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The Talons

The wind blew ripples across the surface of the Great Lake as the sun rose slowly above the three peaks cutting into the sky; mountains known throughout the land as The Talons. It was a fine morning, chilly, but promising later warmth as the orange clouds began to part to reveal a deep indigo sky that was almost purple in places. The lake itself lived up to its title, stretching for miles in each direction, feeding the Nameless River to the south and giving way to tributaries that criss-crossed the Forgotten Marshes on the eastern side. The Talons stood to the north overseeing all like three mighty guardians holding land and sky apart, and in their shadow to the west lay the town of Waterstorm. A harbour stretched from the shore out into the water and was lined with small ships and sailing dinghies. A gull flapped its way skyward, squawking as it flew, but apart from that all was silent, all was calm.

Thomm yawned and scratched at his sleep-tousled hair as he made his way drowsily from his parents’ house and along the deserted cobbled street, the soles of his boots clacking out an echoing rhythm as he walked. He took a broad-brimmed, blue, cloth cap from the pocket of his breeches and he idly ran his fingers over the threadbare wool of his striped sweater, passing the tall statue in the centre of the town square. It depicted an enormous fish balanced on its tail, covered in polished brass scales, with a wide, open, tooth-filled mouth stretching upwards towards a hook that would forever remain just beyond its reach.

Waterstorm was a town of fisher-folk and Thomm was a fisher-boy, but he hated it. His father was a fisherman, his father’s father was a fisherman and his father’s father’s father had been a fisherman and...well you get the idea. It stood to reason that Thomm would follow them all into the family trade. However, it was a notion to which Thomm himself had always failed to subscribe, and so undertook his duty each day with a sense of sullen inevitability, which always lent him a morose and rather grumpy demeanour.

Yawning again as he arrived at the shore, he made his way along the eastern jetty to a faded blue and green sailing dinghy moored at the end. Somewhat apologetically the name: ‘The Floating Filly’ adorned the side of the vessel in faded and scratched paint. Thomm read the name, sighed and shook his head, before checking the net within for tears and loose knots. Satisfied all was well, he climbed into the boat and slung his knapsack down, stowing it beneath the seat. He sighed again when he thought of the provisions that would be in there. Undoubtedly there’d be a large, barely edible, slab of his mother’s deep-bake frog-fish pie; its pastry so solid that he’d almost break a tooth biting into it, and its overbearingly salty flavour leaving his mouth so dry that it would take at least two flasks of squeezed hopper fruit to quench his thirst. Alongside the pie would be scalefish eggs, spread thickly on doorstops of crusty white bread. Thomm shuddered; was he the only person in town who really didn’t much care for fish?

Untangling the knot of mooring rope, he grasped the oars and pushed off from the jetty, rowing towards the centre of the lake. As the flat blades cut through the water, sending ripples left and right, and reflecting the rising sun sparkling on the surface, Thomm glanced over in the direction of The Talons. They were huge and grey, capped with snow and serrated with jagged rocks and shale. The centremost mountain was known as Flame’s Summit, and it rose higher into the sky than the other two, although its peak appeared unusually flat. It was, in fact, a long-dormant volcano, although, smoke could still be seen, from time to time, wreathing from the very top, just as it was this morning. Thomm shivered as he drew his boat to a rocking, floating halt and hoisted the heavy, weighted net over the side. It splashed into the water and began to spread and sink as Thomm turned his attention once again to Flame’s Summit. Squinting into the sun, he watched as the smoke rose, dark against the rich blue of the sky and was reminded of a story his mother had been telling him ever since he’d been a baby.

Legend told that The Talons were the final resting place of three terrible, giant, flying lizards. Lizards whose scales were as tough as plate mail armour and whose teeth were sharper than the bravest knight’s most honed and whetstone sharpened sword. Not only that, but these creatures had great leathery wings, dark as a bat’s and capable of blotting out light from the sun, and they could breathe columns of fire from their terrible jaws. Standing taller than fifty men and longer than five great longships, these creatures terrorised the land, burning fields and buildings and devouring entire towns whenever a hunger gripped their stomachs. The people lived in constant fear, unable to stop their flying foe, and unable to find a hero capable of defeating these terrifying creatures. Truly this was the time of dragons and mankind and his allies lived each day in fear that they might one day be burned from their home and wiped from the land.

Prince Naymon was the youngest of the King’s sons. A solitary boy not given to swordplay or jousting, he spent most of his days locked away in his room, poring over ancient tomes and scriptures, or building things; creating mechanised models that sprang to life with the turn of a key or the push of a hidden button. His room was filled with hand-wrought tools, life-sized mechanical soldiers that would march back and forth, wielding swords, and clockwork birds whose metal feathers were beaten so thin that they could actually fly. A bookish boy, smaller than average in height and stature, his father didn’t understand him and what’s more, never took the time to.

The King had been a fine warrior in his youth. A conqueror of troll armies and slayer of ogres, before age had caught up to him, he’d watched his other three sons ride off to confront these Brothers of the Flame as the dragons had come to be known. Two had returned injured and were confined to their beds. The other, Cal, – the eldest and the King’s favourite – never returned. He’d been boiled inside his armour by the largest of the three dragons as he’d raised his lance and tilted into battle astride his snow-white charger. On hearing the news, the King had remained tight-lipped, comforting his weeping wife, but deep inside he despaired; not simply for the loss of his child, but also for his kingdom, which was being devoured one town at a time. Would nothing, or no-one, save them?

“I can defeat the dragons for you.” Prince Naymon spoke without looking up from his desk where he sat hunched over a large roll of parchment, quill in hand.

“You?” The King didn’t even try to keep the tone of scorn from his voice. A laugh that was anything but humorous escaped the king’s lips.

“Or not,” Naymon replied, still focused on his sketching. “It matters little to me one way or another.”

A shade of crimson fury rose upon the King’s face. He’d only chosen to visit his younger son because he was desperate and one of his advisors had said that the prince had a plan to save the kingdom. As soon as he’d entered the room he’d felt uncomfortable surrounded by the ramshackle shelves of books and creepy marionettes. It had always been the same and he never understood how this slight, pale, skinny boy could ever have been his son.

“Matters?..MATTERS?” The fury escaped the King’s lips in an explosion of rage. “These dragons took the life of your eldest brother and injured your other two kin! How can you say that it matters little to you?! You ungrateful little whelp!”

Naymon sighed and dropped his quill into the inkpot before turning slowly and regarding the King with a dark, unreadable expression. With his narrow, hooked nose, single eyebrow, thick eye glasses and black cloak, he looked more like a strange bird than the boy he was. The King ground his teeth and stuck out his bearded chin, but could think of nothing more to say, so remained silent, his anger simmering.

“If you want my help father you only need ask,” Naymon said in a quiet, lilting voice.

The King suspected he was being mocked but couldn’t quite put his finger on why. He grunted and shuffled his feet uncomfortably. “I’m here now,” he responded gruffly. “You have one clock’s turn to tell me about this idea of yours.”

Prince Naymon took the parchment he’d been working on from the table and held it up. His father grunted once more, leaning closer and squinting until his eyes were little more than slits beneath his greying, bushy eyebrows. “But...what is this?” he asked after a few moments. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking at. I don’t have time to waste looking at your idle sketches. I have a kingdom to rule .”

The Prince gave a half smile and slowly shook his head. “No father, you have a kingdom to save. These plans show you how to do that.”

“Plans? Plans!” the King growled in exasperation. “These aren’t plans, they’re just pictures. If you spent more time working on your swordsmanship in the training yard and less time cooped up in here with these ridiculous... dolls, then perhaps I’d believe that you had a plan -.”

“Tell me father,” Naymon interrupted. “Cal was a great swordsman and how did he fare?”

The colour rose in the King’s cheeks once more, but he held his rage in check, swallowing it back and taking a step towards the door. “Your time is up Naymon,” he said quietly and turned on his heel.

“The drawings are plans for a device. I shall build a mechanical craft with which to defeat the dragons,” the Prince announced, returning to the parchment before him and plucking the quill from its pot.

The King paused and glanced over his shoulder. “A mechanical craft?” he said. “Preposterous!” But an uncertainty had crept into his voice.

“Fine,” came the reply, as Prince Naymon once more focused on his work. “If you want to go down in the history books as the liege who lost his Kingdom to the Brothers of the Flame, then that’s your decision father.”

It was hard to take, but for all his bluster and fury and notions of battle honour, the King was no less wise, and he realised that he had little choice. Nothing else had worked. Every other approach had failed. He knew he was running out of options. Gritting his teeth and clenching his fist, he made his way back into the room and loomed over his youngest son as he worked on his plans. Eventually, and with a heavy sigh, the King spoke: “And this device..?”

“-will be unlike anything the world has ever seen.” Naymon turned and regarded his father with his small, dark eyes. “I need you to gather together all the iron and steel you can find and assemble the Kingdom’s greatest engineers and artisans. My machine will defeat the dragons where they think their greatest strength lies and where they’ll least suspect an attack: the sky itself.”

Within a week the grounds of the palace had been transformed into a vast work yard with a dozen smelting ovens, two score of blacksmiths and innumerable other workers. At the centre of them all stood Prince Naymon, controlling the production like an orchestra’s conductor. Each day began before sunrise and work didn’t cease until the moon was high in the night’s sky. Within a month construction was complete and there, before the palace, standing taller than fifty men and longer than five great longships, gleaming in the afternoon sun, sat the machine. Truly it was a sight to behold.

“But...what is it?” the King asked in a far from impressed tone. He removed his crown and scratched his balding head as he stood and looked up at the mountain of metal before him, expelling steam from within and humming quietly. “I have spent most of the crown’s fortune on this...on this...”

“Monstrosity?” Naymon concluded, shaking his head at his father’s reaction, before turning and gently running the palm of his hand over the surface of his creation. “Really father, is that any way to thank me for saving the kingdom.”

“Saving? All you’ve done is bankrupt the kingdom!”

Prince Naymon stared at the King for a long moment before he spoke. “This will take the fight to the dragons in their own domain. If we remain rooted to this earth then there’s no question we’ll be wiped out, but once I take flight-.”

“Flight? You? Don’t be so ridiculous!”

“Stand back father,” Naymon replied. “And watch.” With that he clambered up the iron rungs attached to the side of the metallic beast and opened the hatch at the summit, before disappearing inside.

The King stepped back and took his wife’s arm as the other courtiers all craned their necks to watch. For a moment nothing happened. The King smiled grimly and shook his head before turning to head back to the palace. It was at that moment he felt it; the ground shook like a giant had stamped its foot. The King turned to see the great machine now completely wreathed and surrounded by steam and smoke. From deep within the cloud came a clank, followed by a boom, followed by a further hiss of steam.

The King, the Queen and their courtiers staggered to the left and right as more massive vibrations rippled and tore at the ground beneath their feet. Gasps and cries of shock and alarm escaped the crowd. They turned as one to watch the machine rise out of the steams and smoke, like a gargantuan phoenix glinting red and orange in the afternoon sun.

The King blinked a couple of times, his mouth opening and closing, but unable to form any words as he climbed slowly to his feet. The machine had now risen as high as the roof of the palace and, with a curious mechanical grace, it swooped a couple of times above the stunned crowd below, before releasing a further plume of steam and disappearing at great speed over the horizon, and away.

“Well...he did it, dear,” the Queen said to her husband, breaking the stunned silence and watching the cloud above slowly disperse into wisps of white. The King’s lips remained tightly closed and he said nothing in reply, but his mind was alive with thoughts. I’ve staked everything on this, he mused. Now we can only pray that he succeeds.

For fully two days and two nights, Price Naymon soared through the skies of the Land Beyond and for the first time in his life he felt truly alive and free. Far below, the ground sped by, but it could have been a different world, a world to which Naymon felt he no longer belonged.

It was dawn on the third day when he finally encountered the three dragons. They hovered side by side above the smouldering remains of a small village. One was as black as night, its scales gleaming dully like polished leather, the second was coloured emerald as a forest of winter evergreens, while the last, and by far the largest was a mighty creature of bronze and gold. A crown of horns adorned its head and its eyes were lava red, boiling over with fury. As they spread their wings they were unaware of Prince Naymon sitting protected in the armoured shell of his flying creation.

Without a second thought he gunned the machine towards them, scattering the creatures left and right amidst shocked roars of surprise as each tumbled towards the ground. Battling the levers inside the cockpit, he turned the machine about to see each of his enemy spreading their wings and sweeping over the land below. He wiped the sheen of sweat from his forehead then twisted a couple of dials and punched a large button labelled with the jagged line of a lightning bolt.

The dragons were approaching fast, great plumes of smoke billowing from their mouths as they threw their massive heads back, each unleashing an ancient battle-cry. Naymon shuddered and slammed his palm against the button one-two-three more times. For a moment nothing happened and the dragons were almost upon him, then with a click and a mechanical whirr, two round hatches opened and slid to one side, to be replaced by cannons, which emerged from the metallic depths beneath where Naymon was sitting. He let out a quiet whoop of delight and pressed the button again. There was a sky shaking boom as a twin bolt of electrical lightning energy blasted forth from the cannons. It glowed and flashed towards the dragons, who spotted it too late, and exploded in their midst sending them flailing and howling fury to the heavens.

On and on the battle raged for the remainder of the day over forest and hill, city and village, mountain and sea. The dragons attacked, but the machine’s armour protected the Prince from their desperate claws and fiery breath. In turn, Naymon bashed and bullied them, unleashing more bolts of energy, until they were exhausted and begged for mercy. However, Prince Naymon had a point to prove to his father and the Kingdom he ruled, and gave them no quarter. Back and back he drove them, over a huge lake and up to the summit of three tall mountains. With a further blast from his cannons he blew the top from the central peak.

Their wings drooping and tails hanging low, the dragons turned to him with eyes weeping molten tears and pleaded once more, but Naymon was deaf to their cries, driven on by his desire to be proved right. The black dragon was the first to fall. Unable to keep itself airborne any longer, it folded its wings onto its back, closed its eyes and tumbled down into the dark heart of the mountain below. Next was the turn of the green one. Two more charges from the metal flying machine was all it took, before it too gave up and fell into the depths. That just left their older brother. Of the three he had been the most formidable foe, but Prince Naymon now felt at one with his mechanical creation and realised that it was becoming part of him. He’d come this far, he wasn’t going to fail now.

Adjusting levers and pushing buttons he swept the machine through the clouds and faced his golden and bronze foe across the sky. The dragon narrowed its lizard eyes, beat its mighty wings and bared its giant fangs. Moments later, machine and beast were swooping towards each other, leaving streaks of cloud in their wake and filling the sky with a rumble and a roar. Naymon stared unblinking at the dragon, and the dragon stared back. Bolts of energy blasted forth from the nose of the machine, but they were countered by the stream of flame from the dragon’s mouth. They headed straight for each other, certain to collide and explode against the blue sky.

At the last possible moment, the Prince adjusted the direction, steering his machine up and to the left. The dragon noticed the manoeuvre, but it was too late. In an instant Naymon burst through the thin, but toughened, leathery flesh of the beast’s wings and out the other side.

The Prince gave a cry of delight as he wheeled the machine round to see the dragon flailing, spinning and twirling helplessly down and down until he crashed, joining his brothers in the hollow depths of the mountain. Naymon flew closer, peering to the side through the greasy window of the machine’s cockpit. Far below the mountain was still and silent; there was no movement from within, no movement at all.

Prince Naymon allowed himself the smallest of smiles. He’d done it. He’d actually done it. He alone had succeeded where all the heroes of the land had failed. He’d defeated the dragons, the Brothers of the Flame. He had won and couldn’t wait to return home and tell his father.

At that moment a growl echoed from the heart of the mountain. Naymon froze and watched as three plumes of flame erupted forth, engulfing the machine. He panicked and tried to escape, but it was no use; levers either jammed or wouldn’t respond and great clouds of steam and sparks filled the cockpit. The machine coughed and spluttered a couple of times before falling silent and tumbling out of the sky. It struck the top of the mountain, breaking rocks apart and sending great shards and boulders into the depths until the hole was filled and the three dragons buried. Meanwhile, the machine rolled down the steep slope, gathering speed as it approached the bottom. Battered, dented and leaking, it suddenly paused at an impossible angle, before flying up and hovering to one side. Inside, Naymon sat slumped and unconscious, surrounded by bent levers and shattered dials. Somehow the machine had managed to fly by itself and, in doing so, had saved the Prince’s life. It hovered unevenly for a few moments longer before letting out a blast of steam, which sent it rocking up into the sky and through the clouds, never to return.

The three mountains became known as the Talons, and after a time the one in the centre would occasionally emit plumes of black smoke and was named Flame’s Summit. As for Prince Naymon and his dragon-slaying flying machine, neither was ever seen again. Some say that on the darkest night you can still see the machine burning across the sky, but others know that it’s really a shooting star or comet. What is certain though is that Naymon’s battle with the three Brothers of the Flame marked the end of the time of dragons, and mankind flourished across the Land Beyond.

Thomm had never believed in dragons, but he’d always enjoyed that story and often wondered what had become of Prince Naymon. He glanced over at the Talons once more, then surveyed the Great Lake. It was approaching the middle of the day and he’d been joined on the water by other fisher folk from the town, each boat bobbing gently on the surface, trailing their nets beneath. Thomm checked his own net, but it was still empty; so far this morning he hadn’t caught a thing – it was almost as though something had scared all the fish from the water. He looked at each of the other boats in turn, watching as they checked their own haul, before slinging their empty nets back into the lake. Thomm frowned. Something was wrong. The Great Lake had always been full of fish, so much so that usually they could be seen moving just beneath the surface from the edge of the shore.

He edged to the side of the boat and peered over; the clear water was eerily empty. Not a single fish swam there and he could see right down to the grey rocks and sand of the lakebed. Something was most certainly wrong.

Just then a shadow passed him. It was gone in a blink, but he was certain he’d seen a dark shape reflected on the surface of the lake. He shivered and squinted up into the sky, shielding his eyes from the sunlight, but there was nothing there but gently drifting clouds and a solitary gull that circled slowly overhead. Thomm watched the bird until it headed towards the Talons and disappeared from view. Even when it was gone, he found himself staring at the three mountains; dark, sharp and jagged shapes set against the bluey purple of the midday sky.

But...I don’t believe in dragons, he found himself thinking for no apparent reason.

The other fisher folk were also staring at the Talons, without really knowing why. Their empty nets were left forgotten, trailing uselessly in the water as their heads filled with pictures, strange images they thought they recognised, but didn’t understand.

For hours they waited and for hours they watched, until the sun dipped beyond the horizon and the sky grew dim. All the time the same pictures flickered through the pages in their minds: a yellow eye burning red, a plume of smoke, homes afire and cities smouldering, huge wings beating slowly against a dark sky. Then a word fell upon their lips. More than a word, this was a name. A name that filled their hearts with fear and dread, as together they all spoke: Gravalax!

As soon as the name was released and free amongst the world, silence surrounded the fisher folk. They all wanted to flee; to dive from their boats and swim away, but something would not let them move. Frozen to the spot, their tear-filled eyes focused upon the mountain in the very centre of the Talons: Flame’s Summit.

I don’t – don’t – don’t believe, do I? Thomm thought to himself once more.

When the roar came, it seemed distant at first, like an approaching storm. A disturbance on the surface of the lake sent concentric ripples across the water. Then the heavens shook.

Thomm watched, flanked by his fellow fisher folk, each wanting to turn away, but unable to move. The roar exploded once more from the heart of Flame’s Summit. The mountain shuddered. Rocks slid and tumbled from its sides. Silence, silence, silence, then an eruption! Flames and molten rocks flew into the sky from the top; some shattering on the ground, others splashing, steaming into the lake below.

“But...I don’t believe in dragons,” Thomm whispered, as the dragon crawled from the mountain. Its great claws gripped outcrops, hauling itself upwards, onwards and out. Sitting atop Flame’s Summit, Gravalax surveyed the lands below. His mighty mouth drew back in a sneer that revealed row after row of pointed and terrible teeth. The rising moon reflected off his bronze and golden scales and his yellow eyes burned red. Two wreaths of smoke rose slowly from his nostrils as he opened his leathery wings to their full span – the right one still bearing the scar from his last encounter with mankind. He moved them up and down a couple of times, beating out a rhythm of thunder against the sky. He had slept too long.

Far below a cry of fear rang out from one of the boats bobbing gently on the lake. This was quickly joined by others as panic spread like wildfire amongst the fisher folk. Thomm didn’t cry out, he was far too terrified for that. He just remained frozen, rooted to the spot.

Gravalax looked down with disdain, then threw his head back and filled the heavens with the sky-shattering roar of his dragon’s voice. Moments later he was airborne, his mighty wings blotting out the stars as he rose from Flame’s Summit and flexed his claws.

The fisher folk leapt from their boats, splashing left and right as Gravalax soared towards them. Still, Thomm remained frozen. He screwed his eyes tightly closed. When he opened them, the dragon was that much closer, so much so that he could smell the scent of sulphur pouring from the beast’s nostrils and count the ridges and horns that crowned its head. He was vaguely aware of his fishing companions bobbing in the water and urging him to jump, but his attention remained firmly fixed upon the huge yellow eyes, flashing red and the monstrous wings beating out their own dark rhythm. The creature was beautiful, there was no denying that, but it was a savage and terrible beauty that caused his heart to thunder against his chest and a shiver to dance up and down his spine.

He was virtually face-to-face with the dragon now and was certain that the monster would bite him in two with a single snap of its unforgiving jaws. He finally realised too late that he wouldn’t escape...but the bite never came. Instead the dragon swooped, low enough for its soft belly to almost brush the top of Thomm’s head and low enough for the beat of its wings to almost knock him from his feet, before gliding upward once more. A blast of flame exploded from its throat and illuminated the land, burning the sky like the hottest mid-summer day.

As the fireball faded, Thomm and the other fisher folk watched as Gravalax the dragon stretched his wings and glided over the town of Waterstorm and off into the land of men.

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