The first part of a fantasy: this is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek look at the genre. Fair maidens, dragons, knights, talking animals and dancing penguins! (Well, okay - I lied about the penguins). I'd adore hearing your thoughts on it.
Falcon's Prey - Chapter One
This is the place where legends begin.
It's a strange and secret place, as wild as the wheel of a bird on the winds, unknowable and unpredictable. Perhaps a dangerous place, full of promises waiting to be fulfilled, and dreams yet to be born.
Strange, secret – ours.
Every legend begins in the heart.
It was, the young knight thought grimly, a good day for someone else to die.
And someone was about to. He hoped.
Jon Falcon mentally steeled himself. He was about as physically steeled as he was going to get: one more inch of plate armour, and gravity would have its wicked way with him. As it was, he had a hunched gait that would have made Nostradamus brush a proud tear from his eye.
He clanked from side to side on his horse. No. His steed. He had to think positively, because when you were about to throw all your resources into one almighty, fearless charge against a flame-breathing fiend from hell...
Well, calling it a half-baked idea cut rather too close to the truth.
Yes, he thought, a good day for someone else to die.
Especially if someone happened to be the dragon who had the Princess of Ryllia imprisoned in its cave. He settled the horse as it nervously danced about, going over the area with a practiced eye. Unfortunately, the eye had had more practice examining the bosoms of the young, the beautiful and the one eunuch Jon had mistakenly accosted, but land had contours, right?
My first real lair, he thought proudly, with a determined narrowing of gold-brown eyes, the soft thick colour of honey. And I got here on my own.
It was, naturally, at the top of a winding and perilous paths filled with the horrors of rabid bears, club-wielding goblins, tax men armed with deadly final notices and the odd, snarling snark that he had had to fight off with bare hands and some rather unmanly wailing. And of course, the cave had been blocked by a tangle of thorn bushes that many a knight had hacked through with his trusty sword.
Jon, however, had thought ahead and brought some weedkiller. It had meant setting up camp for a week, but the weather had held out, and he'd quite enjoyed roasting rabbits over his campfire until the last bush was brown mulch.
And now it was the big moment. The big one.
"All right back there?" he hollered, unable to see anything except the narrow view his visor afforded him.
A large shrub quivered. "Shut up, mister! What if it hears?"
"If it hears," Jon whispered loftily, "it is because I intend it to hear. Now get out, I'm not paying you to take root."
The boy that sidled out was wearing rags and an expression that was caught somewhere between petulance, fear and vexation, a look familiar to anyone who left their horse parked on double yellow lines and returned to find a parking violation scroll pinned to the halter.
"Here?" he whispered in a quavery voice, carefully setting himself next to a large rock. His eyes were wide and white, and Jon wasn't at all sure the boy would last out the fight to sign his official Dragon Slayer Scroll.
It was one of the many, many, many laws in the essential guide to knighthood, 'The Feudal Book', brought in after the infamous Ogregate scandal. All slayings had to be witnessed by at least one humble peasant, preferably by a wise wrinkled old woman, but young lisping boys were acceptable substitutes.
"There will do," Jon said, and turned to decide on his strategy.
Challenge and charge. That was the way.
"You sure about this?" the boy piped up.
The knight tried to nod. He knew he should have oiled this damn armour. He drew himself up, feeling the metal creak around him like a second, very uncomfortable skin. Honestly, no one ever mentioned the sweat and the way it rusted if you stood out in the rain. No, it was all, 'glory this' and 'honour that'.
And as an unemployed and untried graduate from Ryllia's Knight's Guild, Jonathan Falcon was desperate to make his mark on the world.
Months, he'd been waiting for this. Roaming the countryside in hope of a village savaged by giants, a sorcerer stealing away beautiful young women, even an old lady being brutally attacked by malicious pixies. But nary a whiff of ogre, nor sound of evil and insane laughter ricocheting from the hills.
He'd even considered paying his uncle Vern, who was a bit of a letch anyway, to go and whisper at the village girls.
Until this. News travelled around the Guild of Knights, Sorcerers and Thieves' airy building faster than lightning and the news that the Crown Princess, the incomparably lovely Adrienne, had been kidnapped by a vicious dragon had set the air afire. There had even been fights about who would rescue her first, which Jon had steered well clear of.
"I, Jonathan Falcon, challenge ye, hideous fireworm!" he shouted as loudly as he could. "Come out and fight!" It was just nervous energy that made his hands shake. Yeah. Energy.
No dragon appeared, flaming and roaring. Instead, there were a few tapping sounds before an old man hobbled out, leaning heavily on his walking stick. Sharp blue eyes were unfaded by time, sealed in a mass of wrinkles. His hair was silver, standing out from his head like a wayward dandelion and he looked happily free of scorch marks.
He looked at Jon with an expression that was almost pity and snorted. "Pathetic, lad."
Jon was speechless for a moment, but quickly recovered. "Where is the dragon?" he demanded, as the book instructed, in a clear, firm voice. That should get the oldster moving, he thought, relaxing in his saddle.
"Deary me," and unnervingly, instead of scurrying off to summon his scaly master, the old man hobbled forward to examine Jon. "Call yourself a knight? You should be ashamed of yourself, sonny. That horse can barely move, let alone charge a dragon. What's it called? Flossie?"
He poked his cane at the gelding. Jon had been trying to find a black, air-pawing stallion for months, but they didn't seem to have any used ones. They were all unbroken, one horsepower, no previous riders. Perfect for the rich knight looking to tame the untameable beast. Not so for the student who barely had two coppers to rub together. Instead, he had ended up buying a dirty grey gelding, at least twelve previous owners and it hadn't even come with its own saddlebags or stirrups.
"Steelhoof," Jon replied, ignoring the fact that up until a few seconds ago, the gelding had been known as Crackers.
"Shoddy workmanship on that armour, boy. Melt in one burning, that would." The elder prodded Jon then, nearly knocking him off his horse. Crack—Steelhoof showed its first sign of life and reared, promptly sending Jon into the air. He hit the ground with a resounding crash.
Jon blinked and found himself looking at the sky. "Ouch," he said quietly. It sounded about right among his agonised back and the way his legs seemed to have locked themselves behind his neck. "Ouch ouch ouch ouch."
He could hear voices nearby. "That wasn't polite," someone was saying. It sounded like the old man.
"He weighs a bloody ton," a voice moaned. It was unfamiliar and sounded hoarse. Jon stared at the sky, dimly noticing that there were brambles trying to work their way into his skin. "The boy's a retard. Entire damn guild's heading off north, so he decides to ride south. What does he thinks rumour's for?"
"Well, he was right," the cantankerous old man pointed out. Jon waited while his world revolved gently and wondered who he was talking to. It sounded suspiciously like they were talking about him.
There was a sound like a donkey clearing its throat. "Coincidence. That boy couldn't find his arse with his hands and a telescope. Excuse my human."
Excuse my what? Jon thought dazedly before it registered that someone, somewhere was being very insulting about him.
"Don't mention it," the old man replied. "Anyway, think he can get the girl?"
"He could get her to go far, far away. He's a woman repellent," the glum, gravelly voice said. "I met this pretty filly in a tavern, back in Farbrook. Getting along nicely when the imbecile stumbles in drunk, elbows her in the rump and nearly sets fire to the entire place."
Farbrook? Jon frowned and watched the clouds go by distantly. But that had been in the stables and the only one there had been—"Crackers?" he said aloud and sat up amongst much squeaking of metal.
He could have sworn he heard a brief, "Oh bugger!" but when he looked up, the horse was staring vacantly into space. Jon staggered up, clutching onto a nearby tree for support and blinked furiously as his world swam.
"Was my horse...talking?" he asked in disbelief.
The old man hesitated. "Do you still believe in talking animals?" he said finally, trying to muster scorn into his voice, but Jon could tell his heart wasn't really in it.
"Well, yes," Jon said feebly. "My cat always used to talk to me. And the fish in the pond. That's why they sent me to the Guild. Sorcerers, you know." He saw Cra-Steelhoof look shifty. "And excuse me, but I only set that stable on fire when you trod on my foot."
"You're a Sorcerer?" the horse said. And it was the horse; Jon could see its mouth moving. "Well, I'll be damned." It snorted. "Oh wait, I am. That's why I'm a horse."
"You...weren't a horse originally?" Jon said guardedly. He was beginning to wonder if he'd hit his head. He'd bought the damn horse because it hadn't said anything. It was disturbing trying to buy an animal when they kept whispering obscene suggestions in your ear, mostly centring around getting your leg over.
He'd always been able to hear animals. All the ones that had something to say, anyway. And they always knew he could hear them. He was a vegetarian now. The first time he'd gone to the market with his father, to buy some cows for the farm, every single cow had fixed its gooey brown eyes on him and said things like, "I know exactly what you're thinking. And I don't look great in gravy."
"No, I damn well wasn't," the horse snapped. "How many horses do you know that speak human?"
Well, that was true. When his parents had finally got tired of Jon's complete lack of control of his magical powers, and their complete lack of walls, roofs and doors due to a certain combustibility he had, they had sent him to the Guild, who had told him he had the ability to talk to animals in animal. Apparently when he was talking it sounded...well, like a constipated pig had been the way Master Sarran, the head sorcerer, had put it.
"Exactly," said the horse contemptuously, reading Jon's face. "Let that be a lesson – don't tell your fiancée she's too long in the face."
"Um..." Jon swallowed and tried to concentrate on something practical. "Can we...get back to the dragon?"
The old man's sharp blue eyes met his. "It's a very dangerous beast, lad. I don't think you're up to it."
Nineteen-year old pride rose like a volcano. "I'm a Knight!" Jon declared. "And I'm a Sorcerer-Knight at that." He decided to leave out the thieving part. That tended to worry people.
The horse and the old man traded weary looks. They both knew the type; the horse had only let the lad buy him because he thought the boy's vacant, dreamy face would mean a bit of a rest, spending his days trotting from tavern to tavern. As it turned out, he had been right – the lad did trot from tavern to tavern, but only because he was inside asking for directions.
It wasn't that he wasn't pleasant enough. His good looks tended to attract the ladies, and ladies had some rather thoroughbred horses that Crackers didn't mind being stabled with. But he was an idealist. He combined complete belief in chivalry with a memory like a goldfish and the directional ability of a dead pigeon.
It had led to lots of pointless rescue attempts – usually ending up on the wrong end of the land, trying rescue some old woman who whacked the boy with her bag because she thought he was a thief, which to be fair, the boy was, if not very good at it.
"No!" Jon interrupted. "I'm here to rescue the Lady Adrienne from the beast's foul clutches..." Good, good, Jon thought, nice and dramatic. "...and I shall fight him or die in the attempt." He glared at the horse. "Come on...Steelhoof."
"You're having a laugh," the horse said in disbelief. It stamped a foot. "I'm not fighting a dragon. It'll kill me."
"You're supposed to be my trusty steed!"
The horse shuffled away. "Well, you're supposed to a brave knight. Nobody's perfect, kid."
"Gosh," Jon said pointedly. "We are running low on rations lately. I wonder, what shall I eat tomorrow? If I have to go home on foot, it will have to be something running loose in this valley, or I won't have enough food to last the walk back. Dear me, I wonder what on earth is edible and slow round here?"
"That's blackmail," the horse said sulkily.
Jon gave it a bright smile. "That's right!"
Muttering resentfully, it clumped close enough for Jon to mount – after he picked up his lance which had gone flying about the same time as he had. "Go on then," he said to the old man. "Go and get it."
The man glared briefly, then hobbled up to the cave and shouted. Jon started as inside the cave, a low roar began, gradually getting louder. The old man stepped back out, shaking his head as he moved to an unobtrusive spot which had a good view. That was the point when Jon noticed the already dug grave by the side of the cave and the shovel beside it.
As the dragon stepped out, he looked up….
It was huge, all gleaming orange scales and cavernous nostrils that smoke curled out of in thin grey tendrils. Four long slender legs seemed barely able to support the wingless creature, while a long tail lashed wildly as it stepped out, head snaking forward to look at him.
Sarnath be blessed, its head was the same size as he was! Mad eyes looked at him, seeming to stare right through him. He was seeing a dragon. A big, orange dragon that…Jon stared as its eyes frantically swivelled…that was cross-eyed. But still, he reminded himself quickly, a large fire-breathing monster that was sure to eat Lady Adrienne.
It cleared its throat, scorching several feet of vegetation into charred sticks, then looked at the old man who nodded.
The dragon began: "Fee, fi, fo…"
"Wrong line, you daft lizard!" the oldster snapped.
It stopped, much to Jon's shock. "It's not Jack again?" It asked in apparent amazement. "I was sure…" The dragon's head whipped round to the man, uprooting trees in the process. "Wednesday mornings, Jack comes with bean soup to fight for his cow and then he climbs his mother…or is it the other way round?" One clawed foot rose and a talon scratched the horned head.
"That was last year!" the old man cried. "It's damsels and knights this year."
The orange head swung back to Jon, darting forward so the eyes filled his vision. "You don't look like a damsel," it grumbled. "All right, which knight have you come to rescue?"
This was how it was supposed to go. Jon hesitated. Well…almost. He pointed the lance at where he guessed the dragon's heart was. "I'm Sir Falcon of Ryllia and I've come to rescue Lady Adrienne! Hand her over, foul beast, or prepare to do battle!" Better, he thought. His teachers would be proud of him.
The dragon looked puzzled again. Its head swung back to the old man and Jon could catch fragments of whispers. "battle…can't recall…is that with the wishes?" Curious to hear, Jon pulled up the visor on his helmet.
And the old man's irritable response made him jump almost guiltily, aware he was eavesdropping. "No, you overgrown orange toad, it's where you turn him into cinders."
"Doesn't he need a fairy godmother for that?" it said artlessly. "I suppose you'd do, Garben, but I'm sure you threw out all the wands last summers, not to mention the pumpkins—"
"Ashes, you retarded reptile," the man called Garben said wearily, shaking his head. His face was almost embarrassed as he met Jon's eyes. "He's supposed to charge at you with that jumped-up poker he's holding and you roar and flame a bit. Either you kill him, or he kills you."
"Oh." The dragon turned back to Jon, its crossed eyes blinking down at him in an attempt to focus. "Well, in that case, you can have the princess. She does nothing but moan," it carried on indignantly, puffing out its chest and nearly overbalancing in the process. It mimicked Adrienne in its reedy voice; a cruel parody when Adrienne's voice was renowned to be sweeter than honey and purer than a lark's song. "Oh, I simply can't stand this barbaric place." It sniffed. "Soon shut up when she saw my hoard, didn't she, Garb?"
Jon could hardly believe what he was hearing. He had ridden for three days and three cold wet nights that had practically glued his rusting armour to his skin, he had made his way through this narrow and almost-perilous pass to the cave of this dragon and it didn't want to fight!
"Excuse me, uh…sir," he said, looking up at it. The aquamarine eyes tilted down to him, or at least in his direction.
"Call me Percy," it offered, holding out a long claw.
Gingerly Jon shook the claw, head spinning. They had never covered greeting dragons in etiquette classes. Where their vital organs were, yes, ways in which one should stand triumphantly over the body of the hell-sent fiend, naturally. But conversation? No. "Thanks, Per—"
He let go, remembering why he was here. "No!" he said. "This isn't how it's meant to go! You can't just hand her over, we have to fight."
The dragon's lower lip trembled forward. Jon wouldn't believe it was possible, but it was pouting. "But I don't want to fight," it said piteously. "Believe me, she's not worth it, O fair damsel."
"He's not a damsel," Garben said resignedly. "He's a knight. And he's right, you can't just hand her over. There aren't very many ballads that begin, 'Once there was a fair princess who was rescued by a brave knight. He rode up to a dragon's cave and there he didn't fight.' Dear me, did Sir Flouncelot become famous by negotiating with the Ogre of Naruka? Did Sir Gallivant get his name carved on the walls of the Great Hall because he sat down and poured tea for the Six-headed Centaur?"
The dragon looked at its hooked feet and muttered something reluctantly.
"A little louder, please," Garben rapped out with all the ferocity of a teacher who knows who threw that paper aeroplane.
"No," it said loudly. "They fought them and won." It looked at the old man with piteous lambent eyes. "But Garb…" it whined. "What if I win?" Horror filled its voice. "We'll have to put up with her until someone else comes along and you know what she's like about the dust…"
Garben and Jon exchanged mutually embarrassed looks. This simply wasn't how it was meant to be. Dragons resisting had never been a problem in textbooks. It was all 'tally-ho, foul beast' and 'let's just shove this bally lance through him, what?'
And then you had Jon. Rusty armour, Cra—Steelhoof!, not so much fearless as...as a fast runner. And of course, Percy. Not flaming. Not rearing. Just cross-eyed and petulant. It was hardly the glamour he had envisaged.
"Please?" Jon said and promptly realised how pitiful that was. "Look," and he inserted a firm note of authority into his voice, "If you don't fight me, I'll go away and I'll tell everyone I meet that the Lady Adrienne is on the other side of the Land."
Percy squealed in alarm then drew itself up. "All right then you tin-plated piece of door!"
Garben groaned aloud, his walking stick shaking with rage as he pointed it at the dragon accusingly. "Tin-plated piece of dirt," he corrected wearily.
The dragon ignored him. "You shall never have the brave Sir Adrienne!" it shouted, advancing menacingly. "You'll have to kill me first!"
Jon stared for a moment. It was happening, it was actually happening! He slammed down his visor and drew his lance up from the ground. And his mind went blank. What did he do?
Charge, he thought and urged Cra-Steelhoof into a gallop, feeling the wind rushing past his ears and through the armour. And promptly discovered there were a few chinks in some very vulnerable places as wind blasted through the gaps . And he was back in training class again, with Master Nirvi's voice slow and patient in his ear.
"Aim for the heart, Page Falcon. Keep your lance straight and your mount's head away from the dragon, because we don't want to collide should we miss, do we and tell me why is that you Page Marten I can hear you from over here that's two hours in the kitchen tonight must we not collide with it?"
As the dragon's bulk loomed nearer, Jon pointed the lanceat what he desperately hoped was its heart. Its neck curved down to him and he saw the mouth open, black as a cavern except for a curious hot orange light that was rushing out, blazing towards him…
The lance struck. The impact shuddered up his arm and Jon just had enough sense left to swing Crackers round, away from the dragon. He had to let go of the lance; wherever it was stuck, it was deeply embedded. He trotted away a few paces and swung the horse round. His mouth fell open.
The lance had hit dead-centre, right into the dragon's heart. As he watched, the claws came up to tug feebly at the staff, the dragon's eyes rolling in crazed motion. Then it began to scream, a sound that shook the cliffs themselves until the clatter and crunch of falling rocks harmonised its voice.
Jon frowned. Surely it couldn't be screaming about chicken pie. He shook his head decisively. No. It was the excitement. That was all. And the armour. Yeah. No one's last words revolved around apple crumble, he decided as the dragon staggered around, one paw clutched above the lance.
It slowly fell backwards. The ground trembled once and was silent.
Jon lifted his visor cautiously. Yes, the view was still the same, just a bit clearer. The dragon, lying on its back with all four feet in the air. The lance protruding from it. It looked like a buffet starter. Only...not many buffet starters needed a crane to lower them into the dip.
"I don't believe it," Jon whispered, his mind still rattling off in crazy directions, most of them revolving around the lovely Lady Adrienne and whether the dragon had scorched her clothes or not.
"Good gods, you killed it!" Garben stood up, shaking slightly. "You…killed the dragon."
Time to make a heroic impression.
Right. Again, he heard Master Nirvi's voice in his ear. "You are a knight. We do not get off our horses. We dismount marvellously, preferably with one more word Page Marten and that paper griffin will be elevated through your posterior so fast it'll fly out of your mouth the requisite poise and grace of a young healthy man. Page Marten, if you'd care to demonstrate…"
So, dismount. Jon summoned all his poise and grace that came from six years of ballet, thank the gods the lads never found out about that, and leapt athletically off Crackers.
There was a small scream, as might be caused by a man wearing solid metal which has hinges in unusual places that have chosen to operate unexpectedly. Jon rallied magnificently, managing to squeak out in a voice several octaves higher than usual; "It was nothing."
"All those years…" Garben clutched at his heart. "Held in the sway of that evil fiend, lost in a maze of magic…"
"Yes, yes, I'm sure it was all very traumatic et cetera." Jon turned to Crackers and fished through the saddles bags. "Aha!" He pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and a quill. "If you'd just sign here, please…"
Garben blinked twice. "Excuse me?"
"Wayfarer's and witnesses scroll," Jon explained wearily. Honestly, anyone would think these people lived in the Dark Ages. "Got to prove you've been menaced by a dragon. Dozens of frauds around. It's all too easy to get a few scratches, hack off the odd limb, produce a dragon head and say you're a hero these days."
"Oh." The old man dipped the quill into the muddy ground and made a shaky X. "Don't you have a maiden to be freeing?"
"What?" Jon shook his head. How could he have forgotten? He turned round, very careful to avoid sudden movements in the armour, and shoved the scroll into his bag. "Oh yes. Run along, then." Now…he looked around. The cave entrance was clearly visible by dint of being a bloody big hole in the mountain. "Right," Jon muttered. He got back on C–Steelhoof rather more delicately.
"Giddy up," he said, shaking the reins. Jon had never worked out how you started one of these things. The horse stayed resolutely still. At least it was standing up straight; Jon's feet barely touched the ground. Maybe he should have considered the height when he bought the pony. After all, thirty four inch legs on a thirty inch horse led to a problem somewhere, usually in the form of two deep tracks in the ground wherever Jon went.
"Look, would you just move?"
The horse sniffed. "You can damn well be polite to me. I just saved you from a frying."
Jon muttered something nasty, but his thoughts were already swooping towards a certain beautiful princess, and his heroic entrance.
Thanks for reading :) I hope you enjoyed it.