Here is a short excerpt from the book:
London: Tuesday August 13th 1405
It was a sharp and insistent hammering at the door that finally jolted Sir Osmund Clarke from his sleep. He grunted and jerked his wine-heavy head from his folded arms. He stretched and cursed as his fat bejewelled hand knocked over a half-drunk glass of wine, spilling ruby liquid across his worn oak desk in a puddle that glistened as it moved.
Another rap at the door.
“Wait a moment. Can’t you see I’m busy!” His voice croaked. The visitor tapped again.
“For God’s sake. I am busy!” Clarke rummaged around for a cloth and made a hasty attempt to mop up the pool of wine that was now soaking into his papers. The door opened a fraction, and Matthew Wryte, Clarke’s artist, slipped into the room and gently closed it behind him.
“What do you want,” growled Osmund Clarke.
“My Lord, I have good news for you.”
Matthew Wryte tried not to look at the mayhem around him. He had become used to the state of this once pristine room, a space that Osmund Clarke called his office. Over the past four years Clarke had allowed it to deteriorate in parallel with his health. Where once it had been well maintained and ordered, with a tidiness that was close to perfection, now it was muddled and dirty and bordering on chaos. Parchments, letters and books lay in untidy heaps amid platters of stale and rotting food. In one corner a chair had been overturned in a fit of rage at least a year ago, if not more, and still lay on its back, a broken leg hanging limply to one side. The floor had not been swept in recent years, and there was a foul stench in the heavy, stagnant air. Cockroaches scurried in dark corners, and a waste pot fermented week old urine. Matthew Wryte had often wanted to open a window to let the London breeze cleanse the room, but knew better than to risk the wrath of his master. He had learnt not to breath too deeply whenever he had the misfortune of an audience with Sir Osmund.
Now he coughed, and spoke; his voice deep but soft.
“We have a sighting of a dragon.”
Sir Osmund Clarke jumped to his feet, then steadied himself against the desk as his head thumped. A tiny rivulet of wine ran across the polished surface and trickled onto the floor.
“A dragon? Where?”
“In Africa, my Lord.”
“In Africa. Africa …” Osmund Clarke rounded the desk and pointed a grimy finger at Wryte. “That is where you are from, is it not? That is why your skin is so black.”
Matthew Wryte looked at the floor. His skin had been the thing that had always marked him out as different; it was something he could not escape from, it was something to be stared at by men in the street and would cause a flurry of attention from the ladies. He was a freak in this land of white people, an anomaly of nature. It was his colour that had caused Sir Osmund Clarke to purchase him when he was a small boy and add him to his collection of outcasts and misfits.
Matthew Wryte lifted his eyes, and said in no more than a whisper, “My Lord.”
“Speak up, Wryte. For goodness sake, speak louder. How are we to converse if I can’t hear you. What’s the matter with you, man?”
“I am sorry, my Lord.”
Osmund Clarke reached for his bestiary, which was open on the table and had thankfully not been soaked with wine. He hastily flicked through it, reminding himself of the many strange beasts that had been sighted. Over many years an equally strange collection of sailors and adventurers, knights and merchants had brought details of these creatures from all parts of the globe, some seeking money and some seeking fame. Matthew Wryte had carefully interviewed them, and then had meticulously brought the beasts to life with his drawings. The book was nearly full.
Sir Osmund Clarke pointed a trembling finger at Wryte. “Do you have a description? What is this dragon like? Is it a monster, as many say?”
Matthew Wryte smiled. “Yes, Sir, it is a monster.”
Osmund Clarke slumped into his seat and put a fist to his mouth. He bit on a knuckle to quench a whimper of delight.
Wryte continued, “The sailor who saw this beast is waiting outside. Would you care to hear his story?”
Clarke pushed his chair back and leapt to his feet. He pushed past Wryte and flung the door open, then strode into the corridor. A moment later he re-entered the room clutching the sleeve of a wizened man with sun-stained skin, his face the colour and texture of old leather. Clarke motioned for him to stand in the centre of the room, then sat down behind his desk and rested his chin on his hands. He stared intently at the sailor for a few moments in awkward silence, his mouth ajar. Matthew Wryte coughed, and nodded to the sailor to begin.
“My Lord, I ‘ave seen a dragon,” began the man, not sure what to say or where to begin. Clarke just stared at him. A little spit dribbled from the corner of his mouth.
“It was when I was fetching barrels of water for the ship, Sir, a fine ship, Sir, called ‘The Maiden’. We ‘ad landed on the great continent of Africa and ‘ad put into port and ‘ad entered the woods to draw water from a small lake what was there. It was about a mile inland and it was so very hot, so very, very hot…and we was all thirsty, you see…” The man looked at Wryte for confirmation. Wryte inclined his head almost imperceptibly.
“Tell me about the dragon!” shouted Osmund Clarke. “I want to know about the dragon! I don’t care how damn hot it was, or what you were doing. Tell me about the dragon!”
The sailor looked a little bewildered and shot another glance at Matthew Wryte. He raised one eyebrow, and the sailor drew a deep breath and continued. “The dragon was hiding in a tree, with its long tail covered in leaves. I think the tail was wrapped around a branch and that was what was ‘olding it up, Sir. Only its body hung down, like a rope, Sir, head first and waiting for its prey.” The sailor looked at Wryte once more.
“It was waiting… er, waiting …” A bead of sweat had broken out on the old man’s brow.
Matthew Wryte spoke softly but firmly, “It was waiting for its prey…”
“Yes, Sir. It was waiting, Sir, for its prey…”
“Damn it, man, what sort of prey? Tell me. What does a dragon eat?”
The sailor looked heaven-wards as if trying to remember. He shuffled uneasily on his feet.
Matthew Wryte cut in, “You told me,” he said, “that it was an elephant, didn’t you?”
“Ah, yes, Sir, I remember now. It was an elephant.” He said the word as if it were new to him. “The dragon leapt upon it and coiled itself around it like a snake coiling around a mouse, and suffocated it. The elephant tried to crush the dragon against a rock, but it was unable, Sir, and it quickly died and was eaten.”
“And what more? Describe it to me. Did it have wings? And fiery breath? Was it full of scales, like the devil himself?”
“Ah, yes Sir, all of those things!” The sailor looked relieved at not having to describe the animal in detail. Matthew Wryte coughed again and nodded to the sailor, who understood his cue and fell silent.
“My Lord, I have taken the details from this man,” said Wryte, and will be able to produce a likeness before the day is out. I have a clear picture of this beast, and will be able to show it in its full majesty.”
“Majesty! Majesty! There is no majesty in such a beast. It is of the darkness, Wryte, it is of the devil. No, it is more, it is the very devil himself!” Osmund Clarke was becoming agitated and his voice grew louder as he repeated, “It is the devil himself!”
Matthew Wryte whispered something in the sailors ear, and he bowed low and left the room. As he did so Wryte slipped a small coin into his weathered palm.