First of all, thank you once again to the eight authors who contributed to this great story and to everyone who took the the time to enter. I appreciate that it was a difficult contest and hope that you still enjoyed it!
Out of the 81 entries received 4 contestants guessed half of the authors correctly, out of which I asked Mark to randomly select two winners. They are: Aleena Korell and Annika Schneider.
The winner of the early copy, also randomly selected by Mark, is Ben.
Congratulations to the winners!
Once again all dragon arts used in this announcement are by Tatiana Makeeva
And finally the correct order of the authors was as follows:
3. John Gwynne,
6. Mark Lawrence,
7. Peter Newman,
4. Conn Iggulden,
5. Jane Johnson,
1. Miles Cameron,
8. Garth Nix.
Please find the story below once more with the names of the authors added under their parts:
A shaft of daylight through the trees made Edvard blink. For a moment tears fractured his vision but then the cave entrance was snapping back into sharp focus. It was a huge well of darkness, his whole world contracting down to that night-black opening in the rock face. A wisp of something curled out from the cave-gloom into the light of day. Mist, smoke. Or Dragon-breath? Edvard swallowed, his mouth abruptly dry as fear clenched a fist in his belly. Storming a dragon’s den had seemed entirely different last night, when Edvard and the others had been celebrating their coming victory. The ale had been flowing fast and free, the singing loud and full of gusto and Helga had been fluttering her big eyelashes at him. Now, though, Edvard felt the strong desire to turn and run. He wasn’t sure if it was courage that stilled his feet, or the press of his comrades-in-arms as they shuffled in tightly about him. He hefted his shield and squeezed the grip of his sword, knuckles white.
‘Get in there,’ Wilhelm the Marshall shouted.
‘I … uh … don’t want to.’ Edvard’s mother had always cautioned her son to honesty.
‘What?’ Wilhelm’s shout was rather louder this time, one of his loudest in fact, and he had secured the Marshallship largely on the strength of his shouting.
‘I said, I don’t want to.’ Edvard warmed to his subject, turning to face the men crowding behind him. He tried to ignore the rather disconcerting sight of Helga and her sisters spectating from their picnic on the flat rock further up the valley. ‘Do we really all have to get roasted over a bunch of drunken boasts and peer pressure? Aren’t we bigger than that? Better than that?’
‘Get on with it!’ A distant cry from the picnic rock.
‘Well…’ Jom Lard, in the second rank tapped his boot with his pitchfork. ‘Happen we might have been a bit hasty. It could all turn out a bit inconvenient like … given how inflammable we all are.’
‘Flammable,’ Wilhelm shouted.
‘What?’ Jom frowned.
‘Flammable. It means easy to burn.’
‘…what does inflammable mean then?’
‘Don’t know, don’t care. You got it wrong is all.’ Wilhelm sniffed and gestured for them all to advance.
‘So … did I use “inconvenient” wrong … should I have said “convenient”?’ Jom’s jaw took on that angle which meant he was digging in his heels.
‘Look!’ Edvard shouted. ‘We’re getting off topic here. The main point is none of us really wants to fight a big fucking dragon so shall we just turn round…’ He noticed that all the others were staring at him open-mouthed. They’re actually listening! We might get out of here! ‘So let’s just turn around and…’ Even Jon’s chin had abandoned “stubborn” in favour of “oh my gods”. Edvard opened his mouth again. Closed it. Opened it. ‘The bastard’s right behind me, isn’t he?’
Gervax stared at the humans arrayed before him. He supposed he was going to have to kill them all. Again. I don’t want to be here, he thought glumly to himself. He had just been working on a really difficult bit of his bone sculpture, and having to stop in the middle of a line was most annoying. He’d never be able to finish it perfectly now. The other dragons wouldn’t notice, but he would. All that work tarnished by a niggle, and all because of some humans of all things. Gervax wondered, as he often did, why or how they had come into existence. What are they even for, anyway?
‘Get on with it!’ roared his sister from deep within the cave. The sound seemed to bring the frozen men back to life. Two began screaming, competing to see who could make the loudest noise, while the majority ran away.
Worse than pigs, thought Gervax. He wasn’t a fan of slaughter like his sister but he really couldn’t abide little things screaming. And why is it always the smallest things that make the most amount of noise?
‘And bring me a juicy one,’ his sister added. ‘I’m starving!’
Gervax sighed. There seemed to be little for it. He extended his talons just as the nearest human, the one with his back to him, turned round. The man was waving a little bit of tree in the air and, for reasons Gervax couldn’t begin to fathom, trying to summon all of his blood into his head. It was going to burst and then there would be bits of him all over the cave entrance. Disgusting. Human gore was the worst, it had a way of getting under his scales and was almost impossible to get out. And the smell! Just the thought of it turned his stomach. The smell would persist for weeks. As he stared at the near purple face before him, he couldn’t help but imagine the tang of human innards in his nostrils, and Gervax realised with sudden clarity that he was about to be instantly, violently, sick.
“That…don’t look like no dragon’s breath,” Jom Lard said, poking the back end of his pitchfork at the grey-green slime covering Edvard from head to toe.
“Could be acid,” Wilhelm opined, pinching his nose. “Not all dragons breathe flame. Some spew burning bile. Does your skin feel like it’s burning off yet?”
Edvard wiped at his eyes, his nose, and most of all his mouth, desperately trying to get the foul, thick stuff off of him. “I can’t tell…oh, Gods…is this stuff going to eat me alive?” He turned to his comrades, fear of his immediate danger overcoming that of what still awaited them inside the cave. “Help me get it off!”
The others all stared at him without so much as raising a hand to assist. “Well,” Jom began. “It’s just that…we don’t rightly know what that is yet. Could be just touching it is a death sentence.”
“Yes. Must think of the many and not the few,” Wilhelm added, gesturing to the spectators on the rock. “Who would protect the ladies?”
Edvard was now convinced the slime was eating at him and began tearing off his tunic and trousers to get as much of it away from him as possible. Maybe I’ll just be scarred for life, he thought optimistically. Ugly, sure, but I wasn’t much to write home about before anyway. Lots of men go through life being ugly. Jom never seems to mind it. Helga will understand, won’t she?
A roar, like all the thunderstorms in all the world striking the earth at once filled his ears. A hot wind drove them back several feet, many men losing their balance, even more dropping their weapons which fell to the rocky ground rolling away from them.
“By all the Gods…” Wilhelm said, making the four-fold gesture of prayer. “Death awakens…”
A massive snout emerged from the cave covered in heavy scales the size of bucklers, long, jagged teeth in two rows promising a quick and terrible end glinting from the creature’s jaws. The mountain seemed to tremble as it took first one step then the other outside of the cave. The dragon’s mouth opened, and Edvard, too scared to run, prepared for the end. Not so bad a way to go, really. Eaten by a dragon. People might even think I stood my ground, and if he swallows me whole, they won’t know I soiled myself before the end.
The dragon’s nostrils sniffed at Edvard’s face. This is it, then. The end. Right here. ‘Here lies Edvard’, they’ll say. ‘Eaten by a dragon whilst covered in slime.’
“Stop!” came a woman’s voice, followed by light footsteps.
Helga, Edvard realized in horror. Sweet, innocent, foolish Helga has come to throw her life away alongside mine!
Before Edvard could stop her, Helga had reached the mouth of the cave, and stood before the creature’s massive head. “Oy, dragon,” she said, rapping her fist on its snout as though she were knocking on a shopkeeper’s door. “Fuck off.”
(Sebastien de Castell)
Gervax felt a shudder ripple through him, nose-tip to tail. There was something about that voice he could feel in his gut. He turned his head to peer at the creature knocking on his nose, though it moved with him and seemed content to stand there, tapping away on his eyeball. It was almost impossible to bring the human into focus at that distance as well. Helga was just a blur that smelled of onions and sweat, but still, the knocking was annoying. In a sudden rush of anger, he decided to snap her in two – not to eat her, not now that his appetite had gone, just to make her stop touching him. Gervax didn’t much like the look of the other one, either, the one who had thrown his clothes away. The dragon wondered if it had been to make himself slip down all the easier. Ah! Were they sacrifices?
Gervax pulled back to see, so that only his head showed at the mouth to the cave. He had a memory of sacrifices, of maidens bound to wooden poles like some sort of kebab. It was all a long time ago, when frankly, the sky had been filled with the people and the humans dug tunnels and hid. Gervax had never developed the taste for them, but many others had. And yet… there was still something about the voice of the last one. It pulled at him, as a tapeworm might, tugging and slicing deep in his bowels. He could not have controlled his own reaction any more than he could have stopped his breath. Slowly, he bowed his head, so that he blocked the cave mouth almost completely.
“Ah, you remember then?” Helga said, folding her arms delightedly. “I hoped you would, old newt.”
“Get away from him, Helga!” someone shouted from wherever they had hidden themselves.
“I’ll distract him,” Edvard said, brave but regrettably slimed. “Go on, run when I say.”
“I reckon…” Helga muttered. She walked up to the enormous head again, leaning right in to the great eye that blinked back at her. “I reckon we don’t have to run. I reckon he’s one of the old fellas. One of the people. My grandmother told me about them.”
“Your grandmother was a bit…peculiar at the end though,” Edvard ventured. Helga cast a glance at him that lowered his self-esteem a notch.
“She was, yes, when you saw her in her last years, running naked and that.”
“Fit though,” he said. “I mean, no one could catch her.”
“She lost more of her wits than you ever had, Edvard Deerkind. And before she lost them, well, she knew all the old tales, every last one. The three kings what danced, the man swallowed by a whale, the one who they hung on a cross. She knew them all. And she told me she was of the old times herself, the old blood, the ones who spoke and had the people listen.” She reached out and idly scratched the snout of the dragon watching her and clearly listening. The great beast had not retreated further into his cave, Edvard noticed. There was yet a sense about him that he could spring out at any instant. It was a hard time to be naked, all in all.
“And it looks like the old girl was right,” Helga said softly. “For I said ‘stop’ and this old newt, well he stopped, didn’t he?”
“You said more than that, Helg,” Edvard reminded her.
“Well, I wanted to be clear,” she said. “And it worked, so no more lip from you.”
As if to illustrate her point, she poked out her own bottom lip. It was a thoughtful expression.
“Are you saying you can tell him what to do?” Edvard said slowly. His eyes began to gleam at all the possibilities.
“There’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” Helga said. She made a clicking sound in her cheek and walked backwards away from the cave mouth, summoning the dragon like an enormous puppy.
“Come to me, newt,” she said. “Come out and greet me, if you can.”
Edvard swallowed and backed slowly away. He spared a glance for the clothes he had cast off, but there simply wasn’t time to gather them up as the dragon squirmed and wriggled out of the cave – and grew, uncoiling before the mountain like a vast iron snake. The scales rasped against stone as they passed, so that they seemed to whisper a name on the wind, something with a lot of sibilant sounds, like ‘Susan Sarandon’, or perhaps ‘Kris Kristofferson’, it was hard to say for sure.
Gervax considered his options. Old newt, he thought. Stupid, scrawny, ill-mannered flea of a creature. Clearly the female didn’t realize dragons could fully understand human speech, could even converse, if they so wished. But he didn’t wish to converse. Not with these noisy, infuriating specimens. Not like the old days, when they sent proper knights to him, ones who knew a bit of skaldic poetry and the right words with which to flatter him, who had proper respect and a knowledge of the correct social niceties. There was no magic to it, well, not much any more.
He regarded the unwanted visitors blearily: his eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, especially close up. You could say that about a lot of things in life, he’d found. Things got worse – your joints ached in the mornings, or if you’d sat too long at the bone-sculpture; your hearing dulled and your appetites too. He’d even found his digestion suffered if he ate too much meat that he hadn’t cooked properly, and summoning the energy to bring the fires within to the surface was getting to be more and more exhausting. There were times when he didn’t bother to eat for days on end, just to save the effort; waited for Syntax to go out and hunt and blast her prey with her flame. He’d eat whatever she left: he didn’t care. Nothing tasted as good as it used to anyway.
“You see,” the yellow-haired one said to the male he’d vomited upon, “it’s in our bloodline, dragon-taming. Look how docile he’s become. Granny knew a thing or two – she did unicorns too. Someone once made a tapestry of her, she said, sitting with the unicorn’s feet in her lap. Made her look like a proper lady, she said, in a real pretty dress and long golden hair.”
The boy looked impressed at this. “Just like yours, Helga.” He reached a hand out as if to touch the yellow stuff, but Helga swiftly stepped away. Gervax couldn’t blame her: the erstwhile contents of his stomach smelled revolting. Another symptom of his advancing years. It was undignified, getting old.
Unicorns, for heaven’s sake. Gervax rolled his eyes. Did they believe all the fairytales they were told at the breast, these pathetic humans? Everyone knew there was no such thing as a unicorn. Never had been, never would be. Horses with horns? An absurd idea. And as for the concept of dragon-taming: what an insult! Dragons were the grandest of all creation, the apex of the hierarchy of living beings, kings of sky and mountain, though he didn’t feel much like a king – of sky, or mountain – at this precise moment, but he supposed he should make some sort of an effort. Syntax was always moaning on at him about keeping up appearances, as if it mattered. There were no more dragons – he was sure of it. They were the last of their kind, and damned if he was going to mate with his nagging hag of a sister for the sake of the species. If all female dragons were like Syntax it was no wonder there were none left. He summoned his energies and boiled out of the cave in a great black slither, taking pleasure in how the humans froze in what might be terror, then backed rapidly away.
All except the yellow-haired one, who stood her ground. She was so close that he got another whiff of her scent. Onions, he thought again. Onions… Suddenly the smell was more appealing.
“Lie down, Dragon,” she said. “Bend your neck to me and acknowledge me as your mistress.”
Gervax reared up a little to get her in better focus and there were a lot of ‘oohs’ from the gathered crowd. She really seemed to believe her own nonsense. Ah well, he thought, let’s play along. Down he went on his belly, like a great wyrm, with his chin on the ground, looking up at her like a dog awaiting orders from its master. Another creature diminished by the passage of time. Once dogs had been wolves, independent and proud. Now they were fat and lazy and domesticated, as stupid as cattle. But if the pretence served…
The female seemed delighted by his display of subservience.
“I bet you could ride him, Helga,” said the vomit-covered one. “Up into the clouds.”
Gervax cast a sardonic look at the boy. I bet she could, he thought: then put some effort into the idea of that and arrowed it at the female. Get on my back.
The yellow-haired creature patted him on the head. Just like a dog. Gervax suppressed the roar that had begun to build in the embers of his fire-sacs. Get on my back.
“Stay still, Dragon, while I climb on your back.”
And up she hopped.
Helga had ridden a pony. The pony was a dozen hands high; it frightened her to climb on its back. She’d ridden a cart horse once, and that had terrified her, but it had been just like this piece of madness; she was a fool for a dare, and she couldn’t back down. Anything that terrified her, straightway she had to do that thing.
Just climbing the dragon was difficult enough, and it was just like the cart horse; the fear really hit when she got up on its back. The scaly back was longer than the main street of her little village; there were little barbs as big as the back-rests on the wooden stools her father carved every winter.
This is really happening she said to herself. If I survive this, no one will ever treat me like a useless fucking girl again. Ogle my breasts, buddy? I rode a fucking dragon.
Astride? She wasn’t going to try side-saddle; she wasn’t a lady, and she didn’t know anything about how side-saddle would work anyway, but thirty local boys were about to see her legs all the way to the thigh. Maybe the hip.
Her head seemed to go very fast. Her thoughts were running away with her before the dragon did. Naked hips are the least of my fucking worries. By the sacred Sign of the Four. Blessed Argon wept. Fuck.’ Her hands were shaking; her thoughts were like the cart horse, running away with her. Just jump down, Helga. Just jump down, admit you’re terrified, and marry one of these clodhoppers and spend the rest of your fucking life bearing his babies and making his meals.
Die on a dragon.
She hiked her skirts and slid down until she was stride, just behind the head, her back against the first rising barb. It really wasn’t bad. She found a place to lock her hands; the thing’s scaly neck was rough enough to grip with her thighs. Which were showing.
Some arsehat whooped.
Fuck them. I’m going to do this.
Then it moved. All it did was raise its head, but that was enough; suddenly, at the end of the sinuous neck, she was twenty feet in the air.
‘Fuck!’ she shrieked. Part of it was terror, but a little was delight.
The massive head turned. She noted that it could not reach her where she was.
She began to sing her grandmother’s song. The Dragon Song. She knew the words even in Ydrich, the old tongue; the dragon and the knight. She always thought the knight sounded more like he wanted to make love to the dragon and not…
…In one sweeping motion that betrayed nothing of age or imbalance, the great scaly beast spread wings that were, themselves, stupendous; the wing roots unfolded like the shutters on a fancy house and then the thin stuff of the wing itself seemed to unroll in a blaze of colour…. Her whole attention as caught in the appearance of the wings, and her heart leaped, and then the dragon took a step into the air and flew.
The Dragon Song.
Gervax shuddered under the weight of the ancient words. The rider was nothing to him, no more than she herself would have felt a flea riding in her flaxen hair. But the words . . . the words were not simply some old song in a tongue made-up by minstrels, as had been claimed. They were truly Ydrich, the making speech of the most ancient powers, those who had created the world so long ago, but forgot what they had done, diminishing over millennia to become mere dragons. And in turn, the dragons diminished, and soon would be gone from the world entirely, the world their ancestors had made.
Or perhaps not.
The woman sang, summoning power. Those below saw strange lights flicker about both rider and dragon, and a rainbow suddenly appeared in the cloudless sky, transfixing beast and woman. Helga tried to stop singing as the strange, bright colours surrounded her. She tried to call out to the dragon to take her back to the ground, at once! But her mouth continued to move against her will, her lungs drawing deep as she sang on and on. Her eyes showed white and grew wide with terror as she found she could not stop singing, and widened still further as she glanced down and saw her hands where she gripped the dragon’s barb.
Her hands were changing! Lengthening, stretching, the fingers becoming long talons, iridescent scales thrusting up through the skin . . . then something clicked in her neck, uncomfortably. Helga stretched, and found her back also lengthening. She heard cloth tear as . . . as huge lumps grew upon her shoulder-blades and then burst forth, erupting not through skin but new-made scales. She tried to scream, but no scream came through the song, which grew stronger and louder as Helga’s throat became longer and wider and her voice rasped with the smoke that was somehow rising up from deep inside her, escaping from her mouth and her . . . snout.
Gervax too was changing. Age was stripped away from him. His scales grew brighter, his fire stronger. He beat his great wings more strongly than he had for decades, climbing towards the sun, his booming roar of joy and triumph almost, but not quite, eclipsing Helga’s song.
As Gervax rose, the woman fell from his back. But she did not fall far. Her own wings spread, extending and growing as she sang on. She grew like a forest fungus on a sunny morning after rain, from nothing to something very grand indeed in a matter of moments. Her scales shone like beaten gold, brighter than her flaxen hair had ever been, and she finished the last words of the Song of Dragons with a great gout of brilliant, sparking flame that mixed with an answering jet of roiling, red fire from Gervax.
“Shit,” muttered the vomit-soaked Edvard, so far below, watching two great dragons in the prime of their lives fly an unmistakable mating dance.
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