SNATCHGRIN: Prologue


NOTE TO READERS | “Snatchgrin: Tales of Another Earth” is a work-in-progress. This is a test of initial chapters of the story to gauge interest. And to consider how to bring these “Snatchgrin” tales to life—in what form and format. Constructive feedback is welcome. Respond at the bottom of the chapters. Or e-mail feedback to this site’s Contact Page 

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The Dragonteller

PROLOGUE

PRINCE FERDINAND FOLLET LAY FLAT upon the rough planks of the Parsifal. He winced as a pine splinter pierced his left thumb. He bit the splinter out with his front teeth. Spat it to the side. His blood tasted like the dregs at the bottom of  a copper beer mug.

Like his fellow archers, he lay concealed by a long cloak of pine bark. The bark matched the color of the deck of the greatest sailing ship of the Seven Kingdoms fleet. The cloaks concealed the archers’ long-bows and quivers, stuffed with iron-tipped arrows. From high above in the sky, the Parsifal and its four companion ships, each with its own hidden hundred archers, would appear to be abandoned.

Booty.

Just the sort of prize that seemed to attract Snatchgrin.

The hefty deputy commander of the Royal Archers kept rolling this way and that upon a belly grown big from one too many fruity ales.

“Commander Prince,” whispered Argon.

“What?” Prince Follet said, testily.

The Prince had begun to get a crick in his lower back. They’d been lying in silence for more than two hours. Follett regretted his tone. Argon was the best among them, a true commander of commanders. He was beloved by his men.

This thought came ruefully to the Prince.

Follett, a year into command of the great Archer’s Army of the combined Seven Kingdoms fleet, often thought Argon would have been the better man to command the finest contingent of archers in all the kingdoms’ histories.

The Prince was well aware he was not beloved.

But Follett also knew that the gregarious Argon was not one for the complex politics of the job. That was something Follett — who father had been an admiral, whose grandfather had been a general, and whose great-grandfather had been a ….

Well, one’s glorious military family line had to start somewhere.

A Very Old Lie

The Prince had long concealed the fact that his great-grandfather had been a toiletry man for headquarter troops. Far behind any front lines. He had lied about this fact when the Dragon Council considered him for the post of Prince of the Archers.

It was a tactical lie, Follet told himself at the time. Just like a tactical move on the battlefield!

Follett tried to put his great-grandfather — and the insignia of the Toiletry & Tent squadron — out of his mind. But the image came unbidden.

Two crossed trench tools.

Follett sighed. He tried to make himself more comfortable. He had far more pressing matters than his conscience.

“What, Argon?” said the Prince, in a softer tone.

“I don’t understand, Commander Prince….”

Follet cut him off. He needed at least one mate not over-awed by his title. “Argon, please,” he said. He turned his head toward the one man the Prince considered his real friend in all the swarming squadrons and guilds of the armies of the Seven Kingdoms.

Was Argon his best friend? Did he have any other good friends. Any true friends?

“Call me Franco…”

“Um…. Franco,” Argon said, tentatively.

Follett knew Argon’s strict upbringing in an unbroken lineage of war-faring men—five generations of Irish warriors!—made it hard for him to be informal with his commander.

 “I don’t understand something.”

“What?” said Follett, quietly. He gazed about to make sure none of the nearby archers might be cocking an ear. Argon drew a breath, preparing his thoughts.

“So, this dragon, this Snatchgrin… It’s a beast, right? A brute beast…”

“Yes?” said the Prince. “So?”

“Why, then, my Prince, would a beast be interested in the prize of plunder?”

It was a good question. The Dragon Council had only Snatchgrin’s past behavior to order its future strategy in the Dragon Wars. Snatchgrin had shown a penchant for attacking trade convoys on the open seas. Or was it that he was attracted to groups of ships, not what they conveyed?

No one was sure.  The growing cadre of so-called ‘Dragon Thinkers’ and Warfaring Guild strategists had their theories. The theories kept multiplying as year one of the Dragon Wars had moved into year two.

And then year three.

War-faring Guild drawing of Snatchgrin in flight from soldier accounts.

“He is attracted to gold and silver as it has a compelling sheen…” “No! The beast views group of ships as a herd of prey animals ….” “No, no! Snatchgrin seeks food, then gathers baubles for his nest in the great Samsomora volcano that he calls home….”

The Prince weighed his words. He did not wish to dishearten his men. But he needed a confidant. Especially with so many lives on the line. And not just the 499 lives of the other archers, hidden on the five ships that swayed in the blue-green waves of the Mare Magnum.

“We just don’t know, Argon,” he finally replied. “He seems to prey upon grouped ships that appear to be carrying goods and treasures. He then plunders some of the ships. Hence, this line of attack.”

THE FLEET OF FIVE SHIPS had sailed within far-distant sight of the volcanic island that was the dragon’s base of operation. Samsomorra! They dared go no further. They were already three hundred leagues out from the surf that washed upon the white-sand beaches of the Seven Kingdoms’ shoreline.

The day previous, the archery fleet — led by the Prince’s command ship, the Parsifal — had passed the end-of-the-line watch boat. They dropped off food to the two sunburnt sailors. The duo were the first line of alert when Snatchgrin exited the cone of his volcanic nest.

“What news?” the sailors had called out, excitedly.

The watch boats were tiny affairs—not much more than a floating shed. That way, they might lose themselves amid the ocean’s waves and Snatchgrin’s evil eyesight. It was hard duty. Not a few watchboat men had roasted and eaten their caged homing pigeons. That was a court martial offense. The pigeons were meant to be released to seek land. To alert Kingdom forces: ‘Snatchgrin is aloft!’

The men were famished for human contact. And for provisions not as stale or soggy as their field rations. They set upon the salted cod, biscuits and curried lime rinds given them as if they were a wedding feast.

Their other duty was to set afire a blaze dinghy. It was a backup alert in case a homing pigeon failed its flight. Other men in other watchboats closer in to the Kingdoms would replicate the blaze. And launch their pigeons.

The chain of six boats would serve as a sort of trip-wire—all the way back to the shores of the Great Sea. From there, Watchtower Men would sound their own alarms. And then? Oh, how the people would scramble throughout the Seven Kingdoms!

‘Beware, be gone, when Snatchgrin comes…
Light the signal fire! Beat the drums… !’

It was like a game of child’s dominoes, the Prince often thought. That was a game he’d played with his great-grandfather, who had lived long. Until 103! That was probably because he had never seen the front lines in the Long War which had preceded the forging of the Seven Kingdoms.

Follett smiled for the briefest of moments. He was smiling at a saying that concerned who had survived that terrible conflagration. He recalled the Old Warrior’s Warning, known and beloved by all true soldiers. It was told throughout the warrior kingdoms that ringed the Mare Magnum:

‘Go ahead and fight me if you will. But there is a reason I am old…”

Except that his great-grandfather had grown old without ever earning the right to such a claim. Od’s Blood! thought Follet. Great-Grandfather Genio again! Was Genio castigating his conscience again?

Yet the Council had required for the powerful post of Prince of the Archers “A war-faring man of three generations.” He was the right man for the job! His Great-Grandfather Genio Napolitano Follett had indeed fought bravely in the Long War.

Or so the Prince had lied and told the Council. He could recall the day he made his pitch, standing there in front of the great Queens and Kings, the Khan and assorted royalty in all their purple, crimson and ermine finery. He had not then been a Prince. Just a lowly Guard of the Watch.

“It had been at the Battle of Lepanto!” he boldly told the Council.

Follett had gotten carried away in embellishing his lie. The Council could have tracked down the handful of ancient veterans of that bloody campaign.

But they had not. They were just as eager as to launch a new campaign in the Dragon Wars. To stop the fighting amongst the kingdoms which had bled each other silly in the Long War. To unite as one in an outward-facing phalanx, lances and bows facing toward the far horizon of the Mare Magnum.

To face the dread beast that had appeared from over that horizon of the Great Sea one day.

‘Pay Heed!’

The Dragon Wars were—for Ferdinand Genio Napolitano Follett—his first and perhaps last chance.

At glory.

The Parsifal at sea | War-faring Guild Official Portrait

Follett thumped his forehead twice with his left palm to clear his head. It was a habit he’d had since he was a child. His parents had worried he was harming himself. Maybe there was truth to their concern. He’d thumped himself mare heartily in the past. He pushed the thought away, but did not thump again.

The Prince sucked his thumb. Spat more blood to his side.

‘Pay heed!’ he chastised himself. A dictum of Master Kim’s from “The War-faring Man,” popped into his head:

“When approaching battle, battling with yourself is the surest strategy. For defeat.”

“Perhaps,” Argon said, with a smile in his voice “he just doesn’t like us human beings.”

Argon’s face crinkled into the grin. It was a smile the soldiers of the great Archer’s Army sought out when spooked by the Prince’s dangerous, moody frown.

Follet smiled ruefully. He looked over at his first mate. “One can be certain of few things, Argon, my friend. But that sounds certain,” the Prince replied.

It felt good to speak the phrase ‘my friend.’

ALL OF A SUDDEN, the wind picked up. It flapped hard the Parsifal’s great thick cotton sails. They ballooned sideways then were sucked the opposite direction. The sea heaved. The ship tugged at its anchor. The great iron couplings of the chip’s anchor chain grew taut as an arrow and then loose again. Barnacles plopped into the sea as the chain flexed.

The Parsifal lurched leeward. The Prince called out to the watchtower man, huddled in his crow’s nest beneath his own bark cloak.

“What is afoot, Jason?!”

The watchtower man’s face appeared over the side of the crow’s nest. “Not afoot. Overhead! Our quarry, Prince!” he cried, his brow threaded in fright. “The dragon! Airborne!”

The Prince cast off his bark cloak. He stood. As he leaned to grab his long-bow and holster his quiver, a shadow enveloped the Parsifal.

Follet looked up.

The dragon covered the sun. It came dropping like a stone towards the fleet.

‘The Belly! The Eyes! The Neck!’

For the barest moment, the Prince stood in awe.

His command was young. He had yet to witness Snatchgrin in the flesh. He had only seen the etchings. The carvings. The detailed sculptures concocted by soldiers and artisans from eyewitnesses and reports of prior battles. All were an attempt to figure out and plum their opponent. To study its tactics. To analyze what weaknesses the Kingdom’s Army might exploit.

War-faring Guild depiction of Snatchgrin’s wings at full extension.

If any.

The Prince awoke from his reverie.

“Up, men! Bows ready!”

All five hundred archers rustled into position on the five ships. Lines of men kneeled with longbows pointed upward. The archers behind them stood, aiming over the kneeling men. A handful of archers cowered. Instead of rising, they burrowed beneath their bark cloaks like beasts of the field hiding from a hawk.

“Prepare!” cried Argon.

Argon had his long-bow already strung with an arrow. Pointed up. Follet was a moment behind him. An arrow pointed skyward, he marveled at the dragon’s size. He had a wingspan wide as the Parsifal was long. And his warship was the largest in the Kingdom’s fleet!

“Fear not!” Argon called out. The bolstering cry was picked up by commanders on the four other boats.

“Aim!” the Prince shouted. “The belly! The eyes! The neck!”

Dragon analysts had concluded these three locations were the best lines of attacks. But no one really knew for sure.

Snatchgrin fell like a great red stone from the sky.

“Shoot!” cried the Prince.

At once, almost five hundred arrows — minus the dozen archers who had quailed — unloosed toward the dragon. Hundreds struck the beast. Most bounced off, as the dragon fluttered its wings rapidly in front of itself, stopping its descent. Was it a defensive move?

Like a butterfly, thought the Prince, whose mind was filled with both raw terror and amazement at his first sight of this terrible scourge of the Seven Kingdoms. Able to float in the air.

The dragon appeared to hesitate. Perhaps the arrows that had hit him — more than a hundred looked to have stuck home — concerned him. Had he at last met a worthy opponent?

“Re-string!” cried Argon.

The command echoed across the ships.

“Re-string!” “Re-string!” “Re-string!” Re-string…!”

BUT SNATCHGRIN HAD OTHER PLANS. The dragon reversed its wings backward, propelling its huge girth downward, accelerating its speed. The beast’s body smashed into the ship beside the Parsifal, named the Genoa.

The ship’s sails buckled. Its deck heaved, its planks crackled.

Cries. Screams.

More cries.

Archers plonked overboard or were flung by the dragon’s crash. Dozens of men dotted the waves all about the ship.

“Lower bows!” cried the Prince. “Aim and fire!”

Two hundred, maybe three hundred, arrows flew Snatchgrin’s way. Disoriented and fearful of the dragon’s nearby presence, and the destruction to the Genoa, a hundred arrows flew awry. All the hundred arrows of the Genoa, of course, were out of action.

The Prince put out of his mind what “out of action” truly meant. Snatchgrin was aloft again. The dragon looked like a pincushion, dozens of arrows in its wings and sides. Not a few arrows bristled the great beast’s neck and belly.

So much for the dragon analysts, thought the Prince. But he berated himself. This had been his plan. His strategy. They even had a colorful name for the operation: ‘500 Bows’

Follett looked with dismay as the dragon wheeled toward the Matterhorn, third ship out from the Parsifal. The beast flicked his wings forward again, so that it hung motionless once more a few hundred feet above the ship. Again, the Prince conjured the image of a butterfly. Or perhaps a hummingbird, able to move at will rapidly. In any direction.

The Prince first heard rather than saw a loud grunt from the dragon. Its huge crimson belly filled with air. It was a sound like that made by the great bellows at the sprawling Arsenal works where trebuchets were built for the Kingdom’s Army.

A cloud of acrid black smoke belched out the mouth of the stationary dragon’s nostrils.

Not a grunt, the Prince realized with horror.

An inhalation.

Immediately, a waterfall of fire poured and hissed like lava from the dragon’s lips. The Prince dropped his longbow to his side.

He had seen tactical drawings of dragon-fire. They had made it seem like it came out the dragon’s mouth like a shooting arrow of flame. But, no! The fire had weight and substance. It was like the violent orange lava flow the Prince had seen as a boy that time Great Genio had taken him to view the Pompein volcano.

“It is like a river of fire,” Great Genio had said as the two stood, transfixed, watching orange-red lava tumble downhill from their perch high on a nearby hill.

“Fire at will!” the Prince and Argon cried out, almost simultaneously.

The Prince quickly set aside annoyance at Argon for issuing an order that was his, unless he were disabled or lost.

The dual command came too late. The dragon-fire — Follet’s mind dubbed it the dragon-flow — burst the Matterhorn into flame.

Into kindling. Like a great bonfire ignited by dry saplings.

“Prince!” cried Argon. “What orders?!”

Prince Follet heard Argon’s voice as if it were the sound of someone calling from far away, deep in a forest. Faint and whispery. Waking out of his stupor, he hoisted his bow.

“He has no soft spots!” he cried. “Use the Fifty!”

The Fifty

An example of one of The Fifty meteoric, poison-tipped arrows.

BUT ARGON’S ATTENTION was no longer trained upon the Prince’s voice. Snatchgrin now hung right atop the Parsifal. He blocked the sun, so the ship was in the beast’s great shadow again.

The Prince gazed up at the dragon. He crouched backward violently, as if to make himself a smaller mark. In the process, he twisted his right ankle. He grunted in pain as he heard a snap. He now could not only see the dragon close—he could smell him. The beast had a stench foul as a sewer.

But the Prince’s training was such that instead of terror — which he surely felt — he also heard a quiet voice in his head. Something from the scriptorium. He had spent years there amid the scrolls, deep into long nights lit by beeswax candles. He was considered an expert, an amateur scholar even, on “The War-faring Man” and its many commentaries.

He had long prepared for and sought high command. The thought flitted into his head. A flash of anger, really. Was his ferocious ambition just a way to erase Great-Grandpa Genio’s embarrassing career in what Germania-born troops called “the Scheiss Squad”?

Another, more useful thought came bursting into mind. He tuned into the cries, the shouts, the disorienting whir of battle. Was it Master Kim — or a commentator on Master Kim? — who had hand-scrawled into the margin of one treatise words that must have been etched in iron-gall ink, since they had lasted more than 100 years:

“A formidable foe is still just a foe. If you do not quail, you may yourself remain formidable.”

Follet was not feeling formidable. A thought flashed across his mind’s eye. The word in Master Kim’s dictum was ‘may’— not ‘will.’ And he had lost close to half his greatest archers from this wretched plan of his …

ARGON HAD HIS BOW UP.  The Prince heard the zing and then whoosh of an arrow. Argon and he had a small stock of the latest in arrow technology. The arrows were fletched with osage-orange, a strong, beautiful wood.

More importantly, they were tipped with meteoric metal. Dragon analysts, not to mention withered shamans, witched women and alchemists, all had sung the virtues of the rare metal. Especially when smeared with a dab of poisonous, dangerous belladonna paste.

“It is worth a try,” Queen June Lilly-Moss had said at the Dragon Council meeting, when the huge expense of finding and smithing the rare metals had been approved. It was an unproven technology. Plus, one had to be careful to avoid wounding oneself with the paste. More than a few test shoots had led to writhing, foaming deaths from mishandled arrows at the Arsenal shooting grounds.

Argon had let loose one of The Fifty. That was how many meteoric arrows Prince Follet, Argon and the four other ship’s commanders had between them. Strategists had sternly warned the commanders not to waste them. “Only shoot these when you see the wrinkles of the dragon’s wing-joints,” they had been told.

Argon’s meteoric arrow struck home. It narrowly entered a crevice between the dragon’s wings, which were huddled protectively in front of the beast as it hung a hundred feet above the Parsifal’s sails.

Not much was known in those early years about the dragon’s motives and aims. But one definite thing was known from many a bloody battle and fiery death. After once expelling its dragon flame — it’s dragon-flow, thought the Prince — the dragon could not again belch flame for at least a half-an-hourglass.

“Look!” cried Argon.

Instead of flapping its great wings backward to crash itself upon the Parsifal, Snatchgrin flapped them forwards. The move elevated the dragon instantly hundreds of feet higher into the sky.

The beast flapped likewise once again. The dragon now appeared to be the size of the full Moon that hung in the daytime sky on this terrible ‘Day of the 500 Bows’ (as it would come to be called in Dragon War lore).

THE REMAINING SOLDIERS ON the three untouched ships cried out in huzzahs and relief. Snatchgrin — again, just like a hummingbird, thought the Prince — flitted its wings and dashed westward as if its great bulk had no more weight than a feather.

Toward its island nest, it flew.

Argon dropped his long-bow to his side. “What just occurred?” he said. He looked to the Prince, then to the receding smudge of Snatchgrin.

Now small as a dust mote, the dragon could be seen dropping into the hole at the tip of the volcano on the distant island. He was no more to be seen that day.

Or for months afterwards, it would turn out.

The Prince said nothing.

He limped to the edge of the Parsifal’s deck, favoring his right leg. He looked out at the mayhem on the whitecapped waves.

“Get as many of these men out of the water as soon as possible,” he ordered.

TO BE CONTINUED ….

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