As Togura Poulaan was marched into the shadows of the castle of the wizard of Drum, the iron-clad gates creaked open. Yawning darkness hid the nameless horrors beyond.
"Come on," said the leading dragon, as Togura hesitated.
The command ended with a short bark, followed by a hiss of smoke, steam and pulsating flame. Reluctantly, Togura shuffled forward. He was sure his death awaited him.
Darkness gave way to the daylight of a big, bare, high-walled courtyard.
"Stand here," said the leading dragon.
Togura obeyed. The dragons formed a circle, with Togura in the middle. They looked eager. Expectant. Something was about to happen. Togura closed his eyes. One of the dragons started to sharpen its claws against the courtyard stones with a slick, evil, sizzling sound which reminded him unpleasantly of a butcher's shop. The leading dragon cleared its throat.
"This," it said, "is the dragon hof. Here we gather each evening to eat, drink and recite poetry."
There was a pause. Togura opened his eyes. All the dragons were watching him, as if they expected something from him.
"That sounds very nice," said Togura cautiously. "Very civilised. Dragons do seem to be very civilised." This was going down well, so he elaborated. "I only wish I had time to know you better. Time to appreciate your full conquest of the higher intellectual dimensions."
"Time to hear some of my poetry, perhaps?" said the leading dragon, eagerly.
"That too," said Togura.
"Then we shall oblige."
And, to Togura's dismay and astonishment, the leading dragon began to recite its poetry. At great length. It was windy, ostentatious and stunningly boring. Nevertheless, he applauded politely.
The other dragons, jealous of the applause, demanded to be given their own chances to recite. Togura, faint with hunger, listened to their angry, arrogant, hogen-mogen voices disputing precedence. Each wanted to be first to recite. They barked, snapped, spat smoke, and suddenly fell to fighting. Togura, ringed round with fighting dragons, screamed at them:
"Stop! Stop! Stop!"
It did no good whatsoever.
Then a voice roared:
The quarrelling dragons instantly quailed down to silence.
"Shavaunt!" shouted the voice.
And the dragons turned and fled.
"Now then," said the dragon commander, entering the courtyard. "What started all that off?"
The dragon commander was an old, old man with a dirty grey eard, who walked with the aid of a shepherd's crook. Despite his age, his eyes were bright, his voice was firm, and he looked fit and healthy.
"Well, boy?" asked the dragon commander.
"I ... I asked if I could hear some of their poetry."
"Only some poetry, that's all. I just said I wished I had time to hear some."
"No, boy, no, a thousand times no, that is one thing you must never ever do when you're face to face with a sea dragon. You must never ever - not on any account - encourage their artistic pretensions. Art, you see, is purely their excuse for being the most lazy, idle, shiftless, foolish, irresponsible, degenerate pack of gluttonous sex-obsessed drunkards this side of the east ditch of Galsh Ebrek."
"I'm orry, sir, I didn't know."
"This time you're excused," said the dragon commander. "Come this way, boy."
And he led Togura along halls and passageways, up and down staircases, through doors, gates and gloomy portals, past statues, weapon racks and antiquated skeletons, and, at last, into a comfortable room with wall-to-wall carpeting, leather furniture, two cats, a hubble-bubble pipe and large leaded windows where the glass was patterned in circles, squares and diamonds.
"Sit, boy, sit," said the dragon commander, motioning Togura to a chair. "Good. Now tell me what you've been doing with yourself since you left Sung."
"Your homeland, boy. To be specific, Keep."
"How did you know that?" said Togura, in amazement.
"I met you there. I introduced myself, didn't I?"
"Of course I did. I distinctly remember giving you my name - Hostaja Torsen Sken-Pitilkin, wizard of Drum. Well, boy? Why are you so blank? Senility, is it? Losing your memory already? And you so young? A tragic case!"
"I really don't think - "
"You don't think! Confession time, is it? I'm sure you don't think. I only hope the condition isn't permanent. What did they call you? Let me think. The girl called you Tog. Yet the rumbustical boy called you Spunk Togura. Or did he call you Chids? Anyway, the man - the man called you Master Togura. That's for certain. That was before he bedded me down in that shacklety old building - a garrow, I think he called it."
"Come on, boy! Surely you remember. There was a dreadful noise. I complained. I remember that distinctly. You called it music - a mistake, I thought, but I didn't object. I was tired. I'd just flown in from Chi'ash-lan."
"Ah!" said Togura, suddenly enlightened. "You were the old man with the bundle of sticks. A great big clutter of sticks like a huge bird's nest. You called it a ship."
"Yes, boy, and if you'd roused yourself from your slumbers in the early morning, you'd have seen me fly away in it. Why didn't you remember my name? I always introduce myself. I did so then. I'm certain of it. Or was that in the morning? Perhaps I introduced myself in the kitchen, when I scavenged the breakfast that nobody thought to offer me. I had a long argument with the cook. She was drunk."
"That would be Salomie," said Togura.
"That's the name! And what are you, boy? Tog, Spunk, Chids? Speak up, boy!"
"Togura Poulaan, if you please. Son of Baron Chan Poulaan."
"Ah so! You're the one they call Barak the Battleman. There's a price on your head. I could use it. What say you give me your head, boy? I'll split the reward with you. Straight down the middle."
"Come now, boy," said the wizard of Drum. "Can't you tell when someone's joking? I wouldn't dismember a guest. Come now, don't say you believe all that slander spawned by King Skan Askander? All that nonsense about using people as dragon-chop and such-such? Boy, you're looking quite faint. When did you last eat?"
"I don't remember," said Togura.
"Then sit here quietly and I'll get you something. You're looking as bad as I do after a long trip by air. Relax, boy, relax! You're safe on Drum."
Togura did not feel safe, but he relaxed all the same. In fact, he closed his eyes and went straight off to sleep. The wizard woke him to eat, and, as he ate, his spirits began to revive.
He realised that he had reached a place of refuge.