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Authors: Sherryl Jordan

Hunting of the Last Dragon

BOOK: Hunting of the Last Dragon
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dedication

For Kym,

who has fought dragons and won,

and for little Kael,

who may one day fight dragons of his own.

I wish you strength,

and the knowledge that you are never alone.

map

contents

The Tale of Jude of Doran

As told to

Brother Benedict

at the Monastery of St. Edmund at Minstan,

who recorded it faithfully,

making this a true and correct record

of the hunting of the last dragon,

and of the events that happened

at St. Alfric's Cove

one

Fear is something I am well acquainted with. When I was a child I was afraid of nightmares and the dark, of bogeymen and fiends; more lately I've been afraid of being a failure or a fool, afraid of enemies, wolves, and hell, and of a witch who held, for a time, power over me; but none of these terrors equalled the fear I knew that day I first stood upon the ashen shore of St. Alfric's Cove, hardly able to breathe for the stench of dragon-fire and death, and certain to my bones that here, in this burned and bitter place, I would lose my life. And not mine only, but the life of my friend, Jing-wei.

If she knew any fear that awful day, Jing-wei did not show it. A long time she looked upon the scorched cliffs, up to the lofty cave where dwelled our deadly enemy. The stone immediately below the lair was black
with soot or blood, and a corpse—I could not tell, for distance, whether it was man or beast—hung partly over the ledge. Another corpse lay on the beach not far from us, and that was a man, though I tried hard not to look at it. He was mainly bones burned to ash, and the remains of his hand still held his sword.

“We'll not fail, Jude,” said Jing-wei, coming over to me, limping badly on the darkened stones. Her bandaged feet were black with soot, and grey ash-dust lay across her smooth lips and strange brown skin. She was all strange—small, and impossibly delicate considering the task ahead of her. “We'll not fail,” she said again, taking my arm and turning me away so I could not see the burned soldier. She did not speak again for a while, but only looked up that savage cliff, her almond-shaped eyes as black as coal and full of secrets too deep for me to read. So still she stood, so firm, so steadfast that—for that moment at least—I believed what she had said. But there were many times when I was sorely plagued with doubt, and cursed the witch who had convinced her that we could do this thing, and counted myself a lunatic for agreeing to it.

I could not bear to look up the cliff, could not bear to look anywhere. I fair shook with fear, I don't mind confessing; and I think I wept as well, for the grief that the smell of dragon fumes and death awoke in me. It
was the same stench I had smelled in my own village, after all had been destroyed. For strength I gazed at Jing-wei's face, and saw it still serene, her expression unreadable.

Among her hidden feelings must lie pains as great as any I have borne, for she, too, lost everything, and was a freak in a travelling fair when first I met her. She was called Lizzie then, for even her own name they had taken from her. Mayhap she learned to hide her feelings when she lived inside a cage, poked at by curious children, gawked at, spat at, hated and mocked. It is hard to think that when I first saw her I, too, thought she was not wholly human, but a half-beast with hooves and claws. I know her better now, though I would never claim to know her well. She still is a mystery to me, though we have suffered much, and triumphed much, and together been to hell and back.

But my tale races too far and fast ahead. Mayhap I should begin at the beginning, on that evil night it all started.

I saw the way you rolled your eyes just then, Brother Benedict, and caught the way you dipped your pen, impatient-like, in the pot of ink. Your tolerance, please! Storytelling is new to me, but I shall soon get in the way of it and put my words in better order. I wish that I could write and be my own scribe, then there'd
be no need to make this call upon your time. The Abbot knows my story—I told him briefly—and he said Jing-wei and I might remain here at the monastery as guests for as long as it takes for you to write my narrative. He seems to think my tale important, and instructed me to tell it full well, with nothing spared. I told him that I have no alms to pay for hospitality, but he said Jing-wei could help Brother Gregory in the infirmary, mixing medicines and making poultices, and feeding the aged monks; and I'm to work in the kitchen every day between the hour of tierce and noon, to help the cooks get dinner—a decision the Abbot shall soon repent of, I think, when he eats my pastries. And in the afternoons and evenings, so the Abbot said, you and I shall do this work, for what it's worth.

We are ready, then, your pen sharp and inked, and the candles bright enough? I shall begin again, at the beginning.

My name is Jude, son of Perkin Swinnard, who kept swine in the village of Doran. My adventure began on a night soon after summer's start this year. It was a night I remember well in every detail, for it was my last with my family. I was in a bad humour, unhappy with my lot. I'm ashamed and sorry now for those dark thoughts, but shall confess them to you for the sake
of honesty. Also, I think some saint in heaven, with nothing better to do, cast his eye across my thoughts that hour, disapproved of my ingratitude, and decided to stir up my pot.

I was thinking on the unfairness of fate, and how I was destined to be ever feckless with a bow, to be ill-proportioned and unhandsome, and plagued with four sisters all younger than I. In that bleak mood I thought on other misfortunes, too: how I was fated to be ever tongue-tied and bumbling with the fair Prue, whose father was the big-fisted miller, hell-bent on saving her from mortal errors such as myself by making her a nun; fated to spend the rest of my days minding smelly pigs, and my evenings keeping the four plagues out of the fire, out of the well, and out of my mother's way; and, worst of all, fated to fall unknown into my grave, my courage untested, my fame unsung. In short, I considered myself doomed to a life of pigs and plagues, with no Prue, and no escape.

That early summer's eve I was minding the fire, keeping the cauldron, with its leg of salted bacon, boiling, and trying to finish the new boots I was making for myself. They were almost done; I'd made the upper parts, and had only to punch holes through the leather soles and sew the pieces together. The eldest plague, Addy, hovered close, blocking the firelight so I couldn't
see, and whining. The next in line, Lucy, was playing on the blankets and furs, spread on the floor, that were our family bed. The twins, barely three summers old, were asleep. In a corner near a rushlight dipped in fat sat my grandfather, near sixty now, and the oldest soul in the village. He was whittling at a bit of wood, his head bent so close to the torch I wondered that he did not catch alight. As always, he muttered to himself, for he had escaped the ecstasies of swineherding by going to war against the Scots, and coming back blind in one eye, and with his wits half gone. In the corner opposite my grandfather were stalled my father's two oxen, munching happily on hay. In the rafters above our heads perched our five hens, safe inside for the night, and clucking softly as they settled down. The evening would have been peaceful, but for Addy.

“You should have given it to me,” she said.

“Given you what?” I asked.

“Your old bow,” she said, bumping my arm so the mallet missed the awl and smashed my thumb.

I swore, but not so loud that my mother heard. “If you don't give me peace,” I warned, “I'll give you the bow and an arrow, too, stuck where you don't want it.”

“You can't give me your bow,” she said. “You threw it in the duck pond. I saw. Why?”

“You were spying on me, mayhap.”

“I meant, why did you throw it away?”

“Because it was a useless bow, never would shoot straight.”

“I doubt that was the bow's fault, Jude,” said my mother, laughing at me over the leeks she was preparing. “You'll regret throwing it away. You should have sold it.”

That had come to my mind, after the bow had sunk beneath the water. “I have enough money for a new bow, anyway,” I said. “I'm going to Rokeby tomorrow, to buy one. Father said there's a man there makes excellent bows. There's a fletcher there, too, so I can buy new arrows as well.”

“There's a good saddler in Rokeby,” said my grandfather, without looking up from his whittling. “Made the gear for Alfred. Why don't you take Alfred tomorrow, lad? You'd be at Rokeby quick as an arrow. He's a good horse, Alfred.”

Alfred was the horse he rode to war, and which died under him in battle forty years past.

“And who will look after the pigs, if you're not here?” asked my mother.

“Father said he will, tomorrow. 'Tis all arranged. I leave at dawn, and will be back afore the dark.”

Addy tugged at my sleeve, and I knew what was coming next. “Take me with you!” she pleaded.

“Aye, and further if you like,” I replied. “I'll take you all the way to Constantinople, and leave you there.”

“Where's that?” she asked, full of hope. Perchance she longed for adventure as much as I did.

“It's where the knights went on crusades,” I said. “Where the heathens skin children alive and use their hides to make fine parchment for clever scribes to write upon.”

“And how is it that you know such things, Jude?” asked my mother, with a shrewd look.

I bent low over my new boots, and kept my peace. If she knew I heard it from a travelling minstrel in the alehouse, she would box my ears until my head buzzed like a beehive. She had fists quicker than the miller's; that I knew right well.

“They do not skin children,” said Addy, sulking. “Anyway, 'tis silly, you buying a new bow. Your aim will still be bad.”

“I can shoot an acorn from forty paces,” said I.

“No you can't. You shot at Jack Plowman's barn the other day, and missed.”

I pinched her rump—I'd found this was an inconspicuous way to punish her—and went on with my hammering.

“Anyway,” whispered Addy spitefully, refusing to cry, “I heard Prue tell Kitty Smythe that you were built
like a dumb ox, with brains to match!”

Fortunately for Addy, our father arrived home at that moment, and put upon the hearth the rabbits he had trapped.

“Can I have the skins?” I asked, thinking to trim my boots with fur.

He did not hear; nor did he greet us with his usual cheerfulness, but sat on the dirt floor beside me to warm his hands by the fire, for though the days were warm the nights were cool. His were large hands, steady and strong like the rest of him. His face was ordinary, square-jawed and snub-nosed—like mine, from what I have seen of it in the millpond on a still day. I wished I were like him inside as well: calm and fearless, slow to anger, and fair-minded. I confess I am not; an impatient humour rules me, and a tendency to take whichever way is easiest, especially if my hide is endangered.

“I heard news,” he said. “Bad news.”

Addy was silent for once, and my mother's hands were very still upon the vegetables. My father went on: “Thornhill was razed to the ground yester-eve.” His voice broke, and I looked away from him. His only brother was in that village, with his wife and ten rowdy offspring. My father continued, very quiet: “Everything was destroyed, animals, houses, the windmill, the
church. The wheat was burned, the fields for miles around scorched black. None survived.”

I put the mallet down on the hearth, the leather sole with it. We all waited for him to go on, and the only sounds in the room were the crackling of the fire and the smooth scraping of my grandfather's knife upon the piece of wood. My father sighed deeply and ran his hands through his hair and down across his face. His skin was grey and his whiskers, unplucked for days, stuck out very black. For the first time in my life, I saw him cry.

“Some said it were the Scots,” my father went on, after a while. “But there were no hoofprints reported, and no soldiers have been seen. And the people who had fled, who were found lying dead in the charred fields . . . Well, it is said they had no arrows in them, no sign they were slain by human weapons, though they were burned beyond recognition.”

My mother sat down suddenly upon a stool. Lucy and Addy went to her, but she did not put her arms around them. She sat like one struck dumb, her face the colour of bleached cloth.

“Fire fell from the skies,” said my grandfather, his head still bent over his carving. His voice was quavering and cracked, and it rose as he became more excited, and he carved deeper and deeper into his
wood, ruining his work. “It burned all and sundry, rich and poor, women and men, priests and heretics. Not that it mattered with the heretics, of course. And after the fire came the wind, huge tempests that blew the smoke all over Christendom, and killed everyone who looked on it. It was a pestilence, a judgement from the Almighty.”

“That wasn't fire then,” said my father, very quiet. “That was the Black Death. It was a sickness, not a fire.”

“Aye, but they say it started with fire,” said grandfather, looking up, his face red and overwrought. “It started over the seas, in the far-off Eastern realms, and was carried here in the ships, blown by ungodly winds, and it planted its evil seeds in the ports, and spread like poison across—”

“'Tis not the Black Death that wiped out Thornhill yesterday,” said my father. “I remember the pestilence, how people sickened and died, so many in number that the churchyards were full, and we buried the dead in pits out in the fields. This is different. There were no sick in Thornhill. Not from what I heard. There were no bodies, save a few charred remains. Those . . . those had been partly devoured. And a strange smell hung in the air. So they said.”

BOOK: Hunting of the Last Dragon
13.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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