Extract / Preview: The Return of the Arinn by Frank P Ryan

CB - JF - Nov - The Return of Arinn

A Dragon’s Regret

Spiralling as he rose on the battering winds, the Dragon King – Omdorrréilliuc to the worshipful Eyrie People and, more familiarly, Driftwood to Kate Shaunessy – found the thermals that were capable of bearing his titanic mass aloft. On the beach below, every face gazed up in rapture. Kate realised she must look minuscule,  waving  goodbye from on high to the fast-disappearing Cill children. They included her friend Shaami, and the special one who was already taller and more knowing than the others, the new Momu, who was gazing heavenwards with those big golden eyes. The pain of leaving them, knowing she might never see them again, felt like a cold splinter of iron impaled in Kate’s heart. But all too soon they were gone, the beach reduced to a snowflake of brilliant white before it too was lost behind the clouds that were materialising against the up-thrust mountains.
The dragon’s voice remained a rumble as deep as thunder even when it addressed Kate mind-to-mind: <Weep not for others but for yourself in your coming ordeal.>

*
‘I’ll still miss them terribly.’

<The heart is a poor guide to reason.>

‘Ah,  sure, and where would we be without it?’

<Safer, perhaps. And besides, they no longer need your help.>

‘No. They have a new young Momu to guide them.’

<And who in this war-torn world will guide you when you have proven yourself so refractory to common sense?>

‘I know I’ve been unreasonable, but I’m back now. I do so hope that we remain friends. Please tell me where we are headed?’

<A Dragon King keeps his promises. I shall return you to your equally headstrong friend, the youthful Mage Lord, with his rune-warded spear and his arrogantly ambitious war.>

‘Yes, please take me back to Alan. I’m desperate to see him again. But I had hoped…if it will not put us too far out of our way…’

<Am I to be a mind-reader,   then?>

Kate bit her lip. Even within the shelter of Driftwood’s dense ruff of bright green and yellow feathers she was shiv- ering. The rushing gale of wind was growing rapidly fiercer as their flight gained pace, the cold numbing her cheeks and ears.

<Oh, very well then – I don’t suppose it will take us too far out of our course if we pass by a certain island . . .>

‘Thank you.’

<A small favour – but it is granted on the strict condition that you desist from all further pleadings for help to fulfil even more reckless behaviour…>

‘I promise.’

Kate allowed her eyes to close upon sleep. A single night’s rest on the beach had hardly cured her exhaustion. And the dreams she wandered into were hardly refreshing: if there was a landscape she never wished to see again, in dreams or reality, it was the Land of the Dead.

She woke up with a cry to discover Driftwood was gliding in slow wide circles over rocky buttresses that rose upwards for hundreds of feet out of the forested slopes. The air was warmer. Kate whooped – softly – with delight to witness the welcoming flocks of young dragons that rose out of the needle-like pillars of rocky landscape, which proved big enough to accommodate wooded plains on their pinnacles. On her last visit, the young dragons had been no more than babies, and she had delighted in watching  them.  But on this visit, Driftwood made no attempt to alight and spend time with his brood. For no more than a few minutes they wheeled and soared in the company of the excited young dragons before Driftwood bid them farewell in that deep incomprehensible tongue that Kate recognised, without need of translation, to be the language of beginnings.

‘Permission to speak?’

<Would that you were incapable!>

‘I’d have loved to have got to know them – your family.’

<Kate girl-thing has already forgotten that dragons eat juicy morsels such as  herself.>

‘Not your brood – you’re a sea-dragon. You eat fish – sea creatures.’

<What difference in the belly of a hungry dragon  – a fish, or a seal or a girl?>

Kate laughed. She just wanted to treasure the experience forever: the great wings beating, or gliding through the icy-cool air, the soaring pinnacles of pinkish rock capped with dense, semi-tropical greenery that were the perfect brood-chambers for the baby dragons, the excited antics of the youngsters, who left smoky trails perfumed with the fiery, incense-like musk of dragon’s breath.

‘Do you tell them fairy stories, like we tell our human children?’

<Baby dragons possess their stories. Each story is gifted to the individual offspring. It cannot be retold – or its lesson revealed to any other.>

‘What’s so special about each individual story?’

<There is a truth for each dragon in his or her story. The story is his or her first journey into self   discovery.>

‘How can there be so many different truths?’

<Kate girl-thing has much to learn.>

‘Then explain – enlighten me, please?’

<You do not understand the destiny into which you rush headlong.>

‘How can I understand if you will not explain?’

<Perhaps some destinies are better not explained.>

‘Then treat me as a dragon-baby. Tell me my very own story.’

<You would not like to hear a dragon tale.>

‘Try me.’

<You would experience the story in the telling. It would not merely feel real, it would become real in you.>

Kate chuckled. ‘After what I’ve been through, I don’t think I am capable of being shocked any further.’

<You are a very foolish, headstrong, reckless and exceed- ingly  stubborn girl-thing.>

‘I come from an island people famous for their reckless- ness. Oh, please, Driftwood – I thought we were friends?’

<A girl-thing cannot be friends with a Dragon King.>

‘What  are  we, then?’

<A confusion of purpose. A conundrum.>

‘Why a conundrum?’

<To the Eyrie People I am a god to be adored and vener- ated with prayer and sacrifice. Yet, it would appear that some foolish, headstrong, and exceedingly stubborn girl- thing assumes she is my friend because she resurrected me from my age-old slumber.>

‘It wasn’t from slumber and you know it. I resurrected you from a self-inflicted death: a death that happened in ages past, when you dragons bit off your own wings and sacrificed yourselves to the depths of the oceans. Moreover, I didn’t resurrect you deliberately. The oraculum in my brow did it all by itself while I slept.’

<Thus would she correct a Dragon King!>

‘Does it offend your godly – your kingly – pride that a minuscule girl-thing not only resurrected your poor wing- less body but also gave you back your beautiful gold-veined wings?’

<Immensely.>

‘Oh, Driftwood, tell me a story anyway.’

<Even though I caution you against it?>

‘All the more so.’

<Be it on your own head. Welcome to a world of story in which you are now one with that lady of legend, Nimue the Naïve, wife of King Ree Nashee and, by that same marriage, Queen  of  the Wildwoods.>

‘Well, I’m not sure that I want to become one with this Nimue the Naïve. Can’t I just listen to her story?’

<It is too late to change your mind now. You have been gifted the tale and are now bound by the telling.>

Something… everything… had changed. Within Kate’s being, a veil of time had been traversed and she had somehow lost track of her passage. There was an alien awareness of her surroundings, a heightening, as if her senses had multiplied. Something was whispering to her, bathing her in warmth that invaded her nostrils, filled her vision and then coated her entire skin. Kate only gradually became aware that the warmth was the breath from the mouth and nostrils of a face that filled her entire field of vision, and the tickling sticky sensation that enveloped her was  a  gigantic  tongue.  She felt suffused with emotions, such as fear and joy, and overwhelmed with the alien wonder of it.

‘I never realised… I can’t believe I’m experiencing it.’

<You wish the experience to end?>

‘No – no. It’s… wonderful, Driftwood. But… I’m changing. I didn’t anticipate the profundity, the immediacy of it.’

<HARRRUUMMMPPPPHHHH!>

That deep sigh immersed her as if she had entered a waterfall, a thundering, skin-tingling cataract. Another veil . . . she was passing through veil after veil of experience and strangeness.

‘I’m not a child; I’m fully grown. I don’t understand… I know what I feel. I know what I am thinking. I feel so proud of my marriage to the king, but it’s not as I might have anticipated. This is so very different.’

<Indeed: you are still the reckless Kate, but also now the youthful queen. And you are as vain as you are naïve by nature. How haughty your winsome beauty, with your eyes as blue as the summer sky and your cascade of fair hair that extends to beyond your girdled waist and has to be combed by your servant elves for a full hour every self- indulgent morning as you bathe in the pool of loveliness.>

‘Oh, dear! Am I really that vain? And yet within myself I feel merely curious and kind. At least I would appear to be kind.’

<Kindness is no armour within a dragon tale.>

A dragon tale! It certainly felt different from the fairy tales of Kate’s childhood – she really was within it; she was feeling  it happen.

‘Oh, Driftwood – I am riding through an enchanted forest. It’s so real I can feel my nostrils tingle with each breath  of air.’

<You, the queen, delight to ride through the dells and woodlands on your silver-saddled unicorn, well-wishing everyone you meet on your travels while flaunting the bridal ring in their faces.>

‘But I love them all. I love to greet them.’

<You neglect the danger such hubris might provoke . . . For these are the Wildwoods, and there are other perils that stalk them besides the one-eyed giant they call Balor…>

‘What are you suggesting?’

<The inevitable fall that accompanies unseemly pride.> How she loved the fact it was ever high summer here, with the cotton-wool clouds turning lazily in their blue heaven. But even here, a twist of magic could alter the mood of time and place in the blink of an eye . . . and fate. But surely her fate was to wake in the regal bedroom within the enchanted castle? So she reflected with pleasure on a night when there was a full moon shining in through the mullioned windows, the garden outside bathed with luminescence. There was music too, a lilting delight of harp notes, rising and falling, lulling her back to sleep.

Why was it wrong to delight in such bliss?

Queen Nimue glanced around the moonlit bedroom. She was clearly sleeping alone. Presumably Ree Nashee slept alone too? But surely there would be servants, some watchful figures nearby, who would respond to her needs? She tried calling out: ‘Hello? I would so love a nightcap…’

But no servant answered her summons. She was close to panicking now, wishing she wasn’t here.

‘What is it, Driftwood? What is happening?’

<Your ring!>

‘My ring?’

Her bridal ring! She raised her left hand and stared at it, but there was no ring on her finger. ‘What’s happened to it?’

<You  have somehow managed to lose it.>

Panic overwhelmed her, making her feel close to fainting in her downy bed. What would the king say when he discovered she had lost her ring?

‘I must have dropped it when I was riding through the Wildwoods.’

<Without the ring you can no longer rule beside the king. And your loss will hurt him deeply. Ree Nashee loves you above all else in his kingdom. Your absence from his side will weaken his control over the magic that is necessary for his reign. And without the influence of the king—>

‘Darkness… Darkness will rise – as it rose when he was cast into the spell of sleep by Balor.’

<Indeed, and it is already rising. Thus has your vanity condemned you to search endlessly through a forest that has now become threatening.>

‘But how do I recover the ring? How do I make the Wildwoods  hale again?’

But even she spoke, she realised the lesson of her personal dragon tale. In her obsession to save the Cill, she had neglected Alan, who loved her and who was facing terrible dangers. Kate, who was also Nimue, felt her vision clouding as if real tears were filling up her   eyes.

‘Stop it, Driftwood. Stop this right now.’

But she could not so easily escape from the tale. She was still gliding through those eerie veils, but she was no longer in that sumptuous bedroom, now she was lost in the Wildwoods. She found herself standing by a low wall, below which a mound of pine bark marked the place where elfin foresters might have pulled consignments of logs over coping stones. She sat on the wall, brooding, feeling wan and sad in the pallid moonlight. Her tearful eyes darted between the grey shadows that surrounded her, her fearful fingers toying with the hoary beards of rosebay willow herb clinging to the crevices amongst the sloping stones. And then it dawned on her, with all the impossible logic of a dream, that she had arrived here a million times. She had followed the same ghostly trail, even on her final ride as queen. And now, dressed only in her white cotton night- dress, she haunted the woodland paths. And on this cold, moonlit night, a terrible winter beckoned. Her movements felt leaden with dread as she left the wall and emerged into the lonely glade. In the distance was a lake of utter darkness. She sensed the stillness of the air over the dark water that reflected the tall forest of pine trees on the far bank. Within the blue-black crepuscular mass, their twigs and needles like roinish hair, she saw tiny flickering lights, like will-o-the-wisps, that called her. All she had to do was float through the veils to join the other ghosts passing soundlessly across the confluences of stone, air and water.

As she stood there, paralysed by indecision, she felt gooseflesh all over her skin.

<Did I not warn you?>

‘Yes, you did. Oh, Driftwood, I am a foolish girl-thing. I’m everything you said of me.’

<I warned you most specifically.>

‘You did.’

<We talked of your reckless desire to save the Momu.>

‘Yes – we talked.’

<I spoke of the dangers. Do you remember?>

‘I remember telling you of my first meeting with the Momu. I described our meeting, in her chamber in Ulla Quemar, the birthing pool amid the roots of the One Tree.’ The dragon’s voice deepened to what sounded like a rock-splitting roar.

<There – there in your reference to  the One Tree…>

‘What is it?’

<The One Tree was a twig of the greater tree – The Tree of Life – and in its roots you discovered   Nidhoggr.>

‘Yes. He was trapped there, being starved of its sap, wasted to a ruin.’

<So you took it into your head to free him?>

‘Yes. I—’

<Even in that void I warned you afresh.>

‘Yes.’

<Do you now recall my warning?>

She remembered calling on Driftwood in a moment of the greatest peril. She recalled her very words on his arrival. ‘Oh, Driftwood – if you are really here, please help me. The Tree of Life is being sucked dry by these horrible worms. I must stop them, but it’s beyond my ability. I need to revive Nidhoggr.’

<I would warn you> he had said, <that the soul of Nidhoggr is Chaos.>

‘Life, it seems to me, is nothing other than chaos – and that’s certainly true if what I saw in the black cathedral is the Tyrant’s vision of order.’

<You must understand how dangerous this might be?>

‘There is danger everywhere I turn. But there’s so much at stake – not just the Momu. These black worms are vast and there are millions upon millions of them. They’re sapping the life out of the Tree. I dread to think…’

Kate hesitated now, in a very different and yet equally perilous landscape. She sensed how even Driftwood shuddered.

<You remember now, Kate girl-thing, who is one with Nimue the Naïve, Queen of the Wildwoods, who has lost her ring?>

Kate nodded. Her heart thudded so forcefully it was nau- seating. Before her a cart track twisted and turned, insisting that she took it even though it was in a state of disrepair.

She walked past a gnarled old oak and on into a coppice of evergreens. She sank her bare feet into its carpet of leaves. Her footsteps excited a musical tinkling from the crunching icy needles. The cold had contracted to a patina of grey over her skin.

<You freed Nidhoggr! And in doing so, you released Chaos into this world, and also into your own world, your beloved Earth.>

There was a flash of memory – the destruction of the Cathedral of the Dead by Nidhoggr; the screaming motes that were the souls of millions of dead. The experience had been terrifying, the most frightening scene that Kate had ever witnessed, and she could no longer bear the memory. She squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them she was standing on the bank of the lake. The night was silent.

Something glittered below the surface of the water. When she peered more closely, she thought she could make out something twinkling golden, like an eye opening and closing where the penetrating moonlight ended and darkness began.

The ring…

A clawed finger was beckoning her. A pallid hand extended towards her, the ring of Ree Nashee in its open palm.

Kate froze with terror.

Now the silence was fractured. The water of the lake began to ripple with waves, washing against the shore, as if it were the edge of an ocean. There was still the same dreamy quality, as if time worked differently here. Her feet were exposed to the lapping waves. Her ears were filled by the sounds of the night: the hooting of owls, the liquid hiss as creatures broke the surface, the lapping of the waves. The cold was numbing her feet and hands. That same numbness was spreading, like a mask, over her face, begin- ning at her upper lip and cheeks. She felt dazed by the growing effects of the cold inside her mind, and spellbound by more subtle sensations: the symphony of the water, the attenuated reflections of moon on surface and the glimpse of bats fluttering across her vision.

I let Alan down.

How she loved him – a very special kind of love, the love that time and pain had not been able to    destroy.

‘Please – please let me go to him.’

<Have you forgotten the ring?>

‘I don’t want the ring any more. I can’t go into the water to get it. You know I’m afraid of water now – I’m afraid of drowning in it.’

<It doesn’t matter, reckless girl-queen. Nothing matters. Not any more…>

Who was speaking to her now, mind-to-mind? Was this truly the voice of her friend Driftwood, the dragon? Was she still blundering on within the dragon tale – her own special tale? Her numbed feet no longer registered the shore on which she was standing. It created an impression of dizziness, of floating on a cushion of air. She heard the screech of some hunting creature from the dark landscape behind her.

‘I’m feeling breathless!’ Driftwood did not speak.

How could you feel breathless in a dream? Yet she had to breathe: she had to fill up her lungs with air. She swallowed past difficulty, looking down at the iridescent reflections of moonlight on the water’s surface. She summoned up all of what remained of her courage and stared down once more into the rippling water. The hand was still there, the golden ring twinkling within its palm.

<Go on!>

Whose voice…?

She had to press her hands against her thighs to stand erect. As she took her first tentative steps into the shallow water, a roaring invaded her ears. Nervously, as carefully as she could manage with her tingling fingers, she pulled off her nightdress. She began to wade out over the unstable shingle. For a fraction of a moment, she couldn’t feel the water through her numbed skin. She reached out her hand for the ring. The cold ate into her, burning like a flame. Her nostrils stung with the sharp tang of ozone. The flesh on her legs tightened so violently that every hair jerked erect, above and below the water, and neuralgic spasms locked her knees and cramped the muscles in the small of her back. Her feet, instantly losing all feeling, began to slip on the scummy stones and the sharp edges cut through her socks like broken glass.

She stopped, the water now halfway up her thighs. The moonlight danced on the coruscating surface as the wide lake rippled with hidden movement. It was as if a solid mass of tiny creatures were beckoning her with a strange wild hunger, impatient for her to join them in the water.

<Go on!>

‘Who are you?’

<Don’t stop – don’t stop now!>

And then dread rose in her, paralysing her. ‘I – I don’t want to be here.’

<I did warn you that you would not like it.>

‘Take me away. If you are still here, Driftwood – take me out of here.’

In the next moment she was back, her heart beating in her throat, within the safety of the dragon’s ruff.

‘I don’t ever want to go there again.’

<But now a part of you will ever return to it.>

‘Oh, please don’t say that. You were right. I am the most stupid and stubborn of girls.’

<Sleep!>

‘How on earth can I sleep? I’m too terrified.’

Yet sleep she did. When she roused again, Kate saw that they were crossing over the tops of a great mountain range, its razor-sharp summits high above the clouds.

‘Where are we?’

<We are crossing the spine of the land – what the Eyrie People call the Flamestruck Mountains.>

The Wastelands into which Alan had taken his Shee army! Kate couldn’t imagine how they would have crossed these immensely high and treacherous-looking slopes. While asleep, frost had formed in her eyelashes and her nostrils were rimed in ice where her breath had frozen. She had never felt so cold in her life. She curled her body up and snuggled deeper, closer to the inner furnace of that monumental dragon’s heart and the hillocks of pounding muscles where the warmth of their circulation would protect and comfort her.

‘Can’t you forgive me my stupid curiosity? You are, after all, supposed to be my friend.’

Silence other than the wailing of the wind. ‘I did wake you from the dead.’

Still no answer.

‘What are you scared of – you, Dragon King?’

Driftwood issued such a deep groan that it reverberated through the pounding muscles of his wings, folding around Kate’s being like thunder.

<I think, perhaps, I should have eaten you when I had the chance.>

 

***

You can read more on YOUR RESTING PLACE on our Jul-Dec 15 Jo Fletcher Books page or our November New Book Recommends.

And there’s more extracts from our pick of titles – you can see in order of most recent in our EXTRACTS ARTICLES CATEGORY,  and below in order that we put them out!

DAVE VS THE MONSTERS: EMERGENCE – John Birmingham
SKY PIRATES – Liesel Schwarz
BLOOD RED CITY – Justin Richards
RADIANT STATE – Peter Higgins
THE SUMMONER – Taran Matharu
MARKED – Sue Tingey
BETE – Adam Roberts
FOUL TIDES TURNING – Stephen Hunt
STEEPLE – John Wallace
CRASHING HEAVEN – Al Robertson
BENEATH LONDON – James Blaylock
OUR LADY OF THE STREETS – Tom Pollock
CAUSAL ANGEL – Hannu Rajaniemi
YOUR SERVANTS AND YOUR PEOPLE – David Towsey
THE SEVENTH MISS HADFIELD – Anna Caltabiano
DETECTIVE STRONGOAK AND THE CASE OF THE DEAD ELF – Terry Newman
THE RELIC GUILD – Edward Cox
FOXGLOVE SUMMER – Ben Aaronovitch
THE MOON AND THE SUN – Vonda McIntyre
PATH OF GODS – Snorri Kristjansson
TIME SALVAGER – Wesley Chu
REGENERATION – Stephanie Saulter
THE SUPERNATURAL ENHANCEMENTS – Edgar Cantero
THE RETURN OF THE DISCONTINUED MAN – Mark Hodder
THE MARTIAN – Andy Weir
KOKO THE MIGHTY – Kieran Shea
THE UNNOTICEABLES – Robert Brockway
IF/THEN – Matthew de Abaitua
THE SAND MEN – Christopher Fowler
THE DRAGON ENGINE – Andy Remic
YOUR RESTING PLACE – David Towsey