Purveyor of Tall Tales.

The Return

The Return: A Tale of Draco The Dragon

By Neil Beynon

For Ziggy on his seventh birthday.

Come out here. The sun hasn’t long gone down and the wood is still warm. That smell? It’s a woodfire. Someone is burning something. Hold my hand and…gosh…your hands are so cold…every year. Here warm them up on mine.

We can’t be where we want to be. Do you remember the magic?

Now: look up at the stars. You see, son, we may not be able to go down to the sea this year but we’re on a spaceship carved from rock, hurtling around a star that’s itself ploughing through the black, part of a galaxy that’s also on its own voyage through the void, part of a universe that’s so vast we can’t see all of it and, in turn, moving through a multiverse of more universes than you can imagine. We’re never in the same place.

A story? About the multi-verse?

Cwtch up with me here and listen.

#

Once upon a somewhere, long ago, there was a land called Eleutheria. There are many stories of this land but this one is from when their sun was still young and bright, lighting the gold tipped walls of it palaces and castles.

Our world is almost dry of magic now. The time of dragons has long since passed, we are all that remains. In Eleutheria magic dripped from every blade of grass. Its people were like and unlike us at the same time, changing skins as we change clothes, discarding and changing on a whim. They fought like we do, over and over.

A stranger came across the desert. He was alone, save for a black, green-eyed, unicorn that he rode. He was a young man of perhaps twenty summers though he could not have told you his own age if you asked him. He was not particularly tall, his eyes flashed with shades of brown, grey and green. His hair fell in dark brown almost black waves to his shoulders.

As the sand became mud, the dust replaced with grass, the stranger came to the first settlements of people and they greeted him as the rules of hospitality demand for they were good folk. They offered him clothes and food and asked nothing in return. The stranger asked about the land and they told him he was fortunate the war was far away for now. The king had been fighting his war against the wraith lord, Kaos, for so long that they could no longer remember what peace was.

The young man listened to their story. He put his head in his hands when he realised a wraith led the armies marching towards them. He asked where he might find the king.

They told him of the aging king in his crumbling tower, awaiting the time when he would have to face Kaos and so the stranger went to the capital city on his unicorn. The folk who lived on the edge of the desert were sad, but they felt something else that they had forgotten, hope. A black unicorn was a powerful and rare magic. Perhaps the king would defeat Kaos after all.

The king greeted the stranger as if he were his own kin. He was mesmerised by the unicorn, noting how his army all stood a little straighter when they caught sight of the animal. The stranger was bade to make himself at home and take whatever he needed for the coming battle.

In the days that followed, the stranger went to the armoury and had a suit of chainmail made. He made demands for an impossible sword. The smiths despaired. They went to see the king who they found grooming the black unicorn in the stables, lost in his own thoughts as he ran the brush over the beast’s flanks.

“The boy cannot pay, let alone, fight,” said the smiths. “He asks the impossible. Kaos is coming. His army marches towards us like the ice rides down from the mountains in winter. We must arm everyone. Remove this distraction.”

“Do you know the boy’s name?” asked the king.

“No.” They replied.

“Draco.”

The smiths looked confused. “And?”

The king leant his head on the unicorn’s warm side. His eyes flashed a little. He rarely changed skins these days. “It means Dragon in the old tongue.”

The smiths said no more. No one had seen a dragon in Eleutheria in centuries, but nothing would disabuse the king of the notion the lizards would be coming to their aid. In any case, Kaos came before any of the armour was ready and they had still not decided how they might forge the sword the boy had specified. The wraith rode a grey destrier towards the city walls, his army spread out, a seething mass of warriors, keen to conquer and destroy, like a vast infection.

The king put on his battered armour and prepared to lead the army out.

“Stop,” said Draco.

The king looked over at the young man standing at the city gates, wearing nothing more than riding trousers, boots and a tunic. His unicorn standing calmly besides him. “Let me talk to him.”

The king was about to argue.

“I will leave the unicorn with you. Ride her into battle if I fail.”

The king glanced at the unicorn. The army had found itself in the time since the beast had appeared. If dragons were a good portent, unicorn’s were the luckiest of charms and a black one – rarest of the rare – doubly so.

“At least, take my sword.”

The boy smiled. “None of your steel will work with that creature. We will need time to make such a weapon. That is what I play for.”

The king stared at Draco. He could tell the boy was not for turning and so he ordered the gates open. Half the city watched the boy walk across the broken mud to greet Kaos, the wraith lord. None could tell me what was said between them save the conversation did not last long.

The drumbeat from the army was like a thousand giants slept beneath the plains. Kaos grew in size until his smoke shroud seemed to put out the sun itself. The boy stood his ground. He raised his arms and beckoned the wraith towards him.

Kaos lunged.

Draco’s clothes tore from him as his skin scaled, darkening to red, his belly began to glint gold, and his wings unfurled, a dragon once more. Draco opened his mouth and flames poured from him as if he were a furnace. The city’s people grew afraid. Eleutheria had forgotten the power of such creatures.

Kaos screamed. The wraith was aflame. He took into the air on wings of smoke. The dragon went after him. Draco gave chase until the wraith reached the mountains. Satisfied that Kaos had retreated, the dragon banked back towards the abandoned invading army, swooping down low over the troops, raining down fire on them, scattering the warriors like shattered glass as they retreated for cover, weapons discarded. He landed in front of the city, changing back to a young man, albeit one in search of clothes once more.

Peace came to Eleutheria. The people told themselves the boy had banished Kaos. Draco knew he had not. The wraith would return. The king grew older still; as his time drew to an end, his thoughts turned to who would rule next for he had no living heir. He called the boy to him in his throne room. He sat on his throne of gold and bade Draco to sit down next to him on the seat that had once been his queen’s.

“You will be king when I am gone,” said the king.

The boy shook his head. “I do not wish to rule. I have a life I dared not dream of. This is enough.”

“That is why it must be you.”

The boy closed his eyes. He had a wife now. Ilya was a gifted shifter who took many forms but was most fond of a silver eagle that allowed her to fly alongside Draco when he went as a dragon. She shimmered silver in that form and as a woman she had hair that looked to have been spun from the precious metal. Draco just wanted to grow old with Ilya.

“Kaos will return,” said the king. “Only you can face him.”

“I caught him by surprise,” said Draco. “I will not again.”

“There must be a way…I do not know how else we will find that path without you leading the way.”

The boy grew grave at this for he knew Kaos from before the desert. “There is a way.”

“What?” asked the king. He gripped the boy by the shoulder. “Please, tell me.”

“A long time ago,” said Draco, standing and walking to the window. He looked down on the city below, people milling about their business, each life a story of their own. He pressed on: “There would have been a night where the sky rained stars down on your lands.”

“How could you know that? You are too young.”

Draco said nothing.

“You must send scouts to all the places the fire made landfall,” said Draco. “They will find Starsteel there. All of it must be brought back here. If someone has already taken it, they must find the metal and bring it. No piece can be forgotten.”

“What will it do?”

“I will forge the sword that I requested. I will fight him with that so-called impossible weapon. I will watch over your kingdom for as long as it takes, and I shall be as constant as Pwll himself.”

The king did not know who Pwll was but he sent the scouts. The king grew older and died on the day two scouts returned with three slabs of Starsteel between them. Draco was crowned king with Ilya beside him. Draco ruled for a lifetime. He did not age nor did he neglect his duty though he grew weary. He buried Ilya. He said goodbye to his children, sending them far and wide to hide them from Kaos, and he thought about what he would have to do to keep Eleutheria safe.

All that time there was only one other creature that was his constant companion, the unicorn, Caerwen, that never changed. Late at night, on a clear night, you would sometimes see the two of them, on the hills above the city, looking up at the stars.

Kaos returned, as he always does, in the fiftieth year of Draco’s reign. This time he came with two armies: the bears from the north and his own rag-tag army of anarchists drawn from every part of Eluetheria. Draco’s armies tried to hold them back. The warriors were driven back again and again. Six armies in all until the seventh and final force, guarding the city walls were all that remained. The enemy came on regardless.

“Kaos is at the gates,” said the general who commanded for Draco.

Draco thanked her. The king went down into the forges where the smiths were waiting and he bade them leave. In the Draco’s hands were Starsteel. They tell me the metal looked like melted down slag, of no good to anyone

“What do you intend to do?” asked the smiths as they left.

The king smiled sadly. “A terrible thing, But a necessary one.”

No one but Draco was present for the forging of the weapon. The forge ran so bright that even Kaos must have seen the light. He called for Draco to meet him. Still, the sound of hammering came from the forge. In the dawn, the king finished his work and the weapon was plunged into the water to cool. The clouds of steam could be seen all over the city.

At last, the king went out to greet the wraith, dressed in his chainmail armour, and under one arm, he carried a sword unlike any other. For any other, the sword would have needed two hands to wield, the blade was slightly curved, edge: razor sharp, swirls of cloud patterned the star steel that gleamed like platinum. The hilt was carved from something that looked like smooth wood but nothing like that grew on Eleutheria. Those who the passed the king on his way to confront Kaos swear the blade whispered. Yet those who held the weapon while the king dressed said it screamed. The unicorn went with him but would not walk alongside his sword arm.

The city watched the duel from the walls. There was no shifting this time. No parlay. The unicorn remained back from where Draco and Kaos faced each other.

Kaos swung a blade of fire. Draco met it with a block and parried.

Steel met flame. Thrust, parry, lunge, parry, block, parry, lunge.

The duel was furious. Draco fought as if he had spent a lifetime campaigning though he had seen the most peaceful reign in living memory. Kaos fought as if Draco were everything he hated. They were evenly matched.

Kaos broke back in frustration.

Draco kept his guard.

“Surrender,” said Kaos. “I’ll spare some of the city, I want what lies in the forges.”

“You want control.”

“You must know I am in control right now.”

Draco said nothing.

The wraith moved so fast no one anticipated the strike. Some say that Draco knew, who can say? Kaos lunged. Draco could not block in time and the blade of fire slid into his side.

Draco roared.

You cannot kill a dragon with a blade – fire or not – but you can hurt it. He seized the wraith’s sword arm with one hand, trapping him. Insubstantial though the wraith had been, he had made himself more solid in order to fight and make the blow that had wounded Draco. Still refusing to let Kaos go, Draco raised his other hand, holding the sword and held it ready to strike the wraith.

Kaos laughed. “You cannot kill me with that.”

“Who said I was trying to kill you?”

Kaos’s eyes went wide with alarm as he saw the weapon with clarity and realisation dawned. Too late. Draco slammed the sword into the centre of the wraith. The scream was so loud, those present did not regain their hearing for three days. The wraith let go of the flaming sword and seemed to fold in on himself. The sword sucked the wraith deep into the blade, a flash of dark smoke slid across the gleaming metal and all was silent.

Draco still had the flaming sword stuck in his side. The armies of Kaos charged toward the wounded king. Draco became the dragon once more. Though the sword remained stuck in his side, smouldering.

The city looked on. The dragon launched into the sky. The unicorn reared on its hindlegs. Those who saw what happened were unable to explain what they saw, because unicorns do not shift and no person can take their form, yet in place of the beast was a woman with hair the colour of night and eyes the colour of the sea. She held out her right hand. A silent pause. A broom shot through several buildings of the city, emerging into the air above the walls and flying into her open hand. She was airborne in the next breath. Giving chase to the dragon.

Draco flew but the armies below charged towards the city. He looked down upon them and fire followed his gaze, scorching the poisonous tide from the land. Satisfied the city was safe, the dragon went higher and higher, in search of the path that would keep Eleutheria safe. The witch followed. Eventually, all the city folk could see were two points of light, like shining shooting stars, disappearing into the constellation of the bear.

#

Draco emerged from the portal with the last of his strength, the oversized ancient box that remained where he had left it, on the broken ground. He flopped onto the scorched earth of Valhalla. The sword clattered on the ground as he rolled onto his back. Gritting his teeth, he pulled the fiery blade from his side.

He watched her mother Caerwen emerge from the portal. She alighted from her broom and placed her warm hand on his flank. He felt strength flowing back into him, as she said his true name.

“Where the hell have you been?” asked Odin.

The all-father looked at Draco, his solitary eye, fixed on the dragon.

“Hush,” said Caerwen.

Draco rolled to his belly, moved up onto his haunches and tried to shift. Nothing. He felt his heart pounding in his ears and his fire starting to return in his belly. He tried again. He looked down at his right foreclaw.

“I don’t change.”

Caerwen wiped her eyes. “No, cariad, not here.”

Draco looked over at the portal. The opening was shrinking back to the size of a box once more. He could not climb back in. He thought of the family beyond the gate.

“I can’t go back.”

Caerwen nodded. “No cariad, the ceremony is complete, all the star steel is on this side of the gate.”

The all-father picked up the sword.

“What did you do, dragon?” asked the god.

Odin held the sword awkwardly as if it were something terrible.

“What he had to,” said Caerwen. “To keep the people safe.”

“One universe,” said Odin. “What of the others?”

Draco bowed his head.

“We do what we can,” said Caerwen. “We protect whoever we can, whatever the cost.”

“He’s still in the blade,” said Odin. “Isn’t he?”

Draco took the sword from the god, taking it in his claws.

“Don’t let him out,” said Caerwen. “You will make things worse. Reality must be sealed.”

“Reality is already broken,” shouted Odin. “Look around you.”

The dragon and the witch looked around. Universes swirled around them like circling crows, the light from a trillion trillion stars bled into each other, worlds floated through the ether, lost from their orbits. Thinners bubbled up, those bald patches between realities faded away with screams of pain that seemed to echo to the end of everything and, in between, silence where you could not even hear your heart.

“What are we to do then,” asked Odin. “If we chain the box, we must use the sword and reforging it will release Kaos.”

“You cannot fix what is broken,” said Draco. He looked at the sword. He looked down at the box. “Of course.”

“Draco?” asked Caerwen, becoming alarmed.

Draco looked at her. The dragon smiled at her. He crushed the box under foot.

“Draco!” yelled Caerwen. “That kept things in balance,” said Caerwen, staring at the shards of the box. “The thinners, the nowhere gates, everything.”

“Everything is always changing, everybody is always chasing,” replied the dragon. “Trying to chain the things in the box once it was open too long was trying to go back. It won’t work. It served its purpose.”

The universe screamed and the sound was like the gears of time were shearing on their bearings but above them things began to move, to fade, to move to something new. Before they faded entirely, aware time was short, the dragon drew back his right foreclaw, the one holding the sword, and he flung the weapon so hard the blade span out of view into who knows where.

Reality shifted. It became something else. Something new.

“Where did you learn such magic? What happened in there?” asked Odin.

“A lifetime,” said Draco.

“How?” asked Caerwen. “Is everything back in harmony?”

“I don’t know,” admitted the dragon. “Tell me what harmony is and I will give you an answer.”

Caerwen said nothing.

“I think,” said Draco. “We make reality. People. Every day, in everything we do and so we must strive for balance not hide away from it because the alternative…”

“Yes?” asked Caerwen

“Chaos,” replied Draco. “And pain.”

Draco looked away from the witch, into the distance. Smoke was rising from the lands beyond the hills. Somewhere beyond Valhalla, somewhere they had not been. Draco thought the smoke looked like a small flock of dragons, numbering only four, heading for the horizon. Ghosts on the wind.

“Onwards?” he asked Caerwen.

The witch smiled.

They took off.

“What about the sword?” yelled Odin.

“Oh,” Draco shouted back. “I dare say it will turn up again.”

The End

 

 

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