San-Sebastian’s Secret (2/2)


“No I won’t allow it,” shouted Tengu

Tengu lept from his stool and plunged between Brother Espiris and the desk, scooping up the heavy scalding thing in his robe.  Espiris, caught off balance, grabbed at the boy’s clothing and missed.  Tengu pulled the door open with his free hand, dived through it, and raced away at top speed through the cloisters.

“Brother Espiris,” Father Menem stepped in front of Espiris and put out a hand to restrain him.  The heavier man jerked him aside, and Menem was flung against the wall of the cell like a piece of straw.

Espiris stumbled through the door and shouted, “Tengu! Come back, boy, it’s dangerous!”

Startled monks and novices stopped and stared.  Espiris turned to them savagely.  “Don’t stand there gawping, you lot – follow him!  He’s got something-a dangerous thing.”  He glared at their puzzled faces. “Run, you idiots, catch him!”

The novices reacted first.  Glad of any novelty or excitement, they raced after Tengu, uttering boyish yells.  The monks followed more slowly.  Espiris turned back into the room.

“Father, I’m sorry – we must find him I’m sorry I pushed you – Father.”

He stopped staring.

Father Menem lay at the foot of the wall behind the desk.  He looked like a broken puppet.  His bald head, so like an egg itself, sagged to one side.  There was blood on his temple where it had struck the wall.

“Father!”  Espiris knelt down and lifted the old man gently.  Menem’s head fell back, his unseeing eyes glazing placidly at the ceiling.

“Father!”  Espiris groaned.  “Oh Father, I am sorry! So very sorry!”

He bent his head, until it lay beside the old man’s dropping hand.  It looked almost as if Menem were giving him a blessing.

Father Menem, however, would never bless anyone again.

Tengu raced through the dim, cool cloisters and corridors.  He could hear the pursuit behind him, a chorus of excited voices echoing through the stone building.

The egg in his hand had not knocked again.  It felt heavy and scalding hot, but he didn’t mind that.

He emerged abruptly into the open brightness of the north cloister.  The far side of the cloister had collapsed with age and disuse, and was little more than a pile of rubble.  Beyond the rubble was a short stretch of grass, and then a deep, chasm-like valley, in the depths of which bubbled the south-flowing River Isel.

Tengu clambered over the rubble and crouched on the ground beyond, hidden for the moment by the fallen stones.

It was windier here, and the air was cold and clean.  Across the valley, the mountains of the Zolan soared to heaven.  They looked almost within reach, though the nearest peak must be miles away.

Tengu stared wistfully at the cruel pinnacles of the Zolan.  Among those mountains, dragons had once roamed.  The best thing would be to go there, so the egg could hatch out in the dragon’s home, away from people.  People could not be trusted.  They would try to destroy the egg and what came out of it, through fear.

Tengu doubted if he could reach the mountains.  Climbing hundreds of feet down the sheer cliff, and then up the steep rocky slopes on the far side, seemed impossible.  But he had thought of somewhere closer to hide the egg.

He crawled to the edge of the cliff and looked

There was a series of rungs cut into the cliff-face, a long dis-used route down to the valley floor.  It was narrow and dangerous, and after descending a hundred feet it suddenly ended in mid-air: a rock fall must have carried the rest away.  The novices were forbidden to use it; a few years since, a boy clambering on the lower steps had fallen to his death.  Nevertheless, the more reckless boys still occasionally dared each other to climb down.  Tengu had been dared once, and though he hated heights, he had climbed down for fear of seeming weak.  On the bottom step he had slipped and clung on, facing the cliff, until his nerve returned enough foe he had noticed what a few others had seen: in the rock-face, below the last step, was a narrowly shadowy hole – the entrance to a small cave.

A shout behind him made him turn.  The pursuers had entered the north cloister.  Any moment now, one of them would climb the rubble and see him.

Carefully, he tucked the egg into the hood of his robe behind his neck, leaving both hands free for descent.  Then, gingerly, he started down the vertiginous staircase.

He tried not to look down at the valley, but it seemed to draw his glance.  His eyes played unpleasant tricks on him.  The valley floor seemed to move, to oscillate in a horribly unsettling way.  One moment it seemed as far away as the surface of the moon, the next it looked near enough to touch.  The worn rungs sloped out and downwards, threatening to thrust him out into the abyss.  The wind blew stronger than ever, swirling down the Isel valley, trying to pluck him off the cliff.

He finally came to the last rung.  He could see the black hole some distance below and to one side.  He was disconcerted to see that it was farther away than he had remembered – not just a few feet, but a good nine or ten.

How was he to get down to it?  Peer as he might at the cliff face, he could see no footholds to help him cross that vertical stretch of blank wall.

He crouched there, not knowing what to do, almost weeping with frustration.  His plan was a failure.  He would have to climb back up, surrender the egg to Brother Espiris, and watch him smash it to pulp.

He had lost.  The dragon-haters had one.

He turned his face away from the enticing and unreachable cave, and wiped his damp eyes with his sleeve.  Sniffling, he glanced aside at the cliff face, looking for the best handholds to use in re-ascending the stairs.

It was then he saw it.  Beside him at about waist height, embedded in the cliff face, was an iron spike, of which about six inches was showing.

Tengu stared at the spike, wondering what an earth it was doing there, in the middle of a sheer rock wall.  Then it dawned on him it must be intended as a handhold.  He looked further along the wall, and saw there were five more.  The six spikes formed a downward sloping rectangle, three for hands and three for feet, spanning the gap between the bottom stair and the cave.

Another staircase, he thought.  But what a staircase!  The spikes were half an inch wide at most, with several feet between them, driven into vertical rock above a chasm of empty air.  But if he could follow them, they would bring him to the mouth of the cave.

Tengu examined the spikes.  There was a suspicious brown tinge to them, which might just be dirt, but probably was rust.  They might have rusted all the way through, in which case they would snap like dry twig as soon as he put his weight on them.

There was only one way to find out.

Very slowly, he moved his right foot over onto the nearest spike.

He felt something crumble under his foot, and his toes slipped.  For a few moments he dared not move.

After a while, he summoned up enough courage to test the spike again.  This time it seemed firm enough.  Evidently he had merely disturbed a top coating of rust, which had flaked off.

By slow stages he moved along the spikes, conscious that at any moment they might give way and plunge him to his death.  Thankfully, they seemed firm.  He was about to make the final move, from the spikes to the cave, when some instinct made him look up.

A hundred feet above him, a dark shape in a monk’s hood was silhouetted against the sky.  Tengu could not see its face, but he had a feeling that it was the figure of a man, not a boy.  Espiris, perhaps?

For a moment the cowled figure remained motionless.  Then it picked something up and lifted it above his head.  Fron the object’s size and obvious heaviness, Tengu guessed that it was one of the larger stones from the north cloister’s collection of rubble.

The figure held the stone out over the cliff, directly above Tengu’s head.

Then let it go.

To the end of his days, Tengu never knew how he managed to fling himself from his precarious position on the spikes, into the mouth of the cave.  Somehow he did it, and the rock plunged past him haplessly.  He felt the wind of it as it went by, and moments later hear a smashing sound from somewhere farther down the cliff.

He rolled on the cave-floor a foot from the edge, and lay still.

Softly, but with increasing violence, he began to cry.  It was the shock that made him cry-shock that someone he had known and trusted for years had tried to kill him.

He grew still after a while, lying on the cave floor, his cheeks wet with salt.

Finally he sat up, and dragged himself over to the wall.  He leaned with his back against it and gazed out of the jagged round cave-mouth at the unreachable white peaks of Zolan.

A solid lump digging into his back reminded him why he had come to the cave.  He pulled the dragon’s out of his hood, and cradled it in his lap.  The scalding heat through his clothes was strangely comforting.  He looked round at the interior of the cave.

It was dry, narrow hole, like one end of a tunnel.  It seemed to be completely empty, but in the shadows at the back, he could make out a dark square shape which was as familiar as it was unexpected.

A door.

What an earth was a door doing here, deep in the heart of the cliff?

He got up, leaving the egg by the wall, and went to examine the door.  It was carved of age-blackened oak, iron studded and criss crossed with iron bars and plates.  The iron was coated with rust that crackled under its touch.

On one side was a huge iron ring – evidently the handle.  Eagerly, Tengu siezed it and tried to turn it, thinking as he did so that it was probably rusted fast.

To his surprise, it moved.  A crackling of falling rust accompanied the movement.  After a quarter-turn it stopped, and all his efforts would make it go no further.

Holding the ring steady, Tengu pushed at the door.  There was a feeling of resistance, no doubt from the rusty hinges, but slowly it yielded to his pressure.  When it was half-open, he slipped inside, and stood staring round at the place in which he found himself.

It was some kind of storeroom.  There were empty boxes piled against the walls, dusty and covered with cobwebs.  The room was long and narrow, and dwindled into gloom and shadows at the far end.  To one side, lit by a shaft of sun through the half-open doorway, stood a long table, its surface so thick with white dust that it looked as though it were laid with a tablecloth.

In the middle of the table, under the dust, was a square hammock.  He went over to it and swept away the dust with his fingers, revealing a large book.  The light in the store room was not quite enough to read by, so he picked up the heavy volume and carried it through the open doorway to the mouth of the cave.  Sitting down cross-legged near the windy cave-mouth, with the egg beside him, he gazed in wonder at the open

It was like the illuminated manuscripts produced by the monks.  But this was more richly illustrated than any of the devotional texts in the monastery library.  The creamy vellum pages were vibrant with reds, blues, greens and golds.  In the margins were pictures of long-winged beasts, and figures in rich robes and black, intricate armour.  The men and beasts were fighting each other.  In places their combat sprawled over the text itself.  Crimson blood flowed from the wounds of the dying men, and golden ichor from the bodies of the stricken beasts where the men had driven in their spears.

Tengu stared at the pages in awe.  He had always loved books, especially illuminated ones, and this was the most beautiful he had ever seen.  He ran his fingers caressingly over the painted shapes, smoothing away the last remnants of white dust.

Between the coloured margins were rows of marching letters, black script of the monks since time immemorial.  With some difficulty, the spelling being somewhat archaic, Tengu read from the left-hand page.

In the five hundredth year of the Grace of Eda Emet King of Hosts lead the men of Argour against the dragons of the north.  Fearful, was the battle, raging by day and by night for seven days.  Yet at the end, praise Ecla, the men of Argunor were victorious.  Not one dragon remained alive, and the fields were stained golden with the blood of the slaughtered worms.  So passed the terror of the dragons, and peace came to the lands of men.

Tengu sighed, and gazed hungrily at the beasts in the margin, studying their long, little bodies, the fantastical wings rising out of their backs, the curled serpentine tails, the craggy heads whose high arched nostrils spurted like gouts of flame.  There was a loving care in the draughtsmanship that suggested that the unknown artist had secretly admired the great beasts.  Tengu understood how the artist felt.  If that was what dragons looked like, then he would have admired them too.  They were beautiful, glorious, terrible.

But what was this book.

He turned to the very first page.  There he read,

in a golden and flowing script that was quite unlike the severe black characters of the monkish writing, the following:

The Book of Dragons

A history of the dragonish race of the North, its power and pride, and its final destruction.  Penned in the year 630 of the Grace of Ecla, by Brother Seltus of the Order of the Black Robe.

All praise to Ecla!

Tengu frowned.  The book had been written in 630, and the year was now v1481.  That meant the book was well over eight hundred years old!  And even in those far-off days, the dragons had been thought of as evil.

He had been so sure that Brother Espiris had been wrong, and Father Menem right.  Now it seemed he had been mistaken.  He had gone to all this trouble to save a creature which, if hatched out, would prove to be a monster.

Heavy-hearted, he turned again to the page he had looked at, and reads again the description of the dragon’s final defeat.  Then, idly curious, he turned over the page and saw further words had been added.  They were in golden ink, similar to the script on the title page, but the hand was shakier and more uneven.

I Brother Seltus add these words in the year 671.  For too long I have kept silent, cowed by the threat of  excommunication and burning.  Now I am old, and I fear little that may be done to this withered body.  Nor do I believe the boasts of the priests, that their blessing is the only road to the Mansions of Ecla in the hereafter.

Here the truth, it was not Ecla that cursed the dragons and named them wicked and souless creatures, but bloody-handed kings and the corrupted priests who served them.  First they tried to tame the dragons.  When the dragons would not be tamed, they hunted them for sport.  At last, outnumbered and persecuted, the dragons rose up in war, and were destroyed.

If there be dragons left in the world, may they forgive us.  As it is written in the Tribulations of Ecla: “He that kills without understanding is the darknees, and he that follows him walks in deep shadow.”

Tengu sat back and stared out of the cave-mouth at the distant peaks.

If there be dragons left in the world.  Well, there was one dragon at least.  Maybe it was not too late to partly redress the ancient wrong

A sudden sound made him jump.  It was a hollow knocking, echoing faintly in the half-encloded space.

He looked down at the egg, and gasped.  A crack had opened in the black uneven surface, revealing the eggs golden surface.  Out of the crack streamed a pale golden light, within which a darker shape was stirring.

At that moment there was a scraping noise from outside the cave, and a shadow blotted out the sunlight.  Tengu looked up, startled, and saw a black robe flapping across the cave-mouth, and protruding from the robe, a man’s outstretched hand.

Grunting with effort, Brother Espiris stepped into the cave.

Tengu panicked.  All he could think of was protecting the egg, and he reached out unthinkingly to sieze it.  But he had forgotten to cover his hands with his robe.  His finger’s touched the egg’s surface, and he cried out with pain and snatched them away.

That gave Espiris the moment he needed.  The big man stepped forward, shrugging his loose sleeves forward over his hands, and scooped up the egg.  He blinked at the shaft of golden light from the crack dazzled histhat the gleam shone away from him.

“Now we shall end this business,” he murmured.  Turning, he stepped to the edge of the cave, raising his arms to throw the egg into the abyss.

With a choking scream, Tengu sprang to his feet and flung himself at the monk.  There was a confused moment of threshing arms, legs and tangled robes, and both of them fell in a heap on the floor.  The egg rolled away towards the rear of the cave, bumping along the bottom of the wall, its thin ray of gold rotating like a beam of a lighthouse.

Brother Espiris got up, pulled Tengu to his feet and shook him by his shoulders until his teeth rattled.

“Wretched child!” he said savagely.  “Can’t you see that I am trying to save us all from this thing?  Father Menem is dead.  Brother Angelo is crippled.  How much more evil must it work before it is destroyed?”

Tengu stared up into Espiis’s eyes.  They were bleak and piless as the Zolan itself.

“You tried to kill me with a stone,” he whispered.

The monk’s face twitched a little.  I had to stop you.  When you are older, you will understand that sometimes evil must be done that good may come.

Something inside Tengu seemed to grow dry, like Brother Angelo’s withered vines.  “Where in the Books of Ecla does it say that?” he asked sullenly.

Espiris looked down at his pupil a moment longer.  Then he let go of his shoulders, and pushed him roughly against the wall.  “Stay ther, Tengu, and don’t move.  If you interfere again, I will break your arms.”

Tengu sank to the floor, feeling tears well up inside him.  He fought them down.  At least he would not let Espiris see him cry.

The monk crossed the cave and picked up the egg in his robe.  Then for a moment he stood arrested, looking at the half-open door through which lay the storeroom.

“Interesting,” he murmured.  “There’s an old passageway that starts by the monastery’s outer wall and runs down into the foundations.  It was always thought to lead to a dis-used wine cellar, but perhaps it leads down here.  It’s partly blocked by rubble, but one may be able to force a way through.  When we’ve finished here, we’ll go back that way.  It’ll be safer than those precarious spikes and steps.”

He turned and smiled at Tengu.  Then he walked to the front of the cave and stood looking out.  The afternoon light was fading.  Away to their left, at the head of the Isel valley, the sun would be low in the sky.  A blood red stain was beginning to creep down the snow-covered slopes of the mountains.

Espiris raised the egg infront of him in both robed hands.

“Goodbye, dragon,” he murmured.

Tengu closed his eyes in despair.

There was a cracking noise, and his eyelids flooded with gold.  Brother Espiris screamed.

Wincing, Tengu opened his eyes a fraction.  The cave was blazed in dazzling gold light.  Brother Espiris stood hunched at the entrance, his arms flung across his face.

Slowly the light began to fade.  Tengu peered through the half closed lids, trying to make out what was happening.  Something vast, gold and red like the illuminated pictures in the Book of dragons, was unfolding and shimmering above and around him.After a minute or so, the light had died down enough for him to open his eyes fully.

He gasped at what he saw.

The cave was full of dragon.  No mewing kitten or squat lizzard-cub, but a gothic splendour of wing and body and head and tail, flecked and streaked with a thousand colours, among which red and gold were dominant.  Light poured from its translucent scales like water.

The dragon was standing on one taloned foot, in the act of stepping out from the broken shards of the egg.  Tengu realised with amazement that the huge creature must in some arcane way have been compressed inside the confines of the egg.

The dragon kicked the broken eggshell away, opened its wings as far as the cramped caved would permit, and roared.  The cave walls shook with the sound.  A whimper followed the roar.  Tengu saw Brother Espiris crawling towards the rear of the cave on all fours.  He was feeling his way with his hands, and Tengu realised that the golden light must have blinded him.

The dragon turned its craggy head and looked down at Tengu.

Thank you, little one.

The voice was only in Tengu’s mind, but there was no doubting its source.  He gazed up into the deep yellow eyes, seeing there a thousand years of inherited wisdom, and his throat husked as he voiced the one thing he wanted above all else.

“Please – Take me with you.

“Not yet little one.  Some day, but not yet.

Tengu hung his head.

The dragon bent down and, just for a moment, touched the boy’s forehead with a long hot tongue.  Then it moved away, and Tengu raising his head unwillingly, saw the serpent body poised in the cave-mouth.


The dragon lept into the sinking afternoon light.  Its wings unfurled, so enormous that Tengu gasped in awe.  The gold light of its scales mingled with the red sun, turning the dragon to a bolt of fire.  The great creature circled once, uttered a clanging cry that resounded across the valley, and flapped gracefully away towards the distant peaks of the Zolan.

The voice came back to Tengu, fainter now.  Some day, little one.  Be patient.  Some day.The dragon dwindled to a grain of gold, and was gone.

For a long time Tengu sat and stared towards the mountains, his feelings a strange mixture of desolation, joy and hope.

Sounds from the back of the cave finally roused him.  With a long sigh, he tucked the Book of Dragons under his arm and stood up, and walked to the half-open door, where Brother Espiris was groping to find the way through.  He took the blind monk by the arm, and gently guided him through the doorway into the room beyond.

Wallpaper Dragon Image


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