For each of our JAMS monthly creative writing meetings we all prepare a piece based on a a randomly selected prompt. We take turns to read each others work and, after the meeting, provide each other with a full written critique. It’s the main method that we use to develop and improve our writing skills.
Sometimes the prompt can really test our abilities. This was the case last month when the challenge was to write a High Fantasy story that featured a Dragon Slayer and contained the word “gracious” somewhere in the text.
I was so far out of my comfort zone that I thought, for the first time ever, I was not going to be able to complete the task. However, I persevered and produced a story that I was reasonably happy with. Honestly, I was just delighted that I had managed to come up with something at all.
I was both surprised and delighted when my fellow JAMS members were blown away by my story. If it weren’t for a few typos and sloppy mistakes, I would have been awarded full marks in both of their written critiques.
You can read the story below (with – I hope – all errors and typos corrected). I hope you enjoy my first foray into the realms of High Fantasy as much as my colleagues did!
The Dragon Slayer by J. M. McKenzie
The hamlet of Lemon Arbour has lived under the shadow of the dragon named Qomrirarth for many years. Too many years. The time has come to slay the beast. But what of the fabled dragon slayer? Who is he? Where is he? Why has he left them to fend for themselves for so long?
Engar was two years into his second decade when he first heard talk of seeking the Dragon Slayer. The dragon, who had been the scourge of the small hamlet of Lemon Arbour, in the Vale of Terrador, for as long as Engar could remember, was named Qomrirarth. The name meant, the bright one, on account of the vivid green markings that sparkled like emeralds on his wings, the shimmering of which could be seen from many miles away, forewarning of his next dreadful arrival.
On first sight of green sparkles at the hazy line where land meets sky, the village bells would peal their warning and a flurry of fearful activity would ensue. The frantic gathering of livestock, the anxious recall of children at play, the hurried boarding of cottage doors and windows and the collection of water with which to quench the flames that would inevitably burn in the aftermath of Qomrirarth’s fury.
Engar, had never known a life outwith the shadow of Qomrirarth. Indeed, Jaquard, eldest of elders, had once told him that the dragon had made its first appearance on the very day that Engar celebrated the completion of the first year of his first decade. Back then, the dragon too had been but a young fledgling, probably, Jaquard said, not more than one year since hatching himself. In those early days, he had taken only chickens and newborn lambs or kids, but as he had grown, so had his appetite and his strength and last month he had carried off a fully grown dairy cow from the herd of Daymar Garanthon.
On the day in question, Qomrirarth, had seized his first human prey and thus a line had been crossed for the people of Lemon Arbour. Nerensyth Larendarson, the eldest daughter of Grandal and Heta Larendarson, had been ignoring her mother’s cries to get inside and gathering up a kitten that had wriggled from her grasp as the family hurried for cover. Nerensyth had been trying to coax it from behind a tall, wooden water barrel when Qomrirarth had swooped from the sky in a blur of green and red and carried her away. The kitten survived.
Now the whole village was talking of the Dragon Slayer.
Engar sat at the top of the stairs long after he had been sent to bed and listened to his parents talk. It was a cold night and he had dragged the soft wool comforter from his bed to wrap around his shoulders in an attempt to stop his chattering teeth from revealing his hiding spot. The dying embers of the day’s fire created a slowly decreasing orb of warmth and orange light, which caused his parents to draw their chairs closer and closer to the hearth, making it difficult to hear all their words, but Engar heard enough. They were planning to seek a Dragon Slayer to kill Qomrirarth.
“It is time,” his father was saying. “We have waited too long. We have been foolish. And now it has come to this. None of our children are safe.”
“But we always thought the slayer would come. They always do,” said his mother. “It is their destiny. It is how it is. For every dragon there is a slayer and, when the time is right, they will come together. It is their fate. It has always been this way and it always will.”
“But where is our slayer?” his father cried. “Where is he when we need him? We cannot wait! The time is now. Fate or not. If the slayer will not come to us, we will have to seek him out. We must make haste. Who knows who will be taken next? It could be one of our own! Baby Sarander, little Mesophe or even Engar! No, we must act. We must act now. As is his custom, the beast will be quiet for two score days after his successful excursion. We have time. Tomorrow I will gather a group of good men and we will journey down the vale in search of the slayer.”
Engar couldn’t understand why this conversation disturbed him so. He shivered and pulled his comforter tighter around him as he snuck back up to his room and climbed into his cot. His sisters, Sarander and little Mesophe, slept on the other side of the room, head-to-tail in theirs. He lay awake for a long time after he heard his parents go to bed in the next room and the whole house grew quiet and colder still. Stars twinkled outside in the clear night sky and the waning moon washed the room in a silver light. Engar knew that when sleep eventually claimed him he would dream of Qomrirarth. He always did.
He had always felt a strange connection to the dragon. Of course, he had a healthy fear of the death and destruction the creature wreaked upon them on its monthly visits to the village. Of course, he cowered under the kitchen table with his sisters as its great wings thundered and its fiery breath roared outside. But Engar also saw the beauty in its lithe and powerful form and the brilliant colours and patterns of its scales. Saw the elegance and grace in the rhythmic, rippling of its wings in flight. Heard the melody in its cry and sensed the intelligence in its piercing green eyes.
Engar’s eyes were green too. So green that sometimes the other children in the village teased him about being related to Qomrirarth. That they were brothers. That Engar had not been birthed from his mother’s womb but had hatched from an egg. They called him Qom or Qomo and always made him play the monster in games of tag or hide and seek. They pretended to kill him in their playfights, poking and swiping at him with their stubby wooden swords until he sulked home with his head down and his shoulders slumped, tears welling in his eyes.
But they were right. He did feel a connection with the dragon, and at no time was this stronger than when he closed his eyes each night and entered the world of his dreams.
He first started dreaming of Qomrirarth in the first year of his second decade. He never told anyone about the dreams. Not even his parents. Fearful that by speaking of them that they might fuel the fire of his imagined bond to the beast. Fearful that he would be shunned by his family and rejected by his so-called friends if he revealed any signs that might threaten to transform a childish fantasy into a terrifying reality.
The dreams had a clear and regular pattern. Each night he would find himself walking out towards Qomrirarth’s lair. In the waking world it was over a day’s walk from Lemon Arbour, at the end of the Vale, beyond the Red Forest, high in the Mountains of Elwyre. But in his dreams, he covered the distance like a wisp, feet skimming over hill and dale like a gazelle, weaving through the forest like a breath of wind, and scaling rocks and boulders as nimbly as a mountain goat.
The strange thing about the dreams was that he never reached the lair, always awakening back in his bed before reaching his goal. But, every year since the dreams had begun, he had got closer and closer before the dream had ended. In the past year he had reached the edge of a deep crater littered with bones and rotting carcasses. From inside a dark cave at the far end of the basin he could hear the deep rumble of Qomrirarth’s breathing, see the wisps of steam and smell the acrid scent of brimstone that drifted from deep within. This night, the night of the eavesdropped conversation about the Dragon Slayer, he got as far as to take his first step down into the hollow before he awakened.
As discussed, the next day, his father and a group of men set out on a journey to seek out a dragon slayer. They returned one score and eighteen days later, dejected, and disappointed. The day after their return Qomrirarth struck again, this time claiming the widow Armthwaite who had been out walking and had taken shelter under the old Sycamore tree at the centre of the high meadow, knowing that she did not have either the speed or succor to make it back to the village in time.
And so, life continued as before. All talk of the Dragon Slayer ceased. Weeks became months and months became years. Qomrirarth came and went as did the seasons. For a time, people and livestock perished in greater numbers than ever, crops and buildings burned, and the entire village lived in a cloud of fear and dread. It was only when they came up with idea of leaving out a sacrificial offering each month that some sort of stalemate was reached. They got into the habit of keeping a single goat, sheep or cow staked to a post at the edge of the village within clear sight of the dragon’s usual approach. After the first few occasions when the beast took both the offering and any additional opportunistic prey he could secure, Qomrirarth gradually began to accept the offering and leave without entering the village. After this, a period of several years passed in state of fragile but seemingly mutually acceptable peace.
In Engar’s dreams he reached the mouth of Qomrirarth’s cave. Secretly he was relieved that for the moment, the need to slay the dragon had been forgotten.
On the first day of Engar’s eighth year of his second decade, Qomrirarth launched an attack on Lemon Arbour the likes of which no one could recall. He appeared without warning, descending with such power and speed from the clouds above that no-one could escape his wrath. Two boys, Frimlar Smeed and Baobub Drax, had been crouched by the edge of the pond skimming stones into the water and didn’t even see him coming. The dragon made it very clear that the unhappy truce was over. Circling overhead with the screaming boys dangling from his talons, he bathed the village in fire, burning the haybarn and the mill keeper’s cottage to the ground and scorching the cornfield to a smoking cinder.
The village was in uproar. Accusations and recriminations flew back and forth. There was much weeping and wailing. Why had they not continued with the quest to find the Dragon Slayer? Why had they been content to accept the false truce? How stupid they had been to think that it would continue? They were not dealing with a reasonable being! They were dealing with a malevolent and evil monster! What were they going to do now? Where was their Dragon Slayer? Where was the one that was fated to slay Qomrirarth? Where was he when they needed him?
Engar, was deeply troubled and plagued with guilt that he had been content that the villagers had not chosen to pursue their goal of destroying the dragon. He sought out the wisdom of Jaquard.
The old man was frail. He eased himself uncomfortably down into the chair by the fire, signaling to Engar to take the other. Engar was nervous. He needed to talk to someone and Jaquard as the only person he could trust. Or so he hoped. He looked at him wondering whether to say what was on his mind. But, above his long white beard, Jaquard’s eyes twinkled with warmth and gracious compassion. Engar relaxed and started to speak.
“Jaquard,” he started. “I need your advice about some dreams and some thoughts I have been having … “
“Yes,” said Jacquard with a knowing smile. “I have been expecting you. I’m surprised it has taken you this long.”
“What do you mean? Do you know … ?”
“About you and Qomrirarth? Of course, I do. You two have been linked from the start.”
“I don’t understand. Linked? Of what do you speak?”
“You know that you and Qomrirarth are one. You know that you dream of him every night. That you admire and respect him. That your destinies are linked. That your fates are bound.”
“No! I don’t! I don’t understand! I don’t know! What does it mean?”
“You will find out in time. When the time is right all will be revealed. But you will not need to wait for much longer, I sense that time is approaching.”
Engar just stared at the ancient man. Afraid to speak and say something he would regret. He was clenching his jaw and his hands were curled into tight fists. He was shaking with anger and frustration. He was furious that Jaquard knew about him and Qomrirarth. Why had he not told him before now? Why had he not helped him? He could have saved him from so much misery and torment. Yet still he did not understand how and why the Dragon and he were bound, and the old man was not going to tell him. He got to his feet and stormed back to the cottage. His parents and sisters were seated at the kitchen table when he burst in through the front door. They looked up at him, startled.
“Engar, what troubles you?” His mother rose and held out a hand to touch him.
He brushed it away and hurried up the stairs.
“Let him be,” said his father. “Today he has become a man and what should have been a day of celebration for him has become a day of great sorrow. He is feeling it. This is all.”
That night, as every night, Engar dreamt of Qomrirarth. But this dream was different. Yes, he moved with the same speed and grace across the vale, through the forest and up the mountain. And yes, he reached the mouth of the cave wherein the dragon lay. But this time, instead of awe and wonder and curiosity, all Engar felt was rage. Rage at what Qomrirarth had done to his village and his people. Rage at the fear and dread he had brought to all their lives for so long. Rage at the pain and suffering the dragon had inflicted on his friends and family. No! However, magnificent, and beautiful Qomrirarth was, it was time for his reign of terror to end. It was time and it was Engar who had to do it.
Engar looked down at his right hand, suddenly aware that in it he held a sword. A heavy Damascan Steel sword. It was a thing of power and beauty with a bright, green, emerald shimmering in the centre of the intricately engraved pommel. It was a sword with which to slay a dragon. The sword with which to slay the bright one. In an instant Engar understood the connection between him and the dragon. They were connected. He did admire and respect the beast. He did appreciate its power and beauty but only because he was the one destined to slay it.
He raised the sword and stepped into the blackness.
The lair was dark and steamy. It smelt of decaying meat and sulfur. It was filled with the sound of the dragon’s breathing. Deep and shuddering and steady. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he gradually made out the shape of the creature against the back wall. Its great bulk was lying in a resting pose. Its glittering scales reflected in a shaft of moonlight that shone in from outside. Its sides rising and falling with every rumbling breath. Qomrirarth was asleep.
Engar approached the creature. He stepped slowly and carefully across the carpet of bones that littered the floor of the cave, lest a crunch of something underfoot should wake the beast. He was tense but he was not afraid. He knew that this was his destiny. He had to see through. He had no other option. Did not want any other option. He had to fulfill his destiny.
As Engar grew near, Qomrirarth opened his bright green eyes, but he did not stir, and his breathing did not alter. As Engar stared deep into these eyes, that were so much like his own, he felt rather than heard Qomrirarth speak to him.
It is time Engar. It is time for us to come together at last. From the day of our birth, we were bonded. Destined for each other. We have lived sperate lives but we are forever joined. We are meant for each other. I am tired of killing and burning. It is time for you to end my reign of fire. It is how it should be. How it must be. Time for us to bond in the way of ways.
When Engar raised his sword to strike, green tears spilled from his eyes.
When Engar awoke in his bed the next morning he felt different. Still in his hand was the Damascan Steel sword, streaked with Qomrirarth’s blood. His feet and hands were caked with mud, his shirt and breeches tattered and torn, and pine needles clung to his hair. Before his sisters stirred, he rose, wiped off the sword, concealed it under his mattress and went to the bathroom to bathe. When he was clean, he looked at himself in the looking glass. His eyes seemed greener than ever. He stretched and yawned and as he opened his mouth a tiny wisp of smoke curled from between his lips. But Engar was not startled. He closed his mouth, smiled, and went back to his cot.
Qomrirarth never visited Lemon Arbour again, as far as they knew.