There are three little known facts about dragons. The first is that they are real. Most people believe they’re a superstition or, worse, a fantasy. But they’re real and they’re dangerous. Some of the least known stories about dragons are accounts of entire villages, mountainsides, camps, or even castles being utterly destroyed by their tails or their fire. One adult dragon can wipe out hundreds of humans in about five minutes, given the right conditions. Mostly they abandon the scene and whilst the story of the destruction and deaths is well known, history records a mysterious fire or landslide, or some other natural disaster. There are no survivors to set the record straight, no one to give the true account. And even if there were, who would believe them? After all, everyone knows dragons don’t really exist.
The second is that they can’t hatch unless the egg is in the presence of a human who believes in them. Dragons know this, at an instinctual level. They recognise their need for humans to complete the reproductive cycle. The downside is that if too many people knew they truly existed they’d be in danger of quick extinction. That’s why they periodically attack human settlements. See the thing was, the thing was, as much as you needed one human to believe in you in order to hatch, you didn’t want hordes of them running around knowing about the dragons. A dragon might be fast and powerful and, once fully grown, at least three times taller than an average grown male human, but one can’t discount the damage that large groups of angry, armed humans who know exactly what they’re attacking could have on even a group of dragons.
And that would be disastrous, because the third little known fact about dragons is that only the male dragons fight. More than that, all the adult male dragons fight. It would be easy to lure the males away and attack the dragon camp, and wipe out everyone there. And if they did that, the dragons would be on the doorstep to extinction, one clan at a time. Only the females and babies are left at home. Babies are easy to kill if you’re determined and know where to strike, and they can’t project great streams of fire. And there aren’t that many females, and they are all young and can’t fight quite as well as the grown males. Approximately 30% of dragon hatchlings are female, and after laying a single egg, they die.
846 years ago, on a distant mountain
The dragon roared. She was only 16, they were usually around 20 when they were mated. Should it be this painful? Who would have told her? She’d never met another female who had laid her egg. They never came back. The mountain shook as she roared again. Focus, push. Get this damn thing out.
She’d chosen a nice spot. Private, but signs of human traffic. No one would approach while the mountain was shaking like this. They’d be too scared of landslides. The dragon hardly noticed the rock falling around her. She was too busy with the pain below her belly. She remembered the place where she had grown up, learning to fight with the others. Learning to aim her fire. Females couldn’t hit the distant targets the males could, but they were still dragons and they still had fire.
It wasn’t that females couldn’t fight. When all the males went off to battle or hunt or just have some fun at humans’ expense, she would have been capable of keeping up and hitting most of the same targets they were hitting. But she didn’t want to. She’d been the only female for around six years now, and quite honestly when all the males went off to do whatever they did she enjoyed the quiet. In any case, the battles and planned attacks were generally only carried out by dragons at least 25 years old. Retaliation and defense you could participate in when you were 15. That didn’t matter, though. The females were left with the babies to guard the home camp, although every dragon knew they were about as useful in defending the camp from a well-prepared attacker as a dry tree was for preventing fire.
One last big push. She roared again and an egg that seemed obnoxiously small for the amount of pain it had caused her landed on the stony ground. It was beautiful. It was smooth and green with tiny flecks of twinkling blue. She felt quite proud, and very weak. And that made her angry. Down below she spotted a group of humans running from the landslide and was indignant that that was their response to her great sacrifice and pain. She jumped up, smashing the rocks further with her tail as she swooped towards them, taking in a deep breath and letting the fire stew in her chest. The running men saw her and started shouting and pointing, but she was quicker. How dare they! She blew a great stream of fire at them, not as large as a male’s but hot and terrible and fueled by her fury. She spotted a grove of trees, blew flames into it, and turned in the air to face the men. The ones who were left were trying in vain to escape. She blew another great gust of fire and allowed herself to drop into the grove of trees where she let the flames consume her.
There was no one to give the account.
790 years ago
The monk stopped to catch his breath. He’d walked a long way over the last three days, and he needed to find a cave. This was it, this was the mountain. The one with the mysterious landslide that the senior monks were sure was retribution from God for whatever humanity had done around 60 years ago. They’d meant to send a monk earlier but everyone was scared it might happen again. He had said, well, it was 60 years ago. It’s probably safe now. And so he had chosen it for this pilgrimage.
He was near the top, it would do. Slowly, and with significant effort, he started pulling apart the rubble to find a cave, build a small house, something. It would be dark in a couple of hours. After about half an hour of hard labour he saw a strange rock. It was egg-shaped, perfectly smooth, and mostly green with some blue flecks. As a man striving to have no worldly attachments, he admired God’s great creation and carefully placed it aside to bring back with him at the end of his 30 day isolation. Perhaps it was like the rainbow, a sign from God that he had forgiven humanity for whatever they’d done to deserve the punishment of the landslide. As a human he wondered what it might be worth. He pushed that thought out of his mind, said a quick prayer, and kept digging.
34 days later
A man sat in the street, begging for coins and scraps from strangers. He disregarded the monk, as they never had anything to give. Occasionally he’d contemplated becoming a monk. After all, what was the difference between that and poverty? They had exactly as many possessions as him. That is, none. They just, somehow, celebrated it. They did it deliberately. He didn’t understand that. This one looked particularly shabby. His clothes were dusty and torn and he was sunburnt. He looked dirty and tired, almost like he’d been on his meditation trip they all did every once in a while. Go sit at the top of some mountain by yourself for a month and you have to walk there and back. No thanks. Suddenly the monk was approaching him, offering him something. It was a stone, a lovely smooth green stone. He’d fetch some money for this, yes he would. He could live like a king! He grabbed it before the monk could change his mind and ran.
Later that day
“1000 gold coins.”
That was un-heard of wealth, but the beggar wanted more. After all, he’d never get a chance like this again.
“I want 2000.”
“1500 or get out.”
The other man turned back to his books. He was a rich Baron. He could afford this. The beggar decided, foolishly, to try one more time.
The Baron had turned and was giving him a dangerous look, one that said “I can have you killed by snapping my fingers and no one will ever find your body or even care to look for it.” The beggar swallowed both the lump in his throat and his pride.
“1500. Thank you, Lord Ephraim.”
The Baron gave the beggar one last warning look and summoned a servant. The transaction was quickly carried out and the beggar tucked the heavy bag of coins into his clothes. He had plans! He’d make something of himself, and find a permanent place to live. He’d buy nice clothes and light a new candle each evening. It would be wonderful. He walked back down the road towards the village, his head in the clouds and one hand resting on the bag of gold.
Inside, the Baron eyed his new treasure. It was worth at least the 2000 gold coins the beggar had asked, but Lord Ephraim was not in the business of giving away more of his money than he had to. He nestled the lovely green and blue stone on a cushion on his shelf of treasures and admired his collection. There was stuff from all over the world made of stone, gold, diamonds, and all sorts of precious metals and crystals. Some had been acquired honestly, some less honestly, but it was a collection he was proud of.
His only regret was that his son, who was just 20 and his only heir, had never taken to it. He was greatly saddened by his son’s apathy for his inherited wealth, and his obsession with “broadening his mind” rather than his treasures. He was practically a monk. It was preposterous. Currently he was off travelling with only one servant, whom his father had insisted he take with him. The fate of this great store of treasures would come down to him, and that made the Baron extremely anxious. But that was a problem for another day. He summoned the servant back.
“There is a man on the road with a bag of my gold.”
“Thank you. I will be in my bedroom. Bring me my dinner there.”
The servant bowed and left. An hour later some children found a man behind some bushes with his throat cut.
755 years ago
The sign read “Deceased Estate sale” and the crowds had flocked in. Most couldn’t afford even the most basic items but they’d come anyway. They wanted to see how the Baron had lived. He’d been both famous and infamous in this area, known both for his beneficial building works, such as the fountains dedicated to the Baron himself, and for his greed. And now his son, who was more interested in travel and love and studying with monks and scholars than in his own inherited wealth, was selling off most of the estate for far less than it was worth.
Some of the richer townfolk were leaving with chairs or rugs. The Baron would have been appalled to see people taking individual chairs or teacups, breaking up the set, but he wasn’t there any more. A few people, uninterested in furniture and otherwise common household items, had sought out the son. It was well known, in a gossipy sort of way, that the Baron had been a great collector of rare and precious items. The fact was, though, that most people simply weren’t interested in that. It was an unconfirmed rumour, for a start. Despite being well known of, the mysterious collection had never been seen by anyone other than the Baron and his servants, who were sworn to secrecy on pain of death, and had obviously never been described. Why waste time asking after a collection that might not even exist when you could, perhaps, get a chair with all four legs?
But now some people were interested in it. Most just wanted to know if it was real, but a few were interested in buying. One such man was admiring several items on a single shelf, out of about 20 shelves around the room. A carved crystal sculpture that twinkled in rainbow colours despite being a semi-transparent white. Exotic jewellery. Exquisite gold statues with embedded jewels, twinkling in the candle light. A cushion woven with hand-spun silk, dyed in many colours. And on the cushion, a large stone in the shape of an egg. It was breathtaking. It was almost incandescently green in the candle light, with shiny blue flecks. He picked it up. It was perfectly smooth and surprisingly light. He checked that no one was watching him and quickly scooped the cushion, stone, crystal carving, a gold statue, and a couple of exotic necklaces that looked like they belonged on some kind of tree-god, into a sack. He showed the contents to the son, and, following a muffled conversation, handed over a few coins and left quickly.
723 years ago
The stranger slowly uncovered it, his eyes twinkling conspiratorially.
“This is what we’re playing for. I picked it up around 30 years ago with a bunch of other old stuff for a few brass coins off some rich man’s son after his father died. He had no idea what it was worth, just getting rid of his dad’s stuff that he didn’t want. Made a mint selling the other things but I don’t think anyone can afford this one. So I use it for betting. No one’s won it off me yet.”
“It’s beautiful” he breathed. It really was magnificent. He went to touch it but the stranger covered it back up.
“Not unless you win,” he pronounced, putting it away securely and motioning at the cards. “Deal.”
The card game started. The strangers’ eyes darted between their cards and each other’s faces, trying to read each other’s expressions. They were good though, both experienced both at cards and betting. The first stranger’s mouth twitched involuntarily. It was unrelated to the game, but the second stranger didn’t know that. He upped his bet. The first stranger, seeing this and knowing he had a good hand, doubled it. The second stranger laid out his cards. The first stranger followed. They both stared at the cards for about a minute before the first stranger gathered them up, put them in the bag with the stone, and left. It was still his.
721 years ago
This time he’d lost it. The same stranger had approached him for a game, for the same prize. It was silly, they both knew how this would end. Or so he thought. But he’d lost it. Damn! And now that, that… arrogant man was probably sitting bragging over his beer. He kicked a rock and went home.
He was right. The victor was indeed bragging over a beer and showing everyone who would look the spoils of his victory. And that was everyone. He wasn’t from around here, he’d come back to challenge the same stranger to another card game. If he’d been from around here he’d know how much danger he was putting himself in right now. He was getting progressively more drunk.
“And then I, I, I, maked, no, maded, no, mayyyyyyyyd ‘im show is carders an’ ‘e ‘ad nuffin. Nuffin!” he finished decisively. “But I ‘ad, ‘ad, aaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh full run! More beer!”
A general cheer went up around the bar as others took this opportunity to get another drink at this fool’s expense. Beating their best player and taking that prize and being so brazenly obnoxious about it was going to get him in serious trouble, but in the meantime they had beer. With the arrogant stranger now absorbed in industrious drinking again, the chatter started back up.
“Did you hear about the attack last week? Only around a day’s walk away! Whole village burnt down.”
“I heard it was a dragon.” This was delivered in what the speaker hoped was a whisper, but because the speaker was on the way to being quite drunk it really wasn’t.
A general clamour of boos, name calling, and ridicule started up at this coment, along with a chorus of people saying “dragons don’t exist” in everything from a shout to a drunken slur. If the drunken card player, or anyone else in the bar, had cared to notice, the stone had very briefly rocked where it was lying on the bar before going perfectly still again. The drunken man who had won it fell asleep face down on the bar, snoring.
“I heard it was the smithy’s fire went out of control.”
“Him? He was too careful. It would never have been him. Maybe someone made a fire in the tannery.”
“Who would be daft enough to do that?”
“I reckon…” “… but I don’t think that would work” “If the…”
The chorus of theories flew thick and fast for several minutes, and in the midst of it all one man quickly and carefully took the stone from beside the snoring man’s head and hurried out of the bar into the darkness. It wasn’t until a few hours later, when the barkeeper was closing up, that he found the knife in the chest of the slumped-over stranger.
698 years ago
It was a beautiful cabinet, in a small but beautiful house. He’d lived on the grounds of the castle for some 40 odd years and spent his days tending to the fruit trees, vegetable garden, and hedges. It was an easy job, apart from harvest time, and he spent a lot of time at the nearby villages buying seeds, seedlings, and beer. He liked a drink. After all, he worked for the castle. All his needs were provided for. What else did he have to spend money on? He had one of those generic faces that blended into the crowd, and very few people remembered him.
One of them was a friend – the barkeeper in a small village, where the most exciting thing that had happened in the last 30 years was the death of an out-of-town stranger in the pub and the mysterious disappearance of a stone he had won in a card game. He sat with that barkeeper at his small table, playing cards. They were not betting.
“I’m out.” The barkeeper threw his cards down. “You got me again. You coming back to the village soon?”
“Maybe. The apples will be ripe soon.”
The barkeeper grunted and shuffled the cards.
“I’ll keep the bruised ones for you. Another drink?”
As he poured the drink, the barkeeper looked again at the cabinet in the corner. He visited a few times a year and it was always covered. It bothered him. It was a beautiful house, if somewhat small, with lovely furniture that the family in the castle had discarded over the last almost four decades. There was nothing wrong with it, it was just… spare. He’d be willing to bet that the covered cabinet was ornate, with leadlight on the doors and floral carvings.
Somewhere in the distance a bell rang. The gardener sighed as he gave the barkeeper his drink and apologised that he had to leave- hopefully he’d be back in a minute. Then he practically ran out the door towards the castle. Usually when this happened the barkeeper left, but this time he’d been invited to stay, hadn’t he? He glanced at the door and went to the cabinet. He should be quick, just in case. He twitched the cover aside and breathed in awe. It was a truly beautiful cabinet, decorated how he had expected and with a beautiful stained glass depiction of the nearby mountains, covered first in forests and then in snow at the top. He carefully opened it and took in a sharp breath. So this is where it had gone. It had mysteriously disappeared in the middle of a bar argument, the stranger had died, and apparently it had been here the whole time. The sly devil. The barkeeper glanced again at the door, picked up the stone, closed and covered up the cabinet, drained his drink, and left.
692 years ago
The inflated pig bladder sailed through the air and fell wetly onto the dirt. The child scrambled to pick it up, and threw it back proudly. It fell a couple of metres in front of him.
The child’s father walked over and picked it up, glancing at the sky. It was getting late.
“Home time. Let’s go see what mum’s made.”
“Dad, are you going to be called away?”
His father paused in his walking. This was an uncomfortable question.
“Why do you ask?”
“Well the barkeeper got called away and I’m scared that you might be too.”
“I hope not, buddy.”
“I love you, dad.”
“Love you too, son.”
Yes, the barkeeper had been called away. Three months ago now. Most people had relaxed, feeling, or perhaps just hoping, that the Emperor was done with their village. Most of the remaining young men had not, though. He was a farrier, providing an essential service. But the blacksmith had been called away, and he was an essential service too. Clearly, the Emperor did not care about leaving the villages with functioning trades when he called for more soldiers for his army.
The bar had been raided in the absence of the barkeeper. Within a week it had been emptied of everything valuable, useful, or not nailed down. A big party had been thrown for the remaining villagers with the kegs of beer and cider, and a few houses in the village now had barstools and new, or at least new for them, cups. But the farrier had the most valuable thing of all. He’d been among the first of the raiders, and had found a strange green stone with light blue flecks sparkling under the candle light. He’d almost missed it- it was wrapped up and shoved right at the back of a shelf under the bar in such a way that it seemed irrevential and callous, like an afterthought. It wasn’t. The barkeeper had positioned it carefully so as not to damage it whilst making it look casual and unimportant. The farrier had shoved it inside his shirt quickly and reported that there was nothing of importance on that shelf. Later he had found a basket of dirty rags, which he had claimed for his own house and shoved the stone into.
It was now in a purpose-built box that he’d built into the bottom of his bed, so that it looked like part of the leg. Blended in. Only he knew the secret. His wife had no idea. And he intended for it to stay that way.
At least until 30 seconds later. As they got back to their house a waking nightmare greeted them. It was two soldiers, carrying orders for him. He had to go. His wife was already crying, and his son started as soon as he understood what was happening. The time until the soldiers told him to come with them, now, was a blur. He knew it was unlikely he would return. He had to tell her. He did, as they were having their final, tearful, hug.
“The box under the bed. It will help you.”
It did. It fetched a good sum of money from a merchant who was passing through, trying himself to escape the recruiters, and wasn’t resold until many years later.
679 years ago
“It’s worth much more than that.”
“Carn, you just don’t understand our coins here. This is more than what it’s worth.”
The merchant knew that this man was both right, and stunningly wrong. He’d traveled for months by foot and a few weeks by boat to reach this place, and the coins here were quite different. He did not fully understand them, but he knew for sure that the stone was worth more than the seven silver coins he was being offered.
“20 gold medallions.”
The stranger gave up, pocketed his coins, and walked away. It was worth at least that, but he wasn’t letting this uppity, foreign trader know that.
The merchant was reluctant to part with this stone, it had brought him great luck in this past 13 years. But he was getting on. He wanted to go home and live a quiet life. He’d ended up in a strange land, with strange people, with strange customs. He’d made a good living here but he wasn’t making a life. He wanted to go home. This stone could get him there, and the rest of the things in his cart could get him a nice little cottage in a quiet village. He was too old to be called away by the Emperor. He could live safely now.
“I hear you have a stone for 20 gold medallions,” came a whisper near him. He started, he’d been deep in his own thoughts. He turned quickly to find the speaker, and saw a young lady hiding behind another trader’s cart. She was holding a small bag that looked quite heavy for its size. He moved towards her and showed her the stone, making sure to keep a firm grip on it. She didn’t try to grab it, but her eyes went wide. Silently, she counted out 20 heavy, golden medallions, worth about 12 gold coins each, and placed them in his hand. He gave her the stone, which she quickly secreted inside the folds of her clothes, thanked him, and hurried away before anyone else could see her.
The merchant stared at the medallions, then put them in his money box. This was it. He could go home. He made a few more small sales, and at the end of the day instead of going to his lodgings he went to dock to negotiate a fare back home.
620 years ago
The high priestess performed the rituals before the alter, with the stone at its centre. It had been quite a find. She knew it was no coincidence that such a thing had come here. It had sat for almost 60 years on this altar. She’d been a young, junior priestess when she’d acquired it for the temple. Now she was old, and she performed the rituals slowly. Deliberately. And, today, with dangerous thoughts on her mind.
She could just take it.
She really could! She knew that she was getting too old to perform the rituals as efficiently as certain, important, people desired, that soon she would be replaced with a newer, slightly younger, model and that she would be out. It could be so easy. Hide it the same way she had when she’d bought it, inside her clothes, and just leave.
She knew she shouldn’t think like this. Possession was dangerous. Start possessing things and you stop thinking selflessly. Well, all that be damned. She knew she’d be pushed out soon, why not take herself out? And, while she was at it, adopt a more secular, selfish mindset and just take the thing. It was just a rock, it wasn’t actually a religious artefact. They’d find some new symbol, and the temple would provide the money to buy it. Again. For such an anti-possession following, the temple sure did possess, and ask for, a lot.
The rituals finished, the priestess took the stone. She left.
614 years ago
She’d had no descendants, they were told. No next of kin. She was a priestess, they were famously un-allowed to marry or have any kind of family. Not that that stopped some of them, of course. And naturally a lot of them had joined the order for, well, the other priestesses. This one had been the high priestess before suddenly leaving, and he was sure that some of her meagre possessions should not have been, in fact, in her possession. Some shiny, slightly tarnished, metal spoons and candle holders. A candle snuffer. Some mysterious but presumably religious… items. He didn’t even know what they were for, he’d never been a very religious man. And given the shapes of some of them, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
Then there were her own things, of course. A few clothes. Things like that. Nothing very valuable, but there was no one to give them to so they’d go to the local convent. He tossed them in a pile of other things bound for the convent, but paused when he picked up the artefacts of her time in the priesthood. There would be questions if he gave them these. He didn’t know the answers and she was dead. There was no one to answer them, no one to take the blame or the consequences. He put them aside. Most mysterious was the big green rock, perfectly smooth with small blue-gold flecks. He breathed on it and polished it with a rag. It didn’t shine so much as… no. That wasn’t the right description. It did shine, but not because the light twinkled off it. But it wasn’t dull. It was magnificent. It shone in the way that an expensive, hard-to-grow flower might shine. It was hard to describe, but clearly quite valuable. He put it with the metal things.
It wasn’t a glamourous job, sorting through the possessions of the dead, and the undertaker didn’t pay him nearly enough for it. There were a lot of decisions to be made. Sometimes they were hard because there were descendants fighting over them. He hated those ones. Sometimes they were hard because there were no descendants and he had to make the right choice. Today he made the choice to hope that no one else had looked through her possessions, and put the religious items, including the rock, in a bag. The convent would send some junior priestess to collect the pile of clothes and other unclaimed, non-valuable things. He took the bag and went home.
596 years ago
The boat washed up on the shore of a quiet beach. Beyond the sand he could see trees and, in the middle distance, a mountain range extending out of sight. To his left, a couple of hundred metres away, the beach ended, turning into sheer cliffs. He’d been lucky. He was hungry and exhausted, it had been a long day. Worse, it had been a long year. After hiding the religious items for a long time he had finally decided he needed to do something with them. So he’d packed them up and travelled by foot, cart, horse, and eventually boat to get… somewhere. Somewhere they might not be recognised, where he could get some money for them without being asked awkward questions. He hadn’t had much room to carry food along the way, so he’d spent a lot of time hungry. And now he’d spent the last three days driving this tiny boat away from the large port where he’d landed in the large boat that had taken weeks to get here. He didn’t know where he was now, but he didn’t want to go further just yet.
He pulled the boat up on the beach where it hopefully wouldn’t get washed away by high tide and started walking. After about 20 minutes he reached the first sign of human habitation, but there was no one around. A few small shacks with fishing equipment strewn around and a spot where they had clearly lit a fire last night. There was clearly no one here and he didn’t know what time they might come back from fishing. He kept walking.
About an hour later, or, he figured, what would have been about half an hour if he hadn’t been so tired and slow, he reached a small village where people were busy going about their various businesses. Children ran up and down the streets shouting and squealing, carts rumbled, various traders shouted their wares, and at the other end of the village a bell rang three times. The man didn’t know it, but it was the church bell announcing 3 o’clock. It was all so familiar but also, in an unidentifiable way, very different from what he was used to. As he wandered around he noted that a building which appeared to be religious was very different from the temples and convents that he was used to seeing. People were using different money. The same colours, but different sizes and designs.
Their clothes were different. People were giving him strange looks. He didn’t fit in here. After a few minutes, a kindly-looking lady approached him and spoke in a low whisper.
“Come in here, and I’ll help you.”
“Just come!” she hissed.
“You look too different,” said the lady when they were in the safety of her small house. He looked around. Even the houses were different. “Too different and still young enough to be called away. If you want to stay alive and start a new life here you’ll need to hide for a while.”
He just stared at her. Different? Yes, sure. Young? Hardly, he was almost 40 now. Stay alive and start over? Yes, he supposed so. What was the alternative? Take the year-long trip back to where he’d come from?
The lady saw his expression and took pity on him. “The Emperor is constantly calling up more recruits for his army to fight whatever battle he’s currently got going on. You’re still young enough. Where you from?”
As they talked she gave him strange but wonderful food, waving away her apologies that it was “simple and basic”. It was unlike anything he’d ever eaten. Mostly he’d eaten rice and fish, and leafy green vegetables. Now he was apparently eating vegetables grown inside the soil, and meat from an animal called a pig. He wondered what a pig looked like. The lady showed him the back room of her small house, where her children had once slept.
She explained that her husband had been called away several years ago, and gave him some clothes which were too big for him but comfortable and well-worn in. They were quite different from his own clothes. The shirts stopped, or would have stopped had they fit him, just below the top of his pants and covered only part of his arms. There were short robes, although she did not call them that, which were only slightly longer and covered his arms and body in a deliciously warm material that he did not recognise. A wonderful hat with colourful woven threads kept his head warm. Too warm, in the house with the small fire going.
After a restful night the man left in the morning, after another warm meal. He wore the clothes the lady had given him, with some spares tucked into his bag. He hadn’t checked the contents of it before he left. After waving him off, the lady took out a large cooking pot and examined its contents.
She turned the stone over in her hands. She hadn’t been able to resist poking through his belongings, and had been quite taken with a couple of the items she’d found. The candle snuffer was fairly ordinary, if rather ornate, and she didn’t recognise a lot of the other things. But there were some beautiful bowls and a large, beautiful stone. She was careful not to decrease the weight of the bag too much in case he noticed, so she had taken just one bowl. She had been relieved to notice that the stone was, despite its size, rather light. It was clearly the most valuable thing in there, in any case. It was a beautiful shade of green unlike any you saw on any tree, and had small blue flecks all over it. It was perfectly smooth. She’d hastily but carefully rearranged everything in the bag so that everything took up the same amount of space as before, tucked a few extra pieces of clothing and a few pieces of slightly stale bread in, and sealed it up. Hopefully he didn’t check it regularly.
In any case, she should probably get rid of it. She wrapped it up carefully and left, hurrying along a different road to a larger town where she might find an antique collector. That night she went back home without the stone, but with a large, heavy bag of coins.
584 years ago
This was another ornate cabinet, but its owner had bought it for a hefty sum. It had ornate carvings in the shapes of mystical animals- griffins, centaurs, even a large dragon. The leadlight depicted the roof of a forest, with too many shades of green to count and some brightly coloured birds. The timber featured inlaid gold leaf and small gems that shone and glittered in the candle light. It was beautiful by day, and stunning by night. Its creator had been an avid traveller, and had used the myths and folk stories from his travels to create multiple masterpieces, including this cabinet. In this shop it was reverentially called the Dragon Cabinet.
At the other side of the room, two people were discussing another of the craftsman’s creations.
“How can it be? Do you have any idea who made this? Look. Come look at this one.”
The antiques collector led the other man over to the cabinet and began to point out its beauty and all the details which made it, well, unique. The other man still seemed unimpressed, and made it very obvious with some quite dismissive comments.
“Get out, and come back when you can appreciate what you’re looking at. If you can’t see it you don’t deserve to own it. Go.”
The other man left sourly. The old man sighed and sat in a chair which was almost as valuable as the candelabra he had been so close to selling to that… that ignoramus. That ingrate. Too many people with more money than intelligence. They thought the point of having money was to spend it on things that would make other people think they were intelligent, well-travelled, worldly, well educated… each of them thought they had a different reason for wanting to have nice, expensive, rare things in their houses. They didn’t. They were all the same. They all just wanted to seem. It drove the antiques collector mad. He had one rule: he would never sell to someone who wanted to seem. He would only ever sell to someone who wanted to be, someone who genuinely appreciated what they were proposing to spend so many gold coins on.
He glanced at the ship clock across the room and sighed. It wasn’t antique, it wasn’t even old. It was, in fact, quite new, having been given to him only last week in a trade and only manufactured months before that. It was practically a prototype. He wasn’t used to dealing with prototypes. But he knew it would not be long before it was valuable and, besides, it was useful.
Fenten was late. Fenten was never late. He was always, however, annoying. He was one of those customers who came in often but never bought anything. He said he was waiting for the right something to come along but he could, or would, never specify what that might be. He was getting sick of Fenten. Rich eccentric old guy, distantly related to the Emperor but probably paid quietly to keep quiet so no one would find out. In reality it was the Empire’s worst-kept secret and everyone knew. The Emperor just didn’t know, or refused to acknowledge, that they did. In any case, Fenten seemed genuinely excited by the contents of the shop but never quite excited enough to buy. Usually he’d get very caught up with something and then dither for so long that he just lost interest. It was almost like his brain couldn’t stay focused long enough to make a decision. And he came in every Thursday at 1pm.
At 1:02 an out-of-breath Fenten practically ran through the door, blurting out an apology for being so late. He then spent the next almost five minutes bent double, trying to catch his breath. He must have run all the way here, the collector thought. He tried to put on a facial expression that said he wasn’t judging but inside, he was. Why did he keep coming back?! When Fenten had stopped panting he stood up very straight and proclaimed, as if it were a royal announcement, that he thought today was the day. The collector just sighed again. He said that at least once a month.
The next hour was spent predictably. They talked briefly about what Fenten had examined last week. He looked at several new pieces. He dithered over a couple of them before bouncing to something new, his facial expression up and down more than an excited puppy. He was getting more and more frustrated. The collector was getting more and more frustrated. Fenten was close to just giving up and leaving, again, when he suddenly asked the most useful question he’d ever asked the collector.
“What’s the most rare or unique item you have?”
The collector said a silent prayer of thanks before gathering himself and showing Fenten the cabinet. It was an admirable piece but even so Fenten didn’t seem to be going for it. He couldn’t lose this! At some point, Fenten had to buy something. He’d never done this for anyone, but he opened the cabinet. In it were the rarest, most valuable things he’d ever collected. They weren’t even necessarily for sale, they were that valuable. Hiding them in the cabinet, almost in plain sight, had been genius. It only meant that if anyone actually bought the cabinet they’d have to come back the next day to collect it.
Fenten breathed in awe as he admired the contents of the cabinet. Hand-woven silks which were practically falling apart where they sat, they were so old. A scroll, hundreds of years old already, found in a cave in a cliff off a treacherous sea. No one alive could read the language of the writing, and the collector had tried pretty hard to find someone. A diamond, reputed to be the largest ever brought up from the sea bed. But Fenten didn’t get further than that, because something had caught his eye. It was the most perfect stone he’d ever seen. He picked it up and cradled it, and found that it was quite light. It was iridescently green, with sparkling blue flashes all over it, and it was perfectly smooth. Smoother even than finely worked timber, or woven silk. It was exquisite.
“Where did this come from?” he asked in awe.
“Widow sold it to me years ago, said it was given to her by a stranger. I’ve never seen anything like it, neither have any of the experts on artefacts and history over at the academy.”
“How much for this?”
The collector considered his options. On the one hand, he really, really didn’t want to sell this stone. He loved it, and often admired it. Sometimes it rocked gently in the Dragon Cabinet, especially when the collector spoke about it by that name, before going perfectly still again, and he often wondered why. He would have loved some more time to try to find someone who might be able to tell him anything about it. On the other hand, if he sold it to Fenten, Fenten might stop coming into his shop. He made his decision.
Five minutes later the collector sat in front of the cabinet holding a large bag of gold coins, staring disconsolately at the spot where the stone had once sat.
Three weeks later
Fenten presented his gift to the Emperor’s wife, bowing as he did so. It was her birthday, and it was a big deal. The banquet was laid out for 200 people, all personally invited by the Emperor and his wife. They had been unsure whether they should invite Fenten. On the one hand he was family, sort of. His mother had been the Emperor’s fourth cousin. On the other hand, he always made things awkward. He was eccentric and they paid him well to keep quiet and keep his head down, but he never did. It was so frustrating. They’d given him a seat as far away from them as possible, near some other distant relatives, and hoped that that might mean as little contact with him as possible. There was, however, the obligation to accept a gift from him.
He'd looked for months, he had said. He wanted to give her something rare and valuable that reflected her value to the Empire, and he had become rather distressed at how he was running out of time. He had a good feeling about a particular antiques collector and had gone regularly to try to find her the perfect gift. He was so eager she almost felt sorry for him. Upon opening the gift she discovered a rock. Just a rock. Green with shiny blue flecks, and quite large but very light. She wasn’t impressed. It was clearly worthless. Nevertheless, people were watching so she put on a show of gratitude and dismissed Fenten. Gratitude was expected. She hadn’t liked half the gifts so far. The problem with having everything you need and almost everything you want already is that it can make you quite hard to buy gifts for.
After a tedious hour of accepting gifts, everyone finally began to eat. Fenten was pleased. She had liked it! He’d have to go back to that collector for her gift next year. The Empress, meanwhile, instructed her servants to begin clearing away the gifts. The ones she liked she instructed to be taken to her rooms. The rest she just wanted removed. A pile of exquisite gifts was moved into a small hall behind the kitchen, where the servants would later divide the gifts amongst themselves.
The stone was claimed by the kitchen girl, who would have received a fierce beating from the cook if she’d been discovered snooping when she should have been preparing the desserts. She was also given a beautiful gold and gemstone necklace much later, when everyone got their share. She could barely conceal her grin as she gathered her leftovers, wrapped in a piece of sack to conceal the stone inside. She’d have to clean it when she got home. That shouldn’t be hard, it was so smooth. The smoothest thing she’d ever touched. She had fallen instantly in love with it, and wondered why the Empress hadn’t. No matter. It was hers now. She guarded it carefully as she ran home to hide it.
529 years ago
He was like a son to her, she thought as she watched him work. He was wonderful with horses. It gave her great joy to see him in his natural environment. He was her nephew but she’d virtually raised him. Much like she’d virtually raised her sister, who had been born when she was 15. She’d been sent to work at the palace as a kitchen girl to earn some money, and on her day off she’d still been expected to take care of all the younger kids. Especially her baby sister. She had grown quite resentful of her sister for stealing her childhood, but fate had had its own revenge.
After eight surviving children, her husband had been called away. How he’d stayed that long without being found by the Emperor’s men no one knew, but he’d had to go and she’d been left with eight children to care for from 5 up to 17. And then, months after he’d gone, she had discovered that she was pregnant again. Very pregnant. She’d been too busy, hungry, and tired to notice until now, but she was going to have another baby. This couldn’t happen. Her sister, who by that time was the head cook at the palace, had had no children of her own and came around as often as she could with leftovers and her efficient bustle. She always left the place cleaner and smelling more delicious than she’d found it. But no, no, she couldn’t do this again. No. Apart from anything else, she was 40 now. Too old to be a having another child. She just couldn’t handle it.
And so the child had been all but given to his aunt. She’d raised him, more or less, whilst never officially being his guardian, and she’d continued to spend most of her time at the palace, working. But there was somehow an understanding that whenever she was home, he was there too. She loved him like her own child because in some ways, he was.
He really was wonderful with horses. This was a young horse, and a feisty one. He was trying to train it but it was resisting. Still, he’d never failed. She had no reason to believe he might this time. She smiled. 16 and already so talented. He would go so far. Still smiling, she went inside to finish cooking the meal.
He breathed a sigh of relief when she went inside. He hated it when she watched him, though he’d never tell her that. It would have broken her heart. He knew she loved him like a son and, in a way, he loved her too. In an obligatory way, mostly. He also kind of hated her, though. He hated and resented his own mother, his birth mother, for abandoning him. And because his aunt was the adult he saw most often, he offloaded all his anger and resentment onto her. It wasn’t fair, he knew that. But it had to go somewhere, didn’t it?
Anyway, she had gone inside and now he could really focus. It was hard to focus when she was watching him. Truth be told, he was concerned about this horse. It was a feisty one and he wasn’t even sure if he could train it at all. The best he could hope for right now was that it might not attack him while he tried. And boy did he. He’d spent weeks with it already, every day. He was sure the distraction he felt when she watched him was holding him back. It hadn’t been an issue with other horses- more trainable, less psychotic horses. He needed space. He needed to leave. He needed money and leverage. He was 16, not quite grown. He probably wouldn’t be called up by the Emperor but he needed something to make the adults, the real adults, take him damn well seriously.
That night he decided to go looking for it, after his aunt was asleep. He was surprised to find that in her humble cottage she had quite the collection of pretty valuable objects. He supposed she must have either been given them or stolen them from the palace. He quietly removed the chest from her room and took a proper look. Some jewellery, that would get him some money. Some pottery, boring. Gems, just a few so she wouldn’t be too suspicious. He filled a small bag with a few select things to give him a head start and then he noticed the large stone. It was stunning. Even in the dim candle light he could see that it was a beautiful green, with some other colour dappled all over it. It was large but light, and very smooth. He knew she’d notice it gone but he couldn’t resist. It went in the bag.
He quietly put the chest back where he had found it, added some food to his bag, and hid it under his bed. In the morning after his aunt left for the palace, where she still worked part time despite being about 70 years old, he gathered his possessions. He knew it wouldn’t be easy to take the horse, but he had to try. He didn’t even have to go far, maybe only a couple of villages away. It wasn’t like his aunt could go far to look for him. He left.
515 years ago
He couldn’t be serious. He was missing three fingers and walked with a limp, and he expected to ride this horse? He prided himself on his riding skills, and he could only manage 10 seconds before it bucked him off. And this stranger wanted to take him on. It was preposterous. The horse was practically frothing, and just mounting would take three men holding him down with ropes. The stranger matched his stare with a confident one of his own, daring the owner of the horse to back down.
The horse owner sighed. There was only one way around fools like this – up the stakes.
“You stay on that horse for 20 seconds and I give you my most prized possession. On, though. Holding the rein and hanging off the side doesn’t count.”
The stranger just nodded his understanding. It was honestly infuriating. He wasn’t even scared. In the face of impossible stakes he was just… calm. Who did he think he was? Quite a crowd had gathered, it promised to be a good show. Oh well. Get it over with and get on with scraping this man up off the cobbles.
“Ladies and gentlefolk, this fool thinks he can ride better than me. You’ve seen me riding this beast, some of you have tried and barely managed to mount. Place your bets!”
Several members of the crowd approached him, offering money to bet on how long he would stay on, and whether he’d make the 20 seconds. Some bet that he would fall off before mounting. The stranger watched calmly. He was starting to smile, just slightly. The cheek of it! Smiling, at a time like this? Oh well, he’d get what was coming to him. The horse had sensed the crowd’s excitement and was getting excited too. He was bucking and jumping around wildly, and it was all the men holding him could do to keep him near the mounting block.
With all the bets in, the horse owner called for silence and an almost unnatural hush fell over the crowd. He motioned at the stranger to begin mounting. As soon as he had mounted, the men holding the horse let go and bolted. The owner started counting.
The horse went crazy. There was something on its back, and it wanted that thing off. But no amount of bucking and galloping around the enclosure would get it off! It kept pulling at the reins, which made the horse angry. But then, suddenly, it stopped pulling. It was still there, but now it was lying down on him instead of just sitting. It was… hugging him. The horse stopped, just for a second. It was confused. This thing was wrapping itself around him tightly at the front and back and just holding on. Not trying to steer him, not trying to do anything fancy. Just… lying there, holding on. The horse was confused at this, and confusion made it angry again. He started bucking again, but nothing would shift this thing. Suddenly he heard a shrill whistle. A primal part of his brain took charge and he returned to the mounting block, where the men once again restrained him. The thing on his back slid off neatly and landed on its feet. That was unusual too- most of them fell off while he was still moving and they never landed on their feet.
The stranger went back to the owner, who now had a stunned look on his face. No one had ever done that. And there was a crowd watching, so he’d have to pay up. Technically his most valuable possession was his horses, but he’d never give them up. He made a choice. He summoned a servant and had a whispered conversation with him. The servant ran off.
“Your prize will be here shortly. You have some nerve, coming and showing me up like that. How do you know I won’t have you murdered on the road for that?”
“I could take that horse with me, you’d never catch me,” was the too-confident, slightly cocky reply. The parts of the crowd close enough to hear the conversation laughed. And now he couldn’t even do that, because people would know. It was easy to do things when nobody knew, when there was no risk of getting caught. Some stranger died by the road and maybe someone had seen him with you much earlier that day but no one had any reason to suspect that you’d gone after them. Besides, you probably had a very good alibi based on the fact that you had been in a very public place all evening and you had, in fact, sent one of your servants who had the fewest duties to carry out outside of your house to do the deed. But if people knew, well, sooner or later you’d be called in for questioning and then it didn’t even matter whether you had done it or it had been a coincidence. You’d threatened it, it had happened, you must be guilty. Ipso facto. Of course he couldn’t do it.
Several minutes passed in uncomfortable silence before the servant reappeared holding a bag. The horse owner looked inside, nodded, and gave it to the stranger.
“I suggest you disappear,” he said, before turning and walking away.
The call rippled through the air. It excited the young dragons and made them dance around, whipping their tails through the air and letting out puffs of steam. This valley was nestled between three tall mountains, shielded from most of the weather by the tall peaks. There was only one way in and the dragons kept a constant guard on it. They couldn’t risk humans finding them. Or, more precisely, they couldn’t risk humans finding them and getting back to other humans.
The call had travelled hundreds of kilometres and was weakening. The oldest dragon sent out a call of his own and gathered his clan around him. The conversation that they had would translate roughly as follows.
“There is a call. We must respond.”
“A young male. Over 700km away due South South East.”
“I wanna go! Me me me me me!” squeaked a young dragon. Another dragon hit him firmly but not roughly with his tail.
“You’re not flying anywhere yet,” he growled. The young dragon sulked.
“How many females do we have?” asked the old dragon.
“Seven,” another said. “But only four grown.”
“Send three, and one male. The young dragon is alone and there are no other known colonies within this distance of him. He will need someone to teach him to fight.” And three females would almost ensure that this young dragon’s line would produce another female, he thought privately.
The gathered mature dragons shifted uneasily. It was an honour to be sent to answer a call, especially one to establish a new clan. But it was dangerous. They might have to fly for days in order to avoid being seen by humans, and there was no guarantee that any of the females would lay a female egg to ensure the survival of the new clan. Even if they did, the egg might get separated and the hatchling might not get back to the colony. On top of that, there was a lot of responsibility in answering the call. There was nowhere to hide when you answered the call of a lone dragon. You were the only teacher, and the only chances for the young dragon to begin the formation of a new clan. You had to get it right, or you’d get killed. If not by humans, then by other dragons who had gotten it right. It was an honour to respond to the call, and also a burden.
As the old dragon had suspected, one of the young fighters was less uneasy and looked on the verge of volunteering. He was a good fighter, but arrogant and did not understand his own strength. Not a good candidate to teach a young dragon with no other male mentor. Before he could speak, the old dragon spoke again.
“I will choose four dragons to leave tomorrow. Fly at night, so you will not be seen. We will respond to the call.”
And with that he dismissed the gathered dragons with his tail, raised his head, and sent back a noiseless call of his own.