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Authors: Avram Davidson

Rogue Dragon

BOOK: Rogue Dragon
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AVRAM DAVIDSON has been a respected figure in both science-fiction and mystery circles for a decade or more. He has won both the Hugo award for the best science-fiction short story of the year, and the Edgar award for the best mystery story, and was editor of
The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction
until turning to full-time writing.

Ace Books has previously published a collection of his best short stories under the title of
What Strange Stars and Skies
(F-330).

AVRAM DAVIDSON

ROGUE DRAGON

ACE BOOKS, INC. 1120 Avenue of the Americas New York, N.Y. 10036

I

They had flushed the bull-dragon in Belroze Woods and paced him for about a mile before he came up against the other line of beaters and turned to fight.

For a moment the whole hunt fell silent. Jon-Joras, feeling (so he thought) like a virgin at her first assignation, heard only the sound of his own troubled breath; felt sweat starting on face and body. The dragon seemed to crouch in his place on the far side of the clearing, his crest quivering. A moment passed. The great head moved a trifle, (uncertainly,) and the faceted, gem-like eyes rolled in their hooded sockets—blue, green, blue-green light flashing in the beam of moted sunlight which suddenly broke through the trees. Then, incredible how long it was, the red and bifurcated tongue leaped out from the mouth, quivered, tasted the air. It was blowing right towards him. Body rather than mind (if mind it had at all… and what thoughts must it think!) probably making the decision, the dragon darted off to the left.

Instantly the silence was shattered. The beaters were trotting left, clashing their cymbals and howling, the musics blared on their harsh-voiced shawms, the archers (all neat and trim in their green tunics and leggings) nocked their arrows and poised. The dragon halted. At a signal, so swiftly that Jon-Joras scarcely saw the motion, a flight of arrows was loosed; in another instant were visible only as feathery shafts ridged in the great beast’s side.

To say that the dragon hissed was only to confess a limitation of language: ear-drums trembled painfully at a sound the auditory nerves could but faintly convey. The dragon
hissed.
A spasm passed along the great, pierced flank, and tiny runnels of dark blood began their paths. The dragon halted, turned its head from side to side in search of its tormentors, its cheek-nodules swelling with rage. The wind shifted, bringing a rank, bitter odor to Jon-Joras. He felt his skin grow cold and his heart expand.

Then the bannermen ran forward, teasing their flags on their long poles. The hiss broke off suddenly and the air vibrated with the roar which succeeded it. Here, at last, was an enemy which the dragon could see! Head down and neck out-thrust, it began to move towards it. At the first, slowly and ponderously, each immense leg placed with care. The bannermen seemed almost now to dance, in their traditional movements… the figure-of-eight, the fish, the butterfly… faster now… the wasp… the flags, white and red and green and yellow, whipping through the roar-tormented air.

And faster and faster came the great bull-dragon, now at a lumbering trot, turfs flying as the great splayed feet came pounding down, shaking the ground. The cymbals ceased, the horns, too. The trot became a gallop, a charge, and the men broke into a shout as, in one sudden and tremendous movement, the dragon reared up upon its hind legs and came bounding forward upon them, its forelimbs slashing at the air. In one accord, the flags dropped to the ground, the bannermen swiftly twirled their poles, winding up the wefts at the ends of them. The colored cloths had danced and teased—suddenly, suddenly, they were gone; furled, grounded, hidden in the grass; and the bannermen crouched.

Bewildered, the great beast paused again. Twenty feet above the ground the huge head growled and rumbled and it turned from side to side. From the left, a flight of arrows stitched the now-exposed chest. The dragon screamed; the dragon tore at the barbs; it plunged in the direction from which they came. And the cymbals clashed three times and another flight of arrows, now from the right, stitched the creature hip and leg, and three more times the cymbals sounded and as the dragon sounded its pain and fury and swiveled its head, again the bannermen twirled their palms and pinnacled their poles and once again their bright flags played upon the air.

The dragon bellowed and the dragon charged. Striped with the blood that coursed along its paler underside, it thundered down upon the bannermen. Once again flags and flagmen vanished. Once again the dragon paused. Again and again it hurled its great voice upon the wind. Jon-Joras saw, midway from throat to fork, like a blazon on its fretted hide, the white X-mark. He thought he could see the great pulse beating in the mark’s crux, and then—sight and sound together—heard the crack of the huntgun behind him and the crux vanished in a gout of blood. The blood gushed forth in a great arched torrent. And the dragon stretched out its paws and talons, showed its huge and harrowing teeth in a scarlet rictus, sounded its hoarse, harsh death cry, and fell face forward onto the ground which trembled and shook to receive it.

“Pierced!”
a voice cried the traditional acclamation, high and shrill and exultant and shaking. “Pierced! Pierced!
Dragon pierced…!”

It broke off abruptly as Jon-Joras suddenly recognized it as his own. And all the music sounded.

The man who shot the dragon was a Chief Commissioner Narthy from somewhere in The Snake, that distant constellation whose planets all seemed to abound in precious metals and rare earths … and rich, hunt-buying Chief Commissioners like Narthy.

Actually, the C.C. wasn’t a bad sort, though quite different from Jon-Joras’s own superior. He joined the ring of men crowding around to congratulate him on his kill.

“A fine shot, Hunter!”

“Well-placed, Hunter!”

“—and well-timed—”

Narthy, sweating and grinning, mumbled his thanks, his shyness before other, vastly more experienced Hunters vanishing before his pleasure in the the new—the so suddenly gained—title. Conscious of the cameras, he sucked in his pendulous belly and tried to look appropriately grim. Then the Master of the Hunt came over for the ritual, and the well-wishers fell to one side.

The Master was a stocky man with a sunburned, wind-cracked face; his name was Roedeskant, and, unlike most of the hunt masters, who were of the Gentlemen, he was not, although bred on their estates. He had been cool and sufficiently self-assured during the hunt, but now—aware of the cameras and of his low-caste accent—he fumbled a bit.

Partly because he was embarrassed by the embarrassment of Roedeskant, and partly because the sight of pudgy, grinning Narthy being ritually bloodied did not much appeal to him, Jon-Joras turned and walked away. His own home world, the
beta
planet of Moussorgsky Minor, was nowhere near The Snake (where he had never been and never expected to or wanted to be). No one who knew him would see him in the 3Ds for which Narthy had payed a small fortune and which he would doubtless be showing to his friends, family, associates, subordinates and such superiors as he wanted to impress for the rest of his life.

The scent of the strong-smelling grass rose, pungent, as he stepped on it heavily in his hunt-shoon, but it was not quite strong enough to overcome the bitter reek of dragon musk. A voice beside him said, “What a rotten shot!”

Surprised, rather than startled, Jon-Joras turned, said, “What?”

It was someone he didn’t know, dressed in the white garments of a Gentleman—a tall fellow with bloodshot eyes and grizzled hair. “Rotten shot,” the man repeated. “Badly timed. Trembly trigger finger, is what it was. These novices are all the same. Why that bulldrag had at least another quarter-hour’s good play in him! No… Don’t tell me that Roe signaled him to shoot, I know better. Oh, well,
they
won’t know better, back in The Lizard or The Frog or wherever
‘Hunter’
Barfy or what’s-his-name comes from—”

He looked at Jon-Joras with shrewd, blue eyes. “Not a Company man, are you?”

“No. I’m one of King Por-Paulo’s private men. Jetro Yi, he
is
a Company man, is going to arrange the hunt. I’m just here in advance to make his personal arrangements.”

The man in white grunted. “Well, to each his own, I don’t hold with monarchies myself, having to renew your damned crown every five years, make concessions to the plebs and scrubs: poxy business, elections. No. But of course, no reflections on your own local king, mind.” Having probably a notion of quickly changing the subject of his probable tactlessness, the Gentleman added, “Kind of young aren’t you, a king’s private man?”

The subject of his youth being a somewhat touchy one with Jon-Joras, he brushed back his shock of black hair and said, a bit stiffly, “Por-Paulo is a good man.” His youth—and how he came, despite it, to hold his position. Brains, ability, judgment, and a top rating at the Collegium, all good reasons, sufficient ones, no doubt. But when a young man is young, and the son of a young (and lovely) mother, when he cannot remember his father, and when rivals in his peer group are ready enough to hint that he need look no further for his real paternity than the Magnate with whom his mother is most often seen, why—

“No offense,” repeated the older man. Then, “Your customs don’t forbid self-introductions, do they? Good. Allow me, then.” He stopped, put his hands out, palms up. “Aëlorix,” he said.

Jon-Joras stated his name, placed his hands, palms down, on the other’s. Aëlorix said, formally, “I am yours and mine are yours.”

Thankful that he had taken the trouble to look into local ways, Jon-Joras said, “Unworthy.” Behind them, the musics struck up a tune of sorts and Narthy was led around the dead dragon. Aëlorix raised his eyebrows and made a disrespectful noise.

“Base-born, I shouldn’t wonder,” he growled, indicating the triumphing chief commissioner with a jerk of his head. “Roedeskant is a good Huntsman, none better. But
he
knows his place, more than I can say for a lot of basies, local and otherwise, I remember when he was one of my old father’s chick-boys. Fact. Where are you at, in the State?”

An implausible vision of the hefty Chief Huntsman as a bare-legged boy chasing dragon-chicks through the woods and thickets made Jon-Joras think a moment before he was able to answer the question. The—the
State
… oh, yes… confusing local speech-way: if the City proper was termed “the State,” what did they call the whole City-State? Answer: by its name, of course. In this case, Peramis.

He said that he was staying at the Lodge. “That’s no good,” Aëlorix shook his head. From somewhere deep in the woods a faint bellow sounded over the raucous music, and the higher note of another dragon almost at once seemed to respond to it. Instantly diverted and alert, the Gentleman cocked his head, harkened a moment, pointed. “Off there. A big cow-drag, by the sound of her. Word of advice. When you hear those love-calls, don’t go to eavesdrop… No, the Lodge is no good. Stay with me. At Aëlorix. What? Till your boss-chap arrives.”

Jon-Joras, sensible of the compliment, flushed slightly. An invitation to stay at the Gentleman’s seat, and the one from which he took his name and style—“Only proper, courteous, a king’s private man,” he heard his would-be host say—no common compliment, from all he’d heard and seen about the Gentlemen in the short time he’d been here on Prime World
(Earth,
the locals called it; name sounding so startlingly archaic on out-world ears). He could hardly refuse, of course. More—he wanted to accept.

He wanted to see for himself what the semi-feudal life was like at first hand. Then, it was his duty to his elected king, too: the more contacts he made, the more pleasant he could make Por-Paulo’s stay. Only—

“Would it not be difficult,” he said, slowly, “if I am there, where I wish to be, to coordinate my work with Jetro Yi?”

For answer, the Gentleman pulled out an instrument like a whistle, blew a couple of notes on it. Immediately a man detached himself from the throng and came running towards them. “Company Yi,” called Aëlorix, as soon as his servant was within hearing distance. The man nodded, made a sketchy, informal salute, and ran back. In a few moments he returned with Jetro, the latter not running, but coming at quite a brisk walk.

“Company, I want to host this young fellow at Aëlor’.”

Yi made his eyes go round, as if astonished there could be any objection. “Of
course,”
he said. “As the High Nascence
wishes.”

“You’re to keep in touch with him,” the Gentleman ordered, as casually authoritative as if he were a director of the Company, “twice a day. And have his things sent over as soon as you get back to the State.”

“Of
course—of course—”

“Get along, now.”

As Yi, having bowed almost to his navel, departed, Aëlorix said, without malice, “Flunky…”

Narthy was now making the first cut in the green-black hide. The skinners would do the rest of the work later, and, before he left, the Chief Commissioner (now “Hunter,” too) would be presented with his silver-mounted belt, his braided hatband, and enough dragon skin to upholster all the seats and sofas in his villa if he desired to. The cost of tanning, like everything else, was included in the immense fee—in this case, mined and mulcted from the rich flesh of The Snake Worlds—which he had paid in advance to the Hunt Company.

BOOK: Rogue Dragon
6.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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