DR FRANK JACKSON, 59A, PRINCES ROAD, BRIGHTON, EAST SUSSEX BN2 3RH
A Feast of Dragons
Annie, Simon, Ragimund and Morag are on the way to the land of the dragons to meet Annie’s dragon-sister, Leila, and her mate Dabar, to celebrate Dabar’s crowning as new king of the dragons. Unfortunately, Morag suffers from a phobia about dragons, which she must overcome if the occasion is to be a success. But she learns to fight it, and makes new friends in the process. But Annie has a secret that she will tell no-one about. They meet old friends and new, but the secret is still unresolved.
Annie unrolled the little scroll of papyrus that had been dropped in their garden the previous night. She was eager to see who it was from, and what it contained. As she opened it and read the contents, her face lit up with delight. ‘Simon!’ she called. Her brother, Simon, stumped into the kitchen. ‘What?’ he said, grumpily, and sat down heavily at the kitchen table.
‘Oh, don’t start!’ Annie said gloomily. She knew the cause of his despondency. He and Ragimund were hopelessly in love with each other, and they had now got to the stage where they could not bear to be parted from each other for any length of time. ‘It’s only a week since you last saw her!’
‘It seems like an eternity’ He groaned. ‘Oh, for heavens sake!’ she snapped. Then she relented. She could see that he was suffering the pangs of unremitting love. She felt sorry for him, almost. She didn’t know which was worse, Simon at his most normal, rude, insulting, and downright obnoxious at times, or as the poor creature torn by unrequited love, as he now was. But she remembered all that he had done for her in the past. She tried one last time. ‘Simon you do remember that you’d go to the ends of the world for me, don’t you?’
‘It was a rash promise’.
‘Well, I’m holding you to it. We’ve been invited to a coronation in the land of the dragons. Dabar is being officially crowned, and he and Leila want us to be there’.
‘Oh, no, I thought he was king of the dragons already!’
‘Well, he is. but this is an official reception. We have to be there, as official ambassadors for the human race. Dabar is sending dragons for us. You can’t get out of this, Simon. I’ll see to that!’
‘Oh, all right. I suppose I’ll have to’.
‘Wait, I have an idea. Morag’s coming this weekend, isn’t she?’
‘I suppose so’. It was difficult to get more than monosyllables from Simon these days.
‘Well, she is. Why don’t you invite Ragimund over as well? I’m sure she’ll like to come, as ambassador for the faerys, especially. She and Morag can come together. There, problem solved. If you write to her quickly, I’m sure she’ll accept’.
‘That’s a great idea, Annie. I’ll do it right now!’ Simon said, delighted. Annie watched him go up the stairs to write the letter to Ragimund. Not for the first time, she realised how easy it was to manipulate men. But she didn’t want a moping brother on her hands this weekend. It would be hard enough to get Morag on the back of a dragon to travel there. She settled down to write a reply to her dragon-sister, Leila. Even Annie, with her dislike of flying, was willing to make the effort to see her dragon-sister again. She and Leila had grown very fond of each other over the time they had known each other, to the extent that they saw each other as true sisters. Leila was a beautiful Chinese dragon, graceful and sinuous, not scaly like other dragons, but with a sleek and smooth skin, and large luminous black eyes. Anne saw no oddity in having such a lovely dragon as a sister, especially since she was mate to Dabar, the new King of the land of the dragons, who was very large and looked fearsome, especially to his enemies. But Annie knew he was kind and wise, despite his size, and loved his mate dearly. So she was looking forward to the visit. The only trouble she foresaw was Morag’s reaction. But she knew she was capable of persuading her, so she hoped.
She finished her letter and put it into the Watchers’ small wire in-tray on the hall table outside. It was still a mystery to her how letters could be sent to other worlds so quickly, within a day of them being posted, care of the Watchers. Both her parents were Watchers, a kind of celestial council that monitored the progress and development of the known universe, but she still had no clear idea of whom they were and how they operated. At this moment, she didn’t care, so long as the letter reached Leila quickly.
After that it was just a question of waiting until the week- end. Fortunately, Simon had cheered up enormously, and was even able to indulge in his usual insulting banter with Annie. Not that was a good thing, but at least he was back to his normal self. But Annie had had a premonition that this was the beginning of a divergence of their paths. She had a feeling that nothing would ever be the same between her brother and her again. Two days later several letters arrived, some by normal post, informing them that they each been offered a place at university. Annie had mixed feelings about this. She doubted whether she would ever fit into university life. Simon felt the same, after all they had been through together. She also sensed that he had another agenda on his mind, which she dared not ask about.
The other two letters, which came, via the Watchers, were different. One was from Ragimund, addressed to Simon, expressing her delight at seeing him again and accepting the invitation to Dabar’s coronation with pleasure. She also said that she would be happy to act as faery ambassador for the occasion. She also mentioned that she had appointed the appropriate faerys to staff the new embassy in the land of the Barbarossi, to assist Paravar, the emperor there, in repairing the damage the exiled merchants had wreaked. ‘He is restoring the stolen taxes to the people, and setting up workers’ communities. So far, he has kept his word to his people’. She had written. Annie was pleased about that. She had been uncertain about Paravar, a self-confessed Oxford man, but he certainly seemed to be living up to his responsibilities.
The final letter, or rather scroll, was in the neat copperplate handwriting that she immediately recognised as Leila’s. Leila could write, with her short front claws, as neatly and precisely as any human.
She wrote: “My dearest Annie, thank you so much for accepting our invitation. I will look forward to seeing you again, my sister, and to meeting the lady Ragimund of the faerys, and your new older sister, the lady Morag, daughter of Moran. Both will be most welcome, and I promise you that I will look after Morag, if she is in any way alarmed at coming to our land. Do assure her that she will not come to any harm. I look forward to seeing you again, my dearest Annie, and all my love and felicitations to you. Dabar will be sending dragons to take you to our land the day after tomorrow, after dark, so as not to frighten any humans! My best wishes to you, my love. I will see you soon, I hope.
Your affectionate sister, Leila”.
It was a charming letter, and Annie decided to show it to Morag to assuage any fears she might have. She was still worried about whether Morag would be placated enough to join them on their visit to the dragons. She hoped so. She desperately wanted Morag to meet her dragon-sister. But things did not run the way she expected.
She ignored him. ‘Where’s Annie?’
‘She’s in the kitchen. She’ll be really happy to see you. Morag? Morag!’ But she had already gone.
Annie looked up as Morag came into the kitchen, and rose to her feet. ‘Morag!’ she cried in delight. But Morag’s face was tight-knit and closed. Annie, who had got up to give her a sisterly hug, dropped her arms by her sides. ‘What’s the matter, Morag?’ she asked, anxiously.
‘This is the matter!’ She held up the letter that Simon had sent to Ragimund. ‘You’re expecting me to go to the land of the dragons, where I’ll be expected to gnaw hunks of meat, dripping with blood, and probably get ripped apart limb from limb when those dragons feel like a snack! How could you, Annie! I absolutely draw the line at this. I’m not going to any place where I’m likely to be dinner for some carnivorous reptile. Sod that! If you dare to think I’m coming with you, you can think again! I’m not coming with you to meet some hungry lizards!’
She paused for breath, after her outburst, and glared at Annie.
Annie was appalled. She had never before quarrelled with Morag, her older sister. But she was angry in her turn, at hearing her dragon-sister maligned like this.
‘They’re not like that! If you only met them….’
‘I don’t want to meet them! As far as I’m concerned they’re a pack of ravening, bloodthirsty,dirty lizards! Just lizards, that’s all they are!’
Annie lost her temper. ‘You stupid, prejudiced bitch! Dragons aren’t like that! If only you knew, you’d wouldn’t be ranting like this! I thought better of you! You’re like all the rest! Bigoted and stupid!’
‘Suit yourself! I’m not going, and that’s it!
‘No, you must come with us! I promised!’
‘Then unpromise it. I’m not going with you!’
Annie was silent for a moment.
‘Then you’d better read this!’ She rolled Leila’s scroll across the table towards Morag. She picked it up.
‘It’s a letter from my dragon-sister! Read it and tell me she’s a mere slavering lizard!’ Morag unrolled the script and read it, slowly.
She finished reading. ‘It’s a lovely letter’ she admitted, ‘But how do you know it was written by her? It could have been written by someone else, in her employ’.
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Morag!’ Annie was by now fully exasperated. ‘Why are you so frightened of the dragons?’
‘I’m not frightened! I just don’t trust them at all! ‘
‘Why not?’ Annie asked hotly. She was fast beginning to lose her temper again with Morag. Why was she so obstinate, and prejudiced?. Annie had come to respect the dragons, and loved her dragon-sister. She couldn’t understand her attitude.
Morag found herself locked into an unreasonable position. She genuinely didn’t believe the words that she was uttering, but wasn’t prepared to back down. Instead, she found herself defending a position that she didn’t believe in, in all honesty, but her own stubbornness wouldn’t allow her to retreat and apologise. So she continued with her own illogical attitude, despite the harm it was doing to the relationship between her and Annie.
She could tell that Annie was furious with her. But she was set on her path, irrespective of logic and her feelings.
‘Are you coming or not?’ Annie demanded.
‘No, I’m not’. Morag replied firmly, hating herself for saying it.
Ragimund and Simon came into the kitchen, chattering and smiling. They stopped suddenly, aware of the atmosphere in the room.
‘What is the matter?’ Ragimund said. ‘Have you had a quarrel?’
Annie lifted her head up and wiped her eyes. ‘Yes’, she said. ‘Morag won’t go. She’s afraid of the dragons’.
‘What!’ exclaimed Ragimund. She turned to Morag. ‘Is this true?’
‘Yes’ Morag said, miserably. ‘I’ve always had a fear of dragons. Everything I’ve read or heard about them. They’re fierce monsters, who devour everything in their path. I just don’t want to meet them. They terrify me!’
‘Nonsense!’ said Ragimund, briskly. ‘you will come with us. Then you shall see how kind and gentle a race they are. You will see what sophistication they are capable of. Her voice hardened. ‘That is an order, Morag. You are a marshal of the government of Hyperborea. You will make the journey to the land of the dragons. Your prejudices will fall away, when you meet them’.
‘I suppose you’re right. All right, I’ll go’.
‘Then that is settled. Simon, you were going to show me your garden’.
‘Yes, of course. This way, my lady’, he said, grinning. They left for the garden, not without a troubled glance from Annie’s brother at Morag.
Annie raised herself with elbows on the table-top. ‘I ‘m glad you’re coming, Morag. Dragons aren’t as bad as you think they are’.
‘Well, I haven’t got any choice now. But I’m not happy’.
‘Morag, will you promise me something?’
‘Depends what it is’.
‘Please keep an open mind about the dragons. I know they’re very different from us, but they still have emotions like us. They feel hope and despair, just like us. They have personalities, like us. I hope, no, they will like you. I’m sure of that. Just because they’re so different from us, they’re still the same, as you and I’.
‘So long they don’t force dripping hunks of raw meat down my throat’.
‘Oh, Morag, you have so much to learn’. Annie said, sadly.
Morag got and went to her room, the guest-room in the house. She felt dejected and fearful. She lay on the bed, feeling frightened. What if Annie was wrong? Were the dragons really so bloodthirsty? Was she going to her death? She slept a troubled sleep. She was suddenly awoken by cries from downstairs. She hastily got up, applied some makeup and ran downstairs, donning her backpack on the way.
‘They’re here!’ Annie cried breathlessly, as she caught sight of Morag.
‘The dragons to take us there, of course!’
‘What! We’re going to be taken by dragons!’
‘Yes, we’re going to fly there!’
Annie ignored her. ‘Come and meet my dragon-sister,Leila. She’s come with them’.
‘What?’ Morag asked, weakly. She was not prepared for this, not so soon. Annie led her to the door of the utility room, which opened up into the garden. ‘Leila!’ she shouted, joyfully. A long, sinuous shape appeared outside, in the light from the room. She was a beautiful dragon, Morag had to admit. Her serpentine body was coloured a deep emerald green as far as Morag could judge in the twilight and ended in a long pointed tail. Her wings, sprouting from just where her shoulders should be, were folded neatly against her body. Her head was small and delicate, with a short jaw, which as she opened her mouth to greet Annie, was lined with two rows of pin-white, needle-sharp small teeth. Her eyes, set each side of her head, were large, dark and luminous, lit up at the moment with pleasure and affection, framed by long dark lashes, which gave her a slightly coquettish look. Her front claws were short and slender. As she reared up to embrace Annie, Morag noticed her claws were retracted, like a cat. Annie rubbed her cheek against Leila’s soft neck. Leila gently nuzzled her back. The scene of affection between a human and a dragon was deeply moving, so Morag thought.
Annie suddenly remembered Morag. ‘Leila, you must meet my new elder sister, Morag. She’s a little …apprehensive about dragons’.
‘Of course, I will, Annie. A sister to you is a sister to me’.
‘Morag, please come and meet my Dragon-sister’.
Morag came forward reluctantly. ‘Morag, this is my dragon-sister, Leila. Leila, this is Morag, my new elder sister’.
‘You are welcome, Morag, daughter of Moran. You see, we knew your mother. She was a wonderful lady’. She spoke in a low, somewhat husky voice, which sounded almost musical.
‘Everybody seemed to know my mother’. Morag said, gloomily.
‘And rightly so. She was kind, and accepted us for who we are. Morag, do you fear us?’
The question was so direct, that Morag hesitated to answer.
‘I fear the unknown. I don’t know anything about dragons, except the stories I’ve heard’.
‘I thought that. I do not blame you. We have appeared to you in the past, in the guise of monsters, in your stories, and your myths and fairy legends’, She sighed. ‘Nothing could be further from the truth’.
‘What is the truth, then?’ Morag asked, genuinely curious.
‘That we are traders. Nothing more. We have done so for centuries. We have traded along the coast of Tyre and Sidon, and even with Arabs along the Red sea, in your world, even with the Romans, in the past. But because of what we are, especially so in your continent of Europe, we have been reviled and hated. For the devil’s spawn that we are supposed to be!’ Her voice had sharpened.
‘Are we going on those?’ Morag pointed to the huge bulks of dragons that lay half-hidden in the dusk.
‘Yes, it is the only way of reaching our land. Be not alarmed, Morag. They are friendly and reliable. Please, judge us not on our tainted reputation, but what we truly are. We are friends and allies, are we not?’
Leila turned away to Annie. ‘You and your sister will travel on this dragon. His name is Diccon’. She indicated the nearest large bulk. ‘Simon and the lady Ragimund will take the other, Tamal. We must go, immediately’.
‘All right, let’s go, Morag’. She followed Annie to the nearest dragon. Close up, it looked even larger than she had feared. ‘How do we get on?’ she said, feeling stupid and nervous at the same time.
‘Climb up its tail, of course’. Annie replied, sharply. ‘Come on, Morag, follow me’.
She climbed up awkwardly after Annie, up the steep, scaly tail, and on to the dragon’s back, which swayed suddenly, as the dragon rose to its feet before taking off. She suddenly sat down with a bump behind Annie. ‘Oww!’ she groaned. ‘Are you all right?’ Annie asked over her shoulder. ‘Yes, apart from my arse. Don’t these dragons have springs, or something?’ Annie did not bother to reply, over the “ thrump, thrump” of the heavy wings now beating each side of them. The dragon lifted up from the garden. Morag felt the sinewy muscles of the dragon flex beneath her as they rose up. She shut her eyes tightly, clinging on to Annie’s belt, and buried her head in the back of her shoulder. The noise of the wings seem to be louder, as they ascended. Morag shuddered, her eyes sill tightly shut. She heard Annie shout excitedly. ‘Look, Morag, look!’ She hardly dared open her eyes, but she did, fearfully, and peered around, brushing her windswept hair from her face.
They were high up, over the coast. Below her, to the left, the Brighton Pier stretched out into the sea, like a bejewelled finger, ablaze with bright lights. Behind it the promenade ran with flashes of white and yellow, as the traffic streamed along it in an endless flow. Beyond the pier, was the well-lit circle of the marina, and, even further, the ghostly white shapes of the cliffs of the Seven Sisters. To the right, she could see the gaunt skeleton of the West Pier, ravaged by fire, with no more than its iron superstructure left, standing forlorn in the empty sea. Further along the coast, she could make out the smokestack of the old Shoreham power station, still standing like a lonely beacon. Seeing her native city from above, Morag was washed with a wave of nostalgia and sadness, realising how much she still missed it. She felt as if she was leaving it all behind, and she buried her head in Annie’s shoulder.
Annie felt her head against her, and reached back to clasp Morag’s hand. The great wings each side continued to beat in the still night air. They rose up higher and higher, until they were just below the cloud layer that hung above them. Then they plunged upwards into it. Morag opened her eyes. She could see nothing, apart from soft grey cloud around her. She felt wet on her face and wiped it, irritably, with her sleeve. Then they burst out from the clouds below them. Morag opened her eyes again. She gasped in amazement.
The ridges and peaks of the cloud landscape below were edged with gold and pink. The sun was still setting here, edged with great rays of thin red clouds that spread across the bright sky. It was a wondrous sight. The dragon’s wings began beating again, “thrump, thrump” .
Both dragons plunged back into the cloud, their wings outspread. Morag gulped, as they headed downwards. She had a phobia of dragons, since she woke up screaming from nightmares as a child. But she daren’t tell Annie, about the terrible dragon demons that had tried to tear her from her bed. She thought it was over, when she grew up. But it still was the same. She couldn’t help it. Her mouth was dry, and she trembled all over. The very thought of them seemed to drop her into a state of panic. She knew it was irrational, but she couldn’t help it.
Before they descended into the cloud layer, Morag and Annie suddenly shivered. They had passed through a portal which was icy cold. It only lasted a few seconds, and then they entered the clouds again. Morag shut her eyes, conscious of the cold moisture-laden air around her. They burst out into the territory of the dragons. Morag opened her eyes again and looked down. To her surprise, the sea was no longer there. Instead, she was looking down at a brown barren landscape of ridges and furrowed hills, as if it were a continuous sheet of crumpled brown paper. This crumpled paper landscape, for that is what it reminded her of, stretched endlessly to the distant horizon, broken only by taller hills and mountains, whose peaks stretched up below them. The dragons were still flying steadily, with only an occasional “thrump” of their wings. They flew in a straight line towards their unknown destination across the barren landscape. Presently, Morag saw, with her keen sight, a flat plateau, surrounded by hills and mountains, in the distance. It was where the dragons were headed.
As they drew nearer, she could see that the surrounding hills were pockmarked with the black holes of caves, where the dragons made their dwellings. Their dragon slipped slowly sideways towards the plateau. This was their landing place. He straightened up for the final approach. They landed with a soft bump. Diccon walked a few steps, and then subsided on to the ground with a grunt. They had arrived.
Simon and Ragimund had landed alongside. They slid down the dragon’s tail, Ragimund very gracefully, Simon less so. They joined Annie and Morag by their dragon, Diccon. ‘ That was a really steady flight. I was worried in case Ragimund got airsick’. Ragimund gave him an indignant shove. ‘I never suffer from that malady!’
‘I know. I was just teasing’. Simon suddenly broke off. ‘What’s the matter, Morag?’
Morag was staring around. All along the perimeter of the plateau, she saw dragons, all looking at her. All shapes and sizes, their gleaming yellow eyes seeming to be fixated on her, their jaws half-open, revealing rows of sharp white teeth, ready to pounce! Her trembling knees gave way, and she collapsed onto the ground in abject fear and terror. She covered her eyes with her hands.
She woke up in a dream, of dragons surrounding her, their jaws agape, ready to devour her. She sat upright in fear. ‘The dragons! The dragons! They’re going to eat me!’
‘No, they’re not. They’ve been worried about you’. Annie said, soothingly. As her eyes blurred and then focussed, she saw Annie’s face above her. She clutched Annie’s arm. ‘The dragons, they’ve haunted me ever since my childhood! Please, Annie, you’ve got to believe me! I’m terrified of them! Please, don’t let them take me! Please, Annie, please! I’m terrified of being here! Don’t let them take me! Annie!’
‘All right, Morag’. Annie said, quietly. ‘Lay back, and keep quiet. And look around you. Does this seem like the lair of a ravening dragon?’ She lay back and looked around. The cave where she lay was full of wondrous items. There were precious objects all around her – Barbarossi rugs on the floor, silk paintings hanging on the walls and lots of exquisite brass and glass ornaments on the small wooden tables around the cave. ‘You have wonderful things here!’
Leila bustled up. ‘Yes we do. Morag, the only thing you can do, to rid you of your fear of us, is to meet some of our people. That will allay your fears and reassure you’,
‘No!’ Morag protested weakly. ‘Yes, you must’. Annie said, behind her. ‘You have to get rid of this phobia, Morag’.
Annie couldn’t understand it. Why was Morag, normally so courageous and undaunted, who had dared to walk through the empty rooms of time itself, and had stood with her against the mighty djinn, now so terrified? She knew that such phobias were often irrational, and were deeply rooted in childhood, and could be overcome, quite quickly. She decided to support her dragon-sister in this aim. She half-pulled an unwilling and fearful Morag to her feet.
‘Come on, no time like the present’. She said, briskly. Morag half-resisted as she dragged her to the mouth of the cave, ‘Why are you torturing me like this, Annie?’ Morag whispered plaintively, close to tears. ‘I’m not, Morag, honestly’. Annie whispered back, ‘but you have to confront your fears, What better way of doing it, than by having your sisters by your side? You know you have to do this, Morag. Remember your duties as a faery marshal’.
Morag stiffened at this. ‘Well, so long as I don’t have to kiss any dragon babies. I draw the line at that’.
‘Come, Morag, meet my people’. Leila whispered in her ear. She smelt delightfully of fresh lavender. Morag fervently hoped the other dragons would be as sweet-smelling. She reluctantly followed Leila and Annie down towards the plateau. She looked down and noticed her hands were trembling. Her knees felt weak with terror. But she was determined not to show any outward sign of fear as she approached the large throng of dragons on the plateau, who drew courteously apart as they came near. Leila addressed them in the human tongue. ‘ Let me imtroduce our guests for the occasion of Dabar’s coronation. They are all dragon-friends, and have fought alongside us in the past. This is Annie, my Dragon-sister, and her brother, Simon, the Djinn-slayer! And here is our brave ally, the faery ally of dragons, the lady Ragimund, come to honour our new king!. And here, here, is the Lady Morag, daughter of Moran, half-faery and half- human, who has come to us for this occasion! Welcome them, for they have fought with us, and come in friendship!’
‘Nothing like a good introduction!’ Simon muttered under his breath. Annie elbowed him in the ribs. They walked behind Leila towards the assembled dragons. Morag forced herself to move towards the throng of dragons. Her mouth was dry, and her legs were still shaking. A young female dragon seemed to smile at her and held out her front claw. She was holding a small, very young dragon with the other, that wriggled and squealed, occasionally looking at Morag with an air of deep suspicion. Morag looked at the dragons, they looked back at her, and the smile froze on her face. It wasn’t just that they were a different people. They looked alien to her in every way. They crouched and flew, they had claws, and great jaws for faces, and small yellow eyes that blinked at you sideways. And they were large, larger than her, and capable of ripping her apart and devouring her body parts.
‘Be careful, Dabron. She is frightened of us’. the female dragon said Her small black eyes, rimmed with laughter lines, regarded the trembling Morag thoughtfully. ‘Your hands are trembling, lady. And they are cold as ice. Do not be afraid of us, my lady. You are a brave warrior, and have fought many daemons. And now you are fighting your fear of us. What is that, my lady? Is it our size and appearance that distresses you, or our reputation? ‘
‘All of it, I suppose’. Morag admitted. This dragon seemed shrewd and above all, understanding. She felt more reassured. ‘Here, Dabron, hold Decius for a moment’. The dragon said. She pushed the small dragon she had been holding into the forearms of her mate, before he could protest. The young dragon squealed and squirmed in his father’s arms. ‘Come with me, my lady’. The female dragon ordered, ‘I shall introduce you to some of our people. You will realise then that you have nothing to fear’.
She turned to a cluster of other dragons beside her. ‘Girls, meet Morag. They all sat upright on their hind legs, expectantly. The only difference Morag could see between them and their male mates, was they were slightly smaller, and talked much more, even in her own tongue. ‘This is Flavia, and this is Clarissa, and this is Meridia, and I’m Petra, by the way’. Morag was introduced to the other dragons, one by one. Some had young dragon offspring, scrabbling around their feet, and all seemed quite friendly and curious. Morag had the strange impression that she was being introduced to a dragons’ feminist group. But she began to realise that her fears and inhibitions were slowly seeping away, in the face of their friendliness. So this is it, she thought to herself, a collision of cultures – the fatal impact between two alien races. The dragons gathered around her, hungry for news of other countries and their doings. Some of the larger male dragons also gathered around, swelling her audience. Even some of the dragon children stopped playing around her feet, and began to listen. Annie looked over at the group of dragons grouped around Morag, smiled, and nudged her brother. He saw her, and grinned. ‘Looks like Morag has made some new friends’.
‘I knew she would’. Annie said, pleased. ‘Now she’s found out that the dragons are only different from us in terms of appearance’.
‘Which doesn’t count, anyway’.
Morag, was finding, much to her amazement, that she was quite enjoying her conversation with the dragons. She found them refreshingly down-to-earth, and candid, with strong opinions of their own. They were starved of news of the outside world, and beleaguered Morag for any news at all. They seemed to know little outside their own land, and were certainly intrigued by the fact that she was a police officer. They had never heard of such a concept, or even of crime for that matter. Morag found it refreshing to talk to creatures who had no concept of original sin, and who bore no preconceptions about the world in which they lived. To Morag, burdened like everybody else with an array of pre-ordered guilt and psychological baggage, it came as a revelation. ‘You are born, you live as best you can, doing no harm to other people, so that when you die, they will always think the best of you. What need have we of policemen?. We govern ourselves as best we can through our own ability, without need of someone telling us what we can and can’t do. At least that’s what I think’. Petra said, firmly.
‘Why do you need a king, then?’ Morag asked curiously.
‘To set us an example. To guide us through any doubts and problems that we might have. To advise us when necessary, and represent us to others. That’s what a king should do. A king like Dabar, who lives with his people and talks to them. Is someone calling you?’
Petra’s views might be simplistic, but they cut a clear path through the clinging undergrowth of Morag’s own life, bringing daylight to enter into her sense of the world. She looked around. The plaza was now full of milling dragons. More had arrived while she was talking and now the open space was overflowing with dragon bodies, bottle-green, vermilion, copper-brown, and delicate white. Others were mottled and striped in black. Dragon heads rose high above her, and the sound of grunts and roars filled the air around as did the scent of dragon bodies, sharp and acrid, not unpleasant, but spicy and pungent like an overcooked curry. The atmosphere was exuberant and courteous. The dragons moved politely out of her way, as she searched for Annie and Leila. She heard Annie’s voice again, calling for her. She turned back to Petra and the others. ‘I must go’. she said anxiously, ‘but I would like to talk to you again’.
‘Likewise! Ask any dragon and you will find me. Farewell, daughter of Moran!’ Petra bared her long white teeth in what Morag hoped was a smile. She turned and began to push her way towards the direction of Annie’s voice. The dragons drew aside to make way for her, until at last, she caught up with Annie, Leila, and the others on the edge of a large crowd of foreign-looking humans. They were clad in long sumptuous robes of red, and blue, and wore long beards down to their breasts. They smiled and bowed to Annie, Leila, and herself. Morag stared at them. ‘Who are they?’ she asked, curiously.
‘They are ambassadors from the countries with which we trade. They have come to pay their respects and congratulations to Dabar, who is now about to become our king. Behold, he comes’. Leila said excitedly.
Morag turned to look behind her. A very large dragon was approaching. He was enormous, bigger than the others. His feet thudded ponderously on the ground. His huge head turned towards them. His jaw was lined with sharp white teeth, curved and angled to tear flesh from bone. Morag trembled. His small yellow eyes focussed on them. She was terrified yet again. But instead, he turned to Leila. ‘Leila, my love’ he whispered in a harsh, gutteral, but soft voice. They nuzzled each other, tenderly. ‘But who are these?
‘You remember Annie and Simon, my dragon sister and brother? And the Lady Ragimund?’
‘Of course. I remember you well. You fought with us at the battle of the beach. I remember it clearly. You fought well against those daemons’ He spoke in a low guttural roar, from his throat. ‘Forgive me. I have had a lot on my mind since then. But who is this?’
Annie answered. ‘This is my new sister, Morag’.
‘Ah, your sister, Morag. You are the daughter of Moran. I knew her well. Greetings, Morag, I should have known. You have the look of your mother. Please forgive me. I should have recognised you. Please join my procession. I regret that these formalities are necessary’. Morag bowed her head, and hastened to join Annie and the others in the orderly queue behind Dabar. She was still nervous about the dragons. She noticed that Dabar was wearing two medallions around his neck, which she recognised. One bore the imprint of an all-seeing eye, the symbol of the Watchers. The other was of an outstretched hand in friendship, exactly like the ring she was wearing. She felt reassured, but not altogether.
They joined in the procession behind Dabar, as it made its slow way towards the large cave at the far end of the open space, now crowded with dragons of all shapes and sizes. The air was filled with roars, as the dragons proclaimed their joy at the new ruler. They had all moved back to allow passage for the royal procession, as it moved slowly behind the great bulk of Dabar, who led it towards a large open cave on the far side of the plateau, where Morag could make out the figures of several other dragons, obviously waiting for them. As they moved nearer, she could see one of them, a green dragon, smaller than the rest, was nervously grasping a kind of golden coronet in his forepaws. She realised that she was about to see a momentous event – the crowning of a dragon king. Her curiosity overwhelmed her fear, and she pressed on with Annie and the others to see this spectacle for herself. She had already guessed that this was an important point in dragon history, and she was determined to see it, with all the rest. She was no monarchist, but realised that this was a tradition that suited the dragons.
The procession finally came to a halt in front of the large cave, and Dabar lumbered forward to receive his crown. Leila had silently glided forward beside Morag. ‘This means so much to me, Morag’. she said quietly. Morag looked at her. To her astonishment, she saw that Leila’s eyes were moist and wet. Her large luminescent eyes were brimming with tears. Morag did something that she had never dreamt of. She put her arms around Leila’s soft neck, and embraced her. Leila’s neck was smooth and warm to her touch, and Leila gratefully nuzzled her cheek in return. Morag was amazed at herself, but her own liking for Leila overcame her fear of the dragon race. It was an impulsive act and a kind one, one that she did not regret.
Meanwhile, Dabar had reached the large cave and prostrated himself before the dragon dignitaries. There followed a dialogue between Dabar and the dignitaries, conducted in dragon language, of which she could not understand a single word. It was mainly spoken in grunts and hisses. She tried in vain to decipher it. ‘What is happening?’ she whispered in Leila’s ear, still close to her mouth. ‘Dabar is about to say his sacred oath to the dragons. Stay quiet for now’. She waited while Dabar recited his oath, again in the dragon language. It seemed a long oath, but at last he was finished. He looked around.
‘Leila!’. He cried in the human language.
‘I must go to him. Come with me, please, Morag’.
‘But…’ Morag began, but Leila hustled her off to the high ground in front of the large cave before she could utter another word. She had locked her foreclaw under Morag’s arm, and before she knew it, she was standing beside Leila and Dabar, overlooking the dragons below. Annie, Simon and Ragimund were standing by her. ‘Don’t ask me, I don’t know what I’m doing here either’. Simon muttered. Leila heard him. ‘Dabar wishes to honour you’. she said, quietly. ‘Honour us? For what?’ ‘You shall see’. Leila replied, her eyes glistening in the twilight that had just fallen. ‘Behold, he is just about to be crowned’. The small green dragon was lifting up the coronet as far as his short forepaws could allow him, clearly nervous. After a few fumbles, he managed to place it securely on Dabar’s head.
Dabar raised himself upright on his hind-legs and surveyed his people assembled below him for a few seconds. The he lifted his great head upwards and gave a mighty roar, that rattled the glasses and plates set out on the long tables that had been set out in the middle of the plateau, around which the dragons thronged. The assembled dragon multitude raised their heads and roared back, almost deafening Morag, who clapped her hands over her ears. As if on cue, the large male dragons standing on each side at the back of the crowd, also raised their jaws and belched out great gouts of flame high into the air, above the heads of the crowd. The flaming torrents rose higher and higher until they intermingled in a huge gleaming arch above the multitude, before falling to earth. Sparks showered down, glimmering in the dark night air, before disappearing. The arch of flame illuminated the upturned faces below, until it finally disappeared, blown away in the light breeze that had sprung up. The crowd cheered wildly, in a cacophony of roars and shouts.
Dabar, still standing upright, raised his fore-claws in a gesture for silence. Instantly, the assembly fell quiet, so that Dabar’s voice, loud and thunderous, could be heard.
‘I thank you, citizens of this land, for your presence this evening. To celebrate my crowning, I would ask you to join me in honouring our human and faery guests tonight. They are our friends and allies, and have fought alongside us against our common enemies. May I introduce you to our dragon-sister and brother, Simon and Annie! They both stood before Dabar. He called out. ‘Bring the Companion medals to me!’ A small young dragon bustled up importantly to him, bearing a white cushion, on which were laid what looked like medals. Beckoning them all to him, he gently placed each medallion around their necks. Morag’s medallion felt heavy around her throat. She held it in her hands and looked at it. It was about three inches in diameter, and, judging by its weight, was made of solid gold. On one face, a rampant serpentine dragon was carved in low relief, curved to fit the size of the medallion. On the other side, were inscribed words in the dragon language, none of which she recognised, apart from her own name –“Morag”.
‘You are now all Dragon-Companions. My congratulations.
‘That’ll be Morag’. Annie said quickly and decisively.
‘What! Why me?’ Morag said, horrified.
‘Yes, you’. Annie said calmly. ‘You’re our elder sister, and who best to express our thanks’,
‘ After all, you are a faery marshal. Should be second nature to you’, Simon put in. Morag looked at Ragimund for support. But instead, Ragimund looked down at her feet. ‘Do it, Morag. you are our representative. I charge you with this’. There was no help there. She glared at Simon and Annie. ‘Why me?’ she asked again, angrily.
‘Because you’re the first human that the dragons have ever seen, apart from us. You can do it, Morag. I know you can. Please, Morag!’
‘Oh, all right. But this is the last time, Annie! I’m warning you!’
She strode to the edge, and then words failed her, as she looked down at the beady eyes and the snouts of the hundreds of dragons gathered below. She cleared her throat, not knowing what to say. She hesitated.
‘Morag, daughter of Moran. Have you no words for us?’
A hush had fallen on the crowd. They craned their necks to see her and what she would say. She began. To her surprise, her voice rang out clearly across the crowded plateau.
‘I thank you for making me a Dragon-Companion. I don’t know what it means, but I feel it is a great honour. I only wish I deserved it. She drew a deep breath. ‘To tell you the truth, I was afraid of you. I was fearful of what I might find’. She paused and took another deep breath, and decided to plunge on. She could hear her mother’s voice in her ear. “Go on, my daughter. Be honest” She took courage, at this, but still swallowed in fear. She hated making speeches, especially on this occasion.
‘I feared dragons. They haunted my dreams as a child. They were fierce and could eat me, small as I was. I grew up with an irrational fear of dragons. Having met you all, and come to your land, I now know that was wrong. You have shown me friendship, and I look forward to meeting more of you, and finding out more about your civilisation. I can truly say that you, on the basis of my limited experience, are more civilised than my race. For generations, we have reviled and abused you, out of ignorance and hostility. I now know that was unjust and cruel. I hope that we can overcome our prejudice, and meet you as equals. I know that my companions share that. Unalike as we are, I hope we will continue to be friends and allies in the generations to come’.
Morag could hardly believe herself. Where had these words come from? But she knew that she believed in them, totally. She had surprised even herself. But they were true.
‘I’m sorry. I’ve run out of things to say. At least my speech was short’. She added, rather lamely.
She turned away, expecting jeers and hoots of derision. Instead, she heard behind her a moment’s dead silence, and then a great roar and the sound of applause, as the dragons clapped their fore-claws together.
She turned back again, to see the host of dragons below clapping and cheering. Dabar came up alongside her and raised his fore-claws for silence. ‘Thank you, Morag, daughter of Moran’. He said to her formally. ‘We truly appreciate your kind words. They mean a lot to us. Let us begin our feast, tonight!’ He roared to the assembled dragons.
Morag’s heart sank. She had visions again of raw hunks of meat, placed in front of her, swimming in blood. At least she didn’t think of the dragons devouring her. They walked down to the dining tables, Morag still fuming. As they settled down around the central table, she glared at Annie. ‘How dare you do that to me!’
‘What?’ asked Annie, innocently. ‘Don’t give me that!’ Morag said, indignantly. ‘Setting me up to give that speech! Allowing me to make a fool of myself!’
‘I didn’t! Annie said, protestingly.
‘Then who did?’
‘I did, Morag’. Leila said.
‘What?’ Morag said, astonished.
‘What better way to confront your fears about dragons than to talk about them to an actual audience of dragons? It was a very good speech, Morag. You were honest, and honesty is one of the virtues that we dragons admire most. Did you not feel your fears slipping away as you spoke? We do not deserve your revulsion. Put it away from yourself, because it is unnecessary. Do you not feel better now that you have confronted it?’
‘Yes, yes, I suppose I do’. Morag suddenly realised that her obsessive fear of dragons had indeed dissipated, blown away like dust, by her new-found knowledge of them. ‘Yes, you’re right’.
‘It was a wonderful speech, Morag’, Annie said, sincerely.
‘It certainly was. And short. Couldn’t have done better myself’. Simon added.
‘If it was you, you would have waffled away for hours, and still say nothing useful’. Annie remarked, rather spitefully. Morag ignored their bickering, looking down the table instead. The foreign ambassadors were seated in a row opposite her on the other side of the long table. She was amused to see that they were tying their napkins over their long beards to protect them from the food they were about to receive. They nodded and smiled again at her. They were swarthy and looked vaguely oriental, with their long black hair tied back in pig-tails, that hung down their backs. They had rolled back the long sleeves of their robes slightly, to reveal arms covered in black hair. Morag wondered which countries they had come from, to dine with the dragons here.
At the other end of the table, she noticed her dragon-friend, Petra, with the other dragons she had met. Petra saw her, and waved. She waved back, glad that at least there was someone else she knew. A small but bulky figure glided into the empty seat beside her. She turned sharply to see who it was. To her surprise, it was a small, neat dragon, whose small black eyes blinked at her owlishly. ‘Pardon me lady’, he said courteously, in a slightly high-pitched voice, ‘I was late in coming. My name is Smeffit, the nephew of Dabar’.
‘My name is Morag, just Morag, not lady. Have I met you before?’
‘I fear not…Morag. But I do know Annie and Simon. I have been to your land, to assist in bring a dragon assassin to justice. I stayed with them when I visited your home city of Brighton’.
‘Wait a minute’. Morag furrowed her brow as she tried to recollect the episode. Then she remembered. She was still only a constable at the time, but she recalled the case.
‘It was about the murders of two young junkies, wasn’t it? Very brutally. The newspapers reported it as the work of “a dragon assassin”.
‘Junkies?’ Smeffit said, blankly.
‘Young drug addicts. You see, Smeffit, people didn’t know about dragons at the time. They thought the murders were so brutal, that they called the murderer a dragon assassin. We were puzzled at the time, so we called him a dragon, too’.
‘I see. So you think all dragons are brutal’.
‘No, I didn’t say that! All I know is that someone killed those young people, and it wasn’t us!’
‘I regret that it was indeed one of us, in this instance. He was my uncle, and a very evil dragon’. Smeffit shuddered at this point and fell silent. Morag decided to change the subject. ‘What did you think of our land?’ she asked.
Smeffit thought for a moment, his head cocked on one side. ‘Strange, but intriguing’, he said finally. ‘Your dwellings are all built on the surface of the land, of brick and tile. And you enclose your private spaces with those wooden panels – what are they called?’
‘Ah, yes. I remember now. I thought that most strange. Our caves have no such things. Ah, here comes our food’.
Other small dragons had appeared, bearing large, steaming dishes which they placed carefully in the middle of the table. Another small dragon armed with a silver tinder-box, was busy lighting the large candles in the centre of the table which gave off a soft, diffuse light. They were clearly scented, for the air was filled with the fragrance of incense.
Morag took advantage of the light to look around. The dragons at the other tables were already eating. She could not see a single hunk of raw meat in sight. The atmosphere was filled with the sounds of grunts, low howls and guttural murmurs as the dragons spoke to each other, in their own language, which did not make her feel comfortable. ‘Allow me to serve you, Morag’. She heard Smeffit say. She looked suspiciously at the dish as Smeffit lifted the lid. A delicious aroma came from it. She saw a mound of fluffy pale yellow potatoes with a scent of cinnamon. ‘What is it, Smeffit? she asked.
‘It is a blend of sweet potatoes with eggs and milk, flavoured with cinnamon and nutmeg. It is very good, Morag. Allow me to help you to some’.
‘Yes, please’. She said, politely, and held up her plate. He carefully arranged the sweet potato mixture carefully on it, that he ladled, with tremendous dexterity, from the steaming bowl. ‘Please taste that, Morag’, he said proudly, when he had arranged the plate to his satisfaction. Morag could not help smiling at his fussiness. But she took a forkful of the sweet potato and put it into her mouth. It was delicious – there was no other word to describe it. It seemed to melt in her mouth, leaving the sweet taste of cinnamon, with a trace of nutmeg, behind. Morag waved her other hand to indicate her pleasure, her mouth still full. ‘It’s wonderful, Smeffit!’ she cried, with real pleasure.
‘Good. I am pleased that you like it’. He replied with some modesty. ‘Please, try the vegetable stew. It complements the sweet potato beautifully’. He took her plate and piled it high with vegetables, aubergines, courgettes, mangoes and artichokes, in a rich, red sauce flavoured with herbs and spices. It, too, was delicious, the vegetables crisp, yet tender, retaining their original colours.
She looked down the table again. To her amazement, all the dragons, like Smeffit, were eating fastidiously, with knives and forks clasped in each of their fore-claws, and sipping daintily at their glasses of wine. Morag suddenly felt ashamed of her prejudices against the dragons. She put down her knife and fork, and turned to Smeffit. ‘Where did all this delicious food come from?’ she asked, indicating the table with her hand.
‘From our gardens, Morag. Our Garden of Paradise, that is what we dragons call it’.
Morag looked around. All she could see were stony cliffs and mountains, in the darkness. ‘Where is it?’ she asked, mystified. ‘It is some way from here. But, Morag, I must tell you, I was appointed Overseer of the Garden, a little time ago. It is my responsibility now’. Smeffit was clearly a proud gardener as well as a gourmet.
‘Congratulations, Smeffit. Could I come and see your Garden of Paradise? I should like to, very much’.
‘Of course, Morag. You will be very welcome’.
‘Can I come, too?’ Annie asked, leaning forward on the table. She had overheard their conversation, after her long talk with Leila.
‘I, too, would like to come’. added Ragimund, also leaning forward, across the other side of the table. ‘Wouldn’t we, Simon?’ she added, pointedly.
‘Oh, yes, certainly. Hallo, Smeffit, how are you?’ he grinned at Smeffit. Any excuse to be with Ragimund, thought Annie, suppressing the pang of sudden jealously she still felt towards Ragimund. But Morag saw the flicker of pain, that crossed Annie’s face, and wondered why.
‘I would be most delighted to show you the Garden of Paradise’. Smeffit said, eagerly. ‘With your permission, of course, King Dabar’.
‘Of course. Replied Dabar, in his deep, husky voice. ‘I know how you love your garden. Leila, my love, you must accompany them. It will do you good to have a day of rest with our friends’.
‘ I shall do so, gladly. I will look forward to seeing our Garden again, with your permission, Smeffit’.
‘Of course, my lady. I will call upon you at ten of the clock tomorrow, to conduct your party to the Garden of Paradise’.
‘Then so be it’ Dabar said. With that, they rose from the table. The feast was over. Dabar was immediately
‘Come, I will take you to your chambers’. Leila said softly.
‘The wash-house is in the first chamber opposite this. The latrine is next to it’. She smiled a dragon smile at them both. ‘Sweet dreams, both of you’.
Morag looked around the cave they were in. There were two small beds, both immaculately clean and fresh. The floor was cleanly scrubbed, as were the stone walls. To Morag, it looked like a monk’s cell, clean and pristine, but with no evidence of any personal life. Two oil lamps, on two small tables next to each bed, lit the interior with a dim glow. ‘ I’m for bed’. Morag said, yawning. ‘Me, too’. Annie replied. ‘Why so glum?’ ‘Nothing’. Annie said. ‘ It’s nothing’.
But there was. For a while Annie lay awake listening to her elder sister’s gentle breathing, as she slept, and thinking of the momentous changes in her own life, that inevitably were coming. Eventually she settled down to sleep herself.
The next morning, she awoke to find their chamber flooded with light. It came from the square aperture in the chamber’s wall which projected a bright, slanting ray of sunlight across the cave. She got up out of bed, and shook Morag’s shoulder. ‘Come on, Morag, get up!’
‘I’m not. Now get up! It’s the morning’.
‘Urrgh! All right. Satisfied?’ Morag got up and swung her legs out of the bed.
‘And you blame Demos for always being late! Get a move on! I can smell breakfast already!’
‘I said all right!’ Morag was never at her best in the morning. After washing and ablutions, they made their way down to the main room at the mouth of the cave.
‘Oh, good!’ Morag exclaimed. She always needed a cup of coffee in the morning to revive her. She poured coffee into two of the elegant little cups for herself and Annie, sat down at the low table, and helped herself to cinnamon toast. Already, she felt bright and exuberant, looking forward to seeing the Garden of Paradise. Annie smiled at her, glad to see she was back to her old self.
‘Good morning!’ cried Smeffit, as he waddled into the cave, dragging a large bag with him, which he put down with an audible sign of relief. ‘Is that coffee I smell?’ Annie poured him a cup. ‘I have brought provisions. I thought we might lunch in the Garden.
‘You mean, like a picnic?’ Morag said, delighted. ‘If that is what you call it, then yes’.
‘That’s wonderful’. Morag said. Her face was flushed with excitement, feeling like a little girl who had just been promised a wonderful treat. Annie smiled at her again, affectionately. She loved Morag like this, excited and somehow innocent, despite the fact that she was older than Annie. ‘Follow me’. Smeffin said, looking excited himself.
He led the way across the plateau, Simon carrying his bag for him, towards a narrow stone gully between two of the large hills surrounding the plateau. To their surprise, it was paved with large stone slabs. He continued through the narrow little gully, until they emerged into a wider stone pass. Mountains reared upon each side, but on the right, stood a high stone wall, with battlements above. It continued on along the pass, completely encircling the base of the mountain. Smeffit led them to a large wooden door, set in the wall, around which sat a cluster of dragons. Morag recognised them immediately. ‘Petra!’ she called. The dragon she knew as Petra rose to her feet, as did the others. ‘Hullo, Morag’ she said, cheerfully. ‘Come to do a bit of work on the Garden. That’s if the overseer came on time!’ She glared good-humouredly at Smeffit.
‘My apologies, ladies. I had a prior appointment’. Smeffit said, hurriedly.
‘I’ll bet!’ jeered Clarissa, one of the other dragons Morag had met the night before. Smeffit said no more, but quickly opened the door, with a large key hanging around his neck, and stood aside to let them enter.
Inside the wall, the air hung heavy with the mingled scents and aromas of scented flowers. The atmosphere buzzed with the sound of bees, and they caught glimpses of multi-coloured butterflies amidst the tumult of flowers Morag felt she was truly stepping through Paradise, a world of dizzying colours and smells . Up above their heads, more terraces, carved out of the mountainside, cascaded more exuberant flowers, clematis, wisteria and wild roses, overhanging the low stone walls of each level. The garden, built out of the face of the mountain, seemed to go on and on, right to the very summit, full of bright flowers and foliage.
‘I never dreamt of a place like this!’ gasped Morag. Annie remembered that Morag was an urban child, used to roads and manicured front gardens, never having seen such a garden as huge and magnificent as this.
Morag followed Smeffit as if in a dream, her head turning this way and that to capture the images of the profusion of flowers that she saw, from the tall hollyhocks at the back, to the nodding yellow flowers of French marigolds and scarlet tulips, to the pink and yellow marigolds and blue periwinkles that lapped at her feet.
‘You are seeing it at its best, in all its summer finery’, Smeffit said, proudly. ’Follow me, if you please, to the orchards at the top’.
Annie noticed a culvert, that ran with water, alongside the small pavement that they walked along, that branched off at intervals into the flower-beds. ‘Have you irrigated this garden, Smeffit? ‘ she asked, curiously. ‘There is a spring at the top of the mountain. Instead of merely using it for our drinking water, which we do, we diverted it to refresh this Garden. You see. Annie, the Garden is not just a garden, it is also our larder, to replenish us with food. That is why it is so important to us. Each of our cities in this land has a similar garden to supply us with fresh food. That is why it is so important to us and why we tend it so carefully’.
‘But why are there so many flowers? Not that I’m complaining!’
‘Because they provide medicines for illness. We supply all our doctors with remedies for all sorts of sicknesses, in the form of salves, poultices and medicines. We use herbal remedies, wherever possible’.
They walked up small stone steps to the next terrace, where they found a similar profusion of flowers, the path covered over with trellises over which grape vines had been trained: great, succulent bunches of grapes hung down everywhere, brushing their faces with their soft velvety skins and sweet aroma. As they climbed steadily upwards, through terrace after terrace, they noticed that each one was planted with different flowers, vegetables and fruit. One was dedicated to marrows and courgettes, that hung down in luxuriance, or wallowed on the ground in all shapes and sizes, another was filled with rows of raspberries and loganberries, another was filled with apricot and plum trees, their deep purple fruit glistening in clusters in the branches.
At last, they climbed another set of steps to walk out into an array of bushes and small trees each bearing unknown fruit, at least according to Morag’s limited knowledge. ‘What are these?’ she asked, bewildered. ‘These are almond trees, and those are fig trees. And, over there are small aubergine trees’.
‘Aubergines! I never knew they grew on trees!’ Morag said, unhappy at her ignorance. ‘Indeed they do. Or on large bushes’. Smeffit said, blithely.
‘Oh, I didn’t know’. Morag had only seen these fruits on greengrocers’ stalls before, and had no idea of how they grew, or what they looked like in their pristine state.
They climbed up another set of steps, and here, at last, Smeffit called a halt. They sank down, thankfully onto the soft grass. Here they saw warm orchards, apple trees, pears and cherries, hanging down, in all their lusciousness, from the branches above them. ‘Come and eat!’ He called, spreading out a tablecloth on the grass, and setting out pewter plates piled high with vegetable pasties and crisp flatbreads, together with a range of honeys and jams in small stoneware jars. Lastly he brought out small glass tumblers and several large bottles of fruit juices, all from the large bag he had brought.
‘How come I had to carry all that?’ Simon said, scandalised. ‘I feel like a packhorse’.
‘Well, you make a very good one’. Annie said, unsympathetically. ‘Besides, it’ll be lighter on the way down’. Simon glanced at his sister suspiciously, but she feigned wide-eyed innocence. He decided to change the subject. ‘How did the dragons create this garden, Smeffit?’
‘With great toil. It took years. We had to buy many shiploads of earth from other lands, to fill the planting pits that we dug, not to mention the seeds and plants that we also had to import. But when it was completed, it was a source of great rejoicing. It was a great asset, and proved to be more successful than we imagined. And this is the result! He waved his fore-claw around at the Garden. ‘It flourished beyond our wildest dreams’.
‘It’s wonderful, Smeffit’. Morag said, sincerely. ‘It’s the most beautiful garden I’ve ever seen’.
‘Thank you, Morag’. Smeffit replied, proudly. Annie stole a glance at Morag. There was a blush of colour in her face, and a sparkle in her eyes. She’s happy, thought Annie, suddenly feeling a burst of affection for her elder sister. ‘Wait! I have a present for you all! They are in the cuttings pavilion below!’ Smeffit cried. ‘I almost forgot!’ Morag looked back at the Garden of Paradise as they made their way downhill on the stone steps. She was truly sorry to leave such a beautiful place. They eventually reached the wall and the door which they had passed through into the garden. Petra and the other dragons were waiting for them beside it. There was a chorus of good-natured catcalls as they saw Smeffit, who darted away into a large stone building, long and narrow, against the inside of the wall. He reappeared with arms full of small potted plants, which he distributed among them as parting gifts. Morag looked at hers, a blue hyacinth, in amazement. ‘Hyacinth! At this time of year!’
‘Ah, there are no seasons in the Garden of Paradise’. Smeffit said, somewhat complacently.
‘Thank you, Smeffit’. she said, gratefully.
‘Not at all. It will remind you, I hope, of us’.
‘I’m sure it will’.
They all walked down the gully together, towards the plateau, dragons and humans together, some of the dragons slithering on all fours alongside them.
‘You must come and visit us again soon’ said Petra, agreeably. She walked on her hind legs beside Morag, and Annie. ‘It’s always good to have news of the outside world’.
‘I shall, definitely’.
Annie smiled to herself. Morag had clearly lost her phobias about dragons. They turned into the plateau. There were the two dragons waiting for them, talking quietly with Dabar, in the centre of the large space. Their backpacks were waiting beside them.
‘Time to go’. Annie said sadly. She looked around for her dragon-sister. ‘I am here, Annie ‘ said a quiet voice. Annie turned round and saw her dragon-sister beside her. ‘Farewell, Annie. It was a great pleasure to see you again. It has been too long’.
Annie burst into tears and flung her arms around Leila’s neck. ‘I’ve missed you so much, Leila’.
‘And I you’. Suddenly she held Annie by the shoulders, looking into Annie’s tear-stained eyes. ‘What is the matter, Annie? Something is troubling you. Can I help?’
Annie shook her head, wiping her eyes with her sleeve.
‘It’s nothing. Nothing!’
‘I will. I promise’.
‘Farewell to you, Morag. It was a pleasure to meet you. A sister of Annie’s is a sister of mine. I hope we were not too uncouth for you’. Leila said with a wink of her black luminous eye.
‘No, not at all. I thank you both for your genuine hospitality. I really appreciated it. And I’m sorry for any annoyance I caused you’.
‘You caused us no annoyance. I am glad you think better of the dragons than when you came’.
‘Indeed I do’.
‘Farewell, Morag, daughter of Moran. You will always be welcome in our land’. Dabar said gravely, in his deep, rumbly voice.
Diccon rose up, his wings beating the air.
‘Goodbye, Smeffit, Goodbye, Petra, Melissa, Flavia, Clarinda and all the others!’ Morag yelled as they rose into the late afternoon sky. ‘I’ll be back!’ She looked down and saw the upturned muzzles and snouts of the dragons far below.
‘Annie, what is the matter?’ she asked, clasping Annie round the waist, still clutching her hyacinth. Annie’s answer, if there was one, was lost in the deep Thrunk, Thrunk of the dragons’ beating wings as they went on their way home.
Frank Jackson – (29/10/15) – Word count – 11890.