Read a chapter of the Last Unicorn author’s once-lost dragon book

Back in 2007, alert fans of fantasy grand master Peter Beagle had a very short window of time to get excited about the announcement of his latest novel, I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons. The book was abruptly pulled from the release schedule, reportedly because of Beagle’s conflict with publisher Penguin USA over a new edition of his best-known book, The Last Unicorn.

The novel recently returned to Beagle’s control, along with other work, after a years-long court battle with his former manager, and it’s finally due to see the light of day on May 14. Its publication coincides with a series of new editions of Beagle’s writing, all stemming from that court-ordered rights reversion. But while it’s exciting to see Beagle’s novels becoming widely available again after being out of print for years, nothing on the publication docket is as exciting as I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons finally hitting print, 17 years after it was first promised.


Image: Justin and Annie Gerard/Saga Press

Many of Beagle’s novels (A Fine and Private Place, The Folk of the Air, In Calabria, and others) take place in a fantasy-tinged version of the modern world, while others (The Innkeeper’s Song, Two Hearts) take place in fantasy settings. I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons is one of the latter. Like The Last Unicorn, it’s built around a pseudo-medieval fantasy world with humorously anachronistic touches, even though the book isn’t primarily comedic, or even lighthearted.

The initial protagonist, Gaius Aurelius Constantine Heliogabalus Thrax — or as he much prefers, “Robert” — is a reluctant dragon-hunter who inherited the job from his father. In his world, dragons are normally small nuisances and household pests, and he’s far more like an industrial exterminator than a mighty hero. Secretly, Robert preserves and protects the few dragons he can keep safe.

But then a would-be mighty hero comes to his small, run-down kingdom, from a much larger and more military one. Crown Prince Reginald arrives looking for a dragon to slay. Reginald isn’t particularly strong, swift, or brave, and he’s reluctantly acting on the orders of his father, the mighty and murderous King Krije, who sent him out to burnish the family legend, under the care of his manservant and minder Mortmain.

An exclusive excerpt from I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons, provided to Polygon by the publisher, starts with Robert, Mortmain, Robert, and many others dutifully but unenthusiastically pursuing their dragon-slaying quest. When the local princess, Cerise, who Robert grew up with, falls for Reginald and insists on joining him on the dragon-hunt, a vast retinue from the palace is forced to tag along. While Robert, who knows a great deal about dragon species, is aiming them all at finding a rakai — one of the few surviving dragon species big enough to threaten a human and provide a credible pretense of dragon-slaying heroism — they instead come across something much more horrific and mysterious.

After breakfast (which the traveling kitchen staff deemed “not our best work” and spent nearly as much time apologizing for as serving), Robert privately shared his reservations with Mortmain, holding back only what he remembered of his dream and the fact that he had shouted at the Princess. On the subject of their very probable deaths, he wasn’t vague at all.

The valet listened carefully but in the end was undeterred. “Just as well she refused you,” he said, his normally bland expression clouded. “Had you succeeded at turning this company around, my master would have used protecting the Princess as an excuse to return with them. That would have been—” He shuddered and did not finish the sentence. “I can hide a great deal from King Krije, in my reports, but I couldn’t have hidden that. And between King Krije and a hundred mysterious dragon-killers, I’ll take the mystery danger, thank you very much.”

“I’m not making this up, Mortmain.”

“Of course you aren’t. But it could actually turn out better this way, don’t you see? There’s no reason our plan shouldn’t work just as well against this… this whatever-it-is, as it would have against a rakai, assuming that concoction of yours is as effective as you promised. And if the Prince brings home the head of something truly new and unusual, something fierce beyond measure when unpoisoned, well — just think how much greater the acclaim! Show some faith in yourself, Master Thrax. I assure you that you have mine.”

Robert made a sound somewhere between a sour grunt and a snort and wandered off to help see to the saddling of every horse and mule in the Princess’s train. It had amazed him to learn that royalty and the servants of royalty knew so little about making a pack or a saddle actually stay on an animal’s back over rough terrain. Five, ten, a dozen times a day, for this and other reasons he would find himself thinking wearily, Oh, Mother, if you ever knew the truth. But Odelette would arrange not to know, no matter what he told her. It was a quality of hers that he was gradually coming to admire, and even envy.

The weather got no better, and the road grew worse as it wound up and up into the mountain passes. There had been more rain, diminished now to a heavy mist, and mud splattered the gay trappings of man and mount alike. Creepers got tangled in the wheels of the provision wagons, and the massive roots that veined the pathway frequently forced the drivers to jump down — if they were not walking already, to lighten the load — and gang up to lift the wagons over the obstruction. The great dark-gray boulders intruding on either hand made it necessary to ride, first three abreast, then two; and by the time the pass widened and the procession emerged into a comparatively level and less precarious area, the line was laboring in slow single file, with many of the horsemen afoot — including, Robert noticed from his position just behind her, Princess Cerise. Prince Reginald offered several times to take her up before him, but she shook her head and kept walking, so by and by he got down from his own horse and walked beside her. Robert also noticed that she smiled and accepted the Prince’s arm.

It was late in the afternoon when they rounded a sharp bend in the road and saw the village spread out ahead of them. Rather, they came to what most likely had been a village — they very nearly had to take the fact on faith. All the buildings seemed to have been torn apart, literally board by board, brick by brick, shingle and slate by shingle and slate. Not so much as a chimney or a baker’s oven was left standing; anything that grew had been crushed flat. Here the road itself was seared and split, and there was nothing at all recognizable that had not been burned black, nor was there a living soul to be seen.

A detail from the endpaper art of I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons, with a black dragon with prominent fangs, fire-emitting nostrils, and a glowing orange eye

Image: Justin and Annie Gerard/Saga Press

The entire expedition stood in silence as complete as the silence of the ruin. Then, as the immediate shock receded, and the impossible scene did not change, at least a dozen of the company dropped to their knees and began to pray in muffled whispers.

The Princess Cerise’s voice sounded almost unhumanly clear — if a bit shaky — in the cold air. “Did dragons do this?” And suddenly everyone was looking at Robert.

He nodded without answering.

Prince Reginald said in a thick voice, “Must have been really big dragons…?” Mortmain spoke not a word but moved close to his master, as though to prop him up if it became necessary. Robert still did not speak but began to walk ahead very slowly, gazing down intensely at the blasted, trampled ground. The Princess came after without questioning his precedence, and the company fell into silent order behind her. Robert never looked back. He guided them through the scattered and tangled debris, raising a warning hand when the horses had to step over one of the all-too-fresh humps that no one wanted to look at closely, some of them dreadfully small. It was like picking their way through a nightmare, and soon enough even the quiet praying stopped.

When they reached the blackened fields on the far side of the devastated village, darker still for lying under the shadow of the mist-curtained mountains, he paused, turning to catch the Princess Cerise’s eye. He nodded toward three ash heaps, rain-sodden now, but distinctly — even pointedly, by contrast with the mass of shapeless others — quite recognizable as having once been human. They appeared simply now like a small tattered pile of children’s abandoned toys, outgrown and casually, thoughtlessly tossed aside. One of them — Cerise imagined that she must be the oldest, though she would never ever be sure — had her toothless mouth open in a silent withered wail.

Robert’s own voice, when he spoke at last, sounded as hoarse as though he had not spoken aloud for a very long time. “These would have seen them first. And tried to warn…” He did not finish.

Prince Reginald spoke one word: “Rakai?”

“No, Your Highness.” Robert shook his head. “Excuse me.” Ignoring the Prince and everyone else in the party, he unstrapped an iron-tipped spear from the set hanging on the side of the lead wagon, then walked forward by himself, crossing the field toward the forest. He moved slowly, staring intently at the ground, stopping from time to time for no reason that anyone watching could discern. No one followed.

“We will go no farther today,” Princess Cerise announced. “Nightfall is only a few hours away, and the forest will not offer us a better place to make camp.” She began briskly directing the setting up of the tents and the traveling kitchen. Her face was without color, and her eyes altogether too large, but her tone was steady, and her orders were obeyed. Yet when she had a moment alone with Prince Reginald, she clung to his arm as though he were a raft, and she a castaway drifting far from shore. “I wish we had not taken this road,” she told him. “By the Savior, I wish we had not taken it.”

The Prince’s own dearest wish was to be anywhere at all but where he was standing. Yet he found that he could not take a step: somehow his feet knew that if they moved even an inch, they might carry him pell-mell downslope and away, not stopping until these mountains were a faint gray bump on the horizon. As much to comfort himself as Cerise, he took shelter behind the surface self-assurance that was his mask, his habit, his principal stock in trade. “When we find the creatures that did this, we will deal with them.”

“The people who lived here must have tried,” the Princess answered sharply. “I hope we do better than they. Thrax — the dragon-boy — he doesn’t think we will. You can tell.”

A detail from the endpaper art of Peter Beagle’s I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons, with a purple-striped dragon with big head-frills roaring and breathing fire

Image: Justin and Annie Gerard/Saga Press

“Ah… yes.” Prince Reginald could indeed tell that from Robert’s manner, and it alarmed him a good bit more than he had already been, which he had not thought possible. He wanted very much to get Robert alone for some sort of reassurance — and perhaps a fast lesson in dealing with the sort of dragon that wiped out entire villages — but he was royal and therefore was assumed to know these things from birth. Gods, he thought, why was I born a prince? What bloody good has it ever done me? His father’s stern and unforgiving face rose in his memory, and for the very first time it seemed to him that there might actually be an answer to his own self-condemning questions. In such a moment as this, what indeed would King Krije do? Certainly not sit down in the mud like a Songhai baboon.

“We’ll just have to prove Master Thrax wrong,” he said, feigning a conviction he did not feel. “And in that proof do honor to your country. I suggest we begin by arming the company as best we can, down to the last pastry cook’s apprentice, and then organize a watch. Fear cannot breed where there is action.”

These were the right words, and he and the Princess set to with a will, but Cerise did not feel comforted. She felt guilty and alarmed. They were here now, all of them, because of her own stubborn decision, and she found herself urgently desirous of a way to take it back. The dragon-boy obviously knew nothing of correct comportment in the presence of a lady, let alone a princess, but he knew dragons, and looking around, she knew she had been wrong to place her pride above his knowledge. After the tasks at hand were complete, that failure would require correction. And if she were seen to be depending too firmly on the guidance of a peasant… well, so be it. There would be time to tend to appearances when this expedition was at an end, and the assembled company far away from this horrible place.

Excerpted from I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons by Peter S. Beagle. Copyright © 2024. Reprinted by permission of Saga Press of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

The U.S. cover of Peter Beagle’s fantasy novel I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons, featuring a large, toothy red-striped dragon with a wisp of flame coming out of its nostrils, against a blue background featuring many more dragons circling a towering castle

Peter Beagle’s I’m Afraid You’ve Got Dragons

Prices taken at time of publishing.

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Last Unicorn comes a new novel with equal amounts of power and whimsy in which a loveable cast of characters trapped within their roles of dragon hunter, princess, and more must come together to take their fates into their own hands.

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