This is the latest volume in the True Fire Series. In it, I have endeavored to introduce new characters and finish telling Cringle's backstory. It works for me but of course I would say that - wouldn't I. The book is available at the same places as the previous three volumes of the series.
Below, for those who are interested, is the whole of Chapter 1.
Traginal Mycindun, Trag to his few friends at the village school, pushed and pulled the lever on his special cart to propel it the last few yards down the flagstoned garden path to his Grandfather’s front door. He was quite proud of the little cart, having designed it himself as a means of transport for his crippled body. It gave him a small measure of independence, something he found very necessary. It wasn’t pride which drove him, merely a desire for some independence without causing inconvenience for others. The design was a relatively simple, with the lever he used to propel the cart pivoting at floor level in front of him. The lower end of the lever, protruding beneath the floor, connected by a rod to the U shaped bend in the rear axle which allowed for rotation of the rear wheels. His Grandfather had made the idea into reality for Trag and interestingly, others in the village had now copied the design and made larger versions which they used to get around on.
Pulling himself just past the doorway, Trag secured his cart to the waiting rope tether then hitched his satchel around his shoulder before turning around and leaning over the back of his cart. The mat was ready for him on the doorstep as usual and Trag grabbed it and pulled it forward onto the flagstones before lowering himself down on to it. Before his Grandfather suggested putting the mat there, Trag had hated this part of coming home as he always picked up dirt from the path. He reached up and tugged the cord which lifted the latch on the door and as it swung open he pulled himself up onto the doorstep, lifting his withered and malformed legs behind him before reaching inside the door frame to pull his little indoor trolley into range. Before climbing aboard, Trag swung around and shifted the outside mat back onto the doorstep. Settled on his cart he closed the door and turned toward the kitchen.
“That you Trag?” His Grandfather sang out.
Trag answered in the affirmative.
“Come on through, I’ve got some hotcakes and sweet tea ready,” his Grandfather’s voice announced.
Trag carefully rolled through the clear alleyway in the front room, pushing himself along with the palms of his hands. Grandfather had made him fingerless leather gloves for that purpose, to save his hands getting too dirty. They were usually left on the trolley whenever it wasn’t in use. With the shutters down over the windows, it was a dim and cluttered space he passed through, filled almost to bursting. He propelled his little trolley carefully, avoiding the tall piles of stacked books, a rarity in the village and an expensive collection. Book copiers weren’t cheap; a scribe wanted rewarding for his time. Luckily the recent invention of paper meant the prohibitively expensive vellum of previous times was being virtually superseded by the new material. Only religious tomes still used vellum, and of course the books containing true magic. Trag shivered.
The light from the kitchen beckoned through the curtained doorway, its flickering yellow warmth meant the fire was on and Trag was glad of that. Down near the ground always seemed colder than up on a seat and he should have become used to it by now. He glanced down at his useless legs, something he’d had all of his twelve years of life. Apparently he’d been born like that. Useless legs, a twisted spine and one arm longer than the other. His brain was excellent though and more than made up for the deficits of his body. Intelligent eyes gazed out from his handsome, well-formed face but that didn’t deter the children at school from making fun of him on a regular basis. Not all of them though. Bethanty in particular treated him well, overlooking his handicap and looked out for him without seeming to. She was adept at handing him whatever it was he needed or dropped without seeming to notice or stop what she was doing. Bethanty was also beautiful. Not a good thing in these dark days, as that qualified her for drakon sacrifice once she started to bleed.
Trag propelled himself past the curtain into the warm kitchen, illuminated mostly by the firelight from the open door of the woodstove. The hotcakes smelt delicious and his mouth watered at the thought of them. His Grandfather looked over the top of the book he was reading and raised his white bushy eyebrows.
“Good day at school? What did you learn today Trag?”
Trag steadied the trolley and hauled himself up, hand over hand, onto his special chair to accept the offered mug of sweet tea, taking a sip before answering.
“Maestra Winholme told us the earth was flat and when I tried to point out it wasn’t, she became angry and chastised me. The other children laughed at my expense. All except Bethanty.”
Trag helped himself to a hotcake as his Grandfather shook his head, his long white beard waggling back and forth, his piercing blue eyes above the hooked nose filled with amusement.
“How many times do I have to tell you that you only take from school that which you do not yet know and check the information when you get home? Knowledge is a tool, a weapon and power. People generally don’t like someone who knows a lot. It frightens them, so they go to great lengths to rubbish and decry those with true knowledge. If that doesn’t work, they will even kill those with more knowledge than them.”
“But Grandfather, she was teaching something which isn’t true. That’s not right,” Trag spluttered around his mouthful of hotcake, crumbs flying before he took a sip of sweet tea to wash it down.
“No it’s not right Trag but I caution you to be very careful what you say. Duke Erkhart has spies everywhere and if you demonstrate too much knowledge about things, you may disappear like your parents did.”
It was a sore point for Trag. He couldn’t remember his parents. Grandfather told him the family had lived in the capital, Conurbal, when Trag was a mere babe and they were well known in the city but the Duke’s men had apparently turned up one day during a time of strife and taken both of Trag’s parents away. They had never been heard from again. Lucky for Trag, his Grandfather, having suffered the loss of his own son, moved away from the city and gave the newly orphaned child a home, raising the poor, crippled waif as his own.
Trag could never work out why the Duke took people away for knowing too much when knowledge was such a useful thing to have.
“What about you Grandfather, why haven’t you been taken away? Everyone knows you have books.”
His Grandfather smiled that gap-toothed smile and his eyes twinkled.
“Two things young Trag. Not many people know just how many books I have. The ones in the front room are mostly about medical conditions, diseases and medicines of some form or other and of course Healers like me are tolerated. That’s how I get by. I’m useful to have around. The other books are well hidden as you know and we’re very careful when they’re brought out. Aren’t we?”
Trag nodded, taking another hotcake to nibble on. Yes, Grandfather was very careful about those other books. If he was discovered with them, they would be confiscated and the house burned down. His Grandfather might escape with his life because he was a Healer but that wasn’t guaranteed. Trag had only known about those other books since his tenth birthday but the responsibility was weighty. Not onerous but still weighty. No one was allowed to learn of their existence. Not even Bethanty.
“What are you reading today Grandfather?” Trag asked as he watched his Grandfather’s finger follow the words along the page. He noticed the book contained pages made of vellum and appeared worn and irregular at the edges, a sign of great age.
His Grandfather looked up from his study and appraised Trag, as if weighing up whether to tell him or not. Finally the old man’s sense of rightness won through and he sighed, putting a marker in his place and closing the book before setting it on the table. The light around his Grandfather dimmed as the reinforcement for the spell to keep it bright was allowed to diminish.
Trag took yet another hotcake to nibble on. He knew the telling may take a while, especially since his Grandfather had allowed the light spell to die. Trag’s Grandfather said nothing about the cakes the lad ate. He needed some pleasure in his life to combat the twisting and stunting of the body which nature had handed to him. Normally such children were left outside to die at birth, or killed outright but Trag’s mother would have none of it. She was a Farseer and had a vision in the moments after his birth which gave her a stubborn determination to keep young Trag alive. Although he was bent and twisted, she saw change and something of greatness in his future.
So be it.
Grandfather cleared his throat, steepled his hands and rested the point of his chin on his fingertips as he regarded Trag.
“What do you know of drakons, Trag?”
The question took Trag by surprise. Everyone knew about drakons. They were a fact of life and they all lived under the shadow of the wings.
“Well, they’re big and powerful and can fly and as long as we give sacrifice every year, they leave us alone. That is, apart from the tithe of cattle and sheep we needs must supply to feed them.”
His Grandfather nodded in agreement.
“And who made these rules and agreements regarding sacrifice and tithes?”
“They’ve always been there Grandfather. Haven’t they?”
“Not so Trag. Only for the last forty years or so. There was nothing like it in my youth. According to this book, the drakons before that time lived in the mountains far to the south and hunted the forests of the foothills for their food. There was no patrolling nor was there sacrifices or tithes required. Now, how intelligent are drakons and can we communicate with them?”
Trag was a little bewildered by these questions. He hated it when Grandfather made him think rather than just giving him the answer but his Grandfather set a lot of store on thinking. Trag rearranged himself on his seat to get more comfortable.
“I’ve never really thought about them being intelligent. More like flying cows that just come for the beasts we leave out for them and the yearly sacrifice of course. Why?”
His Grandfather beamed.
“The word I was looking for at last. Why. Always use that word in your life Trag. Why? Because when you answer it, you will have gained knowledge.”
His Grandfather paused and took a sip of his tea, grimaced and waved his hand. Steam rose from the mug and Grandfather took another sip or two.
“Better. Now where was I? Oh yes. This book is from a time before sacrifices and tithes. It was passed along to me by someone I trust who knows of my interest in drakons. It was very expensive and you must never make mention of its existence to anyone. This, more than any other of the books I have, is a death sentence. For you as well as me.”
Trag’s ears pricked up, metaphorically speaking of course and he stilled himself, ready to uptake information, something Grandfather had taught him to do. His Grandfather nodded, aware of Trag’s preparation, pleased the lad attempted to do as he was trained to.
“According to this book, drakons are capable of communication. At least some of them, mostly the royals. They have a Queen, who they all serve, or used to and she lays all the eggs for the hive, fertilised by only one breeding male. He kills any other male he finds before it has a chance to mature and mate. All the rest of the drakons we see, the bronzes, are non-breeding females, workers of limited intelligence controlled by the mind of the Queen. Apparently, the sex and intelligence of the hatchlings is determined by the temperature of the sands in which they are incubated. This is controlled by the Queen, which ensures not too many males are around at any given time. Like bees, drakons have a hive mentality.”
Trag was fascinated. He’d never heard any of this before and he was keen on learning about drakons. Grandfather knew this of course and Trag caught the gleam in the old man’s eyes as he continued with his lecture.
“Of course, I was already aware of that fact but this book goes a lot further into areas I never, ever suspected. The Queen and the breeding male are telepathic. Oh, the rest of them are too but their brains do not allow for the level of consciousness required to understand us, they merely obey the Queen. In the time this book was written, some daring people, wizards most likely, had travelled to the mountains. Those lucky enough to get within range of the Queen without being eaten managed to converse with her, mind to mind, and returned to tell the tale.”
If Trag had leaned any further forward, he would have fallen off his chair, kerplop, onto the kitchen floor but his Grandfather had constructed the chair to assist Trag staying in it, withered legs notwithstanding. He was amazed. His whole world was shifting, twisting around its centre, opening up new perspectives. Conversing with drakons. Who would have believed? His Grandfather took another sip of his heated tea, cleared his throat and continued but now there was a sly look on his face.
“There is a chapter in here which I find particularly confronting and difficult to get my head around but it may point to the beginning of the sacrifices and tithes. The Queen of the drakons took a shine to one of the adventurous young wizards who journeyed to the mountains and discussed certain matters with him.”
Trag could barely contain himself.
“What matters Grandfather, what does the book say?”
“Patience child, let me lay this out in a manner which you will understand. The Queen informed this young wizard that her mate had been killed in a tunnel collapse a short while beforehand, probably due to a recent earthquake. She also told him that it was possible for a human and a drakon to meld. It had happened in the past but she didn’t go into details. In fact the Queen herself was a human melded with a drakon many, many years before and she really wanted another human drakon as her mate now. This was why she was telling the young wizard of the process, hoping he would go through with it and become her companion.”
Trag was by now almost bouncing up and down in his seat with suppressed excitement but stilled as his Grandfather gave him a stern look before continuing.
“The process is apparently this. Instead of laying an egg, the Queen makes a small incision in the abdomen of a willing human male recipient and carefully inserts a special unfertilised egg without a yolk or egg white. This egg attaches to the insides of the person and starts to grow. Over time, as the embryo develops, tendrils extend out from it into every part of the living human body, like blood vessels around the yolk of a chicken egg. They take nourishment from the flesh of the host. According to this book, some of the tendrils find their way into the brain and as the young drakon develops inside the donor, it draws on the conscious mind and thoughts of the human it’s feeding from. Eventually the human body can supply nothing further and in dying gives life. A young drakon emerges with its mind filled with the thoughts of its donor.”
Images were bouncing around inside Trag’s head as he listened to the discourse. When he closed his eyes he imagined he was flying. Vertigo set in and if his Grandfather hadn’t grabbed him before he fell out of his seat, Trag would’ve really been flying. As far as the floor anyway. Trag opened his eyes to see his Grandfather observing him closely.
“Are you alright Trag?” The old man asked him, a note of concern in his voice.
“Yes Grandfather. Oh yes.” Trag gasped. “Tell me more, please.”
His Grandfather settled back in his seat and picked the book up, opening it at the marker as the light increased around him. This would have been amazing to a casual observer but Trag was well aware of his Grandfather’s ability in the field of magic, although it was forbidden by law, and nothing much surprised him these days. Clearing his throat, Grandfather looked up at him once more to check the lad was properly seated, before continuing.
“Apparently, the process is excruciatingly painful for the human involved and this turned the young wizard off the idea. He returned to Conurbal and told a few others of his findings. Most did not believe him and that is where this book ends. However, it is my belief someone far less honourable and with great evil in them, visited the drakon Queen and offered himself to her as a candidate for change. Once he matured, he became the Queen’s mate. Many years later, well after the drakon Queen had made the agreement to protect Melintana from the ravages of Reaver raids in return for gold and tithes of sheep and cattle, I think it was he who made the demands regarding the yearly sacrifice of young girls. Why he did it, I don’t know but there will be a reason. Mark my words young Trag. There will be a reason for it.”
Finished, his Grandfather closed the book and moved over to the special place where the floorboards could be shifted to reveal the hiding spot beneath. He carefully lifted them out of the way and placed the book in the space beneath to nestle among the other vellum paged tomes before replacing the boards and pulling a woven reed mat over the spot. A small gesture accompanied by some muttered words completed the process of hiding the book where it would not be found.
“How are you coming along with that spell I showed you?” The old man asked as he fluidly straightened up from securing the book in its hiding place. In answer, Trag concentrated and his mug slowly rose from the table by itself, wobbling in the air.
“Well done.” His Grandfather pronounced and at the interruption, Trag lost control and the mug fell back to the table with a thump, spilling its contents across the top. With a smile his Grandfather made a gesture or two and all the liquid ran back into the mug which managed to right itself.
“Time you learned some more spells lad. Now off you go and get washed and into your sleeping clothes, it will be time for supper soon and maybe a little homework afterwards.”
As Trag lowered himself down from his special seat and onto his trolley, the old man watched lovingly, his eyes moistening at the sight of the boy’s deformities. No one deserved to be born like that, especially a boy with such a searching mind.
Once supper was over and his Grandfather had talked to him about the sun and the moons and how they moved around the earth, Trag was tucked into his sleeping cot. He lay there thinking of all he had learned that day as he fell asleep. During the night his dreams were of flying, soaring into the sky like a bird and looking down on the country beneath.