Selection from Peter S. Beagle's I'm Afraid You've Got Dragons
(prologue & first chapter — full novel in 2008 from Conlan Press)
text copyright © 2008 Avicenna Development Corporation
The warning came in the form of a great wind, sudden and cold as thunder, sweeping out of the western mountains on a perfectly bland and cloudless summer day. Along with it came the charcoal-burners, the trappers and the rest of the forest folk ó woodcutters, swineherds, herbwives, even the occasional hermit and more occasional outlaw ó rushing to seek shelter in the nearby village. The villagers eagerly took them all in, glad of more hands to share in hastily battening down doors, windows, shelves and cellars, and hanging stones from the eaves and edges of thatched roofs, in hopes of holding their houses together against the rising wind. As they worked they prayed it might indeed be only wind.
The villageís three wise women ó a larger town would have had as many as seven ó were the only inhabitants bold enough to stand exposed in the fields on the mountain-facing side of the village. Their hair and garments whipped behind them as they watched the forest bend and twist as if wrenched between invisible hands. The air was thick now with dust and twigs and torn leaves, and over the growing howl they could hear tree limbs snap and splinter with a sound like cracking bones.
The women watched, and worried, and debated.
"This is no storm," said Uska, youngest of the three, her one good eye searching the oddly clear sky. ""The Kings return."
"Nonsense," replied Yairi. At 63 she was Uskaís elder by 30 years. She never missed a chance to hint that Uska had attained her place too soon, and with insufficient testing. "The Kings passed before you were born, and none of their progeny could do this. Besides, this wind is cold. I remember the Kings. The wind of their passage was always hot, almost too hot to breathe, as if their wings were made of stolen sun. This fury is another matter altogether. Some faraway shift in the land or sea, perhaps, echoing its way to us across the distance. Watch. It will shake itself out and fade."
"What great lurch or tide, no matter how distant, moves trees without touching the sky? It is the Kings. We must light the beacons, so we might yet be noticed and avoided. We must prepare the rune arrows, to ask forgiveness and beg them pass us by."
"You are young and coarse, and lack understanding." Yairi made no attempt to hide her condescension. "The world has many mysteries. Is that not so, Brugge?"
The oldest of the Wise Women held her bony right hand out flat, wobbling it slightly this way and that: maybe yes, maybe no. Her skin was almost transparent with age. She frowned at her companions and breathed in twice, preparing to speak, but before she could begin a tangle of crosscurrents stilled the air for a moment. In the sudden hush a new sound came to them from the forest: a low, dark rumble that rose and fell in waves, and seemed to be made of many other noises all blurred and jumbled together. When the wind rose again the sound was dulled, but they could still hear it, growing louder. It was as if all the lightning in the world had been bridled and something now rode it towards their village.
Bruggeís sure stance and undimmed eye belied the count of her years, which only she remembered. But uncertainty colored her voice, and this change in the fixed star of their hierarchy frightened her listeners more than either could admit in the otherís company.
"Shoot your arrows at will, sister, for whatever you think they are worth. Light your beacons as you choose. And you, Yairi, so quick to dismiss strangeness, so anxious to quell your own troubled thoughts: I do not believe we will be laughing about this tonight, or tomorrow, or at any time to come."
The gale grew steadily wilder, and for a moment all three women peered keenly back at the village, dreading to see a hearthfire drawn up even one chimney, to leap from housetop to housetop, setting the whole village ablaze. But there was no sign of that disaster, at least.
"The world has not turned noisily in its sleep, like some babe disturbed in the cradle, fussing and crying until it forgets the dreams that troubled it. The Kings do not come now to harm us in their vast indifference. Something else is loosed, something that stinks of magic." Brugge shook her head in distaste. "What we will do," she said at last, "is what we Wise always do when wisdom fails. We will chant and charm in all the languages we know, using every prayer, every incantation at our disposal, conjuring to make what approaches leave us in peace. And it...it will do whatever it will do. Begin."
They knelt together, Bruggeís authority still strong enough to bind them. And where else, in truth, could they go? What else, in fact, might they possibly do?
Hours of chanting passed without effect. The sky was still far too clear come nightfall; beneath its dark ceiling the air raged, and the noise from the woods grew harsher and louder than the world might possibly contain. Though the three women screamed their secrets into the onrushing wind, seeking to blunt its fury, they could no longer hear each other or themselves. Their words were torn and scattered as if they had never had form or meaning.
And then there were no words at all.
It was The Dream ó the one that visited him so often that it had long since lost any terrifying aspect and become as drearily predictable as the ones in which he was being driven out of town by a jeering, laughing mob, or found himself suddenly naked and pink as a shrimp while kneeling to court Violette-Elisabeth, the bakerís daughter. Even so, The Dream left him feeling strangely thrilled ó in a shivery sort of way ó when he woke to his motherís call from downstairs: "Gaius Aurelius! Gaius Aurelius Constantine!"
"Not now, not now" he muttered into his pillow, turning over in forlorn pursuit of a few last fragments of sleep. But Adelise was on the bed already, pulling the coverlet back with her tiny fangs and tickling his ear with her forked tongue. He could hear clumsy Fernand scrabbling for a purchase on the shaky bedstead, which meant that Lux would be next, and then Reynald ó poor little Reynald, always last in everything.
The call came again. "Gaius Aurelius Constantine Heliogabalus!"
He tried to shout "Iím awake!" but only managed a croak this time, as he forced himself to sit up. What was in that new batch at Jaroldís last night? "Get away, Adelise, Iím awake, Iím awake...Oh dear God, Iím dead but Iím awake." Reynaldís long scarlet head appeared above the edge of the bed, accompanied by a piercing cry for attention. "Reynald, keep it down, Iím not well."
"Gaius Aurelius Constantine Heliogabalus Thrax, itís chestnut pancakes ó and if youíre not here in the kitchen in two minutes, itíll be hog slop!" The three pigs rooting disconsolately in the small pasture out back could no more have passed as hogs than Robert could have, but Odelette Thrax was an optimist in all things. "And thereís a job waiting, Gaius Aurelius ó"
"Donít call me that!" It was enough of a bellow to send all four of the dragons scurrying as he lurched out of bed and began stiffly fumbling his way into his heavy working clothes. Robertís mother alternated between being his best friend and a headache to dwarf the one he already had ó sometimes she filled both positions simultaneously ó but at all times he was extremely fond of her cooking.
Adelise leaped to his shoulder as he clumped down the stair, her claws skidding on the dragonskin vest that he always wore to a job, and whose origins she and the others never seemed to sense. He hated the vest and all the rest of the armor of his trade as he had never hated any item of clothing ó all right, except for the silly green foresterís cap that his mother had made him wear as a boy ó but his customers took confidence in his appearance, as some kind of emblem of his expertise, and it did have practical benefits in a dayís work, for all its uncomfortable stiffness. He reached up awkwardly to pet the carefully-balanced dragonlet, feeling the feather-softness of her deep-green scales, which would not turn tough, almost impermeable, for another year yet. The women like them just like this at Dragon Market. The men want the yearlings.
The thought of Dragon Market roiled his empty stomach as he sat down at his motherís table. She was at the stove with her back to him, cooking what amounted to her third breakfast of the morning. Robertís younger brothers, Caralos and Hector, were of course already out and at work behind a neighboring farmerís oxen, having left at dawn. Now Patience and Rosamonde were racing through their own meal, late for lessons as usual, too hurried even to greet him. Robert loved his sisters, but he also envied them painfully. He had always thought it unjust that village girls got to be properly educated, while boys must apprentice early, and were lucky if they were taught to read and write at home, as he had been. He often peered over his sistersí shoulders while they were studying, until they complained and their mother shooed him away.
By the time Patience and Rosamonde had left for the schola, trailing promises of good behavior they would keep only if absolutely necessary, Robert had revised his opinion of the day.
Chestnut pancakes, browned perfectly at the edges...pomegranate syrup...fresh milk...there might be something said for living after all. Wolfing down his third cake, he asked with his mouth full, "Whoís the engagť?" He never referred to the people who hired him as customers, that being a term favored by those in trade, the people who sold things, rather than renting out their skills. In all honesty, he didnít actually care, but it mattered a great deal to his mother. She was intensely aware that her husbandís work, now Robertís work by inheritance, assigned them to the lowest rung of a steep and unforgiving social ladder.
"Medwyn and Norvyn, behind the granary." Odelette turned then, frowning as she saw Adelise on his shoulder. "Does she have to hear this?"
"Go help the others with the beds, Adelise," Robert said gently. The dragonlet flicked out her tongue and spread her miniscule wings, their inner vanes flushed purple as thunderclouds, then glided to the floor and scuttled up the stairs to Robertís bedroom. The four of them always did his bed first, no matter how often he tried to get them to alter their routine. Sometimes they even tried to make the bed with him still in it.
When he was sure the little dragon was out of earshot, Robert turned back to his mother. "Medwyn and Norvyn? Thatís nasty. Another caud of serpens flamma vegrandis, Iíll lay odds ó itíd serve them right, not letting me sweep for eggs the last time. Five, what, six seasons in a row, is it? You think theyíd learn."
"They didnít like your father. They like you. Maybe you can convince them."
"Not much chance of that so long as they both keep the books. Theyíre too busy cheating each other to know a bargain, once nothingís blistering their ankles. Ah well," he sighed as he slid his seat back, "More food on the table, and new scrolls for the twins. There are worse livings."
But later, after heíd left the house to gather up Ostvald and the dayís tools, he had to confess to himself that he really couldnít think of any.
illustration from Justin Sweet's original cover for I'm Afraid You've Got Dragons
Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy peterbeagle.com ]: