The Dragon and the Swan – by Elizabeth Cruse

The Dragon and the Swan.
A fable of fracking and friendship.

The swan had lived peacefully on her lake for more time than she could remember. Springtime after springtime she had hatched eggs into cygnets on her nest among the rushes, and watched them each autumn as they launched themselves into flight to find new homes. Each summer the astounding hills that sheltered the water grew green under the sun, as their oak trees put out leaves and acorns. Each year when winter flew its storm-cloud banners the leaves would turn brown and blow away, leaving the hills grey and desolate.

One day, as the swan rested on the water, a speck appeared in the sky that grew until it showed wings and a serpentine tail against the bright sky. For the first time in her life, the swan confronted a dragon, moderate in size but undeniably splendid with his silver and copper scales. The swan was a magnificent creature in her own right but she felt small in front of this being.

“There is evil abroad in Albion,” roared the dragon, as gently as it was possible for him to roar. “Evil men are digging and driving great machines into the land, fracturing the rocks and making the water foul. Their thirst for fuel to drive their engines of destruction is limitless. All must help to drive them away, to protect Albion, for all beings, for all time.”

The swan felt her smooth feathers unpleasantly ruffled by the heat of the dragon’s breath. She curved her sinuous neck and covertly admired her beauty in the mirror surface of the water, half hoping that when she looked up the dragon would have disappeared. But there he still was.

“I do not think they will come here,” she sang with a slightly discordant irritability. “This is a place of beauty and the sons and daughters of Apollo who walk here are few and respectful of the land.” And she turned and glided away to the other side of the mere.

The dargon huffed and a perfect ring of smoke floated from his nostrils, hovering in the air until the light breeze blew it away.

“Let us wait and see,” he bellowed after her. “You may come to regret your indifference. Should that day arrive, if you call I will come. For I am the protector of Albion.” Then with two great wingbeats, the dragon flew away.

Life continued peaceful on the water. Yet something had changed in the swan’s hitherto placid mind. Occasionally, she saw the distant speck of the dragon flying about his business, and a stain of fear and doubt began to colour the swan’s days.

Finally, she decided to prove to herself that whatever the actions of men elsewhere, there was no threat to her calm homeland. So she rose into the air, effortfully at first, then more easily, and drops of shining water fell from her wing feathers patterning the water with chaotic ripples.

At first she could only see the gleaming lake, and the green moss-like cover of trees across the hills. But rising higher she saw a track of clear felling snaking over the land stopping only just short of the last range of fells that bordered the water.

Flying lower, the swan saw that a patch of land had been smothered in concrete, ugly drill rigs like distorted trees erected and that the road did not end here, that even as she watched, trees were falling and bulldozers were creeping up towards the summits that led down to her precious lake home.

The swan recoiled, the steady pattern of her wingbeats disturbed and agitated. She saw that the dragon had been right; that the peace of her days might soon be shattered past recovery. As, by blind instinct, she flew back to her lake she gave cries of distress, ugly and discordant, that echoed off the slopes of the hills with a wretched grief. And her night was spent in weeping.

The next day, the dragon glided in through a gap in the hills and settled himself on the lakeshore. There was a sardonic glint in his eye as he stretched out a wing in order to sit more comfortably. The swan could barely contain her relief at seeing him, though even in this extremity she could not help but be a little annoyed that this was so.

“It seems,” hissed the dragon, “ that you are less complacent than you were. I heard your cries and so I am here.”

The swan could make no longer make any pretence of serenity. Beside herself, she scrambled out of the water and came up to the dragon – even though she knew that her two iron-grey legs gave her a ridiculous aspect.

“What can I do? What can I do? The machines are advancing over the land.”

Her distress was such that the dragon could not maintain his severity. “The question,” he rumbled, “is what can we do. As it happens, I have a strategy but you must play your part.”

“Anything,” cried the swan.

“Well then, call in to this lake all your swan tribe, and also that of your cousins, the Canada geese and their ilk. Meanwhile, I will arrange for the Landowner hereabouts to see the Rare Beast.”

“Rare Beast? Do you mean a Questing Beast?” The swan was well versed in Arthurian myth courtesy of an ancient hermit who had once lived in a hut on the lakeshore.

“No, no,” puffed the dragon. “This is a friend of mine, a Rare Beast indeed, who is somewhat of the gazelle family but, from a certain angle has the air of a lithe though hairy young man.” He paused, looking reflective and puffed a small perfect pentagram of flame into the air, narrowly avoiding singeing the swan’s snowy breast feathers.

“This Landowner,” continued the dragon,” loves to see himself as the guardian of rare animals and donates money to foreign countries to this end. He fails to see the contradiction of simultaneously ripping up the land for minerals and gas. An attack on his work site will not on its own persuade him to desist, but a rare animal on his land … and an attack might be just enough to persuade him.”

The swan could not quite see the logic of this and felt rather nervous at the word “attack” but the dragon seemed confident. “The Rare Beast,” he growled, “casts a strange spell over people.”

So it was that the Landowner was driving up to the worksite in his Landrover one day and caught a glimpse of a creature in a thicket. A slim creature, like a half hidden gazelle and yet with the aspect of a young male human. It was like nothing he had seen on his land before and he stopped immediately but by then the creature had disappeared as completely as an academic’s attention when diverted by a new idea.

“Damn and blast,” cried the Landowner, “think that may have been a Rare Beast. Now if there’s one of those on my land …” but the work was going so smoothly and the prospect of money shimmering in the Landowner’s mind was so strong that he could get no further with the thought.

For the next week, anyone by the lake would have seen flight after flight of swans and geese landing on the waters. The dragon was tireless, working with them, hectoring them (for geese particularly are not the most disciplined creatures), drilling them, explaining tactics. The swan, at first confused by the crowds and the squawking, watched from the air, keeping aloof but then, despite herself, became intrigued and then began to understand patterns and formations, her respect for the dragon quietly growing as she became more involved. She found she had a talent for flying in complex patterns through the air, and communicating telepathically with her swan kindred, and one day she looped up and over the dragon in the air and glided in his slipstream for some time while the dragon fruitlessly looked to see where she had gone much to the amusement of her swan cousins. On that morning the dragon had to retreat to a hilltop where he sat gazing out over the land huffing and puffing until he regained his composure.

Summer turned to autumn, sun turned to lowering storm clouds and the day came that the dragon assembled the flocks for the onslaught against the worksite.

As a wind arose that stirred the reeds around the lake the dragon reared up and clapped his wings together with a great thundering that was echoed by distant lightning. “Winged brothers and sisters, angel-kind by your feathers, dragon-kind by your scaly feet, now is your hour. Fly as you have never flown. Fly fast for Albion. Fly to the destruction of the evil works of men. Fly to defend the land from violation.”

Under the massed cumulus, two great circles of swans rose into the air, the dragon hovering above them; they broke into two lines, one spearheaded by the dragon, the other by the swan herself, and after them came a phalanx of Canada geese in the discipline of their white and black and brown, and then the greylags in tight V formations, and all set up a cry loud enough to chill the blood of those who heard it, and finally a great flock of black swans. As they came over the crest of the hill the

thunder rolled, more lightning flashed and it seemed as though the wrath of ages had come.

Down a the worksite, men in yellow helmets and jackets the colour of rape were running to pull tarpaulins over machinery against the oncoming rain. Suddenly, such light as there was became obscured, there was a crying and a beating of wings. Looking up, the men momentarily saw the shape of the dragon and then only a sheet of flame rolling down towards them out of the sky. They turned to run but as they did, he first flight of swans was upon them, neck outstretched, sharp bills tearing into cloth and flesh, pecking at eyes, powerful wings beating at helmets and limbs. Some tripped and fell, some cowered under vehicles, and still the birds came down on them until most of the men were bloodied and blinded and terrified into helplessness and fire raged at the worksite. “Away! Back to the lake!” shrieked the dragon, for he knew that fire would lead to more terrifying fire as the chemicals of the humans exploded in their tanks.

And as the birds wheeled away leaving only a few of their number dead behind them, two great explosions announced the magnitude of the storm, and the rain came down like great swathes of some dissolving fabric.

Surveying the damage the next day, the Landowner decided that he could not afford to set everything up again and besides, the mysteriousness of the event – survivors babbled of wings and fire – cowed him somewhat. He decided to continue his explorations closer to human habitation, people being a known quantity who on the whole had little appetite for resistance. The newspapers gave him much favourable publicity when he talked of respecting natural phenomena and making a safe haven for the Rare Beast.

So it was that the swan and the dragon and the Rare Beast became good friends. (The Rare Beast’s visits were highly entertaining but short, for his haunts were many and his habits strange and charmed.) But the dragon, when he was temporarily weary of his wars would drop down to the shore of the lake, fold up his leathern wings and cool his burning throat and lips with the good green lake water. And the swan would talk to him of this and that as she floated at a little distance among the wavelets, and listen to his tales and offer advice on aerial manoeuvres. Then, for the sheer joy of it, they would take to the air and fly, wingtip to wingtip, wheeling and swooping, through the bright air of Albion.