her kin abandoned their village and moved out onto the plains, cold and windswept.
It snowed. None of them had ever seen snow. Food was no more easily found in the failing grasslands than in the forest, yet Lyna found she had a knack of leading her family to places where relics remained, old shelters, safe places. Places from the dragon’s stories.
More years passed. Snow fell every day and for half the year, the land became lost under a blanket of white. Her uncle Bedev died hunting wild horses. Pazile grew into a man, eager yet bitter. And Lyna, who always knew where to go when winter came, became their leader and a warrior too. She took them to others and led them all, from one shelter to the next. To hilltop fortresses, to tunnels that ran forever under the ground, to caves and shelters, all of them under the earth and yet with blessed warmth and light.
“Dragon! Dragon!” The cry broke the quiet at the edge of the snow. Lyna froze. She looked up. A few dozen yards away, Gerla stood frozen too. The cry came from further away, from the look-out standing at the top of the white-crested hill behind them, close to the line of trees that marked a frozen brook. If you looked hard enough, on a clear day, you could see for miles from there, on up the gently sloping snowfields towards the line of hills in the distance that were once the moors.
“Dragon!” The lookout was Lyna’s little brother, Pazile the warrior, whom no one called Paz anymore. She could see him now, running up through the snow, lifting his long legs up so high it looked like he was dancing. Pazile was nineteen years old and in places, the snow was deeper than he was. Gerla was standing still, looking up, the other warriors from the village too, all of them searching the skies. There was no shelter waiting for them. They should run, Lyna knew that, but there was nowhere to go and there hadn’t been a dragon in this world for ten years, and Pazile was her brother and if they were going to burn, they’d burn together. As least, for a moment, they’d be warm.
Pazile reached her. He clutched at her furs and bent over, catching his breath. After a moment, he half turned and pointed up at the sky and looked at her, all at once.
“Dragon!” he said.
He had good eyes, always had, even as a boy and that’s why he’d been chosen, but Lyna could see it now too. It was coming from high up above the moors. One distant dark speck in the air.
“Come on!” Pazile pulled Lyna’s arm. “It’s coming this way!” And he was right, too, it was coming straight towards her. They were miles away, but dragons flew fast.
“No,” she said, and pulled Pazile close to her. “No, we don’t run. Not this time.”
She stayed where she was, with Pazile beside her, as the dragon drew closer. As it spread out its wings and beat at the air and slowed. As it landed on the hillside and a storm of snow swirled around them all.
Little one, it said, and it came closer and closer until it towered over Lyna and she could feel the warmth of it, glowing on her face.
It opened up one of its claws and some dirt trickled to the ground. And then it lowered itself and offered her what it was holding.