Box

Box: A Tale of Draco The Dragon
By Neil Beynon

For Ziggy on his sixth birthday.

Sit down.

No, here on the grass, next to me. Don’t get too close to the cliff edge. We’re in the darkest part of the night and I don’t want you to fall. You’re right. A moonlit night would be safer but nothing is really safe. Life is risk. Besides, on a night like this, when the sky is so black, you can best see the light.

Stars, son. I’m talking about stars. The light from those flaming balls of gas, scattered through the universe like diamonds in coal, that light has travelled far longer than you or I.

That’s right – in this universe. You remember: there are so many other universes that if the sky were filled with them there would be so much light we would walk in endless day.

A story? Alright. Cwtch up, cariad. Listen for the sounds of the waves. Count for the magic…

#

The dragon saw the star fall from the sky.

The heavens split with a streak of fire as if the sky were being painted by a god with a flaming brush. A moment later: a crack so loud the ground rumbled. The dragon’s scales were as red like wine and his belly was as gold as the finest of crowns. He struggled to keep on his feet. His mother fell. He turned to hold out his fore leg to the woman. Her name was Caerwen. She had hair the colour of night and eyes the colour of the ocean. She smiled gratefully at the offered limb, pulling herself to her feet. Caerwen was dressed in black robes that shifted and gleamed like oil. She was a witch. They were in the lowest point of a rich green valley that was empty of people other than them. They felt like they had been walking in the wilderness for weeks on end with no sight of man or woman or dragon. Valhalla was beautiful despite the emptiness.

“What was that?” asked the dragon.

The witch looked up at the stars that had captured their attention first. The flames had faded now so that the old sentinels were appearing again as if it were dusk not the middle of the night. The witch looked back at the dragon.

“I think the time of the Anchoring has come, Draco,” said the witch.

Draco thought the tone of her response suggested she did not want to discuss the matter further. “The Anchoring?”

The witch reached out for her broom. The brush leapt to her hand from where she had left it when they stopped to watch the night sky. “The Anchoring is a ritual that many of the people who live in Annwn and Valhalla observe, though I suspect the practice goes much further.”

“But what is the ritual for?”

The ground shook once more as the star – if that was what it was – struck the ground several hills away.

The witch sighed, getting back to her feet again.

“The Anchoring keeps reality on an even keel.” At this she looked round. “Well. The ceremony keeps reality so we can live here.”“Why would a shooting star help?”

The witch shook her head. “That wasn’t a shooting star. They were making a Summoning.”

“Who?”

“Odin and the gods,” said the witch. “This year is their responsibility.”

“Can we go watch?” asked Draco.

The witch looked at the dragon. Draco knew that he wanted to go whether his mother agreed or not and that he desperately wanted to meet Odin. He had listened to so many stories of the All-father.

“Are you not afraid, little one?” asked the witch.

Draco was a little afraid. “I have courage.”

The witch smiled. “That you do.”

“Can we?”

The witch nodded. “But you must not interrupt. We will see Odin afterwards, if I judge the moment safe.”

#

The smoke slithered into the dawn sky like a snake emerging from its nest.

The crater the object had made was gargantuan, obliterating the floor of the valley into which the gods of Asgard had called the Summoning. All was now ash and burning embers, splintered rocks that look like someone had smashed a giant black piece of glass over the surrounding hills littered the ground. The witch and the dragon circled high in the air, spying the lay of the land. From the dragon’s vantage point, hidden even from Odin’s eye, the gods looked like beetles crawling down the edges of the crater. The witch and the dragon were able to pick out a suitable forested hill on which to hide amongst the trees and watch. This is what they saw:

There were five figures in all. Odin led the way. Draco knew him by his grey cloak, gnarled staff and iron eye-patch that covered where his right eye would have been. He was taller than Draco had imagined, his snow-white hair falling in thick waves to his shoulders. He was so weather-beaten he could have been carved from the same tree as his staff. Behind him was a woman that looked like she had been spun from crystal, so perfect were her features and her shining blue eyes gleamed as bright as the dragon’s mother’s and her hair was as golden as the dragon’s belly. Freya, thought Draco. There was a red-haired man who stood even taller than Odin and whose arms looked like they could crack tree trunks but, in fact, held a hammer. Thor, thought Draco.

The witch pointed at the god following behind all the others, dressed in a chainmail that seemed moulded to his body, one hand clutching a beautiful sword that gleamed and the other hand missing entirely.

“Tyr,” said the witch. “We have not spoken of him yet.”

“And which goddess is that?” asked Draco, quietly. He pointed his left foreclaw at the other goddess following between Freya and Tyr. She was dressed in armour like Tyr but her hair was dark and she carried a spear.

“No goddess,” said the witch, unable to keep the awe from her voice. “She is Valkyrie. The watchers of Valhalla.”

The pair turned back.

The four gods and the Valkyrie formed a loose circle around the centre of the crater where something lay glowing like the embers of a fire. The artefact was a box, intact but caked in mud and ash and still hot from the journey down to the ground. The box was the size of a small chest such as you used to find on sailing ships before the industrial age but there was something strange about this particular object.

Odin moved forward. He planted his staff in the ground and stepped towards the box. The god was not bothered by the heat. He knelt next to the chest and wiped away the dirt with his cloak.

Draco gasped.

The chest was throbbing. Physically, growing bigger and smaller as if the thing were alive and drawing breath after a long, hard, journey. Once the dirt was clear, the dragon could see the chest was covered in runes though he could not read the language in which they had been carved. Wrapped round the box, were chains that gleamed like quicksilver wherever Odin passed his hands and that came together in a lock that looked like it could withstand Ragnorok.

“Odin is preparing the box to be opened so the power building within can be leached,” said the witch to the dragon. “Every year, one of the peoples who observe the Anchoring, call the box down from the heavens and performs the ritual.”

“Do the witches?” asked Draco.

The witch nodded. “When I was young, I once participated.”

“Why?” asked Draco.

The witch shook her head – she pointed down. More was happening.

Odin appeared to be running his hands over the runes now. The other gods chanted in low voices that sounded more like a murmur of wind to the young dragon. Odin stood. He raised his hands to the heavens and joined the recital as he stepped back towards the circle.

“Where is Loki?” asked Draco.

The witch glanced at the dragon. She smiled. Loki was Draco’s favourite from the stories: so clever and cunning but determined to mess everything up. She pointed down at the far side of the valley. Draco gasped. A sixth figure stood in the emerald cloak that Caerwen always gave Loki in her stories. The dragon could not make out his features because he was hooded.

“They need additional power to complete the ritual,” said Caerwen. “He is the last.”

The trickster moved across the crater. He was not like the other gods – not that he was really a god. Draco recalled the tale of how Loki came to live with Odin and the gods. Yet, this strange origin did not seem to account for the eerie way that the hooded figure moved across the broken earth, without effort.

Draco noticed Caerwen’s narrative had fallen silent. Her hands gripped the ground tightly enough to turn her knuckles white. The dragon turned his head back to below. Draco saw Thor lift his hammer and Odin move out of position. The chains fell from the box.

“Stop!” commanded Odin.

Draco thought his voice sounded like it emanated from all around them.

Not-Loki stopped.

“Where is Loki?” asked Odin.

The figure slung something from within his cloak. Loki’s head hit the ground, bounced several times and rolled to a stop at the feet of Odin. The All-father looked down. When the god looked up Draco thought that Valhalla might shake itself apart in fear at the look of fury on his face.

“Who are you?”

The man shook his victim’s emerald cloak from his shoulders. He was not a man at all but a wraith. Whether the creature had once been man or fae or a god, Draco could not tell. Caerwen pushed herself up to see better

“Kaos…” she whispered.

“You know what that is?” asked Draco.

The witch nodded. “I faced him once long ago.”

“But he is still there.”

Caerwen smiled. “Yes, he is.” She continued. “But so am I. Neither of us got what we wanted that day.”

The creature appeared swathed in ragged robes made of shadow, tatters of nothing waving in an unseen wind. The wraith drew a sword from his back that ignited in flames.

Thor threw his hammer at the creature.

The wraith absorbed the weapon as if it were nothing.

The god of thunder ran for the creature and was greeted by a flick of the creature’s free hand that sent the god crashing into the side of the crater, burying him in rock. Tyr made to move but Odin held up his hand to stay the attack.

“What do you want, Kaos?” asked Odin.

The wraith pointed his sword at the box.

“The box is not yours to take,” said Odin, he reached out his hand for his staff and the wood flew to his open right palm. “The forces it contains must be kept hidden.”

“Life is abhorrent,” replied the wraith, his voice was like the whispering of the wind in tree leaves in an otherwise silent forest. Draco felt the fire in his belly cooling. He shivered. “Once all was perfection, perfectly held and ordered. Before Kronos.”

“So shall be again,” said Odin. “You know this.”

“Too long,” replied the wraith. “Too much…experience.”

“I cannot allow this,” replied Odin.

The wraith brought his sword, point down, to the ground of the crater. Everything erupted in light.

#

“Stay here.”

Caerwen was on her feet. Draco was still sprawled on the ground watching the fight unfold in the crater below with mounting horror. He looked at his mother drawing her own sword.

“But you are going to help,” he said, pushing himself onto his hind legs.

Caerwen let her broom hover and placed her sword into the ground. She took the dragon’s head between her hands and placed her forehead to his snout. To Draco she smelt like apple and magic.

“You must not follow me,” she said. “Whatever happens.” She looked into his eyes. “Promise me.”

Draco did not argue. But he did not promise. The ground shook.

“That will have to do,” she said, releasing him from her grip and picking up her sword. The dragon watched as she leapt onto the broom and flew down into the crater, breaking cover.

Freya, the Valkyrie and Tyr were battling the wraith. The wraith span his sword as if the weapon had always been a part of him. He blocked Tyr with ease. He avoided the twin spinning knives that Freya wielded.

The witch swooped into the valley, sliding from her broom in one practiced movement but she was not in time. Kaos’s sword leapt out in a biting slice that cut Tyr in two. Freya cried out in rage. But a spinning round house from the wraith cut her short and she fell spread-eagled in the ashes.

The Valkyrie choose this moment to unleash her spear. The weapon struck home in the wraith’s chest. The wraith laughed. He pulled the spear from his chest, flipped it round in his hand and impaled the Valkyrie with it, nailing her to the soil.

Kaos had Odin and Caerwen either side of him now. The wraith was far more cautious with these two opponents. Draco felt the pull to fly down. He could end the wraith with his fire if he could only blow hot enough. Mother had said no though. He gripped the ground. This was torture.

“Caerwen,” said the wraith, in his whispering shout. “Are you so eager to face me again.”

“The box is protected,” said Caerwen. “You know that. Why are you here?”

“The box is power,” said the wraith. “The box contains what I need to restore my universe.”

“Foolish creature,” said Odin. “You cannot go back any more than I can return to Aasgard. They are gone. Time moves in one direction.”

“Where is Kronos then?” asked Kaos. “To stop me.”

Caerwen’s grip on her sword tightened. “The box is not what you think, Kaos. The gateway will bring you only more pain. Return to your master.”

“The master is gone,” said Kaos. “This will bring him back.”

Caerwen and Odin looked briefly at each other. Draco did not understand but he could spot a trap when he saw one. Kaos sprang. He went for Caerwen first. He spun with his sword in a ferocious attack that she managed to just about block. She struck back at him with a spell that sent him flying backwards end over end before he came to rest on his belly.

The wraith laughed.

Odin cast out with his staff and the chains from the box wrapped themselves around the wraith as if invisible hands were binding him up. The wraith pushed his arms out. The chains shattered as if they were made of fragile ice.

Draco could take no more. He burst from the undergrowth. He beat his wings: once, twice, three times and flew into a gliding attack, down, down, down into the crater. He unleashed a belch of fire powerful enough to knock Odin and Caerwen backwards off their feet and that should have obliterated Kaos. But, as Draco banked round for another pass, he saw the wraith was still there and advancing on the box. Draco dropped once more for the creature but even as he unleashed the fire, he could see the wraith at the lid of the box and as he banked away the last he saw was Kaos’s legs disappearing inside the box.

Silence fell.

#

Draco landed by Caerwen.

The witch was sat on the ash, watching her son come towards her with his head hung low, shame as clear on his scales as the emotion would have been on skin had he been human. She threw a piece of rock into the distance. She did not say anything. Somehow that was worse to Draco. There was no sound from the stone or from anything else. Even if the witch had spoken. Draco did not think he would hear her.

Odin closed the lid on the box. A rush of noise returned to the crater: the crunch of the ash under foot; the moans of Valkyrie and the sound of Draco’s own heart pounding in his ears.

“You would have been wiser to listen to your mother,” said Odin, striding over to the dragon. He looked round at his fallen companions. “Though I am thankful to still be here.”

“I am sorry,” said Draco. “I thought he was going to destroy you.”

“He was going to try,” said Caerwen, staring over at the box.

Valkyrie stirred. She moaned in pain as she pulled the spear from her belly. She cursed in a language that Draco did not need to understand to comprehend she was swearing. Odin spoke.

“See to Freya,” said Odin. “She is just unconscious. The others we must deal with later.”

The Valkyrie went to the fallen goddess.

“What does he mean?” asked Draco to his mother.

Caerwen shook her head. Now was not the time for questions.

“Come, witch,” said Odin. “I must hope you are more than just that pretty frame.”

Caerwen’s eyes narrowed. “And that you are more than just a dead old god.”

Odin laughed.

“What do you plan to do?” asked Draco.

Odin stopped. He turned to the dragon, leaning on his staff as he did so. “Well, youngling, Kaos has got what he wanted but like all creatures that may not turn out to be what he needs. In doing so, he has given us a chance to prevent him from returning for many a long year.”

Draco blinked. “I don’t understand.”

“He’s going to try to reseal the box,” said Caerwen. “He’s going to restore the chains with Kaos inside. But how?”

Odin looked at the dragon.

“That’s a really long shot,” she said. “His fire may not be hot enough.”

“It was hot enough to open the box,” said Odin.

Draco felt sick. “What?”

“We had not completed the opening,” said Odin. “Kaos should not have been able to open the lid but he did. Your fire unlocked it.”

Draco said nothing. Caerwen put her hand on his wing. That felt a little better.

The trio went to the box.

“What is it?”

“A portal,” said Caerwen.

“To another place,” said Odin. “Another universe.”

Odin opened the lid once more. Silence fell again. The dragon did not want to speak. Inside the box was void. All Draco could see was the most complete nothingness he had ever laid eyes on, caged within a wood-walled prison. Odin swung the lid back over, shutting the box with a thud.

 “It is forbidden,” said Caerwen.

“Like the Thinners?” asked Draco.

Caerwen shook her head. “No, this is different. But not that different.”

Odin bent down, he grabbed the broken chain and tried to loop the thing round the outside of the box. The weight of the chain was a challenge, let alone the box, and both the witch and the dragon had to help. Draco to lift the box, Caerwen to wrap the chains with Odin. The two ends of the chain lay on each other on top of the chest.

Odin and Caerwen stepped back.

Draco took a deep breath before sending fire crashing down on the chain so both ends might melt together. He kept this flame burning for as long as he could before he ran out of breath.

Panting he looked down at the chain. The two ends did not look any hotter. Slowly, they slid away from the top of the box and landed on the grass with a thump. Odin sighed. Caerwen swore softly in the language of the witches. Draco bent down and nosed the chain. The metal didn’t smell like platinum or steel. The metal didn’t smell like anything he had encountered before at all. He didn’t know how hot he would need his fire to be to melt the ends. He touched the box.

The ground rumbled and shifted.

“What was that?” asked Odin, turning.

The box started to glow. The trio stepped back. Above the sky darkened from morning to night and the stars bled light and fire that poured down onto the ash in a kaleidoscope of colour. From the glare, a hooded man rose. He was not Kaos.

“You should not be here,” said Caerwen. She sounded firm but not unkind.

Draco found he could not smell the man – if man he was. This was unusual. Even Odin cast a scent but not this creature who stood as a human would but smelt of nothing and left no footprints in the ash.

“What has happened?” asked the man. He spoke in the language of Annwn.

“A wraith,” said Odin. “Kaos. Has entered through the portal.”

“We tried to reseal it,” said Caerwen. “We could not. Perhaps that is for the best.”

The man turned his hooded head towards Caerwen. Draco caught a glimpse of his eyes. They were not human eyes. They were dragon.

“You have done enough, witch,” said the man. “Do not interfere with my avatars. Each serves a purpose.”

Caerwen flushed.

The man gathered up the chains, wrapping them in a careful manner around the chest while his audience looked on. Freya and the Valkyrie moved Tyr’s remains to some distance away. Odin watched all while leant on his staff. Draco wanted to ask questions but his mother’s manner did not invite them. She paced near the box. Occasionally, she stopped to look at the man’s work.

“You did not gather all the fragments,” said the hooded man, gathering the ragged ends of the chains in one place. “The chain would not have had enough length.”

“The dragon’s fire did not allow the metal to renew,” said Odin, as if he were comparing the weather.

The man did not look at Draco. As if he could not see him. Draco let out a stream of smoke from his nostrils. He would try again if needed. He would burn hot as the sun.

“No dragon fire can touch the chain or the box,” said the man.

“You should not be here,” said Caerwen.

“Hush, creature,” said the man standing. “You have no idea what this box is holding.”

The wind blew hard. The noise sounded like someone shrieking in pain.

“You are going to cause a rupture,” said Caerwen, her alarm showing. “All to keep this thing bound for a few more years. Nothing is worth that.”

The man touched the artefact. “The pain this would unleash is worth keeping back a little longer.”

Caerwen touched the man’s shoulder. He flinched. He did not remove it.

“The witch has a point,” said Odin, lifting his staff. “We send that thing off into the sky every year, hoping that each of us in here will remember to bring it back and leach the power but eventually the box will fail. What happens then?”

The man folded his arms. “Pain. Everywhere.”

“At first,” said Caerwen. “And then?”

“The multiverse will break,” said the man. “Or it will not. No one knows.”

“The multiverse will be fine,” said Odin.

“And what of those in it,” said the man.

There was no answer. The ground shook once more. The wind howled louder this time and Draco thought he heard words of anguish on the wind.

The man dropped to one knee. He put his hand on the ground to steady himself and Draco saw the man’s hand was drenched in sweat and trembling.

Draco stepped forward.

Caerwen stopped him with a look. She shook her head.

“You must go,” said Caerwen to the man. “The rupture is building.”

“No,” said the man, his voice pained. “I must seal Kaos in, if nothing more.”

“We can find him,” said Draco. “It is my fault.”

The man recoiled as if struck. He leant over on his knees and retched. When he straightened, he still did not look at the dragon but he did speak once more.

“None of this is your fault, little one.” And he said Draco’s true name.

There was a great grinding noise, and the ground shook again, as if something old and ancient were trying to wake itself. Draco saw figures coalescing on the crater ridge. Three of them: all dragons – one purple, one orange and black striped, and one silver like a lit moon. All unmoving like flies caught in amber.

“See,” hissed Caerwen. “The rupture is begun. You are pulling them all in with you.”

“No,” whispered the man, looking up at the ridge. “I…”

“Go,” said Odin. “The dragon will deal with Kaos.”

“But…”

“Please,” said Caerwen. “Do not make me use your true name.”

The man stared at the witch. As if daring her to. He looked away.

“As you wish.”

The hooded man fell back. He vanished in a murder of crows that beat their way into the sky in a cacophony of caws. The dragons on the ridge faded away, dispersed by the flocking crows and with this the night faded once more, replaced with a second dawn. As the birds banked west, Draco thought they looked like a giant dragon cast red in the rising sun.

#

“You don’t have to do this.”

Draco looked at his mother’s concerned face. They were stood around the box: Draco, Caerwen, Odin, Freya, Valkerie, and even Thor, who had been finally freed from the rubble. The box had sunk a little into the ash. The pulsing had stopped but the artefact seemed to have grown larger to the dimensions of a good-sized wardrobe. The lid looked heavy.

“I promised.”

Caerwen swore. “A promise to leap into the unknown, you can’t possibly know what is in there, what will happen to you in that universe?”

“You know what will happen to me in this one?” asked Draco.

“Aren’t you afraid?” she asked, exasperated.

“Terrified.”

“Then why…”

“A wise woman once told me that courage wasn’t about not being afraid,” said Draco, placing his claw on the lid. “But being so and going ahead anyway.”

Caerwen did not reply. She was staring at his claw.

“The witch is correct that things are different in that universe,” said Odin. “You may find you are also different.”

Draco said softly: “That sounds like an awfully big adventure.”

Caerwen sighed. “Yes, and I will be with you.”

Draco felt a little less afraid. He looked at his mother: “And the dragons?”

“Yes.” Caerwen wiped her eyes. “Always the dragons.”

Draco nodded at the gods.

Thor, Valkerie and Freya lifted the lid in unison. The sound of silence was overwhelming. Draco stared into the void, the fire in his belly told him he was warm but his scales felt cold like the desert at midnight. He looked up at his mother. She smiled. Draco curled his wings around himself and dropped into the dark. He felt the connection to his mother stretch out, the magic growing thin, pulled out to almost breaking. Suddenly the connection was back, strong; Caerwen had jumped in after him. And all was light.

#

What’s that? I don’t know what will happen next. No, that’s enough for tonight.

I know, cariad, me too. I dare say we’ll see Draco again.

What’s that? His true name. Now, you know I couldn’t tell you that, even if I did know, but I have a feeling that you know. Sleep now. The light is never far away from the dark. I got you.

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