‘Would you like to try the camomile tea? The Queen tells me it calms the nerves.’
She, Kathanhiel, pours me a cup of steaming tea with two yellow flowers floating in it. I take it with both hands and clutch it as a newborn would his mother’s breasts.
At the exact moment I put the cup to my mouth a cry resembling that of a husky seagull comes from the bottom of the hill. A riot of monkey noises immediately drowns it out.
A cup of hot water in a nervous person’s hand; that can be a deadly weapon. Fortunately I am a grown man with twenty-two years of hard weather behind me, and I spill only a third of it, over only three fingers.
‘The dragonling is awake,’ Kathanhiel says, ‘Lyan, do you mind…?’
‘Not at all,’ replies the recruiter as he leaves my signed contract on the table – at a smart distance from the tea – and hurries from the gazebo.
Kathanhiel and I are now alone, her in the most beautiful ensemble I have ever seen – not the lady-of-the-court kind, but white-mare-galloping-free-across-the-countryside, if that makes any sense – and me in my best jacket, a grey hulk passed down by my grandad that has but two patches, both on the inner side of the left elbow.
What am I doing here?
Not a month ago I was sitting on the corner of the street in the middle of the day, conjuring up fanciful lives for the people going about their business. That old man with the knotted cane was once a fabled lumberjack who fell trees until he fell on his back; the fat lady with the cart never actually shops, only pushes around the same stuff every day to appear as if she is; the juggler over there is actually a spy from the Islands, those colourful balls his lethal weapons, filled with poison.
I could go on all day. In fact I did. Days and weeks would go by, filled with idle nothing.
Rumbling of the stomach had been the only initiative. Hungry? Check. Money in pocket? Check. Eat, then come back and sit here.
Or, more often than not: hungry? Check. Money in pocket? Nice joke. Alright, better go sit at the docks and wait for work. After that, eat, then come back and sit here.
Nothing wrong with that routine; it’s better than getting laughed at for being useless.
To go from that to a month of tests rigorous enough to break a soldier was hard.
To end up as an esquire of Kathanhiel is absurd.
What am I doing here?
‘Um…my lady, I don’t mean to…I mean I did sign the contract – it’s a big chance, biggest chance I’ll ever have, and I’m really, really thankful, grateful – but I don’t think….I mean this is all wrong – just, I mean, you’re Kathanhiel, and I’m…I’m…even sitting here feels…I just…’
‘You think you’re not good enough to be my esquire.’
I put the cup back still two-thirds full and stare at me knees, because her eyes are too bright to look at. She looks as if she knows exactly who I am.
‘Fortunately, that is not for you to decide.’ She stands up and looks out to the green prairies. ‘Tell me of dragons. Everything you know.’
Oh, a test.
Should’ve realised sooner – no way she invited me up here for an idle hi-how-are-you. It’s all business. What am I doing, fantasizing all these romantic ideas as if – no no no, dumb, stupid.
Lucky for me – and unlucky for Haylis – I can read, and using that extraordinary ability I have spent a lot of time devouring books that contains accounts of Kathanhiel’s deeds. There’s a lot, and I mean a big lot, of dragons in there.
‘Well, dragons. They’re anatomically reptilian but their behaviour is not at all animalistic. Why do I say that? Well you’d know because I just quoted you, but I mean to say that the individual dragons don’t really, uh, think for themselves. They all share the same…mind…I guess, and there’s a connection between them that help them think together, and basically…this stuff isn’t relevant at all is it? Do you want me to stop?’
‘Please continue. It is important for me to have a measure of your understanding.’
She means it. I can tell because she takes care to look me in the eye, like she knows that this grown child needs the encouragement to keep going.
‘Al-alright, dragons, joined together, one mind. A single dragon doesn’t have enough smarts to…well, be smart. Like that one in the cage. She probably can’t even play fetch.’
‘You realised that it’s a she?’
‘Right. So, to use this connection, the biggest and most powerful dragon, the Apex, acts as a sort of nexus for their thoughts, which means it can command every dragon in the world, and is really smart and can speak our language. The last Apex was…well…’
She doesn’t look around this time. ‘Elisaad…Elisaad the Mad, as he was known among the mountain folk. For two hundred years he reigned in the Endless Ranges, until not a piece of green was left. Most think him born of evil, but it was loneliness that drove him to the brink.’
‘W-what do you mean?’
Kathanhiel’s face changes. I’ve imagined that face at least a thousand times, when I think about what I would look like after confessing to someone I fancy and she inevitably thinks of somewhere she has to be right away.
‘I…my lady I’m sorry I didn’t mean to –’
‘The intelligence of every other dragon is far below that of the Apex. They’ve instincts, certainly, and would always obey his command, but of companionship there is, and always will be, none. The Apex is always alone. In this respect we’re much alike.’
How does one make up for asking a dumb question? Don’t know, but blurting out a self-deprecating apology is the best I could do.
‘My lady, I don’t – I can’t talk to people very well and I always mess up because I’m such an idiot so p-please forgive me and if…if you don’t want me to be your esquire anymore – not that I don’t want to, of course I want to – but I feel like…I’m just going to go…if...’
For the second time she disregards my half-hearted resignation. That scary look on her face passes as if it has never been there.
‘Tell me how you would kill a dragon.’
‘T-this I know…before making a move you have to clip its wings so it’s grounded. Then you go for the neck. Anywhere else won’t work – scales are too hard. Going for the head also works, for the eyes, but that’s also where they’re most dangerous because of the fire-breathing so…so…neck.’
She nods. ‘An expert analysis from someone who has not fought one.’
How else do I respond to that but wheeze out a lame laugh and scratch my head.
‘That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Most would have said the same.’
She obviously means to give comfort but it only managed to make me feel worse.
My distress must be showing – of course they’re showing, like running nude through the streets kind of showing – because her voice becomes softer on the next question. ‘Are you aware of your duties as esquire?’
‘S-serve her whose life I swear to protect with my own, whose every need shall be my commandment, and upon whose footsteps I shall tread until the end of my days, or the hour of utter shame.’
‘No, not the vow. What will you do for me?’
‘Do? Well I’ll…carry your bags, take care of things like…buying food or…caring for the horses…I’ll fight too– as best as I could anyway…and maybe you want to go about without getting recognised, so I can…fetch things for you if-if you want…um…I do a good shine for metal gear, armour and such – not leather though, I don’t know much about….and I guess I can also cook, but –’
Kathanhiel smiles again. How beautiful her smile is. It makes her scary face from before seem unreal; someone as radiant as her couldn’t possibly have looked like that.
‘I am well aware of your test scores, dear Kastor, and I’ll be looking forward to your meals on our travels.’
If she says ‘dear Kastor’ again I think my heart is going to explode into a million rose pedals.
Close your mouth idiot, it’s hanging open! Quick, say a vowel to cover it up!
‘I uh…um…travels? Where will we be going?’
She replies so light-heartedly that I almost forget to panic.
‘On a quest into the Endless Ranges, a quest to slay the new Apex, the Rutherford Dragon.’
Ah, of course, we’re going to slay the Apex, pffft. What kind of idiot answers a bunch of questions about the dragons, then gets surprised when asked to kill one?
Alright, ‘surprised’ is an understatement; a better adjective to use in this situation would be ‘peeing my pants’ or ‘forget to breathe as my eyes pop out of their sockets.’
It’s normal to be this nervous, isn’t it? When the person you idolise comes up to you and says ‘dear Kastor’ and ‘let’s go slay the Apex’, I’d think that some moderate letting of the bladders is in order. It’s like being handed a thousand crowns then immediately getting punched twice in the face. Hey you’re a winner, but wait – BAM, BAM. Got you good.
Herein lies the problem: the surprise is so overwhelming that it completely negates one’s ability to think. Let me explain this in a simple way.
I respond to Kathanhiel’s statement by solemnly nodding.
If it hasn’t become apparent yet, I am a man of thoughts; my body is a spawning ground of the alphabet and my mouth the magic seal that shoves all the words back in. The result? Never-ending war of sentences in the head, blubbering idiot in real life.
Five seconds of silence later, I, a man of thoughts, utter two words.
From the way she’s smiling, there must be a top-notch mime performing on my nose.
‘We’re going to slay the Rutherford Dragon.’
More solemn nodding.