Stories by Colin Burke

Chronicles of
Arthur’s Heirs

Early a morning in the fall, the lady Alyson was brought outside her father’s castle, while a deep enchantment held asleep the guards who kept the gates. He who bore her thus was a knight named Enfarg, who had come to the castle on the day before, in full armour and well horsed but without companions.

Enfarg took her to a tower of the gatehouse, and there began to change. His gauntlets became claws that stung her flesh a little before he quickly loosed somewhat his grip upon her. The scale armour that her father’s men-at-arms had wondered at on one so richly weaponed, now was scale indeed. (He told her later that he could not suffer chain of any kind upon him.) And he flew from gatehouse tower, bearing her in crook of forelegs bending upward, with the talons curling down. And his claws were tightly clenched, so hard it was to bear her thus.

So the dragon bore her straight, as crow flieth but less blithely, to a dark tower in a wasted land, where servants gave her for herself a chamber richly furnished, till he could come to her in man-shape. And they fed her food whereof the sight and smell and taste kept fear of it away, so that she suffered naught but prisoning and dread. When five days had passed, the knight came to her chamber. And when they had talked some time, and she forebore to plead for freedom but only spoke of other things that came to mind, he left her to herself. He came again on other days, in man-shape always, and when she knew him well enough for to believe that some great need had driven him to stealing her, he told her of his curse and of the boon he wanted.

He told her of his father strong, who he said had kept a castle in this land now wasted and had held the lordship which the tower still commanded. But once his father, who had great power of his own, had dared the wrath of a mighty sorcerer, and war had been between those two. The tower at that time was twice as tall as now, and the power that Enfarg’s father had, ruled from it all his castle. But in a moment of great terror the warlord drew that power back upon himself, to save himself alone, when all else seemed doomed despite his power. And though he sought to draw it all upon himself, his power yet filled half the height of his high keep, and this much had remained to him when the castle and his own privy land about it were taken and laid waste. (A lesser power of his own had held within the tower’s rule the other domain about this land, and that the sorcerer could not break while he fought the greater force.) And the lord’s power bore him up but he could not wield it then, and in that weakness a spell was laid upon him that left him, in divers times and at strange seasons, dragon-shaped. There was one way to break that fell enchantment, and that way the warlord knew, but the knowledge had availed him naught, and the curse was passed to Enfarg, who was begotten by the warlord after those things were done.

And Enfarg said that nothing could break the spell save that a maiden lie with him, mayhap not gladly but at least of her own will, in a time of wearing of the dragon-shape. For Enfarg said the curse was such that if a maiden acted thus, of her mercy, the power of the spell would break, and he would be a man at all times and forever, and his heirs also, thereafter. But if no maiden broke the curse, any son of his begetting would have the dragon-shape in such seasons as he himself was now held by it.

Alyson was frightened and filled with great disgust, and bade him leave the chamber, and he bowed to her and left. But oft he came again and looked at her with pleading in his eyes, and ever she shook her head without a word and caused him to depart. And sometimes in dragon-shape she heard him crawl about the hall at night. For there were slitherings and rustlings as he went to and fro with hope and great forbearance, beyond the chamber door which her will alone kept shut against him. And she asked him once to let her leave, but he would not.

Now, there came a day when, as they sat at dinner in the room which served as their great hall, with Enfarg’s servants all about them, he suddenly took on the dragon-shape. And as he went up the stairs to tower’s top, the servants withdrew from serving and went to windows and gazed over the land about the tower. When some time had passed, a knight was seen, riding toward the tower. And when the knight drew near, Enfarg swooped down upon him, and the fight between the two was short. And Enfarg ate the knight, but his horse escaped, for the knight was quick with sword, and both could not be killed without danger unto dragon.

When Enfarg came back inside, he bade a servant take from a claw of his left forepaw a patch of mail, for one of the links thereof had stuck upon the talon-point. The servant smeared butter on the claw and with a hammer small he softly tapped the link till it slipped off. And Enfarg sighed and said, “Alas! I have not tasted frightened horse so long a time.” But when he had rested and his blood was quiet, his shape as man came back to him. And Alyson asked him why he fought the knight not fairly, sword to sword and horse to horse. But he laughed and said, “Who seeketh a dragon’s hoard will find a dragon guarding it, while yet that dragon liveth.” Then he looked into her eyes and said, “While yet he liveth as dragon, anyway.” But she looked straitly back and shook her head. And he went not back unto the meal that coming of the greedy knight had broken in upon.

Other knights there were who came, from time to time, and always Enfarg was ware of them by changing of his shape to dragon, and always he slew the knights, and most often ate their horses also.

Now Alyson, to pass the time, gained wisdom, for in her prisoning she called to mind many things she had heard and seen, before the stealing of her, and she turned them in her mind and pondered anent their causes. And she thought much upon such things as were told her of Enfarg’s outer domain, and sometimes through the servants she gave good rede and mended matters needing it, in lives of them that dwelled there. And Enfarg did not deny her this, lest she set her mind against him and mar such peace as those of his tower could enjoy.

Enfarg grew older slowly, but Alyson grew not old at all. And he knew why that was so, or rather he guessed at it, for he had felt the reach of Merlin’s power at her father’s castle-gate. But in his great need he told her naught thereof, but only said himseemed that she was meant to free him from his curse. For, he said, he knew it would take long time for any woman to welcome thought of ugly dragon as her lover. “And,” he said, “an aging woman with no spirit left for venery would have not room for great misgiving as to whether lust or mercy moved her. She would not, therefore, be using that great power over self which alone can break the spell that holdeth body mine.”

But she still denied the deed he sought, and as he had not what seemed her power, to stay at one age always, he, as he grew older, wearied of endless asking, and wanted not the wooing of another maiden to his dragon-shape. So he took into his tower a woman from one of his villages, who was not loth to grant him pleasure of her, in his man-shape. For he said he had no need to marry, and he was lord of that domain. Alyson asked him why he would pass on the curse and would not only die and leave it. But he said he wanted to defeat the curse and have it lifted from his family, whereon it had been laid. And he said that for her withstanding him, his own son would take revenge, by dogging her with the same desire.

When Enfarg’s leman had conceived and when her time had come, that whereof she was delivered was a dragon born alive. Alyson, who attended the birth with other women of the household, swooned upon the floor. But the old woman who played chief midwife brought her back unto her wits with putting cold water on her forehead and burning some feathers beneath her nose, and told her there was no great cause for dread. “It meaneth only that the curse hath passed unto the child,” the beldame said, “for if this had been but dragon only, she would have laid an egg, albeit larger much than those we boil in kitchen, and one that heat could never hurt.” For that old woman’s granddam had been there as a girl, she said, when Enfarg’s mother bore him, and had told her all about it, and had said that Enfarg was a dragon born alive and small. And she said the son would change when that his mother suckled him the seventh time, and they found that that was so, and the dragon turned into a manchild, healthy and strong and good to look upon as a woman beholdeth infants. It seemed to matter not to the comely village woman that her son was born a dragon, for it was the child of her body and, as she alone could know without witness of that shape, the child of her own stern lord, who had stood staring out a window in the room wherein she lay at labour.

Enfarg was free in spirit after that, and never changed in body, but stayed a goodly man in mien, though not for trifling with by any of his household, wherein he always stayed. For it seemed his power kept him there.

Alyson grew fond of Enfarg’s son, who was named Osgern, though he seemed through his mother’s spoiling him a greedy boy, and she had fondness also for the clumsy dragon youngling he at times became, and she felt sorrow for the thing of longing he would be when he had learned what gulf there was between the two lives his body led him.

Only twice in Osgern’s growing up in dragon-shape did he need defend the Dark Tower. And when the first of those two knights set horse’s hoof upon the waste, the dragon-shape came on him as he lay before the fire, and he gan crawl toward the tower stair. But when Alyson asked Enfarg why he would let the child defend his tower for him, he only stared at her and shook his head. And she thought that ablings only dragon might defend Dark Tower. But when the knight drew near the tower, Enfarg took up bow and arrows and shot the knight’s horse under him. Then Osgern flew upon the falling knight and bore him to the ground and tore his flesh and slavered as he ate him. And Enfarg and Osgern dealt likewise with the second knight who troubled Osgern in his years of dragon-growth. For his dragon-shape grew more quickly than he grew into manhood, and while yet a boy he was already dragon grown. And Enfarg trained him also in weapon-fighting, from early boyhood.

Now Osgern grew in late boyhood, as time went over them and over Alyson’s unchanging body, the thing which she had dreaded, and his longing was greater and more piteous than his father’s once had been. But only the longing was piteous, for he himself was not good-natured, nor courteous in manner save sometimes in mockery, and her fondness for him, in either shape, lessened and then passed utterly.

Now, with the passing of his dragon-shape, Enfarg grew old more quickly, and six months after Osgern came of age in dragon-shape, Enfarg died. And Osgern took the body of Enfarg down into the deepness of the tower, where he said he would bury him. But none followed him with pickaxe or spade, so Alyson thought that there were tombs already made, or that tools were kept down there for that doing only.

After death of Enfarg, Osgern grew more quickly in his man-shape, until he came of age, and then he aged more slowly, and the life that Alyson did live with him was like the life she had lived with his father, save that it was worse.

Long the lady waited, wearily but with lasting courage, in the tower of Osgern Dragonheart. But young she was in body, and oft, therefore, in mood, while her mind grew older. And ever her mind and will withstood the pleading of Osgern to do what would destroy his dragon-curse, no matter what mood was on her. For what he asked, and what his sire had sought before him, herseemed sinful and of great dread, albeit good might rise therefrom. Thus had it seemed when Enfarg first besought her, and thus it seemed throughout her prisoning, though at times in spiteful wantonness her spirit seemed to welcome what was wanted of her.

But Osgern would not let her go. And the only time she asked it of him, for she said he never would have use of her, he answered, “What use hath any dragon for any treasure kept by him, my gem of all delight?” And he laughed a dragon-laugh, and changed his shape awhile.

Osgern in his dragon-shape slew other knights as time went by. Some were slain further from the tower, and others nearer thereto, as Osgern was moved by hunger or by whim. And the signs of those battles lingered fresh long time upon the dragon-waste.

But Osgern had not the forbearance that his father had, to wait until his middle age to break the curse or pass it on, nor could he, therefore, wait to die and thus be rid of it. Thus he seemed to Lady Alyson. So one day as they sat at table after dinner, which was late that day, Osgern said, “I have been reading in the teaching of the saints that if a maiden is taken against her will, she is still as pure as she had been before, no matter what men might think of her body thereafter.” And he smiled a dragon-smile, and said, “I am minded to try the saintly teaching’s worth. For I doubt not thou wilt yield thy will the second time, or else the third. Dragon-tastes soon shape the mind.” But suddenly knowledge came to him as a knight set foot upon the waste, and he got down upon the floor and gan crawl toward the tower stair. But his dragon shape had not come on him, and he stood again, in mild amaze.

“My dearest love, thou hast a rescuer, meseemeth,” quoth he. “Great good may it do ye both. But see thou how long he stayeth rescuer as the lure of the dragon hoard shall draw him forth.” And later he came to her, in his full armour, and he took her to the top of the tower, and set a chain upon her wrist, that she might not throw herself down from tower and escape him thus. As they waited for the knight to come in sight, Osgern stamped sometimes, and clenched his fingers and looked at them, and wriggled his body in a manner hideous. But the dragon-shape came not upon him. And the knight strode now to where they both could see him, and came toward the tower. And still no dragon-change befell.

“And he slayeth me, I die a man,” said Osgern then. “But if I come back, in whatever shape my body cometh, it shall give thine a son. Whether he shall bear the curse or not, let his mother choose!”

As Osgern stept lightly down the tower stair, she heard the knight outside the tower wind his horn.

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.

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