And now for something completely different. Not a whinge, but a story. Fiction. Hope you enjoy.
There was noise ahead, a lot of noise, well certainly more noise than Bill McTavish expected. This is a bloody rain-forest, he thought, there’s nothing that big here that could be making that kind of noise! A buffalo, maybe? Then he realized, there was no other noise, no bird song, no insect noises either.
Whatever was making that noise, everything else was quiet.
Sweat dripped off his nose, the humidity was getting to him. Why the hell am I even here? he thought. Environmental camping is a poor excuse for running away. Stupid Southerner, bloody Queensland.
“Agh,” he heard his great-grandfather saying “Quit yer whingin’ boy, joost get on wi’ it!” Thanks for your support Great-Grandad, he replied in his head, quietly moving forward, pushing aside the large frond of the plant that was obscuring his view. As the frond moved, it revealed what was making all the noise. It was big! It was- What the hell is that?
A long, big, mottled green thing turned, its saucer sized eyes looking squarely in McTavish’s direction, a forked tongue lapping the air. Fangs, dripping! Bill felt his heart race, his blood pump, adrenaline surge. He was going to run, whatever this thing was, Bill was going to put distance between it and himself.
“Don’t move,” he heard a soft voice, “Stay very still. Move and you’ll be his next meal.”
McTavish stood still, the beast’s tongue flickering in the air. He heard little movement to his left, and then a serious buzzing, louder than a swarm of bees, but a deeper sound, he felt it, in his bones. It grew in intensity, then peaked, dropped away only to start again. Bullroarer, Bill thought. The beast in front of him turned away, then slid out of sight as it moved, more worm-like than snake in its movement.
A few moments later, the buzzing moved away too. He heard, “It’s okay, it’s gone, ya can move now.”
“What- what the fuck was that?” he asked, looking after the – whatever it was, “It was huge!”
“Ya wouldn’t believe me if I told ya,” came the reply. McTavish turned and saw a man, camouflage green clad, Army boots, a giggle hat. “You’re Army?”
The man smiled, “Nah, a herder, actually. Just the outfit helps us.” “Herder? Helps you do what?”
“Herd, of course.”
“What do you herd, those things? Whatever they are?”
“Yep,” the man replied, “They see with movement and smell with taste, jungle greens hide us a bit.”
“Okay, but what the hell was it?”
“Where’s the rest of ya party?”
“Party, what party?”
“Whoever’s travelling with ya.”
“No, I’m on my own.”
“What, up here?” the man was surprised, “On ya own. Not very bright thing to do, ya shouldn’t be here alone. We found ya Nissan about a kay- and a half away. From South Australia?”
“Typical, you Crow-eaters know about deserts, sharks and octopuses, but you got no idea about rain forests, do ya?”
“Can’t be any more dangerous than going for a swim in Adelaide,” McTavish replied.
“’Til ya run across a cassowary, them little buggers will hurt ya on general principal, or a buffalo” said the man, “Those horns on their heads are not just for looking pretty.”
“Okay, who are you and what the hell was that thing?”
“Me, I’m Dave Young, and you are?”
“Bill McTavish. And that thing?”
Dave smiled, and said, “A dragon, well a wyrrm.”
“A what?” McTavish wasn’t sure he heard Dave correctly.
“A dragon, not a Great Dragon, but a lesser dragon, a wyrrm.”
“Dragons,” McTavish repeated, sure that this bloke was having a lend of him.
“See told ya. Knew ya wouldn’t believe me,” Dave said as he heard someone return from the direction this dra- thing went. He saw Dave nod, “This’ me brother, Angus, Angus, Bill McTavish.”
McTavish turned to look at the brother, yes, that they were, for sure. Then, “Angus?”
“Yeah,” Angus said.
“Yeah, so?” McTavish was sure they were lying, Angus bloody Young, yeah, right. “The old man said it wasn’t intentional, but he’s such a liar,” Dave said, grinning.
McTavish bit his tongue, he almost asked if it ran in the family. “A dragon, you say,” he said, “You herd dragons?”
“Well, yeah, someone has to. They’re dangerous bastards, eat crocs for a casual lunch, snack on buffalo,” Angus told him. “Anyway, you on your own? Up here? Why?”
“You’ll have to excuse me bro, Bill,” Dave said, “Don’t get many visitors here. Why don’t we head for camp? Closer than ya car and we’ve got food ‘n’ drink there. We’ll tell ya all ‘bout the dragons if you want to know.”
“You bet I want to know, but why haven’t I ever heard of them before?”
“Part of the story,” Dave said. Turning to Angus, “Let the others know where we’re goin’ and remind me to call Normanton.”
“Normanton?” Bill asked.
“Yeah, the cop at Normanton let us know ya might be in the area. Asked us keep an eye out for ya. When we found ya car, Angus saw ya headed this way, so we did too ‘coz old motley was here. But we can talk about it in camp.” He turned and headed away from Bill’s SUV. “Come on,” he called over his shoulder. Bill followed, intrigued now.
The camp was well set up, Bill saw that these guys were used to camping. The area was tidy, four tents, clear of anything that shouldn’t be there. “There’s a long drop over there if you need it,” Dave said, pointing to a tent. “Gilly gets a little annoyed if we don’t dig one, then set up the tent for it. Says she can’t get any bloody privacy otherwise.”
Bill nodded and saw the green canvas through a couple to trees. Wow, a dunny, out here, that was unexpected. Dave went to a large tent and picked up an odd-looking phone, dialing a number. A satellite phone, Bill saw. “Hi Harry, Dave Young.” A pause, “Yeah, found him. Gonna feed him up, make sure he’s okay then send him on his way.” Pause. “Yeah, all good.” Pause, “Gilly will probably want to mother him, but we’ll look after him.” Pause, “Yep, not a prob. See ya in a week or so. She should have pupped by then.” Pause, “Yeah, okay mate, see ya!” Dave ended the call. “So, dragons.”
“Yeah, bullshit, but sounds good,” Bill said, “Really, what was it?”
“Nah, serious. Dragon, a lesser southern wingless Dragon, used to be called a wyrrm,” Dave said, “Officially, a Minor Draco alatus meridionali. I know, you’ve never heard of a real dragon before, but ya know them from fictional stories, everything from St George through to The Hobbit, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and lots of other books and films. All those mythological dragons are based on tales of real dragons.”
“Dragons are real?”
“Yep, sure are. All the Greater dragons were killed off, maybe five, six thousand years ago, but the wingless dragons were kept in herds. They’re useful.”
“How come we’ve never heard of them before? Real ones anyway?”
“Well, the people who know all about dragons, where they come from and everything, don’t want everybody to know. It’s secret.”
“Sorry, this is just too good a joke to stop now, so come on, tell me everything. I’m only a dumb Crow-eater, so you Banana Benders have a good laugh on me.”
“I think he might be serious Dave,” said Angus.
“Yep, we’ll just have to leave him for Gilly to sort out,” Dave said, “Lucky you.”
“She’s a kind-of-a cousin. Not a real cousin, but very distant cousin. She’s the one who can tell ya everything ya want to know, and help ya afterward.”
“Help me afterwards? After what?”
“You’ll see. In the meantime, Angus is makin’ coffee then a little later, he’s cooking. Welcome to join us, well, ya better stay, Gilly will get really pissed if ya don’t,” Dave said.
Bill looked around and Angus said, “She’ll be here soon, she’s just makin’ sure that the motley got back to his missus alright. She’s gonna have a pup real soon, and dragon mums get a bit toey if they are alone for too long.”
Bill smiled at the joke, he couldn’t help it, but there was an underlying anger growing. A joke is good for a bit, but not for too long. He was waiting for the punch line and getting impatient. Angus went about what appeared to be his normal activities, setting up a cooker, preparing food. Dave did disappear to the long drop, reappearing a few minutes later, using hand sanitiser.
“Saves on water,” he said, “There’s a fresh water pool just down there we use for washing, part of the local creek system and there’s always water in it this time of year.”
Dave went into some details about how they had been out here for over a week. Bill looked around the camp, sure, it was trodden over, that much was clear, but there was nothing to indicate how long they had been there. The camp was pretty tidy for a week’s worth of stay, Bill thought.
“How do you deal with your rubbish?” he asked.
“Can’t use a midden out here, dangerous for the wildlife. Take it with us in the wheelie bin.”
Made sense, Bill hadn’t noticed a truck and asked about it. “About two ‘kay that way,” Dave signed over his shoulder, to the south. “Stays just off the track,” he continued, “It won’t get in here, so no point in tryin’. Besides, the beasties don’t like the smell of ‘em, likely to attack at any time.”
“Yeah. Too many people gettin’ up here these days so we moved part of the herd. Only about twenty left now, all breeding pairs. Not much of a herd, but it’s enough for us.”
“Yeah, some of them; some went to China, most are building a new herd in Africa.”
“Okay, obviously this is bullshit. Dragons in Queensland, yeah, right.”
“I know it’s hard to believe,” Dave said in a very different voice, “But you’ll have to accept that things are just not what you think they might be.” Bill noted the casual ‘blokey’ accent missing. “Dragons have been here for twenty thousand years. We protect both them and people, keep them apart. It works. Dragons live within their environment but if they’re in an unfamiliar place, like a town, they’ll try to turn it into their own environment. Makes for a very destructive creature.”
“Oka-a-ay,” Bill said, not believing a word of it.
Dave smiled and looked up, “Gilly’s back. She’s better at explaining this than I am.”
Bill looked around and saw two people appear out of the bush. They blended in so well with the background, if they were motionless, he would likely miss them,
“He’s all set, feedin’ ‘er,” the tall man said, “She’s gettin’ closer, she had a go at him when she saw him. Gettin’ really irritable, she is.”
Dave introduced Bill to Gilly and Tony, let them know Bill was invited for dinner. “She? The female dragon?”
“Yep,” said Gilly, in a pleasant contralto, with a nice smile, “Dragons have a long gestation period, nearly twenty-five months, not fast breeders. I think after two years, any female would get seriously irritable. They depend on their mates for food in the last quarter, so being hungry and pregnant is not a fun thing for a dragon.”
“Sorry, I am waiting for someone in a clown suit to jump out and shout ‘Gotcha!’,” Bill said, “But you guys are serious, aren’t you?”
The herders looked at each other and Gilly nodded. “Yes, Bill, dragons are real and one nearly had you for dinner. You were lucky, Tony and I’d been following it, after it had grabbed a croc, while Dave and Angus were looking for you. We were herding it back to its den, but when it saw you, he wouldn’t have objected to a little extra snack.”
“Dragons then?” Bill mused, “Fire-breathing, flying dragons, wow!”
“No, Bill,” Gilly said patiently, “There were two types of dragons, the flightless, lesser dragons, wyrrms, and the greater dragons. There are no more greater dragons left, and today there are four herds of flightless dragons, one in north-west China, one in the Amazon, a new one in Africa and here.”
“Yeah, they flew, they spat a fluid that was highly corrosive, but not flammable. Too dangerous so were killed off at the end of the Demon Wars.”
“Demon Wars? As in Dungeons and Dragons demons?”
Gilly sighed, “Look, there’s a whole history you are never told, never know about. We know it, because we were born into it. There’s a reason we’re part of the oldest continuous culture in the world.” Gilly was referring to her Aboriginal background. “We, our families, have been looking after, hiding, our herd for the last six thousand years. We’ve deliberately kept them from the human world because if they knew of the existence of dragons, knew the horrors they represented, dragons would be extinct in a decade.”
“Horrors? Yeah, it’s big, and scary-.”
“We control them. Limit their breeding, keep numbers low, keeps everyone safe.”
Bill shook his head, obviously straining to accept the truth of Gilly’s statement.
“Okay,” Gilly said, “We’re going to have to trust you. And you’re going to have to trust us.” She looked him over, her eyes glowing with an intensity he had not noticed before. “Come on, I want to go down to the creek, wash up for dinner.” She turned to Dave and added, “Alone.”
Dave hesitated, then nodded. “Dinner will be ready when you get back,” he said.
She strode off to a tent, disappeared for a few moments and came out carrying a bag and a multi-colored towel. No, Bill thought, not multi-colored, there’s two of them. Gilly held one out and said, “To dry you after you wash up.” Bill took it, noticing that none of the three men were paying any attention to them at all.
They walked away from camp, Gilly leading. When Bill thought they were far enough away, he asked, “You run this show then?”
“Yeah, I do.” Bill said nothing more. After a hundred and fifty meters or so, they came to a creek bank, with clear water in it.
“Good fresh water here, this time of year,” Gilly said, “We bathe here, and can use it a few minutes later to fill our water bottles and canteens.” She pointed him to a small flat spot, like a landing, looked like rock sub-surface, covered in short grass. She led him down to it and dropped her bag.
“Skinny dipping is the rule here. I hope you don’t embarrass easily.” She reached into the bag and pulled out a small toiletries bag and some fresh clothes with it. Standing, she began undoing the buttons on her shirt, “Come on, don’t be shy. I doubt either of us have anything we haven’t seen more of at some point.” Her shirt dropped to the grass, followed quickly by her boots, then pants. In her underwear, Gilly was spectacular, the shapelessness of her clothes hid her not inconsiderable charms. Bill fumbled with his own shirt, then his belt, started to get his jeans off without taking his sneakers off first. Gilly rolled her eyes. “Come on city boy, you’re not being very impressive.” She shrugged her bra off, then hooking her fingers into her panties, pulled them down, totally unself-consciously.
Bill finally got himself naked and turned as he heard Gilly splash into the water. He saw her clearly under the water, running to the edge of the landing, he dived in. Breaking the surface, he was near her and the clarity of the water hid nothing of either of them.
“You’re game,” Gilly said, treading water, “You just dived right in. Not a good idea up here, especially when you can see the bottom.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
“Well, the water can mislead you as to how deep a pool is, being so clear. Or there might be a croc waiting for a meal nearby.”
“A croc? But you dived in.”
“No, I jumped, just in case and crocs don’t usually make it this far upstream. Old motley keeps the river clean, good feeding for him and his mate, unless he gets a buffalo.”
“Okay, I know about drop bears, but really, dragons?”
“Still skeptical then,” Gilly smiled, “Come on, show you something.” She turned and swam away from Bill. Bill hadn’t done any swimming since beginning university and was going to struggle keeping up with Gilly. He saw her reach the bank and pulled herself up onto an almost invisible shelf. Gilly waited for him, wiping water off her skin, her hair, as best she could. As Bill reached the ledge, she turned away from him and climbed up rocks, stepped forward, disappearing into a shadow. Bill climbed on to the ledge and saw some very worn steps, not stairs, leading to a small opening, mostly hidden by overgrowth. He followed Gilly into the darkness after getting as much water off him as he could. A click sounded, a flash appeared with a light, Bill saw Gilly holding a battery powered hurricane lantern. She stepped forward, silhouetted by the light she held high in front of her.
Bill followed her down a flat, worn slope, entering a very large cavern getting cooler with every step.
“This used to be a dragon den, these drawings, paintings stretch back more than twelve thousand years telling our stories.” She held up the lantern and for the first time in his life, he saw walls of real Aboriginal art, ancient. He could easily follow the story, saw the men with spears, and something else, a box. It was an odd thing to see on a cave painting, but it was definitely a box. The beast was the same shape as he saw earlier, before meeting Dave.
He could see the stick figures surrounding the beast and the next image showed the beast flat, with spears in it, he also saw two of the stick figures, looks like they were broken. The next series of images showed another beast, slightly larger, being followed by the figure with the box. “Killing a wild dragon like this is dangerous,” Gilly said, “Even with the equipment they were using. It was only done of necessity; this one must have been an older, rogue bull, a killer. There would have been enough meat on him to keep the herdsmen and their families fed for a couple of months.”
“Look, Gilly, this is fascinating, but dragons are myths, not real.”
“They’re myths now, but they weren’t then.” Gilly took a breath, “The story.” Bill became very aware of Gilly’s nakedness, and the fact they were alone, in a cave. Gilly started talking, with a lack of self-consciousness. “This planet was part of a galaxy wide empire, colonized by our ancestors, Eldar. About fifteen thousand years ago, we were attacked by people we call Demons. The fighting wrecked the communications systems, both ours and theirs. I have no idea how it worked, but… doesn’t matter, later maybe. The Demons brought with them a range of seriously nasty allies and other creatures, with dragons just being one of them. They trained the dragons and after the fighting ended, we were able to use that training to kill off the greater dragons, but the lesser dragons, the wyrrms, they were more useful. We herded them instead.
“We had no manufacturing base here; this was an agricultural world. Fighting broke out, what tech we had was mostly lost, fighting died down, flared again, for millennia, eventually we slipped into barbarism. We lost contact with the other continents, we couldn’t build the sea-going vessels to keep trade routes open, more fighting, more losses, until we lost contact with each other.
“There’s one other group of Eldar we remained in contact with, but only because they herded the unicorns.”
“Unicorns? Oh please, and I was starting to buy into your story.”
“Ha!” Gilly laughed, “Not the unicorns of Harry Potter or other stories. These are not silvery, long horned, flowing almost horses, these are mean little creatures, with a short, blunt nose horn, can hide easily amongst a herd of cattle if you didn’t notice they have no horns; and people don’t.”
“Why keep then then?”
“Like dragons, they provide useful products. The horn, ground, is a powerful antibiotic, it really does change color when mixed in with something poisonous. Skins provide some very soft, long wearing leather for clothing. The meat, well unicorn steaks are to die for.”
“Yeah, right!” Bill replied.
“Scoff all you like,” Gilly said, “But if you’re lucky, I might take you to a restaurant in Brisbane that serves them. You can pay.”
“Is that a date then?”
“Only if you’re lucky,” came the reply, “On another note, why are you up here, alone?”
Bill hesitated, “Same old story, two people and one not wanting to go in the same direction.”
“I wanted to build a life, but she didn’t, at least not with me anyway.”
“Yeah, know the feeling,” Gilly replied dryly, “But then, you’ve always been a bit of an outsider, loner, different, not knowing why, haven’t you.”
“You’ve known me all of what? An hour? And you can say that?”
Gilly ignored the question, “How many of your grandparents are alive? Great-grandparents?”
“What?” Bill asked, “Grandparents?”
“Yes, Bill. Grandparents and great-grandparents, you have four of one and eight of the other.”
Mystified, Bill said, “Four grandparents and two great-grandparents.”
“Thought so,” Gilly said, “Look at me!” Gilly switched the lamp off and the cave plunged into a suddenly cold darkness. “What can you see, Bill?”
“It’s dark, Gilly, nothing.”
“Look again, give it a moment or two, let your eyes adjust, then look carefully.”
Bill wondered what game she was playing. “Come on, I can’t see in the dark!” Anxiety rose in him.
“Stop, Bill,” came the command, then more gently, “Take a deep breath, hold it, close your eyes, rub your hands together. Feel the warmth of the friction, relax, breathe out.” Bill followed her instructions, feeling himself relaxing, “That’s it. Now open your eyes tell me what you see.”
Bill opened his eyes, and thought he might have seen glowing walls or some such, but no, that wasn’t it. Then he saw a flicker of light, colored, “What? Is there- no, not a waterfall.” Bill puzzled over the colors that were clearer, a blob of color, wavering, thin, but oval shaped, about the place Gilly had been standing. “What is it?” Bill asked, “What’s making those colors?”
“Have you ever seen anything like this before Bill?” Gilly’s voice came from inside the coloured blob, becoming richer as moments passed.
“What? What is it I am seeing? No! I don’t thin-,” he stopped.
“Not since you were a child, Bill.” A statement, not a question.
“No, I wasn’t-. No, it was an illusion. I was dreaming!”
“No Bill, you can see me, as I can see you. You’re really one of us, your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and theirs, all had Eldar blood, crossing closer every generation.”
“In part, yes, Bill but you are high percentage Eldar, cross breed. I knew it the moment I saw you. Dave and Angus did too. That’s why you were invited to camp, why we’re having this discussion. Otherwise you would have been treated to forget you ever saw a dragon, put in your vehicle and sent on your way with a fine from Park Rangers.”
“Yes, a good way to keep people away from the area. You go home and have a whinge about being treated badly by some assholes in Queensland, paying a fine for something you have no idea was against the law. Your friends don’t come here, you don’t come back, simple. But you, you’re strongly Eldar, obviously your Celtic background.”
“Eldar? You mean elves and stuff like that?”
Gilly smiled, changing the colors Bill could see from the blues to yellows and greens. “I really don’t know, maybe that’s where the myths of elves come from, from us.”
“You mentioned wiping my memory, you can do that?”
“Oh yes, we can and so can you, maybe, if you can be trained up for it.” Bill saw the colors move relighting the lantern. “Come on, better head back, dinner soon.”
Bill followed Gilly out where she carefully put the lantern out again, placing it into a holding receptacle carved into the cave wall.
“That sound,” Bill said, “Bullroarers?”
Gilly laughed, “Not since the development of D batteries and megaphones, but yes, same sounds. Dragons respond to sounds, which is why indigenous tribes all over the world had versions of bullroarers. They were primarily used to warn about dragons being near, to herd them away from people. Later, as dragon numbers declined, they became a religious tool for some, long distance communication device, a musical instrument for others, and its original use was forgotten.”
“‘And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth’,” Bill quoted.
“Precisely.” Gilly said, “I sometimes wonder if Tolkien may have been Eldar.”
“Nah, he saw himself as Beren, his wife though, she was the inspiration for Luthien.”
“A real fan then?”
“Who isn’t?” They smiled at each other; a connection made by a common interest.
“Come on, dinner time,” Gilly turned and dived into the water, swimming back to the other side of the pool. Bill quickly followed.
When he got out of the water, Gilly was drying herself with a towel, not paying any attention to Bill. He was admiring her naturalness, but a thought struck him.
“Gilly,” he started, attracting her attention, “You often go skinny dipping with complete strangers?”
Her face lit up with a dazzling smile, “Not often, only with those who won’t hurt me.”
“How could you be so sure?”
“I can see it, in you, you’re not the type.”
“Not all men are bastards, you know. I see what you are in the color of you, your aura. With a little training you will see it in others too. You’re part Eldar, connected to us. You have a strong aura and it shows who you really are, can’t be hidden.”
“Aura? The color?”
“Yes, you’re lots of blues and greens and whites, with a chunk of red. These are all positives. You have a grey in you at the moment, a sadness, a hurt, but the real darkness, black, is very small. We all have it, yours is smaller than almost anyone else I know.”
She continued dressing, as Bill was drying himself, “Training, to see these auras?”
“Yeah. It’s easy, when you know how. I knew you wouldn’t attack me, it’s just not who you are. If you care to learn about who you really are and your real heritage, we can help. If you don’t, you won’t remember this.”
“How?” “Doesn’t matter how, just be assured it can be done, painlessly. We’ve had others come, none like you, not as strong as you. We fix their memories and send them on their way, having rescued them from a provoking a rampaging cassowary or a water buffalo. Dave saw your aura, waited for me to make my own appraisal. That is why I invited you for a swim, tell you the story, show you the cave. Convince you to join us.”
“Join you? Why would I want to do that?”
“You would never be alone again, never be the odd one out. You’ve lots of acquaintances but no friends. You’re more familiar with the people you work with than anyone else, but don’t know the names of their kids or most of their spouses.” He knew she was right.
Bill looked at her, catching glimpses of color, things he hadn’t seen since he was a child. He felt something awakening within him. He couldn’t stop it, couldn’t change it, didn’t want to, now.
“Besides, there are any number of other benefits, as well,” Gilly smiled, a smile Bill though he might know, “But later. Dave’ll be waiting and dinner’s getting cold.”