Here there be Dragons
The story of a naive young boy who believed in dragons, rising to acclaim on a naval vessel
The promise of 'here there be dragons' had lured James to the sea. His plan was to sail to the edges of the ocean, find and train a dragon and take it as his steed. Of course, the minute he, only fourteen at the time, had told the crew on board, he’d damn near been laughed off the ship.
“There are no dragons,” one man had scoffed. “They just put that on the maps, to say they don’t bloody know what comes next.” James at the time had felt gutted. And already several days' journey into the ocean, there was no way he could turn tail and return home as much as he’d wanted to.
“Why hadn’t Pops told me?” He grumbled at the time. Pops had always told him stories of dragons with jewelled scales and fiery breath. He’d never had the courtesy to tell James that they were just myths - dragons weren't actually real!
Time and necessity turned James into a naval man. And soon the laughs and jabs about dragons died down as he proved himself an asset to the crew. He’d always loved heights. James couldn’t get enough of them - so now he was always the one they sent to scale the ropes and look out from the crow’s nest. The rest of the crew had to be poked and prodded - needing their manhood questioned before they ever considered going up there.
James was strong as well, having grown up on the farm, he was used to hard labour.
He was quickly becoming formidable and soon, even the captain noticed it. He invited him to dinner, just the two of them, and asked his opinions on the state of the ship, politics, and a whole manner of other subjects. The captain, who’d heard the rumours about James and his desire to tame dragons, brought it up. And through gritted teeth, James had admitted to his boyhood fancies. The captain had laughed.
James had sat there with clenched fists under the table. Ordinarily, James would have launched straight into a brawl, punching, and kicking and showing whoever dared mock him who was boss, but this was the captain. Such behaviour could have him thrown overboard or hung for treason. So, he stayed still and endured it.
“You think I mock you?” The captain said, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes, as he noticed James’ strained face. “Oh no boy," he grinned, "Did I ever tell you why I joined the navy in the first place?
“To serve king and country?” James supplied, dully.
“Oh no of course not,” he chuckled, and then remembering that he was indeed a captain in the Royal Navy he added, “but that was of course the reason I chose to remain.”
James couldn’t help the grin that broke out on his face. The two men chuckled - two kindred spirits they were. “No,” the captain smiled, “the reason I chose to join the navy was to hunt great white whales.”
James found himself falling into a belly laugh, the kind he hadn’t experienced since he’d left the farm. Amusement mingled with relief - he wasn’t the only fool man who’d joined the navy to find a beast that didn’t exist. And the captain was a brilliant and respected man. Perhaps James could be one as well someday.
Their dinners continued, once a week every Thursday. The captain always brought the best bourbon, which he kept tucked into the bottom drawer of his desk and told none of the rest of the crew about. James slowly acquired a taste for it – though the captain had laughed himself silly at the expression James had made on his very first sip.
Of course, many of the crew were jealous of James’ preferential treatment. But James was a fighter, and a good brawl fixed just about any ruffled feathers.
For the first few weeks he walked around the ship with bloodied knuckles and aching muscles - but soon the complaints of the crew began to die down. Their fear of James quickly overcame their jealousy, and everything eventually returned to a strained peace.
The only real problem was the first mate. A man of noble birth, who no matter how many years in the navy, hadn’t lost the habit of speaking to people with his nose pointed skyward. He was a thin twerp of a man, who it had been rumoured had been given the post as a favour to his father.
It was clear he held the captain in the highest esteem, but the more he tried to please the captain with his flattering words, the more the captain withdrew. The Captain had always been a simple man of action and didn’t appreciate such things. Born as a fisherman’s son, he’d never been a fan of nobles either, devotion to the King aside.
Unfortunately, James could not fix the first mate’s treatment of him, by beating him silly. He’d likely break the man in two and make an enemy of his father. Not to mention be discharged from the navy or worse.
So, he had to endure the wretched jobs he was assigned, from scrubbing the deck till it ‘shone like a mirror’ or whatever daft thing the first mate had said, to emptying and cleaning the crew’s chamber pots.
Of course, it was fine when the captain was around. He’d been aware of the mate’s behaviour, but unable to stop it without stepping on his toes. As the captain, he was in charge for sure. But the administration and assigning of jobs amongst the crew was the mate’s job, and regardless of his personal feelings, it was best the captain kept the mate on his side.
It worked out alright for James in the end, whenever the captain spotted him, no matter what, he’d pull him aside. Asking him for opinions on their navigation and where he thought they should dock the ship. It might have even worked out better for him in the end as he was passed on more and more responsibilities.
Life in the navy was great - and when James thought of home, it was only with fondness rather than the bitter pang of homesickness that had all but consumed him fewer than two years ago.
Everything likely would have continued like this for some time. If it weren’t for the one freak storm that changed it all. It came in from the north; unnatural for this time of year.
Thunder clouds as dark as pitch. The sea churned and writhed until great waves formed, the likes of which made their grand navy ship look like nothing more than a toy boat. Lightning struck something fierce, briefly turning night to day. Winds battered them this way and that, making them drunkenly stumble across the deck.
“Captain,” James called, the man had lost his grip on the helm, and it was now spinning like mad. James ran over to it, wanting to do everything he could to help him. Only the ship lurched to the right, knocking James off his feet. And when he looked up again, the Captain was gone.
James ran to the wheel and caught hold of it, doing his best to direct the ship in the Captain’s absence. Taking charge, he knew was the job of the first mate. But without a doubt, he was sure the coward was tucked up snug in his cabin.
When the storm eventually passed, the crew were battered and exhausted. They’d lost many men.
The first mate, who was now in charge, came on deck and tried to give a rousing speech about his new reign. But all the men could do was listen through gritted teeth and resist the urge to throw him overboard.
“What’s that?” A crewman by the name of George asked, interrupting the mate’s - now Captain’s - speech.
James could hardly believe his eyes. “I’ve drunk too much salt water.” He muttered, but the rest of the crew were seeing it too.
Rising from the water, with scales of purple jewels and wings twice the span of the ship, was a dragon.
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