The Canyon: A Tale of Draco the Dragon
By Neil Beynon
There are places where the space between the worlds grows thin, like parchment stretched too far. If you have ever walked across an empty beach and watched the waves break; if you’ve every gone into a deep cave and passed along the edge of the rock into shadow; if you have ever climbed to the top of a mountain and seen the dawn. If you pay attention, you can feel those other realities passing close, like a stranger brushing by, and perhaps feel as if you could only find the right turn, you might find yourself there. If you walked far enough, across the fields, over mountains and out into the cracked mud and burning sand of the desert, closing your eyes, you might sense these shadowlands out there, just beyond you.
If you opened your eyes again, you might see a woman with hair the colour of night and eyes the colour of the sea, her black dress, dust streaked from travel, yet shimmering and shifting in the light, like crow’s feathers. She would look like she had lost something…
The dragon was not in the desert.
Caerwen leant on her broom with her right hand. She felt like a net of heat had been thrown over her, even the breeze was hot and the abrasive slap of sand on her cheek made her raise her free hand. There was nothing out here, near where hades ended and became something else. She wasn’t sure there was anything else. There was no dragon here and no sign that he had ever been.
The sense of panic was like a hand around her throat.
The dragon was Caerwen’s son. She had seen him last when he had left to fly on ahead to scout out the villages they would stop at next. No one knew of them in Hades. By and large, people were friendly but there was no certainty how they would react to a dragon and a witch entering their lands.
“I will be fine,” said Draco as he bade her farewell. “Their arrows and spears cannot reach where I fly and my eyes are keener than yours.”
“We could fly together,” she answered, doubtful.
The dragon grinned. “Your broom is a marvel, Mammy, but I’ll be flying faster and higher than you can safely go.”
She acquiesced. She had watched him launch himself into the sky and disappear onto the horizon before resuming her own flight.
She hadn’t worried after the first day. She worried on the second dusk. It became outright fear when she got to the town of Elar and realised that Draco had never made it there.
Caerwen had been convinced he’d gone in search of the Thinners that she had forbidden him from. She should not have told him. The trouble was the dragon had an almost insatiable thirst for knowing things, asking her constantly about this and that.
“You say reality isn’t the same all over,” said Draco, as they sat by a campfire in the plains. “What does that mean?”
“Some places are less real than others,” she replied. “Some places are more. There is more than one reality.”
“Can you pass between them?”
She said: “No.” But she knew she had answered to hard and too quick.
Draco looked down. She could tell he could sense her discomfort with the question. For a moment, he looked just like his younger self, a tiny dragon peering out from the broken shell of the egg in which she found him.
“You can sense them,” she said, keeping her tone gentle. “In places where the membrane between worlds is pulled too tight.”
“Where?” Asked the dragon, tilting his head in a way so human it hurt in the centre of her chest.
“Everywhere, you have to know how to look and how to listen.”
Caerwen had shaken her head. “Not now, when you are older.”
That was months before Draco had left. Yet, she’d been certain he had ignored her and tried to find one anyway. He was bright. It would not have been hard to work out the characteristics of a thinner from his history. He had been found in one, after all.
But she was wrong.
Either the townsfolk had lied or someone had intercepted the dragon.
Caerwen stepped onto her broom and kicked the thing up to full speed. The dragon wasn’t the only one who could fly with the wind.
“But it does have a knob on it!”
Caerwen stared down at the old man. He was lying in the dirty road, in the centre of town, where the two burly trolls had dumped him. A woman stood in the doorway of the tavern from which he had just been ejected and harrumphed before disappearing back through the heavy oak door. The man’s faded black tunic and leggings were dusty and his hat had tumbled by Caerwen’s feet. His pink pate gleamed in the bright sun as he sat up and ran his hand through his wild white beard.
The witch picked up his hat and offered her hand to help him up. He took the hand absent-mindedly, looking round for something else as she pulled him up. He let out a yelp of success, let go of her hand and bounded over to a staff that lay there. He picked it up. It did, indeed, have a knob on it.
“Your hat, sir,” she said, holding the item out for him.
“Thank you, m’dear…” his gaze fell on her obsidian dress that shimmered and shifted in the light like crows feathers and the broom slung over her shoulder. “…witch.”
He placed the hat on his head. It gave him height even though he was only an inch or so bigger than her. “Now I just need to find that blasted cat.”
Caerwen coughed. “I wonder if I might ask you for a small favour.”
The man froze. He clearly knew witches did not idly ask for favours. He eyed her warily.
“What is your name?”
“I am The Angry Bard,” he said.
Caerwen raised her eyebrow. “Shouldn’t you have a harp?”
The man sighed. “That’s a common misconception. Bard’s come in all shapes and sizes. They key is the story. Now, have you ever tried to sound angry while accompanied by a harp?”
Caerwen conceded that she had not.
“See,” he said. “Impossible. You might as well teach an orangutan to be a librarian.”
Caerwen looked hard at the man. “Your name, sir?”
“Names have power, good lady,” said the man, tapping his nose. “Call me Echo.”
“Echo,” she said. “I have lost someone very precious to me.”
The man’s face glowered. “Haven’t we all?”
“My son,” she said.
“I am sorry.”
“He is a dragon,” she continued. He was staring now. “The townsfolk tell me that he never reached Elar. I think they are lying but you are not from here. Perhaps you know something?”
The man looked down at his feet. He looked up at her. He looked down again at his feet. When he looked up again, he looked grey with fright.
“They tell the truth that he did not reach the town but not that there is no news of him,” said the man. “I saw him taken.”
Caerwen felt cold despite the sun. The sweat on her back felt like it had turned to icy nails driven into her spine.
Echo, the Angry Bard, had been travelling across Hades, telling his tales to those who would listen and, crucially, cross his palms with gold. He was on the road in to Elar, where the path takes you near the Bottomless Canyon. It was a glorious day. The dragon flew over him.
Echo marvelled at the gleam of the dragon’s golden belly and the sheen of his ruby red scales. He was barely frightened. It was utterly majestic as the winged lizard swooped round the plains in search of whatever it was up to. As it passed over the canyon, a giant smoke hand came up out of inky black of that dark place and engulfed the dragon, seemingly pulling Draco down into the void.
Caerwen sat down on the side of the road.
Echo sat down next to her. “I am sorry that I do not have better news.”
“I am supposed to keep him safe,” she said. She felt hollow, someone had tipped all of her out into the dust, scattering her like dandelions in the wind. “I’ve failed. He’s my son and I wasn’t there.”
Echo pushed at the dirt with his staff.
“You can’t keep them safe,” he said. “You do what you can but everyone has to walk across the bridge on their own.”
“It was magic,” she said, softly. “That’s the only explanation.”
Caerwen stared at the staff. It was as ancient an artefact as she had ever seen in the hand of witch or mage and was covered in runes that even she couldn’t read.
“Where did you find that?”
Echo flushed. “It’s always been mine. I made it.”
The witch stared at him.
Echo looked away. “I found it on that road, as you know full well, but a long time ago when I found myself here. Someone had left it in the dirt.”
“Magical items don’t just fall from the heavens. Did you try to find the owner?”
“I am the owner. The staff came to me.”
Caerwen shook her head. “I don’t intend to take it from you, Echo. The staff has indeed chosen you, it is transmitting that on every magical sense that I have, although you do not seem to hear it.”
Echo harrumphed but he looked pleased.
“But it had a different owner once,” she said, peering closer. Draco is gone. She felt her stomach lurch once more. It felt like fear. No one ever said that to her but the loss felt like terror. “One who was strong enough in their own right to burn their handprint into it.”
“It may have had more than one,” said Echo, turning the thing round and pointing at the runes. “These are carved by two different people.”
Caerwen gasped. The incantation that Echo was pointing at she could read, it was an ancient spell of dreaming that was almost as old as the witches. Could it be?
“Are you alright?” asked Echo, concerned.
“I must enter the canyon,” she said, standing.
The man looked at her as if she had gone mad. “No one ever comes back from there.”
“No one you know of,” said Caerwen, getting onto her broom. “Goodbye, Angry Bard. May you find your own path.”
Echo gave her a small nod of respect. “I hope you find him.”
Draco lay in chains.
The cave was too dark for even the dragon to make anything out. The rock had felt damp to the touch of his skin, it had dried out with the heat of his belly but the canyon smelt of dust and something else that was the sickly sweet stench of wrong like rotting meat. The dragon could not remember how he came to be here.
The dragon did not like the dark.
Draco let a little flame out of his nostrils to create some light and see what he could.
Flash – Steep walled, wet rock either side of him and the bottom of the canyon stretching out before him, scattered with bones and rotting rags, out into the distant shadows like some endless corridor.
Draco pushed out another flame.
Flash – Bones. Gnawed marrow. The faintest hint of scratch marks on the stone. His chains bolted high up and passed over his wings so he cannot take off or use his wings to break his bonds.
Dark – Draco could hear something breathing in the black. It was large. It’s breathing sounds wet and laboured. It was behind him. Draco couldn’t turn or get his head round to light up the space behind him.
“Who is there?” he growled.
There is no answer.
Draco looked up at the cave walls and let forth a longer spurt of flame in the hope it rebounded and forced his silent watcher back. There is no sound. The creature must have gone. Draco knew he didn’t hit it. If he had he would have smelt the burnt flesh. Draco started the work of removing the chains from their anchors.
Caerwen flew high over the canyon. The air up this high was so much thinner than near the surface, it was sending streaks of light through her vision, like shooting stars in a clear night sky. She felt light headed. It mattered not. She had no intention of waiting for some spell, powerful or not, to pull her down into the dark.
Caerwen pulled the broom as high as possible before she passed out, letting it fall back into a screaming dive that carried her down into the shadow of the canyon where light would not go.
Caerwen took a long time to reach the floor of the canyon. It wasn’t a bottomless pit. Something stopped the people returning. She knew what. She had the moment she had seen the spell carved into the staff. She would risk no light for the same reason.
It knew she was here.
The moment Caerwen passed into the dark it would have sensed her as another with the kind of magic that kept it going for millennia. She could not risk confrontation until she found her son. Witches do not have to rely on their eyes as much as you or I. In the silent shadows, she let her senses travel out, like tendrils of light across the detritus of the bottom of the canyon and up the steep walls of rock until she found the ribbon of metal stitched to it.
The creature had made a habit of preying on others with magic deep inside their being. Their remains lay all around, the chains used to hold them were placed at regular points across the canyon – made from the liquid tears of fallen angels and forged with the fire of risen demons, they were the second strongest alloy the witch knew of.
There he is.
In spite of the chains. In spite of the creature. In spite of the chains. In spite of the fear. The feeling of relief was like being woken by sunlight pooling through your bedroom window on a summer’s day. Caerwen found herself weeping as she willed the broom across to where Draco lay, lost and afraid. She dismounted the broom in one fluid motion and ran straight to the dragon, looping her arms round his neck and whispering “I got you” over and over into his ear.
“I can’t get these chains off.”
Draco felt like they had been back together for hours but it had only been a few moments. He thought he’d lost her forever. Now it was better. Mammy would fix it.
Caerwen sighed. “It is wept steel. It cannot be broken by strength or blade.”
Draco felt his fire struggling in his belly. “You know a spell, though?”
Caerwen put her hands around his head and rested her head against the side of his. “I cannot break these chains, child. My magic is not strong enough.”
“I’m trapped?” said the dragon, unable to keep the panic from his voice.
“Hush,” said Caerwen. “We will leave this canyon together. My magic cannot do it but yours can.”
Draco was silent.
“I am made of magic,” he said. “I do not perform it.”
“No,” she said. “You know a little. You have never had any need to know more until now.”
“What spells do I know?”
She laughed. “You know that courage is not about not being afraid but keeping your wits about you and doing the right thing even when you are terrified. That is magic and you will need it now.”
“That is not the magic you mean,” said Draco, his voice still panicked.
“You know the star spell,” she said, softly.
Draco closed his eyes. It was one of the earliest things his mother had taught him, long ago, when he was sad and he would dearly love to see the bear rising high into the night sky now.
“I must teach you the spell of summoning,” she said. “It will take two dragons to break this.”
Draco was confused. “I am the only dragon in Hades that we know of.”
Caerwen did not reply. Draco saw a dragon in his mind’s eye with a deep orange hide and black stripes streaked across its scales like a tiger.
“No,” he said, softly. “He does not belong here. He is with the others.”
Caerwen pressed her cheek to his and he could tell she was crying. “Oh, my brave boy. I would not ask that of you or anyone. He will not be completely here, it is dream magic, and that is why it will work here.”
Draco shifted. “This is a thinner?”
Caerwen squeezed him. “The dream magic is strong in these places.”
Draco sighed. He thought of his brother every day. He missed him every day. He kept the feeling locked up deep where his fire lived, never letting it out.
“I know,” said Caerwen. “But you must let it out now.”
The witch whispered the cant into his ear.
Draco pushed her away gently. “Get behind me.”
Caerwen moved back behind him and the dragon took a giant lungful of air to feed the fire and let the heat build until he thought he would burst. He let the fire out across the canyon floor.
The fire rolled and bloomed into the shape of a dragon only a little smaller than Draco, the streak of smoke from the flame forming into stripes. Draco kept repeating the spell until the flame cooled and his brother, Stripe, stood in front of him, glowing faintly and blinking.
Stripe looked confused. “Draco?”
Draco smiled. “Hello, brother.”
“Did something happen to me?” asked Stripe, worried.
Caerwen stepped forward. “No, child,” she said. “You’re fine. You’re not really here.”
“I did not know you could do this,” said Stripe, looking at his own arms like they were strangers. “Why haven’t you done it before?”
“It is not easy,” said Caerwen. “And there is a cost. Always.”
“Why are you chained up?”
Draco sighed. “That is why I need your help.”
Caerwen pulled the chain forward from Draco so that the slack lay between the two dragons and gestured to it. “These chains cannot be broken by anything in this world.”
Stripe stared at it. “But I am not of this world.”
“No,” she said. “And still you would not be enough. But the two of you together…two brothers…well…there’s magic and then there’s power.”
Draco lifted his claw to Stripe’s. “How about a little help for your big brother?”
Stripe laughed. “What do we do?”
Smoke streamed from Stripe’s nostrils. “I thought you’d never ask.”
Draco said: “On three?”
They aimed the fire at the links of the chain and let rip with everything they had. The jets of flame burned and pooled together into a single arc of fire that carried the heat of a newly birthed star, forcing Caerwen back further and making the chain glow red.
“Now,” shouted Caerwen, over the roar.
Stripe unfurled his wings and lifted into the air, still breathing fire but giving himself enough lift to strike the chain rings from the wall. Draco’s wings free, he raised them and shattered the chains into pieces. The flames died away. The dragons burst out laughing.
It was only when they turned to look at Caerwen they saw the creature.
The thing was shaped like a man only it was too tall. It was as long as Draco, hairless, with eyes that gleamed like polished glass. It was naked and its skin was an evershifting set of nightmares that played out over and over again in a myriad of combinations. It was almost hypnotic and the dragons would have been lost in it were the creature not holding Caerwen by the throat. A small flickering lantern hung at its side.
“You should have stayed chained up,” said the creature, its voice a chorus of every whisper you ever heard when alone.
Draco and Stripe did not answer. They were baring their teeth but neither dragon knew what to do or how to free Caerwen.
“You should go now,” said the witch, struggling to make herself heard in his grip. “While you still can.”
“You are too weak,” said the creature. “You cannot win, even with these creatures. I have been collecting the magic from their world. See I already have this lantern, I took your dragon and you have brought me another.”
“They are not alone.”
Caerwen looked at Echo.
The old man tapped his staff to the ground and the thing erupted in light. The nightmare hissed and pulled her back a few feet as the Angry Bard made his way forward between the dragons.
“Let them go.”
The nightmare put the lantern down. It uttered a word that none of them understood and its left hand began to shimmer with something that was bending the light the old man’s staff was giving off.
Echo shook his head.
“Did you not hear the lady?” said Echo. “All spells have a cost.”
“Not my spell,” answered the nightmare.
“No,” conceded the Angry Bard. “But I wasn’t referring to your spell. Costs don’t care whether they fall on the person casting or someone else and if you’re clever, if you know what you are really doing, you can make use of them. Like fury.”
The cost came down like lightening, sparking off the wet rock as it came. Echo lifted his staff so that it caught it. The cost burned the wood like it was trying to decide whether to join it or eat it.
“No,” whispered Caerwen. She could see what the old Angry Bard was going to do.
He smiled. “I was only ever visiting.”
Echo touched the end of the staff to the nightmare’s chest and everything ruptured. The Thinner split apart with the winds of a hurricane, the light bent and pulled into the tear and all was chaos as the nightmare dropped Caerwen.
Stripe grabbed Caerwen putting himself between the rupture and his brother as he opened his wings. He let his own power shine out, shifting his scales to show their hidden colours, lighting the canyon with a rainbow that arced from one end to the other, sending the bones and detritus and ghosts free into the tear. It remained open for a few moments before it sealed under the heat.
The Angry Bard was gone.
They looked for him up all through the canyon and they could not find him anywhere. Draco did not know who he was but he was sad that someone who had helped him with the nightmare had gone before he had a chance to say thank you. The canyon was clean now save for the lantern that the nightmare had left behind.
“Why is this still here?” asked Draco, lifting up the small spark of light in its metal cage.
Caerwen looked closer. “Oh my.”
Stripe peered over her shoulder. “It looks like a little star.”
Caerwen smiled. “You are a sharp dragon. It is a portent.”
“A portent?” asked Draco.
Caerwen nodded. “A portent is a spark, it is the earliest glimmer of a very magical creature, a very rare creature, and it starts in the thinner and, if the universe is lucky, it goes onto become a rainbow and then an egg and then…”
“..a dragon,” finished Draco, softly.
Stripe looked wide-eyed at Caerwen. “It shouldn’t be here.”
“No,” she said, softly. “It should be with you.”
Draco watched his brother’s flash of understanding. “Oh.”
Draco held the lantern and the spark in his foreclaws. “What will happen?”
Caerwen did not look away from his asking gaze. He was grateful for that. “I do not know. No one can.”
Stripe looked up. “Can I take it back?”
Caerwen shook her head. “It is like you. It is here and it is not. You must return and do what you can there.”
Draco smiled at his brother. “Just be who you are, little one. It will be enough.”
Stripe smiled back. Draco watched him fade back to his own world, giving him a reassuring grin that he did not feel.
“We have to carry it with us now,” said Draco, turning to his mother.
Caerwen nodded. “For a time.”
Draco sighed. It would be a long journey and the spark was very fragile. He tucked it under his right foreleg and unfurled his wings.
“Is the nightmare gone?”
“I hope so,” she said. “I fear we may see it again.”
Draco looked up at the stars in the sky above and the bear bounding in slow motion into the black.
“Then we must keep our wits and do the right thing.”
And into the night they flew, keeping the spark between them.
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