For Ziggy on his birthday.
By Neil Beynon
There is a place so far away that if you travelled to the coldest edges of our universe, where up is no longer up and down is no longer down, you could not reach it and yet, if you walk along a beach and listen for the ninth wave, you can hear it. You cannot get there with even the most powerful of rockets or the cleverest of computers but if you look up at the night sky and search for the north star and the great bear you can glimpse it and if you lift your eyes a little higher from that wonky saucepan of stars you can see something else: Draco.
That land looks a lot like ours though it has no pollution and no Internet and no cars. It has different magic. For all that, it does have a young dragon with ruby red scales and a belly as golden as the rising sun and he is known as Draco although his real name is a secret. Draco loves to fly, to climb as high as he can in the night sky and to try to reach the stars. He is flying now although much lower than he would ordinarily go because he is carrying someone, a woman with hair as dark as night and eyes the colour of the ocean. Her name is Caerwen and she is a witch and she is his adopted mother.
They have travelled far these two. They are wanderers at heart and the world is a big place full of new places to see and new adventures to have but today they have taken a detour to Caerwen’s homeland in the west. The land of Annwn, ruled by the good king Arawn, who Caerwen once served a long time ago when she was young and foolish, is a green land full of rolling hills, deep forests, good hunting and shining cities. They do not see dragons often.
It was a reasonable assumption then that Draco’s arrival would cause some disconcertion amongst the peoples of that land. Caerwen was confused as to the lack of any kind of alarm or surprise as they flew in low over the lands and, indeed, the absence of any kind of farming or hunting as they came in closer and closer to the capitol city where Arawn had his palace.
“This makes a pleasant change,” said Draco, over his shoulder.
Caerwen did not reply. Something was not right.
Draco landed by the city gates as they had agreed. It would not do to enter the city without permission and Caerwen feared the guard would be scared enough to fire on Draco with their arrows and spears. Draco did his best to quieten down the fire in his belly so that only the odd wisp of smoke appeared from his nostrils and he did not appear angry or cross. Caerwen slipped from his shoulders and looked up at the guards looking down. They seemed distracted.
“What do you want?” called down the guard.
“I am Caerwen who once had the King’s ear,” said Caerwen. “I seek audience with Arawn and to retrieve certain items I left in his care.”
The guard looked down over the wall, peering carefully, and Caerwen saw it was Pwyll who Arawn trusted most in the world after his wife.
“Pwyll,” she replied. “It is good to see you again.”
“Caerwen! It is you!” said Pwyll, laughing. “Trust you to arrive on the back of a dragon of all things.”
“The name is Draco,” said Draco. “Pleased to meet you.”
This stopped Pwyll half way down the stairs to the gate. “A talking dragon! Even better…”
Pwyll came out the gate as it rolled up and hugged Caerwen and made a slightly wary bow to Draco that made the dragon grin. This once again gave Pwyll pause for a dragon’s grin is a scary thing to behold if you have not first gotten to know the dragon in question.
“Come in, both of you, come in,” said Pwyll. “Arawn would not thank me for keeping you stood on the doorstep like beggars.”
They went through the gates into the first yard of the city. The city had three walls in total and this was just the furthest out.
“Arawn is not here then?” asked Caerwen.
Pwyll stopped. Draco noticed the gate rolling down behind them and the large number of guards that milled about the street. They did not always get a warm reception wherever they went because not everyone waited to find out if Draco was benevolent or malevolent. He was worried they might have been tricked. He was worried Caerwen was going to be made sad by her own people.
“No,” said Pwyll, looking worried and old. “I am glad to see you Caerwen but all is not good in Annwn and we must put aside the stories of what we have all been up to. The land needs us.”
Draco was excited. It was an adventure rather than an attack he could smell. They have very similar scents but one is infinitely more fun than the other.
“Tell me all about it,” said Caerwen. “Leave nothing out.”
Pwyll nodded. “Eight days ago, word reached us that storm clouds began to gather off the coast, clouds almost as dark as night and reaching higher than the tallest ship, but they did not move in over the land as you might expect. They just continued to gather, pulling the waves higher and higher and plunging the coast into darkness.
“Pwyll left immediately. We do not know why the storm is gathering or why it will not come over the land but if it does not break soon it will contain enough pent up magic to wipe this kingdom from the land.”
Caerwen’s concern was plain for Draco and Pwyll to see.
“We must get to the coast at once,” she replied. “There is something familiar about this magic.”
“But it is days away,” said Pwyll.
“Not for me,” said Draco, lowering his shoulder for Caerwen to climb on.
“Are you coming?” asked Caerwen to Pwyll.
Pwyll shook his head. “No, my duty is here looking after Annwn until Arawn can return.”
Caerwen nodded. “As you wish.”
Draco leapt into the sky, unfurling his wings and beating high this time. He could feel the concern from his mother, it was more important to be swift than comfortable and so he went where the air was thin.
The distance was no challenge for a dragon as young and strong as he and Caerwen was short of breath when they arrived at the coast but pleased. They dropped down low into the shadows, the clouds in the distance looked like a wall of shadow, lit only occasionally by lightening far out at sea.
“Where will we find Arawn?”
“He will be at the watch tower but we do not need to find him, not yet. I want to go to Dun bay, to the beach of stones. It lies over there between the two cliffs.”
Draco looked and saw the beach. It looked familiar but he put it out of his mind and landed at the top of the rocks as they led down to the sea which was at low tide revealing sand that gleamed in the half light of the storm like wet dragon scales.
Caerwen slid from her son’s back.
“Wait here,” she whispered.
The witch moved over the rocks as if she had spent her whole life doing it and dropped onto the sand with cat like grace. She paused and bent to pick up some of the sand in her fingers. She smelt it and dropped it back to the beach before moving further down to the edge of the sea. She stopped. She stood. She did not move.
Draco waited for a moment, his eyes taking in the rolling green cliffs and the layers of strata that made up the cliffs and the distinctive smooth flat boulders, worn that way by the sea. He had been here before. This was where his mother had brought him first when she had found him all those years ago.
The dragon lifted himself over the rocks with one beat of his wings and nestled down on the sand next to her.
“You could have told me,” he whispered.
“I told you to wait,” she said, sadly.
They both stood in silence for a moment. She answered before he could speak.
“You cannot go,” she said. “The portal is closed.”
Draco did not answer. He knew deep down he could not go through but hope if a strange and tricky animal that is hard to tame. He left his mother to her task and wandered across the beach until his foot caught on something hard. He looked down. It was a bottle sticking up from the sand and it had something in it.
Draco lifted the bottle up with his forearm. Dragons’ fore claws are nearly as dextrous as human hands but he could not get at what was inside the bottle although he could see clearly it was a note.
“What do you have there?” asked Caerwen, at his side without Draco noticing.
Draco offered the bottle up to his mother. She took it and frowned. The bottle was strange looking, different to anything she had seen in Annwn and the paper was of the highest quality she had ever seen despite its strange journey. She uttered a word of magic and the note slid up through the neck of the bottle until she could pick it out and read it. Caerwen went pale.
“It is not possible…”
Draco frowned. “What is it?”
“It is for you,” said Caerwen, looking up and using Draco’s real name.
Draco felt like the world was spinning, which of course it was because that is how worlds work, but you aren’t supposed to be able to feel it and suddenly he could. It felt like he could feel the whole universe spinning.
“What does it say?”
Draco could not speak for the longest time afterwards. Big, fat, steaming tears rolled down his cheeks and it was all he could do not to try to count the waves and dive in after the people who had sent the message to him from so far away. Caerwen put her hand on his shoulder.
“I do not know how they managed this,” said Caerwen. “It is magic beyond me but I know that you cannot go back. I am so sorry.”
Draco nodded. They were silent for a long time.
“It is linked, isn’t it?”
Caerwen looked apprehensive. “I fear it is but I do not know how. We must talk with Arawn.”
In the darkness they flew to the watchtower, out amongst the rocks that stood like needles. They found Arawn watching the storm from the highest point where Draco could only hover next to the tower. Arawn hugged Caerwen and greeted Draco with respect.
“What have you discovered?” asked Caerwen.
“Nothing,” said Arawn, bitterly. “I do not know the cause of this and so I cannot fix it. Give me an army to fight or a crop to sow or a dispute to settle and I am your king but who can stand against the storm?”
Caerwen smiled. “You do yourself a disservice.”
The witch looked back out at the storm. “Have you noticed anything else unusual, here or elsewhere in the land?”
Arawn shook his head and then paused. “Not really…there was one…but it is silly.”
Caerwen looked back at him. “Sometimes silly things are the most important in the whole world. Tell me.”
“We have not seen a rainbow for months,” said Arawn. “Anywhere in the land, no matter how hard it rains and how suddenly the sun breaks forth, there is never any rainbow. I was almost ready to dismiss it but then this happened and I sent runners and not one can find any report of rainbows for a year or more.”
Caerwen looked back towards the east.
“It could be related…”
Arawn frowned. “How?”
Draco had a feeling that he knew and it was making his stomach churn as he hovered in the air. He was a smart dragon, keen for knowledge and eager to learn what his mother would teach him. He already knew the names of all the flowers and plants and what could be mixed with what. He knew the importance of rainbows.
“It would be a gamble,” said Caerwen looking at him. “If we were wrong we could not make it back in time.”
“I could make it back,” said Draco. “I just wouldn’t have you.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Arawn, unaccustomed to being spoken around as if he weren’t there.
“I’m sorry, Arawn,” said Caerwen turning to him. “You have been patient and you are right, there is nothing you can do against the storm but that is not true of myself and my son, Draco.”
“Your son is a dragon?”
Caerwen smiled. “It is a long story. Perhaps one day I will tell it to you but now I must go and find the one who is causing this.”
Caerwen slipped over Draco’s shoulder, stepping right off the tower and onto his waiting back. If Draco had moved fast before then Caerwen had not been paying attention for this time he flew with a swiftness that pulled at her face and blurred her vision and left her short of breath. Out east towards the borderlands of Annwn and beyond to where the hills rose on cliffs of white and down into one of the deepest valleys. There was an old set of ruins that could have been there for a thousand years and a small wood set into the hillside. The witch slipped from his back and turned to look at her son.
“Draco, if I ask you to stay here, will you listen?”
Draco just grinned back.
“Very well, come with me but promise me if I tell you to run that you will,” said Caerwen. “This is not a game.”
They went into the woods. It was dark and quiet and the trees seemed to reach over as if peering for a good look at the intruders into their realm. It seemed to Draco they wandered for an age, up and up, before heading down into another valley and breaking through the tree line into a clearing where a large pond of water, full of reeds, waited. There was the sound of cogs turning and a steady stream of smoke billowing up into the air.
“The rainbow factory,” whispered Caerwen. “It’s still running but something is wrong, there should be no smoke.”
Draco could feel the adventure in the air. Caerwen is wrong about the game, he thought, I can feel it.
“You’re right,” said Caerwen. “It is a game. That means only one thing.”
“Fae,” said Draco in awe.
The Fae was stood half way up the far slope, sat on a stump, watching them with eyes as black as Caerwen’s hair, knees tucked up under its chin, hair sprouting luminescent green in all directions and it’s long, languid, pointed ears arched down over its shoulders. It would not look that way to you or I but you cannot glamour a witch or a dragon.
“Puck,” said Caerwen. “I might have known.”
“What do you want witch? Have you come to set your worm upon me?”
Draco let steam bellow from his nose. “Who are you calling worm?”
Caerwen quietened him with a gesture. “What are you doing Puck? Why have you taken the rainbows?”
“Why should I not? They are beautiful and fragile and rare and magic just like me. They should be mine and now they are.”
“No storm can end while you have them,” said Caerwen. “You know I cannot allow this.”
“You cannot stop me,” said the Fae, brandishing a wand made of elm.
Caerwen grew angry, rising to unfurl her full power. “Where did you get that?”
The Fae stood, never lowering the wand, and returned the display of power. The light from both was so much Draco had to hide his eyes.
“I found it on a dead old hag.”
“Liar,” said Caerwen but her voice was breaking.
Draco heard the pain in her voice and it churned his gut so hard that the fire was out of him before had even considered if the Fae could survive it. The flames engulfed the shrieking Fae before Puck could bring the wand round to defend itself. When the fire subsided, the Fae was alive but as naked as the day it had been born and the wand had been turned to ash.
The Fae looked at them in anger. If looks could kill they would have been scorched from the land but they could not and so the Fae just glared. Draco felt the shift in the air as the game dissipated, won by them, Draco was certain, as was the Fae. Puck ran into the hills shrieking and cursing.
Caerwen and Draco examined the rainbow machine. It was a vast wooden and glass contraption that turned and groaned and belched and smoked on the slope side of the pond. It had been built into the side of the hill. The Fae had blocked up the release valve with a moonstone, hay and mud. It took them an hour to clean it and for the first tiny, flickering, rainbow to be belched into the air where it floated off to find the storm it would end.
The two sat on the hillside and watched the machine send rainbows out into the world. It was a very calming thing to watch. It is hard to stay sad when a baby rainbow bounces into the sky but Draco still did not feel right, something was still wrong, he could feel it deep in his chest.
“You said it was linked,” he sighed.
“I said it might be,” said Caerwen. “But I agree: something is wrong still.”
They went back to the machine. It was rattling where it should not be rattling. Something was stuck in the belly of the mechanical beast and so they found a spanner and opened up the machine. The Fae had kept the machine backed up for so long a rainbow had started to grow inside and it was too big to get out of the machine on its own. Caerwen squeezed it tight and pulled the rainbow free.
“It is the rainbow for the storm in the west,” said Draco. “That’s why the storm can’t break.”
Caerwen smiled sadly. “Yes, you are a wise dragon.” And then she removed the other item from the machine.
It was faint. It wasn’t completely there because of something called quantum, which is a particular kind of magic that only very strange women and men understand and often they need to grow peculiar facial hair to do it. It was unmistakable: it was a dragon’s egg. It shimmered and shifted, a kaleidoscope of colour and possibility, for a dragon’s egg possesses every colour a dragon may take.
“Oh no,” said Draco. “It’s already happened.”
“No,” said Caerwen. “It is undecided. There is still time.”
Draco looked at her. “How long?”
Caerwen shook her head. “I don’t know.”
Draco took the rainbow in his mouth. “You must stay here, in case I fail.”
Caerwen watched her son leap into the sky like the lightening in the storm from which he had been born and streak across the sky with speed the likes of which that world had never seen or will again. She wondered that he had not asked the question she knew would come eventually. Her son’s thoughts were not of himself but the people of Annwn and those who had produced the egg.
Draco flew hard into the storm.
The rain lashed with the fury of the long frustrated, the thunder roared with the rage of those cheated by fate and the lightening lashed with the sting of what might have been. The dragon ducked and weaved and tumbled and fought to punch a hole through the centre of the storm for the sun and suddenly it was quiet. The storm raged around him but Draco was through it in the eye of the maelstrom and all that remained was to fly up. Three powerful beats were all it took and he burst into the blue far above the storm where the air was thin and clear and crisp. He let go of the rainbow and chased the cascading colours of light down into the heart of the storm where they split the clouds asunder before the storm ever hit the kingdom of Annwn.
Arawn laughed and clapped and waved as Draco barrel rolled over the top of the watchtower and sped back east towards his mother and the valley of the rainbows.
Draco landed next to her. The young dragon was exhausted and drenched in sweat; smoke billowed black from his nose. It was all he could do to stare at the egg, still there and still flickering.
“But it worked?”
Caerwen looked at him. “The magic does not work like that. You did a good thing and saved many lives in Annwn but this part of it is not down to us but to fate.”
The witch pointed. Fate stood on the ridge. His robe was grey like the storm, his hood was up and his silver beard was all that emerged from the dark beneath it as he stood with his hands on his gnarled staff.
“I will force him,” said Draco, angrily.
“No,” said Caerwen. “He is other and like all men: fickle. We will let him do his work.”
Draco looked back at the egg. There was silence between them.
“It is funny,” he said, breaking the quiet. “All the world and this egg came here to us.”
“It is only half here,” said Caerwen, quietly.
“Fate is indeed strange to bring it here though,” said Draco thoughtfully.
“Fate did not bring it here,” said Caerwen. “You did son.”
Draco looked at her. “I did…?”
“I said it was linked,” said Caerwen. “You heard the letter. Have you not guessed? This egg comes from the same place as you.”
Draco reared up and roared as loud as you could take without screaming back in return and the flames reached high into the sky so they were visible in Annwn and many more lands besides.
“Then I would have it here,” said Draco. “With me. For I am alone.”
Caerwen shook her head. “That is not fair Draco. You know that. You know why. And you are not alone: you have me.”
Draco looked down at the grass. “They have forgotten me. They will forget me.”
Caerwen spoke again. “No, they will not. You read that letter and I tell you again I do not know the magic by which they accomplished that feat. There is no power in the world that I know of save one that could accomplish it. They will not forget as long as the stars…”
She faltered. It had gone dark. Dark as night and above them the moon slid into the sky as if pushed by an unseen hand and the stars burst from the heavens: first the north star, then down in a crooked and wonky set of lights came the saucepan sometimes called the plough and sometimes called the bear. Next came the long line of stars called Draco and the ground shook.
Draco cried until he felt there were no more tears inside and Caerwen held him tight. “You see son. They do not forget.”
“I see,” said the Dragon. “But now I want the egg to go to them. They need someone to help them because I cannot.”
“I know,” she said. “But we can’t fix that like we could Annwn.”
Draco stood there for a long time, silent, watching the egg that contained his brother or sister. When he looked up he was smiling and Caerwen could not tell if it was a sad smile or a happy smile and he shook his head.
“No, mammy,” he said. “You’re wrong. We can do something.”
Caerwen felt her heart pounding in her chest. “What can we do?”
“We can wait and see what happens.”
“But how will they know?”
“They will know.”
And so they waited…