We are going on a Dragon Hunt!
It was midnight when the throbbing of the drums caused the boy to toss fitfully on his camp bed. He sat up, confused. Then he remembered that today was special because those drums could only mean that the revels of mid summer's eve had begun. Suddenly he felt alarmed. Something was missing! Where was my Papa's good night kiss?
This day had begun a long, long time ago when Merlin urgently shook the five-year-old prince awake.
"Up you get, my lord, we must go. Now!"
"Why?" he demanded because whenever he did not know what to say, he always asked: "why?"
"Because, young man, today is mid summer's eve and we're going on a Dragon Hunt!" And then, raising his voice in excitement, Merlin cried out, "and we are going to free Cornwall from all the dragons of darkness!"
But the prince persisted, "Why?"
"Because a perverted wizard plans to let loose dragons of the Dark and command them to poison our springs and our wells. And before you ask me again: "why" because today is the day! These magicians can only release them on one day of the year, and that day is the eve of the summer solstice, and that day is today!"
"It's today, Arthur! Come on, please!" Cadwallader, Merlin's son, twitched with impatience. When Arthur did not move instantly, he demanded, "Just get up and let's go. There are dragons, and I'm not afraid!" Then, puffing with pride, he went on, "our gryphons are harnessed, ready to go, and you are going to ride with me on my mother's favourite!." Although Caddy was the same age as the Crown Prince, Merlin's son had been born two weeks earlier, and that gave him unimaginable rights of bossiness.
Merlin lent down and tickling Arthur whispered: "And your gryphon will be tethered to mine so that she cannot lead you astray!" He pulled the prince out of his bed and slid him onto his back. "I am not afraid of dragons, either!" Arthur whispered to Merlin while he piggybacked him outside to the waiting gryphon. She tossed her head to welcome her darling little man. Merlin acknowledged his gryphon with a quick whistle and a jerk of his head too.
"Now, both of you," Merlin warned them, "pee before you climb on because this is Emilia's gryphon and she is particular about her grooming and does not like getting wet from your excitement." She turned her eagle face to Arthur and swished her grand lion's tail in happiness. She had flown Alexander the Great over the vast lands he had conquered, and she knew from experience how to set clear boundaries when you carried royal children. They thought the rules that governed everyone else simply did not apply to them. But Prince Arthur was considerate and evenly tempered. It was always an honour to carry him. Young master Cadwallader, on the other hand, was absolutely a piece of work! He was just as apt to kick her as if she was a mule.
"Let Arthur climb up in front of you, Caddy," Merlin ordered but with a smile, "and you hold the reins firmly and sit up like a big boy. No wriggling and no screeching, and I am going to tether your gryphon to mine." Once his young charges were firmly attached to their saddles, he continued.
"Now listen up! Here's what I know. Five jet black dragons were released this morning over Cornwall, and they should be easy to spot in this bright light. They look like giant ravens, but they are nowhere near as big as our Dartmoor ponies, and this is the important bit because they are inbred and stupid. They are nothing like the crimson dragons from Wales that are fierce and vicious. We should be able, all going well, to round the black dragons up and be back in plenty of time to finish our masks for the festivities tonight. Now, are you ready to hunt them down?"
"Yes," the boys cried, "let us go!"
The gryphons looked to Merlin for his command. Only after he whispered "Go!" would they rise slowly and circle above Castle-an-Dinas to give their master a chance to examine all his recent handiwork from above. As a former engineer of camps and forts from his time in the Roman Legions, Merlin had just finished rebuilding this ancient hill fort. It now stood proudly beside the bridleway that crossed Cornwall from Padstow on the west coast to Fowey on the east coast. It loomed out of the ancient earthworks, seven hundred feet above the path. Strategically, this was a masterstroke because you could see your enemy approaching no matter which way they came.
Below them, in the castle's inner circle, Merlin had built an imposing hunting lodge for Uther, his king. A stable for fifty horses, a stone bakehouse, a granary, a large feasting hall, and sleeping quarters for Merlin's family and the royal family, all to his design. Their servants could sleep before the fire in the hall. Merlin smiled. He could not wait to show Emilia how beautiful his creation looked from the heavens.
"Now, keep your eyes peeled," Merlin called out, smiling, "we are looking for these small coal-black dragons."
But secretly, Merlin was anxious, and he should have called up his Welsh dragon, his wondrous, battle-scarred Draig Du. He understood that in Cornwall, on Mid-Summer's Eve, not all the dead lay asleep in their graves, where, of course, they would otherwise be all year round. Merlin knew that they often wandered around, calling out to the drowned men who still clung to the edges of the sea. You only had to listen to their howling in the waves. It was then that Merlin heard the wail from the earth spirits who lived in the hollows and sacred wells. Only he could hear their distress as they begged him to heed their warnings.
"All is not as it seems Myrddin," they pleaded, "Look behind you,"
There, a coal-black dragon flew fearlessly, straight at him. Merlin leaned forward into its flight path to untether the boys' gryphon while whispering instructions in her ear. As Merlin leaned back, their gryphon rapidly gained height, and drawing in a long slow breath, and he shot out from his mouth a stream of fire. The dragon screeched and engulfed in flames, plummeted into the river at Fowey. Looking pleased with himself, Merlin called out. "Well, one is down…only four to go!
But, repeating the warning of the wail from the dead men, the boys screeched at him, "Look behind you, Myrddin."
This time there were two. Immediately, Merlin called out to the spirits of the hollow earth, "Send up Draig Du, now!"
They must have been listening, because his Draig Du, his black disheveled Welsh dragon, heard his command and forced her bulk between the gryphons.
The boys cried out in alarm and clung to each other.
Ignoring the boys' distress, he commanded, "Tear those dragons apart and feed their entrails to the sharks off our shore. As you fly back to us, scout the coast carefully for more dragons because I know there should be another two hiding somewhere out there, but I cannot see them anywhere."
"Now toughen up, boys, we are on a dragon hunt, and I need your help. Two black dragons are hiding somewhere, and they could be close. Here is our problem. What do you do when you believe that something you are hunting is hunting you, and you cannot see them?"
From their gryphon above, they yelled out in unison: "You hide!"
"But where do you hide?"
And Prince Arthur politely asked their gryphon to go down closer to Merlin so none other could hear and only when they were side by side, did he lean over and whisper what his father, Uther, had taught him to say.
"When something you are hunting is hunting you, and you know it is, but you can't see it, then you hide in plain sight."
"And, my prince, where might that be?'
"Right up here!" Arthur cried, pointing across the blue sky.
"But there they will clearly see you!"
"Not if they see something from nature," Arthur replied wisely, "something that they expect to see."
Now, it was Merlin who was smiling, because he knew exactly where this was going, so he rendered the three of them and their gryphons invisible. "And what, do you think, they expect to see?"
"Three Dalmatian pelicans flying across the sky!"
The words were no sooner out of Arthur's mouth when Merlin had transformed both gryphons into two huge pelicans, one for himself and one for his son. Then after creating an additional one for Arthur, he gently lifted him across to a silver-white bird with its large bill of pale pink.
"Now, keep your eyes alert, both of you, and your mouths firmly shut. Hand gestures only, no matter what happens. When you see my giant black dragon return, do not say a word. He is under my command, not yours! Thumbs up if you understand!" Four shaking thumbs pointed up towards the sky as not two, but three, screeching crimson dragons, flew directly at them.
"All is not as it seems!" The earth spirits wailed.
To be continued...