Gareth felt a rushing, and closed his eyes tight, biting his lip, as he stepped through that fiery doorway, towards his dragon. He half expected to fall straight down the side of the building. Instead, the boy found himself spinning to the left, felt himself sinking, smelt burnt rice, then felt dew-wet grass under his bare feet.
When Gareth opened his eyes, he was somewhere else entirely, in the middle of a strange, thick meadow, smelling of scented flowers and running to a rough dirt track. The first living thing he saw was his dragon, nodding furiously in mid-air, as she rose in the sky, like a being released. She hovered there for a moment, looking back guiltily, he thought, then turned and began to use her wings, as she flicked her clubbed tail, dipped her blue head, then suddenly swept away.
“NO. Come back, where…”
Gareth wanted to run after her, to call to her, that name he could not quite catch echoing in his head – Letha, or Leretha. But the little dragon was flying fast now, out across the open grasslands, towards a tangled wood in the distance, a darkling forest that made Gareth instantly frightened, as he felt a terrible tugging at his heart. His brave little dragon was gone, the one he had hatched all on his own, and now Gareth was all alone again. A strangely purple sun was beginning to sink in the distance.
The twelve-year-old swung round in his plain grey pyjamas, to the home he had come from, still feeling a fury at Alan, to see a circle in front of him, a little hole in the air. It was like looking through a telescope, reversed, and far in the distance was the tiny figure of his step dad. Alan was picking himself up angrily in the flat, as his mum and Mr Coombes crowded round him, before the vision vanished with a pop. Now Gareth’s brown eyes focused on a ragged vista of distant, snow-capped mountains, like something out of fairy tale. Where was this place?
“But you protected me,” gulped Gareth mournfully, turning back to his vanishing dragon. “You saved my…”
Gareth Marks was quite alone, in the middle of nowhere, trying to summon his courage and wondering what his Godfather Pendelion would tell him to do. He felt sick and lost, but he suddenly ducked, as he felt something swoop over his head. It was another dragon, bright red this time, flying in the direction of his own, towards the darkening horizon. It seemed to trying to catch up with her.
Now the boy heard a voice, a sharp, girlish and very irritated voice – Come Back, Right now. He swung round to see a girl standing about thirty feet away, in the long, scented grass too, next to a high hay-rick. She was taller than Gareth, with bobbed blonde hair, and looking round angrily. She looked totally bewildered.
As they caught sight of each other, they both froze, there in that meadow, both realising their clothes made them rather absurd in this wild setting. The girl had a rather pretty face, if a little too proud, and was clearly embarrassed to be dressed in a smart tennis kit, as she began to smooth her skirt.
“Hello,” said Gareth softly, blushing violently in his pyjamas and bare feet, quite unused to talking to girls, “Er – who are…”
“Sarissa,” answered the stranger coldly, and he noticed her white sneakers. “Sarissa Hallet. I was just going to a lesson when… But was that stupid dragon yours?”
She spoke with a very proper accent, the sort Gareth had heard from the kids streaming out of those private schools in London.
“Sure,” answered Gareth, resenting her caling his dragon stupid and not liking her manner at all, yet strangely glad she was here with him, “I’m Gareth Marks. I’m from London too.”
Sarissa Hallet look distinctly disinterested.
“We live in Hertfordshire, actually,” she said sourly, “But it’s your fault he’s gone. It called to him, I know it did. That blue one. I saw it. It took him away.”
Gareth disliked this rude, haughty girl even more.
“Well, haven’t we got more to worry about now?” he said, with a shrug, “Being here at all, I mean?”
For a moment she seemed at a loss.
“Evidently,” said Sarissa Hallet next, still looking mournfully towards the horizon, where their two dragons had become small as tiny birds. “Wherever here is. How old are you though?”
Gareth Marks felt even sillier in his pyjamas.
“Twelve,” he answered rather sheepishly, trying to look taller. “I’m twelve.”
He stepped forwards a little, then stopped.
“Twelve?” said Sarissa rather scornfully, wrinkling her nose, “Well, I’m thirteen, and five months.”
“So I’m in charge. House rules. Besides, I was form head last year. I suppose I’ll have to think of a way to get home though.”
Gareth looked at her sceptically, because Sarissa Hallet obviously didn’t know much about dragons. If his dragon had been a Firecutter, he sensed it was the reason he was here at all, or they were. Sarissa suddenly walked towards him, with her arm stretched out formally, for a hand shake.
Gareth scowled, though he decided she had rather pretty big blue-green eyes. But before they could shake, something else streaked right between them, like a flying duster, coloured a bright mauve and pushing them back. It was getting dark now and as Gareth and Sarissa watched the feathery being scoot off into the distance, like a flapping kite, they heard a cry. WOOAH. A shape came flying from the side of the hay stack, and went crashing forward into the long grass. It was another boy, in a baseball shirt and jeans. He had jet black hair and as he lay flat on the ground and looked up, Gareth saw an oriental face gazing back at them.
“Wow,” the newcomer whispered, “That was awesome.”
The American boy picked himself up awkwardly. He was very short and rather fat and he was chewing gum.
“Hi,” he said nervously, “But, er, did you guys see where my friend got to?”
“They all went towards that forest,” answered Sarissa Hallet, just as coldly as she had spoken to Gareth, “But who are you?”
The little American lad looked around, and suddenly seemed as if he wanted to cry.
“Sao” he gulped, looking between Gareth and Sairissa hopefully, and smiling at Gareth. “I’m called Sao Cheung.”
“Chinese?” said Sarissa. “Chinese American.”
“Yeah. Well, half Chinese, any rate. I found my dragon in the garbage, and when she hatched, she cut a hole. But where are we? I want to go back now, please.”
Sarissa Hallet crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow, as Gareth decided the thing that had streaked between them was a Chinese Dragon.
“Well if I knew that…”
“Blistag,” said Gareth, stepping towards them both, with as much authority as he could, “We’re in Blistag now.”
“Blistag?” said the other two doubtfully.
“Yeah,” said Gareth Marks firmly, touching his pyjama pocket. The burnt bits of the book were still there. “Yes. Those…er, our dragons. They’re Fire Cutters. Exceptionally rare, and exceptionally dangerous. They brought us here.”
“Were Firecutters,” corrected Sarissa Hallet. “But he’s gone now, and I didn’t even get a chance to give him a name. I’ve five pets at home, two dogs, a cat and a tortoise, but he was the best ever. I thought he wanted me to be here.”
“And where did you both come from?” asked Gareth, doubting dragons could ever be pets. “What were you doing?”
“San Francisco,” said Sao Cheung, “I live in San Fransisco bay. I’m eleven. I was alone after school, feeding him a pretzel, when he….”
“School?” interrupted Sarissa, wondering when American children took holidays.
“Special school,” shrugged Sao, and he suddenly blushed. “It’s a kind of orphan college. But for bright kids.”
Gareth smiled at the orphan and turned to Sarissa. He thought she had a sneer on her lips.
“And you came here from Hertfordshire?” he suggested, not even knowing where that was.
“No,” said Sarissa sharply, “I was standing in our home in the South of France, actually. Our Gite, in the Dordogne. My parents always holiday there, and I was just going to play tennis.”
“At this time?” said Gareth, feeling the cool grass underfoot and remembering how late it had been back in London. He shivered, but the meadow was rather pleasant. It was only the presence of that distant wood that made the setting so unsettling. Gareth suddenly remembered that creature, that horned horse, that Unicorn, running from it in terror.
“The court’s floodlit,“ snapped Sarissa, lifting her chin, “Obviously. And my parents always have our coach on stand-by. But my Au Pair had laid on a Stroganov for sups, which my little dragon had just eaten and then he…well, you know.”
Gareth nodded, disliking this rich girl even more. He suddenly wished Mac was with him, or his dragon, although he felt rather sorry for Sao Cheung. The eleven year old looked miserable and very frightened indeed.
“Rice,” whispered Gareth, “that’s with rice, isn’t it? Stroga-thingy. It does something to FireCutters. You should stick to Wordwort though, or Buttersqueak.”
“Awesome,” said Sao Cheung, looking hugely impressed with Gareth and wanting to be his friend immediately. “But how do you know that? And how do we get back again, please?”
Gareth was not sure he wanted to get back to his stepdad, though worried for his mum, and had some feeling he should not talk about the very dangerous book. But even if had wanted to answer, they were all distracted. There was a thunderous noise, a great blaring of trumpets that made them all jolt, and then a noise like the beat of military drums, Thump, Thump, Thump, as they saw a cloud of dust rise along the winding track.
Out of it, in the fading light, emerged men, soldiers high on horse-back, leading a straggling wagon train, that looked as if it was going into battle, or coming back from one. The three children were petrified, frozen there, as an arm was waved in their direction, at the front of the band. Three riders broke from the group and came galloping towards them, across the meadow.
“What do we do please?” trembled Sao Cheung terribly, chewing hard on his gum.
“Stay still,“ ordered Gareth. “Don’t move a muscle.”
“Yes,” said Sarissa coldly, “I was about to say that. Stock still.”
The riders had almost reached the children now. The fearsome, heavy-set men were in helmets and visors, glinting swords at their studded belts. On their chests they wore large red crosses, like the pictures of crusaders Gareth had seen in the history books. Except that the arms of the crosses, on their pure white background, flowered into strange Fleur de Lis.
As those huge horses thundered to a snorting halt around them, the three children quivered, as Gareth saw the rips in their tunics, and blood on their clothes. He suddenly wished Pendelion was here, or his real dad. Gareth tried to stand as straight as he could, but he felt about five, as the biggest of the soldiers looked coldly down, straight at him.
“More Outlanders,” he grunted, his gloved hands grasping tight on the tugging reins and glaring. Most of his hard face was covered by the helmet and metal nose guard, but Gareth saw a vicious scar on is right cheek and the thick, black stubble on his chin. “From beyond the Foundless Sea, I’d guess. Look at their clothes. Like the others.”
The three children looked at each other and said nothing, as Gareth wondered who the others were.
“Hurry though,” grunted the soldier, “You’re coming with us now.”
“Hurry?” whispered Gareth, wondering where to.
“It’s sunset, fool, and that’s the Dark Wood. Wraiths come out at night. We’ll take you with us now.”
“I think I’ll stay here,” said Sarissa Hallet, looking towards the hay stack. “Though thanks for the offfer.”
“Stay here?” laughed the man, “But don’t you know what’s happening, girl? Even Outlanders pick up news.”
“Happening?” said Sao Cheung, looking even more as if he wanted to burst into tears.
“The Dragon Wars,” cried the soldier and under his visor a look of near terror gripped his hard mouth. Sao Cheung was shaking now in his baseball jersey, like a half chinese jelly, although Sarissa was trying to look cool and brave. Dragon Wars?
“But its not even those murderous lizards we have to fear now. We must make for Pendolis, fast. It’s our only chance, before the dark comes. The men are too tired to fight dragons again, or anything else.”
The soldier said anything else very ominously, as they pressed their horses forwards, and each leant down to proffer an arm. The three found themselves lifted on to horse back, in the saddle in front of each of the men. With a grunt, the first soldier, carrying Gareth now, kicked his horse into a rapid canter.
“What’s at Pendolis, please?” cried Gareth, as he sat there and tried to hang on, “a castle?”
“Castle?” snorted his charge, “more a Citadel. It’s where the young warriors are trained though. Dragon Warriors. “
The twelve-year-old felt a strange excitement in his stomach, mixed with an impossible fear. Gareth wished he wasn’t wearing pyjamas though.
“The finest training camp in all Blistag, is Pendolis, boy. The heart of the resistance. The reconquest.”
They were almost galloping now and Gareth heard Sarissa complaining loudly behind him, saying something about parents and suing, but just then he noticed something extraordinary. As Gareth looked at the horse’s ears, he realised they were not a horse’s ears at all, but a cow’s, stuck on top of a perfectly horsey head. He almost wanted to laugh.
“But your horse,” he cried, “its ears.”
He felt his charge’s arms tighten around him on the reins, and remembered his step dad angrily.
“Keep your voice down, runt,” hissed the soldier, “the others haven’t noticed yet, and I’ll be a laughing-stock if they do. I’ll change my mount at Pendolis.”
“Noticed? But how?” said Gareth, thinking it the strangest thing he had seen yet.
“The Teller,” whispered the man gravely, “They say the Teller’s wounded. I think that’s it.”
“You are an Outlander,” grunted the soldier, “don’t you know, boy? The Teller is…well no one knows who he is. Except he’s the First Magus, and the Sacred Realm’s only true hope. Blistag’s most famous and powerful wizard.”
Gareth Marks shivered.
“The word’s out he was wounded, somehow, and so things are going wrong. Like those ears. It’s very bad. I even saw a human child born last month, with webbed feet. Perhaps it’s how you crossed the Foundless Sea too, but we’ll get to that later. Although the Black Warlock is behind it too, some think it’s why the Wars have begun again, with those filthy dragons.”
The soldier spat the word dragons out with such hatred, Gareth felt rather angry, as he thought of his little, vanished FireCutter, which had brought him here to protect him, and he wished with all his heart she hadn’t gone. He suddenly missed his mum and dad too, but as he thought of his dad, his real dad, the anger and sense of helplessness came again.
“Oh,” said Gareth though, not understanding at all, but feeling extremely worried, especially at talk of a Black Warlock. “And is this Magus, this Teller, is he at Pendolis, then?”
“Don’t be idiotic,” grunted the soldier, “Lord Cracken is Dragoman at Pendolis. Though they say the Teller founded it, long ago, and put the Seer Guard around it too, with his ancient magic. To keep dragons out, and in.”
“Seer guard?” said Gareth, “Who are they?”
“You’ll find out soon enough, boy,” chuckled the soldier, “If we ever get there.”
They had reached the wagon train now and quickly saw the worry on the faces of the other hurrying soldiers. They were many armed men in the train, who looked weary and broken, as if they had been in the thick of battle. The drums were still beating, carried by men on foot, as if to drive off an unseen enemy, but among the train they saw women too, straggling along, looking around fearfully, especially towards the forest.
The three soldiers rode to an open cart, to which where tethered two pack ponies, where Gareth saw three other children, sitting in the back, looking quite terrified. They were boys, Gareth guessed between twelve and fourteen, and they looked up nervously, but their eyes brightened as they saw the others, and especially the clothes they were in. One, sitting on his own, was in a school uniform, with a brown satchel over his shoulder, that he was clutching tightly. The other two sitting together were twins, both in pyjamas too, although far finer than Gareth’s, and they had smart fur slippers on. All three had rough blankets wrapped over their shoulders though.
The soldiers let the children down now and one jumped down himself, onto the dirt track.
“And what are you doing with us?” said Sarissa Hallet angrily, looking very distastefully at the cart. “If my parents knew you wanted to hurt us, I warn you…”
“Hurt you?” snorted the soldier, grasping Sarrissa’s wrist hard, “Why would we hurt you, girl? Who else but the young can break in dragons at Pendolis? Even girls, sometimes.”
The other two were nodding from their horses, in their visors.
“Who else can become real Dragon Warriors, and turn those foul beasts against their own, in the great Wars?”
“But you,” said Gareth, looking up at his charge, “Soldiers.”
“Yes,” said the man, leaning out over his horse’s head and trying to shield its ears, “we fight too, and play what part we can. Many have triumphed, boy, and many died. But it’s the Young Warriors who will carry the day, one sun. Must do, for all of us now, if the Prophecy is to come. They’re trying to master the air.”
The soldier looked up into the heavens and Gareth felt something on his face and realised rain had begun to speck from the skies. But what was extraordinary was that this rain looked purple.
“But as for Outlanders, you lot may get to serve the Dragon Warriors too, if you’re not given up as dragon feed. With the Dragon Wars, no hands stay idle now, and all must take sides. They’ll decide at Pendolis, what to do with you. What role you play.”
Gareth suddenly wanted to be a Dragon Warrior himself, and wondered how far this Citadel was, this dragon training camp.
“And you,” said the soldier, “what’s your name, lad?”
“Gareth, Gareth Marks.”
“Well, Gareth of the Mark, I’ll look for you at Pendolis, and may put in a good word. If you know how to keep a secret, eh? The name’s Mordellon.”
The soldier winked.
“But for now, no harm will come to you,” said the other, to Sarissa, “You have our word as Tail Fighters. Not from us, any rate.”
He let go of Sarissa’s wrist, but even as he did there was a terrifying screech, and a shimmering white shape spiralled into the darkening air, from the climbing trees of that distant forest; The Dark Wood.
“Wraiths,” cried the soldier, thrusting Sarissa Hallet roughly on board, “Get on, quick. We’ve got to get out of here.”
The scream was so horrible none of them resisted and as Gareth and Sao Cheung climbed aboard too, and sat beyond Sarissa, opposite the other three children, the soldier on foot hurriedly untied the ponies at the back of the cart, one of which Gareth noticed seemed to have a pig’s tail, and slapped them hard. With a frightened whinny, they went running in the direction of those horrid trees.
The cart driver, a burly man, like an enormous blacksmith, grunted and shook the reins, and as the soldier sprang back onto his horse, the train hurried on, the men and women on foot beginning to run. The rain was getting heavy now and in his pyjamas Gareth was beginning to feel decidedly damp, and very frightened indeed. He almost missed the little flat in London and wondered where his dragon was now, and why she had helped him at all, just to abandon him in this terrible place.
Gareth, Sao Cheung and Sarissa were suddenly scrutinising the three other faces in the darkness, as the cart rattled away. The boy in his black school suit had a gaunt, weasily look, strangely suspicious, as he clutched his satchel. The twins, both blonde and rather handsome, sat stiffly, as if suddenly indulging in a game of stares, in their neat pyjamas and sleek slippers. They had little gold crests on. They sat there in silence, until one suddenly spoke.
“Be naming selves then,” he said, slightly taller than the other twin, and with a stronger chin and colder blue eyes, “You girl, first.”
Sarissa looked extremely offended, yet there was something in the boy’s authority, and the surprise of his Russian accent, that made her answer rather respectfully.
“Sarrisa Hallet, I’m English. I was in holidaying in France with my parents when…”
“Count Uri Oblormov,” said the boy, thrusting out his hand, and Sarissa straightened and blushed, “and twin brother, Sergei. We are being from Petersburg, and fourteen. Our Guardian is famous scientist. And who is that?”
Uri was looking coldly at Sao, who was chewing miserably on his gum. His baseball jersey was soaked and he was crying.
“This is Sao,” said Gareth softly, rather protectively, liking the Count even less than Sarissa. “Sao Cheung, all the way from San Fransisco. He’s only eleven.”
“American?” said the Count distastefully. “Old world then?”
Sao Cheung gulped and shrugged. The eleven year old was far too young to argue.
“And I’m Gareth Marks. I live in London, near the House of Commons, if you want to know.”
For some reason Gareth Marks stressed the word Commons, as his dad had often done, but Sarissa looked annoyed.
“The boy says we’re in Blistag, Count,” she said, rather too politely for Gareth’s taste.
“Yes,” said Uri, “We are knowing this. We’re being here for days.”
“And he says our dragons were Firecutters. Although I don’t know how he knows…”
Sarrissa was smiling at Uri, and even if he did not like her much, Gareth felt strangely jealous, because he could see she liked the older boy. But just then another soldier came riding by and Gareth felt the sharp sting of fear. For a second, as he looked in Gareth’s direction, Gareth was convinced it was his own step dad, Alan. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, because there was no recognition in the soldier’s face, as he rode on. Gareth felt horribly cold and wet, but he had just noticed something else, the third boy’s satchel, where for a moment he thought he saw the side bulge, as the boy clutched it even harder.
“But you,” said Gareth softly, “Who are..?”
“Do not be bothering with him,” said Uri Oblormov immediately, “we’ve been trying for three days, in Russian, English, and a little French. He’s being mute.”
The boy with the satchel just nodded. Sao Cheung looked up in horror, truly terrified now, swallowed his gum and started to cough, but the lean, suspicious looking boy, sat there silently still, as another terrible wail went up from the dark wood and the driver spurred the cart forward even faster.
There was a scream from one of the running women now, who was pointing, and Sao Cheung clutched Gareth’s arm, to his embarrassment, as they saw four white shapes streaking towards the ponies across open ground. They looked like clouds in the dark, but were clearly moving with intention.
“Wraiths,” gulped Sarissa, not knowing of course what wraiths are, as Gareth pushed Cheung off irritably.
“Don’t Sao,” he whispered guiltily, as the eleven year old looked hurt, “try to be brave now.”
“Do not worry,” said Uri’s brother suddenly, more gently than his twin and smiling brightly at Sarissa, “ponies. Is being why soldier was letting them go. Bait.”
“Bait?” gasped Sarissa.
Even as she said it something terrifying happened. The spectres from the tangled wood were moving as fast as dragons themselves, straight towards the ponies. Gareth thought he saw mouths open, out of thin air, skeletal mouths, with huge white teeth. The ponies were bolting madly, aware of their approach, tossing their heads, kicking out wildly with their back legs.
“How horrid,” said Sarissa, and Gareth felt warmer towards her.
“Necessary,” said Count Uri, rather stiffly. “As decoy. Soldiers have been doing before, as we passed Dark Wood.”
“But don’t be looking,” added his brother Sergei kindly.
The third of the new boys was clutching his hands over his ears, holding his satchel between chest and elbow, but Gareth couldn’t help looking, because as rings of shimmering white circled the ponies, the bolting animals suddenly stopped dead. Gareth could almost feel the fear in their poor bodies, even far across the open ground. Then, realising they had nowhere to go and bowing their heads, both their forelegs buckled and the ponies rolled on their sides, with pitiful whinies and lay there, quite supine in the grass. They had given up in terror.
What was worse was the wraiths had taken on clear form now, like twisting serpents, or giant eels, with vicious mouths, and suddenly they went sliding into the ponies’ nostrils and vanished inside the poor animals, which began to kick in pain, as a kind of smoke seemed to rise from their sweating bodies, in the shadows.
“Are eating from within,” said Sergei, rather cheerfully.
“It’s terrible,” shuddered Sarissa, almost clutching onto Sao now.
“They say are spirits of dead dragons, slain in Wars,” said Sergei, “Dragon wraiths hate Dragon Warriors most.”
“Dragons,” said Sarissa sadly, “my dragon was so friendly, when he hatched. I found it in the Dove Cot. His egg.”
Sarrisa’s face and hair were streaming with rain, falling out of its bob, and it looked as if she was crying too, or trying to stop herself in front of the Russian twins. Suddenly Sergei swept off his blanket and offered it to the girl graciously, with a dip of his head, as his brother looked rather irritated.
“Thank you, Sergei.”
“Six,” said Gareth suddenly and Sao Cheung looked up rather adoringly.
“What?” said Uri, as the rain got harder. The floor of the open cart was filling with water and Gareth’s bare feet were turning to blocks of ice.
“Six of us,” said Gareth, looking round encouragingly at the others, as though they had just become a little team, but wishing he had a blanket too. “From…from the other world. Our world, I mean, the real world. And my dragon came in the post, in a Class A Egg Box, for half a dozen eggs. It means something.”
David Clement-Davies Copyright 2010 – All Rights Reserved Published by Phoenix Ark Press
The rights of David Clement-Davies to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act 1988
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