"Here be Dragons"
By Helen Fayle
There's a short phrase, that used to be added to old maps. To mark uncharted territory. A warning, of sorts. Maybe it was also a promise; a touch of strange.
A tale is in many ways like a map. A guide in prose to the vagaries of the past, or a warning to the future.
It always opens though with "Once upon a time".
Let's use the mapmaker's warning to close the tale though. It feels a better way to end the story than a simple "to be continued".
Don't forget, first and foremost, I'm a teller of tales, not a hero within them.
'Tell us a story!'
'Tell us! Tell us!' The clamour of young voices was insistent. The enthusiasm of the very young. It made him feel old, some days. The young man with shoulder length red hair and a neatly trimmed beard stared at his audience
'What do you want to hear?' he asked. An inward sigh: he knows the answer.
'Tell us a story about Merlin!'
'The Knights of the Round Table!'
Across the room, sitting quietly at a table, writing on a new tablet, Vivienne smiled, and lowered her head, letting her long dark hair fall across her face to hide it. Not before he'd seen the glint of amusement in her hazel eyes.
'The Great Dragon,' another said. A young girl stared up at him, fair hair falling out of a loose braid. He smiled down at her, his pale green eyes twinkling with amusement.'
'The Dragon?' he asked, in a soft voice. ' Now that's a long tale.' The child climbed onto his knee, and placed her arms around his neck.
'But you tell it so well, Tal!'
'The Dragonů' he paused, in mock thought. 'Now where to start?'
'At the head!' a young boy called out. Taliesin smiled at him.
'Does it have one?' he asks. The children all look puzzled. He settles down, the little girl still on his lap. 'You see, there are many things that have been called "dragons" over the years. Not all of them are real. Some don't even have a shape as such.'
'Sometimes. What does a dragon look like?'
'A big snake with wings!'
'It's got lots of tentacles!'
''My teacher says there's one in every world - they're invisible, and they live underground. When they move, the world shakes!'
'There is that,' Taliesin says softly, with a smile. 'But there's another kind. One I've been searching for a long time.'
'You searched for a dragon?' the little girl in his lap asks, all wide eyed delight. He flicks the tip of her nose with a finger, making her giggle.
'Of course! Although she's no ordinary dragon. She's special.'
'What does she look like?'
'She can be anything she wants to be. That's what I mean when I say she's special. She used to travel with a friend of Vivienne's, a long time ago, but she was lost.'
'Vivienne was lost?' a dark haired boy asked. Putting aside her writing, Vivienne joined the little group near the fire.
'No, silly,' she said, ruffling his hair as she sat down beside Taliesin. 'The Dragon was lost. You see, she was Merlin's Dragon.'
'You knew Merlin?' asked the little girl in Tal's lap. Vivienne laughed.
'I knew someone who knew him. A long, long time ago. Back in Avallion, where I come from.'
'Merlin didn't have a dragon!' one young girl insisted. The boy next to her thumped her arm.
'He did so! He had a big blue dragon that he rode into battle at Arthur's side! Is that the dragon you mean, Tal?'
Taliesin laughs. 'Something like that. But as I was saying, she was a very special creature.'
'She could travel anywhere in the Thirteen Worlds!'
'I heard that even the whole Battle Legions of the S'rax couldn't kill her!'
'Morgaine threw all her magic at her and couldn't kill her!'
Taliesin placed an arm around Vivienne. 'That's right - or so the stories say. But what did I tell you earlier about the stories?'
The children all fell silent, thinking.
'You said they'd changed, because Morgaine made the Bards go away, and burned the books,' said the dark haired boy eventually. 'That not everything was true anymore, because people change stories as they tell them.'
'Especially if they have to tell them in secret,' the little girl whispered in Taliesin's ear. He grinned at her and ruffled her hair.
'Quite right, Branwen. So, the Great Dragon, Merlin's battle steed, was something greater than even the stories can tell us. She was a creature from beyond the Thirteen Worlds, and she was very, very old.'
'Did she have a name?' Branwen asked. 'Everything has a name.'
'Yes,' Taliesin told her, very seriously. 'She had a name, but it was a secret. For there is a power in names, little one, and to tell someone your true name is to give them a power over you.'
'Like demons?' the dark haired boy asked. 'You can summon them and bind them if you know their name.'
'Yes, just like demons.'
'We know your name,' Branwen said. 'And Vivienne's.'
Taliesin moved her further down his knee and gave her an earnest stare. 'Do you? Vivienne used to have another name, once, long ago. And I'll bear another one day. So how do you know? Hmm?'
Branwen was silent.
'So,' he continued, 'Merlin and the Dragon travelled together for a long, long time. Until one day, they heard a cry for help, from an old friend of his. She was in great danger.'
'I know this one!' Branwen bounced up and down on his lap. 'It was Morgaine, and she pretended to be Merlin's love, Nimue. She called him to the ice planet, and trapped him. My father says he'll be back one day.'
'That's just an old wives tale, ' the dark haired boy sneered. 'They used to put criminals there. My father said that Morgaine used to put all of her enemies there, frozen in ice. He said that Merlin had done some bad things, and that it was Nimue, the Lady of Avallion, who put him there.'
Vivienne exchanged a long look with Taliesin, un-noticed by the children.
'Well, that's as may be, 'Taliesin said. He leaned forward, a crafty smile on his face ' But what about the Dragon? Who can tell me that?'
'Maybe she pined away and died, waiting for Merlin,' said Branwen. 'I cried for weeks when my kitten died.' Taliesin gave her a hug.
'So you did, little one. But the Dragon is a very powerful creature she's not like you or I. She can exist in many times, and in many guises. And she's very powerful.'
'If she can look like anything,' someone asked. 'How would you recognise her when you found her?'
'Good question. Maybe I'd have to look for something that didn't look like anything at all.'
They all thought about that for a moment.
''That doesn't make sense!' Branwen said, pouting in thought. Taliesin tickled her chin.
'No, maybe not. But such is the nature of Dragons, you see.'
'Why do you want to find her?' asked the dark haired boy suddenly.
Taliesin's face took on a thoughtful look. 'Think of the tales she could tell, ' he said eventually. ' The stories she's lived and learned. I'm a bard, collecting stories is what I do. Maybe, if I find her, I can sit with her and listen to the stories she could tell.'
Well, he told himself, sitting there, listening to the children's chatter, after all, a story is as good a way as any to break the ice.
Once upon a time, there was a great wizard who travelled with a great dragon. Backwards and forwards through the weft and warp of time.
Many centuries later, there was a teller of tales who was told that one day, he would become a great wizard.
He's been searching for a dragon for years. Heading for a future that is the past.
The one thing he's not sure of is that he wants the words on the map of his future to be true. Because if they are, his fate is already written.
And he's a man who prefers to write his own endings.