Food Chain

Michael is a peasant, and dreams of one day becoming a mighty knight of The Order. The annual Games provides an opportunity, but does he have what it takes to be a dragonslayer?

One of Michael’s earliest memories was standing in the village square alongside all the other ragged peasants while a column of knights trooped past, resplendent in their shining armour and dazzling heraldry. Each warrior’s shield was emblazoned with a different creature – a lion, a griffon, an eagle or a pegasus – and each rampaged across a riot of colour. Michael had never seen colours like that outside of a field of wildflowers in summer, and these were so much richer and brighter, clashing dazzlingly, picked out in brocade and ruffle, dripping with cloth of gold and things for which he hadn’t had names. The knights themselves carried bright lances and swords and most had removed their helmets so they could be seen by the hollow-eyed villagers. They looked clean and hearty, well-fed and even , in some cases, quite fat. Michael had never seen a fat person before that day. The woman leading the troop had a head of golden curls and she smiled at the small crowd as her tall, slender white horse cantered by, lifting one silver-gauntleted hand to greet the commoners. Then they were gone, riding off on their quest.

Everyone plodded back to the fields to carry on working. The excitement was over. But it stayed with Michael for years afterwards. Few knights ever came to the village, and he wondered about them: who they were, where they were going. Everyone around him seemed to wordlessly accept their presence as a simple fact of life, but Michael wanted to know more. “Who were they?” he asked his mother a few days after the impromptu procession, tugging at her ragged skirts.

“Just knights, Michael. The Order.”

“Order?”

“Yes. Important folk. That’s all. Now help me with this,” and she passed him the basket nearly filled with wheat from the field. It was a good crop that year.

Father didn’t take so well to his questions about The Order. “Shut up, boy – it’s none of our business what knights and their kind get up to. Ours is not to question why. They have their world and we have ours.”

But as he grew, he began to understand how their two worlds were intertwined. It only took him a little while gathering the plentiful crops in the fields and then looking around at the thin, drawn faces of the other villagers to realise that something didn’t add up. “Where does all the food go, ma?”

“We keeps our share, and the rest goes to the lords.”

“The lords?”

“The knights, son. The Order. That’s how it is.”

Nine-tenths was the tithe, as it always had been as far as anyone knew.  The village kept just that tiny fraction to feed themselves, and the rest went to feed the fat knights. He got angry about it, and his father had to explain it to him.

“Don’t you understand, boy? This is the way things are. You see, we work in the fields and keep them fed and healthy. And, in return, they protect us.”

“From what?”

“From the creatures, boy. From ogres and orcs,” and here his voice dropped low, “and worse…”

“Worse…?”

His father glanced around. They were in the fields again, like almost always, and no one was close by. But even so, he still whispered. “Dragons.”

Michael was a bright boy, and he was sceptical. “I’ve never seen a dragon.”

“They must be doing their job then, eh?”

When Michael was ten, he became aware of the Games. All the local villages participated in the Games, but it wasn’t an event like a Holy Day and, it seemed to him, that people found it more a cause for mourning than celebration. The only people excited about it were the boys and girls coming close to adulthood. It was all they talked about in the months leading up to it. His father explained it to him one night around the dinner table, as they tucked into their meagre repast of thin broth and hard, black bread. “Every year, The Order recruits the strongest and the fastest boys and girls from all the villages around. They meet up at the foot of the White Mountain, over yonder hills,” he gestured with his spoon towards their hovel’s door, “and some of the knights present the challenge.”

“What’s the challenge?”

“How should I know?” father shrugged. “Anyway, the winner is chosen to become a knight. It’s that simple.”

Michael’s mouth made a wide ‘O’ of astonishment. “So…anyone can be a knight?”

“Only someone strong and fast.”

“But someday, even I could be one?”

“Of course you can, dear,” his mother said, squeezing his arm reassuringly.

“Don’t talk nonsense. He’s all skin and bone. He’ll spend his life working in the fields to feed the knights. He’ll not be one of them. So it was for me, for my dad, for his dad, and for all our forefathers going back thousands of years. That’s the way of it. It’s who we are.”

“But…”

“I’ll hear no more. It’s a long day tomorrow. Harvest is beginning.”

Michael fell silent, but he didn’t stop thinking about the Games and, when the day itself came, he watched a handful of boys and girls leave the village. Fewer of them came back, and he understood that whatever the challenge consisted of, it must be dangerous. But, wonder of wonders, one of the girls, Maggie the Herbalist’s daughter, said that the smith’s boy, Callum, had won the Games and been taken to The Order’s castle to be made a knight. Despite the weeping families all around him, Michael felt a surge of pride in his chest and, from that day on, he thought about little else but one day competing in – and winning – the Games himself.

*

Michael was fifteen-years-old. Even though his mother had encouraged him on that fateful night long ago, she was now reluctant to let him leave, and his father refused to speak to him at all. Nonetheless, at dawn, he set out alone. It had been a hard few years and there weren’t any others from the village going with him. Most had perished in the lean winters, but Michael had survived, and he believed he had grown strong. He was tall, but still a lanky, clumsy lad, with a shock of red hair and a nose that everyone said was too big for his face. He didn’t care though. He had a satchel with a little suet pudding saved from the last Holy Day and a few crusts of yesterday’s loaf, and he felt like he was ready for anything.

The trek to the White Mountain wasn’t hard, but he’d never been so far away from the village, and he felt profoundly uncomfortable when he’d climbed over the hill and it was out of sight. Autumn was just taking hold, and the trees of the forest that lay all around were slowly turning from yellow-green to orange and red. There was a chill on the wind, but the sky was clear and birds still sang in the hedgerows. In the distance, he could see the great pale peak of the mountain, beckoning him onwards.

A few miles up the road, he was joined by a young girl who introduced herself as Jo. She was pretty with dark hair and a wide smile. “You going to the Games?”

“I am,” he said, trying to sound as brave and strong as he could.

“Me too.”

“You?” He couldn’t keep the surprise out of his voice.

“I’ve more chance of winning than you!”

He looked her up and down. She was much shorter than him, and didn’t look like she’d be much use with a sword. “We’ll see,” he said.

She nodded. “We will indeed.”

They reached the White Mountain the next day after an uncomfortable night sleeping under the stars, and Michael was astonished to see how many other young people were there too. He knew there were a lot of villages close by, but the crowd gathered in a clearing at the entrance to a steep gorge flanked by two monolithic white stones was larger than any he had ever seen. They were all peasants though, wearing the same shapeless brown or grey smocks, with lean, dirty faces, backs hunched from years of labour even at their young age, but eyes alight with dreams of glory. Everyone milled around aimlessly for a while, waiting for something to happen when, at midday, two knights walked out from between the two stones. A man and a woman, they were as splendid as he remembered, each bearing a tall, brightly-coloured shield.

The taller of the two, a beautiful woman with red hair, stepped forward. “Welcome, brave competitors! Each year, The Order recruits a new member from amongst the common folk to join us in our solemn duty of the defence of the realm against the dark forces that assail it. One of you who has made the journey here today from your homes will be raised to honour and glory, but beware! The life of a knight of The Order is one of doom and danger! All your lives you have toiled to sustain us in our mighty keep, and in doing so you have sustained yourselves indirectly, for we have kept the long watch, and defended you against the world’s evil. Do not think your life as one of our brotherhood of paladins will be an easy one: you will be trained in the use of our weapons and the execution of our way of war. You will come to know the foes we fight and the terrible battles we have won and lost against them. Your duty will become your very life. As you have known service in the cornfields up till now, you will come to know service in the battlefield hereafter – if you are successful!”

“Many of you will not be willing to undertake the challenge we set you,” her companion, a man with silky blonde hair and a ruddy, plump face said as he stepped up beside her. “Know that there is no shame in this. If you leave now, no one will think any less of you. To come this far already shows more courage than most of your friends and family back in your villages have ever demonstrated. But, if you do begin the challenge, know that there is no turning back. There is danger ahead of you, and most of you who pass through the threshold behind us will not return. This is but the first test, and the least you will face if you become one of The Order.”

“Listen well,” the woman continued, “for the challenge of the Games is simple. You must all pass between these stones and scale the White Mountain. Near its peak, on a great crag of white stone, is the nest of a griffon. She lays but one egg a year, and it is a tradition that this egg forms the centrepiece of the Feast of Ascension, wherein we celebrate the induction of a new member of our brotherhood. Only one of you may claim that egg from the nest of the beast. Any that survive the danger of the mountain must then face down the griffon herself and steal her egg from beneath her cruel beak and rending talons. If you can thence escape her wrath, you may bear the prize down the mountain and back here, to present it to us. If one of you achieves this, you will be worthy of knighthood.”

Her gaze moved around the crowd of young men and women, seeming to test them even then. Many quailed before her steely eyes and shuffled towards the back of the group. Michael looked up the mountain: it seemed tall and formidable. He couldn’t even imagine climbing it, let alone fighting a monster at the top and stealing her precious egg. It seemed impossible.

“If you wish to leave,” the man said, and here he seemed to stare right at Michael, “now is the time to do it.”

Many did. Michael’s knees felt like water and he wondered why he’d ever thought he could do this. He was just a peasant – how could he become a knight like these mighty warriors? How could he pass this insane test? But Jo had stepped forward, eager for the challenge ahead. She was grinning and her eyes were lit with passion and determination. Without knowing why, he stepped forward beside her. “Are you ready?” she asked him.

“No.”

“Good.” She sprinted past him and charged between the two stones. It was like floodgates opening, as those boys and girls brave enough to take the challenge ran after her, unwilling to let her have a head start. Michael found himself running with them, still not knowing quite why. The two knights watched them all pass approvingly, while the cowards slunk back home.

*

Michael had never climbed a mountain before. The steepest incline he’d tackled was the hill by his home village. But a lifetime spent working in the fields had made him strong and tough, and he was good at turning off his brain and concentrating on the task at hand. Many of the others who’d surged on ahead – Jo excepted – came a cropper. He saw one broad boy with a broken leg, weeping piteously on a cleft in the rock. No one could afford to stop to help him, though Michael did at least leave him some of his food and made a mental note to help him on the way back if he could. Others were not even that lucky – he saw one girl slip as she tried to climb a tricky spot and plummet to her doom with a scream that faded away into nothing and left him chilled to the bone. Were they fools to attempt this challenge? Why would they even want to live the dangerous lives of knights anyway?

But Michael and the others had all had the same upbringing. From high up on a ridge, Michael could see a view of the entire land around the White Mountain: forests and little patches of golden fields as far as the eye could see, each with a tiny cluster of homes in the centre. Smoke rose from dozens of chimneys and he almost imagined he could see the peasants at work, as small as ants in their fields. The world from here seemed vast, but also small. He couldn’t imagine going back to the life he’d led, not now he’d seen how meaningless it was. There were dozens of villages – maybe hundreds – and what was it to be just one little person labouring amongst them, passing down the same dour duty to his children, and then their children, endlessly?

In the distance, dark mountains rose above the forest. Michael lifted his head and let the cold wind tousle his red hair and the clear air bring strange, unknown scents to his nose. What lay amongst those foreboding peaks? Ogres? Dragons? The Order would know. The Order’s quests took them to those distant lands, on missions of dire import. And he would ride with them. He just knew it.

He climbed and climbed, until his fingers grew numb. The air was colder the further up he climbed, and he saw fewer and fewer of his fellow contestants. Occasionally he’d encounter the remains of one who’d met yet another grisly death, falling upon sharp rocks, or crushed by falling boulders perhaps. Others were injured or, shaken, clambering back down the mountain, defeated by its fury. Michael carried on unperturbed. At last, as snow began to fall around him, he hauled himself up onto a ledge and found himself next to Jo, who was cowering behind a line of jagged rocks.

“Jo?”

“Hello,” she whispered.

He crouched down beside her. “What’s going on?”

She pointed. “Look.”

He peeked over the rocks and then gasped as he saw the scene before him. A huge round nest of thick branches, mouldering bones and reeking dung took up most of the narrow plateau before them and, in its midst, sat a great speckled egg, almost the size of Michael himself. He made to stand up, but Jo pulled him down and pointed again. A big lad with thick, muscular arms – perhaps a blacksmith’s apprentice like Callum – was creeping towards the nest. He was just a few feet from the egg and Michael opened his mouth to shout, furious that another would reach the coveted prize while he stood by, when an ear-splitting screech cut through the air. The boy turned as a huge creature swooped towards him. Vast wings blotted out the sun as golden talons plucked him from his feet and bore him into the sky. There was a horrible sound and blood and gore spattered from above as he was torn in two by the mighty griffon. The creature swept back down to earth and proceeded to dismember the unfortunate interloper before their eyes, tearing him to bloody pieces and gulping down the raw flesh with her shining eagle’s beak. Michael then noticed the other remains scattered around the nest and realised the boy was not the first to taste defeat here today.

“What do we do?” he asked Jo helplessly.

“I don’t know – she’s too big and strong to fight.”

“We have to sneak the egg away…”

“But how? The only way to do it is to surprise her, but she must know we’re here now. I was going to get here first and try to steal it before she even knew it was gone, but another girl overtook me about halfway up and then it was too late. I’ve watched her kill half a dozen of us now.”

Michael felt his bowels turning to water as he considered what he’d have to do. The challenge seemed more impossible than ever now they were here. “Maybe…maybe we could work together?”

She eyeballed him. “Work together? There can only be one winner, Michael.”

“Good point,” he said. “It was just a thought.”

“Although…they didn’t say we couldn’t work together, at least for a while…”

“True.”

“Someone needs to distract her.”

Michael gulped. “That’s suicide – you saw how fast she was.”

“But she’s also big.”

“You just want me to do it to draw her off, then you’ll grab the egg.”

“I probably can’t even carry the bloody egg! Look at the size of it!”

“So what then? You’ll distract her?”

Jo looked over the rocks again. “It’s our only chance. I think we’re the only two left anyway. I’ll make a dash for the nest and try to draw her off.” She pointed. “There’s a cleft in the mountainside there. I think I can fit down it, but she won’t be able to get at me. All I’ll have to do is outrun her.”

“And then I grab the egg while she’s chasing you?”

She nodded. “Think you’re up to it?”

He took a breath. He could be back home now, in the village, with his family. But then he’d never be anything more than his father was: a peasant, working the land for distant masters. He couldn’t do that now, not after seeing all this. “All right,” he said, “let’s do it.”

She leapt out of their hiding place right away, as eager as she was at the base of the mountain. He admired her courage. She darted right for the nest and the griffon didn’t even notice her at first. She could almost have pulled its leonine tail as she passed by, but when she almost within grasping distance of the egg, the monster whirled around, almost knocking her flat with a beat of her huge wing. Her beak speared towards Jo and almost ripped her in two but she rolled away and threw herself towards her gap in the wall. The griffon surged after her and, for a moment, it looked as if she’d be caught, but she was quick on her feet and managed to stay ahead in her desperate race for safety.

Now was Michael’s opportunity. His will almost failed him as he pushed himself upright, but he knew he had no choice now. He ran across the plateau as fast as his gangly legs could carry him and, as the griffon clawed at the crack in which Jo now sheltered, he closed his arms around the great egg and hefted it up. It was heavy, but he’d been bearing loads just as large his whole life and he shifted it easily onto his back and hobbled back to the edge of the precipice.

There was a thunderous roar behind him, half-avian, half-leonine, and he didn’t even turn to see the griffon chase after him. He just plunged down the path, heedless of his burden, trying to escape his pursuer. In his desperation his foot slipped and he tumbled over onto his side. The egg fell, but its shell was tough and it rolled to a halt beside him on a narrow ledge. A shadow fell over him and he saw the griffon’s hideous face coming towards him, beak open to swallow him whole. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Jo dashing past him, making a desperate grab for the egg and then hurling it off the mountainside. The griffon cried out and plunged after it, but it tumbled away, bouncing down and out of sight.

“Jo!”

“Come on, you idiot!” She grabbed his hand and pulled him after her, down the mountain.

The griffon circled, looking vainly for her egg and then, seemingly realising it was lost, turned her attention to them. She gave chase, but the lower mountain was not her territory, and as they made their way through gorges and beneath overhangs, they were able to evade her, and she eventually gave up her pursuit.

“I’m not the idiot,” he finally said to Jo as he got his breath back, “you threw the egg away!”

“No I didn’t. I just climbed this mountain. It’s perfectly safe.”

“But it’ll break!”

“How stupid are you?”

“Huh?”

“Every year, they send us after the one egg the griffon has? How would they know it’s been laid? And where’s her mate?”

“What are you saying?”

“It’s a rock, you fool! An egg-shaped rock. The Order probably put it there themselves.”

He opened his mouth to say something, but no words came out, and when they made their way a little further down and found the ‘egg’ lying safely in their path, he couldn’t do anything except help her lift it and carry it back down to the waiting knights.

At the bottom, the redheaded woman looked sternly from Jo to Michael when they presented themselves to her, holding their prize between them. “Which of you took the egg?”

“We both did,” Michael said.

“It’s true,” Jo confirmed, “I distracted the griffon and he took it from the nest, but then I rescued it when she came after him.”

She exchanged a glance with the other knight and he just shrugged. “Very well,” she said, “this year…we will welcome two new initiates to The Order.”

Michael and Jo grinned at each other.

*

The next few months were a crazed whirlwind of activity for Michael, and for Jo. They were taken to the great, grim fortress of The Order where they were inducted into the mysterious brotherhood of knights. They learned that the organisation was more properly known as The Order of Dragonslayers, and that they had defended these lands from the terror of dragonkind for thousands of years. Their quests took them to the mountains Michael had seen from afar, where the beasts made their lairs, and there they fought terrible battles against them. Michael found it hard to imagine anything more deadly than the griffon, but learned much of dragonlore, and the dangers they presented.

The training with their weapons was long and arduous. Michael questioned what a sword and shield could do against dragonfire, but he was told these were the traditional armaments of The Order, and had stood them in good stead for uncounted years. But, as tough as the lessons and training were, what Michael found strangest were the Feasts. All the knights had been peasants like him once, but he began to understand why they looked so much healthier than everyone he’d once known, and where the nine-tenths tithe taken from the villages went. The first Feast, held in his (and Jo’s) honour, did indeed have an egg dish as its centrepiece, but of course it wasn’t the griffon’s egg, since they now knew it had been a stone all along. But beside that there were great cuts of meat from beasts hunted by knights in the forest or from the farms tended by the peasantry. More fruits and vegetables than he had ever seen were piled up on the tables in wooden bowls, all dripping with lumps of warm butter. Crusty trenchers seasoned with herbs he’d never tasted before served as platters for the meat, pies and pastries, all covered in thick, spicy gravy. He had never even known such food existed.

And it continued. Night after night, Feast after Feast. Each day brought another excuse to consume vast quantities of food and quaff ale and wine. It seemed every day was like a Holy Day by The Order’s reckoning, venerating some ancient hero or other. The battered shields and banners of these vanquished warriors hung in the rafters of the castle’s great hall, commemorating their valour. Michael noted well the scorch marks these tokens bore.

He’d always been tall and skinny, and while the rest of the knights, including Jo, began to grow fat and hearty, he remained stubbornly gangly. Nonetheless, he enjoyed himself, and looked forward to the opportunity to test his mettle against the dragons. He began to take the food and drink as his due – for was he not a Dragonslayer? His solemn duty was to protect the peasants back there cowering in their villages, like his parents, and he deserved the fruits of their backbreaking toil.

One day, he was sparring with Jo in the training yard and they stopped to catch their breath. It was a cold spring day, and the campaigning season was about to start soon, or so they were told. “Don’t you think it’s strange?” she asked.

“What?”

“All this talk about dragons, but no one ever seems to have seen one…”

“What are you saying?”

She lowered her voice. “I’m saying, what if there aren’t any dragons? What if it’s all just a ruse so we can live like this, eating until we burst, keeping all the peasants downtrodden?”

Michael thought about it. “Well, I suppose we’ll find out soon, won’t we?”

Their first quest came soon after that. They rode out with a column of knights, passing through the lands to reach the distant mountains. They made their way through many villages, although they never went near the one Michael had once called home. Part of him had wanted to return so his family could see him as he was now: a tall, proud warrior, resplendent in gleaming armour (albeit a suit somewhat large for his skinny frame), bearing his unique device on his shield: an egg cradled in four hands, the same as Jo’s, albeit with the colours reversed so they would have unique heraldry. But that said, he was quite glad not to return, as he knew he’d never be able to speak to his parents again, not know he was a member of The Order. It wouldn’t be appropriate.

Their journey took them many days, into the heart of the Black Mountains. Their quest was to subdue a particularly vicious dragon, whom the oracles read by the wisest knights said would soon be rising again to sow chaos across the lands. The knights must bring her to battle and prevent her from visiting her fiery terror. “If this dragon even exists…” Jo said as they came close to her lair.

They all filed into the yawning cave, weapons drawn. The older knights led fearlessly from the front, and Michael and Jo were in the middle of the group. They were both nervous, but neither of them voiced their terror. It was like their encounter with the griffon all over again. As they travelled further into the dim passageway, the air grew hotter and began to reek of something foul. “Whatever’s down there,” he whispered to Jo, “it stinks…” She said nothing.

They rounded a corner and came into a wide cavern. Stalagmites hung down from the ceiling and a pool of still water stretched away into the shadows. But what commanded all his attention was the massive coiled shape of a black, scaled creature in the centre of the chamber. At first he’d thought it was some weird rock formation, but when it moved he saw it for what it was: a gargantuan monster, breathing out clouds of acrid smoke. Its great back, as large as a hill, moved up and down with the heavy rhythms of its deep, sleeping breath and he thought they might be able to sneak up on it and maybe, somehow, defeat it…

Its eye opened, and fixed on them, hungrily.

*

Altharex the Great, Queen of the Open Sky, Mistress of the Black Pit, picked the last of the remains from her jagged teeth contentedly, then let out a satisfied belch accompanied by a puff of smoke. Quite a tasty few morsels, which would keep her satiated for a few months at least. It was a wonderful arrangement really. When her kind had first risen from the depths of the earth, her more impatient brethren had raged across the surface of the world, burning and destroying at will, and had almost eliminated their food source in a few terrible years. But cooler heads had at least prevailed. The humans themselves had given them the idea: the way they kept their livestock like that, fattening them up and then slaughtering them. It was a very tidy system, and dragons had found it quite easy to adapt it to their particular way of life. The majority of the surviving humans worked to feed the precious few stupid enough to walk into their lairs, ensuring they were fat and juicy, and the dragons picked them off. This in turn kept them satisfied and they didn’t have to fly out and kill any other humans. Everyone benefitted.

Altherex burped again and pulled a stringy arm from her jaw. The last one hadn’t been nearly as tasty as the others – all skin and bone – and the one before that had actually been a little troublesome, darting this way and that, working with this one as if they actually had a chance against a dragon. She almost admired them. But what farmer admires his herd? No use thinking about it now. In a few months, a few more of these little people would come along to be fed to her and until then all she had to do was sleep off the meal in peace. It was a good life.

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