On the eve of Tinker’s Dawn we had been stranded at Hardain for eight nights, and no one could tell us when the boats might move again. Up to ten days of ice was common, we gathered, perhaps more, perhaps less. The ice might even thicken, and this prospect pleased our hosts, who would hold a fair on the river if the ice would bear it.
As the days passed, then, our hosts had grown more cheerfully expectant, and we more morose. That night we found the taproom intolerable, for we were none of us in a mood to suffer the good cheer of strangers, and we huddled together on a bench against the inn wall, glad of whatever slight warmth seeped through the wattle to augment the fitful efforts of the brazier, and waited out the night.
We were too settled in our misery to notice the crowd thickening, or to heed the landlord’s approach until he loomed over us, beaming goodwill and thrusting tankards into our hands. We mustered what good grace we could to thank him, and as he faded back into the crowd Neal said, wonderingly
“They couldn’t know it’s Tinker’s Eve?” he glanced at Jekka, “and Skellig, too?”
“It’s no coincidence they fall together,” I told him, “everyone needs an excuse for a festival in the heart of the darkness.”
“Is that all it is?”
Jekka roused himself to mock umbrage and asked
“All it is? Why don’t you tell him, oh minstrel-who-knows-so-much?”
There had been a sting in that, once, but it was said in friendship now. I took a long drink and began, in gentle fireside tones
“Now Kaylen Storvar saw the world and saw it clear – ”
“One does not speak softly of Kaylen Storvar,” Jekka told me reproachfully, “as a lullaby or a nursery tale.”
He had taken his cerepipe from under his cloak, and he gave such a rousing introductory skirl for me that the startled potboy dropped his tray, and had to chase an errant flagon nearly to the river’s edge, and I began again, in full voice.
You know that Kaylen Storvar led his people from the yoke of the Hegemony to the terrible and unexpected peril of the plains. You know how the Tormaben killed their first dragon, and how they feasted in celebration.
It was at that feast, in wine and in hubris, that Kaylen swore to slay every dragon on the plains, and it was at that feast that a little child, cursed with the gift of true speech, sang out that Kaylen would slay many dragons, and his people many more after his time, but that he, the child, would be slain by a dragon that no Tormaben hand might slay, the last dragon, who had been in the land before ever the Tormaben had been thought of, and would hold the land for an age when the last Tormaben was dust.
And the Tormaben knew these things were true, but the day seemed very distant and the feast was there at hand, and the words, though not forgotten, were put aside.
And then came winter, catching the Tormaben as flatfooted and unaware as the first dragons had caught them, for, though they were never a soft people, they were new come from a soft land. Biting winds cut sharper than any dragon’s claws, searing ice burned brighter than any dragon’s flame, and hunger gnawed them as the dragon gnaws a bone.
There was no hinterland then, to seek refuge in, only the Hegemony and the unforgiving plains, and, as they had yet to learn the secrets of the land, they starved. Many went back, preferring to live as slaves, but many preferred to die free, and of those, many lived.
The child cursed of the true speech, he stayed, but he died. He did not die of hunger, nor even of the cold, but of a wound that festered, a wound taken from scrabbling too eagerly for some poor sustenance from the stony ground, but it was winter that killed him, even so. Kaylen knew it, and so learnt the nature of the last dragon, of the dragon that will never be slain.
On the first night of mourning for the child, the night of silence, Kaylen sat apart, watching the skies for some enemy that he could fight, and he sat apart also on the second night, the night of the wake. It was the wildest wake the plains ever saw, for they were wild with grief and wild with hunger, wild with the fear that the last of them would die alone, and wild with loneliness for the homes they had not learned to forget, and they built the fires high and sang long into the grey dawn.
And from that grey dawn came Kaylen Storvar, crying that the sun had gone no further south, but risen one hair’s breadth closer to the east. It was not spring, but spring would come.
So it is that on the darkest night of the year, when man is closest to despair, the Tormaben build their highest fires and drink their oldest wines, and feast as if the dawn will never come, for though the last dragon might never be slain he will never be their master, and the plains that they have claimed are theirs another year.
It was a good night, and we saw the Tinker’s Dawn in company. Better, when we next crawled from our beds we were greeted by a thaw. Now Neal said that it would have thawed anyway, and Jekka that it was because we had remembered Kaylen Storvar. I held my own counsel, but I know that we had passage on the next boat because its captain had heard my song, and the spirit spoke to him though the words could not. And I thank the Lady Waiting for a timely reminder of the power of a song against the darkness.
Written as a contribution to the Tales by the Tree anthology, which finally grew to a collection of 75 stories and is available from Amazon as an ebook and paperback, with all proceeds supporting a school library fund.