The Clockwork Dragon Slayer

  He was too late.

  He'd known that before he set out, from the time the exhausted messenger arrived with the message that Ibenard had been attacked three weeks ago, but the reality was still a shock - still unexpected, as though he'd hoped it wasn't true; had been, somehow, wrong. Mistaken. The spring air was fresh and cool, the sun bright in the afternoon sky, and the little town below him looked peaceful, still and utterly deserted. Boats rocked gently at anchor when they should have been out at sea, tiny bright specks on the wide blue horizon. There was no movement within the small town, no sound that reached the lonely watcher on the hill, no bells, no beasts, no children. Here and there, a roof had caved in, or been destroyed; but other than that and the boats, all seemed as it should be, and the imitation of a healthy, vibrant, alive town made the shattered, deserted reality that much worse.

  What sort of dragon was it? Small, big, intelligent? Stupid? There were no scorch marks visible from a distance, so either it was not a firebreather, or it was not a very good one. Indeed, the town was so nearly intact, it looked almost like the beast had had a delicate touch.

  He scowled, already dreading the confrontation that was to come. The messenger had said 'big' and 'terrible'; but to someone who has never seen one, all dragons were big and terrible. He had secretly been hoping for a small, stupid one, but from the look of the town, he didn't think that likely.

  Where would it be? Not inside the town. Dragons liked caves. Whatever else could be said about the Toymaker, his dragons were consistent and behaved like dragons should, to the sorrow of the Five Kingdoms for the past fifty years. They ate people and lived in caves on piles of treasure. Clockwork. They were the nearest thing to the real dragons of legend that could be achieved with gears and cogs, and ever since the death of their creator, they had caused just as much harm as a real dragon would, had one ever existed.

  Sir George's horse, tired of behaving itself, put its head down to graze on the abundant grass. Jerked from his consideration of the possibilities, the knight dismounted tiredly, and let his mount rest. He moved a few steps away to stand right on the crest of the hill overlooking Ibenard and the ocean, and knelt to pray. The words felt clumsy in his mouth; he stumbled over their rote pronunciation that should have been familiar after ten years of dragonslaying, and the mumbled sentences fell like rocks, dead where once they had been full of fire and passion. He fancied that if he opened his eyes mid-prayer, the lifeless syllables would be visible, lying on the grass. Not to pray, though, would be unthinkable - a worse transgression than saying the words without meaning them, a denial of the past victories and a request for luck to truly desert him; so he finished the prayer as the ritual demanded, and clambered to his feet. He felt unsatisfied, as though he had eaten a meal but found it tasteless and not nourishing.

  The horse, well-trained, stood where he had let the reins drop. It was tired; it should be, he'd pushed it hard to get here so quickly. Two weeks' ride it had taken him, but he was five weeks too late. He picked up the reins and started walking down the hill towards the town, in search of shelter for the night, and the horse followed amiably.

  Close to, Ibenard was a pretty town. Had been a pretty town. Neat houses stood side by side, generally painted white, although occasionally a yellow or brown house bucked the trend, adding bright splashes of colour to the streets. Trees grew in grassy spots where the wells were situated, and the paved or cobbled roads were well maintained. Towards the bay the houses grew smaller and the streets narrower, but they still bore the marks of proud care and attention - steps frequently whitewashed and windows kept sparkling. The messenger who had reached Court had been a fisherman, once. Sir George wondered which of the boats rocking at anchor, no doubt as well cared for as the houses, had been his.

  His horse clopped along the streets behind him as he wandered, but when he walked past an inn, the slight tugging at the reins reminded him of his mount's needs. The inn, like the rest of the town, was deserted, but the stables were intact and there was hay and oats in the buckets in the small tack room. Sir George brushed his horse down thoroughly, laid fresh straw in the stall closest to the door, and made sure the manger and hay rack were full. The horse fell to with a will, and George watched its innocent greed for a while, taking some comfort in it.

  Before he went into the inn itself, he took his saddle and bridle to the tack room and spent some time rubbing grease into the worn leather. He tested the stitching and it was all sound, but nonetheless he sewed extra strength into the bridle and the stirrup leathers. The little room was set aside from the rest of the stables, and he could almost have pretended that everything was normal; that the sound of one horse munching was in fact several, and that any minute now a stableboy would bring in more tack to mend or clean.

  He knew better than to try.

  The inn was as clean as the stables, with the exception of the kitchen and taproom, where food left abandoned on the hob and on the tables had attracted an eager green mould. Sir George threw out the bowls and their occupant, and raided the pantry for some food that had kept. He stoked the fire and made tea, using what had probably been a treasured hoard of tea leaves, kept in a tiny, ornate box on a high shelf. It was good tea, strong, but with a distinct taste that didn't overpower. He considered taking the box, but did not; he was a knight, not a thief. Food and board was his right while he was dealing with the dragon, but outright theft would never do. Sometimes he felt his principles, his stubborn clinging to the moral code of a knight, a dragonslayer, were all that kept him moving. That kept him human, even.

  He slept that night in one of the guest rooms, the one he thought least likely to have been in use at the time the dragon attacked. It was a small, poky room with a window that overlooked the stable yard, but the bed was comfortable and the sheets were clean, and Sir George was very tired.

  It didn't stop him dreaming.

  The nightmare began as they often did; he saw the town as it must have been. The boats were coming into harbour, the fishermen bringing their hauls in one by one and moving their boats to anchor in turn. Dinghies pulled up on the sand, eager children running down to see how much their Da had brought in. Wives calling from the little houses, and a few merchants sauntering nearby to eye the catch, their too-casual nonchalance not fooling anyone. The town's few whores paraded themselves on the waterfront, unusually demurely dressed in the spring chill, but still managing to fully display their charms. The inns grew full with customers and the ale and cider was consumed freely. It had been the night before a rest day, the holy day when no-one worked and the boats remained at anchor. When time was kept for praying, and for family, and for resting in between labour.

  The dragon had arrived, his dream declared, at about the time the inns had begun to disgorge their customers. It was late, later than usual. Most dragons attacked in late afternoon, but the stars were well out by the time this huge shadow winged its ponderous way above the bay. In his bed, Sir George tossed, knowing it was a dream, knowing it could have happened otherwise, but already convinced it had been this way and unable to look away.

  At first, the children had poked their heads out of their bedroom windows in wonder, and fishermen on the streets, drunk or not, had stopped to stare, open-mouthed, amazed. The amazement had lasted barely seconds. He had been right; it wasn't a fire breather, but it was enormous, the biggest he had ever seen. It landed on the beach, crushing the neat row of dinghies beneath metal talons, and stretched out its armoured neck almost lazily to snap a stunned onlooker from the waterfront. There was a moment of stretched silence, as though Ibenard itself could not believe what had happened, and then the screaming and the running started.

  Sir George had heard and dreamed variants of the scene a hundred times before, but it didn't help. In his sleep, he sweated and wept through the carnage, as Ibenard's security and complacency vanished in the onslaught of the Toymaker's creation. When the night was over, the clockwork dragon was gone, leaving the majority of the townsfolk slaughtered and the rest shocked, shattered, griefstricken and beyond words. He didn't dream the rest of the story - he only ever dreamed the bits with dragons in - but he knew the remaining townsfolk must have fled. The dragon probably dined well on the corpses it had left in the village. An apparently dainty creature, for it had damaged very little of the town's infrastructure, for all its size.

  He woke two hours before morning, badly rested but not wanting to sleep again. The town mourned its losses, and was all too eager to inflict its memories on an unwillingly receptive dreamer. Instead, he pulled out a small chess set from his saddlebags, and played against himself over and over again.

  He kept losing.

  When morning had truly begun, the sun's rays washing over every rooftop and into the eastern hollow of the valley, he got up. His dream hadn't told him where the dragon was - not, of course, that he was accepting it as truth. It was just a nightmare. Born of too little sleep, and of overstretched nerves. But the Toymaker's creations followed a pattern, and Ibenard was a seaside town. It had cliffs, and those cliffs surely had caves, and dragons lived in caves.

  Leaving his horse in the stable, he walked in the bright morning, down through the narrow streets to the bay. The shattered remnants of the town's dinghies had been pulled around by the tides until the appearance was of a beach that just hadn't been combed for a while, rather than a beach where a dragon had appeared. Uncomprehending gulls called overhead, sweeping through the bright morning, looking for the fish that should have been discarded by the busy fishermen but were, inexplicably, not there. The boats rocked at anchor still, but from the beach, he could see that one had drifted free. It lay piled up on the nearby rocks that bordered the beach, someone's prized livelihood, left to be the wind and waves' plaything.

  He walked slowly, partly through caution, but partly because his right foot made walking in sand difficult. Like his hand on the same side, it was clockwork, lost to a dragon some four years ago. Although the mechanisms were intricate and effective, a work of art, and responsive to his every command, there was no feeling in either limb. They had cost a fortune, but they were inert. Only the Toymaker had ever been able to make clockwork that truly imitated life, in every way.

  It had been an intelligent dragon, that one. He pushed the memory away. It had been small, too.

  A mile or so along the beach, the cliff sloped up, and he slowed down further, wary. From a distance, the holes in the cliff were visible. More, the sand there was visibly churned, although there were no remains. He backed away, not needing to go any further to convince himself that yes, there was a dragon there. It was bright morning, and the dragon had attacked at night, but there was no point in taking chances. He felt the sweat run cold down his back as he edged towards the town, and he felt shame and anger combined, that even the thought of a dragon should fill him with such fear.

  It had been five weeks since the attack. The dragon must have gorged itself that night and the following nights on the remaining dead, but that was still a long time ago. Very soon now, he knew, it would fly away in search of either more food, or a chance to hibernate. When that happened, a dragon dropped out of sight, became untraceable, to rise again months or years later, freshly ravenous and ready to kill. He had no idea why the dragons hibernated, no-one did, but that they did was undeniable. It would be better to find and kill it now, rather than wait for it to emerge and kill again.

  So. Planning, that he could do. He had laid traps for dragons countless times before. Bright metal and polished gears, they were the best imitation of life clockwork could afford, but they were not alive. They did not learn, they did not communicate. One valley over, west of the town, there was a forest, and in the forest, Sir George and his horse tracked and captured two deer. Not human, but warm and alive, and terrified. Despising the necessity, he brought them back to the town and tethered them securely at the edge of the copse that covered the western slope.

  The waiting between the capture of the deer and the time he would begin his vigil stretched before him. He didn't feel like playing chess, but wandered instead through the streets, examining houses, occasionally going inside if the door was open. He saw abandoned meals and clothes laid out on the bed, ready to wear. He saw, here and there, the marks of someone who had packed, and he was glad to presume that here had lived one who had escaped, a family who had fled after the attack. He touched rough stonework and smooth, warm wood, appreciated a flower garden that still bloomed and a neatly kept little donkey stable with curious, intricate carvings in the beams. Once he almost wept at the grave of a dog, which still bore a withered flower. For several hours, he walked through Ibenard, doing his duty by the dead, both in remembering and in preparation for their justice. Their defence, albeit over a month late.

  Later that afternoon, he ate a light meal and packed, to be ready for the dragon he expected would emerge in the early evening or later. He greased his tack again and re-checked the stitches. He went over his armour with scourer and oil, and ensured every joint moved easily. He filled pouches with sand, and hooked two precious bottles of acid to his belt, making sure the tops were very tightly screwed on. Flame did not normally affect dragons, but this one was not a firebreather, so he concocted a flammable mix using the inn's plentiful supply of fine - and not so fine - alcohol, and made three bottles of it, stuffed with rags ready to light. With hours of daylight left, he ran out of things to do to prepare, so he took the time to give his horse a really good grooming, taking pleasure in being with another living thing. The horse appreciated the attention.

  Towards the end of the afternoon, Sir George loaded his equipment onto himself and his horse, and rode out across the gentle slopes outside the town to where he'd tethered the deer. They had quieted a little while he was away, but as he approached, jingling despite the rags he'd tried to stuff around every moving metal surface, they started, stumbling back in fear. He ignored them, taking the time to distribute a number of his lances in strategic locations around the fearful deer - for all their advances, lances were still the most effective weapons against dragons. No doubt that had been intentional. He then spent some more time winding ropes around trees, even though no dragon had ever fallen for that trick before. He knew, although he did not acknowledge, that it was more to keep himself busy, not thinking about the night and what it would bring.

  When everything was ready, he blindfolded his horse and led it back into the cover of the trees, and mounted. There they waited, used to this discipline and patient in the face of fear. Sir George didn't understand his horse; it had no scores to settle with dragons but really ought to have some with him, and yet obeyed his commands, no matter the danger he took them into. It was his fifth horse in ten years, and it had lasted five fights so far, which was doing pretty well. If he had been his horse, he'd have long since refused to go anywhere near himself. He patted the warm neck, and the horse blew a big sigh, and shook its mane.

  As in the dream, it was late by the time the dragon emerged. The stars were out, and the moon was clear overhead; visibility was not really going to be a problem. Sir George had almost drifted into a light doze when the horse pricked its ears and shifted minutely under him, too well trained to move more than that or to make a sound. He started awake, and looked around. Over beyond the trees, the deer were sidling on their tethers, all huge eyes and flicking ears, nervous but unable to understand why just yet. Sir George took a deep breath and checked his gear, then checked it again. The forest darkened as the moon's light was dimmed, and he scowled up at the offending cloud - and he saw the dragon.

  His foe was truly enormous, and the intricate mechanisms that fuelled movement and simulated life were barely visible in the depths of darkness under its belly. It glided lazily between the earth and the moon, huge wings slowly beating every now and then. The moon glanced white off the metal spines that adorned its back and the jewelled cogs in its neck as it turned its head, looking for prey.

  It found the deer, of course, and landed, delicately, not far away. It seemed wary, which any intelligent beast would be, with a new situation like the one it now found. Dinner, laid out ready for the taking, with no effort. It would have to be intelligent.

  For a long time, the clockwork dragon stood bathed in the moonlight, sniffing out the situation, poised and shimmering as it turned. The world seemed to hold its breath; Sir George certainly did, unwilling to alert it to his presence. The horse stood still, afraid but trusting in its rider, who felt right then very unworthy of that trust. The dragon eyed the dark wood where the horse and rider stood concealed, eyed the deer, crowded as far away from it as they could get, frozen in fear. Every leaf on the edge of the forest was outlined in brilliant white light, uncompromising, stark. Nothing moved.

  The frozen moment was broken when a real cloud passed over the moon, briefly damping the light and reducing the transcendent moment to reality again. One of the deer bleated, fearful, and the dragon moved so quickly that Sir George barely had time to notice. The other deer screamed as its companion was plucked from beside it; the dragon reared back on its haunches, the dead deer in its jaws, and stared at the forest where the knight sat in unconcealing shadows. For a second, they stared at each other, the dragon huge and glowing in the moonlight, a deer hanging in its jaws and its wings half cocked behind it, and the knight sat small on a blindfolded horse in the shadows, bringing nothing but a lance and harsh experience against his foe.

  Sir George pulled himself from his half-trance and kicked his horse in the ribs. Trusting, the animal jumped forwards awkwardly, careering towards the mechanical monster in its path. Sir George lowered his lance, stood on his stirrups, balanced, and even as the dragon turned swiftly, he shoved the lance in its side. Its size told against it - no matter how fast it could turn, there was just too much of it to get completely out of the way. The lance hit on the haunch and slid in smoothly, as though there were no gears there. As though it were flesh. The lance quivered in his hand, stuck into animal muscle, slabs of it that girded the huge leg and supported the undeniably metal body. Disbelieving, uncomprehending, Sir George lost his hold on the lance as the horse, brought up short against the dragon's body, wallowed back on its hind legs, half rearing. He pulled his mount's head round brutally and spurred it away as the dragon swung round, and the horse ran and stumbled, and the dragon loomed over him. One almighty claw came swinging round, and he ducked, but not fast enough; it caught him on the shoulder and sent him flying from the saddle, to land, dazed, in a clump of bushes. His vision blurred, but he saw his horse recover from its stumble and, confused, back away from both himself and the dragon, shaking its head and trembling.

  Sir George pulled himself painfully to his feet, and fumbled out the sand. As the dragon's enormous gold and brass head swung down, he threw the bagful in its eyes. Grit flew everywhere as it shook its head, sand catching in the gears, its eyes spinning and clicking in an attempt to shake off the tiny crystals. Its huge foot came down, and Sir George tried to dodge but could not match the speed of the dragon; it pinned him through his right foot, an odd sensation which he sensed as violent shock running through his whole body, but which was not at all painful. Perhaps in another dragon, it wouldn't have made a difference, but this one paused, as though the unusual sensation had registered in what passed for its brain, the mechanical nature of what its talon had impaled. Sir George hitched back, breath catching in his throat as the dragon brought its head down, as close to level with his as it could get.

  He had never felt so afraid. The dragon stared at him with its great golden eyes. Little bits of grit escaped the lensing mechanism as it whirred, focussing on its trapped enemy. It raised the foot it had impaled him with ever so slightly, and pulled it down sharply but briefly, again, an oddly delicate move for such a large beast. Sir George did not appreciate the almost surgical precision, as the dragon deliberately mangled the intricate gears in his foot; he felt his vision go fuzzy with fear and a distanced outrage, expecting the next strike to be a killing blow to his head or body. Instead, the dragon lifted its claw free of his wrecked limb, poised, like a cat might, and placed it down carefully to one side. It leaned in even closer to look at him, and his foot, and then it pulled its head back, rearing up so it was silhouetted against the stars. Sir George lay motionless, crippled and frozen in the loam and the mud, and watched as his enemy deliberately turned its back on him, taking both deer and launching heavily into the sky, kiting away on its great wings.

  It felt like hours later when he finally moved, and he only did so because his horse was distressed. It wandered in circles on the grass, the blindfold half undone but still a hindrance. He raised his head, bringing out a host of new aches and bruises, and called it, his voice broken and harsh with the fear and adrenalin that still rushed his system. It came quickly, with relief, to a familiar call. He felt like a traitor as he hauled himself to his feet and into the saddle, and urged the horse back towards the town. What was it going to get if he kept it but more dragons, more fights, until at last it got unlucky? He hadn't even named it, hadn't named horses since his second had died. It hadn't been a deliberate choice, it just hadn't seemed important then, or since. He stroked the sweat-sheened bay flank, and the horse trembled its skin in response. They had to have had names once, he supposed. They'd probably even told him when he requisitioned it. Perhaps he could ask the stable master when he got back.

  Thinking about returning meant thinking first about his job, which remained unfinished. At a distance from the fight both temporal and spatial, he felt more able to consider what had happened rationally and without fear. Or without so much fear, anyway. The dragon wasn't going anywhere any time soon, it had to eat and digest, and it would probably take a good twelve hours over it. He had a limited amount of time to rest and plan. Not that there was much planning involved; he knew he was going to have to head to its lair and hope it was sufficiently asleep not to notice him before he attacked. But - the beast was clearly intelligent. It recognised him, or rather, the mechanism in his foot. It let him go.

  As the horse ambled towards the town, Sir George felt a bit ill at the thought of killing the beast that spared his life in the face of an unprovoked attack. If it had. There was no way of telling what went on inside a dragon's head. Looking up, he saw the roofs of Ibenard glinting slightly in the starlight and, below them, no lit windows. It had wiped out a whole town and gorged itself on the populace. It would do it again, if it was allowed to live. Even if it had shown mercy to him, it had shown none to the people of the town, and he had already failed them. Hardening his conscience against the alien gaze of golden eyes, he entered the town, running through his options for killing the dragon as it slept.

  He rested but did not sleep at first, not wanting to fall prey to the same nightmare as before. Ibenard had not yet been avenged. Instead, he wrote detailed notes on what he had witnessed, the oddness of this particular dragon. It was the largest he had ever seen, and it showed an astonishing degree of intelligence. Possibly even self-awareness, or at least, awareness of other and how that other related to self. And it was part flesh. He didn't want to acknowledge that, but he could not deny it; the lance had hit muscle, not gears. The rigid discipline of recording forced him to write every detail down even as he remembered it, from his own blurred and confused vision to the precise feel of the lance in his hand as it hit the dragon's leg. The account was purely factual; he should not, could not, record hypotheses, ideas, fancies. No matter how much he thought them. How was it even possible that a Toymaker's dragon could be part flesh? Then, lifting the mechanical right hand that made writing an arduous chore, he laughed out loud. Of course it was possible. It was like him - except, he supposed, the other way round. Was it becoming flesh? Could that even be possible? Is that, he wondered, why they eat flesh, is that why they hibernate?

  Obedient to his Order's discipline, he did not write down his thoughts in the logbook, but he did jot them down in his own notebook. Fanciful or not, he was not aware of any other knight who had come across a beast like this one, and he thought it important that his guesses and hypotheses were not lost. Perhaps that was hubris, but he felt better once it was all recorded.

  As the day dawned, he fixed himself breakfast, hobbling around the inn's spacious kitchen. His body was a mass of aches and bruises from the dragon's rough handling, but nothing save his foot had actually been broken. The foot was not painful, of course, but it barely held his weight and it certainly wasn't going to be trustworthy in a fight. After eating, he limped around the building, searching for a toolshed or a smithy, but the inn was sadly lacking in that area. A short way away, in another house, he found two iron bolts, and spent a little while jamming them through the mechanisms of his foot so that it would at least hold his weight, even if it was completely inflexible. He had become very used to jury-rigging his mechanical limbs over the past four years.

  After that tiredness overtook him, and he napped in the clean straw in the stall next to his horse, which was enjoying a good rest and a feed. Sleeping in the straw was itchy and not desperately comfortable even without the battering the dragon had given him, but he did not dream, and when he woke late in the morning, he felt rested, if not exactly ready for the coming confrontation. He left the horse in its stall, partly because it was tired, partly because he didn't think it would be much use to him this time, but mainly because he felt obscurely guilty about risking the beast again. He took his sand and his acid and limped slowly down to the beach, using a lance as a handy crutch.

  The sun was now mostly overhead and the tide was out. He found walking on the damp sand easier, which was a relief. The wrecked boat had been grounded by the retreating tide, and he saw her name as he walked by: Clover. There was a little four-leafed clover painted on her stern, and her paintwork was bright and clear where it had not been beaten on the rocks. Sir George fixed the beloved, broken Clover in his mind, along with the dog's grave and the carved donkey shed, the flower garden and the sad night time roofs with no lights below them. It was day time, it was time for Ibenard to be avenged. Or, at least, time to make sure no other town fell prey to this particular monster.

  He walked carefully, and as quietly as he could given his ruined foot. Approaching the cave, he noticed the tattered remains of one of the deer tossed outside, amid the churned sand of the dragon's landing. The cave was both tall and deep, had to be, and he edged cautiously towards it to peek in at one side.

  The dragon was waiting for him, its eyes glowing in the dark. He stood frozen in the cave mouth, a nonthreatening silhouette, balancing himself with a staff, and the dragon watched him warily. It came forward slowly, as though it were weary, but as it came, it opened its mouth, its intent clear. It reared up as it cleared the mouth of the cave, spreading its wings, and a loud hiss came from its open mouth, the first noise he'd ever heard a dragon make other than the roar of released flame. With the dragon towering above him, he saw in a moment of shocked clarity the flesh and blood underbelly, the muscles that supported it and the striated patterns of its scales.

  Despite his earlier strike, it appeared the dragon wasn't used to its flesh and the damage a lance could inflict, so much more than piercing cogs and chains. It hadn't thought where it might be vulnerable - either that, or it didn't know. Did it have a heart? Proper clockwork dragons didn't, but they did have a sweet spot where the heart ought to be, a spot that, if hit correctly, disabled or killed them. If this one had a heart in truth. . .

  Sir George balanced himself on his good foot, and lunged forward and upwards, plunging his lance straight into the dragon's belly, too low to hit the heart straight on, but stretching up through muscle to - he hoped - reach that organ. If the dragon had one. But even as he hit, the dragon started to crumple, its wings folding in and its head swinging down. Sir George, staring up at the leviathan that was collapsing on top of him, held the lance straight with all his strength, and as the beast came down and the weapon thrust up, it reached the clockwork dragon's heart, and the light in the golden eyes died.

  The dragon continued its downward plunge, mindless now of the enemy that had killed it. Red blood oozed from where the lance had hit. Belatedly, Sir George let go of the lance and tried to get out of the way, but tripped over his clumsy right foot and landed on his backside. The dragon's head crashed down in front of him, a few feet from him, so close to crushing him that, not realising, he thought it had been intentional. But the head did not move again, and the whirling, clicking eyes were dim. It was dead, it was dead, and Ibenard was belatedly safe. Avenged. Five weeks late, but the dragon was slain, and would not despoil another town.

  He stood up shakily, balancing himself carefully, and looked over the heap of metal and meat towards the cave. The dragon had come most of the way out in order to rear up, and now lay in a puddle of cogs and gear and blood, tail still in the cave, head by his feet. The great wings stood folded, like flags at half mast, and the cogs that made up the upper half of the dragon's body glinted in the sun. The cave was dark, hard to see into in the noonday glare. He limped around the dragon's head, approached the cave mouth, squinted into the gloom.

  He saw the predicted hoard of mechanics, which the dragons always kept. Was it for self repair? Was that even possible? They had to grow somehow, but their talons hardly seemed suited to delicate work. Or was it because the Toymaker thought dragons should hoard treasure, and to a clockwork dragon, cogs and gears were treasure?

  His knees buckled beneath him, and he leaned against the wall, overcome with exhaustion and a sense of anti-climax. His lance was in the dragon, and even if he had wanted to, he didn't think he could pull it out. Perhaps there'd be something else around to help him hobble back to the inn, and his horse. He edged forwards along the wall, scanning the heap of disjoint mechanics, searching for something long and straight.

  The cave was even deeper than he'd expected, and it grew very dark towards the back. Something big glinted, and he limped painfully, wearily towards it, but as he approached, he realised it was curved and of no use. He'd turned away to look at the rest of the heap when the size and precise shape of the curved object sank into his brain, and he turned again, disbelieving.

  In the rear of the cave, right at the back, lay five eggs, made of a dark, smoky metal. Scattered among them were white and bronze shards of eggshells, and against the wall, the carcass of a deer. Between the eggshells, outlined and glinting dully in the light from the cave mouth, a tiny, flesh dragon was standing there watching him, and there were two more behind it.

  Sir George stopped breathing, couldn't think, couldn't move. He watched the little dragon, the real dragon, and it stared back at him, dark eyes a mystery and a far cry from the lit, golden eyes of its... its parent? Had the clockwork dragon he'd killed laid eggs? From the look of the shell fragments, and the unhatched - and presumably dead - eggs, it had indeed. Was that the Toymaker had wanted, all along? Real dragons?

  He hesitated as his thoughts tumbled chaotically to the logical conclusion. These baby dragons were vulnerable right now. Logically, he should kill them, before they grew and despoiled towns themselves. He moved awkwardly towards them, and the foremost dragon crouched, spread its wings and hissed, even as its mother had earlier. It was tiny, barely reaching to his waist with its neck extended. He reached out for the wall, bracing himself with his right hand, and felt a fraud, unworthy to judge the life of another creature - maybe the only real dragons in the world - who had not harmed anyone. Whose... mother? - now dead, had destroyed a town and gorged itself on people and animals in order to give them birth, obedient to the programming its demented creator must have given it. And out of the death of Ibenard, and the countless towns that had gone before, three tiny real dragons had been born, and only he could stop them.

  They were real, more real than he, even, and their progenitor had spared his life. That, surely, had not been programmed. He found, of a sudden, he sympathised with the dead dragon, with the urge for real life hidden within the clockwork. Who could say what these little ones would do? They could barely be five weeks old, despite their apparent capability; they might not even survive without their mother, and that thought saddened him more than it should have.

  He backed down, standing near the dead dragon's head. The baby dragons walked sinuously out, one by one, regarding him all the way. Their short legs should have made them awkward but instead they undulated, graceful and poised, small, but perfectly formed, like miniature dark jewels. On the beach, they hesitated for an instant, then raised translucent wings and lifted easily, so unlike their mother. The flight of three flew away into the hazy afternoon, and he watched them dwindle into the horizon.

  He couldn't go any further. He sank down onto the cogs and gears scattered beside the dead female, aware of the irony, that a clockwork dragon slayer should sleep beside his dead foe on the very treasure that foe hoarded, having permitted the offspring of the dragon to go. But then, he had more in common with the mother than either did with the three tiny dragons.

  He drifted into a dreamless sleep, on the beach, beneath the clear blue sky, where at last real dragons flew. is copyright Sergei and Morag Lewis