“Oh just wait up, can’t you please?” cried Sarissa Hallet angrily, as she tried to keep up herself. Poor Sarissa was hot and very red in the face already. They had set off before dawn, and been walking for what seemed like ages. Now, beyond the great Citadel, a sallow morning light was beginning to come fast.
Ahead, Gareth, Sao and the seventeen year old scullion who had first led them to Bouchebold’s kitchens, were carrying metal shovels, apparently for the nasty job of collecting Dragon Dung. The scullion, who’s name was Snare, was clearly leading, but Gareth’s triumph in the kitchens, and Bouchebold’s evident approval, had at least made him treat the three of them with a little more respect.
The great island Citadel of Pendolis, and the hamlets and forges which they had seen when they arrived, had dropped behind them, and now they were on foot, in ragged open country, which seemed to stretch for miles around them, although they knew that somewhere it was surrounded by the strange, magical Seer Guard. After the steamy labours of the day before, it was bliss to be outside again.
The air was fresh and clean, and the grass was thick and soft around, though the green had a strange yellowish hue, while the track they were following was deeply rutted with wagon tracks. Many had been at work in Pendolis, it seemed, with the coming Dragon Wars.
All morning, as they walked, and after a night of troubling dreams, Gareth Marks had been thinking of The Lady Mordana in the kitchens, and her strange forgotten words of a prophecy. Of evil already being here in Blistag too. She had said something was happening that very day, and that the Seer Guard would soon be breached. What horrors lay outside, from the wraiths, and that terrible Ice Dragon, or the Black Warlock himself, Gareth could only guess at. He looked about nervously, but now the twelve-year-old was furiously excited to see a real dragon, and perhaps the young Dragon Warriors in training too. That is the chance Bouchebold had given him.
Although he was only twelve, Gareth Marks already felt he had a special link to dragons, his own Godfather had sent him the Very Dangerous Book, after all, if not that strange egg. If he could help it, Gareth didn’t plan to spend too long down in the kitchens, even if he had saved the Bloodberry Souffle. The boys slowed reluctantly and waited for Sarissa Hallet to catch up. They were getting rather irritated, but Gareth felt for the bits of book in his pocket, and wondered what other useful tips they might give him about this extraordinary world.
“Well thanks, I’m sure,” Sarissa said sourly, as she joined them at a run.
“Why were you dawdling then?” said Gareth rather coldly. “You kept stopping all morning.”
“I was thinking,” panted Sarissa, “if you must know. About those Dragon Maidens. I think those jewels on their foreheads have something to do with their power. It turned a strange Golden colour when she spoke in the Kitchen. I wish I could do it too.”
The scullion raised an eyebrow and looked scornfully at Sarissa.
“It’s in the blood, fool,” Snare grunted, “and you have to be born a Dragon Maiden. Not for the likes of you, down below with us.”
“Me?” said Sarissa, standing her ground, and trying to look as tall as she could, “I don’t know about your parents, boy, but I’m a Hallet. Of Hertfordshire. Don’t you forget it.”
Gareth suddenly thought with anguish of his father.
“Well I ain’t got any parents,” said Sao Cheung rather mournfully, “I’m an orphan, I guess. Though they say I’m bright.”
“And my Dad left home,” admitted Gareth suddenly. “Although I’ve got a Godfather. You’re lucky your parents are together, at least, Sarissa.”
Sarrissa blushed strangely though, and Gareth suddenly thought she seemed rather upset. She lifted her chin, as they walked on. In the distance now they could see several of those large wooden stockades and one, closer than the others, and set apart, was round, like the pictures Gareth had seen of the Colosseum in Rome.
Through the slats, Gareth thought he saw a shape, but they knew that a dragon was inside when they suddenly saw a huge jet of flame shoot into the air, like a geyser. The countryside suddenly smelt like a brewery, or those huge gas tanks they have in London, and they all shivered.
“Careful when we get there,” grunted the scullion, in a cracking voice, as Gareth noticed a huge stadium like space beyond, of brown earth, with two tall metal poles at either end. “Dragons are very dangerous, right, especially the penned kind, and we don’t want it to notice us. Hopefully it will settle, eating so much, so we’ll sneak in, collect the dung, and pile it outside for the Gas Carts. They’ll come to pick it up later.”
Sarrissa Hallet grimaced, but even she was excited to see what was inside. Gareth was looking around for any sign of the brave young Dragon Warriors, or their training, but he could see nothing, except the other square pens beyond, and that open stadium space.
As they got closer, the wooden boards of the huge enclosure were too close together to reveal much, so they skirted round. At last they reached an open gateway, constructed of what seemed like latticed tree trunks. Gareth noticed a wooden pallet to the right, marked GAS, and that the roof of the enclosure was barred too, supposedly to stop a dragon flying out, as Sarissa let out a muffled cry.
The huge beast they suddenly spotted within was the size of a small hill, it seemed. It was a great mustard-yellow dragon, although with a head that was almost entirely red, like some exotic bird of paradise. Here, in the flesh, lying on the other side of the enclosure, it was nothing like the picture book images of dragons the children had seen. It looked like an enormous dozing wildebeest, and smelt like one too.
Its fat body was almost entirely covered in leathery scales, that stood up in diamonds on the ridges of its sinuous back, and its tail seemed to go on forever, ending in a large spiked club, like a dinosaur.
The dragon’s sharply pointed head, crowned with two blunted horns, was curled onto its curled front legs, and its leathery eyelids were closed tight, as steam smoked in the morning, from its bulbous nostrils. Dribble was pouring from its fat lips too, and making a growing pool in the dirt under its chin. The dragon was breathing deeply and steadily, but every now and then a slobbery blue tongue came out and licked its hairy upper lip. In front of it was an enormous pile of what looked like purple cabbages, and black bananas.
Gareth, Sarissa and Sao stood there quivering at the sight of such a funny and enormous brute, their mouths hanging open. This thing was nothing like the sweet little Firecutters, one of which had hatched in Gareth’s egg box, and though it had wings of course, they were rather small, so it hardly looked as if it could fly at all. You could certainly not fit this Dragon in the post, to anyone, and Gareth wondered if his dear little Fire Cutter could grow into such an ugly beast too. He suddenly hoped not.
“That’s a Gas Dragon,” explained Snare, staring at its enormous distended stomach. “Not the kind the Warriors use for fighting, from the pens beyond. It’s fed special, for the Gas. The Great Naturalist chooses its diet.”
Suddenly there was a terrible farting noise, and the atrocious smell made Sao’s eyes narrow tightly, and the Chinese American boy look as if he was about to faint. The monumental stink was ten times as bad as the Elephant House at London Zoo – Gareth had gone once with his dad – and so pungent that it seemed to soak into their clothes, and make their flesh crawl.
Now the scullion pointed to a huge pile of freshly steaming Dragon dung too, in the mud close to the gate.
“I’m not touching that,” snorted Sarissa, as she eyed the disgusting brown mulch, ribbed with bits of half digested straw, and what looked like stones and sweet corn.
“You heard the great Bouchebold,” growled Snare, although in a whisper, and holding up the shovel like a sword, “Pendolis needs power, girl, and here’s the only place to get it. Everyone must win their spurs in Blistag, and earn their keep too.”
“I’ll go,” said Gareth, with a gulp, looking between Sao and Sarissa, and wishing he was somewhere else entirely.
“No. We’ll take turns,” said the scullion, “we need a lot, but no one can stand being in the enclosure too long with a Gas Dragon that’s just fed. We work together.”
Snare had just pulled a kitchen napkin from his pocket, and was wrapping it carefully over his mouth and nose. Then he climbed in, between the lower slats on the gate, with his shovel, and made boldly for the dung. He almost went on tip-toe, and was clearly doing all he could not to wake the sleeping yellow dragon beyond.
When Snare reached the dung, he kept turning his head away, in something close to revulsion, as he scooped up a shovel full. The most precarious bit was getting back through the gate, without dropping the fresh dung, or waking the terrible farting creature. But he managed it, and soon the first collection of fodder for Dragon Gas, to fire the Citadel again, was sitting proudly on the palette, steaming in the sunlight.
“Well, it’s certainly organic,” laughed Gareth, remembering the egg box, as he put on the proffered napkin himself.
Gareth’s heart was in his mouth, as he climbed into the dangerous enclosure too. At first he was so fascinated with the Gas Dragon, so close, so very real, and so very dangerous looking too, that he hardly noticed the smell. Until the napkin slipped slightly, as he stuck in his shovel himself, and he was nearly knocked backward off his feet by the terrible pong.
The gross, acrid odour made his eyes water and sting. His throat and mouth were suddenly burning, and he wanted to be sick, while the feeling that gripped him was almost as bad as touching the fish from the Foundless Sea.
Yet somehow Gareth Marks managed to close his nostrils and hold his breath, and the dizziness cleared. He was sweating and swaying badly though, as he got his own dung back through the gate, and gave a great sigh of relief, as he deposited it safely on the pallet too.
Sao was the next to go, and he was doing very well, until the clumsy Chinese American boy tripped on a bit of dried mud. With a loud ‘whoah’, Sao fell straight into the dirt, and although he missed most of the dung he had just dropped too, his cry made the huge Gas Dragon stir. Gareth and Sarissa gasped, as it lifted its tail, then slapped it back hard on the ground, which seemed to shake, as it farted again. Then in its sleep its blue tongue shot out, scooped up some bananas, and drew them back into his mouth and started munching.
Sao lay there motionless, quivering like a leaf, looking desperately at Gareth and the others, safe behind the fencing. But thankfully the hungry dragon didn’t wake fully, so Sao picked himself up, collected his bounty, and made it back quickly too. He looked quite green, as he got out, and breathed in the clearer air with a thankful sigh.
Sarissa Halllet climbed in carefully in turn and gingerly plucked some dung from the mound too. She looked like a princess as she glared at the poor dragon, with such hatred and contempt, it might have killed it in its sleep. Gareth did not fancy its chances in a fight with her.
So the nasty, smelly labour went on, all morning, as the burning sun began to climb in the skies over Pendolis. They all did very well, and never once did the Gas Dragon wake, although inevitably, by the time their labour was nearing its end, and the palette was well stocked, they all had dragon muck on their hands and cloths.
They had almost got used to the terrible stench though, and were feeling rather proud of themselves, even if all Gareth wanted by now was to see the Dragon Warriors. He most definitely did not want them to see him though, involved in such humiliating work.
Gareth was rather ashamed of himself too, for some of his thoughts, as Sarissa tried to navigate the compound. He found himself thinking how funny it would be if she tripped too, and fell straight into some dung herself. It would certainly bring Sarissa Hallet down a peg or two. She seemed to sense it, for Sarissa suddenly turned and glared at him, as she was climbing back through the gate once more.
“What are you smiling at?” she hissed. “You wanted me to fall, didn’t you?”
“Yes you did. I know you did. I think you’re horrid. Boys are horrid.”
“Well there are wars coming,” mumbled Gareth guiltily, “and we all have to get our hands dirty, Sarissa.”
“Meaning…” Gareth blushed, and looked at Sao, “meaning, well, you do complain a lot, Sarissa. You seem too good for everything.”
“No I’m not. Though there’s a lot to complain about. My parents…”
Sarissa was suddenly looking sharply between Sao and Gareth, and seemed about to say something, but she turned away instead.
It probably served Gareth right then, when his turn came again and, as he was climbing through the gate, he pressed too hard on one of the trunks. There was a sharp snap and the thing broke and fell to the ground with a crash. Although Gareth kept his balance, the munching Gas Dragon was awake now, its golden eyes blazing.
It suddenly burped, then gave a terrible, indignant roar inside the enclosure, as if the disappearance of its dung was a dreadful theft, and as its sharp red head swung towards them, a shot of flame seered across the ground. They jumped back, as it hit the remaining dung, incinerating it, but the dragon’s eyes were fixed on Gareth now, as Sao noticed a large wagon coming towards them.
“Hey, look,” he cried, “it’s the twins.”
Gareth realised in horror it was all the Dragon Warriors, as the yellow Gas Dragon opened its fat lipped mouth again. Snare was shaking badly, but Gareth held his poise and stared back defiantly, and just for a second he thought he saw some gleam of recognition in the creature’s eyes. It roared again though, its head arched forward, and now it blew, or rather belched. Thankfully no flame came out, but instead they all felt a great wind, far more revolting than the dung or farts. There was nowhere to run now, and just as the cart reached them, and Gareth turned away from the enclosure, the dragon’s foul breath hit him, full on, and the twelve-year-old was blown forwards, straight onto the palette. Gareth Marks went tumbling face down into the filth.
As he picked himself up, covered from head to foot in dung, the Dragon Warriors stood in their wagon laughing, jeering and pointing at him, even the Oblormov twins. They were all dressed in those tunics, carried golden lassoes in their hands, and they looked very fine indeed. Poor Gareth went puce, and felt so humiliated that he almost wanted the Gas Dragon to gobble him up, there and then.
“Stop that,” cried Sarissa Hallet indignantly though, “we’re trying to heat your stupid castle. Cooking for you lot is bad enough.”
Sao and she were helping Gareth up again.
“Thank you, Sarissa,” Gareth whispered, “I won’t forget it.”
The twins looked rather shame faced, though they clearly did not want to be associated with these lowly workers, but as Gareth stood and tried to dust himself off, he suddenly saw Sarissa’s eyes glitter, then her hand plunge straight into the dung, and pluck something out. He fancied it sparkled, as Sarissa withdrew it, and slipped it into her pocket. He had caught the eye of one of the Dragon Warriors though, a brutal faced fifteen year old, who was standing still and sneering at him particularly scornfully. Gareth glared back at him.
“What are you staring at, scum?” cried the Dragon Warrior, “Don’t you know your betters? Drop your eyes.”
“Come, come,” cried a gruff adult voice, “we don’t want to waste precious time watching gas scullies. We’ve loftier work today, and the pens await; the Dragon Corals. We’ve some dragon breaking to do, and after you’ve all chosen your mounts, or they you, the Dragoman will visit later.”
It was none other Mordellon, who had protected Gareth before. He was sitting with the driver at the front of the wagon.
“Though there’s a stream beyond,” added Mordellon, trying not to look too kindly at Gareth. “So you may run behind the cart, boy, and wash off that filth, if you like.”
“You can’t wash off your origins though,” said the standing Dragon Warrior coldly. The others had sat down. “Which is why you scum serve us Dragon Warriors always.”
Gareth was wiping his face, but he looked back defiantly too, and almost stuck out his tongue.
“I’m as good as you,” he grunted, and blushed in front of the twins. “And I’ll show you with any dragon, any day.”
Mordellon’s eyes gleamed, though Gareth did not know what he was saying, since he had no idea what Dragon training involved.
“Oh you will, will you?” said the Dragon Warrior. “And break and ride one too, I suppose? Wonders never cease in Pendolis, but liars and cowards are everywhere, however they hide in the muck.”
The brutal faced lad laughed, and most of the others joined him. Poor Gareth, smeared in dragon dung like this, could think of nothing at all to say.
“Peace, lads,” said Mordellon sternly though. “Pendolis isn’t a game for jealous children. This is a Warrior training Camp. There are dark rumours about this new comer, with his Firecutter, and Lord Cracken’s questioning him still. While there’ve been worrying sites near the Seer Guard too, and one of the Dragon Maidens has vanished as well. We must be prepared, more than ever now, to face an attack from the Black Warlock. The spirit of Pendolis must be united.”
Gareth noticed that Sarissa’s face had flushed, and her hand was clutching the thing in her pocket. He suddenly knew what it was, and looked at the Gas Dragon in horror. She had found one of the Dragon Maidens’ crystals, embedded in the dung.
“I’m always prepared, Mordellon,” cried the hard faced Dragon Warrior arrogantly though, as Gareth wondered who had vanished and if this thing could really have eaten a Dragon Madien alive. “For a good fight anyhow. With a wraith, a dragon, or an impertinent scully.”
Gareth felt something stir in his gut, as he noticed that both the twins were smiling at Sarissa, and shaking their heads rather pitifully at him, but suddenly there was the most extraordinary noise. Inside the enclosure, the watching Gas Dragon had farted again, but this time it seemed directed straight as the Dragon Warriors, and the lad who was bullying Gareth turned white, and sat down sharply. Gareth and Sao giggled.
“Pooh,” cried Sao, although the four of them were more used to the stench than the others, so not so troubled by this particular erruption.
“Quick,” cried Mordellon, clamping a gloved hand to his face in in disgust, “let’s get out of here.”
Another large cart with a heavy tarpaulin was coming down the track, to collect the dung they had gathered, so the four of them found themselves dropping their shovels and running after the Dragon Warriors, Gareth trying to look as bold as possible, as they made for the great stockades beyond. There they saw the stream Mordellon had mentioned, clear and delicious, while the farty activity of the Gas Dragon had clearly woken the other dragons too, from the roaring and groaning that was now waking and shaking the country air. The Dragon Training was about to begin for real, and now Gareth Marks had something to prove. The boy had face to save, though badly covered in dragon muck.
David Clement-Davies Copyright 2010 – All Rights Reserved Published by Phoenix Ark Press
The right 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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