So many of the things that had confused Tom during his first visit to the Lyndesfarne public house were now entirely self-apparent. The pub sign, for example, he could now read without difficulty. The words translated literally - in his head - as "Nest of Dragons" and the picture showed a fair representation, he had been given to understand, of the kind of assembly certain smaller kinds of dragons would build to hatch their brood.
Inside, the bar was reassuringly unchanged. The fireplace, with the stuffed dragon's head above it still holding pride of place, burnt brightly. The same landlady and her full-figured daughter managed the place with their combination of quiet hospitality and no-nonsense efficiency. Tom briefly spoke to the matron in the Lyndesfarne language, and arranged for overnight accommodation, hot food and, most importantly, beer.
The buxom barmaid expertly pulled, topped up and handed over a pint glass of the same strong dark ale he had sampled the last time he was here. Picking up his glass, Tom found a small table not far from the fireplace, and sat himself down in an upright but surprisingly comfortable chair. He leaned back, warming his feet and sampled the beer, wondering reflectively whether the beer glasses were a bit smaller here.
After a few minutes, the landlady appeared with his dinner. This consisted of slices of roast lamb, a mound of boiled potatoes, and a large dollop of mashed carrot and swede, all smothered in delightfully thick and tasty gravy. He ate quickly and exceedingly appreciatively, washing the food down with the full-flavoured beer. Helpfully, he took his empty plate and glass back to the bar and, while he was there, ordered another pint.
It was rather quiet and just a little lonely sitting on his own in the pub. There were only a few other patrons, clearly regulars, sitting and talking together close to the bar. He was therefore rather gratified to see Old Ged, the dragon hunter that he had encountered that last time he had visited the Dragons' Nest, entering the bar. Tom caught the newcomer's eye; with evident recognition, the older man immediately came over and spoke in English.
"I remember you," Ged said directly, observing Tom closely, "You were in here last year, in the autumn."
"I was," he replied, impressed by the old man's powers of recollection.
The dragon hunter grunted, running his hand over the stubble on his chin.
"Mind if I join you?" he said at last.
"Please do," Tom replied, glad of the company, "Can I get you a pint?"
Ged nodded curtly, a half-smile on his seamed face. Tom went over to the bar, and ordered and paid for the drink. As he did so, he looked back at the older man, who was gazing up at the dragon's head over the fireplace ruminatively.
Tom brought the fresh glass back and presented it to the other man. Ged drank deeply, smacking his lips in appreciation. He put his drink on the table and then sat back, pulling his tobacco pouch out of his pocket and started filling his pipe, all the while watching Tom carefully.
"Well, then, young man," he asked, "What are you a-doing here?"
Tom explained that he had come over from England on leave, and had dropped in, for old time's sake, to enjoy a pint or two before making his way back to the Grange.
"And you're in the Guardians now?" Ged enquired, sounding as if he already knew the answer to this query.
The younger man nodded, guessing that the dragon-hunter had spotted the clothing he wore was the not-quite-uniform of the England contingent of that organisation.
"So what happened to those mates of yours?" the old man pressed, "Seemed real close, you did."
"Well, Alistair," he began, adding, "He's the tall one" when he spotted the puzzled look on Ged's face, "He's signed up with the Guides. Seems to be all over the place, in both worlds."
"Well, that's the way of the Guides," he replied, "At the beck and call of the Guild, never quite sure where your Visitors will need to go next. And the other fella?"
"That's Bram. His family lives around here, or at least not so far away," Tom answered, "He seems to have a mission of his own, too."
The two men fell silent for a few moments. Tom wondered what to say next.
"How's your arm?" he asked, inspiration striking.
He had just remembered that Ged had been injured in a dragon hunt by the very creature whose head now decorated the fireplace.
The older man extended and flexed his left arm.
"Still a bit stiff, but I'm getting a lot of use out of it," he answered, "More-or-less back to normal."
"So you'll soon be out after the dragons again?"
"We-ell, I'm not so sure," he said dourly, "Seems like I'm not wanted these days."
"What do you mean?" Tom asked, intrigued.
Old Ged explained that, a few weeks ago, he had heard that there was a new group being formed to go after Dragons.
"They didn't want me in the squad. They said I was too old!" he exclaimed, obviously disgruntled.
Curious, and a bit miffed, Ged said that he had followed the new group on one occasion.
"I know the lie of the land, and the places where the dragons like to have their nests," he explained, "Mind you, some of the folk in the new group knew the land nearly as well as I do. I had to be very careful so that they didn't spot me."
Tom noticed that the older man's story-telling was a lot more fragmented and hesitant this time out. It was clear that Ged's previous tale of dragon-hunting was well-practiced, but Tom got the strong impression that this account was something that Ged had not told to many people.
"Now here's the strangest thing," the old man continued, leaning forward in a conspiratorial manner, "I saw them capturing dragons alive, and being exceptionally careful to avoid injuring them!"
"Really?" Tom exclaimed, recalling Ged's manifest view that dragons are vermin and need to be kept down.
"Yeah. They were going out their way to ensure that they were unharmed."
The old hunter grinned ruefully.
"I've not had much experience in catching Dragons without killing them," Ged said, "It was quite interesting, how they went about it."
Seeing Tom's unfeigned interest, he continued.
"Well, they used a piglet as bait, just like I would. When the dragon was on the ground, they employed weighted ropes and nets to keep it there. Once the creature couldn't move very far, they hit it with some kind of sleeping magic I'd not seen before, which made the beasts collapse after a few minutes."
The old man stopped his narrative, frowning.
"Well, I suppose it was magic," he said slowly, "But there was certainly a strange sweet smell in the air, even from a distance. Made me feel drowsy for a moment."
Tom, who was familiar with the effects of chloroform as an anaesthetic, said nothing, but he did begin to wonder if someone had been smuggling proscribed chemicals into Lyndesfarne.
"So how did they keep the dragons after they had caught them?" he asked, after a few moments contemplation during which both men took a long pull from their drinks.
"Ah. Well, once securely asleep, they man-handled the creatures into cages. Dragons aren't particularly heavy for their size but, unconscious, they're awkward to move - wings, neck and tail need to be lifted together. They used enclosures of thick timbers, re-enforced with a load of magic. I could clearly see the sparkle of the..."
Ged used the word from the Lyndesfarne language whose best translation, Tom understood, was "sprites". He paused again, running his hand over his stubble beard, obviously deep in thought.
"I'd guess that transportation was their biggest problem," he said at last, "They couldn't use the public portals, not if they wanted to maintain any kind of secrecy about their undertaking. And they'd have to avoid roads, too."
"So how did they shift the cages?" Tom asked, now getting increasingly perplexed.
"Well, they had cross-country transport using a mixture of specially-built wagons and heavy-duty floaters. They clearly wanted to keep out of sight, since they were travelling at night only. And, the wagons and floaters were pulled by people. I'm pretty certain that horses would have been far too skittish. For fairly obvious reasons, in my experience, horses don't like dragons!"
It had become clear to Tom that the capturing of several dragons was a considerable undertaking, with a great many people involved one way or another.
"How many dragons have they captured?" he asked, urgently.
"I saw them acquire two," Old Ged replied, "And they already had three others in cages. But they could have more, for all I know."
"Why did you stop following them?" Tom pressed.
Ged looked slightly embarrassed at this point, the rueful half-smile returning to his face.
"Well, I didn't," he said flatly, "For some reason, they'd become suspicious that they were being followed, and I had to pull back to avoid being detected. And then they gave me the slip!"
"How?" Tom demanded.
"I'm not quite sure how," the older man replied, rather defensively, "I can't believe that they're that much better woodsmen than I am. In fact," he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially, "Maybe they've got access to some hidden secret portal."
"So you don't know where they've gone?" the younger man pressed.
"No I don't. I've tried telling the Guardians here, but they don't seem to be interested."
Tom glanced at the older man, raising an eyebrow quizzically.
"Well, sure I've got a bit of a reputation as a wild talker, someone with a tendency to shoot my mouth off," Ged said huffily, "But there really is something strange about that dragon-hunting party."
"I think you're right."
Tom was inclined to believe the old man. He already assumed that portals which were not part of the public network did in fact exist. He strongly suspected that the portal archway he had glimpsed in the Guardian Training camp he had visited was not for everyday use.
Even, so, the proposition that some private portal was available to the mysterious captors of wild dragons was extremely suspicious, Tom considered. Either Ged was just a little insane, or perhaps just paranoid; otherwise, since portals require a lot of time and skill to construct, Tom was forced to the conclusion that the dragon hunters had powerful allies somewhere in the interlinked network of governance that existed in the world of Lyndesfarne.
"Anyhow," Ged said, interrupting the younger man's thoughts, "I've got things to do. And I'd better go and get on with them. See you again, and thanks for the drink."
The old dragon hunter drained his pint, and stood up.
"Goodbye," Tom said, but the other man had already set off across the pub, rapidly disappearing into the night through the front door.
After Ged had left, Tom thoughtfully finished his second pint, again returning the empty glasses to the bar. He then made his way downstairs, finding his way to a tiny box room, barely large enough for the single bed. He slipped into bed, but found himself laying awake for some time, wondering about what he had heard. He felt that something was going on, something mysterious and important, and resolved to do something about it the very next morning.
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