Introduction: I hate to get repetitive, but today’s prompt is once again the first line, so I won’t spoil it. However, I will say that this is a dive into fantasy, my first love, and which I don’t write enough. Actually, this might be my favourite short story that I’ve written this month, as everything clicked into place while I wrote. It’s lovely when that happens, isn’t it? I’ll stop talking now and let you read.
Smoke hung so thick in the library’s rafters that she could read words in it. Then again, after a day spent with her nose inches from old books, she was seeing words on the back of her hands and dancing across her closed eyelids. The hours had flowed by, but they were starting to weigh on her.
‘What are you doing, lass? Surely you’re done by now.’ The hulking warrior dropped into a seat next to her, slamming his mug onto the table as he did. ‘Drink, be merry. The books will still be here tomorrow.’
‘I don’t think you’re supposed to drink in the king’s library, Walder.’
He cocked an eyebrow at her, chuckling. ‘Have you met our king? I think we’re supposed to drink everywhere. The old bastard is probably blind drunk already, and I doubt he’s worried about you and your books, Corrie. Come, let’s smoke and discuss the world.’
‘There are more than enough people smoking in here already,’ she glared around the room, which got no reaction from the various old men propped up in corners with their pipes sticking out of their mouths. Corrie lived in constant fear that one of the duffers would drift off with their pipe still lit, and the whole place would end up alight. ‘But fine, I shall leave the books for the night, as long as you’re the one providing the beer and smoke.’
‘You drive a hard bargain, my love, but I accept. Let’s leave these dusty tomes to the old men, and go party with the young.’
As Corrie stood to follow him her back creaked and groaned, leaving her wondering if she was that young any more. A day spent hunched over those books, trying to make out the spindly writing within was no good for the body.
‘What are you looking for anyway?’
‘Hm,’ Corrie’s attention had been caught by one of the duffers, he was staring at her intently, and she realised she didn’t recognise him. That wasn’t necessarily an ill omen, but in a civilisation of a few thousand, there weren’t many library users she didn’t at least know the faces of.
‘What do you seek in yonder books, my beautiful maiden?’
‘Shut your gob, husband. I seek dragons in those books, as you well know. Now help me out, do you recognise that man?’ She nodded in his direction, not bothering to be subtle about it since he was gazing at her openly. It felt only fair to return the favour.
Her husband apparently didn’t agree, glancing in his direction and then quickly turning away, taking her arm as he did. ‘Hm, yes, I know him, now come, wife. Some people should not be disturbed.’
Corrie let him lead her out of the library, but decided that was quite enough and slapped his hand away when they got outside. ‘What are you doing, Walder? It’s not like you to try and assert an authority you don’t have, who is that man? Are you scared of him?’
‘Scared? Hm, maybe. Better to say I don’t trust him, though. That’s our king’s latest magician.’
She managed to stop herself groaning, but it was a close-run thing. ‘Another?’
‘Yes, and this one is promising big things.’
‘Don’t they all?’
‘Perhaps, but he already delivered. I saw it myself, my love. He conjured a beast in the hall, making it dance to his tune before bowing to the king. That’s the first time I’ve seen them apart since, I wonder what he was doing in the library?’
‘No, but he has promised one soon. He says it’s a big undertaking.’
‘I should say, ten years I’ve fruitlessly searched for the information our king seeks, and I’m beginning to suspect the beast does not exist.’
‘I wouldn’t say that in his presence, he’ll strike you down before you’ve finished your words.’
‘Aye, but he knows I’m right, if the dragons existed they are long gone.’
‘Maybe, but enough talk, let’s drink.’
When Corrie awoke her head breaking and Walder snoring beside her, she had no intention of doing anything except rolling over and going back to sleep. Unfortunately, the world had other plans.
‘Mistress Scholar?’ There was a banging on the door of their hut, the kind that couldn’t be ignored. ‘Mistress Scholar, the king requires your presence.’
‘Urgh, what does he want?’
There was a silence, ‘well, he’s the king, I didn’t ask.’
‘Fine, you can tell him I’ll be there shortly.’
Corrie was happy to act uncaring to the king’s messengers, but she wasn’t actually willing to annoy him, so she quickly got out of bed and ten minutes later wandered into the smoky hall where a group of men were making sure the remnants of last night’s party weren’t giving a chance to float away before being joined by some more.
‘Ah, my dragon scholar arrives.’ The king smiled down at her from his throne, but there was little warmth in it. It was like being in the path of a chimaera, not a benevolent ruler.
‘I was told you require my presence, your majesty.’
‘Indeed, I have something here which might interest you.’ He reached out and ran his hand across the head of the person next to him, and for the first time, she noticed the man from the library was standing at his side. He bowed to her, a grin even more malevolent than the king’s across his face.
‘Your reputation precedes you, my learned friend.’ She bowed in return, ‘I hear you might be able to find that which our king desires?’
‘I certainly hope to be of service.’ He spoke for the first time, and his words danced through the air like smoke themselves, twisting around her. His voice was intoxicating, and Corrie could understand why the king was willing to trust this man.
‘In fact, that is why we called you here, Mistress Dragon Hunter,’ the nickname was mocking, ‘my friend here has promised to raise a dragon this very morning.’
Corrie raised an eyebrow, shocked despite herself. Usually, these magicians stretched their stay in court out for as long as possible, enjoying the king’s finery before he finally realised they could offer him nothing. ‘Indeed? Well, that is something that I have to see.’
‘Exactly, please continue Master Magician, we wish to meet your friend.’
‘Of course, your majesty.’ He stepped forward, waving Corrie to the side as he did, much to her displeasure. She forcibly moved passed him to take his spot beside the king instead, refusing to be dismissed. ‘The mistake most fall into when searching for dragons is assuming they are of flesh and blood. The dragon is a magical creature, as much a part of the ebbs and flows of chaos as it is the guts of humanity. To summon one, you must reach beyond this world.’
As he spoke, he drew a circle around himself on the dusty floor, working with chalk and at times nothing, simply tracing marks in the air. It was quite the display, and as he began to chant mysterious words, Corrie found herself being caught, once again, in the enchanting tone of his voice.
‘HIC SUNT DRACONES!’ He finally roared, and she knew that one, they all did. However, it wasn’t normally followed by a flickering of the lights and a long low growl, shaking the room.
‘No,’ Corrie gasped.
‘Yes,’ the king rose, staring wide-eyed at was in front of him.
It was huge, snaking around the hall and filling the air even with its wings tucked at its side. Dark green and armoured in flesh that resembled plate mail, there was no denying it was at least the image of a dragon. What made it clear that it was more than that was the smell, it smelt of raw animal, and when it breathed out a wave of heat engulfed them
‘This is magnificent.’ The king had left his throne and was stepping towards the creature, ‘you actually did it?’
‘Indeed, sire’ the magician bowed before him, clearly pleased with himself.
‘Perhaps you should step back, sire.’ Corrie was nervous, sensing that something wasn’t quite right.
‘Shush, woman. For years I gave you money, funding your research, and in three days this man has achieved what you failed to. Your opinion is no longer valid.’ The king was stood in front of the beast now, staring into its giant face. ‘Now, master magician, tell me. How do I control the animal? I wish to use it to conquer the world, what words will it follow.’
For a second, the magician stood with a bemused smile on his face, looking at the king like he was a child who didn’t understand what was going on. ‘Why, my king, it follows my words.’
‘Your words?’ Corrie watched as the fool turned towards the grinning man, finally realising that something was off.
‘Yes, my words. Ignis.’
The heat was unbearable, but not for long, and when the flesh melted from their bones, they no longer cared.