ALAIN AND THE IVORY DRAGON
Copyright 1989, Sarah Hartwell
Alain shifted himself into a more comfortable position against the rustlng scales, burrowing deeper under the leathery wing into the warmth of the dragonís body. Beneath his right ear, a massive heart pounded steadily, lulling him back to sleep. Almost, he dozed off. Then, realising what he was doing he sat up and gingerly tried to extricate himself from the confinement of the creatureís wing without waking it. It did not work and, with a snort and a belch of acrid smoke, the vast creature turned its awesome gaze upon the small boy.
Alain thought he would die of fright when the huge dark eyes stared into his as though they could peer into the boyís very soul. The head was bigger than his whole body and the dragon could have snatched him into its giant maw as easily as a dog eating a sausage. The scales of its face were a dull yellow colour, like ancient ivory or antique parchment. With a snakelike tongue, the beast licked the tips of its pointed nostrils like a human wetting his lips before speaking. Alain was certain it had woken up hungry and hugged his knees tightly; waiting for the dread deed to occur.
"Good morning, Alain," the ivory-coloured dragon said gently, as gently as a dragon at at least the size of a serfís cottage could manage, "I trust you have slept well?"
"Y-yes, thankyou," Alain replied, adding a "Mylord" for good measure. Did dragons prefer their breakfast to be well rested before it got eaten?
The dragon laughed and curved its long neck so that it could gaze full upon the small human child trembling beneath its parchment coloured wing.
"Are you cold, Alain?" it asked in what seemed, to Alain, to be very genial tones.
"N-no, Iím fine - honestly!" Alain told the great beast, and huddled closer against the ivory coloured scaled hide, hoping that the dragon would think him too small and insignificant to serve as breakfast. Maybe he should have said yes and hoped it didnít like cold breakfast. He closed his eyes and braced himself, imagining the huge red mouth gaping open to reveal long sparklingly white fangs. Nothing happened and after a long while he dared to open his eyes again to see the watchful dragon still gazing at him.
"Afraid, perhaps?" pressed the dragon.
Alain swallowed and did not answer. He wanted badly to cry. The dragon lifted its huge head and peered at the corridor which led to a cave in the hillside, a cave where boys such as Alain played at soldiers. From the outside the boys would not have seen past the dragonómade illusion into the tunnel to its lair. A glimmer of early daylight filtered into the cave across the dragons snout. Pressed against its ribs, Alain could feel the warmth of its body seeping through his nightshirt and britches. But dragons are supposed to be cold-blooded! he thought and then wondered if perhaps his parents had meant something else altogether by that. He really was going to have to move soon, his legs were getting cramp from the way he was sitting and he wondered how he had managed to fall asleep in the middle of a dragonís lair.
His huge companion breathed in great, slow breaths as though asleep, but Alain knew it was just waiting for him to move so it could pounce ó just like a cat with a mouse. He moved, just a little bit, stretching out his legs so that he was leaning back against the rustling, scaly, warm hide. The ivory dragon turned to observe him again, its huge eyes black and unreadable in the dim light of its lair; its breath warm and faintly sooty smelling. If it was going to eat him, Alain wished it would get it over and done with; it couldnít hurt anymore than all this waiting around and being scared.
Finally the waiting got too much for him. "A-are you going to eat me Mr Dragon? Because if you are can you do it soon then I wonít have to sit and think about being dead anymore," he finally asked in a quavering voice.
The dragon snorted thoughtfully and blinked slowly. Its vast head was adorned with great yellow horns longer than Alain was tall. A flake of yellow scale peeled from behind one eye and the creature delicately scratched at it with a mighty claw until the old scale came loose and fell away.
"Why should I want to eat you after saving you from the raiders?" it asked. Its breath was a warm blast but not hot enough to so much as singe the boyís eyebrows.
Alain thought on this for a while and tried to remember what had happened the night before. He remembered armed men on horses riding into the village and his father and the other men of the village taking up what weapons they could find - swords and pitchforks mainly. His mother and the younger women had hustled the children away from the fighting towards the woods where they could hide, but the attackers had cut her down with a sword. Some of the children and the prettiest women had been carried off, to be slaves Alain guessed, others had merely been stabbed and left behind. He had fallen over early on and played dead; luckily none of the riders had checked too closely to see whether they had killed everyone not worth carrying off. The village men had fought bravely and killed nearly half of the raiders before being overcome and the field had been littered with dead men and horses. The raiders had simply knifed any of their fellows too injured to ride back with them before carrying off the screaming women and crying children. They had left him alone, cold and frightened in the night, surrounded by the bodies of his mother and his playmates.
Then the dark shadow had passed over the battlefield like a huge vulture. It had descended on the slain like a magpie on carrion and had swallowed the horses in two bites. After the horses had gone it started on the villagers and finally the armoured raiders; like a boy leaving his least favourite thing on his plate until last in the hope that he would be full up before he got round to eating it. When it got to the edge of the woods it had found found Alain, but instead of swallowing him whole it had picked him up in its vast maw and carried him off to its lair. The boy had felt like a rabbit in a dogís mouth. He remembered being carried through the short passage from cave to lair, -but that was as far as his memories went; he had at some point passed out from exhaustion and fear. He supposed the dragon had wanted to take something back in case it felt like having a snack during the night.
Now it seemed as though the dragon didnít really want to eat him after all. But what did it want? Was he going to be its servant or a prisoner in its lair for the rest of his life, never seeing more than the glimmer of daylight that filtered through the tunnel into this cave? He felt more frightened than if it had simply wanted to eat him.
"Well young Alain," rumbled the dragon in a non-threatening voice and a puff of white smoke, "Have you worked out that Iím not about to eat you?"
"Er - I suppose so. But if you arenít going to eat me, why have you brought me back with you?"
"So that you wouldnít die of cold of course" snorted the dragon, "Youíd hardly make it through the night without freezing stiff and wishing the raiders had knifed you in first place." It snorted as if the point had too obvious to bother with. "Would you mind awfully if you stood up for a while, I tried not to move about in case I woke you up, but Iím getting awfully stiff."
Alain giggled, it had sounded like his peevish old uncle complaining about the rheumatism. He obliged, but stopped giggling when he realised the dragon had probably eaten his uncle.
"My thanks ... ummm ... you can sit down again if you want. Thereís a band of kingís men on their way, but they wonít be here for a while so you might as well rest. Theyíll want to know what happened at your village and Iíd rather you didnít tell them about me."
"We dragons are not exactly popular with mankind, the dwarves arenít so bad - but they will keep borrowing oneís silver, and the elves tend to live and let live. But men! Canít leave anything alone. Kill this, kill that - itís a wonder you havenít wiped yourselves out yet. Look at last night - prime example." It subsided into disgusted snorting.
"But donít dragons attack men?" Alain asked, hoping he would not offend the great beast.
"Of course not! Have I attacked you yet? For a start you men insist on wearing metal, which gives us indigestion, and even without it you donít taste anywhere near as good as cattle." The dragon made a face which was as near as it could get to the grimace Alain himself made when he was told to eat his cabbage.
"Er, you did eat rather a lot of men last night ..
"Well of course I did. So would you if you hadnít eaten in three months," it retorted. " Have you heard of men eating rats?"
"Like when they canít find anything else to eat?" asked Alain, who had heard the bards tell stories of sieges where rats had been the only edible thing left in the castle. Since the bards told stories likely to earn them a free meal and a bed for the night they tended to tell stories which were highly popular. Hence Alain had heard the Lay of the Siege of Gadelaine Castle more times than he cared to count. Since his counting got as far as eight and no further he had already lost count of the number of times he had listened to tales of men eating dogs, cats, mice, rats and finally the cook before the siege broke.
"You mean, you canít get anything else? Oh poor Mr Dragon," he buried his head into the dragonís neck scales and began to sob in sympathy.
Somewhat embarrassed at the outburst of emotion, the dragon shook itself and loose ivory coloured scales fluttered about like pale butterflies revealing bright new scales underneath.
"Come on, Alain, you donít want the kingís men to find you crying do you? How about pretending to be a soldier?"
Alain snuffled and mopped at his face with the tail of his nightshirt. here he was, talking with a fierce dragon and he wasnít being very brave. He felt somewhat better for having cried and since the dragon was not going to eat him after all he found it easier to be brave. Suddenly he was Sir Guerold riddling with the red dragon of Kervith before he killed it. Alain completely missed the disgusted look that passed across the dragonís face. As for the dragon, it realised that Alain was little more than a hatchling and could be excused such thoughts.
"If I went raiding your field every night, like dragonkind used to do, men would come hunting for me. Nowadays we look for stray livestock or wait for you to have a battle and eat the bodies when youíve ridden off. Not exactly what Iíve been used to, but times change I suppose."
"Oh," was all that Alain could say.
"Men ought to be grateful. If we didnít do it, the bodies would attract things from miles around and stink to glory too. In the old days the lords used to set aside cattle and the worn out horses for us, but there werenít so many men to feed then." The great ivory dragon sighed and a small blue flame danced on one nostril. "We used to fly in the daytime in those days; the people would crowd out of their houses to watch us."
Alain was enthralled, he could imagine the dragons swooping over the land like huge multicoloured darts, banking and diving to the cheers and gasps of their audience. It seemed very unfair and sad to his young mind that all the dragons were holed up in dark caves and could only fly at night - he would love to watch the mighty creatures, the lords of the air, as they flew.
"The men are getting quite near now, Alain. I think it would be a good idea if you went and sat in one of the caves to watch for them."
"How can you tell where they are?" Alain whispered in reverent tones.
"I can hear them miles off." It was not strictly true, what the ivory dragon could hear was their thoughts as they rode. The men, true to their kind, were thinking of wenches, drinking, gambling, getting paid and their duty to the king - in that order. The horses were half-asleep thinking of good grass, oats, the stupidity of men who go looking for dragons and the uncomfortable weights on their backs - in a fairly random order.
"If you sit in the cave you used to play in," the dragon waited for the fact that he had watched them playing to sink in, "You can run down to meet them. Tell them there was a big fight and you hid out in the cave. If they ask what happened to most of the bodies tell them you were hiding and didnít see what happened. It would never do if they came trooping in here with their swords and spears; Iím so full I wouldnít be able to fight back."
"No," Alain said thoughtfully, "That wouldnít really be fair."
The dragon began to scuffle around in the cave, rooting through heaps of what looked to be old junk beneath veils of dusty cobwebs. Alain saw the odd glint of bright metal and realised that it was the dragonís hoard. Coins, fabulous armour, jeweled weapons and gemóstudded jewellery was muddled in with raw ingots and bits of metal that had been half-molten by a dragonís fiery blast. He recognised diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topazes and opals as glittering jewels he had no name for. As the dragon searched for some halfóburied item it cleared away the dust which concealed fine metalwork, dusky gold, shimmering silver, dented bronze, ruddy copper and the silver-fire of mithril. Finally the great creature sat back on its haunches holding a tiny silvery ring between two of its powerful claws. Glints of light caught jeweled studs set in the ring.
"Here," it said, turning to Alain, "Hide this in your britches. You might need to sell it one day if you hope to buy a farm or suchlike."
Alain accepted the ring, which was not a ring at all but a mithril bracelet heavily encrusted with precious gems. Mithril was the rarest metal in all of the land and the bracelet would easily buy a whole village, never mind a farmstead. He tore of f a piece of nightshirt to wrap it in then tucked the small parcel into his britches pocket. The ring had looked so tiny in the dragons huge claws that he now knew that some of the glittering stones in that hoard were the size of a catís head. No wonder men braved the wrath of dragons to get at the hoards.
"If anyone sees it, tell them one of the raiders dropped it when they rode off." the dragon said sagely, "My hoard isnít nearly large enough for me to give things away to every treasure seeker who comes looking. Especially when those dwarves come begging for a scrap of metal so they can finish some project or other."
"Why do you have a hoard Mr Dragon?" the boy asked, patting his pocket to make sure the mithril bracelet was safe.
"To remind of us of the days when we were kings ... but thereís no time for that, Alain Dragonfriend. The soldiers will be here very soon. Go on, into the cave with you!"
Alain scurried towards the tunnel then turned back, "Iím sure my family wonít mind being eaten by such a nice dragon!" he said, and waved. Behind him the huge beast winked, then curled up to sleep.
Alain had only been in the cave for a few minutes before the jingling cavalcade of soldiers rounded the corner of the hill and came into view. They were trotting in strict formation along the narrow road which led to Alainís village a mile away.
"Hey, hey wait for me!" yelled Alain, dashing out of his cave to meet the proud soldiers.
The leader of the twenty soldiers held up a gloved right hand and the whole party halted neatly at his command. He leaned forward in his saddle to peer at the grimy urchin who had scuttled out of the tangled bracken and bramble to land at the feet of his chestnut charger.
Scowling beneath his light mail he asked "And who might you be lad?"
"Iím Alain. The raiders came to the village and killed everyone. I ran and hid in my secret cave when they came after my mother," and remembering that he would never see his mother again he promptly burst into tears.
The leader of the kingís men produced a linen kerchief which he dropped to Alain before he conferred with his men. Six of the brightly mailed men galloped ahead towards the ruined village while the man Alain had spoken to reached down and hauled the boy onto the saddle in front of him. Alain, who had never ridden anything larger than Chloe the pig, clung to the horses mane in fright.
"We came this way because one of the hill shepherds said a dragon had been seen flying over the place last night. I donít suppose you saw anything lad?"
"No sir. I hid at the back of my cave where they wouldnít find me. I didnít see anything after I ran away."
"Youíre dead lucky then. Dragons have a nasty habit of eating people. Theyíre attracted to dead bodies worse than crows are." the soldier explained, "Thatís why weíre here óweíre supposed to find it and kill it; stop the wretched best killing anybody."
Alain gulped, "Eat people?" he squeaked.
"Supposed to be their favourite food," the soldier snarled, "If they canít get men they raid our livestock. Oh they prefer men all right!"
Alain thought for a long while. The dragon hadnít even tried to eat him, and it had given him a bracelet worth a kingís ransom. The weight of his bracelet pressed comfortably on his leg.
"Where are we going, Sir?" he asked timidly.
"Once weíve looked around for this dratted dragon weíll go back to the castle. Weíve ridden a long way and wonít be sorry if the creatureís not around here because my men are in no mood for a fight - want to get back to our wives and get paid."
The party of soldiers sent ahead galloped back into view. They stopped short of the leaderís horse and shook their heads. One of them held up a raider helmet to show that Alain was telling the truth about the attack on the village.
"Nothing left of the village, captain, either the raiders or the dragon burnt it down. Somethingís taken most of the bodies, we can easily bury the rest and get the lad back to castle."
"Any sign of the cursed wyrm?" the captain asked.
"Nothing - if its eaten the whole village then itíll sleep for months. Hopefully it will be someone elseís problem."
The captain harrumphed. "You six, you ride back with me. Corin ó you and five others of your choosing bury whatís left of the villagers and catch up with us on the road. This ladís had enough for today and our patrol should have ended yesterday. Iím not wasting time looking for trouble."
The six men rejoined the cavalcade. Six others were left behind to bury the sad remains of the fighters. Alain thought most of them would rather have been eaten than laid in the cold ground by a lot of surly soldiers.
When the six on burial detail had vanished from view, the captain sent the lightest loaded man as courier to the king with news of the devastation caused by the raiders. The rest of them followed more slowly, their armour jingling and their banter, mainly about women and money, merry. Alain watched the courier gallop off, his banner snapping as he rode under the kingís flag. The device on the bright green pennant was a faded ivory dragon.