The Dragon KnightGordon R. Dickson
The Dragon Knight
Gordon R. Dickson
It was a frosty March morning just at daybreak in the Malencontri woods, which with a name like that should have been somewhere in France or Italy, but were actually in England.
Not that anyone who had anything to do with those woods—from the three hedgehogs curled up together for warmth in their untidy, leaf-filled hollow under a nearby hedge, to Sir James Eckert, Baron de Bois de Malencontri et Riveroak, asleep with his wife, the Lady Angela, in the castle nearby—ever bothered to use that frenchified name in ordinary conversation, mind you. The title of Malencontri had been pinned on the woods by their previous owner, who was now a landless fugitive, possibly somewhere on the continent; and serve him right.
With Sir Hugh de Malencontri safely out of the way, all the local inhabitants had gone back to referring to the woods by their real name, which was that of Highbramble Forest. All of which was a matter of supreme indifference to the one individual on his feet at the moment and passing through them, not far from the aroused but—happily—safely hidden hedgehogs and close enough to the Castle Malencontri to see it clearly between the trees.
It was a natural indifference, since the early traveler was Aragh, an English wolf, who regarded not only this woods, but a number of others as well, as his own personal territory anyway, and so never bothered to concern himself about what others might call it.
Actually, Aragh very seldom bothered to concern himself about anything. For example, although the early spring morning was bitterly chill, he paid no attention to that fact, except insofar as it increased the possibility of scent trails lying closer than usual to the ground. He showed, in fact, the same sort of unconcern toward the temperature that he did to all other things—wind, rain, brambles, humans, dragons, sandmirks, ogres, and all else. He would have shown it in equal degree to earthquakes, volcanoes, and tidal waves, if he had happened to encounter them, but so far he had not. He was a descendant of dire wolves, as large as a small pony, and his philosophy was that the day anything came along that he could not handle he would be dead, which would take care of any problems that might arise, in either case.
He did pause now, to glance briefly at the castle and at the square box of its solar chamber, with the newfangled glass panes in the arrow slits that were its windows just now beginning to reflect the first light of the dawn sky. But in spite of the strong opinions he had against glassed-in windows, he had a personal fondness for Sir James and Lady Angela, whom he knew to be aslumber right now in the solar, slugabeds though the two were to be wasting a fine crisp dawn like the present one by spending it indoors.
The fondness was one that went back to the time he and Sir James (with some others, admittedly) had been involved in a certain small altercation with an ogre and some other, similarly unwholesome, creatures at the Loathly Tower out on the meres. Sir James had then, through no fault of his own, been inhabiting the body of a friend of Aragh's—a dragon named Gorbash. Aragh allowed himself a few moments of nostalgic recollection of those past, but interesting, times.
Having done so, however, he became unexpectedly aware of a feeling of uneasiness in his bones concerning both James and Angela—but James, in particular. The feeling had not been there a second before, and he turned his full attention upon it, being a wolf who had learned to pay heed to the signals his undersenses sent him.
But the uneasiness neither explained itself, nor disappeared. Sniffing the air and scenting nothing amiss, he accordingly dismissed it, making only a mental note to mention it at the first opportunity to S. Carolinus; the next time he found himself passing close to that magician's cottage, up by the Tinkling Water. Carolinus would be able to tell if the feeling portended anything Aragh might need to bestir himself personally about; though it was hard to imagine what anything like that could be.
Putting the matter sensibly from his mind, therefore, he trotted on; and his lean dark form swiftly disappeared from the view of the hedgehogs, much to their relief, seeming to vanish all at once among the underbrush and tree trunks of the wakening woods.
James Eckert, now Sir James, Baron de Bois de Malencontri, etc.—though he seldom felt like he really was—awoke in the dawn gloom of the bedchamber he occupied with this wife, Angela, in the Castle de Bois de Malencontri.
Pale slivers of light, showing around the edges of the heavy curtains obscuring the scandalous glazed window of the room, signaled that dawn was at hand. Beside him, under the small mountain of furs and bedcovers that made the unheated stony-walled room bearable, Angie breathed steadily in sleep.
Caught in that odd state that lies between slumber and full awakedness, Jim tried to ignore whatever it was that had woken him. He had a vague sensation of things not quite right, a sort of hangover of the sense of general depression that had been clinging to him the past few dreary weeks. It was a feeling something like the oppressiveness felt by anyone when a storm is just over the horizon and headed his way.
In the last few weeks he had found himself coming close to regretting his decision to stay in this world of dragons, magic, and medieval institutions, instead of returning himself and Angie to the drabber but more familiar world of twentieth-century Earth—wherever in the regions of overlapping probability it might now be.
Contributing, no doubt, to this feeling was the season itself. It was at last the end of a winter that had been stimulating at first; but which had finally seemed to drag on endlessly, with its early twilights, its guttering torches and candles, its icy walls.
Affairs of business to do with the barony he had gained from Sir Hugh de Bois de Malencontri, the previous Baron, had been relentlessly concerning Jim lately. There were buildings and roads to be mended; several hundred serfs, freemen and retainers who looked to him for direction; and all the necessary making of plans for this year's planting. The heavy total of these duties had turned this strange other world about him into a place just about as dull and workaday as the remembered twentieth-century Earth, itself.
Accordingly, Jim's first impulse now was to close his eyes, bury his head under the covers, and push himself back into sleep, leaving whatever had wakened him behind. But when he tried this, sleep refused to return. The sense of somethi
ng being wrong kept growing until it clamored at last all through him, like a silent alarm bell. Finally, with a snort of exasperation, he lifted his head and opened his eyes again to the light spilling around the edges of the window covering, light which was just bright enough now to dimly show the interior of the bedchamber.
He chilled—and not by reason of the cold bedchamber alone.
He was no longer in his own body. Once more, as it had been when he had originally come to this world by astral projection to rescue Angie, his body had become the body of a very good-sized dragon.
"No!" The word almost escaped from Jim out loud; but he stifled it just in time. Of all things, he did not want to wake Angie now and have her see him as he was.
A frantic feeling possessed him. Had he turned into a dragon for good? If so, why? Anything was possible in this crazy world where magic was part of reality. Perhaps he had only been destined to stay here in his own human body a certain length of time. Perhaps whatever rules governed this kind of thing ordained that he should be a human only half a year and then a dragon half a year. If that was the case, Angie would not like his being a dragon six months of the time at all.
Not at all.
He had to have answers. The one possible source of answers was the Accounting Office, that odd invisible bass voice that seemed to know everything, but chose to tell only what it felt like telling. Apparently, it kept some kind of a record of the magic credit of people who dealt in that commodity—which evidently now included him; first, because he had come to this world by magical means, and second because he had been involved in the frustration of the evil powers at the Loathly Tower less than ten months before.
He opened his mouth to speak to the Accounting Office. As far as he knew they were open twenty-four hours a day—if they was the right word for them.
Just in time, he remembered that speaking to the Accounting Office was just about as likely to wake Angie as suddenly shouting "No," the way be had been about to, a moment before.
The only thing to do was to sneak out from under the covers, get out of the room and far enough away so that he could speak to the Accounting Office without waking Angie.
Gradually, he began to ease his enormous body out from under the covers. His tail slid out without trouble. He got one leg out, then the other. He was just starting to move his enormous body when Angie stirred in her sleep beside him, yawned, smiled, and, still without opening her eyes, stretched out a pair of long, lovely arms into the cold air as she arched her body and woke up.
—Just as Jim, by the grace of whoever or whatever was responsible, suddenly reverted to being his own human self again.
Angie had wakened smiling. She continued to smile at Jim for a drowsy moment, then gradually the smile faded and a frown creased a faint line between her eyes.
"I could swear…" she said. "You weren't going someplace just now were you? I had a feeling… You sure something unusual wasn't going on with you just a second ago?"
"Me?" said Jim. "Unusual?"
A sense of sudden cunning overcame him.
"Different, me?" he said. "Different, how?"
Angie propped herself up on one elbow just under the blankets, and stared at him with her intense blue eyes. Her dark hair was tumbled by sleep, but still very attractive. He felt a moment's sharp awareness of her trim, naked body only inches away from him. But this emotion was wiped away a second later by apprehension.
"I don't know exactly how," Angie said. "I just have this feeling that there was something different and you were going—why are you practically out of bed?"
"Oh? Am I?" Jim hastily pulled himself completely back under the furs. "Well, I just thought I'd go down and get them started on breakfast and in fact I was thinking of—" he crossed his fingers under the cover of a particularly fine bearskin—"bringing you up a tray."
"Oh, Jim," said Angie. "That's so like you. But it isn't necessary. I feel marvelous, I can't wait to get up."
She had put her hand on his arm under the covers; and he responded to her touch—and then was struck with sudden horror at the thought that his smooth skin suddenly might develop scales under her fingers.
"Fine! Fine!" he yelped, popping out from under the furs and beginning to pull on his clothes. "I'll go down and get them started on breakfast, anyway. You come along as quickly as you can; and maybe we'll have it there waiting for you."
"But Jim, there's not that much hurry—" Jim did not hear the rest of it because he was already out of the door, closing it behind him and moving off down the corridor, still dressing as he went—not for decency's sake, since decency had a rather lower rating in these medieval times he now inhabited—but because the stone-walled corridor following the inner curve of the keep's walls was chillingly cold.
At a safe distance from the solar bedroom door, he stopped, caught his breath, and then spoke to thin air.
"Accounting Office!" he said. "Why did I change into a dragon?"
"Your account has been activated," responded the bass voice about on a level with his thigh; causing him, as usual, to start, even though he knew what to expect.
"Activated? What does that mean?"
"Any account of which the owner is still alive and able to make use, but has not for at least six months, is always activated," said the Accounting Office, rather primly.
"But I still don't understand what 'activated' means!" Jim protested.
"The explanation is self-explanatory," replied the Accounting Office.
It stopped talking. Jim had the uneasy feeling that it had stopped talking permanently, at least on that subject. He called it a couple more times, but it did not answer.
Left not knowing where he stood, he suddenly remembered the business of breakfast and gloomily went down the winding stone stairs from the solar level of the keep.
"… You might as well tell me the truth," Angie was saying, an hour later over their breakfast platters, at the high table of the castle's main chamber. "Something happened just before I opened my eyes; and I want to know what. I can always tell when you're trying to hide something from me."
"Honestly, Angie," Jim was saying, when his answer became beside the point entirely, as he changed once more into a dragon.
"EEEEE!" exclaimed Angie, at the top of her lungs.
Pandemonium erupted in the hall, which was large enough to contain somewhere between thirty and forty people of both sexes, either concerned with the business of seeing that the Baron and his Lady got their breakfast, or ranging from the armed guard of about eight men-at-arms who were normally there through a selection of other castle personnel and servants down to May Heather, at thirteen years of age the youngest and least-ranked of the kitchen staff.
Danger was something everyone lived with. The unexpected was the expected—in general terms—and weapons of all kinds were never hard to find in an establishment of this kind. Within a couple of minutes, everybody there had some sort of edged or pointed instrument in their hands, had formed into a rough hedgehog-shape with the men-at-arms in point position, and were about to advance on this dragon that had suddenly appeared in the hall.
At this point Angie, having gotten an instinctive, healthy, and rather refreshing scream out of the way, took charge of the matter. The hem of her wine-red morning robe swept the stone floor as she bore down regally upon the hedgehog.
"Stop there!" she ordered it sharply. "There's no danger here. What you see is simply our Lord, who has made use of his magic talents to momentarily put himself into dragon form. May, put that battleaxe back on the wall, at once!"
May had possessed herself of a battleaxe belonging to the former baron. She was now carrying it on her shoulder like a woodsman's tool; and it was very doubtful if she would have been able to do anything with it, even if she had been able to get it off that shoulder safely. But there was always one thing you could say about May Heather. She was willing.
Abashed now, however, she turned back toward the wall on which the battleaxe had origina
lly been hanging.
The rest of the servants and retainers scattered back to their original duties, looking at each other meaningfully, but bottling up the story they would now be able to tell of Sir James turning himself into a dragon at breakfast time.
Happily, a second later, he was back in human form again, though his robe had split apart and was in rags at his feet.
"Ho, there!" cried Angie to the room at large. "Another robe for His Lordship!"
There was a few minutes of scampering around before another, untorn robe of Jim's was produced. He slipped into it gratefully.
"And now, you, Theoluf!" Angie went on, to the chief of the men-at-arms. "See that Sir James's horse is saddled, provisioned, equipped, his light armor brought down, and everything made ready for him to leave immediately."
Theoluf, having started off with her first words, turned back briefly. He was a man of middling height with a not unfriendly smile when he smiled, but a face badly disfigured by the scar of some form of the pox.
"Right away, m'Lady," he answered. "How many men will m'Lord be taking with him?"
"None!" boomed Jim, louder than he had intended. The last thing he wanted was for the people he governed to see him switching back and forth between the human and dragon forms; and possibly come to suspect that he could not control the change.
"You heard your Lord," said Angela to Theoluf.
"Yes, m'Lady," answered the man-at-arms, who would have been very deaf indeed not to have heard. He headed toward the exit door at the end of the great hall. Angie came back to Jim.
"Why are you doing this?" half-whispered Angie angrily, as she came close.
"I wish I knew," answered Jim grouchily, but in an equally low-pitched voice. "You must know I can't control it, or else I wouldn't be doing it."
"What I mean is," insisted Angie, "what do you do just before you turn into a dragon, what makes you do it?"
She paused and stared at him with a suddenly stricken face.
"You're not Gorbash all over again?"
Jim shook his head. Gorbash had been the dragon whose body he had inhabited when he had first come to this strange world.