In a small cold, comfortless cell, a young novice monk lay awake and thinking of dragons.
There was no obvious reason why Brother Tengu should have been interested in dragons, or should even have heard of them. Perhaps he had read something in one of the dusty manuscripts in the monastery library, or perhaps one of the older monks had unwisely filled his head with stories. Looking at Tengu, you would not have associated him with dragons, or anything else out of our ancient hero-tales. He was fifteen, tall and scrawny with a pigeon-chest and somewhat short sighted. Not the stuff of which great dragon-slayers are made, as Brother Espiris frequently pointed out to him.
“Tengu, you lanky dolt!” he would roar in his loud, blustering voice that sent echoes cannonading round the cloisters, “turn away from that window and pay attention! Recite the 32nd and 33rd verses of the Seventh Book of Tribulations of Ecla at once! What? Why don’t you know them? Then you can scrub the dormitory floors this afternoon, to teach you the value of education.”
Tengu had become something of an expert at scrubbing floors. And scouring bowls, and wringing out clothes in the laundry-room, and a dozen other menial and exhausting tasks. Brother Espiris’s treament was not a success, however. Tengu continued to dream of dragons, and his short-sighted eyes often misted over as he glazed through the small window of his cell towards the higher mountain ranges that marched away to the north. The Zolan Mountains, they were called – rank upon dizzying rank of snow -covered granite, like an impregnable fortress. They were rumoured to be the haunt of dragons, though apparently none had been seen there for a thousand years.
Brother Espiris, naturally, poured scorn on the idea of dragons.
“Dragons my young friend,” he would say, as he tweaked Tengu by the ear, “are a myth, a falsehood, a snare created by the Dark One to distract impressionable minds from the learning of the sacred verses. There are no dragons, there are no heroes, there are no wizards, there is no magic, and those are all lies, invented to seduce young and impressionable minds. There is work, there is meditation, and there are sacred verses. That is all.”
“But Brother Espiris,” Tengu sometimes asked, isn’t there a world outside the monastery, and beyond the mountains?
“Not for you boy,” was the invariable answer. “Not for you.”
And Tengu sighed, and got on with his studies, learning verses, his scouring, or his wringing out.
There was no reason to speak of, in the mountains, or the relentless cold wind made it seem that way.
The monks made wine as monks usually do, though it was thin, sour stuff, and the vines were thin too, spidery growths that put pot a meagre crop of wrinkled grapes. The vineyard lay south of the main monastery building, on a slope that was somewhat sheltered from the north wind. Brother Angelo tended the vineyard, and he was a dour man, as thin and sour as the wine, which he regarded jealously as his own special province.
Tengu would have liked to help Angelo in the vineyard as a change from the floor-scrubbing and other tasks, but there was little enough to do, and Angelo was not a man to welcome help.
One day there was a commotion in the cloister, and when Tengu came along, loping on his thin shanks behind the other novices, he saw Brother Angelo and Brother Espiris confronting one another. Angelo’s face was chalk-white and twisted with fury, and in his hand was a spindly, dried up vine, torn up by its roots.
“Which of you pimpled faced hooligans has done this, Espiris?” he almost screamed at the Master of Novices. “This and two other of my vines withered away, as if a frost had been at them! Oh, a fine game, no doubt! Is this what you teach them when they should be learning the Tribulations?”
Espiris’s broad face was grim with anger. Tengu felt a momentary fear, until he saw that the anger was directed at Angelo. He had not realised until now that the two men detested each other.
“I care for young minds, Brother Angelo” said Espiris with slow, heavy emphasis, “and a bitter and burdensome responsibility it is. Young minds are wilful and wayward, always turning away from the realities of life to seek vain excitements. The care of plants he uttered the monosyllable with contempt is scarcely to be compared with such a task in difficulty and importance. The fate of your vines is of little importance to me.”
“It will be of interest to you when I discover which of your good-for-nothings is responsible,” hissed Angelo. “But then, it’s hardly surprising if they misbehave, considering you are barely competent at keeping them under control.”
Espiris’s face flushed a dull red. “Indeed? If anyone’s competent is in doubt, it must surely be. The most likely person to have killed these plants is you, by sheer ignorance and neglect.
Angelo’s face blazed like a white star, and he half-raised the arm that held the vine, as though he meant to strike Brother Espiris. The watching novices held their breath, secretly and fiercely hoping that he would. It was not so much they wanted to see Angelo soundly beaten, though that would have been very gratifying, it was simply that none of them had ever seen a fight between grown men. That was the reality of which their own juvenile scuffling were mere shadows, and they were intensely curious to know what it would be like.
Angelo’s arm wavered momentarily in the air, and then slowly fell to his side, much to the boy’s disappointment.
“I shall go to Father Menem,” he hissed, his eyes staring out of his head as he peered venomously up at Espiris. “I shall tell him what happened to my vines.
No doubt he will draw his own conclusions.”
“No doubt he will,” answered Espiris stolidly. “I shall come with you, to present my side of this absurd dispute.”
What Father Menem concluded remained tantalisingly hidden for half an hour. Monks and Novices passing the Father Superior’s room heard Angelo’s voice raised in whining rage, and Espiris’s heavy drone, and now and then the softer tones of old Menem, but it was hard to make out what was going on behind the thick old oak door. Finally Espiris emerged, looked around, and saw Tengu and some other Novices lurking behind a pillar.
“Come here, Tengu,” he ordered. “Father Menem wants to see you.
“Father Menem wants to see you! The words made Tengu dizzy with fear. Of course the old man was a saint. Of course he had never been known to raise his voice, let alone strike anyone. But he was Father Menem. He was known to be fabulously old, possibly as much as seventy, and enormously wise. It was like being summoned to see God.
His knees trembled as he entered Father Superior’s room. It was almost a sacred place in itself, containing many things that the novices and ordinary monks did not have in their cells. Apart from a real chair, the main item was a huge oak desk, on which were oiled inkwells, quills and parchments. Tengu who loved books, could not help staring at the illuminated manuscript that lay half-finished on the desk in front of the old man. Menem’s hands were shaky these days, but he still painted the gold and blue and red pictures down the edges of the squares of parchment more delicately and vividly than anyone else.
“Come in, Tengu,” said Father Menem.
Espiris closed the door with his back to it. Tengu, hearing the thud of the oak behind him, looked up and saw Angelo glowering at him. Were they going to accuse him of damaging the vines? Unjust! Tengu’s heart behind his narrow rib cage swelled with indignation.
“Father Menem. I didn’t touch the vines!” he burst out. “I’ve never been near them!”
“Peace, child” said Father Menem, raising a frail hand. “You are not being accused. No-one is being accused. Brother Angelo has withdrawn his allegation.”
The sullen expression on Angelo’s face suggested that he had withdrawn it unwillingly.
“Our vines are an important part of our produce,” went on Father Menem. “We do not want to see them damaged or destroyed. Therefore I have decided that you, Tengu, will help Brother Angelo to look after them. You will tend them accordingly to his instructions and make sure no harm comes to them.”
Tengu’s heart swelled again, but this time with pride. Out of the whole monastery Father Menem had chosen him!
“Thank you, Father Menem,” he mumbled. “I’ll do my best.”
“I know you will,” said the old man with a smile. “Go back to your cell now, and ask the saints to bless your work. You start with Brother Angelo tomorrow.
Tengu was immediately envied by the rest of the novices. True, he would have to take orders from Brother Angelo, which was not a pleasant prospect: it was generally agreed that any sensible person would prefer a box on the ear from Brother Espiris to a kind word from Brother Angelo, supposing him to be capable of uttering such a thing.
“This is Father Menem’s idea, not mine,” Brother Angelo said, glaring at Tengu. “In my opinion, you boys are all bad as each other – you break things just by looking at them. Your job is to stop other boys coming into the vineyard. If I catch you touching the vines, you’ll be in trouble. You can pull up a few weeds if you like, but that’s all.
Despite Brother Angelo’s attitude, Tengu felt a surge of happiness. At last he was to be allowed to do some real work! He squatted down and began searching the soil for weeds. He found a few. Angelo had deliberately put him to work in the stoniest part of the vineyard where little would grow, vines or anything else. Still he scoured the earth diligently, and managed to find a few bits of coarse grass to uproot.
Straightening up after an hour, he noticed that one of the vines nearest to him had withered. Tentatively, he called Brother Angelo’s attention to it.
Angelo came over and looked at the vine. His cheeks and lips whitened with anger. He seized the plant violently and dragged it from the soil.
“Again!” he hissed. “Why? Why?” He pointed an accusing finger at Tengu. “You! You did this!”
Tengu backed away. “I didn’t touch it, Brother Angelo. Look the roots have withered. I couldn’t have done that.
Angelo stared at the roots as if memorised. They were black, as if burnt. He shook his head slowly. “No you couldn’t have done that. But then why?” He stared at the place from which he had torn up the plant. “The same corner of the vineyard!” he hissed. “There must be something here!” He flung the withered vine aside, dropped to his knees, and began scrabbling at the soil with his fingers. “Come on boy, dig! There’s an evil here and we must it and destroy it!
Reluctantly, Tenga knelt down and began half-heartedly to scrape at the soil. Angelo, meanwhile, went at it frenziedly, like a dog unearthing a bone. Earth and stones flew everywhere. A conical pit began to develop. Angelo’s face, bent close to the soil, became flushed to an unaccustomed redness.
A small group of curious novices began to gather, watching and whispering.
Suddenly Angelo let out a cry of triumph. “Here’s something!” He flung chunks of earth aside, and thrust his hands deep inside the hole. Suddenly he let out a shriek of pain. “Aaah! It burns! It burns!”
He got clumsily to his feet and staggered back, shaking his soiled hands. “Fetch Father Menem! Let no-one-touch.”
Angelo’s eyes closed, and he collapsed on his face in a dead faint.
The novices stared at the recumbent body in shock. Then one of them moved to the hole and bent to peer into it. Tengu was suddenly impelled to take charge.
“Get back,” he ordered, seizing the inquisitive novice by the shoulder and thrusting him back among the others. “You heard what he said, no-one is to touch.”
“But touch what?” one of the novices asked curiously.
“Anything,” said Tengu. He looked from one puzzled face to another. “Faruni,” he ordered, “go and get Father Menem.” Faruni, one of the bigger boys, bridled. He was not used to taking orders from another novice – none of them were. “Why?”
“Because Brother Angelo told us to,” said Tengu, feeling angry with Faruni for being so slow and stupid.
“Why don’t you go then?” Faruni asked trucently.
“Because I am Brother Angelo’s chosen assistant,” Tengu said. “I have to stay here, with Brother Angelo. Go and get Father Menem.
Faruni stared at him a moment longer. He was not really a stupid boy, only taken aback by the strange situation. After a brief hesitation he accepted his role, and nodded. “all right.”
While Faruni sprinted away towards the monastery building. Tengu knelt beside Brother Angelo and examined the monk’s hands.they were burned black, as the vine had been. When Angelo came to, he would be in agony.
“The rest of you,” said Tengu, “go ask Brother Espiris for bandages.”
The novices ran off. Alone with the unconscious body of Brother Angelo, Tengu knelt down again and placed his ear close to the monk’s mouth. Angelo’s breathing was shallow but regular.
He got to his feet and brushed the soil off his hands. Now all he had to do was waut for Father Menem. It would do no harm, though, just to look into the hole Angelo had dug.
He bent down and peered into the cone-shaped pit. There was something down there, which Angelo’s scrabblings had half-exposed. It looked like a large stone, black in colour.
Was that what had burned Brother Angelo? It looked harmless enough. Of course, it might not be an ordinary stone. It might be a magic stone. Though Brother Espiris said there was no such thing as magic.
If he picked it up in his robe, surely it wouldn’t burn him.
Carefully, he wrapped both his hands in the folds of his robe, reached into the hole, and lifted the object clear of the surrounding earth.
It was pitted and scarred, and very heavy. It could easily have been mistaken for an ordinary stone. But he could feel its heat even through the folds of his robe. Yes, this is what had burned Father Angelo. It felt like a piece of a black sun.
He looked up and saw Father Menem and Brother Espiris coming towards him. Espiris was supporting the old man with his arm, matching his heavy stride with difficulty to Father Menem’s tottering gait. A gaggle of novices accompanied them, several carrying clean white cloths.
While Brother Espiris supervised the bandaging of Angelo’s hands Father Menem gently drew Tengu away from the other.
“Now – tell me what happened.”
“Brother Angelo was digging to find out what killed the vines,” Tengu explained. “He touched this.” He held out the stone, nestling in the folds of his robe. “Don’t touch it, Father, he said urgently. “It’s very hot.
Father Menem looked at the stone, drew in his breath sharply, and let it out again in a long, wondering sigh. “So,” he said softly. “There are still such things in the world, even now. And yet to find one in the monastery vineyard, of all places…” He took Tengu’s arm. “The others will look after Brother Angelo. Let us walk back to the monastery.
They walked slowly across the vineyard. Tengu held the stone in front of him. Its weight made his arms ache. Father Menem, leaning on his arm, was like a feather in comparison.
“Brother Angelo said the stone was evil,” Tengu
“Evil?” Father Menem was silent for a while. “No doubt Angelo would think that. Still, it is quite true that long ago, when there were more such things in the world, great evils did sometimes come because of them.”
“But surely,” Tengu persisted, “a stone can’t be evil? I mean, a stone is just a stone.”
They had almost reached the monastery. Father Menem stopped and looked at Tengu with a smile. “If what you are carrying were a stone, it would indeed be harmless. But it is not a stone.
Tengu glanced apprehensively t the black object. “What is it then, Father?
“Father Menem was silent for a moment. When he spoke again, it was in such a quiet voice that his words were scarcely audible above the wind.
“What you are carrying, Tengu, is a dragon’s egg.”
Brother Espiris closed the door of Father Menem’s room behind him. He nodded to Tengu, who was sitting on the stool by the window, and then approached Father Menem.
“Angelo is still unconscious,” he said. “We carried him to the dormitory and put him to bed. I told Faruni to sit by him and report to me if he wakes up.” He frowned. “It is strange. I don’t understand how a simple burn could affect him like this.”
“It was not a simple burn,” said Father Menem quietly. “And this is not a simple matter. See what Tengu found in the hole Brother Angelo dug.”
He pointed to his desk. A space had been cleared among the quills, inkwells and parchments, and the black coloured stone lay by itself in the centre. Espiris looked down at it blankly. Then recognition dawned in his face, and he gasped
“Can it be? After all these centuries? But I thought…I thought all dragons were dead.”
“So most people believe,” Menem said drily. “perhaps it was a little optimistic. The incubation period for a dragon’s egg is said to be a thousand years. And they are easy to overlook, especially among the black rocks of the mountains.”
“You there may be more? In these mountains? In our vineyard?” Espiris appeared horrified at the thought.
Father Menem looked gravely at his subordinate. “I have no idea. This is not our immediate concern. The question is what do we do with this one?”
Espiris looked startled. “Surely there’s no need to debate that, Father. We must destroy it, of course.”
“Must we?” Father Menem gazed at the black object on the desk. His eyes were wistful. “It may be the only one left in the world.”
“I hope it is,” Espiris said grimly. “Didn’t the dragons despoil good farmland in their time, and lay whole cities to waste? Didn’t they plague humanity and make life a terror and a misery until they were destroyed in the battle on the plains of Argunor?”
Menem smiled wryly. “So it says in official
“Well then!” Espiris gestured with open hands, inviting his audience to draw an obvious conclusion.
“But Brother Espiris,” said Father Menem, and Tengu could have sworn he detected a mischievous twinkle in the old man’s eyes beneath his sparse white eyebrows, “the records of great wars are invariably written by the winners. May it not be that the dragons were not really as black as they have been painted?”
“That object looks black enough to me,” Espiris growled with forced humour, pointing at the jet-couloured thing on the desk.
“Yes.” Father Menem sighed. “So you have no doubts that the thing to do with this remarkable and possibly unique object is to destroy it?”
“Father Menem,” said Espiris, “the only question in my mind is why you have not already asked me to take this thing out on the mountain and crush it under the heaviest rock I can find.” His voice rose in agitation. “Father this egg is dangerous!”
“You think so?” said Father Menem mildly.
Espiris lifted hi clenched fists in violent gesture of impatience. “Father Menem” he cried. “Are you pretending to ignorance? You know as well as I do what the old tales say – that a dragon’s egg is stone-cold when it is laid, and only grows warm when the egg is ready to hatch. This egg is like a live coal! It could hatch in the next five minutes.
“Tengu, from his small stool by the window, stared round-eyed at the mysterious object. So the egg was alive! Inside its opaque surface, there was a baby dragon!
What would it be like, the hatching of a dragon? Would it be half made, helpless creature, blind andmewing like a kitten? Or would it emerge perfectly formed, unfurling small wings and breathing tiny flames?
A baby dragon. Perhaps the last dragon in the world.
And Brother Espiris wanted to kill it.
Terror and exultation swept through Tengu, making him tremble and clench his wiry fists. It must not die! What was there in this great monastery, on this empty mountain, to compare with this black enigma from the fabled past? It was the only wonderful thing that had happened in his entire fifteen year old life.
Father Menem was smiling, the visionary smile of a very old man who sees thing that no one else sees. “You’re right, Espiris, of course. It will hatch very soon. That it should happen in my monastery, in my own humble room! That I should live to see it! Surely I have not deserved so much!
Espiris glazed at him in astonishment. Then he stepped closer to the desk. “Father Menem, this thing is deadly. I mean to kill it, and I will.”
Father Menem rose to his feet, trembling. “No. You shall not.”
The two men stared at each other.
At that moment a sound came from the egg.
It was a dull knock, like a hammer striking the wall of a distant cave. After a short interval, the sound was repeated. The egg rocked slightly.
“It is starting!” whispered Father Menem, his eyes shining.
“Then it must be stopped,” answered Espiris harshly. Wrapping the cloth of his robe round his large hand to protect it, he stepped forward, reaching out to pick up the egg.
To Read Part Two CLICK HERE