Two free chapters from: “THE POISON OF THORNS: The Dragon’s Back #1”
“He that is born of the Gryphon,
Beneath the waves won’t sink:
Forsaking the venomous flow,
From the River will not drink.
As sons of the Gryphon’s Son,
The truth you’ll realize:
Upon the Dragon’s back,
The whole of man’s realm lies.”
(Yohann’s Song, the Word of the Gryphon)
“God, it’s not my fault! Do You hate me? Is that why I was born this way? It’s just not fair! All the kids keep picking on me and it’s not my fault! I can’t help the way I look. Look at me! You made me this way!”
~ ~ ~
In a hidden place of stygian blackness, just outside of sight and sound, Evil took form and laughed a cackling, victorious laugh. Other of the hidden ones quickly joined him in the darkness. Together they howled with delight—like a pack of wicked boys skinning a screaming cat with a dull pair of hedging sheers. Each of them brandished a long, thin, pointed barb that looked as if it had been freshly broken from some huge bush of blackened thorns. Vitreous poison dripped from those razor tips – and from the voices of the mob.
“Can I stab him next?” one gleefully screamed, pressing closer.
“No, I was here first!”
The lesser ones squabbled noisily, violently, until Evil let loose a low, menacing growl.
Silenced, cowering, learning, they watched as their eternal mentor went about his work.
~ ~ ~
You are needed!
I quickly closed the novel I had been reading, pushed down hard with my feet and pulled the lever on the recliner’s side, then rose to a standing position. The warning had been more sensed than heard. Danger as a tangible presence quickened my pulse as I glanced around my daughter’s living room.
The Compulsion whispered again, You are needed!
Where, Lord? I responded, suddenly fearful that my faith would not bear the test that approached.
Follow Me! rebuked that gentle quiet voice in my heart, retuning my focus.
And then I knew my direction. Quickly, quietly I turned to my left and climbed a steep set of wooden stairs, toward the pair of dormered bedrooms waiting above.
I gained the small second floor landing and turned to my right where the light from my Grandson’s room shown out from his partially opened door.
You are needed, here!
“Justin, I love you!”
The boy turned quickly, as though startled by the voice from his doorway. For only an instant I saw behind the façade that hid his heart, then with a quick motion of his right arm, he absorbed with his sleeve all physical evidence that anything could be wrong.
“Oh, hi, Pop Pop!”
I walked toward where he sat on his single bed and he opened his outstretched arms to greet me. Briefly, as I neared, he offered me a rare treat not many others had seen lately: a partial smile clearly revealing twin rows of sparkling metal braces.
I returned the smile as I sat down beside him, then pulled him close to me in a crushing bear hug. He returned the pressure in a contest that was itself the prize. Lingering, we fed each other’s souls with the strength of that manly grip.
“Justin, I love you,” I repeated softly in his ear.
“I know, Pop Pop,” his barely audible reply drifted up to me. “I love you, too!”
How? I pondered to myself, How in the world can I help a ten-year-old learn to handle his scars? How can I show him that, I too, felt his pain?
Deliberately, slowly, gently, I placed a hand on each of his young shoulders and pushed him back just far enough so he could see my face and the unhidden tears in my eyes. Apparently he accepted this visible sign of my love as a gift for he offered me another smile in return.
Then, knowing his eyes were on mine, I deliberately looked over his shoulder as though something dangerous crawled up his back.
“That’s quite a load of thorns you have there, stuck in your pack,” I told him and watched as an instant battle played across his young face: the seriousness of my tone fought against his reality.
“Wha… What do you mean, Pop Pop?” he stuttered as though caught off guard. Turning his head to try to see what I saw, he added, “I don’t see any thorns!”
“Oh, you can’t see them, Justin, but they’re there all the same. Big black ugly thorns, as long as swords and twice as sharp. They’re sticking out of your pack. They’re poking you and hurting you all the time.”
“Granddad, what do you mean?” he demanded an answer this time. “I’m not wearing my backpack! It’s still summer and we don’t have school for a couple of weeks yet!”
“Well, Justin, you’re just gonna’ have to take my word on this one. You are wearing a pack and it’s full of giant thorns. Trouble is, only someone from Dragonsback would be able to see ‘em and know how they got there!”
Still in unbelief he shrugged his shoulders as if in proof of their emptiness then added as though an afterthought, “‘Dragonsback’? What’s Dragonsback?”
“Not ‘what’ but ‘where’. Dragonsback is a land, very, very far from here. It’s so far away you can only get there in a story. Dragonsback is surrounded by water on every side — like a huge archipelago (or massive chain of mountainous islands). The strange thing about this land—if you could get up high enough to see it all—is that it actually looks like a sleeping dragon lying in the water!”
“Wow! A Dragon! Wait… This is another one of your stories, isn’t it?” Justin’s eyes brightened with anticipation as he saw at last my direction.
“Oh, it’s not just my story. There’s a lot of you in it. It’s a story about two brothers, Jason and Kaleb, not much older than you. And they really live on the back of that Dragon. It sure is a strange land, too: they talk differently than we do; they dress differently; they don’t have any of the fancy stuff and gadgets we have, like computers, TVs, and cell phones. One major difference is that they never ever have any rain. And one more thing, they see different things; things that you and I can only imagine here…
“You mean, like packs and thorns?” Justin interrupted with youthful exuberance before settling down onto the bed next to me.
“Exactly! But packs and thorns are only the beginning. It’s hard to explain, but even their dreams are more real on Dragonsback. It’s almost as if when they dream, they see things as they really are in their world, but when they’re awake everything’s clouded like a dream.”
Justin turned that special face toward me and, with what passed as his best attempt at a wink, asked me in a voice that no grandfather could resist, “Can you tell me about Dragonsback, Pop Pop? Can you, please?”
OF DRAGONS AND DREAMS
“Alone!” The boy-man stood high upon Dragon’s Back, the massive land, now shrouded in darkness, stretched endlessly beneath him.
He turned. Sudden vertigo, like an earthquake, shook his tentative world. Startled, his gaze fell over a naked precipice at his feet to plummet down into the boiling depths of the night-blackened sea far below.
Stumbling backward, away, he clutched at his only solace on the wind-swept heights, the still-massive stump of a Column, ancient and shattered before living memory. Its cold stone shelter leeched away his meager supply of warmth.
“I have seen the Dragon move!” he screamed! But the hostile wind tore the desperate cry and flung its tattered shreds into the unhearing night.
“No one knows! No one cares! No one will believe me!”
His lonely voice rose to a wail. Yet his warning to the world barely rivaled, then blended, and finally succumbed to the conquering wind.
The youth crumpled to his knees.
He clung even more tightly to his broken sanctuary, but could not turn away.
Chains of fear made unwilling prisoners of his eyes, drawing them inexorably over the yawning edge.
“I have been here before!” The shouted words brought no comfort, only a sense of impending doom. He spoke them because they were true: a spark of sanity in an insane realm.
From below the edge of the escarpment, out of the hidden sea, they came, as he knew they would. At first only disembodied shrieks chased by the wind up from the depths; then fear exploded into reality. They burst past the edge and erupted into the star-twinged sky.
“Dragons!” Fear’s icy fingers strangled his words into whispers.
Too late, he snapped shut his eyes. Too late, he froze against the Column.
A silent prayer escaped, Maybe they won’t see me, this time. Maybe I’ll go free!
Too late! He could not shut them out! A dozen glowing streaks of green and red had etched themselves into his mind: burning eyes set in wind-whipped shrouds of midnight black. Like oversized bats the creatures swarmed on leathery wings.
Flashing shadows! Dark transparencies, magnified by glowing eyes and milk white talons, razors in the night!
The youth had seen them many times before. Shutting his eyes did not help. The red-hot stylus of fear had indelibly branded their image on the back of his eyes.
That image tore words from his mind, painting pictures even the blind could see.
Wind-borne wisps of burning black smoke turned monstrously real. Shadows with terrifying substance, not much larger than he. Four powerful legs! Sharp scaline claws! A thick serpentine tail making the creatures twice as long again. Nearly invisible midnight-black wings: three manheights across! Unrelenting Death in the air!
They were on him, their dark breath as cold as the depths of the bottomless ocean below. Grabbing! Tearing! Seeking to dislodge his death-grip on the too-massive rock of the Column.
The youth felt himself being shaken violently.
The dragons fought to cast his struggling form over the precipice. On the horizon, out of the circling clouds, a flight of eagles burst into distant view — starlight reflected on gold.
“Jason, can you hear me?”
The eagles were still too far away! He was going to fall!
The lizards’ talons ripped into his shoulders and pulled him over the edge. They clung a moment longer, wrenching him out and away from any possible redemption. Beyond hope’s last point, they let him go!
The young man screamed, voicing the terror of the damned.
“Jason! Wake up! It’s only me, your brother! You’ve got to wake up!”
A forgotten voice coincided with an un-remembered name to catch at his attention. Warm hands clung firmly to his shoulders and drew him out of the cold dark depths of the sea of sleep.
“My name is Jason,” he whispered and the sound of his own living words brought new life to his conscious mind. He opened his eyes and in the semidarkness knew the truth of where he was and whose shadowed face hung just above his own. “Kaleb, my brother — you’ve rescued me again.”
Even the darkness could not hide the brightness of the rare smile relief painted on the older boy’s face. Kaleb tousled his younger brother’s hair as he said with mild rebuke in his voice, “Bet you were dreamin’ of mythical dragons and make believe eagles again, weren’t you?”
“Yeah, I know. You keep tellin’ me ‘The only Dragon around here’s the rock ‘neath our feet.’ But there’s more to this than just livin’ on a land that looks like the back of a Dragon… ”
Kaleb interrupted, the sharp edge in his voice not meant for his brother but aimed at the coral walls that confined them. “We’re not on his back! We’re stuck out here on the Islands of the Tail. An’ I hate it! Locked away like this! No wonder you’re havin’ crazy dreams. I hate what it’s doin’ to you and I hate what it’s doin’ to me!”
Jason sighed. Kaleb’s mood swings were familiar ground, yet unwelcome terrain.
We only have each other, he thought, justifying his brother’s outburst of anger. I know it’s us against the world. Kaleb’s said so often enough! Who knows if Grands will ever find us. But one thing I know, I’ve gotta’ help Kaleb deal with his pain or he’s gonna’ explode.
But the volcano inside his brother had not finished its eruption. Sparks of verbal lava spilled into the night, “Ten years of our lives wasted! No news! No visits! Like animals in a cage, when we never did anything wrong! Why are we locked up in here? Why did they do this to us? I hate this orphanage! And most of all I hate Marvin for keepin’ us here!” Kaleb spoke the man’s name as though it were a curse laced with deadly poison.
“I’m sorry I woke you, again.” Jason’s voice carried his embarrassed regret to his brother. He shared much of Kaleb’s hopelessness but would have given almost anything not to have invoked his brother’s response.
“It’s just that,” continued the younger boy even more intensely, “the dreams seem so real. I can see and feel the dragons. I can smell them, even after you shake me awake! I feel like I’m their prisoner more than I am Marvin’s!”
“It’s all right, Jase, wakin’ me an’ all that. I was havin’ a bad dream of my own…”
“You mean the one… about Mom… and Dad, and… and the man with the sword on the boat?” Jason exposed his raw emotions. It felt like someone had a ripped bandage from an open wound. Although tears did not fill his eyes, they drowned his words.
“Yeah, that’s the one. The night they were killed.” Kaleb’s voice sounded hollow and dry, as though echoing through an old fallen log, long ago crumbled and decayed on the inside.
“I have that nightmare, too. Over and over. I can still see that Swimmer jumping up and down on the side of the boat till it flipped! Then he just swam to shore and allowed everybody else to drown!” Jason felt thorns tearing at his back like the dragons’ claws in his dream. Real tears salted the fresh wounds.
“I remember him, too, Jase.” And now Kaleb’s voice took on the cold hardness of polished scaline, the hardest metal on Dragonsback. “I remember him, too!”
Jason didn’t want to share the room with his brother’s anger; their allotted space had never been large enough to offer hospitality to ghosts from the past. The youth lifted his mind beyond the imprisoning walls and returned to a bright sunlit field brushed by wind and painted with riotous wild flowers. He did not know if he had ever visited that place, before… But real or not, more and more lately he had sought refuge in its image.
I wish Kaleb could find something beyond this orphanage to hope for, to dream about, he thought. Reaching up to grip his brother’s arm in the darkness, he asked a question, hoping to build a bridge that Kaleb could cross to join him in this light-filled place.
“What would you do if we ever got free from here?”
But the question’s familiarity painfully snagged on his memory. Before the final word had left his mouth, he already knew the weight of its oft-repeated answer could crush even the strongest bridge. The cold, dark mass of that answer would turn to shadow even the brightest sun.
Jason heard his brother’s voice shake in response. Emotion poured out in a litany of despair and pain. Kaleb did not hesitate to recite the words that had become his whole reason for living.
“I would find that man, that Swimmer! I would chain him to the largest thorntree I could find, then I would break off every one of those arm-length thorns on that tree and jab them into his face. Over and over again until he died from the sheer pain of it! Then after I had laughed and laughed for the joy of knowing that our parents were finally avenged, I would take the biggest thorn that was left and go in search of my father’s father who has abandoned us here all these years! I already carry one with Marvin’s name on it. Some day I’ll get to use that, too!”
Night-hidden tears flowed down Jason’s cheeks but a sob escaped from his heart.
As though Kaleb suddenly understood the pain his words invoked, Jason heard him add in a softer, almost regretful tone, “Well, maybe not for our GrandSire. At least I’d ask that old man where he’s been and why he never came and got us out of here.” Then after a pause the older boy added, “Hey Jase, what would you like to do, if you had the chance?”
“You’ll think I’m silly!”
“No, I won’t. Remember, I know you. I know you need to dream good dreams. Guess I’m past that though. Come on, out with it!”
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately,” replied Jason, rising to his knees on the bed.
His mind flashed to a time when they were younger. Surreptitiously, from out of their narrow upper story window of the mountaintop Orphanage, they would drop anything they could find that would roll; competing to see whose “marker” would travel the longest or wreak the most havoc among unsuspecting pedestrians in the steeply sloping streets below. Their greatest joy had been the unpredictable results of their actions. Now, as he spoke them, his words of revelation to his closest friend and companion felt like some of those markers. Slowly at first they tumbled out. Then picking up speed, they flew!
Jason reveled in the unpredictable joy of hearing them spoken at last.
”I’ve never told you before, but… But, I want to learn to be a bard! I know it’s forbidden for us to sing in the Orphanage, but I got all these songs tryin’ to burst their way out of my heart. If I were free, I’d sing ‘em all at the top of my voice and keep singing ‘til I lost my voice. Then I’d beat out a cadence with my hands and feet ‘till I couldn’t move. I need to sing, Kaleb! I need to sing!”
He sank back down to the quilts before continuing, “And as far as our GrandSire… If I could find him, I’d give him a big hug, then I’d listen to him tell us how long and hard he’d struggled to find us!”
~ ~ ~
“Thank ya’, Capt’n,” the solitary old man spoke with the slow, thick speech of a Heartlander. “I’ll return shortly with the boys.” He had waited, according to custom, until he was securely on the dock before turning to speak.
The dark-skinned Mariner priest nodded from within the dark solitude of his black cowl but never said a word; he was from ancient Pasca, north of Dragonshead, and, like all of his fellow sea priests, had long lived under a vow of silence. Instead, drawing his serpentine shortsword, the Captain flicked his wrist so that the dull point of the ceremonial weapon swung in a quick overhead arc that ended pointing the way the elderly man was to take. It was the sign for GO.
Next, the priest snapped his sword to an upright position in front of his face. I WILL GUARD.
Silently, the old man drew his own shortsword to give response. The rapid salute of arms ended with the sun-bleached blade covering his own heart and the point touching the jugular beneath his short-cropped white beard: THANK YOU, MOST RESPECTED ONE.
Under the burning noontime sun, the dark-robed priest stood as etched in obsidian, making no further response. Nor was one expected. The white-haired man had already turned to go, the rustle of his tan linen tunic lost beneath the creak of the rigging overhead and the slapping of the waves against the blackened sides of the ancient ship.
“I, wonder,” the man spoke to no one in particular as he began the steep climb up the narrow roads of the island-city, “how the orphanage’s fixed the boys for their future. The Gryphon knows I would rather’ve had ’em with me. What do the Island guv’ment ‘ficials know o’ Truth? Pah! I had to bend the law, but t’weren’t my choice! By all that’s holy, it t’weren’t my choice! The Gryphon knows!”
Harbor Street was so steep at this point that it had been terraced long ago into low steps, now worn and rounded with age. The old man, puffing with exertion, jostled his way upward through a muted rainbow of peopled garments swirling in joyful pastel colors. But, always a watcher of men, the old man saw the lie in those colors and found truth a short hand-width higher. Somber-faced men rushed to and from their businesses, carrying more than visible burdens. He saw other truth that greatly pained his long-felt inner sense of missing family. Hearty, but sad-eyed, women towed children down toward the sea-side market wishing all the while their upward journey could be lightened.
How can y’ feel that way? he silently questioned the strangers as sudden tears filled his eyes. Y’d fast learn t’ treasure ‘em if y’ had all yer kin snatched away in a day!
Taking a deep breath of the salted air, the tall white-haired man straightened up to his full height and deliberately altered his countenance. “No,” he reasoned with himself, speaking aloud once more, “it just wouldn’t do t’ have a Swimmer walkin’ round with a long face on. Never know who’s watchin’ or who I might he’p with m’ smile. What’s done with the boys is done, an’ beside, today’s startin’ bran’ new, full o’ promise. We’ll haf’ t’see what’ll come of it. Jus’ like I always say, ‘The future’s hid under the Gryphon’s paw, but the past is under His heart.'”
He filled the rest of his climb with the self-appointed task of first greeting one lady, then the next. “Why, madam, what a handsome son y’ be a caryin’! He’ll surely grow up t’ be a lad fine enough fer any mum t’ be proud of… And good noontime t’ you, fair lady. What a beautiful baby daughter y’ have in yer arms. I declare, she’s as sweet as the sun on wildflowers! What a treasure t’ behold!”
And in this way he illuminated the noontime street and lightened his journey upward.
Like all of the Island Cities, the buildings on Central Isle, including the Orphanage at its summit, were built of coral. Long ago the priests’ decree had banned mining the scaline rock and metal of the Tail. When one lives on the edge of a bottomless sea, it’s dangerous to have your platform eaten out from under you. Only in the narrow channels between the Archipelago’s Islands could the depth be fathomed and coral dredged up to use as building blocks. But neither the Great Ocean beyond the Islands, nor the Bay they encircled, had ever been sounded.
“Ah, here we be,” wheezed the old man, stopping to catch his breath in the shade of the massive coral-orange building. Resting for a moment in the fruit of his labor, he turned with heart-felt satisfaction to survey the conquered challenge that lay now at his feet. “Hmmm, quite a view from the summit!” he said out loud to no one and everyone. He was past the age of worrying or even caring what “young’uns” thought of him.
From the height of the crest of the mountain island, he could look straight down the steep road he had climbed to the harbor at its base. People formed a living cataract cascading through its confining banks of houses, slow motion multicolored foam descending to, and rising from, the bubbling caldron of the Market Port far below. Barely discernible in the harbor and in the dark waters of the Bay were the small outriggered sailboats of the Pasca Priests, effectively camouflaged from casual view by their black sails and darkened hulls. Beyond the Bay, the Highlands of Dragonsback rose to dwarf the summit of even this tallest of the Islands of the Bay, placing fresh perspective on the task he’d accomplished.
“‘Tis but a small vic’try I’ve won in comin’ here when seen through Your eyes. Thank you, Mighty Gryphon, for puttin’ me in m’ place. An’ there’s a lesson here, even sum’un as boneheaded as me can see! Lookin’ down always makes us feel bigger ‘en what were lookin’ at. It’s lookin’ up what puts us seein’ things as they really is!”
He paused in his soliloquy sermon to ponder the view one last time, “Yup, it’s mighty impressive, indeed. I can see most o’ this half of Dragonsback from up here. ‘Twas well worth m’ effort,” and so saying, he turned to the task he had come to accomplish. The massive door he approached made him feel like the tiny frag’le boat floatin’ next to a giant mountain. “Guv’ment always tryin’ t’ make people feel that way. It’s jus’ too big for its sandals and too small for its headband. Well, there’s just this one more obstacle to climb, then I too can tumble down the mountain. Gryphon willing, I won’t be alone. ‘Tis truly a beautiful place, but’s still a prison!”
High above him, ensconced within the coral towers, out of sight and mind of the world, two wards of the state were unaware that their lives were about to change forever. Jason, with the youthful exuberance of any thirteen-year-old, looked out of a barred window at the same scene the old man had just surveyed, with the added advantage of five additional levels.
“We are so lucky!” he commented to his brother who sat behind him on the bed. “Our room is high up and faces the Mainland across the Bay! We can even see the tip of Dragonshead from here. We’re probably the only ones on the Island who can!”
Fifteen-year-old Kaleb had long ago outgrown the exuberant stage, if indeed he had ever had one. His brother’s sunshine fell on hardened clay, so long baked into brick that even noontime heat failed to soften it. Kaleb, looking at the same window, saw not the beauty, only the bars. Shaking his head at his brother’s back he commented bitterly, “There’s no such thing as a ‘lucky’ orphan!”