Table of Contents
- Why Are They Coming?
- Treasure Hunters
- Looking for Whitestone
- A Flow of Diamonds
- Looking For Answers
- Mr. O
- To Salient
- Let Them Kidnap You
- Just Let Me In
- Getting Kidnapped
- Dragons in Cages
- A Way Out
- Do You Notice Anything?
- Anything You Want
- Long Ago
- Aldan Returns
- The President of Zandor
- Games Are Over
- A Tasty Horse
- The Truth
- I’ll Do It Myself
- Who Would It Be?
- We Must Prepare
- That’s Not On the Menu!
- A New Old Friend
- Let’s Take Horses
- A Disguise
- Yesterday Morning
- Put It Down!
- A New Ambassador
- When Oysters Can Sing
- To the Mountain
Book 3 in the series: Charles, A Dragon
Cover background art:
Photograph of Slains Castle, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
© 2017 Pat Ware, Used by permission
© 2018 Gary Henderson
All rights reserved.
RNWC Media, LLC
PO Box 559
Pinehurst, TX 77362
Imprint: Young Reader’s Library
Welcome to Book 3 about Charles, A Dragon!
This is a fantasy for young readers, continuing the story of Charles, King of the Whitestone Dragons, and his young friend, the King of Romain. Treasure hunters are invading their lands, but why? Their friend Charis is reunited with her parents, gone since her birth, and together they pursue the evil that is driving the invaders to attack her friends.
Why Are They Coming?
A quiet knock woke Soren. No light came in from the window, and silence followed.
Had he really heard something?
Again, a quiet knock. Alicia nudged him.
“I heard it too,” he said.
He pushed the blanket back and eased out of bed. Without lighting the candle, he stepped to the door and spoke in a low voice. “Who’s there?”
“It is I, Master Soren.”
No one but the King would call him that now! He fumbled for the latch and pulled the door open. A bit of wet fur rubbed against his bare leg, and the King followed Leif into the room, pushing the door closed behind him.
“My Lord! Welcome, but … so early!”
“Forgive me, but I wanted to not be seen. And my apologies to you, Lady Alicia … I assume you are here, though I cannot see you.”
“Yes, my Lord, but no apology, please!” she murmured from under the covers. “You are welcome day or night.”
“Thank you. Soren, can we sit at the table for a moment? My lady, may we light a candle without disturbing you?”
They struck a match, brought the wick to life, and sat close together at the small wooden table. Leif curled up at Soren’s feet, and Soren rubbed his foot up and down Leif’s back as he did long ago in the castle.
“Travelers are drifting in from Salient, and perhaps from elsewhere to the east. They are getting more frequent and more disruptive. I cannot tell if turmoil is being stirred up by their own troubles, or if they are chasing some fantasy here … or someone even further east is pressing on them, and they seek some relief by coming in our direction. “
“What would you have me do?”
The King paused. “I need someone to slip over the border and wander a bit in that region. If you need some help,” he smiled, “I understand you have a friend named Philip… or Jason… or maybe something else by now, who might have some experience in such matters?”
Across the room, Alicia giggled, and the King raised an eyebrow. “Perhaps there is more to the story than I’ve heard? Something about cherry-filled pastries?”
Soren smiled, then leaned back and laughed. “Yes, probably there’s more than you’ve heard! I can’t imagine Jason would be eager to help, but perhaps he has forgiven me by now!”
“He would be delighted,” said Alicia. “Lynne has captured his heart, softened the memory of what you did, and teased him until he laughs about that day.”
“We are keeping your lady awake, I think. Pay a visit to Mizzouk, and he’ll provide some details. If you’re willing, I’d be glad for you to go soon. And please, if she would like, we would be delighted to have Alicia stay in the castle while you’re gone.”
Soren went looking for Mizzouk that afternoon, with Alicia close by his side. “Come in!” shouted the wizard from a room deep inside his apartments. Soon he emerged, shaking his tunic with clouds of white dust flying about him. “I can’t come back looking like this every time there’s fog in the stream!” he muttered. “Maybe if I fly lower …”
He looked up. “Soren! And Lady Alicia! Welcome! Let me guess… you’ve been talking with you-know-who!”
Soon they were huddled over a table full of maps and dusty scrolls.
“Here is the main city of Largente,” he pointed. “It’s called Salient. Mountains on both sides, a stream down the middle of the valley, and the bigger part of the city on the western side. The river is part of the defense for the older city, but the newer one … on the east … is wide open to invasion. Every few hundred years someone comes marching down from the mountains over there, and maybe it’s happened again.”
When Soren and Alicia left, they had a basic knowledge of Salient, but no clue as to why their people were coming towards Combin and Romain. Soren began packing to go. So did Alicia.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
Alicia smiled at him, and tucked another pair of shoes into her bag. “Packing an extra pair of shoes. What are you doing?”
“I mean, why are you packing your things?”
“You want me to wear one set of clothes for weeks, and have no soap?”
He closed his bag, picked her up, and settled into his favorite chair with her on his lap. “You’re not going, Alicia. You heard him!”
“He needs eyes and ears in that region. I need my husband to be safe. So my husband needs someone to look after him as he goes ‘wandering’ about. Would you like me to go with you… or follow along behind you?”
“Those are my choices?”
“Those are your only choices,” she laughed, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Any more questions?”
With Leif trotting ahead, they started out the following morning.
The King looked over the same charts Mizzouk had shown Soren. “Are more coming?” he asked.
“There was a group here, this morning,” said Mizzouk, pointing to the eastern side of the mountain pass that led to Salient.
The King traced the route over the mountains and down into Salient. “One possibility is that these are refugees are coming our way. If Largente is pressed into open warfare on their eastern border, people will flee. Do we know who, really, is coming down that road?”
“Perhaps we’ll know soon,” said Mizzouk, after taking a long draw on his meerschaum pipe and sending two puffy circles drifting towards the ceiling. “But I think they are more aggressive than refugees would be. We hear stories of homes being burned, for example, and of groups pushing other travelers off the road.”
“But we don’t hear about people in uniform, or bearing similar weapons within the groups … as, perhaps, soldiers disguised in normal clothes?”
The King traced the route from Salient towards Combin, but then north. “Have they perhaps heard the rumor of diamonds found near Whitestone, and they are coming for treasure? So they are not really coming at us … but at Sir Argus?”
Mizzouk shrugged. “Until they get further, it’s hard to tell. It’s the same road, that far.”
“When would they turn, if they are headed to the mountains?”
Mizzouk spread his fingers over the map, and marked distances. “The third day from now, for the ones reported by the eagles this morning.”
“Good. Soren and Leif will be there before they turn, if that’s where they are going, “ the King calculated. “I’m glad it’s only one person going, and Leif will keep him out of trouble. I thought even as small a number as two would cause more notice, and have trouble getting through safely.”
Soren watched the group move along the forest trail. From this high on the mountainside he and Alicia could see them well without being noticed.
“Don’t move,” he said quietly. “Movement draws the eye.”
Alicia nodded. “What do you think? Thirty or so?”
Soren looked more closely, and counted as the group moved past a particular pine. “Thirty-four, close enough. Too many to be a random group… too close together to be separate groups that don’t know each other. But not dressed the same, particularly, and … not carrying weapons … but what are they carrying, besides a pack?”
“Farm tools,” she suggested. “Looks like shovels, picks, maybe buckets?”
“Mining tools? For digging in rock and dirt?”
“Yes,” she said. “That’s it. And they don’t move as though they expect to be stopped or challenged… no scouts that we’ve seen, no caution about what might be ahead.”
“But where are they going, then? Nothing to dig for in Romain!” Soren shook his head. “It’s a puzzle.”
“Can we … fit in?” Alicia nodded to their left. “They’ll come back along this side of the mountain in an hour or so. What if we were slowly moving along in the same direction, and they overtook us?”
Soren looked at her, and rolled the idea around in his head. “It looks like they’re all men,” he said. “What if they decided they could deal with me, and then have you?”
She looked back at the group, as they disappeared behind the next wall of trees. “Are they all men? I think you’re right…”
The road was empty as far as they could see in the direction the group had come from.
“What if you merge in with them, and I hide with Leif… and then follow?”
He shook his head.
“You could limp,” she continued, “so they would not expect you to go on with them.”
Maybe, he thought. It might work.
“Leif,” he said, and the dog stood up, looking at him. “Can you keep her safe?”
Leif walked a tight circle around Alicia and sat directly in front of her, between her and Soren. Soren laughed. “OK, OK, I believe you.”
“Come on,” she said. “They’ll reach that turn in the path below us in half a glass, or sooner.”
They gathered their packs and slipped down the other side of the wide mountain base. A hundred yards from the trail Soren stopped. “Here’s some brush,” he pointed. “Settle in there. When they’ve gone ten minutes, follow along.”
“How will I know what’s happening?” she wondered out loud.
“When they stop for the night, if I’m still with them, you can come up closer to listen… but you must not be seen or caught.”
“What if I am?” she asked. “Will you know me, or not? What is your story? What is mine?”
Sounds of footsteps were getting closer.
“I don’t know. We’ll make something up!” Soren reached for a small branch on a sapling and quickly cut a walking stick. “Remember…” and he held a finger up to his lips. “Shh.”
She nodded, and he trotted quickly down to the dirt road and began shuffling along.
The crowd steadily gained on Soren, and soon the leader reached him.
“Old man!” he shouted.
Soren stopped, slightly stooped and taking two steps to turn all the way to face the man. “Me?” he said. “You calling me “old man?”
“Would you like ‘little girl’ better?” he answered, glancing back at his nearest followers. “I can think of lots of things to call you!” The followers laughed.
Soren turned back forward and began walking again. Which foot was limping? For a moment he forgot, and hoped he picked the same one this time. Someone shoved him from behind.
“Talking to you, old man!”
Soren stopped, and waited. The leader came around and faced him.
“You know this country?”
“Not so much,” Soren replied. “You lost?”
The man shoved him in the chest. “Don’t get smart. We’re looking for the diamonds. How do we get there?”
Soren stared at him. Diamonds?
The man shoved him again. “Wake up, old man! Talking to you!”
Soren shook his head. “Don’t know about any diamonds,” he muttered. “Never heard of it.”
Others had gathered around.
“Hey, Luge, look. This stick he’s got is fresh cut! It ain’t ten minutes off the tree it came from! Think he’s faking?”
Luge grabbed the walking stick and examined it. He pushed it into Soren’s chest, knocking him down. “What’s this all about? You pretending? I think you’re just fine, and we might take you along. Can always use another strong back, for where we’re going!”
Soren crawled to the edge of the dirt road and collapsed on the ground, breathing hard. He fumbled with his coat, and pleaded, “Can I have the stick, please?”
“Sure,” said Luge. “But like this! Lift him up, guys.”
Two men grabbed his arms and lifted him to his feet. They put the stick behind his back, and hooked his elbows over it.
“Keep it there, or we’ll tie it there! Now walk! You got no place to go that matters, so you’re coming with us!”
Someone pushed him in the direction the group was traveling, and he stumbled forward, slightly dragging one foot.
“Gonna have to move faster than that, old man. We got diamonds waiting for us!” They pushed him again.
Alicia waited ten long, slow minutes, then moved down to the dirt road and began walking along in the grass and weeds to the side of it. Leif trotted along just ahead of her, moving out into the road and sniffing the tracks now and then. Suddenly he stopped, and pushed her further off the road into the higher brush. She could hear voices ahead, but couldn’t make out the words. They waited until the voices faded away, then continued.
Leif stopped, stared at the road for a moment, then began carefully stepping around the prints in the dirt and smelling things. He looked at Alicia, and she came up to see what he had found. The cane prints, big dots in the dirt, had stopped. The dirt was swirled around and the tracks were smudged, as though something had been dragged around on the ground. Then further on, the tracks of all the men’s boots continued, and one appeared to be dragging a bit. There were no cane dots.
Soren, she thought. He’s moving with them, but without the cane… but still limping. They must have taken it from him.
She looked around on the tracks going forward.
But no one else is using it …
She went back to the swirled dirt. Was there a fight?
Looking carefully, she found a button, one she had sewn onto his coat not seven days earlier. He must have pulled it off, to leave it… it would not have come off easily.
She looked at Leif. He was sitting by the road, waiting for her.
“They’ve taken him,” she said. He stood up and growled.
“We have to be careful. And quiet.” The growl stopped, but the fierce look in his eyes did not change.
He turned and trotted ahead, again staying in the grass.
Looking for Whitestone
“Where are we going?” gasped Soren, trying to sound strained and exhausted. The temptation to spin around and knock these bullies down with his cane was almost overwhelming.
“To get rich,” said Luge. “You’ll be glad you decided to come with us! Won’t he, men?” Several laughed.
“By kidnapping old men?” said Soren, and he was rewarded with a whack on the back of the head.
“Diamonds, you idiot. Diamonds. Didn’t you hear me the first time?”
“Diamonds come from mountains. No mountains here,” muttered Soren.
“Ever hear of Whitestone, old man?”
Whitestone. Charles. If there were diamonds at Whitestone, Soren would have heard. At least he thought he would have.
“Whitestone,” he mumbled, as though trying to remember. “Whitestone …”
He shook his head.
“You’ll see it soon enough. That’s where we’re going.”
I need to look helpless, he thought. Make it look like dragging me along would not be worth the effort. He tripped, fell, and rolled to the side. The stick bounced out to the grass. Someone kicked him in the foot.
“Get up, fool.”
He slowly raised to his knees, then more slowly to his feet. Hands pushed him back to the road. They apparently forgot about the staff, and kept pushing as the group moved forward.
As darkness fell, he stumbled more often, and steadily drifted to the back of the group. An argument broke out at the front, and those beside him pushed up to join the fuss. Soren stepped quickly into the weeds and grass, took ten steps up the hill, and huddled down into a thick bramble jumble.
The argument went on. He eased further up the hill, and worked back towards the way they had come. When he was at least a hundred yards away, the voices changed, and he could tell they were now hunting for him. After some thrashing about, cursing, and accusations thrown back and forth, the hunt ended and the marching continued away from him, into the darkness.
Soren moved back to the road and slowly walked back, whistling low every minute or two in the pitch black night, trying to stay on the road. Suddenly Leif was at his feet, the dog’s paws up on his chest, and Alicia’s arms were around him. The moon peeked over the pines behind them as they stood together.
“They’re looking for Whitestone,” whispered Soren. “Going to get diamonds.”
“Looked like they were rough on you, from the marks in the dirt.”
“Yeah, they’re not big on ‘please’ and ‘thank you’! If others like them are coming, people between here and Charles’ mountain will have a rough time.”
They stood silent.
“What should we do?” asked Alicia. “Go back to the King? Go to Charles?”
“I can’t imagine them causing the dragons any trouble. They probably don’t even know that’s what waits for them. But in between here and there… they could cause a lot of trouble. Hurt a lot of people.”
“We should let the King know,” worried Alicia. “He could send soldiers to deal with them.”
“But we can’t split up… unless I send Leif to get you back, and I go interfere with them.”
“Leif should go with you!” she exclaimed. “I can get back…”
She looked around, and stared up and down the road. “I think.”
“Alicia, we need to go the same direction they’re going, until they take the road to the north… if they even know to do that! For now, they’re going straight towards Romain!”
Soren paused and thought about it some more. “But we should cut across, Leif and I, to get onto the northern road ahead of them. Warn the people.”
Leif turned and stared up into the line of trees across the road.
“At your service,” it hooted. “Your lady needs a guide? Mizzouk sent me.”
“Come stand by me,” Leif barked to it. “Show her we are friends.”
The owl glided down to stand in the road next to Leif, who sat down and faced Alicia. Soren and Alicia stared.
“A great horned owl,” she whispered to Soren. “He’s beautiful.”
The owl flew a dozen yards ahead on the road, then landed, turned, and faced them. Leif walked around Alicia and nudged her in that direction.
“What?” she exclaimed.
Leif nudged her again.
“Go to him? Follow him?”
Leif nudged her again. She took a few steps toward the owl, and it flew another twenty yards down the road and waited, barely visible under the pale moonlight.
Leif nudged her again.
“I think you have a guide, Alicia! This is the one that helped get rid of that sorcerer, the one who turned into a rat. Remember?”
“A friend of the King, then, and a friend of ours. I’m OK, Soren, we’ll be fine. You and Leif go on!” She ran towards the owl, and he flew further ahead, coasting above the dirt road.
Leif and Soren watched them go, disappearing into the night, on the trail of the marauders.
“All right, then, my friend. Let’s go north.”
They turned off the road and plunged into the high grass and brush. After an hour of pushing through branches and stumbling over rocks and fallen wood, Soren was exhausted.
“Let’s stop, Leif. I’m about to fall down anyway.”
Leif snuggled up against the nearest pine, curled into a tight ball, and was apparently asleep within seconds. Soren stared at him.
“Dogs. How do they do that?”
When Soren woke, it was because Leif’s tongue was slurping up the side of his face. He jumped back and sat up, trying to remember where he was and why he was sleeping on a rock.
Slowly it came back to him. He opened the pack that he had not opened since they left the castle, and found some bacon and an apple. Leif sat very close, looked intently at the pack, and growled.
Soren pulled out jerky and bread, and Leif made very quick work of them.
Sunlight streaming into the woods showed them which way was north, and they walked steadily for a handful of hours. Uphill and down, uphill and down, through pasture and forest and scrub brush. When they came across a stream, both drank until they could hold no more.
By late afternoon Soren was expecting to find the northern road, and they came to it before evening. Leif searched the road, and came back to Soren without appearing upset, so he assumed the group had not come this way. Yet.
They sat down to eat, and Soren considered… which way to go? Towards the oncoming group, assuming they would find the road? Or further north, and perhaps send word to Charles?
A Flow of Diamonds
Charles stared at the sparkling field below him, apparently full of diamonds flashing in the afternoon sun. The landslide had ripped open one side of Third Peak last month, and the cascade of boulders and gravel brought with it more jewels than he had ever imagined could exist in one place.
“This will be no end of trouble for us,” grumbled Sheenon, settling in beside him. “The birds must have seen it, so the entire realm knows by now. Men will come from everywhere, and tear up the mountains looking for more.”
“We shielded it within three days,” said Charles. “Do you suppose that was soon enough?”
“The eagles will understand, and not say anything. But the crows … our only hope is that those who come to see what they reported will decide it was a lie, a joke.”
“Maybe the ones who report it will be such known liars that the story will die…”
Sarden circled and came to join them. “Sir Argus,” he said, bowing to Charles, “the news is not good. Groups of men with shovels are moving this way from the east. They are destroying property on the way, causing pain and loss for the Combin families, and soon they will reach Romain.”
“If they take that route, it means they don’t know where we are,” mused Sheenon. “But that only buys us a little time.”
And if they bring a sorcerer, our shield will not fool them for long, thought Charles. If they don’t find these jewels… if they think more are here … if they find even one, that will fuel the rumors, and we cannot bury them deep enough to discourage them from coming. By the hundreds, or worse.
In the arena in Salient, two small black dragons circled the larger green one, nipping and biting as they had a chance. The shackle on the leg of the green one kept it from moving well, and certainly kept it from flying away. The crowd cheered each time the black ones got close to the green one, and it obviously was weakening.
Shunn smiled. An easy crowd to please, and kidnapping a dragon now and then would apparently not be that hard. His mind wandered to the rumors he had heard of diamonds being found at their home. After his men passed the rumors out on the street, it stirred quite a bit of activity, and now groups were beginning to set out for the search.
That will give the dragons some trouble. He laughed, just to think about it.
A burst of flame in the stadium pulled his attention back to the fight among the dragons, and he stared. Three new creatures had appeared. Two enormous green dragons were pinning his black ones to the ground, and as he watched, the green dragons lifted the smaller black ones and threw them against the wall of the arena. They lay motionless. That quickly, the fight was over.
A man stepped off the back of the third dragon, a beast with a great yellow scar on its face. The man walked calmly to the shackle holding Shunn’s prisoner, and with a motion of some kind, opened the lock. The shackle simply fell off, and the captured dragon, now free, leapt into the sky. The man, obviously a sorcerer, strolled back to the animal that had carried him. He climbed up behind its shoulders, and they all simply flew away.
The crowd was silent for a moment, and then began talking, and shouting, and getting ugly. They had paid for the show, and the show ended too soon. They wanted blood, dragon blood.
Shunn stepped to the front of the balcony and held out his arms. When the spectators saw him, they became quiet and waited.
At last, there was silence. “Save your entry tickets,” he shouted, in a slow, deep voice. “You will have another show. Now go about your business.”
That was enough, but it was barely enough. For a few minutes he was not sure they would accept the deal he had offered. After more shouts and complaints, the crowd began leaving, and eventually the stadium was empty again. His crew came out onto the sand floor, and hauled the unconscious black dragons out of the arena.
In the grand entry hall of the dragons’ home in the Whitestone mountains, Sarden looked up from treating the wounds of the injured dragon.
“That is where the diamond hunters are coming from,” he said to Charles. “Regant heard enough to know that, while he was in chains before the killing show began.”
Charles nodded. “But why did they kidnap Regant? What benefit did that man get from putting him into a stadium and trying to kill him?”
“Perhaps,” suggested Sheenon from the corner, “providing entertainment to the people, especially when they are unhappy, buys you some time.”
“And they are unhappy, because…?” asked Charles.
The room was silent.
“Mizzouk reports that there are rumors in the streets of Salient that diamonds can be found in our mountains, and the man Shunn is the source of those rumors. Perhaps a crow carried the news to him, and he sees some advantage in spreading it.”
Sheenon paused. Charles nodded for him to continue.
“Mizzouk also reports trouble on the roads. These diamond hunters are attacking farms and families.”
“But why does Shunn spread the rumors?”
“Two reasons, perhaps, my King.” Sheenon settled his tail into a tight curl around himself. “Perhaps he is being attacked from the East, so he cannot send any soldiers this way … if he has any. So he sends his people.
“He would send farmers to steal from dragons?”
“They know nothing about us. They fought with Romain long ago, and since then, no one comes this way. “
He cleared his throat with a low, smoky rumble, and continued. “Any way to cause trouble for Romain would be welcome to anyone ruling Largente, but especially this Shunn. The defeat at Roaring Rapids was humiliating, and the shame of the ‘cowards rebellion’ is known to all. Both of those lie at the feet of this man’s family, not just his kingdom.”
“Perhaps he needs money. Any badly-run kingdom runs dry sooner or later, and it sounds like he’s one of that kind. Does he have an army? If he is keeping soldiers spread across his eastern border, that’s expensive, and he could need our diamonds to support that foolishness.”
Soren decided to go south on the road, since Charles would not need any information that Soren and Leif could bring, and perhaps he could do more good by interfering with this loathsome group that had taken him captive.
The sun was going down when they came to a farm that appeared to include land on both sides of the road, with a home not two hundred yards back from the path. They turned up the entry walk, and were approaching the house when a voice called out.
“You with the dog. What do you seek?”
“Your safety, my lord,” replied Soren, looking about.
“Up here,” called the voice.
Soren looked up, and found a man sitting on the peak of the roof, leaning against a chimney. “What do you seek?” the man asked again.
“A group of ruffians heads your way,” called Soren. “We thought we should warn you, and perhaps offer some help.”
The man disappeared for half a minute, and came walking around the corner of the building.
“Shane,” he said, extending a hand of greeting.
“Soren, at your service, and Leif. We are the king’s men.”
Shane looked at Leif, then back to Soren. “The king’s ‘men’? Somehow, given the look in that dog’s eyes, I believe you!”
Soren looked at Leif, then smiled. “We were behind the group yesterday afternoon, and turned north through the woods. They were headed for Combin, but said they were looking for Whitestone, so I expect they will find this road and be coming soon.”
“Why should I be concerned?”
“They are dangerous. Kidnapped me, briefly, and I escaped. The King sent me to find out what these groups are about, groups of men that have begun coming into his realm.”
“When should we expect them?”
Soren looked out to the south. Was that a haze in the air, the sign of thirty or forty hungry, tired men coming along the trail?
“Soon,” he said. “Minutes, not days. Maybe an hour or more?”
They expect to be digging, so they probably want to steal tools. Take your best ones and hide them; leave some old, poor tools easily visible. Oh, and prepare your wife for the possibility that these men will take you captive to go with them.
Leif growled lightly.
“Speaking of your wife… is there someplace she can go?”
“We can hide her here.”
“What if they burn the house?”
“Would they?” asked the farmer? “Why?”
“Can’t say,” Soren replied, shaking his head. “Lawless. Let’s assume they might. What should you do?”
The farmer went to his front door, opened it, and called. A moment later a young woman came to the door.
“Take the horse, and go now to your brother’s house. Go through the field, not by the road. Send him and his sons as soon as you get there. We have troublemakers on the way here.”
The woman disappeared, and as they kept talking, Soren heard the sound of a horse trotting away on the other side of the building.
Soon the murmur of a crowd drifted to them from where the road disappeared into the woods to the south.
“Should we meet them and talk?” asked the farmer.
“I suggest no contact, if we cannot meet them with overwhelming force,” said Soren. “If it is just the three of us…” and he looked at Leif … “let’s disappear. But I do fear for your house.”
It was already dark when Luge and the others came to the farm and saw the lights of the house. Soren heard their excited voices from where he and Shane waited at the door to the barn.
“A place to stop!” yelled Luge. Let’s spend the night here!”
The crowd moved off the road and approached the house.
“Leif,” whispered Soren. It’s dark. They can’t see. What if they started kicking each other, or just thought someone were kicking them… biting them… could we get them to fight each other?”
Leif disappeared into the darkness.
“Do you have a short stick handy?” Soren asked the farmer. Soon he had one in his hand, and drifted up to the back of the crowd.
Luge was hammering on the door of the house. “Open up! We’re just some friendly neighbors, need a place to stay the night.” Getting no response, he pounded even louder and repeated the demand.
“Stop it!” shouted one of the crowd.
Luge turned around and faced them. “Why should I stop?”
“Not you… stop it!” came the shout again. “Get away!”
Commotion broke out at the back of the crowd. “Get off me!” “Someone pushed me!” “I’ll show you what happens when …” “Ouch! Stop it!” A fight broke out in the crowd, as each one blamed the man next to him for whatever was happening.
“Shut up!” screamed Luge, but no one paid attention. He screamed again, but this time there were no words. He grabbed his leg and fell down. “Something bit me!”
Leif ran in and out through the crowd, growling. The sound of it created panic in the darkness, and men started running back to the road and on down it into the darkness. Soon Luge was the only one left in front of the door, bent over and clutching his leg. Soren came up behind him, pushed him on the ground, and stood on his back.
“My friend,” he called. The farmer came close.
“Do you have some rope?”
Soren tied Luge’s arms behind him, and they found a cloth to tie over his face as a blindfold. Another piece of rope to lead him, and they were ready to go. The moon was later tonight, and fuller, so as it came up there was enough light to travel.
“Good luck,” whispered Soren to the farmer. “More will come. What can you do?”
“I have a bull in the pasture,” said the farmer. “He can live in my front yard for a while. And my wife will be back soon, with help from her family.”
Looking For Answers
Leif and Soren began the trip back to the Combin castle with Luge in tow. When he complained, Leif came up close and growled, so the complaining did not continue.
At dawn they stepped off into the forest and made a place to rest. At noon, they started off again, and were quickly met by a group of Combin soldiers coming east.
“I’m Captain Solis, of Combin. I remember you. Mizzouk sent us. Who is this?”
Luge tried to interrupt, and Leif silenced him.
“A bully from Salient, sir. Brought a crowd of thirty or so, heading to Whitestone with shovels.”
“What on earth for?”
“He says there are diamonds.”
“That’s crazy. It’s also a long walk. Did he have a pack?”
“No, sir, I think they have been raiding the people, breaking into homes, that sort of thing, as they traveled. He kidnapped me, and then his mob attacked a farmer, Shane, on the north road.”
Another soldier came up close.
“Secure this man, until we can have communication with Salient about him and get testimony from the farmer, Shane.”
“Yes, Soren, what else?”
“His group ran off into the darkness last night, I don’t know where. There may be more groups coming west, to hunt diamonds. Sounds like someone in Salient is stirring them up. Could be a lot.”
“Does Sir Argus know?”
Soren looked at Leif, who gave him a look that said “Oh, come on!”
“Oh, Charles! I mean … I don’t know, sir.”
“Can you go that way and warn them, while I head for Salient?”
“Yes, of course… You’ll find more damage on the way, from what I’ve heard. And could I get some food from you? We’ve been on the road for a while!”
In a few minutes they were once again on the way, and at the intersection Soren headed north once again, with Leif trotting after him.
Shunn was apparently quite pleased with the groups headed for Combin and Whitestone.
“They’ll cause no end of trouble,” he laughed.
His wife studied him. “What comes of this, really?”
“Sweet, sweet revenge.” He took a long, slow drink from his silver wine cup. “Sweet, sweet revenge, after all these years. And …”
He pointed at her.
“You and I become very, very rich.”
“If the rumors are true … I think they are … we will keep a portion of all the diamonds that come back.”
“How will you do that?” She folded another set of napkins as she waited for his answer.
“Any way I want. How about a tax on goods imported from outside Largente? To protect our sheep herder and wool business, of course, and our shoemakers, but it will conveniently apply to other things … diamonds, for example!”
“But there is no such tax, darling.”
“There can be … by tomorrow morning, if I choose. I thought I would wait until a large number of people have gone, and convince the council that it is even more important to protect our remaining tradesmen, since many of the shops are closing down to join the diamond hunt.”
“Will they find anything?”
“If the rumors hold… yes. But they will also find something they are not expecting.”
She watched him, amazed at the delight he took in causing trouble.
“We seem to have men moving up from the Combin road, and it appears they are coming to dig, not to fight or farm.”
Charles nodded. A decision was needed. “Have they seen us yet?”
Sarden slowly shook his head. “We sent Gelat, because of his size, and perhaps they thought him a great bird, if they noticed him at all. Also the eagles have been watching.”
“The shield will protect the diamonds from being seen from a distance, but what if they come right into that part of the mountain and walk there? What will they see?”
An older dragon spoke from near the wall. “If a single stone is found and taken back for others to see, we will have no end of trouble with them. For tens of dozens of years.”
Again, Charles nodded. It must be prevented. But how?
“We cannot bury them deep enough to not be found, since they have coated the side of the eastern peak. We cannot simply kill everyone who comes. We cannot refuse entry to these mountains. But we cannot have endless streams of people tearing up our homes. What shall we do?”
The older dragon spoke again. “Nothing we do to make them afraid will be sufficient; that would only escalate into war.”
Charles agreed. “We must find something that would make the early arrivals return empty-handed and convince others not to come. Something that repulses them, or disgusts them, or … “
In the end, they sent word to Mizzouk. Charles decided to go, since he would make the final decision.
Mizzouk sat in his library and noticed the sun was dimmed for a moment, and then brightened again. Nothing else would do that, he smiled. He set down his tea and went to the door. As he opened it, Charles settled into the yard in front of the house.
“A pleasure, my lord Argus. Welcome!”
Charles nodded to him. “For me as well, old friend.”
“You have come about the problem that men have with jewels, I suppose? Their insatiable hunger to be rich?”
“And our need to protect ourselves from those who suffer this affliction!”
They talked through the situation.
“Is there anything more to the north of your homes?” asked Mizzouk. “Can we assume that anyone on that road is indeed going to Whitestone?”
“Some farmers live along the road south of us,” recalled Charles. “They are at risk as well. And the villagers to the north — Charis and her people?”
“Ah, yes, I recall her well. An amazing child, one that I need to stay in touch with. Or perhaps one the King needs to stay in touch with!” He winked at Charles, but then realized that might not be a signal that dragons understood.
“So we cannot just shut down the road… they would come in from the east, anyway.”
“True,” said Charles. “Why are the people of Combin and Romain not seeking the diamonds?”
“Have not heard about them yet, I suppose,” said Mizzouk. “But that brings up a question … how did the people of Salient get so excited about it, when our own people don’t even know the rumor?”
“Shunn,” said Charles.
“A man named Shunn, a leader of some sort. He despises your people, but I cannot tell you why. And he kidnapped one of our own to be attacked and killed in a sport arena, as entertainment, I think. How it happened I do not yet know… but perhaps he tortured Regant before putting him out to be killed, and that is how he learned of the diamonds. Or the crows saw it and told him. He would make a good crow; perhaps they met in school.”
Have I ever heard a dragon tell a joke before? wondered Mizzouk.
Charles headed home at evening, but Mizzouk thought he left with no clearer plan in mind than when he had come.
Charis decided to return to the mansion in the wilderness… the one most people could not see. The feeling had been growing for several days, and it was now an urgent call … a call to go home.
Her father could not go with her, and Mr. Hamreth was ill, so she decided to go on her own. She was three years older now, and was sure of the way. No one objected. At least a three days’ journey each way, on her own. An adventure.
The first day’s journey south brought her easily to Whitestone, and she decided to visit the clan. Standing on the mountainside she thought was probably right, she called to them. After waiting about ten minutes, she called again.
Eventually a small dragon appeared off to her right, and quickly landed before her.
“My friend Gelat. I hoped to see you!”
“Climb on. Let’s go see the others! Maybe you can help us!”
She scrambled up onto his back, just behind the shoulders. “You’re bigger!” he laughed.
“So are you!”
They lifted up, wheeled around, and followed the curve of the mountain. Gelat then aimed for the side of another peak, and dove straight for it. Charis covered her eyes, and suddenly the air became cool. She took her hands down just in time to see a great doorway pass above them, and a polished stone floor beneath. Gelat landed easily.
“Not so big you can’t carry me just as easily as before!” she exclaimed, sliding off with her pack. “Thank you, Sir Gelat!”
If a dragon can blush, she thought, that must be what it looks like!
Others gathered around, and soon Charles was there among them. The yellow scar he once was so ashamed of seemed to bother him not at all.
“We need advice, Lady Charis.” Charles bowed to her. “Perhaps you can help!”
“Of course, Sir Argus!” She noticed a slight smile, but he did not suggest she call him Charles. Perhaps they were in a formal meeting, and titles were better. She was glad she had used his formal name!
“Men are coming, seeking diamonds. A landslide on one of our mountains has revealed some, and it appears word has spread. But we have no clear idea yet how to defend ourselves from what might be an unending stream of unruly men determined to tear up our mountains looking for those sparkly stones. What should we do?”
“Have they found any yet?”
“None have arrived, but they are on the way… and causing harm as they come.”
“Can you conceal, or disguise them, so none will be found? It seems to me the first one is the dangerous one, because it proves the possibility of more to be found.”
“The landslide left them exposed all down the mountainside. Until we covered them with a hiding spell, we think they were visible to birds, and that’s how rumor spread. It would be impossible to bury them deep enough to discourage digging for them!”
“Could you bury them somewhat, and spread some sort of false diamonds, a worthless sparkling stone, above them? So those who come would decide that’s all there was?”
The dragons murmured among themselves, and she continued to think about it.
“You have no use for them yourself, true?”
“True,” said Charles.
“Can a lava flow be created? I understand lava hardens beyond what shovels and picks can overcome.”
“Cover them with lava?” Charles seemed intrigued. “That might help, and perhaps we can do it. Do you suppose you could … interfere with them … to gain us some time?”
“That would be fun! I think I could do some things. Where are they?”
“On the road from Salient to Combin, and perhaps already coming north from where our road and the Combin road meet.”
“I’m going that way, and further, so I’ll be glad to … ‘chat’ with them … along the way. Gelat, could we go do a little spying, and then you could set me down in front of them?”
“Let’s come around behind them,” he suggested. “They may not know we are here, yet… we’d like to keep that for a surprise. If they see us, they’ll think we came from Romain. That story has been told everywhere!”
“Excellent,” said Charis.
Soon they were headed south, a good bit west of the road and staying low. When they came to the road from Combin, they turned east. Not finding anyone, they turned back to the north over the road to Whitestone. Gelat stayed low and flew slowly so they would not overtake a group and surprise them.
“Wait,” said Charis. “Could that be our friends?”
A man walked slowly ahead of them, and a dog ran before him, back and forth, seemingly determined to smell every blade of grass along the way.
Gelat eased slowly down, and touched the ground without a sound just a few paces behind Soren. Leif turned and saw them. Charis held up a finger to her lips. Leif turned again, ran ahead a bit, then turned around and sat down.
“What?” said Soren, stopping in the middle of the road. “Are you tired? I’ve never seen you get tired, this is amazing!”
Leif did not move.
“Are we there? Have we arrived?” Soren plopped down cross-legged in the road. “Shall we just wait here for the next group to run over us?”
Leif crossed his front legs.
“Is that what I look like?” Soren straightened out his legs, and Leif did the same. Soren crossed them again, and Leif copied his motions. In the meantime, Gelat came up so close behind Soren he could have rustled his hair with his breath. Charis was shaking, trying not to laugh.
“You know, Leif … what we really need about now, is a dragon and a sorcerer. Even a young one would do!”
Leif cocked his head.
“Which? Well … a young dragon, OR a young sorcerer. Or both!”
Charis slipped off Gelat, came silently up behind Soren, and kissed the back of his neck. He jumped, screamed, and fell over sideways, and lay in the dirt staring up … at a young sorceress and her friend, the young dragon. Leif ran to them, barking and jumping.
Soren lay in the dirt, and finally began laughing, and kept laughing until Charis and he were both too exhausted to laugh any more.
Gelat suggested to Charis that perhaps they should move out of the road, in case another group were coming up from the Combin road soon.
She made the suggestion to Soren. They moved a hundred yards or so into the forest, and found a clearing big enough for Gelat to settle into.
“You surprised me so much!” said Soren. “What a delight to see you both! We have been trying to figure out what to do, against so many wandering trouble-makers, and if we needed to warn Charles somehow!”
We are aware, said Gelat, and Charis relayed it.
But we are struggling to know what to do. Sir Argus has been to see Mizzouk, and we need to decide on some action soon.
“Are there really diamonds?” asked Charis.
I’m afraid so. Lots of them. We could have many years of trouble from this!
Leif lay his head on Soren’s lap and whined a moment.
“The king’s soldiers are on the way to Salient,” said Soren, “and we gave them the bully that was running this group. So we shouldn’t have anyone coming behind us just yet … but the mob that kidnapped me is still on the road somewhere, and they’ll pick another leader.”
If any of them get far enough to find a single diamond, the rumors will no longer be rumors.
“Then we must stop them,” said Charis. “Let’s get moving.”
“There’s a farm just ahead on the left,” said Soren. “He’s a friend, and he’ll have some help by now. We should tell them what’s happening, and they can join us. If this goes on, their home and farm will be destroyed.”
They moved back to the road, and Gelat took Charis on ahead to the farm. As they approached, he landed in the road, lay down in the dirt, and allowed Charis to walk towards the house. As she did, the door opened and three men stepped out with farm tools in their hands.
“Is that a friend of yours?” one of them shouted.
“And a friend of yours,” replied Charis. “Are you Shane?”
“I am Shane,” said another, stepping forward. “Do I know you?”
“You know my friend Soren, and his dog Leif. They helped you when the mob came.”
“Yes, of course! Is he with you?”
“Coming along soon. May we approach?”
“Does ‘we’ mean you and the dragon?”
She laughed. “Yes, he is my friend as well. We need your help, and you need ours!”
By the time Soren and Leif arrived, they were all sitting together in front of the house talking over the situation.
“I have told them everything,” Charis reported, “including the diamonds. Gelat gave me permission, since the situation really requires that.”
Soren nodded, and introduced himself and Leif to those he had not met. “Good. Now what?”
“I was thinking dinner might be next,” laughed Shane. “But I don’t think I can feed your friend!”
Gelat snorted. That will not be a problem! Excuse me?
He was in the air a moment later, headed for the deep forest.
“Did I offend him?” asked Shane, startled.
“No,” Charis assured him. “He’ll finish his supper before you even get the water hot for ours!”
When the soup and bread and apple pie were gone, they moved back out into the yard and the men lit pipes full of tabac. Gelat smiled. He liked the smell of smoke.
But what were these men, and Charis, going to do? How could they help?
Can you convince the men not to come? he asked Charis. She relayed the question.
“Greed is strong,” commented Harlat, sitting next to Shane. “And those Largente people, they really despise the Combin crowd, so that throws sparks onto the hay as well.”
But there must be something that would make them run the other way … and not come back!
Dusk was fading into night, and suddenly an owl was with them, circling wide.
“Hoo, hoo.” Charis stood up and walked a little away from the group.
“You must go. It is time to go home.”
“North?” she said. “Or to my mountain home?”
“South,” he said. “To the mountains and the lake! Time to fly!” He circled up high, and drifted towards the road, quickly out of sight.
She returned to the group, all of whom were watching this conversation but only hearing half of it. Leif came to her and nuzzled her leg. She bent down and hugged him. “No, you can’t come. But thanks for the offer!”
“Thank you, Mr. Shane, for supper. I wish you well. I need to continue my own journey, and perhaps somehow it is for your sake as well. Goodbye, Mr. Soren. I will see you again!”
And she was gone, walking quickly off into the night.
“She’s going alone?” exclaimed Shane.
“No, she’s not alone. Didn’t you see him?” laughed Soren. “He just flew that way!” and he waved at the road.
Soren grew thoughtful. He looked around at Shane’s family. Strong, capable men. They did not need him, really, now that the danger was known, and Luge was gone.
“Shane, I probably need to be going as well. The King sent me to do something, and these misguided treasure hunters have kept me from it. I think between your family and Captain Solis, you have all the strength you need to deal with them. You’ll be fine. Would you mind if I get back to business?”
Shane came to him and shook his hand. “You’ve saved us from a bunch of trouble, my friend. Come see us anytime you’re passing by!”
“I will. I will, indeed. Leif? Let’s go dig a little deeper into what’s really going on!” And as the moon began showing its face, they began the long walk to Salient.
Charis left the Combin-Salient road and headed due south in the moonlight. No road went this way, and she liked that just fine. Wild apple trees, mustang grapes, and occasional berry vines supplemented her pack, which the King had managed to stuff very full without her asking.
The owl flew ahead, well up into the treetops, and waited for her occasionally. ‘Mr. Owl,’ as she had named him on their first encounter, was becoming a very good friend.
Deeper and deeper into the forest they went, and the land began sloping up. When the sun was high overhead the next day, she settled into the shade of a great oak and slept. The owl took a branch high above her, and was quickly asleep as well. He stirred before she did, and called her quietly when the late afternoon was fading away.
“Hoo, hooo. Shall we go?”
Charis rubbed her face and sat up. “I was asleep!” she exclaimed. The owl looked around.
“Whoooo are you talking to?”
“To you, of course!”
“Why are you telling me that? I knew that already!”
She fell back down and looked up at him, perched high above. “You silly! That’s just the way people talk.”
“Saying that they were asleep, when we already knew it? Why?”
“No, not just that. People say things that everyone around them already knows. Maybe it’s just being … polite? I don’t know! Like saying ‘It sure is hot today’, or ‘we sure have been walking a long time’!”
The owl shook his head, twisting both ways as though he were loosening things up.
“And what would everyone around them say to that? Hoo, seems so useless!”
“You would just agree! It is being polite. Just say, you are right!”
The owl flew down to a branch in front of her. “We might need to practice.”
“Wonderful! I’ll start. Ummm… it sure is bright out here!”
“Hoo, yes, it is. I get sleepy when it’s bright. Hoo… “ and he tucked his head under his wing.
Ten minutes later the owl suddenly shook himself and his eyes popped open. He looked around, and started when he saw her.
“It sure is bright out here,” she said, trying not to smile.
“Are you trying to make me sleep again?”
Charis laughed and clapped. “Yes!” Then she realized she might have done wrong. Her smile disappeared, and she said quietly, “Should I apologize?”
“No need, no need!” he hooted. “But let’s fly, I’m hungry!”
Charis gathered up her blanket and pack, tightened it all up on her shoulders, and set off at a good pace. The owl disappeared again into the trees.
On the morning of the third day, they reached the river. Taking big steps, she counted off the distance, then walked up among the trees and soon found the boat where they had left it after the last trip. A bit more weathered, with a mooring line that had been tucked under a seat and out of the weather, it looked serviceable. Tugging and jerking, she moved it down the slope and into the water.
“How do you do this?” she wondered aloud, and the owl landed on the side of the boat. He fluttered a moment, then picked up the end of the mooring rope with his claw and said, “Follow me!”
Charis remembered watching her father and Mr. Hamreth use the paddles, so she picked one up from the bottom of the boat and pushed at the water. The boat turned, but the wrong way. She yanked it out of the water and pushed water on the other side. The boat slowly turned towards the owl, as he flapped awkwardly in the air in front of her. It turned past him, so she went back to the other side. After a few more of such changes, she had figured out how to make it go towards the other shore.
“Hoo, hoo, hoo!” called the owl, louder than she remembered he had ever called. “Hoo, hoo!”
Then she saw the cabin, and understood. As she drifted towards the shore, Shugin came out and stared. The owl carried the end of the rope in the air towards him, and Shugin suddenly ran to grab it as the boat slowly slipped down the river.
Shugin snatched the end of the rope just in time, and pulled the boat back to his mooring post.
“I know you!” he exclaimed. “You were here before … with your father, and … I forget his name. But are you by yourself now?”
“No, of course not. That would be foolish!”
She turned to the owl, who had perched on the edge of the roof. “Mr. Owl, this is Mr. Shugin. Mr. Shugin, I would like to present my friend, Owl.”
The owl nodded his head slightly, but said nothing. Shugin stared, and finally looked back at Charis. “Well, he did bring me the rope … have you trained him?”
Charis laughed. “Maybe the other way around, if anything!”
Shugin was speechless.
Charis continued. “Thank you, sir, once again. May I leave the boat with you while I visit my home?”
He rubbed his face and looked at her. Finally he spoke.
“What … what is your name?”
“Charis. Or Elena.”
“Charis… or Elena… is it real? Is there really a house there, and not just a cliff with holes in the rock? Is there really a lake, where I only see a pasture?”
“And are you the child they told me of, when they left?”
Charis now stared at him.
“Yes, I think so. Tell me about them.”
He invited her in, and they sat at his dining table with cool water and some freshly baked bread. Charis waited. Shugin was finally ready to talk.
“They seemed in a hurry. It’s been a long time,” he apologized.
“Since I was born.”
“Well, of course, you know how long it’s been. So, they were in a hurry, seemed to have a couple of small traveling bags with him. Your dad is tall, one of the tallest men I’ve ever seen … and your mom, well, you favor her, you really do, now that I put five and five together! You do.”
He sat back and smiled. “I should have seen it before.”
“What did they say? Where were they going? Why did they have to leave … me?”
He shook his head. “None of that is what they shared with me, for sure. But they said someone would come soon to get you, and I should help them any way I could. But when the two men came, they seemed to know where they was going, sure enough, no help I could give. Odd. They had never been there, and had not much idea why they were going … and I told them what I’d heard, that there wasn’t anything there but a mirage … but they went right on, and sure enough, had you in their arms when they came back!”
When she came to the top of the ridgeline at evening, the cliffs and rocks seemed unchanged. The pasture that was really a lake stretched out in front of her, and the cliff with the holes in the rock was there waiting, glowing in the last light of the setting sun. She ran, laughing, until she stood at the ledge that was really a first step on a wide, grand entry stairway.
‘I’m home,” she whispered. “Open up.”
The mansion appeared, candles glowing in the windows. The wide stone steps welcomed her up to the massive wooden doors, which swung open. A soft melody drifted down from the upstairs room that had been hers, and she stepped into the grand salon feeling more at home than she had ever felt before.
At the end of the downstairs hallway she found a library, and spent an hour or more just browsing the titles. History, philosophy, mathematics, sailing skills, farming, and of course … magic. All the topics one could wish to learn.
“Family History,” said the spine and cover of a small book bound in red leather. It lay on the desk in the corner of the library, as though it had no place on the shelves … and she discovered it was only partially filled. About two thirds of the way through, a long ribbon lay across the page, dividing the part that had been filled in and the blank pages that followed.
On the last page with anything written on it, the graceful handwriting said,
“Elena was born six weeks ago today. We must leave, so we shall give her a home and the instruction she will need. A family north of Whitestone will come for her, and care for her until we can return. If we can, indeed, return.”
Then at the bottom of the page, a final note was written in a simpler, larger script.
“Now, Elena, it comes to you.”
It comes to me, she thought. It comes to me. What in the world does that mean?
She heard the steps of a young man on the stone outside, and then a voice called.
She looked up, and wondered. Who could be here?
She stood, walked out into the hallway, and saw him standing in the main room. He looked somehow familiar. She walked slowly back down the hall to that room, and stood facing him.
“Do I know you?”
He smiled, and she thought again… I know this man. The way his hair is swept back, the color of it, the expression in his quick, sharp eyes …
“It sure is bright out here,” he said, smiling even more. “We sure have been walking a long time!”
“You? You are Mr. Owl?”
“At your service, my Lady Elena. At your service indeed.” And he bowed.
Elena curtsied, and studied him more closely. He turned and led the way to a pair of brightly upholstered chairs facing the windows that looked out upon the lake. Early starlight danced on the water, and the last glimmer of the sunset reflected in a long, soft glow running from the far shore towards their feet.
“Do you know my parents?” she asked.
“Of course. They sent me to look after you, and when you finally returned here, to introduce myself.”
“What … what shall I call you, then?”
“I rather fancy ‘Mr. Owl’, if it still suits you! Perhaps ‘Mr. O’, in public?”
She laughed. That would work just fine.
“Where did they go?”
“To pursue an evil that was growing, and put an end to it if they could.”
“But that must have been years ago!”
“Indeed. You are now thirteen, I believe?”
“And they left, as you know from the note, just after you were born.”
“Where are they now?” She watched intently. Was there a reason she was not to know?
“Waiting for you.”
“At the door.”
She jumped up and ran to the front door. Standing there were a tall, slender man in simple traveling clothes, holding a small leather bag, and beside him the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, with the happiest smile on her face that she had ever seen.
“Are you … “
The woman stepped forward, wrapped Elena in a hug, and lifted her clear off the ground. After a few moments, the man said, “Lali, if you don’t mind? Do I get a turn?”
Laughing, Lali turned around and around, still holding Elena, and said, “Maybe.”
Finally Elena had her feet under her again and turned to the man. “Father?”
“My pleasure, indeed, to be your father.” And a second ride through the air began!
Her father’s name was Chander, as it turned out, but she did not hear that until much later. For all she knew, his name was “Dear,” or “Honey,” for that’s all her mom ever called him.
“You have traveled. I would offer you something to eat,” said Elena, “but I have only grapes and an apple in my bag, and I just got here myself!”
“And you have had no chance to explore the house, isn’t that right?” Her mom’s eyes were twinkling.
“Yes… that’s true.”
“Then let me offer you dinner.”
She raised her voice just slightly. “May we have dinner, please?”
Plates clinked in the next room, candles came on that had not been on before, and an amazing smell drifted into the room.
“After you?” said her father, rising.
Elena walked across the living room and through a beautifully carved archway into a formal dining room. She stood before a polished table of some dark wood. Mahogany? She did not know. It would seat a dozen people easily, and probably more. There were four chairs set, two on each side, and four sets of plates, bowls and silver. A mug was at each place, and steam rose from the mugs. The bowls were set in the middle of the plates, and appeared to have just been filled with a vegetable soup. She could see carrots and slices of potato in it, but could only guess at the rest.
Mr. O pulled out a chair for her, and took a seat beside her. Lali and Chander sat opposite her, “The better to look at you!” according to her father.
“Will the house do that for me too?”
“And much, much more. You have only to ask.”
Elena shook her head, amazed.
“Are you going to ask where we’ve been, and why we left?” asked her mom.
With a mouth full of soup, Elena nodded. “Of course, of course! And thank you for sending such wonderful people to adopt me!”
Chander looked at his wife. “You were right.”
She laughed. “I knew they would be perfect!”
She winked at Elena. “My sister. Your aunt and uncle!”
“Oh, my goodness” cried Elena. Did they know that?”
Lali shook her head. “Don’t think so.”
Elena thought back over the years living with her aunt and uncle. What a blessing.
“Can we go see them, together? So they’ll know?”
Chander stirred his soup, looking at it, and Lali looked at him saying nothing. Finally he looked up at Elena.
“Maybe not just yet. We have some things to do … and that would put them in danger.”
Morning arrived. The owl sat on the windowsill, preening. Elena laughed to see “Mr. O” back in his bird disguise. Or was it? Which was the disguise, and which was real? She couldn’t figure out how to ask the question politely.
“I would tell you his history,” said her father, coming up beside her, “but I only know a little of it myself. Perhaps we can get him in a talkative mood sometime!”
The owl looked at them, cocked its head, and hooted, “Hoo, not today, hooo.”
Lali joined them, dressed in a plain country dress of brown, with a scarf holding her hair back and a worn traveling bag on her arm. Together they looked like a simple family on a long, weary trip.
“Shall we go?” asked Chander.
Elena looked around. “Will we be back soon?”
“Maybe,” said Lali and Chander at the same time. They smiled at each other, and Lali continued. “We have things to do. Life takes you where it takes you… “
She lifted an eyebrow, as though waiting for Elena to agree to the uncertainty of the journey, and the possibility of some very undesirable results.
“Charis, at your service.” She bowed a simple curtsey, and picked up her pack.
“My girl,” said Chander. “Let’s go save the world!”
They trounced down the steps and started around the lake.
“Are you going to lock up?” asked her father. Charis looked back at the high windows, the beautiful brick work on the walls, the fountain in front of the library, the wide welcoming steps … and she whispered, “Be hidden.” And it was.
When they reached the cabin on the river, Charis called out, “Mr. Shugin, sir?” He came to the door and looked out to find the three of them at his gate, and an owl perched on the boat still tied to his mooring post.
“You made it back again!” he exclaimed. “Some people never do!”
“Some people go where they shouldn’t,” said Lali. “Thank you, Mr. Shugin, for helping our daughter along her way.”
He stared at them, and then at Charis. “I thought that other man, the one with you before, was your …”
“Yes,” she replied. “He was.”
She left it at that, and went to untie the boat. “I add my thanks, Mr. Shugin,” said her father. “May I offer some payment for your kindness?” He walked over to Shugin and held out his hand. Shugin took what was offered, and they left him staring at a small gold coin with a picture of Charis on one side and a picture of a three-story mansion on the other… a mansion with a lake in front of it.
As the sun was setting, they had reached a ridge with a wide view of the forest stretching out towards Combin in the west, Salient to the east, and Whitestone far to the north. If it weren’t for the thick pines they would have had a wonderful view of the sunset. “Shall we take the shortcut, darling?” asked Lali.
“To Robbin’s house?”
“They always keep a room for us, so that would be easiest.”
“Yes… they do. I suppose so. Elena … I’m sorry. Charis?”
She looked at him and waited.
“Just call me ‘Dad’, and call her ‘Mom’ … no one should know our names, really. I will go by Sam, and she is Martha, where we are going. The name Charis will work fine for you. No one outside the valley knows you as ‘Elena’, do they?”
“My …my uncle and aunt do, and Mr. Hamreth. Maybe no one else.”
“Excellent,” he said. “Well, then, we are going to the home of our friend Mr. Robbin.”
A slow smile came to Charis’ face.
“Ah, you are thinking … well, you’ll just have to find out,” said her mom.
Her dad drew her close, and pulled Lali to his side as well. “Coming, Mr. O?”
The owl flew close, and perched on his shoulder.
“I’ll show you how to do this later,” he said to Charis. “For now, I just need to show you where we’re going, not how to get there!”
She nodded and waited.
“Close your eyes.”
She did, and it felt like the earth dropped out from under her feet for just a moment, then it was solid again.
“You can open them now.”
The sky was dark, but not much more than where they had been. “We’ve gone east,” she said, “but not far.”
“I like this girl,” exclaimed Sam. “She’s smart! Can we keep her?”
Martha poked him. “I certainly hope so,” she said, in a bit more of a country accent than Charis expected.
They were in the woods, but just a few yards away from a wide, well-used dirt road. Sam held up his hand, looked up and down the road, and then stepped quickly out into the road. “Let’s go,” he said, and waited for them to join him. “This way, Charis.”
They started walking briskly towards some distant lights, and soon came to the edge of a town or village.
“That’s where we’re going for the night,” he said, pointing to a two-story black building a few blocks further ahead. ‘Robbin’s Nest.’ Popular place!”
They passed a tavern and some shops that appeared closed for the night, and a few people hurrying by without speaking.
“Are they afraid?” asked Charis quietly. “No one meets your gaze.”
Lali nodded. “Some are, and some with reason. Things need changing here.”
“Will we have a part in that?”
“I certainly hope so,” Lali replied. “I very much hope so.”
The door of the Robbin’s Nest was closed, and not much light came from the shuttered windows. Chander knocked twice, then once again.
“Who goes?” asked a quiet voice from inside.
“Sam and Martha,” he replied. “Just seeking a place for the night.”
The latch was thrown and the door opened partway. A bearded face looked out. “Ah, indeed, it is you. Welcome, friends. Come in quickly.”
As they slipped inside, the man looked at Charis with raised eyebrows. “And who is your companion? She favors you, Martha, she does!”
“I’ll take that as a compliment, I will indeed. Charis, this is Mr. Robbin, a good friend. Mr. Robbin, this is indeed our daughter, as you have guessed. Her name is Charis, and we’ve not had the pleasure of traveling with her for a while. You understand.”
“Ah, indeed. No, I think not,” he agreed, and firmly closed the door. “Not with what you’ve been through, and what’s going on here!”
“Do we have a room for the night?”
Mr. Robbin bowed. “You always have a room for the night. If I had to throw the Premiere out of a warm bed to do it, you would have a room for the night!”
Chander laughed. “We thank you, and can never thank you enough. After you settle things down for the night, perhaps we can talk?”
“Of course. The usual place?”
Chander nodded, and Mr. Robbin led the way to a corner room on the top floor.
“Ah, my favorite,” said Lali. “A good view in every direction that matters!”
Charis went to the window in the corner. The Butterfly was high in the sky to the right, so that was east, and the other direction must be north. She realized a balcony was out there, and she quickly found the door leading out. From the balcony she could also see to the west.
Fires were burning to the north, perhaps at the edge of the town. They looked small enough that they were probably under control… she went back inside, and found her parents talking quietly around a small table.
“There are fires,” she said.
“Books, and probably scrolls,” said Chander. “They’re destroying history.”
“Why?” exclaimed Charis. “For what possible reason?”
“If you wanted to spread your own version of history, or of some topic, what would you do?” Her mother waited for the answer.
“I see. The first thing would be to somehow get rid of the real version… or at least, the existing version!”
“Exactly. and that’s what they’re doing. Especially any history of the relationship with Combin and Romain. The Premiere, a man named Shunn, hates those families, and is inventing vile stories about them. If he can stir up enough anger, a war will be easy to arrange.
“That’s not all,” added her father. “He’s also telling the people of diamonds found north of Combin, and privately encouraging groups of thugs … let’s call them treasure hunters … to head that way.”
“I just came from those mountains,” said Charis. “I have friends among the dragons. They are struggling to know what to do.”
Chander leaned back and laughed. “My daughter! I should not be surprised!”
He looked at her. “What have you learned to do? Have you studied the book I left for you?”
“Yes … but I have only practiced a few things from it. I was able to help The Lady of Combin and her son, and Mizzouk, when they needed to …”
“We know the story,” said Lali. “Mizzouk is, let’s say, an old friend.”
“I thought he and the Lady, and her son, might be the last …”
“And in our line, you and I are the last.”
He nodded to her, and emphasized it.
“You and I.”
Charis looked at her mom.
Lali shrugged. “Not in my blood!”
“But in mine,” Charis said.
Her father nodded. A quiet knock disturbed the silence.
“Come,” said Chander. “Let’s hear the news.” He went to the door, and opened it wide. He and Lali walked out, and held the door for Charis to follow. They went to the end of the hall and opened a narrow door that looked like a closet. Stairs inside led up to another narrow door that opened onto the roof.
In the middle of the roof was a small tower that looked much like a lighthouse. Mr. Robbin waited at the base of it, and Mr. Owl perched on a balcony rail above him. They all entered, and as they did, Charis wondered how they would all fit. The lighthouse looked to be ornamental, no bigger around than a small oak, or a large pine tree.
As she entered, she gasped. A great hall opened up before her, and tables and chairs to host a party of a hundred or more. A circular staircase in the center of the room led to an upper floor with windows all around, and candles burned both above and below.
“Wasn’t the tower dark, when we approached?” she asked, tugging on her father’s sleeve. He winked at her. “Only to those on the outside!”
Mr. Robbin took a seat at a table set for six, with wine glasses and a creamy, frothy something in bowls. As Charis sat down, she realized that Mr. Owl was once again joining them as a young man. She counted twice.
“Is someone else joining us?”
“When she can,” said Lali. “We never know.”
A voice drifted down from the upper floor. “I’m here… be just a moment.”
The Lady of Combin came down the stair case, and all stood to greet her.
“Charis, you have grown! My. It has been too long. Welcome!”
“And thank you again for your help against that awful crystal. What a mess!”
“I would say ‘my pleasure,’ my Lady, but … the only pleasure was seeing it done! How is your son?”
“Doing well! He has left Rossen and Vintar to manage things as they have before, and they are glad to have him as the unifying King. The people seem happy. And until the recent activities of Shunn began stirring up Largente, things were peaceful.”
She pulled up a chair, and all sat down again.
“You must come visit me. I live up in the mountains, with Leif’s sister, an occasional visit from a very intelligent owl…”
She winked at Mr. Owl.
“And rarely have company, otherwise.”
“I would love to! Have you seen our home?”
“The cliffs that aren’t really?”
“Yes,” laughed Charis. “Those cliffs.”
“I have heard of your home, but mostly from those who believe it does not exist. Perhaps my son and I could come visit, and we could all learn some things.”
Eventually the talk came around to the current problem.
“What can be done?” asked Mr. Robbin.
Let Them Kidnap You
Shunn looked out on the fires two blocks away, burning the scrolls and books his men had gathered.
The fire in his gut was hotter.
“Who was that man on the dragon, the one who unlocked the chain?”
Raxon shook his head.
“You are the dragon man, you raise them, you train them, and you’ve never heard of a man who rides them?”
Raxon just shook his head again. “Sorcerer, my guess.”
“Well, how many of those can there be? And how can we get rid of him?”
Raxon turned his big body in the leather armchair and looked at Shunn without speaking. Then he lifted up on one elbow, turned back to face the hearth, and remained silent.
“Got any more of those black ones? They’re small, but they were fierce.”
“Some young ones. It will be a while before they can fight.”
“Can they fly? Can they tell you what they see from up there?”
Raxon pursed his lips. Finally he said, “Far as I know, only a sorcerer can hear their thoughts … don’t know anyone who can actually understand their grunts and moans and hacking coughs.”
“And there’s the girl,” he added.
“Lives with the villagers up north of Whitestone. Apparently she can talk with them.”
“She a sorcerer, too?”
“I think only Mizzouk is a sorcerer… although their boy king, and his mother, can do some stuff. Don’t know about the girl.”
“But if she were here, we could use the black ones for flying spies, and she could tell us what they see?”
Raxon nodded. “Think so.”
“Go get her.”
Raxon turned again, and looked at Shunn for a long time.
“Go … get her?”
“Yeah. Bring her here. Let’s put her to work.”
“Shunn, you’ve had some bad ideas, and I think this is right up there.”
“Why?” he demanded, throwing his wine glass into the chimney fire. “Why do you think it’s such a bad idea?”
“She talks with dragons, and you think she’ll just do what we say, spying on her friends?”
Shunn was silent.
“If we kidnap her family?”
Raxon collapsed again into the armchair. “And then what? Put them in the arena, and have dragons attack them too?”
“No, you idiot. We lock them up until she does what we say. And since those green dragons are her friends… she probably knows a lot about them, and about where they live, and who knows what. She might be very useful!”
“Well, that was interesting,” said Chander, releasing the spell that let them eavesdrop on Shunn’s conversation with Raxon. “What do you think?”
“I think we should do it,” said the Lady.
“Do what?” asked Charis.
“Let them kidnap you and your family, of course!”
“I see,” said Chander.
Charis stared at him.
“If you are captured, and he is holding your family hostage … you could tell him almost anything. Remember our goal.”
“And that is?” asked Charis.
“We need to give him, and the people of Largente, reasons to NOT go hunting diamonds, and reasons not to go to war with Combin or Romain. Since he is driving them, the best way would be for him to call them back … to convince them NOT to do those things.”
“I understand…” said Charis.
“For HIM to decide that it is not a good idea, and for HIM to stop all this nonsense.”
“What if you painted a picture for him that convinced him he should stop all that?”
The Lady drummed her fingers on the table. “I think there is more to this than our little bully Shunn.”
The others sat silently and waited.
“There is something greater, working this mischief. Something taking advantage of Shunn’s selfish weaknesses… and if we miss that, we gain nothing by outwitting him.”
“So there are more reasons to be taken by him, and be close enough to see what’s really happening.”
“I think so,” she said. “I think we must do that.”
Just Let Me In
“Welcome, Vintar. Welcome, Rossen. Come join me. The venison is superb.”
So was the wine.
“You know, these cherry-filled pastries are excellent, Vintar. Did your man Jason figure this out, or did he steal the recipe from your cook?”
“I thought he stole it from your cook!” exclaimed Vintar. “So much for reliable, top secret intelligence!”
“Speaking of reliable, top secret intelligence,” said the King, “what do we know about diamonds in Whitestone and upheaval in Largente?”
Rossen reported, “The word on the street in Largente is that you are a pretender, hired by us to conceal our true activities, and that we are plotting to invade and conquer Largente … beginning with Salient … as soon as we can recruit enough dragons to do all the work for us.”
“Do they not know the history of our kingdoms?”
“All the history records are being burned, so there are no records that contradict those rumors.”
“And they are chasing diamonds as well?”
“Shunn is sending out groups of thugs to find them,” said Vintar, “and they are attacking and mistreating people all along the road from there to Combin. We have soldiers on the way to meet them and deal with that situation.”
Captain Solis led a group of 30 soldiers from Combin down the road towards Salient, after taking Luge in custody from Soren.
Late in the afternoon, a group of men approached them from the east.
“Let’s spread out, gentlemen, and form a “U” for them to walk into… pikes in front, archers behind me. We might want to deal with them from the side as well as the front.”
The soldiers in the lead took positions along the edge of the road, spreading out ahead, and Solis waited in the middle. Behind him the troops circled.
“Oh… hide Luge behind your men, Lieutenant, and secure his mouth so nothing comes out.”
“Gladly, sir. Too much has already come out!”
Luge began a protest, but cloth covered his eyes and mouth before he could finish a sentence, and he was tucked away behind the line of soldiers, seated on the ground with his ankles tied together.
The oncoming group slowed, and began talking excitedly among themselves.
“Look. Combin soldiers. Trying to keep all the diamonds for themselves!”
“Maybe. Or maybe Luge caused so much trouble they’re closing the road, and they don’t know anything about it.”
A short, stocky fellow with a red beard and a pick-axe came forward.
“I am,” said Solis, and waited.
“James, here, at your service. James of Farmington. Is something the matter?”
“Hard to say, James. I am Captain Solis, of Combin. We’ve had a bit of trouble along the road lately. What is your business coming this way, if I may ask?”
“Just exploring a bit, sir.”
“These lands are completely explored and settled, as I’m sure you know. Exploring for what?”
“Things are a bit crowded in Largente, just looking for new land to farm.”
Solis looked over the group. Shovels, pick-axes, here and there a walking stick. A number of swords, and here and there a bow slung over a shoulder.
“I don’t see a single farmer among you,” said Solis. “And any new land from a mile or so back would be purchased from Combin or one of its citizens, so wandering down the road with shovels in your hands would not get you very far. Try again.”
“Isn’t there a road just past here that turns north, and gets into some unsettled areas?”
“The road you mention goes into some mountainous areas, but it is settled land as well.”
“Settled by who, Captain? That’s not what we’ve been told.”
“That’s what we were told by …”
James turned to his group, and quietly asked them, “should we mention Shunn by name?” Several shook their heads.
He turned back to Solis. “By the council at Salient, I suppose. Just the word on the street, now.”
“And ‘the council’ authorized you to go outside of Largente and seize unoccupied lands? By way of street rumors?”
“No, sir, of course not… we’re just exploring, as I said.” James was sweating, and it was not entirely due to the afternoon heat.
“Gentlemen, you may turn around and head back home. There is nothing for you here.”
“But… but … “ Angry voices began rising from the mob. Solis waited.
“Can’t a man walk down a public road, Captain? Are we breaking some rule that hasn’t been explained?”
“I will say it once more, James. You may turn around and head back home.”
Men pushed James from behind, and began coming past him towards the soldiers. Solis waited, and his men did not move.
“Wait,” said James. “Wait … don’t make trouble…”
“I don’t have to do what some Combin liar tells me to do,” said a tall, lanky fellow with a sword in his hand. “I’m a free citizen of Largente,” he shouted at Solis. “Get out of my way.”
Solis motioned to a soldier at the front of the formation. He stepped forward, swept his pike across the man’s legs and sent him sprawling. “You are under arrest for attacking the king’s men,” said Solis, and to another of the soldiers said, “Confiscate his sword, please, and bind him.”
Looking across the group of men, he calmly asked, “Who is next?”
Several began shouting. “We are not breaking any law!” “You are just trying to hide … we know what’s going on … you can’t keep us from going …”
Solis raised a hand. “Archers.”
A dozen soldiers stepped up beside him, placed arrows on their bowstrings, and drew back, each aiming at one of the men in front of the crowd.
There was silence for a moment, then one by one the men began backing up, and when they were a good distance back, turning and running down the road towards Salient.
Solis waited. When James was the only one left, Solis asked, “And what is your choice?”
“You cannot stand against the tide, Captain. I will return home, for the moment, but he will send more.”
James did not answer.
“Let me guess,” said Solis. “His name is Shunn.”
James looked at him sharply, and admitted, “Yes.”
“He has lied to you, James, and to all the people of Largente. Why are you believing him?”
“Is he lying about the diamonds?”
Murmurs swept through the soldiers. Solis held up a hand, and they were silent.
“It depends on what he has said. What has he told you?”
“That there are diamonds spilling out of the mountains, up at Whitestone, and they are waiting to be collected.”
“Did he tell you who they belong to?”
“Anyone who can go get them!”
“Do you have a farm, James?”
“What do you grow?”
“Tomatoes, lettuce, a bit of corn… why?”
“Who do they belong to?”
“Me, of course. They’re on my land.”
“I thought you would tell me, they belong to anyone who can go get them! And so do any belongings in your house, and any tools in your barn.”
“But the mountains are wild, Captain. That’s not anybody’s land!”
“You are mistaken, James. I think you may be a good man, but you are being lied to. Go back to Shunn and get the truth, if you can, before he brings open war and much grief to the people of Largente.”
James looked at him for a full minute. Then he said, “Do you mind letting Samuel go back with me? He’s a hot head, but he’s not an evil man.”
“Do you suppose he would apologize? He has insulted my honor, and he has drawn sword against me.”
Samuel was still lying on the ground at the side of the road, hands bound behind him.
James went to him, and knelt down next to him. “Sam. This man is not a liar. Will you apologize?” After a moment, Sam nodded, and mumbled, “Sorry, Captain. ‘Pologies.”
“Very well, gentlemen. Go back home, and see if you can settle down the hot head running your city!”
The soldier untied Samuel’s bonds, and James helped him to his feet. They turned and began walking home, with Samuel stumbling and limping a bit.
When they were a few hundred yards away, Solis turned to his troops. “Josen, Blinn … Take Luge up to that big pine ahead of us, and secure him to it. Then come back, and we’ll talk.”
When the men had returned from tying Luge to the tree, Solis gathered them close and spoke quietly.
“I will tell you what we know about the diamonds, and I will ask you not to discuss it with others or your families. A landslide has reportedly opened a vein of diamonds in one of the mountains belonging to Sir Argus and his clan, and apparently word of that was taken to Salient before it could be hidden. I believe if you went there now, you would see nothing.”
He looked around the group.
“The diamonds, along with whatever else might be in the mountains, belong to the dragon clan, not to Combin, not to Romain, not to the villagers that live north of them. You may remember the young lady called Charis, who helped the King some time back; she lives there. Questions?”
“But if a treasure-hunting fever were to break out among us, as it is being spread in Largente, great damage could be done. We do not want to steal from our neighbors, and we do not want war with Largente. We don’t want war with the dragons. And we certainly do not want treasure-hunters from Largente mistreating our people. Are we agreed?”
The soldiers nodded, and a couple of the men said, “Thank you, Captain.”
“You had friends who were killed by dragon-fire, when Insash demanded that we attack Romain. That was one dragon, Argus himself, defending Castle Romain. Imagine the entire dragon clan defending their land. These men from Salient have no idea what they would be facing.”
He looked into the sky, and at the setting sun. “Let’s camp here, and tomorrow we’ll go a little further, checking on farmers nearby, then head back home.”
Shunn stayed up late, watching the fires burn away his city’s knowledge of history and the nearby kingdoms.
“A clean slate,” he said to himself. “Just the thing.”
The wine and the late hour had their effect, and he stumbled off to bed, leaving the full moon and the smell of smoke behind.
In the dead stillness of the early hours, he heard a voice. Suddenly he was wide awake, and felt like a block of ice was lying on his chest.
With eyes wide open, but unable or unwilling to move, he croaked, “Who is it?”
“Your dreams are too small,” came a dry, crackling voice, a voice that sounded like it might have been human once. A voice that must have been in the grave for a very long time. A voice that echoed of abandoned ruins, a voice that seemed to have cobwebs hanging on the edges and leaf mold under its feet. A voice so cold it had no memory of the warmth of a living body.
He could not respond.
“You dream of simple things… people bowing down to you, people rushing to do what you say, jewels on your fingers. Your dreams are too small.”
The thing speaking came closer.
“You should dream of power, of life that does not end, of rising above the dreary world of pain and weariness and growing old…”
“Who …” he croaked, but could not get the words out.
The thing came nearer.
“Let me fill you with power. If you let me in, I could take you to new places, and show you things you cannot see. We could rule the world … as I once did … just let me in.”
It was at his side, leaning over the bed. He could see nothing but a deep, deep blackness, and his eyes could not focus. His arms and legs were so heavy they would not move, and no sound would come from his throat. The ice on his chest was getting colder, and he could scarcely breathe.
“Just let me in …”
A vision of rising in the air above the people filled his brain. He could see the entire city… the entire region … he drifted above mountain ranges and lakes. Then he was at a table with every food and sweetness he could imagine, spread out before him. Then he was in a great hall, seated on a throne, with thousands of people kneeling before him. Then the woman he wished he had married was there before him, offering her hands for him to take. Then he was before a mirror, and saw himself as young and tall and strong as he ever was, with no hint of the stooped shoulders and overly fat belly that had been in the mirror today.
Somewhere deep in his heart, he said, “Yes.”
The room was silent, and sunlight filled the curtains. the vision of the night flooded back into his mind, and he jumped up to look in the mirror. Nothing had changed. But somewhere in the back of his mind he heard a dry, cackling laugh … and he felt a presence that had not been there before. A quiet, cold, patient presence that had moved into his soul during the night, and seemed to be waiting.
“I am the same,” he said. “You promised.”
“I promised nothing,” the voice said. “You imagined everything, and you said, ‘Yes’.”
“Get out,” he whispered, and then he demanded, and then he screamed.
The voice just laughed, and then was silent.
“What do you want?” he said quietly, falling into the chair by his bed. “Why are you here?”
“I have been cold, and now I am warm,” it said. “I have been a vapor on the wind, and now I have flesh and blood. Yours.”
“You are greedy, and selfish, and willing to hurt people for your little vanities. I have pushed you to make trouble for Romain, and for Combin, and for the dragons. Now together we shall make them wish they had never known my name. Or yours.”
“You have pushed me?”
“Why do you think you have been doing the things you have done? Where did you think those ideas were from? From your little mind?”
Again the mocking laughter, fading away into silence.
Shunn sat for an hour, considering what he had done. And what he would do now. And what the cost would be, and where it would end up.
At breakfast, the Lady said, “I will go back to let the King know what we’ve found, and our plan. I believe you will be fine, working out a way to be kidnapped.” The Lady smiled. “I think that is well within your capabilities!”
Chander bowed. “We’ll do our best!”
“Mr. O, will you stay with them, or accompany me?”
“Nothing for an owl to do in the city, except be shot,” he replied. “Best I stay close to you, and help if I can.”
“Very well. We’ll be on our way. Anything more?”
“If what you say is true, we might need some help at the end of the day,” said Charis. “Perhaps you could ask Mizzouk to wander this way?”
“He doesn’t travel much,” said the Lady, “but he was here recently to rescue one of Sir Argus’ people.”
“Rescue?” exclaimed Charis.
“The gracious and benevolent Shunn had kidnapped a Whitestone dragon, interrogated him, and then put him in the arena to be tortured and killed by some black dragons. Did you not hear about that?”
“The eagles saw it, and let us know. Mizzouk came and released the poor fellow, and ruined Shunn’s party. The people were enjoying the show, I gather. I hope the rescue caused them some serious thought, since it was done easily, quickly, and right in front of them.”
“Was the dragon … injured?” asked Charis.
“I think he’ll be fine, but I’m afraid Shunn might have learned some things he shouldn’t have. Not to worry. We’ll settle this out.”
After she and Mr. O had gone, Charis and her parents talked about the problem. “How do we get kidnapped and not be harmed by this awful man?” asked Charis. “What if he separates us, and we can’t communicate?”
“He does not know us … so he thinks your ‘family’ is the family back at the village. To protect them, we should make ourselves known here soon, and let it be known that we are your family. It will save him a trip, and protect your aunt and uncle.”
“But how to convince him to call off the dogs, so to speak? That is the puzzle,” suggested Lali. “What would make him change his mind?”
“Is there a stone that looks like a diamond, but is not?” asked Charis. “Something with no value at all?”
“If there isn’t, we can create one,” said Chander. “What do you have in mind?”
“What if we went to the shops, and tried to buy some things using “diamonds” we had found in the Whitestone mountains… and telling about the ferocious dragons there … and they tell us our “diamonds” are false.”
“So they begin to believe the danger is high and the gain is nothing,” said Lali. “And the hopes and dreams are swept away.”
“I like it,” said Chander. “What can we use? Charis, look through your book… I think I put something in there that will help us.”
After a little searching, Charis looked up and said, “Let’s go for a walk and gather some stones. Small ones.”
The morning sun was bright and the town was busy. The ladies’ scarves and handbags were brightly colored, and the shopkeepers called to them as they walked down the street. Every now and then a small rock seemed just right, and would find its way into their pockets or bags.
Back in the room, Charis spread out the rocks and opened her book. “I think this will do it,” she said. “Makes sparkly rocks out of simple stones, and can be undone by a quiet word… so we can be sure the people see that it is not real.”
She picked up a smooth grey stone small enough to hide in her hand. “About that size?”
“Looks good,” said Lali.
Charis folded her hands around it and read the words from her book. When she opened her hands, a beautiful diamond had taken the place of the little grey rock.
“Very nice, very nice,” said Chander. “I remember that one now. And how do you turn it back?”
Looks like there are two ways,” she mused, running her finger down the page. “One is to say, ‘no more, no more’. The other is to just wait. In a day or so after it touches a person’s hand, it will fade back into the original thing.”
She said the words, and the diamond quickly became a simple rock again. “If we wrap them in a bit of cloth, they will stay like this until someone unwraps them. Do you suppose Mr. Robbin would let us cut up an old sheet or pillowcase, and wrap some pretty rocks in them?”
“I’m sure,” said Lali. “I’ll be back with some wrappers. How many do you want?”
“We should just hand them out, then,” said Chander. “Tell people they are ‘play diamonds’ from the Whitestone mountains, a toy made by the dragons to play tricks on the people.”
After turning twenty or so rocks into ‘diamonds’, they were ready.
“We should make ourselves known,” said Chander. “Let’s have lunch in a busy place, so the gossip can go out.” They found a soup and sandwich place with tables in the sun and more customers than the waiters could keep up with. Several of the customers had shovels with them, and looked like they had been on a long trip. Chander guided them to a table close to some of these men.
“You’ve been on the road,” he said to one, as they settled in. “Ready for a cold drink and some good food, I would guess!”
The man looked over at him sullenly, but could not resist Chander’s warm and open smile. ‘Yes, good sir, we have! Tried to get up the north road over towards Combin, but the soldiers have shut it down.”
“Really!” exclaimed Lali. “We have just come from there! Wonder if we’ll have trouble going back!”
“You’re from Combin? Or up north?”
“I live north of the mountains,” said Charis brightly. “My name is Charis. And yours?”
“James, pleased to know you.” He nodded to her parents. “You folks heard about the diamonds up there? We was going up to get some, but the soldiers didn’t want us on that road.”
“Oh, of course,” said Charis. “Would you like one?”
He stared at her. “Would I … would I like one?”
“Well of course, missy, and I mean … that’s why we was going!”
“I must tell you, Mr. James, the soldiers saved you a good bit of trouble. The diamonds aren’t real. Here.”
She pulled a small bundle from a pocket, and held it out to him. He carefully opened it, and stared.
“Samuel! Look at this!” Others heard him, and came looking over his shoulder. He looked back at her? “That’s not real? You can’t tell me that’s not real!”
She laughed. “Mr. James, I live up there. These are toys, things the dragons make — you know there are dragons up there?” He nodded.
“They make these to fool the people. They are toys for the children. Here, you keep this… but if you take it out of the cloth, if you hold it in your hand, it will soon just be a rock again.”
A crowd had gathered, and was talking excitedly around them. “Mom, do you have one?”
Lali dug around in her belongings and came up with one. “Here you go.”
Charis took it. “See this one?” Everyone did, and many exclaimed how much it must be worth. “Some of them fade quicker than others …” she took it out of the cloth, and held it up. “Isn’t it nice?”
Then she explained in a louder voice, “But they aren’t real. After they touch someone’s hand … after a while, maybe a minute, maybe a day … they will be diamonds no more … no more.” And as they all stared at it, the diamond slowly turned into a simple grey and brown spotted rock.
“So those diamonds we heard about … that’s all they are?” came a voice from the crowd around them.
“That’s all,” she said. “They’re pretty, for sure … but I wouldn’t ever go trespassing on dragon land to get one, I would not!”
Angry voices took the place of excited ones. “They lied to us.” “My John was going to face dragons, for that?”
“Keep that, Mr. James,” said Charis. “Maybe you’ve got a little granddaughter would like a shiny rock? But just leave it in the cloth, and maybe it will stay bright for a little while.”
“Charis… Charis,” said Chander. “Would you like something to eat? The waiter is here, and we haven’t had a chance to ask for anything yet!”
The waiter leaned over to her and said, “You could pay me with one of those, you surely could!”
“Oh, no, Mr. Waiter, sir! Then you would throw me in jail for pretending to pay you with precious stones! No, you can gladly have one … I’ll see if I’ve got another one somewhere … but we must pay you with real money!”
And they did.
James found Shunn on a patio where liquor was served all day and all night.
Shunn stared at the man with bleary eyes.
“Those diamonds are not real. We could have been killed, for little toy rocks!”
Shunn felt a cold presence stirring within him, and he forced himself to sit up and look at the man.
“Who are you?”
“Who lied to you?”
“About diamonds in the mountains.”
Shunn shook his head, trying to clear out the whiskey he had been using to forget what he had done.
“There … are… diamonds … in the Whitestone mountains. The crows told us, and that dragon we kidnapped … he said it was true.”
Shunn focused on James’ face.
“Why do you think I lied?”
James held out a small bundle of cloth and unwrapped it, being careful not to touch the stone. “This is not real.”
Shunn looked at it and his eyes widened. “Looks real to me!”
“It’s not. The girl said it would turn to rock after someone touched it. That they are toys for the children. And one of them she had, it did turn to rock.”
Shunn reached for it, and James pulled it back. “What girl?”
“Said she lived up there. Her name was … Char? Charis? Something like that.”
“She’s here? In Salient?”
“Yes, they were having lunch over at …”
“Let me have that!” said Shunn, and this time it was in a stronger voice, a colder voice… a voice with a dangerous edge. “Now.”
Shunn stood up, and although he was unsteady and obviously drunk, something in Shunn’s eyes terrified James. He jumped back, stumbled over a table, and ran, clutching the rock tightly.
Shunn stared after him. The girl. Charis. Is here. I was going to …
Kidnap them, came a voice softly in his mind. You were going to kidnap them. And here they are.
Shunn lurched out into the street and down towards his home, bumping into people and hardly seeing them. “Raxon,” he mumbled, “Raxon, where are you?”
The door opened just as he reached for it, and he stumbled into Raxon’s arms. “There you are.”
“Who have you fallen in love with now?”
“No … you idiot. No one. She’s here. The girl we’re … the girl we’re going to …”
He stopped, turned, and pulled the door closed behind him.
“It’s dark in here.”
“It’s bright out there,” said Raxon, “and you’re drunk. Sit down.”
He guided Shunn to an overstuffed leather chair, turned him around, and pushed him into it. Shunn lay back for a moment, and then his eyes popped open.
“The girl we need to kidnap … to get her to talk about … what was it? Dragons! Diamonds. Stuff to use against … what’s his name …. Ooooh, my head hurts!”
Raxon went to the sink in the next room, filled a pitcher with water, and came back to Shunn. He began pouring it on Shunn’s head.
“No, stop, you’ll ruin the chair!”
“Took your mind off how much your head hurts,” said Raxon, putting the pitcher down. “So she’s here. Where would I put them, if I could?”
“In the basement. No, it’s too easy to get out. In … I don’t know … the arena! The place we put … victims … entertainers!”
He leaned back in the chair and closed his eyes. “The place we lock people up. No one will hear them there. In the bottom, the last cell at the end. No windows. Oooh…”
“Where are they?”
“That fellow … James … one of the guys who went hunting diamonds. He had one. Said it was a trick, but it looked real. Said he got it from … Charis … eating lunch somewhere.”
Raxon left Shunn collapsed under the weight of his hangover.
He pulled the door closed, and stepped out into the bright sun. After a minute or so, his eyes had adjusted, and he began strolling towards the center of town. Several nice cafes there, and a decent restaurant, shouldn’t be too hard to find them. What then?
He began at the restaurant. Walking slowly into the maze of tables, he wandered through the aisles casually looking around. So he was looking for a girl … Charis? … And maybe she would be with her family? Shunn was not known for making good plans or providing much information, so Raxon was guessing what he would find.
Everyone seemed to be local people, or older travelers, or … I don’t even have a clue what she looks like, he realized. Not a clue.
He bought a snack at the counter in the back, and leaned back against the counter while he opened it and slowly nibbled it away. One by one he examined the tables, looking for someone that might be Charis. Giving away diamonds.
After a few minutes he wandered out and turned right, to try the cafe with the outdoor tables and pushy waiters. As he walked, he heard a voice from across the street.
“Charis, look at this!”
In the fabric shop across the road a mother waved to her teenage daughter, and pointed to a bright red scarf in the shelves near the door.
Charis. There she is.
A man he presumed to be her father walked casually behind the mother, looking about him in a way that seemed unusual to Raxon. More intentionally observant than most people. Didn’t seem to be nervous, or looking for pickpockets … just … just watching, and seeing everything.
Raxon looked quickly ahead before the man’s gaze worked its way around to him, and he walked a little further towards the cafe. In a few steps he stopped to look at a vendor’s display, then casually turned around to face the street. The family had gone into the shop.
Well, then. Now what?
There was quite a bustle going on at the cafe, so he went on to the open air dining area and began listening.
“That’s right, diamonds from the dragons! But not real. Just turn to stone. My Chaz took one, and held it in his hands, and sure enough … it’s already turned back to stone. Can’t touch it with your hand, she said.”
“Who said?” asked Raxon.
“Where have you been, you didn’t see it? That girl … oh they’ve gone into one of those stores. Blonde, so tall, with her parents. Traveling clothes. Lives where the dragons do!”
“Raxon,” said a voice quietly, and he looked around. One of Shunn’s men sat nearby, and patted an empty chair next to him. Raxon said “Thanks, ma’am” to the woman explaining things, and sat down.
“What do you think, Blaks?” asked Raxon.
“True. They’re junk. Magic or something, but not diamonds.”
“Shunn wants us to grab the girl, and keep her family to make her talk.”
The man leaned back and said something Raxon could not hear. Then he looked at Raxon. “You’re not kidding.”
“No. He really does.”
Blaks shook his head. “Amazing. One bad idea after another. Does he not remember the dragon that killed his pets? Does he understand she lives up there?”
“That’s the point. She knows those creatures, and he wants to know about them.”
“Well, when he finds out about them, I want to be three cities away!” He leaned back, staring at the sky. Finally he looked back at Raxon. “All right, what’s the deal?”
“I’ll find a way to lead her and her family into the arena, down where the dragons are kept. Then we need to lock them into that last room, the one with no windows, and put her … in one of the others, maybe, separate.”
“I assume he’ll make sure the blacksticks don’t haul us in, and put us in jail for this?”
“They all work for him, and he told me to do it … but that’s no guarantee.”
“So I’ll go meet them, and you go to the arena. Look busy there at the end of hall … talk to the black dragons in the next cell, mop the floor, whatever … and get the door set so when we close it, the thing will lock.”
Blaks nodded, pushed up from his chair, and left.
Dragons in Cages
Chander walked out of the store and looked around. Down the sidewalk he saw Raxon approaching. Something about him … something devious …
“We’re about to be kidnapped,” he whispered to Charis and Lali just behind him. “Play along.”
Raxon approached. “Visitors to our lovely town?”
Chander looked down at his own clothes, then at the ladies. “I guess we look like travelers, don’t we!” he said to Raxon. “Name’s Sam. Yours?”
“Umm … Raxon,” replied the man, as though trying to decide whether to give his real name, and not prepared for the question. “Where you from?”
“Well, Charis, here, our daughter …”
She smiled at him.
“She lives up north, past Whitestone and all that. My wife and I …”
Again, nodding towards Lali, and she nodded to him.
“We’ve been on the road so long I think I’ve forgotten where we really live! How about you. This your home?”
“Yes,” said Raxon. “All my life, I guess. What’s it like, up north? Never been there.”
“Mountains and forests,” said Charis. “Cold in winter, hot in summer. My village is in the forests, though, up north of the mountains. First time I’ve been this far south, and this far east!”
“Welcome, all. Anything I can show you? Looking for anything in particular?”
“Someone mentioned an arena, and that you had dragons. Is that true?” asked Lali. She gave Raxon a big smile, and Chander had to smile as well. Were they making it too easy for him? Would he guess that they were leading him?
“Yes,” Raxon replied slowly. “A couple. There’s nothing going on now, but I could show them to you. Would you like to see them?”
“Oh, yes!” said Charis. “Could we? Mom, Dad, do you mind?”
“That would be fine, I suppose,” said Chander. “Are they safe?”
“We have them secured,” Raxon replied. “Dragons are always dangerous, of course, and these are fighting dragons. Trained.”
“Of course,” said Chander. “Lead on. How far is it?”
They walked four blocks east, then two blocks south, and they were at the arena entrance. “These doors stay closed when there’s no event going on,” said Raxon, “but I work here, so we can go in the side door.”
He led them past the marquee and the wide steps up to the huge doors, and halfway down the block. There a small door opened to his touch, and they stepped into a dimly-lit area.
“Watch your head, sir,” he said, looking back at Chander. “Ceiling’s a bit low here.”
The hallway led to a stairwell on the left, and another hall off to the right. Without pausing, Raxon put a hand on the rail and started down. A skylight far above them brought enough light to see the steps clearly.
As they followed him, Chander looked back at Lali and winked. She smiled, and looked to be sure Charis was coming. Charis was standing at the top of the stairs, and seemed to be sniffing the air.
“Dragons,” she mouthed, and followed them down.
Leif looked up from the bit of left-over sandwich someone had discarded along the sidewalk.
“Isn’t that Charis?” Soren pointed across the street, where a young woman and two adults were being led by a man … a man dressed like a Largente local, and who seemed to be slinking more than walking. As though he were used to trying not to be seen.
Soren waited, and decided to follow them at some distance. If it were Charis, he certainly wanted to see her and talk about things, but if it weren’t … he shouldn’t disturb them. She had grown, and he wasn’t sure.
They followed along a block behind. The group seemed to be going to the arena, but they passed the main entrance and went in a side door, a simple entrance with no signs at all.
“Strange.” Soren looked around and found a cafe in the next block with a table outside. He and Leif wandered down, took that table, ordered a pastry, and watched the door.
Twenty minutes later the man who had been leading them came out, followed by another man, and they were very excited. Talking quietly but quickly, they hurried back up into the main part of town. Charis and those with her did not come out.
Ten minutes later, Soren could not stand it any longer. “Let’s go find out,” he said and Leif was ahead of him immediately. They crossed the street, walked up to the small door, and looked around.
“No one watching. Let’s go.”
Soren opened the door. It had no lock that he could see.
Inside, the hallway was dark, but they immediately came to the stairwell. Leif growled, looking down it.
“All right, let’s start there.”
They walked carefully down, listening, and as they went, Leif appeared more and more disturbed.
At the bottom, they entered a long, dark hall of stone walls and musty smells. “The maid has not been here in a while,” whispered Soren. They walked carefully over rough stone, and suddenly a deep, strange growl came from a cage on the left.
A small black dragon uncurled, lifted its head, and stared at them. Soren nudged Leif to keep going.
The next cage had a similar beast. Neither appeared to have much energy or interest in the visitors.
Suddenly they heard low voices, and soon came to the end of the hall. A wire cage door blocked their way, and they could plainly hear people talking.
“Hello?” said Soren.
“Hello, yourself!” said a man. “Is this when you torture us?” and then two women laughed.
Soren stared through the wire mesh. “No, of course not. Who are you? Is that Charis?”
Quickly the three travelers came to the door.
“Soren! And Leif! How good to see you!” Charis exclaimed. “These are my parents, my real parents — those in my village are my aunt and uncle. Mom and Dad, this is Soren, and Leif! Soren, this is Chander, and Lali. Oh, wait … Sam and Martha, here!”
“What in the world… are you locked in?”
“We should be a little quieter,” said Lali. “We are prisoners, after all, due to be tortured or something until Charis tells them all her secrets.”
“What?” Soren gasped. “I don’t think so!”
Charis smiled. “No need to worry, Soren. We can handle them.”
He remembered the green crystal, and the way the King made sure Charis was there to help them destroy the thing. “And … Lali, ma’am … you can do the same sorts of things as … well, as she can?”
“Me? Not at all!” laughed Lali. “But my husband, here … they probably would want to be nice to him! But they have no idea. So we thought we’d let them have their fun, and see what happens.”
“So I shouldn’t try to rescue you?”
“Not yet, please.”
Footsteps sounded on the stairs.
“Go pretend you’re just sneaking in to see the great dragons. Quick!” said Chandra, and the three of them disappeared into the back of the cage.
Soren and Leif ran back to the dragon cages.
Leif, of course, could communicate with them in ways that Soren could not.
The smaller dragon, the one in the first cage they came to, snarled.
Careful. We’ll turn you into frogs.
What? You’re talking to me?
Trying to, said Leif. Not sure it’s working just yet. Are you awake?
Meantime, Raxon got to the cages. “What are you doing here? Who are you?”
“I heard there were dragons down here,” said Soren, in his grown-up-innocent-boy voice. “Look at those!”
I’ll be back, said Leif to the dragon. We need to talk.
Raxon grabbed Soren by the shirt and tried to throw him towards the stairs. “Get out of here.” But the sudden pain in his leg, where Leif was fastened tightly to his ankle with bare teeth, apparently gave him second thoughts.
“Please!” he said, in almost a scream. “Get your dog off me, and get out!”
“Let him go, Leif. He said ‘please’.”
Leif released his bite, backed up a step, and growled at Raxon.
“Where did you get them?” asked Soren, straightening his shirt.
Raxon quickly looked down the hall past them, and then back to Soren. “The forest. They found them in the forest. Now, leave?”
“There’s forest in every direction,” said Soren, leaning against the wall. “Which way? Were they still in eggs? Did you buy them?”
“East of here. Way east. Like the stairs are east from us. I think. Come on, I’ll show you!” He was desperately pleading, and Soren was enjoying it. Leif plopped down next to the cage.
Why are you here? Do you like being here?
Suddenly the dragon’s tone was much different. Can you get us out?
What would you do for me, if we did?
Whatever you want, dog person. Whatever you want. We hate being here. Sometimes they make us fight things out in the open place, make us kill things, and if we don’t, they … hurt us. Please get us out.
Leif was getting more interested in these dragons. Do you know the Whitestone clan?
The black dragon was suddenly quiet, and turned away.
Tell me, said Leif. We might have to leave pretty soon. Your friend is getting ugly about it.
The dragon turned back to him. They made us hurt one of them … they made us try to kill him. Do you know them? Would you tell them … tell them we’re sorry?
Leif was getting very angry. He turned to Raxon, and began advancing with an ugly snarl and bare teeth.
A Way Out
“Leif! What is it?”
Raxon backed up as Leif approached, and kept backing up, and Leif kept coming for him. Raxon turned and ran to the stairs and bolted up them, with Leif close behind and Soren running to keep up. Halfway up he ran blindly into Blaks coming down, and threw him against the rail as he madly pushed past.
Leif got to Blaks and landed on his chest. He stood on him, bare teeth just inches away from his face, with the ugliest growl Soren had ever heard.
Finally Leif backed off the sweating, trembling Blaks, and let him up. Blaks backed up the stairs, not taking his eyes off Leif, and backed all the way down the hall to the outside door. He pushed it open, and standing as far away as he could reach, held it open for Leif and Soren to walk out. Leif offered one final threat as he walked past, then went out onto the sidewalk and sat down, staring at the door that now quickly closed with Blaks inside. Raxon was gone.
Soren stood looking at Leif. “I would say, ‘I wish you could talk,’ but I know… you’d say ‘I wish you could hear.’ All right. Well, we need to find a sorcerer to share what you learned in there … so I won’t think you have rabies, or something.”
Leif jumped up to Soren’s chest and ran a very wet tongue all the way from his chin to his forehead, so fast Soren could not begin to protect himself. Soren staggered back against the wall, and slid down it to sit on the ground. “OK, OK, sorry. If you’ve got rabies, now I’ve got it too, right?”
He wiped his face off. Should have known.
“Let me figure it out. You were talking to the dragons, right? Lie down if I’m right.”
Leif plopped down. He did not think it was hopeless trying to communicate things to Soren, it just took a while. Soren wanted to understand, he really did want to, but … it just took a while.
“OK. And whatever they told you made you really mad, right. Lay your head down, if that’s it.”
Leif stretched out, his chin on the ground.
“So … but you’re not mad at the dragons. That’s not it. What they said made you mad at … these guys. The kidnappers. Even more mad! Did they kidnap the dragons also? Well, of course they did, what dragon would walk into that place on purpose? And … did you offer to get them out?”
Leif sat up and looked at Soren. This was going better than he had hoped.
“That settles it, then.” Soren stood up and walked away.
Wait! We have to go back in there!
Soren turned back. “We have to go back in there, you do realize that, right? But after dark. Way, way after dark.”
When even the moon had set, and the sky was as dark as it would get, Soren and Leif crept up to the side door of the arena. It opened easily, as before, but this time there was no help from the skylight above. Soren found the stair rail by touch, and eased down the steps in pitch black silence. He assumed Leif was following.
At the bottom, Leif ran on ahead, which helped Soren remember which way the hall turned. Right hand on the wall, the cages on the left, he felt his way step by step.
At the end of the hall, he found Leif already at the door where Charis was held, and Charis was responding to Leif.
“But how would we get them out? Not up that narrow stairway …”
“Charis. I’m here, too. What did he tell you?”
“Soren, hello. Those dragons were kidnapped, too, and made to attack one of our friends from Whitestone. Leif wants to help them escape.”
“There must be a larger door,” said Chander from the darkness behind Charis. “To get them to the arena. Let’s have some light.”
A blue glow filled the room, and poured out into the hallway. It floated near the ceiling, and grew to fill the cages and hallway as far as Soren could see.
“Nice,” he said. “Thank you!”
“Is that in the book?” asked Charis.
“I may not have included that,” Chander murmured. “Not sure. Here, let’s go for a walk.” He put a hand on the door and the latch popped open. “I don’t think our guards will mind.”
They walked back down the hallway, looking for some other exit. Just before the stairway, the opposite wall changed to a much smoother surface.
“Here we go,” said Chander. “A sliding door. Look how it doesn’t quite go all the way to the floor, like a normal wall would.”
He pressed against it and stood for a moment. Shaking his head, he looked around the edges and found what he was looking for.
“I’ll press this in; when I do, see if the door will slide … that way.”
He pushed on something Soren could not see, and the others put both hands on the door and pushed. It moved easily, and another black space opened up in front of them.
“Is this the arena? Is this open space?”
Leif ran ahead, and barked once from a good distance away. There was no echo.
“I think so!”
“Excellent,” said Chandra. “Leif! Let’s go get your friends! Ladies, would you wait here? And… stand back, there may be a crowd coming through!”
They ran back to the dragon cages, and Leif got there first. Whatever Leif said to them, they were at the doors, ready to go.
“Leif, you lead them,” said Chander. “Soren, you and I should get back on the other side of the cage doors. When they come out, there won’t be room for anyone else in this hall!”
Chander put his hand on the gate closest to the arena door and spoke to it. The latch popped open, and he pushed the door open. The dragon squeezed through and pursued Leif, who was already running. Chander backed up to the second cage and did the same thing. The second dragon bowed to him, and then followed Leif and the first dragon.
“Let’s go see what happened!”
At the entrance to the arena, they found Charis and Lali looking out into the night sky. Leif circled them, pacing and looking up also.
“I asked them to go to Whitestone,” said Charis. “I said they should go apologize in person, and offer to help whatever is to be done about these people.”
“I suspect they did not look eager to do that!” said Soren.
“No. But they agreed, since they had promised Leif they’d do anything he asked. They were afraid they would not be welcome, to say the least! I told them to announce they were coming in the name of Charis and Soren, and the King of Romain, and they would be fine.”
The sky was dark and quiet.
“They’ll be here looking for us, first thing in the morning. I suppose we should get back in our cell,” said Charis. “No place to go, otherwise.”
“You know…” said Chander, “we could go back to the hotel and change clothes. If we’re back here by dawn, that would be fine. Do you suppose they’ll notice the dragons are gone, if we close the cages? Or that we’re in different clothes?”
“Let’s find out!” said Charis. “And maybe bring a pillow or two, just to see if they say anything?”
Do You Notice Anything?
When they had been back for an hour or more, Lali complained. “I’m hungry. Will they feed us?”
“Will it be edible, if they do?” asked Chander.
The door upstairs opened and let a breath of wind in. In a moment, Soren and Leif were at the cage door.
“Thought you might like some kaff, some pastries, and some fruit. We shouldn’t stay, probably …” He glanced at Leif. “We weren’t welcome, last time. But I was thinking these guys aren’t morning people, and there was no risk in bringing you breakfast!”
They were quickly gone, and so was breakfast by the time Raxon appeared.
“What’s your name?” said Lali to him. ‘I don’t think you said.”
“Uhhh… Raxon, ma’am.”
“Thank you, Raxon. And your partner in crime?”
“He probably wouldn’t… “
“His name, Raxon?” said Chander.
“Blaks, sir. His name is Blaks.”
Raxon looked around in the cage. A very puzzled look came over his face. “Were there … did we leave … I don’t remember pillows being here, before.”
“Oh, we brought those in, Raxon. These stone floors are so hard to sleep in, as I’m sure you know.” Charis gave him her sweetest smile. “And you don’t need to worry about breakfast, we’ve already eaten. Did you get something?”
Raxon stared, as she brought him the bag and wrappings for the pastries. “Do you have some place for these? We don’t seem to have a trash can in here, and the maid hasn’t come by.”
“How did you … did someone …”
But there was no opening in the cage door to hand anything through, so he just held up his hands and made no effort to take the trash.
“No? Well, I’ll just leave them here for the housekeeping people to carry away, then.” Charis set them down to the side of the door.
“Raxon.” Chander stood and came to the door. “What did you do to quiet those dragons? They were growling and fussing, but then about midnight they went silent and have not made a sound since. So much easier to sleep, when they’re not making all that racket.
Raxon looked at him, puzzled, and Blaks came down the hall. When Blaks got to the dragons’ cages, he burst out in loud profanity. “Raxon! Where did you put the dragons? Don’t you know we aren’t supposed to …”
Raxon ran back to look, and while he was gone down the hall, Charis slipped their breakfast trash outside the door, and then quietly closed the cage door again.
“Nothing!” said Raxon. “I did nothing with them!”
“Then where are they?” demanded Blaks. “Shunn will be outraged, he’ll skin us!”
Raxon had no answer.
Blaks stormed down to the end of the hall. “What about … well, at least you haven’t let these escape!”
“Uh… Blaks… do you notice anything?”
“Yeah, you haven’t taken a bath in a month, that’s what I notice.”
“Funny. No, about them.”
“What? They’ve changed clothes, and put their trash out, what else?
“They’ve changed clothes?”
“Yeah, Raxon, don’t you notice anything?”
Raxon looked at the trash outside the door, and looked at Charis’ innocent smile.
“We need to talk.”
“About … about them. Come on.”
He led the way, and Blaks followed, looking over his shoulder.
“Come on,” said Chander, when they were out of sight. “Let’s move into one of the other cages.”
They gathered their pillows and the breakfast trash, and slipped out of the cell. “How about the dragon cage?”
Chander opened the door and closed it behind them. They all settled down for a late morning nap, leaving the trash outside this cage’s door.
“All right, all right!” Blaks came down the hallway, still agitated and not interested in what Raxon had to say. “That’s nonsense! Tell me later!”
When he got to the end of the hall, he rattled the cage door. “All right, let’s talk.” Silence answered him. He pulled out his keys, fumbled with the latch, and pushed the door open.
He walked in, prepared for a fight. No one was there.
“Raxon!” He roared. “Where did you put them?”
“Were you looking for us?” came a sweet, calm voice from down the hall. “Mr. Blaks, sir, is there something we can do for you?”
He went back up the hall to find Raxon staring in the cage that was recently full of dragon, and holding up his hands to say, ‘Not me!’
There in the cage were the older two, but not the girl.
“Where is she?” he demanded.
Chander and Lali looked at each other, looked around the room, and shrugged. “You mean her?” said Chander, pointing at Lali.
Chander shrugged. “She’s an adult, Blaks. That is your name? She’s an adult, and she goes where she wants. You’ll have to ask her. Meanwhile … is this when we file kidnapping charges, or does that come later? I don’t quite know the rules of this game you’re playing.”
“Hey!” came a voice down the stairwell. “Is it OK to come see the dragons now?”
Soren tromped down the stairs, with Leif close behind. When they turned the corner and started down the hall, Raxon jumped into the other dragon cage and pulled the door closed.
Chander answered him. “Sure, come on in, stranger! But I’d keep the dog close, if I were you. These guys don’t play nice.”
“What do you mean … why, you’re in a cage! What are you doing in a cage? Mister, what are you doing locking people up? This ain’t no jail, and you ain’t no sheriff!”
Soren looked at the cages. “Where did the dragons go? You let them out? Are they out tearing up the city now? What are you doing?” he demanded of Blaks.
“Get out!” screamed Blaks. “Get out! You… you are trespassing! This is private property! Get out … now!”
Leif growled, and the hair down his back stood up.
“Please!” added Blaks. “Get out now… PLEASE!”
“All right,” said Soren, but I’m going to tell the police you’ve got people caged up down here. You do have police in this town, don’t you?”
Blaks could get no answer out, so Soren turned and walked to the stairs. “Here, dragon. Here, dragon. Dragons, where are you?”
When Soren was out of sight up the stairs, Blaks opened the other cage door, hauled Raxon out, and dragged him down the hall. He tripped the catch on the arena door, pushed it slightly open, pulled Raxon through it, and closed it again from the other side. They were gone.
“That was fun,” said Charis.
Lali and Chander turned and found her sitting on the floor, leaning against the back wall. “I decided I didn’t want to go play with them by myself. Besides, it was more fun watching you and Soren run the game!”
“What now?” asked Lali.
Chander stretched and rubbed his face. “I think it’s time to go find this Shunn that they work for. I don’t want to spend another night in their hotel, when we’ve got a nice room over at Robbin’s!”
“Agree,” said Lali. She picked up the pillows. “Let’s go. And lock the cage behind us, just to give them one more mystery to puzzle over.”
Anything You Want
After cleaning up, getting a nap, and having lunch in Robbin’s public room, they went looking for Shunn. Robbin was able to give them a good description and a likely location.
They found him in a bar, sitting at a back table, head on the table and a mostly empty bottle of some unlabeled liquid in front of him. They settled in at the table with him and waited.
In a few minutes he looked up, and stared at them.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“We’re your prisoners,” said Charis. “My name is Charis. You wanted to talk to me?”
As Shunn looked at her, his face changed. The eyes came into focus, and more than that, they began to shimmer. His face grew hard, he sat up straight, and his hands flattened out on the table.
“You,” he said, and the voice was deeper and colder than before, and much more sober.
Chander nudged Charis, and she nodded without looking. “I see it. What is it?”
“It is one of the reasons we were gone so long,” Chander replied quietly. “Looks like it has found a new home.”
“Excuse me,” said Lali, and she pushed her chair back, stood up, and walked to the other side of the room. There she took a seat with her back to the wall and a clear view of Shunn’s table.
Soren burst into the room, saw Lali, and came to her. She put her finger to her lips and motioned him to sit down. She waved Leif to her side, and moved her hand down, with a palm parallel to the floor. He circled up beside her and lay down. She pointed across the room, and everyone looked at Shunn’s table.
“Charis, is it?” said the voice coming out of Shunn, mockingly. “You face me, little girl?” She did not answer, trying to see more clearly what was speaking, what had taken control of this man.
Shunn turned to Chander. He looked at him for a long moment, and then said … “Do I know you?”
“Apparently you have forgotten,” said Chander, “but I have not forgotten you.” He put a hand up and seemed to be pulling a shade down. A fog descended around them, and the rest of the room was gone. “Best to protect the others,” he murmured to Charis.
“From what?” laughed Shunn.
“Who are you?” said Charis. “What is your name?”
“Not yours to know, little girl,” said Shunn, in a voice that seemed strained, and a little higher.
“Get out of him. Get. Out. Now!” said Chander, and Shunn stiffened up. His face got red, as though he were choking.
“No!” said Chander. “He stays alive. You go, and you go now.”
Shunn struggled to his feet, tried to steady himself, and fell across the table. He squirmed for a moment, and then was still.
“He’s not gone,” said Chander. “This is pretend.”
A full minute went by. Chander and Charis waited, and the room was silent around them.
Shunn pushed up from the table, stood to his feet and thrust his hands towards Chander and Charis. Suddenly he seemed to be standing in a roaring fire with a storm of black smoke whipping about him. Flames of oily blue, filthy green, bright orange and angry red boiled up around him. He screamed something in a language Charis had never heard, and she felt a scorching wind hit her face. The wind slammed into her, pushing her backwards, and she felt like her skin was about to be burned away.
Chander shouted, “No!” and other things Charis could not hear. She was suddenly blind, lost in a surging sea of blackness. Pounding, violent waves pushed her in every direction. She grabbed the edge of the table, stood up, and with everything inside her pushed back against the attack. It seemed to her that her father was drawing most of it towards himself … away from her … moving to turn the heat and the pressure and the storm back against whatever this thing was.
The storm disappeared. There was silence and total darkness. A pressure, a weight heavier than the world itself, came against them. She was suffocating, her lungs pressed so hard she could barely pull in a breath. She heard from a great distance what might have been her father’s voice. He was speaking slowly… and as he spoke, the pressure grew even worse.
When she thought she could not survive another moment, an explosion rocked the room. The pitch black was replaced with swirling, sour smoke and a flash of blinding light as though lightning had struck the table where they stood.
When the blast was over and the smoke cleared, Shunn was lying across the table. The fog still enclosed them. Charis, taking slow, deep breaths, gripped the table and looked at her father, who carefully sat back down.
“Are you all right?” he asked. She nodded, and looked at Shunn. He appeared to be dead.
“I think he’s alive,” said Chander, pulling out a cloth and wiping his own face. “I don’t feel that thing here any more. Do you?”
She shook her head. “I’ll look for a pulse.” She felt Shunn’s wrist, and nodded. “He’s still alive.”
“Ready for the curtain to come up?”
“Sure,” she said, after a deep, slow breath. “Let’s see what damage was done.”
As the fog cleared around them, Lali came over, with Soren close behind. Chairs and tables were overturned, a chandelier hung tilted, and the bartender was peering over the edge of the bar. Other guests were getting up from the floor or from hiding behind furniture.
“You tore up the place,” said Soren. “Everyone OK?”
“Think so,” said Chander, and Lali hugged him.
Shunn coughed, coughed again, and then threw up on the table. Charis pulled him away from the mess. “Soren, help me. Let’s get this poor man to a clean table.”
They did, and took a seat in the chairs around him. After a few minutes Shunn looked up. He slowly pushed himself up, blinked, and looked around.
“Yes, I think so,” said Chander.
“Will it come back?”
“Only if you open the door. Again.”
Shunn closed his eyes and rolled his head back. “Not ever.”
“I have a favor to ask,” said Charis after a moment.
Shunn pulled himself forward, shook his head, and looked around to see who had spoken.
“Yes?” he mumbled, trying to focus on Charis.
“Will you do it?”
He turned to Chander. “Are you the one that came into my mind, seized that black thing, and ripped him out of me?”
Charis looked at Chander. He nodded.
Shunn turned back to Charis. “Yes. Anything you want.”
“This story about diamonds on the Whitestone Mountains.”
He focused more clearly on her, and slowly said, “Yes?”
“It will cause enormous grief to people who have done you no harm.”
The doors to the bar slammed open and sunlight poured into the room, causing much cursing and shouting from the others in the bar. “Close it, you fools!”
Raxon and Blaks stumbled in, looking around the room and quickly finding Shunn. “They’ve gone!” shouted Raxon, “And you won’t believe what they … and the dragons …”
His words trailed off as he realized he was staring at his prisoners as well as Shunn.
“You … found them,” said Blaks. “You found them?”
“Sit down,” said Shunn wearily. “Shut up and sit down.”
When they were in chairs, eyes wide open but mouths shut, Shunn turned back to Charis.
“Hello,” Charis said to Blaks and Raxon. “Games are over.”
She looked back at Shunn. “You need to find a way to stop your people from trooping up to Whitestone to dig for diamonds.”
He rubbed his face, blinked a few times, then focused on her again.
“Bar-keep!” shouted Chander. “This man’s been through a lot. Bring him something he likes. Do you know what that is?”
“Doesn’t matter,” hollered the bartender from across the room. “He drinks everything. Be right there. Still cleaning up his mess.”
“But, if they’re real?”
“If they’re real, they don’t belong to you. And if they’re not real, they don’t belong to you. Whether the sun shines or not, they don’t belong to you.”
“And, Mr. Shunn,” added Lali… “They don’t belong to you.”
Raxon laughed, and Blaks hit him. “Shut up,” then he added, “Sir.”
Shunn looked at her, not speaking.
“You said, ‘anything’.” Charis leaned forward. “Did I understand you correctly?”
Shunn nodded. “But what can I do?”
A rumble was beginning in the street outside, the sound of many voices, big wagons, horses, and the thud of iron on stone. Suddenly it stopped, heavy steps came across the wooden porch, and the door opened again. This time, no one spoke.
A tall man in army clothes stood there. The sword hanging on his belt, the pike in his hand, and the look on his face silenced everyone. Behind him in the street were men in similar clothes, so many that nothing else could be seen past them.
“Shunn.” He looked around. “Who is Shunn?”
Long ago, when the trees were younger and Castle Romain had just been built, and Combin was not even a wide place on the road between Romain and Largente, Aldan ruled the deep forest.
Romain did not know him, but the forest did. Largente did not know him, but they heard rumor, and the children feared him. Some nights he walked among them just to pity them, just to see how weak and fearful the people were.
But on this night he stood in the air five times higher than the tallest pine, and felt the cold night air blow past. A storm was approaching, and the violence of the lightning and the gusting winds pleased him.
Power. Chaos. Come to me.
A bright flash ran across the sky just above him, and the thunderclap ran through his veins and shook his body. He raised his hands. “More!” he shouted, and the black clouds rushed upon him. Rain poured down, and lightning was all around. Nothing could be finer, he thought.
But the daytime was horrible. The light of the sun pierced his skull and made his ears roar. When dawn approached he would be deep in the forest and underground, waiting until the hated sun was gone and the night was his again.
The storm passed, and the trees below him dripped on the forest floor. A light appeared on the road to Romain, someone walking in the storm. Someone out in the dark and the lightning. Someone in his forest, daring to be alone, daring to walk through his forest in the pitch black of a violent night.
He floated slowly down and came to the road far in front of the traveler, the invader.
Wearing black, under the black sky of a deep black night, he was invisible.
But fifty paces from him, the traveler stopped. He could not see past the light the person carried. It seemed to only shine forward, not behind.
He waited. So did the traveler.
“The forest is mine,” he finally said. “Go back.”
To his amazement, the traveler laughed. A woman’s voice came through the night. “You did not make it. And you do not even know what it looks like in the daylight. How can you say it is yours?” And she laughed again.
Rage boiled his blood.
“Who are you?” he demanded. “And what do you know of me?”
“I suppose the better question would be, what do you know of me? I know that if I stand here until the sun comes up, I’ll have the road to myself. I think I’ll do that… and see how long you last.”
Aldan quivered with anger, and spoke the words he loved so well. A ball of pure fire spun from his hand and flew through the distance between them, splattering into a shower of volcanic lava as it struck the stranger. Branches above her caught on fire, and the brush at the side of the road was ablaze in a moment.
When the fire was gone, she stood there with her lantern, unmoved.
Branches and leaves around her smoldered, burning even though they were soaked from the rain. Black and purple smoke drifted away in the little bit of wind that was left.
And nothing was changed.
“Aldan,” said the voice that he now hated. “Go home. It is late, and there is nothing you can do to me.”
He spoke the words to become invisible, and waited for her to continue his journey. We’ll see what she does, when I strike her.
She did not move.
*Does she hear me breathing?
Does she hear me thinking?*
“Aldan,” she said again. “Go.”
Something began pushing on him. Some pressure, some need to move, some desperate desire to be somewhere else … he could not remain. He flew into the night sky, as though he could not breathe until he were … somewhere else. Anywhere else.
“What am I doing?” he muttered, as he rose in the air. “Why am I … why can’t I … “
But he couldn’t stay. He had to go. And as he rose ever higher, suddenly the dawn was coming, and the sun was about to rise over the edge of the distant horizon.
“Curse her!” he cried, and flew towards his cave, in a panic to avoid the rays of the sun.
The Lady continued her walk, turning out her lantern as the night sky softened into shades of grey, then pink, then pale blue, and finally the bright blue of full day.
“That’s better,” she said. “What a nuisance he is.”
She passed the north road, barely more than a trail with some horse prints in the dirt, and even those were smudged and softened by the rain. After half an hour she stopped. The forest opened to the left, and a wide meadow sloped down to a stream.
This could work, she thought. We’ll put our home here. Far enough from Romain that we won’t crowd them, but close enough to work together as we need to.
She thought about Aldan.
And we may need to!
Her husband, King of Romain and all lands west of Largente, trotted his horse up the road from Romain, with a bay mare in tow.
“You are up early!” he exclaimed. “You must have started in the middle of the night, to get this far, this early!”
She laughed, and welcomed him as he swung down from the saddle. “The middle of the night is a very peaceful time to be out, don’t you think? And you meet such interesting people.”
“During a storm, at midnight, in the pitch black and driving rain?”
“Well, I didn’t know the storm was coming until I was into the forest.”
“And what interesting people did you meet as you strolled along?”
“Let me show you something,” she said, and took his hand to lead him out into the pasture. “How about here?”
“Mm, I like it. Sort of midway between Salient and Romain, but closer to Romain. Good drainage for heavy rain … in fact, look how the water from last night has already run to the stream.”
“The castle could sit there,” she pointed, “and have stables and outside quarters down there. And that leaves plenty of open pasture for parties, an arena, jousting field, all of that.”
“Seems like someone must have cleared this to be farmland, but there’s no trace of a crop having been planted.”
She agreed. “Life goes on, and our best plans get interrupted. Like when I met you!”
“I was an interruption to your best plans?” he said, with a hurt look. “What could they have been?”
“I think my best plans … at that moment … were that I was waiting for you. Yes, I think that was it. And now, I’m not waiting any more!”
“I feel better. Thank you. But you have not answered my question…”
“Who did you meet in the forest, in the middle of a storm?”
“Ah. He may have caused the storm, actually. He was up there,” she waved to the sky, “wandering around in it, calling it to himself.”
“A sorcerer of some kind?” asked the King.
“Or worse. But when he saw my light, he came down to the path and told me to go home.”
“Mmm. I see that you were not … responsive … to his request!”
“We chatted, and he apparently decided that he should go home instead. I think there’s a cave up north of here where he hides during the day. Can’t stand the light.”
“If we build here, will he be a problem?” the King frowned, looking over the pasture. “I really do like this.”
“He’ll be a problem no matter where we build,” she said. “Sooner or later we’ll have to deal with him.”
“May I offer you a ride back to Romain, or will you simply float back, like your new friend?”
“Oh, I’d much rather ride with you. It’s hot up there, in the sun. One of the eagles can carry me back to the mountain later — I really do need to check on things once in a while. Maybe we can start making some drawings? Should we pace it off, out here, before we go?”
Deep in the cave, deep in the forest, deep in silence, Aldan brooded.
She was from Romain, he was sure of it. And she must have some sorcerer blood, or she could not have stood against him. And she must be destroyed. She must be.
No one could be allowed to … to withstand him. He must be supreme. He must rule whatever he chooses.
So those became the two certainties in his mind, and much deeper than just his mind. She must go, and he must win. There it was.
Only the how and the when, remained. “If” was no longer a question.
A threat she does not see coming. She cannot defend against what she does not expect.
But how did she defend against my attack last night? Did she know I would do that?
No. She could not have known. We have never met, she’s never seen me before.
But she knew my name. And she knew my … my secret.
He screamed, and held his head, and paced.
Mizzouk. That pet sorcerer they keep at the castle. He told her. I must be in one of those scrolls he studies.
Suddenly he felt better. He was in the history scrolls. They knew about him.
But then he felt worse. They knew about him? What did they know? Was it true? Did they know … everything … he could do? No, they could not.
When the wolves howled, he knew it was night again. He opened the door and strode out into the woods, scattering the leaves that had blown against his door.
“Yes!” he announced to whatever would hear him. “I am here.”
Silence answered. Silence respected him.
Let’s see what you’re doing tonight, lady who does not fear me. Let’s see if you can learn some fear for those better than you.
He walked briskly through the forest, pushing aside limbs and leaves, leaving them bent and scorched from his touch.
Two hours after sunset he stood on a thick oak branch that was even with the second story windows of Romain Castle. Lights were on in the rooms up there, and he saw a woman walk past one of the windows.
“I’ve sketched the place, pretty much to scale, darling. Come look.”
She walked over to the table where her husband worked.
“Is that enough room between the castle and the river?” he asked. We want clear passage all around, and enough boundary to be secure against an attack by water… but not so far we won’t enjoy it!”
She looked at the map, but did not see it. Something else had drawn her attention. Something outside. Something that had just arrived.
“It looks fine. That’s just beyond bowshot, isn’t it?”
“Would you excuse me? I need to disappear for a bit. We have company. Remember I told you about meeting someone on the way?”
He looked up, his expression clearly asking if she wanted his help.
“I’ll be fine. It would be dangerous for you to come …”
And as he looked at her, she vanished.
Two ladies were coming up the stairs as she reached them, so she stood aside to let them pass. She tried not to do this when people were around, because it would be so rude to be eavesdropping on your friends.
But they passed by without a word, and she quickly made her way to the first floor.
If Aldan were there, towards the front, she should go out the back. A door opening and closing with no one in it would be obvious.
Of course, the same would be true at any of the doors, and many people were about. A distraction was needed.
She went to the kitchen and stood near the door out to the woodpile. After a minute or two, a young man came in. While he was standing on one foot shaking the mud off his boots, she pushed the door just enough to nudge him over, and while the door was still open, slipped through.
He’ll think he just lost his balance, she smiled. It will help his ego.
Outside there was silence, an open sky with no moon, and no one to watch.
She walked away from the castle, then at the edge of the clearing worked her way around to the front.
Aldan’s presence was unmistakable. His spirit gave off a stench that would make a skunk proud. How could he live with himself? It was nothing a normal person would sense, or even a dog, but for someone aware of spiritual things … what a smell!
So he has come for me. At least to spy, more likely to attack. I wonder if he can tell that I am here?
She picked up a pine cone from the forest floor and tossed it out into the clearing in front of Aldan
There was a rustle in the tree, and nothing more. She threw a second one.
There was a rumble in the sky, and a wind kicked up.
Again? Doesn’t he get tired of that?
Lightning struck the castle. The blinding flash and the boom of the thunder came together, and for a moment her spell relaxed and she was visible, then she had it established again. She ran into the forest a few yards, getting away from the place she had just been standing. A high branch of the pine crashed down on that spot within seconds.
“Missed me!” she called. “Is that all you brought?”
A roar from the treetops overwhelmed the roar of the wind, and he was standing in the clearing between her and the castle.
“I hope you told him good-bye,” he growled, “because he won’t see you again!”
Let’s try a few things. Can I blind him?
He shook violently, and a tent of flame covered him and then disappeared. “Is that all you brought?” he said, mockingly.
Can I tie him up?
He stiffened up, arms at his side, legs tightly together, and swayed as one losing his balance. He began falling, then it was a bird fluttering in mid-air. The bird fell to the ground, flopped a moment, then regained its feet and jumped into the air. It flew straight up and disappeared into the tree tops.
A massive oak cracked, leaned, and fell towards the castle. An ancient pine toppled from a few feet away, and again it fell towards the castle.
“Stop it!” she said. There was silence. The storm cleared, the wind stopped, and the sky cleared.
“Now go home, and do not … do not … ever … come here again.”
She felt a great resistance to her words, but as she leaned all her strength into it, the resistance faded, and then he was gone. The stink of his presence slowly faded away, and the night was clean again.
Men came slowly out the castle’s main doors, looking at the sky, then looking at the enormous trees lying across the open space in front of them.
She walked out of the forest and approached them. “I’m sorry about the trees,” she said. “More firewood?”
“The oak, certainly, ma’am. Not so much the pine… but we’ll build something with it! Was that your doing?”
“No,” she laughed. “Not exactly my doing. But I don’t think it will happen again!”
She looked up, and her husband was standing in the open window above her. He applauded, and she laughed again. Then she left them to wonder, as she went back upstairs to find him.
The President of Zandor
In the city of Jardan far to the east, General Lang met with the President of his country. The request came with a demand for immediate attention, and no subject was mentioned.
What could it be this time? A man can hardly get time to do his own job, with all these demands. Go here, go there, get this, put that. Seriously. I’m an adult, I can manage my job. Why do I need constant …
“Yes, sir!” He snapped to attention.
“Your job is to do whatever I want you to do. Understood?”
“Yes, sir. Understood. Of course.”
Was he listening to my thoughts? That was strange.
“I listen to many people…” said the President, and paused with a slight smile. Lang was getting a little nervous about this.
“And some of them are not people. The crows, for example. Very interesting people to listen to.”
“The… the crows, sir?”
“You listen to the crows?”
“They see a lot of things, General. And they like to talk. So I listen. Not many people can listen to them, so they like to come chatter at me. It’s a nuisance … especially when they all come and chatter at once … and most of what they talk about is useless.”
General Lang tried to nod knowingly, but it was a struggle not to laugh. Talking with crows?
“You can laugh if you want. Go ahead.”
“No, sir, I … whatever you say, sir!”
“Today they are talking about diamonds.”
General Lang stared. This is really what we’re talking about? Crows? Rumors of treasure, from crows?
“Yes, General. Diamonds. Are you interested, or should I call one of your captains instead?”
“I’m … interested, of course. Sir. May I … sit down?”
The President waved him to a chair.
“Do you know the mountains north of Combin? Over west of Largente?”
“Another mountain range between here and there, sir. Don’t know much about them.”
“Well, I think you are about to.”
Lang raised his eyebrows. This sounded ominous.
“Again, General… if you’d rather I talked to someone else …?”
And have them be general, and me be at a desk somewhere, a month from now? I don’t think so.
“Not at all, sir. What’s the plan?”
“They say diamonds are spilling down the side of the Whitestone mountains. The only thing between here and there is Largente, mostly country people, no real army. They will not slow you down. And before you get to Combin, you go north, so no need to engage with them on the way.”
“That’s … a long march, to get over the mountains into Largente, and then another day … and then north … we’ll need pack animals, all of that. And weather gets difficult about this time.”
The President went on, as though he had not heard.
“They tell me the man who runs Salient, a man named Shunn, is sending groups of his people out with shovels and picks, to go find the diamonds.”
There was silence.
Finally, Lang said, “So, our goal is to get there first …”
“And overwhelm the local people, and take it all.”
There was silence.
“Is that all, sir?” asked Lang.
“Is there anything about my request that you did not understand?”
“No, sir, I think I understand. Go get the diamonds.”
“Excellent!” said the President. “I knew you would grasp the urgency of the task as soon as we discussed it. Take everything you need, of course. How soon can you leave?”
The obvious answer, thought Lang, is ‘yesterday’. But it will take three days to get the supplies ready…
“I think tomorrow morning would be a good time,” said the President, in a soft but very firm tone. “Tomorrow morning … could that be possible?”
I’ll be up all night.
“As you wish, sir. I’ll start preparations.”
“Good. And General … “
“Sir?” he said, struggling to get to his feet out of the deep, heavily cushioned armchair he had mistakenly selected.
“This Shunn fellow. I would suggest taking him with you. Seems to know something.”
“The leader in Salient? The Premier of Largente? Take him … kidnap him?”
“Think of it as taking a special advisor … on an urgent mission … unless, of course, he would like us to take Largente as one of our provinces, and he could be a prisoner of war, found to be resisting our legal authority?”
“I understand, sir. Take Shunn.”
“Excellent,” repeated the President. “You are completely in charge. I look forward to your immediate return, with pack animals loaded with treasure!” He stood and waved Lang out. “Thank you, thank you. I’m sure you need to get started!”
Games Are Over
General Lang looked around the room.
Did a bomb just go off in here?
A lingering smell of burnt cloth and wood, and perhaps the faint, unforgettable fragrance of someone throwing up not too long ago, and a look of fear — almost panic — on many faces, gave him no clear answer.
Shunn stood up, a little shaky, and faced the soldier. “That’s …me.”
Lang looked him over. Not the imposing figure he would expect, running all of Largente, or a town this size, or even a two-chair barber shop. This man is sending out diamond-hunting mobs?
‘You’re going with us,” said Lang. He turned to a soldier by his side. “John, go with him. He’ll need to pack a couple of things. And get him in some new clothes … he’s made a mess on these.”
John approached Shunn and gingerly pushed him toward the door. “Let’s go to wherever you live, and pack a bag.”
Shunn resisted, looking back and forth between Lang and John, and then over his shoulder to Chander.
“Now,” insisted John, and pushed harder. They made it out the door, and when Shunn turned to the right, John pushed him further that way. “Now, Mr. Shunn. We are all waiting on you.”
Lang looked back at the room after Shunn was gone.
“Can someone tell me what just happened? I’m glad to see the fear on your faces when I walk in, but I’m not a fool. Something else put it there!”
Chander stood up and approached the general. He and Lang were easily the tallest men in the room.
Ah. This must be who really runs this place.
“Chander, sir. Your name?”
“Lang. General Lang.”
What does he mean, ‘from’? Doesn’t he know this insignia? The world knows this insignia!
Lang tapped the emblem over his left chest, and made no further answer.
Chander nodded. “I see. And where is Mr. Shunn going, if I may ask?”
“He will be back. It may take a while. We have some business at Whitestone — you know the place? — And when we’ve done, I’ll return him.”
“My apologies for pressing the issue, General, but Mr. Shunn just suffered a rather serious health shock … and may be a bit shaky. Needs some time to recover. Won’t be any good at marching for a while, if you understand.”
Do I care?
“I appreciate your concern for him … Chander, is it? … But if necessary, I’ll strap him to a mule and keep going. My orders are to take him with us.”
Chander nodded. “I’m his physician, actually. Perhaps I could come along? If he has value to you, I assume you’d rather he stay alive for the trip?”
What could be that wrong with Shunn? He did look pretty bad, actually. And having a doctor along … could be pretty useful … might be a good idea.
“When could you leave? We’re not stopping.”
“I’m ready when you are. Wouldn’t want to delay official business, of course!”
“Of course. All right. We have sufficient supplies for you to join us. Is there a sundry store here we could use to supplement some things, while John brings Mr. Shunn around?”
Chander pointed across the street to something that looked like a grocery, and Lang sent his quartermaster that way.
“What is the … business … at Whitestone, if I may ask?” said Chander. “That’s pretty desolate country, I understand, and not considered safe by some.”
Who does he think we are? Farmers?
“Our business is our own, Chander. And we’re accustomed to taking care of our business. And ourselves.”
“I can see that,” nodded Chander. “Well, excuse me, I’ll say my goodbyes.”
Lang nodded, and strode out to the men in the street. “Ten minutes,” he shouted. “Looks like an out-house just past that stable. Be quick.”
Chander sat back down at the table. “There are more coming than we thought,” he said quietly. “In the middle of them seems like where I should be, for a bit. You can come closely behind, and I’ll drop back and chat now and then. Pack some food! I’ll run get my bag.”
“Real names, from now on?” asked Soren.
Chander nodded, and smiled at Charis. “Games are over.”
Charles drifted slowly above the road that brought travelers from Romain and Combin up to the Whitestone mountains. High enough, he might just appear to be a large bird, but … would the existence of dragons be a surprise to anyone in this area?
No more of the small groups appeared. Perhaps the men from Combin had successfully communicated the undesirable consequences of invading their land … perhaps.
When he came to the Combin road, he turned to the east, where the road went on to Salient, the rest of Largente, and on to lands he did not know as well. He enjoyed the view, as the forest road rose and fell, and finally Salient nestled between two ranges, huddled tightly against the river.
As he coasted toward Salient, a large group appeared on the road, a group wide enough to fill it, and long enough to be an army platoon or some such. They were marching west, which meant they were headed for Combin… or maybe not. First they would reach the road he had just followed from Whitestone, and if they turned north there …
Behind the group there appeared to be more people, following far enough back to not be noticed, but … two women? Seemed to be in dresses. And a man… and a dog? Following an army, but not wanting to be seen? Perhaps they would know what was happening. Might be worth a conversation. Unlikely they could actually communicate with him, but he could try.
He circled wide to the north of the road, perhaps without being noticed by what appeared to be a group of soldiers, and came back up the Combin road behind the travelers.
He glided up behind the walkers, and touched down in the middle of the road about fifty yards back. No need to frighten them, after all. Before the dragon’s claws touched the road, Leif saw him and barked, and everyone turned to see.
“Charles! Sir Argus!” exclaimed Charis. “Look, Mom, it’s him! Do you know him yet?”
Charis ran back down the road and stretched her arms as far around Charles’ neck as she could, which was not very far.
Charis? Is it you? You are growing so quickly!
Lali came up and bowed. “My pleasure, Sir … Argus?”
He bowed his head. Convey my greetings, please.
Charis translated. “He is pleased to meet you as well. Charles is king of the dragons at Whitestone. An old friend!”
What is the group ahead of you? Do you know?
“Ah, they are looking for you!” exclaimed Charis. “Or, really, looking for your diamonds! They marched into Salient, took the leader hostage, and are headed for Whitestone!”
Groan. I feared as much. Where are they from?
“Whatever is east of Largente, I think. How would they know about all this?”
Crows, said Charles. *We did not shield the diamonds before the crows saw them. It must be them.`
“What will you do?”
I suppose I should stop them now. The closer they get, the harder it will be. Can you be my translator?
“If it will get me a ride, I’d be delighted. My mom, too?”
Of course, of course.
Charis climbed up behind his shoulders, and waved to her mom to come as well. Lali struggled up behind her. “Have you done this before, Charis? And where are we going?”
“I think we are now translators for the King, going to meet an invading army! What fun!”
“We’ll … we’ll catch up!” called Soren, as the dragon rose into the air and disappeared over the trees to the north of the road. Turning to Leif, he smiled. “You like to walk, anyway… right?”
General Lang was pleased with the expedition so far. Well-supplied from Salient, now with a doctor along, and Shunn was giving them no trouble. Soon the northern road would be in sight, and they could get on up to Whitestone.
As he stretched in the saddle and looked around, his eye caught something just over the trees, something far off in the distance. A bird? A very large bird, but far enough away he could not make it out.
Or, not a bird? Something… bigger?
Surely not. Were the rumors true?
It disappeared below the horizon to the east. Behind them.
Behind us? Between us and … home? He strained to see it again, but with no success.
They reached the turn to Whitestone, and as the troops turned north at the intersection, they came face to face with a dragon. An enormous green dragon with a yellow scar across his face. An enormous green dragon with a yellow scar across his face and two ladies … two ladies? … standing in front of it.
General Lang halted the troops, who had all begun talking at once.
And he recognized the ladies.
“Chander,” he called, and Chander came up beside him. “Weren’t those ladies with you, in Salient?”
“Why, yes, General, I believe they were.”
“Who are they?”
“The taller one is my wife, actually, and the other is my daughter. Why do you ask?”
“They seem to be keeping company with … a dragon.”
“Yes, I noticed that too.” He looked up at the sky. “Nice day for a ride on a dragon, actually. No rain, and enough clouds to keep you cool.”
Lang stared at him without speaking, then turned back to the ladies who waited in front of him. And the dragon, which completely blocked the road he wanted to take. No one was saying anything. For lack of anything else to do, he spurred his horse forward and approached the group.
The horse did not seem too happy about this turn of events.
A Tasty Horse
Charis watched General Lang come forward on a very nervous horse, and smiled. This would be fun.
“You are blocking the road.”
Charis and Lali looked at each other, and then looked behind them at Charles.
“Will you move?”
Charis turned to Charles. “He says you’re blocking the road, and asks if you’re going to move.”
Charles gave an enormous yawn, stretched, and lay completely across the road and into the brush on either side. After a moment, he began to snore, and every horse in the platoon began dancing and whinnying and wanting to be somewhere else.
“Mr. Dragon!” called General Lang. “Please. Don’t do that.”
Charles lifted his head, looked at the general, and then slowly roused himself and came back to his original place.
Ask him what he wants on this road. Introduce me.
Charis stepped forward. “General Lang, I believe?”
“We met in Salient, if you will recall. Permit me to present Sir Argus, King of the dragon clan whose home is ahead of you. And I am Charis, representing the village north of the dragons’ home.”
She turned to Charles. “Sir Argus, permit me to present General Lang, from … “
She looked at him. He waved her to continue.
“From that way.” She pointed east.
“He talks to you?” asked the General.
Charis looked at him without speaking.
“You talk to him?”
The expression on her face said she assumed he was smarter than this.
“That beast cannot understand us! And you certainly cannot understand what it is thinking … if dragons can even be said to ‘think’. This is absurd. This is … you’re pretending, and for some reason the creature is just … is it tame? Is it your pet?”
A low rumble began deep in Charles’ chest, and his breath flowing out towards the soldiers was suddenly quite a bit warmer.
Charis and Lali quickly stepped to the side, out of the flow of increasingly hot air. General Lang’s horse began dancing and trying to turn to the side.
Charis held up a hand. “It would be best if we all forget what you just said, General, and go back to the earlier question. I think it was about whether he speaks, and whether I understand him?”
“All right, all right. Apparently he does, and apparently you do. Shall we get on with this? I have business to attend to.”
Charis turned to Charles, and the rumble slowly faded.
“I believe the King would appreciate knowing what business that is, General. He will understand your words, and I can relay to you his response. Shall we continue? Or will you require some additional proof that I am not simply pretending?”
“I have orders to follow, and they are the business of my own government. They are not the business of other … Kings.”
Charis turned to Charles and waited. Charles stood, and walked forward until his nose was at the chest of the General’s horse, which was almost in panic, wildly pulling the reins from side to side. Charles sniffed once or twice, then backed up to where he had been.
Tell the General that it has been a long time since I had horse for dinner, but the one he is riding looks especially tasty.
“Have you really done that?” she whispered.
No, but he does not know that. Charles smiled.
Charis relayed his comment to the General.
Lang backed the horse up, and bumped into the soldiers behind him. “Oh… sorry.” Holding the reins tightly, he forced the horse forward a few steps.
“We were not offering … dinner … to … his Majesty”, said the General, in a forced and awkward tone. “May we pass?”
Charis looked at Charles, who did not move. She turned back. “I don’t recall you answering his question, sir. And apparently he doesn’t, either.”
Chander stepped up beside the General. “Dragons are not known for patience, sir.” And then he went back into the ranks.
General Lang stared at the beast, and said nothing.
Chander spoke up. “Perhaps I can help, so that we are not still standing here when the sun goes down.” He walked out in front of the troops, stood next to the General, but spoke to Charles loud enough for all to hear.
“It appears that there are diamonds to be had at Whitestone, and the General’s superiors heard about this. He has been sent to gather them up. He was also instructed to bring Mr. Shunn along, who had also been sending people on the same mission, but from Salient. Mr. Shunn no longer supports that effort …”
He turned and bowed to Shunn, and then continued.
“But the General is still pursuing that goal, and is anxious to be about his business. Those who sent him would not be understanding if he failed in this mission.”
Chander turned to Lang. “Have I got that about right?”
Charis turned briefly to Charles, and then back.
“Is that about right, sir? The King would like to know.”
Finally Lang spoke, his voice strained with anger and frustration.
“We are on our way to Whitestone to investigate such rumors, that is true. May we proceed?”
A deep rumble proceeded from Charles, and it steadily grew louder until the force of it was pushing men back on their heels and making all conversation impossible. When at last it ended, he spoke with Charis.
Ask him if he would like me to tell him … how I really feel about his invasion of my home.
“Sir,” she said to Lang, “the King believes you are invading his home, and would like to know if you need a more clear expression of his feelings in the matter.”
Lang was fighting to keep his horse under control, so it was little while before he could respond.
“Please tell … the King … we are not invading anyone’s homes.”
Ask him if he would like to see my home.
“Would you like to see his home, General?”
“I would be glad to,” replied Lang. “Perhaps while we are in the neighborhood.”
Tell him to climb on my back.
“The King will take you there himself. Now. Please dismount, and climb up on his back. I would personally recommend sitting just behind the shoulders, but … suit yourself.”
“Get ON him? Get on that … creature … on his back?”
“Yes, General, I believe that is the invitation. A rare treat, I assure you, and not one to be missed.”
“And then what?”
“Then he will fly to his home, with you on his back. And you will see his home. Is something not clear?”
“He’s going to fly… with me on his… on his back? Behind those wings?”
“General, this is not difficult. Yes, that is the idea.”
“No, thank you. I’ll be glad to visit when we are close by, when convenient, of course, but … no, I think not. Please convey my thanks.”
Charis turned to Charles. “He says, ‘No.’”
Offer him three choices, and let’s see what he really thinks. He can ride on me… if I can stand having him there … or, he can turn around and go home … or, I can pick him up, with or without that tasty horse, and carry him in my claws.
And tell him to decide, or I will decide for him. He is boring me.
Charis laughed, and turned back to the General.
“Forgive my laughter, sir. The King is becoming quite … let’s say, irritated … and you need to decide. You may go home, or you may get on his back, or he can pick you and your horse up … your ‘tasty’ horse, I believe were his words … and carry you in his claws.”
After a moment of silence, she added, “Choose.”
General Lang looked back over his men, and realized they were enjoying his discomfort and fear.
What could he do?
To get on that beast would be horrible. Rough scales, big muscles working those wings, up … there … with no seat, no saddle, no … no reins, no stirrups … how would you hold on? And he probably stinks, when he sweats…
“No, General, actually he doesn’t,” said Charis.
He stared at her. Good grief, so my thoughts are public? At least to her?
Charis nodded and smiled.
Charis placed her hands over her ears.
“You’re …” he started to say, then just played the thought out in his mind.
You’re making fun of me. Covering your ears changes nothing!
Charis smiled, shrugged, and took her hands down.
“If you would like me to go with you,” she said, “I could sit behind you and translate. You could chat with Sir Argus as you travel.”
And you would help me not fall off, no doubt.
You’ve done this?
“Of course. I rather enjoy it.”
He looked back at his men. They would mock him forever, if he took the easy choice to go home. And refused a lifetime chance of … of riding on a dragon! And the President would make his life a horror, if he returned empty-handed.
Charis was smiling at him. “You need to decide, sir.”
But if he rode the dragon… and survived … he would be a legend. A hero. And if Charis rode with him … why, the beast would not dump both of them into a canyon, or something, would it? They seemed to be friends.
What about the diamonds?
What about being picked up in those claws?
Somehow the decision happened, and his right leg swung over the back of the saddle. As his foot touched the ground, he could not believe he was doing this.
He handed the reins to the nearest solder, who stared at him in wide-eyed silence.
Charis looked at him, eyebrows raised, still asking the question. He nodded — Yes, come with me. She smiled.
“You should leave your sword behind, sir. It will be awkward, up there … it might jab me, or even him … and if a dragon is protecting you, what use would it be anyway?”
He could think of an answer, but resisted letting his mind run down that path. Since she was listening. So he unbuckled his sword belt, and handed it to the soldier as well. Suddenly he felt very naked, very vulnerable …
And he remembered how sick he got whenever he was in a high place and looked down.
“Oh. That’s a problem. I can help with that.” Charis came to him, placed her hand on the back of his neck, and said … what did she say? What language was that? He did not understand a word of it!
“You’ll be fine now.”
He stared at her. Who was this girl?
She waved him toward the dragon, who lay facing him with a look that seemed anything but welcoming.
What would a welcoming expression be, on a dragon, though?
“Not that, actually. He’s not any happier about this than you are.”
Well. There it is. Guess we’d better get this done. But even after this … this ‘visit’ … what happens next?
“We’ll see,” said Charis, and waved him around the front leg … claw … to the side. “Step on his elbow there … yes, it’s fine, you can’t hurt him … and then pull up between his shoulders and that first backbone spike, or fin, or whatever it would be called.”
He stepped up onto the ‘elbow’ on the left side, and reached up for something to hold on to. The scales were rough.
I’ll be scraped up, he thought. This will tear my clothes.
“He can carry you, if you prefer.”
No, no … I can do this …
And he pulled up onto the backbone. Charis lightly stepped up and was suddenly seated close behind him.
“Good job,” she whispered, “and really the best choice. No one enjoys being picked up and carried! The way you’re treating him, it’s amazing he’s willing to do this for you.”
Really. He really doesn’t need to, of course … “Oh, what’s happening?”
Charles rose to his feet, stretched a bit, stood up on his hind legs, and suddenly they were airborne. The great wings reached for the sky, and it came. The troops were quickly too small to count, and the trees merged into a green field below them. Charles wheeled around in a wide circle and headed north, wings pumping a strong, slow, steady rhythm that took them higher and further with each stroke.
Lang stared at the ground far below, stared at the wings, stared at the horizon, and slowly began to enjoy what was happening. Who has ever seen the world this way?
In the distance ahead of them, mountains rose from the rolling hills. A trace of smoke came up from the forest beyond them, to the left.
“That’s my home,” said Charis from right behind his ear. The wind rushing by made it difficult to hear, so she was shouting. “Where the smoke is, they’re cooking dinner!”
The sun was low to the horizon on the left, and it lit up the clouds to the right, far to the east, blazing white against the dark blue sky, great tumbling towers reaching to heaven. Just at the horizon, a lightning bolt jumped between clouds, and another one stabbed the ground. They never heard the thunder.
The mountains were closer now, and they had outcroppings of white stone on the eastern side.
“Is that why they call it Whitestone?” he shouted back to her, forgetting that he did not need to.
“Yes, I suppose.”
Charles began gliding downward.
The tall one is our home, said Charles, and Charis relayed his comments. This whole region is ours, and Charis’ people live here as our guests and friends.
They came down lower, and Charles circled the three big mountains.
What do you see?
Lang looked, as Charles made a wide circle and leaned to the right, giving them an excellent view past his wing on that side.
“Mountains. Rock. Desert. Wilderness country.”
Do you see diamonds?”
Charles pulled his wings back, and they dove towards the ground.
What is he doing??
“I don’t know,” shouted Charis.
A few hundred feet above the ground, he spread his wings, and they were flying so close you could have counted the flowers blooming on the cactus plants. They flew around the base of the largest mountain, then around another, and the around the third.
Lang noticed another dragon in the air high above them, and two more sitting on rocky outcrops.
Do you see diamonds?
Charles turned back south, and began rising to a height well above the landscape below them.
Suddenly the great wings were folded back, and they were diving towards one of the mountains. General Lang gripped the fin in front of him with all his strength and shut his eyes. The falling dragon leveled out and Lang opened his eyes just in time to see the side of the mountain rushing towards them … and then disappearing. In its place was a great hall, a level floor inside the mountain with rock ceilings high above and caves opening up in all directions.
Charles landed lightly, but did not settle down. He remained standing, and spoke, or roared, or something. Other dragons emerged from the surrounding caves, and General Lang looked around him in amazement.
“He’s introducing you to the clan,” said Charis at his ear. “We are not staying. I think he just wants you to understand whose home you are… invading.”
General Lang bowed to the dragons in each direction. Some of them bowed back. Then Charles turned, spread his wings, and they were in the air again. Lang looked back, and nothing was there but a sheer mountainside with scrubby brush scattered among the rocks.
The sun was setting, and the long shadows of hilltops and trees striped the landscape as they glided down to the road. The soldiers re-assembled into rank as the dragon touched down onto the road in front of them. Lali, Chander, Soren and Leif came from a shaded area on the western side of the road, and stood to greet them.
As he slipped down the dragon’s flank, Lang felt great relief, and realized he would be quite sore. In fact, sitting his horse for the trip back could be very painful.
He stumbled a bit as he hit the ground, then straightened up, walked to the troops, turned, and faced the dragon.
“Thank you,” he said, and nothing more.
Charles looked at his friends, and Charis said, “Yes, I think so. Soren what will you do?”
Soren shook his head, looking back and forth between the dragon and Charis.
“Oh, my apologies. Charles asked if my parents and I would like to go back with him, and I said yes. Will you join us, or …?”
Soren bowed to Charles. “We will go on to Romain, with your leave, sir.”
General Lang stared. ‘Charles’? ‘Charles’? A dragon named… ‘Charles’?
Charis turned to him and winked. “We’ll be on our way, General, if you don’t mind.” He shook his head.
Charis and her family climbed up onto Charles, and the dragon turned, took three steps, and was in the air. General Lang watched them go, until they were almost lost to sight.
He turned to his troops, and noticed that it was almost dark. “Make camp, gentlemen. We will return home in the morning.”
What would he tell the President?
The truth. What else?
Zagon walked to his window and looked out over the city of Jardan, a beautiful place to live. The late afternoon sun showed every building, every statue, every tree in glorious rimlight, and the river a few blocks to his right sparkled with golden highlights.
“Mr. President, General Lang has returned.”
“Really! Send him in, please!”
He felt Lang’s mood before Lang ever came in the room, and surmised he was coming back empty-handed.
“Come in, General, sit down, tell me the good news.” Zagon moved behind his enormous desk of polished black wood, a desk he kept absolutely bare. He wished to show everyone he was in complete control, and needed no pile of papers to know everything that was to be known.
Lang entered slowly, and carefully sat in the straight-backed chair, not the overstuffed leather one that would swallow him whole.
“There are no diamonds, sir.”
Zagon let that sit in the air for a moment, and waited for Lang to get uncomfortable enough to say more.
“I have inspected the entire area around Whitestone, and there are no diamonds visible.”
“Really. How were you able to do that so quickly? Let’s see, you left … and three days each way … another two days to go up the northern road and back, plus time on the site … you could not have been there more than ten minutes!”
“From the air, sir.”
Zagon watched him closely. He appeared to be telling the truth, and was not a man who lied well. How could this be?
“Tell me more, General.”
“A dragon met us on the road. He determined that we were coming to find diamonds, and interpreted that as an invasion of his home.”
“You spoke with a dragon?”
“Well, not exactly. A girl was with him, who translated.”
“A girl was with a dragon, and she told you… that the dragon said … you were invading his home?”
He can’t be making this up. Who would make this up, and expect me to believe it?
General Lang was beginning to sweat, but he still seemed to believe what he was saying.
“Did the troops see all this?”
“Yes, sir, all of it. They were right there.”
“The dragon said … asked if I wanted to visit his home. Well, I … trying to be polite to the beast, said I would stop by while we were … but he offered three choices. We could turn around, or he would pick me up - on my horse - and carry me, or I could ride on his back and go there.”
Lang wiped his face.
“I rode on his back.”
Zagon leaned back, and looked out the window. What to make of this?
“We flew … the girl and I, on his back … we flew north along the road, and came to Whitestone. Sir, it’s beautiful… um, so we flew around the Whitestone mountains, first pretty far up, and then again so close I could have … well, never mind. Very close.
“And he asked me, several times, as we flew around the mountains, ‘Do you see diamonds?’… and I said, ‘No’.”
“You really mean you were talking to the girl, and she was telling you that that’s what the dragon was saying.”
“Yes, sir, actually, that’s right.”
“So you have come back to report that you have flown on a dragon, a talking dragon, although you never heard it speak, and you have seen the entire Whitestone area … from above … and there are no diamonds.”
“Yes, sir, that’s correct.”
Zagon stood and walked back to his window. The sun was lower now, almost to the horizon, and clouds were orange, lit from the bottom by the sun’s rays. A beautiful city. He would destroy it all, if needed, to keep them under control … all those people he looked out upon … but no need, at the moment.
He finally turned, and realized Lang was still sitting there. He had lost interest in this conversation, and in Lang. But he had not lost interest in the diamonds, and he was sure someone had made a fool of this man. And hidden the diamonds.
“And you told the men?”
“I told them there were no diamonds, and we were going home.”
“Of course, all they really know, is that you climbed on a dragon and went somewhere, and then came back.
“Actually, yes, that’s true.”
“They themselves have no idea whether there are diamonds there, or not.”
“Yes, I suppose that is also true. Although they heard all the conversation, and can testify to everything that happened at that place.”
“But all that really happened at that place is that you met a dragon, and talked to a girl, and left on a dragon for some period of time, and then came back.”
“And the girl and her family then left on the dragon. Did I mention that?”
“They were in Salient when we took Shunn hostage … uh, captive … I mean, when Shunn joined us. And a man that I suppose to be her father came with us as we marched. Said he was a doctor, and that Shunn might need medical help.”
“Did he prove himself to be a doctor, in any way?”
Lang shook his head. “I suppose not. No need for such arose. Although the girl did something … so I would not get sick from being … up there. Maybe they are a medical family?”
Zagon looked at the ceiling. How much worse does this get?
“You said ‘they’ were in Salient… the girl, also? And her mother, I suppose?” he added, sarcastically.
Lang wiped his face again.
“So the man walked with you, for two days, and when you got to the northern road the girl … and her mother? … Were there waiting for you, with a dragon?”
Lang nodded and squirmed in the chair.
“Did any other friends and neighbors from Salient also come along, and arrive with the dragon ahead of you?”
Lang was silent for a moment, staring at his shoes.
“Well, there was one other fellow … and his dog…”
Zagon stood. “You may go, General. I can see I need to pursue this matter myself. Report to the Captain, and tell him you need some deskwork to do … something that will take you a very long time to complete. In fact, ask him to come see me, if you would.”
General Lang stood, and slowly walked to the door, where he turned.
“It was beautiful … from up there …”
“Go! And close the door behind you!”
Zagon looked at the closed door for a minute, but his thoughts were far away. He did not doubt the crows, for they had no ability to lie. They were as reliable as the woman sitting at the corner of the market square, who saw everything and told everything to everybody. Whatever you thought of her, you could be sure that what she saw and heard was what she … well, what she thought she had seen and heard.
He pointed to the window and waved a hand. The curtains closed. He pointed to the chair Lang had occupied, and it moved back against the wall. He motioned to the fireplace, and a fire sprang up. He waved at the teapot on the table in the corner, and it floated over the fire until he waved it back to pour into a small ceramic mug with emblems of stars on a blue field. “Tea,” he said, and the aroma drifted into the room.
There was a knock at the door.
The Captain opened the door and stepped inside.
“Thank you for coming, General Songge. You may occupy Lang’s office at your convenience, and I trust you have found something for him to do. Private Lang, that is.”
I’ll Do It Myself
Zagon left that evening, putting the newly promoted Songge in charge of the city.
Wrapped in a black hood and cloak, he disappeared into the night, walking slowly along the western road. Time to consider things.
If the crows were right, and they always were, why did the fool not see diamonds? The dragon flew low enough, and he would have seen anything the crows had … unless they’ve been shielded.
The dragon asked him, “Do you see any diamonds?” But the dragon never said there were no diamonds. Just … did he see any.
He did not know to ask. What would the dragon have said, if he had asked, “Are there any diamonds here?”
The road was clear and plain to him as he walked in pitch black darkness. Creatures wandered across it, not being aware of his presence at all. A late moon arose as dawn approached, and the daytime animals began foraging for an early meal.
He came to a place where swirled prints replaced the tracks of marching men, tracks that mixed the evidence of the going with evidence of the coming back. He noticed where they had camped, and the odds and ends of litter they had left behind.
But the swirled patterns were under the coming back prints, so that was part of the history of the going, not the coming. And a separate set of prints seemed to be involved, a dog and three others … larger prints for a man, smaller prints for two women? On top of the first set of tracks from the soldiers, but beneath the second set.
So those were the man and the dog … as mentioned … and presumably the girl and her mother. All accounted for. All following along, behind the troops, on the way.
But how did they arrive before Lang?
Then he came to the truth of the matter. Claw prints, again in between the going and the coming. And beyond that point, only the troops.
So the dragon took them to the rendezvous place. All of them. A good-sized animal. Ready to carry Lang and his ‘tasty’ horse!
Zagon laughed. Did Lang not know anything about such things? No self-respecting dragon would eat a horse.
Or would they? There had not been much recent experience with dragons, in the places he knew. History and myth and wrong beliefs get jumbled in the stream of time, and it doesn’t take long.
He walked on.
So the dragon fight in Salient … that was real. Some … one or more? … dragons from Whitestone? One or more from… somewhere else? Did Shunn play a part in kidnapping one of them? Did the dragon on the road know that, or even know Shunn was there?
If the dragon had thought Lang had done that, there would have been no ride. There would have been no returning soldiers.
When he came down from the mountains that divided Largente from Combin, the road turned straight toward that kingdom and entered the great forest that covered Combin, Romain, and everything between the mountains to the south and the farmlands along the Whitestone road. Again it was dark, and the moon would be rising even later tonight, so there was no light at all under the tall trees.
But there was a presence. Something stood in the road ahead of him, and if it were a normal man or woman, or deer or squirrel for that matter, he would be able to see it. But this he could not see. He stopped.
Nothing was said.
“Speak,” he commanded, and he felt a resistance to his words.
“Light,” he said, and pale yellow fog formed above the road as far as could be seen. A figure all in black stood a hundred yards in front of him, and suddenly it disappeared.
“Very well,” he said, and the yellow fog dissipated. Then he also invoked the shield that prevented him from being seen.
The same spell that hides the diamonds, perhaps. Wonder if this creature is the one who hid them?
He began walking forward. The other person moved further away.
“Are you going to walk backwards all the way to Combin?” he called.
There was no answer, but the figure stopped moving. Zagon continued to walk forward, probing with his mind to know better what this person was, who it was, and most importantly… what he could do.
When he was within twenty feet of the stranger, something felt wrong. He reached out a hand and found a wall just ahead of him. Nothing visible, but to normal sight, nothing was visible anyway.
“Where is the open road tonight? Where is the welcome for strangers, for wanderers?”
“For thieves, for invaders, for trespassers?” came a rough voice, with no hint of welcome in it.
Zagon put both hands on the invisible wall and spoke to it. It shivered, began shaking, and exploded. There was no more wall. The other person stepped back.
“What else can you do?” asked Zagon, in a soft, cold voice. “Do it now.”
Fire streamed at him, and as it approached, the stream split apart and was deflected into the forest on both sides. Trees and brush caught fire and smoke billowed up, enclosing them in even deeper darkness.
“Is there more?” asked Zagon.
An enormous weight came hurtling down from above them, a weight with no substance, no mass, but a weight to crush a house, and certainly a man. It fell upon Zagon, and his shoulders bent down, then he stood straight up again. The road around him sank an inch lower, and the imprint of the thing was ten feet square. And it was gone.
“My turn,” said Zagon.
The pale yellow light returned, the fires all around them were suddenly extinguished, and Aldan stood there fully revealed, his spell of invisibility swept away.
“Let me see you, the way you really are,” said Zagon. Aldan’s black robe and hood shriveled up and fell to the ground. His thin body, covered with tattoos, shivered as though freezing cold. He stared at Zagon.
“I think I can use you,” said Zagon. “Come.” Aldan walked unsteadily towards him, as though being pushed by an irresistible force. “Now stop.”
Zagon put a hand on Aldan’s head, and Aldan began shaking violently. After a full minute, he suddenly relaxed and was still.
“If you disobey me, you will go quite insane, and remember nothing of who you are, or what you know. Do you understand?”
Aldan’s head slowly nodded.
“I think white would be a good disguise for you now. No one is suspicious of someone dressed in white.”
A perfectly white robe wrapped Aldan, and a rough fiber rope tied at his waist.
“No hood. We will let people see you, and their reaction to your tattoos will head off any reaction to what is really… in you.”
Zagon stepped back, pleased with his new acquisition.
“Now, walk a hundred yards ahead of me, and I’ll tell you when to stop, when to turn … when to live or die, for that matter.”
Aldan turned, and slowly walked into the darkness ahead as the yellow light faded once more.
Something occurred to Zagon, as he began walking again.
“Go to your home.”
Aldan immediately turned right and began walking into the forest. Zagon followed. A mile later they came to a cave, and Aldan stopped.
Zagon entered in, set a light, and looked around. A miserable place, but there was food, and something vaguely resembling a mattress. He went back outside.
“Give me your robe.”
Aldan untied the robe, took it off, and handed it to him.
Zagon went back inside. He spread the robe over the mattress, then looked about some more. Some fruit that looked edible, some berries and nuts, not much else. He ate what appealed to him, then lay down on the mattress and was immediately asleep.
In the morning Zagon awoke hungry. It had been a while since he spent time traveling on foot, and he had become accustomed to have meals prepared for him night and day.
He picked up the robe and walked outside. Aldan slept naked, leaning against a tree. Zagon tossed the robe onto him, and kept walking into the woods. A deer stood grazing some yards away. Zagon motioned to it, stopping its heart, and the deer stumbled, walked a few steps, then fell. He took a belt knife and carved out several chunks of meat, threw some kindling together, spoke a fire into action, and had roasted venison for breakfast.
“What about … the carcass?” asked Aldan, coming up behind him. Zagon handed him a piece of venison and said, “Yours if you want it. But I’m ready to go.”
Who Would It Be?
Charles lifted off with Charis just behind his shoulders, then Lali, and Chander directly above his wings as they spread out.
All in place?
“Yes, thank you,” said Charis.
“We’re fine, too,” said Chander.
Ah, I see we can converse. And your wife?
“No, my friend, she cannot. But I will assist, if you like.”
Certainly. What will the soldiers do now?
“Did he see anything worth coming back for?” asked Chander. Charis shook her head. “He said he did not see any diamonds, and Charles asked him twice, maybe three times.”
I noticed a place that was not quite shielded, but apparently he did not see it.
“Then he will go back to whoever sent him and say, ‘There are no diamonds,’” said Chander. “If that person believes him, we are fine. If that person does not believe him, we will have another visitor… perhaps a little more secretive, less obvious, than thirty soldiers walking down the middle of the road!”
Perhaps someone who knows about making things invisible?
Charis smiled. “Maybe so! Who would that be?”
Let’s see if we can guess the answer.
They were soon gliding down to Whitestone. Charles circled around, and then flew straight at the mountainside, the western slope of the largest mountain in the group. Charis felt her mom’s grip on her waist tighten, and remembered that all this was quite new to her.
As they were about to crash into the rocks and brush, the side of the mountain disappeared, and the great cavern opened up before them. Charles slowed, then dropped gently to a smooth floor opening into a great room with hallways off in several directions.
Welcome to our home.
“He says, ‘Welcome’, honey,” whispered Chander. Lali nodded, looking around. “By the way,” he added, “we know him as Charles, but here he is the King, and ‘Sir Argus’ will be the appropriate name!”
They slipped off, and other dragons began emerging from the hallways and clustering around.
“Is Gelat here… oh, there you are!” exclaimed Charis, and she ran to hug the smallest one in the room.
Sarden came up, and introduced himself.
We have a question, said Charles. If there were someone in Zandor, east of Largente, east of Combin, who could make things invisible, or reveal things that were hidden … who would it be?”
Our records might have the answer, said Sarden, or Leesen might remember far enough back… but Mizzouk has much more history in his hands than we do. Perhaps a visit there would be worthwhile?
“And Charis could see the King again,” said Chander. “She would love to do that, from what she’s told us of him.”
Sir Argus, I believe you would be the one to go, added Sarden, but I would suggest that Gelat might enjoy the journey, and could help you carry everyone.
They looked across the cavern. Gelat and Charis were curled up in the corner, in deep conversation.
Chander explained the idea to Lali, and it was agreed.
Mizzouk heard the sound of dragon wings as he opened the door to greet the morning sun and partake of the morning air. The field beside his house was suddenly full, and people were sliding off dragons.
A day has begun, no doubt! Where will it lead?
He recognized Charis, and the two dragons, but not the others.
“Welcome,” he shouted to Charles. “Did the King know you were coming?”
I suppose not, said Charles. But if his guards on the castle top did not see us arrive, and do not know where we have landed, it would be the first time!
“Then either he or Soren will be here in minutes!”
Mizzouk looked around. “I would invite you in, but … well, first, tell me why you have come, and then we’ll decide how to arrange things.”
“I should introduce myself, and my wife,” said Chander, approaching the wizard. “You know our daughter…’
“But we have not met. Chander is the name, and my wife is Lali. You must be Mizzouk?”
Mizzouk bowed to Lali, and offered a hand to Chander. “Indeed I am. Which of you gifted your daughter with the blood of a magician?”
“I suppose it was me,” said Chander. “My father, and his mother, and … well, you understand.”
“You do not live near here, I gather? Or we would have met before, or I would at least have known your names?”
“We’ve been gone, sir”, responded Lali, “and our home — when we can be there — is a few days’ walk south of here. Charis was adopted from there as a baby and taken to the village north of Whitestone, to be with a family until we could return.”
“Well, that explains much. You do what you have to do. There’s more of a story to be heard, I would guess?”
“Perhaps sometime,” laughed Chander. “There are always more stories!”
And we’re hoping you’ll have one for us, said Charles. A story about someone east of here who could cause some trouble. Perhaps we can dig around in the archives a bit?
“That tells me what I need to do, then,” said Mizzouk. Looking towards the castle, he saw Soren running towards them.
“Here’s our messenger. Since he’s in the mood to run, we’ll send him back to fetch some outdoor tables, and we can spread out the scrolls and see what’s there!”
An hour later the field was spread with wide wooden tables, and the tables were spread with scrolls and parchments. As Mizzouk unrolled likely histories, the King arrived.
“Welcome, Charles. So good to see you again!”
My best to you, my friend. All is well?
“The concern we have is the same as yours — how to prevent your people from being overrun with treasure hunters! And to deal with whatever is behind that… if it turns out to be more than we see at the moment.”
We are now considering that, said Charles. That may well be…
“And you brought some new friends, I see. May I be introduced?”
Charis is really the one to do that … I will tend to the scrolls, said Charles, turning to the tables of parchments.
“Charis! Where are you?” the King called.
She came running over, and hugged him. Dragging him to her parents, she said, “These are my parents! Dad is ‘Chander’, and Mom is ‘Lali’. This is my friend, the King of Romain!”
Lali curtsied, and Chander offered a small bow to the young King. “Our pleasure, sir. And I gather,” added Chander, “that Charis’ newly acquired skills have been of some use to you.”
“Oh, we desperately needed her when things got rough. I’m so glad she was here to help Mom and me. But … do you know my Mom?”
“Indeed we do, thank you. We were together in Salient not long ago.”
“You must visit her home up on the mountainside, if you have not. The only way I’ve been there is on an eagle’s back, so I cannot begin to tell you how to get there!”
“We’ll find a way, then,” laughed Lali. “And you have not been to our home, since Charis has reclaimed it?”
“No! How rude of her. Where is it?”
“I’ve not had a chance, and he knows it!” she retorted, to her parents. For the King, she pointed south and a bit east. “That way, about a three day walk. We can go anytime you’re ready!”
“Well, perhaps when we get this diamond thing sorted out, we can do it. There are no other disasters brewing, as far as I know!”
We Must Prepare
I think I’ve found something, said Charles.
The deep voice of the dragon startled everyone. Did I speak out loud? So sorry!
Charis relayed the apology to those who could not communicate directly.
“Tell us!” said the King. “Good news, or bad? And what are you looking for?”
If the General goes back to Zandor and reports there are no diamonds, whoever sent him may believe that… or they may not. If that person heard it from a reliable source, and he knows about things being hidden, he may come looking for himself.
“If such a person exists, who would that be?” asked the King.
That is our question. And this may be the answer.
Mizzouk looked at them all, and began reading out loud.
“Before the rise of King Arno, before the founding of Salient in the west, there came to Zandor a man of magic. None could resist him, and he had many names for himself. None of them seemed to be his real name, and he cared not what he was called. He wanted no office or role, but soon it was his will that guided everything.
He did not appear to age, for he remained after King Arno had taken the throne for forty and seven years, and King Arno II after him for thirty and one, and the traitor King Leonis for seventeen. Still the man of magic remained, and everyone simply said “he” or “him” with a pause in their sentence, and all knew who was being mentioned.
King Aus followed Leonis, and was overthrown within three years. The people then went to “him” and asked that he be their President, and so it has been until the present time.”
“When was this written, Mizzouk?” asked Chander.
“Perhaps a century ago, I would think.”
“So if this ageless man still runs Zandor, he might still be called ‘President,’ and he would be slow to believe someone like our General.”
We should prepare, said Charles, unless you find something further that says he is gone.
“Nothing,” said Mizzouk. “Current pieces from Zandor make no mention of a magic man, but I think the term ‘President’ is still in use.”
The King turned to Rossen. “Does Vintar know much of the Zandor situation?”
“Doubtfully. Mountains and another realm in between. His news would be rare and unreliable, for the most part, unless he sent someone. Jason comes to mind,” he added with a wink at Soren.
Soren look at the sky and groaned. Those around him laughed.
“But that’s not a bad idea,” said the King. “Let’s suggest it.”
He has helped clear the road of the Salient treasure hunters, added Charles. Our trouble is his trouble, at least in part. He would do it.
“And if it is this man, this creature … and if he comes… we really know nothing of his history before Zandor,” said Chander. “This may be a man my father mentioned from time to time. He traveled to Zandor and much further besides, and I remember his commenting about someone from that region. An evil man, he said, very strong and very quiet. Deadly.”
“Then we must do it,” said the King. “I’ll send someone to Vintar immediately.”
“You and I should go,” said Lali to Chander. “No need for us to stay here, and we will learn more than your average spy.”
“And be in less danger,” he agreed.
Chander turned to the young King and the dragon King. “Shall we go, and be your spies? We ought to check on our repentant friend Shunn, in Salient, anyway, and make sure he stays repentant!”
“Agreed,” said Charles and the King as one. “Do it.”
Charles flew back home that evening, with Mizzouk on his back.
We must prepare, my friend. I fear this man is coming, and he will have no trouble seeing the diamonds.
“But what is he really after?” wondered Mizzouk. “A man like that has no use for diamonds.”
We have nothing else that would interest him. Mountains, caves, desert. There’s nothing here.
“If he were to take sacks of diamonds back, spread them through Romain, Combin, Salient … all of Largente, for that matter … and the whole region of Zandor, what would happen?”
Charles was silent for a moment.
They would all come here.
“And they would be jostling each other, trampling each other, fighting over who found what first, what belonged to whom (none of it to you, of course) … “
And soon they would be at war with each other.
“And you would be at war with all of them.”
But still … Charles glided down to the mountainside, and Mizzouk covered his eyes to not see the impending crash.
What would he gain, this mysterious man who runs Zandor?
Mizzouk thought about it as they landed in the entry cavern.
Sarden came up to greet them. Welcome, Sir Argus. Come refresh yourself, and then we can gather to learn the news.
Half an hour later there were thirty or more dragons around the walls of the cavern, and Mizzouk sat with Charles in the middle of the room.
Charles rehearsed the days events, and the conversation he and Mizzouk were having.
And what is the answer, good sir? Why would such a man want to see that happen?
“My only thought is that when people go to war, there is opportunity for new power to be established. Perhaps Zandor is too small for this man’s pride. Perhaps he would be quite happy to be ruling all the countries we have mentioned, and putting them all at war with each other is a likely way to achieve that.”
If he were to come, and find diamonds, and take some back, as Mizzouk has suggested… and sow the seeds of greed through the lands … it could happen quickly.
Leesen stood and growled, then continued. We should prepare. But first, is there anything we can do to shield the diamonds such that he would not see them?
I have another question, said Charles. When you say ‘prepare’… prepare to do what? How?
To fight them all! said Leesen. What else would we do?
“How much do you suppose is there?” asked Mizzouk.
There was silence for a few moments.
We don’t know, said Charles. Why?
“You have no need of it, true? No use for jewels?”
“Any reason not to give it away?”
“To everybody. To give them what they want, and what you don’t need. And to remove them from your lands. To provide enough that everyone would have some, and no one would need to come here to get any.”
Do men ever have ‘enough’?, asked Leesen. If one stone remained, or even the hope of finding one more stone beyond whatever we gave them … they would be back.
“So the thing we need to remove is any motive to come here … whether for real jewels, or even a vain hope of finding some.”
“Can we make it impossible to come here? Too hard, or too expensive, or too dangerous?”
If we block the road, they would come through the forest. And anyone can come through the deserts to the north and east. Our friends in the villages would also be in danger … we must remember them as well.
“So we need a reason that has nothing to do with the ability to get here … physically … “
If we turned everyone who came into a frog… can you do that, Mizzouk?
“Other than provide music for your evenings, at least in the springtime, what good would that do? Other than leave their families without husbands and fathers.”
Mizzouk shook his head. “Bad idea.”
That’s Not On the Menu!
Chander and Lali walked into Salient late in the day, and got a room at Robbin’s place by sundown.
“Shall we go find him?”
“Sure,” said Lali, “hopefully at a fabulous restaurant!”
“Or a tolerable cafe?” Chander was less hopeful.
They paused at the entrance to the open-air cafe. Large candles in wire baskets stood on poles along the sidewalk, and more were mounted on the building itself, so the patio was well lit. Half the tables were in use, no more.
“I think a late supper must be the tradition here. Good! The waiters won’t be too busy, and neither will the cooks.”
“The chefs, honey, the chefs. A fabulous restaurant, remember?” Lali looked at him reproachfully. “We can hope!”
“You hope. I’ll eat whatever they bring”, laughed Chander. “That walk gets longer every time we do it!”
They sat at the first table inside the low wall surrounding the patio, and Chander leaned his staff against it. A familiar waiter came up.
“Any more of those fake jewels?” he said. “I really liked mine, until little Sal climbed up on my cabinet and took it to play with!”
“No,” said Chander, “but next time Charis is here, you can ask her!”
Chander looked around the patio.
“Is Shunn here, by the way? I don’t see him immediately.”
“Should be any time,” said the waiter, also looking around. “Normally shows up just after dark, and normally sits … where you are, ma’am. So he’ll find you, if you don’t find him! But for now… beer? Wine? Water from that awful river?”
“Some kaff for me,” said Chander.
“Awful river water, please!” said Lali. “I never pour alcohol on an empty stomach.”
“Let’s fix that, too!” said the waiter. “We have clayfish, fresh from Awful River but well-cooked … actually, we cook the water too, but it doesn’t help the flavor … and some crabs, and venison. Whitetail, brought down yesterday by a new cook.”
“Chef?” said Lali, smiling sweetly at him.
“No, he’s a cook. The chef is the tall fellow with red hair and the black beard… oh, you were making a joke. Sorry.”
He continued, “We would have beef, but the ranchers are mad at us after walking halfway to Whitestone and back, with nothing to show for it. And we have lamb, on skewers with vegetables. Think about it. I’ll get your drinks.”
It would not be quick, since he was flagged down by three other tables before he got to the kitchen. Chander watched the street, and soon picked out Shunn meandering down the pavement and looking like he was not headed anywhere at all.
Shunn got to the opening in the wall, turned to “his” table, and stopped.
“Welcome, Shunn,” said Chander, standing to greet him. “We saved you a chair.” Lali nodded to him, and he touched the front of his cap.
“Evening, ma’am, and Chander. Haven’t seen you since that amazing stuff on the northern road. Did you really ride away on a dragon, or did I dream all that?”
“Did we?” said Lali, looking at Chander. “Or did I have the same dream?”
“Hmm. Seems like I remember it too. Did we all have the same dream?”
“Must have happened,” said Shunn. “Amazing.”
He looked around and waved at someone. “He’ll bring my beer, now that he’s seen me. You should try some. Brewed right here, using our incredibly good river water and barley from a farm on the other side.”
Chander smiled, but did not say anything.
“Oh. You’ve heard about the river. Yes, I’d recommend something that used to walk, not swim. I think too many animals poop in it upstream from us, or something. But they do boil it, before making the beer, so …”
His voice trailed off as the waiter brought a kaff, a glass of water, and a mug of beer.
Shunn peered at the glass. “You’re drinking it straight, ma’am? No lime, no salt, no cactus peelings, no …nothing?”
She took a sip, and made a face. “Oh, you’re right, it’s awful.” Then she slowly drank the entire glassful without stopping. “Ah, good. That was a long walk!”
The waiter stood there, staring. Finally he shook his head. “Now can I bring you something to fill your stomach, so you’ll try our beer?”
“Venison,” said Shunn. “She’ll have the venison, and so will I. With carrots” - he winked at Lali - “from Sylvia’s garden, and tomatoes from mine.”
Lali nodded at the waiter. “Sounds good.”
“I’ll have the three-layer lasagna with angel hair pasta and minestrone, please,” said Chander.
The waiter looked at him without speaking.
“You said you had a chef.”
The waiter wrote on his pad, nodded to everyone, and left.
“What are you doing, honey? That’s not on the menu!”
“It will be after tonight.”
“Why are you here again?” asked Shunn.
“To see how you’re doing, for one… and then we thought we’d wander on over to Zandor and check on the General.”
“I’m good. Staying low, being nice to everyone, trying not to invite that wretched thing back into my life. Thank you, again.”
He wiped his forehead. “That was awful.”
“But as for Lang,” he said, “I got to know him a bit as we walked there and back, and since then I heard one bit of news… he’s not a general anymore. Somebody else got that job.”
Chander and Lali looked at each other without speaking.
“Who was his boss, do you know?” said Lali, turning to Shunn.
Shunn shook his head. “Never heard his name. They have a ‘President’ over there, but I don’t know his name either. Maybe that’s him.”
“Any wizards over there, any sorcerers, any stories of funny things happening?”
“No… but it is kind of odd, about their President. He never changes. No one else ever gets the job. I think the same man has been running the place since…. Well, you’ll laugh, but since my father was born, and maybe since his father was born … and my Pa has been dead twelve years now.”
When Chander and Lali reached Jardan, the capital of Zandor, the city was full of people, all moving fast in one direction or the other. Stores were open along every street, and the markets were busy. A storm has just passed over, so the streets were wet and the shoes were muddy.
“Let’s get out of the way. Find a sandwich somewhere, and ask directions.”
A block later they saw a bald, lanky man pushing a cart and calling out, “Beef and bread, beef and bread, come and get it!”
“I like him already,” said Chander, and walked up alongside the cart. “Got any left?”
“Ha! Enough for you? Maybe! How hungry are you?”
“And my wife,” Chander said, “or I’ll never hear about anything else!”
“The best for her, then,” he said, nodding to Lali, “but I’m guessing you could clean me out by yourself! You and I must be the tallest men in the city! Passing through?”
“How did you know, sir? And what is your name?” asked Lali.
“No one else in the city be wearing purple like your scarf, ma’am, you’ll notice. A local superstition. The President wears black, and if anything else, it’s purple, so everyone else leaves it alone, not to offend him, or be putting on airs, or some such.”
Lali looked around. Maybe a hundred people easily in sight, and not a one had purple that she could see.
“Now some of the men, they might wear a little purple underneath, so when they’re at home they can say to the lady, ‘I be the President in this house!’… but it doesn’t go too far to say that, in my place!”
“I’m Lali, sir, and this is Chander. Your name, and you’ll be our first … and only … friend in all of Zandor!”
“Honored, ma’am. Miss Lali, Mr. Chander … I’m Stru. That’s it, just Stru… if there’s more, they never told me. Now… what would you like?”
“Two of those,” said Chander, pointing to a painting above the cart that showed a slice of beef tucked into a long, thin pastry. “And three of them for my wife.”
Stru looked at him sharply, waiting for what had to come next.
“Well,” said Chander, “I may have to help her with the third one… and maybe the second …”
“Maybe!” said Lali, with a wink at Stru. “We’ll see.”
“Have a seat at that table … right …. There!” said Stru, pointing at two tables in front of a drink vendor. “Tell them Stru sent you, and ask for my favorite lemonade. I’ll pack up the cart and join you, since you’ve just about emptied my basket. Just need to sell one more slice, and I’m done.”
“But you’re working!” exclaimed Lali.
“As your only friend, what else can I do? Surely I can’t be rude, and leave you wandering at the mercy of every pick-pocket and vagabond that sees you! With that scarf, they’ll all come looking!”
He pushed the cart further down the street, calling out “Beef and bread, almost gone, get it now!”
Lali worked her way to the tables, and took a seat at one just after the other was suddenly full as well.
A bright blue dress full of a smiling waitress appeared. “Welcome, strangers! I’m Julia. Something to drink?”
“Stru’s favorite lemonade, Julia, if you’ve still got some, and we’ll need three!” said Lali, as she untied her scarf and tucked it into her bag. “Never would have guessed,” she said to Chander, as he smiled. “Some things you just have to be told!”
Stru walked briskly up the table as the lemonade was set before them. “I see you told her,” said Julia, placing each glass and hurrying off to the next table.
“So.” Stru settled in and took a long sip of lemonade. “Ah, as good as always. I’m amazed there’s any sugar left in the realm, after she makes a batch of this!”
He set down the half-empty glass.
“What else can I tell you, wandering wayfarers?”
“Is there a presidential palace to see?” asked Lali, looking around. “You have a President in Zandor, don’t you? And he would probably live here in the capital?”
“We do, and he does, and there is,” said Stru. “Four blocks that way, and ten blocks to the right. Might want to catch one of these horse-and-wagon guys for a ride.”
A bright red wagon with a bench seat and a single small horse pulling it came rolling by, full of people.
“Just cost you two stubs per person, for that distance. Unless you like long walks, of course.”
“We walk a lot,” said Chander. “If you’ll let us pay for the lemonade, we’ll get some change, though, and have some local money.”
“That will be hard to do,” laughed Stru. “No charge, when you’re with me!”
“Really!” exclaimed Lali. “Are you that popular?”
“Only with my wife,” he said, pointing at Julia. “It’s my shop!”
They approached the palace slowly, coming from the north. The palace faced west, and the sun was setting. The full-on rosy light of the sunset streamed across an open field and lit up the front of the palace beautifully, the ornate patterns of red brick, white grout, and painted columns glowing and finely etched.
They stopped a block away and admired the view.
“Nice, isn’t it?” asked a lady walking towards them, who stopped and turned to enjoy the view as well.
“Beautiful,” agreed Lali. “Is he here?”
“The President? Normally … but I hear he is away at the moment. Strange, that is, he never travels … we never see him much, but when he’s gone there’s a different feel to the city, and we almost know without being told. Anyway … he left a few days ago, and no one knows where he went. Or why.”
Then she laughed.
“Except General Lang would know, I bet!” And she laughed again.
“Just guessing, I am, but … he came back from a trip, and rumor from the soldiers was they were looking for treasure. But they found none. And there was talk of dragons and such, but the General, he came back empty-handed… and he’s not a general anymore! So I guess he would know!”
She turned to continue up the sidewalk.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” called Chander. “I knew a General Lang, and I think he was from Jardan. Where could I find this man, to see if he is my old friend?”
“Back up the street here, a tall place on the left with a fancy gate.” And she was gone.
“What do you think?” said Chander. “Shall we go explore the palace… or make ourselves known to the General?”
“I think we know the answer, already, honey. If they can feel it when he’s gone, then our fears are confirmed. And my guess is that there are things set in the palace that would let him know we had entered… so there’s no exploring we can do, that would not set off alarms. And if he left after Lang reported failure, we know where he’s headed.”
She thought about it a little longer. “Let’s go see Lang. He won’t report us to the President — at least not until asked — any more than Stru would!”
A New Old Friend
Chander and Lali walked slowly up the street in the direction the passing lady had indicated.
The first place they came to that might fit the description had flowerpots in the second floor windows, a fancy gate, and weeds growing around the base of the building. The door looked in need of painting, or refinishing of some kind.
“Not here,” said Lali. “No military man would leave a place looking like this!”
A block further they came to a more likely candidate. The sun was down, and had set behind the building, so it was in full shade, and the light in the sky was fading. Lights were on in an upstairs window, but not in the downstairs rooms. The gate was fashioned metal, and you could call it fancy, thought Lali, but it wasn’t frivolous. And there was not a weed in sight.
“This is it.”
Chander pressed on the gate handle, but it did not give. A small bell hung on the fence to the left.
“A layer of protection before you get to the door,” he commented, and rang the bell gently.
The curtain opened upstairs for a moment, and then closed.
One, two, three … Lali imagined him coming down the stairs and crossing to the door. Right on her mark, the front door opened.
“General Lang,” called Chander. “I walked with you on the trip to see the dragon.”
“Yes, I recognize you. And this is your wife? She was there also, at the end.”
“Indeed it is, Sir. May we come in?”
Lang came to the gate and unlocked it.
“Please do. I have no visitors, ever, so this is a treat. I will have some roast pork on the table in a few minutes, with tomatoes and lettuce from my own garden. Will you join me?”
Lali smiled. A general who was also a gardener? She could get to like this man!
They followed him up the three steps to the wide wooden doors, stepped in, and waited for him to close the doors behind them.
The downstairs entry hall was wide and tall, with polished oak walls and a ceiling painted a very dark green. He noticed her looking up at it.
“Green above, and dark wood all around. I feel like I’m in the deep forest. Do you like it?”
“Are generals usually also gardeners and lovers of wilderness?” asked Lali?
“I’ll take both of those as compliments,” he said. “Please … this way.”
They walked to the back of the house, coming out of the hallway onto a wildly colorful carpet in a room full of deep-cushioned chairs. Candles illuminated paintings all along the walls.
“An artist as well! General!”
She walked to the closest painting, a simple forest scene with a meadow overflowing with yellows, blues, and whites. An eagle soared above the flowers, and a mountain rose in the distance.
“Chander,” she said. “Come here. I think I recognize that peak!”
Chander stepped up close and peered at it. “Yes,” he said, and stepped away.
“You painted this, didn’t you?” she said, pointing to the initials “RL” at the bottom right corner, almost hidden by the frame.
“Depends. Do you like it?”
“Very much! In fact … if I had a wall put it on … and a way to get it there … I would beg to buy it from you! That’s our home you’ve painted, we’re just past that peak!”
“Really! Miles away from where I stood, of course. Really! How interesting!”
He waved them to chairs and took one himself.
“You are very, very far from home, then. I remember where I was, when I saw that meadow out in front of me, and it was several days south and west of here!”
He waited, and she said nothing.
“So… “ he continued, “Why are you here?”
“To visit an old friend,” laughed Chander. “You!”
“Hardly a friend,” said Lang. “Hardly. You saw me at my worst! Having to kidnap the leader of another town, and being made a fool of by a … by a dragon, or the girl riding it, whichever!”
“Charis,” said Lali. “Our daughter. Did she treat you well, on the dragon’s back?”
“Your daughter? Again, you amaze me! But you rode away on the beast at the end, didn’t you. My heavens, what a family! Tell me … I have nothing to gain or lose by knowing, except perhaps my sanity … was she really talking to a dragon, or was that all a ruse, and the animal was just trained?”
Chander shook his head. “That was real. You rode on Sir Argus, king of the dragon clan at Whitestone, and I’m sure she translated well for you. I can confirm what was said while we were all together, so I’m confident she was hearing him well when you rode together …”
“You understood the beast too?”
“And you, I suppose?” he said to Lali. “Am I the only mortal in the room?”
Lali laughed. “We’re all just mortals, General. Some have better hearing than others, I suppose… my husband and daughter can hear things that we can’t. That I can’t, certainly.”
Lang shook his head. “That is so hard to … believe.”
“I know,” she said. “But those two can do lots of things that are hard to believe. I just hang around for the fun of it!”
Lang relaxed back into his chair. “Well. I guess I’m glad to know I have not completely lost my mind. It was … really … it was wonderful, up there. And your daughter must have done something for me, I had no stomach upset at all. If I just stand on the roof and look down, I can hardly … Wait! What if …. Excuse me!”
Lang pulled himself up out of the chair, and almost ran to the stairs. He trotted up them, and they could hear him going up a third flight of stairs, then opening a door that must have been at the top. After about a minute, the door closed again and he bounded down.
“She did it. It’s gone! I thought it was something for that moment … but I’m fine. It’s gone. Please, when you see here, give her my abundant thanks!”
Lali nodded, and laughed. “That’s wonderful!”
“But…” the general sat back down slowly, and a look of great sadness came over his face.
“I am no longer a general.”
Let’s Take Horses
They waited. Lali was not surprised, but he could not have known they had already guessed that.
“When I came back, I thought I would be admired. Who has ever flown on a dragon? And all the troops saw it, and knew it was true.”
He shook his head, and looked down.
“But the President did not care, and acted like he thought I had been deceived by your daughter. And … really … all the troops saw, was that I left and then came back. And none of us knew, really, what the dragon said, or even if he actually said anything at all.”
“So he thought you were lying?”
“No… probably he did not give me that much credit! Just that I was a fool, and someone had tricked me, and he would have to take care of the matter himself.”
“You said you’re not a general any more?”
Lang nodded. “He took one of my men, made him a general, and told the man to give me a desk job somewhere … doing nothing … forever.”
Lang’s eyes watered, but he did not reach for a handkerchief.
“And the man began calling me ‘Private Lang’, so that must be what the President told him to say.”
“I’m sorry,” said Lali. “I don’t think we can help much. Wish we could.”
“There might be a way…” said Chander. “But it will take some work.”
He winked at Lang. “If I can get it done, I’ll let you know!”
Lang smiled, and wiped his eyes. “You know… I would not be surprised! I will not be surprised at anything you people do! Come, let’s have dinner!”
As they took seats at the dining table, with deep purple curtains all around and a chandelier above, Lang placed a silver soup bowl in front of them. “Here’s the ladle,” he said, offering the silver spoon to Lali. “Please.”
She dished some steaming tomato soup into the bowl before her, and handed the ladle to Chander.
“Are you really … a doctor?” said Lang, pulling up his own chair and taking his turn with the ladle.
Lali smiled. “Tell you the truth, General … you’ll have to excuse me, but you’re still a General to me, and maybe you’ll ride that horse again! … To tell you the truth, my husband is just about whatever he wants to be. If you tripped down those stairs, I have no doubt he could put you back together again!”
Lang looked at Chander and waited.
“Well … I could try!” and he laughed.
“What was wrong with Shunn, when we took him? You didn’t say, exactly, but he certainly looked shaky. What happened? And what happened to that room before we walked in? An explosion?”
“Yes,” said Chander slowly, “an explosion. That’s exactly right. And Shunn had been right there when it happened … lived through it, but barely. I really was concerned about him, and felt like he needed somebody looking after him for a while. To you and the troops, he was just baggage.”
“True,” nodded Lang. “We took him because the President told me to. He was of no use to us, of course, and I’m sure it was hard on him.”
“He seemed fine by the end,” said Chander. I think all is well, there.”
“Tell us about your President,” said Lali. “I know nothing about him.”
“That’s about as much as the rest of us know, really.” The General stirred his soup slowly. “Have no idea where he came from. Wasn’t born here. Have no idea how long he’s been here, or even how old he is. In fact … I can’t even tell you his real name.”
“Was he elected? That’s normally what the word means,” said Chander.
“Hmm. Probably. But elections stopped happening a very long time ago, and no one seems to care.”
“So he’s a good man? People trust him? Has he done good things for Zandor?”
“We’re not at war … not yet, anyway. Things seem to be going well. People are born, grow up, make a living, have families, die … normal life goes on. Not sure what he does, exactly, but having a government that stays out of your daily life is a teacup no one wants to spill!”
Lali laughed. “Indeed, indeed.”
“But … is he a good man? Hmm. No one opposes him, so it’s hard to say what would happen if they did. That’s when you see the cloth a man is made of, you know … not so much when things are going as he desires, but when they are not.”
He paused to take a few spoonfulls of soup, then said, “Oh, excuse me, I must look after the meat!” And he left the room.
“I’m sure we’ve found our problem,” said Chander. “An ageless man, ruling by some indefinable power, staying in the background and making sure nothing disruptive happens. Keeping his territory well in hand, and free to wander off and do whatever he likes. If there were a rebellion, what do you suppose would happen?”
Lali shook her head. “Complete disaster for the people here. Instant, unrelenting, grinding oppression. Complete darkness.”
Chander nodded. “And where do you suppose he has gone?”
Lang strode back into the room with a platter of roast pork and the trimmings, steaming hot. “Got there just in time! I think you’ll like this!”
He set it down before them, and turned the handles of a large fork and a carving knife towards Chander.
“Have at it!”
“Now,” he said, settling back into his chair, “you were just asking where he has gone? The President?”
“Yes,” said Lali. “What do you think?”
“My guess would be that he has gone down the Combin road, and intends to go up to Whitestone and look around.”
“Oh, absolutely. In fact, I’ve never seen him work… or travel… with anyone. Everything he does is … you know, that’s very odd, now that I think about it. Why do you suppose that is?”
“So no one will know who, or what, he really is,” said Lali. “I think that’s pretty clear.”
“What do you mean, ‘what he is’? He’s a man. What else could he be?”
When dinner was over, they retired to sit before a fireplace in the main room, and talked until far past midnight.
“What will you do now?” asked Lang.
“Go to Whitestone. Offer what help we can.”
“Really! How will you get there?”
“Walk, I suppose. No dragons handy to carry us!”
“Let’s take horses. I can take mine anytime I want, and no one expects me to be anywhere or do anything, now. I can get two more as easy as not. Do you ride?”
“You would go with us?”
“I’m a soldier. Sounds like I might be of some help. I can do a few things besides sit a horse, or sit a dragon, for that matter!”
“How soon could you leave?”
“Before the sun comes up, if you like!”
“Let’s do it. Thank you.”
They stood to leave, and Lang said, “Where are you staying?”
Chander shook his head. “We just walked into town today, and have made no arrangements at all, now that you mention it. I don’t know.”
Lang led them back to the entry hall and across to a small door on the other side. He opened it and led them into a cozy bedroom with its own bathroom, and a small reading room to the side.
“Guest quarters. Make yourself at home. I’ll have three horses in the back yard before dawn, and poached eggs waiting in the kitchen. Good night!”
With that, he was gone, and they looked at each other.
“The adventure continues!”
When they came down from the second mountain range, left the country of Largente, and finally reached the fork leading to the northern road, they pulled to a stop, dismounted, and stretched a bit. Chander led the horses over to the grass on the side of the road.
Lali was amazed. “I knew it would be faster, on horseback. But that was several days’ walk we just finished, and we didn’t even hurry!”
“Probably my last ride,” said the General, patting his horse and rubbing her neck. “I should call her ‘Tasty’, in honor of .. Sir Argus? … Was that his name?”
“Why your last ride?”
“What happens when a Private steals three horses?” He shrugged. “If I were still in charge, I might hang him!” He laughed. “I probably shouldn’t go back, without a very, very good excuse!”
“No problem,” said Chander. “We will join you for dinner at that same table some day.”
Lang shook his head. “It’s amazing. I actually believe you!”
“So… which way?” said Lali, standing in the intersection and looking north. “Follow him to Whitestone? Or go back to Combin, see if Charis is there, and decide what to do?”
“Or… follow him to Romain?”
“Oh! You think he might have gone there!”
“Who knows? He’s not in a hurry. And if he has designs on invading, conquering, or just disrupting the local situation… he might want to wander in and look around.”
Chander looked down one road, and then the other.
“We can’t do much, if we follow him to Whitestone. He’ll be there before us, or we’ll overtake him … But if we slip into Combin or Romain, especially if Charis is there … and the King … maybe we can do something.”
“Agreed,” said Lali. “Let’s go.”
Lang stepped up into a stirrup and was instantly in the saddle. His horse sat without twitching, perfectly frozen.
“How do you do that?” laughed Lali. “I can ride, but … you and ‘Tasty’ have a pretty special thing together!”
“Years,” said Lang. “Just years. But I can teach you, if the world turns in a way that gives us time!”
Chander swung a leg over and settled into his saddle. “Lali, the problem is, you don’t weigh anything! The poor horse doesn’t know if you’re even there!”
“You, on the other hand …” said Lang, “leave no doubt!”
“What can I say?” Chander replied. “Both my parents were even taller than I am!”
They began a canter down the middle of the road.
“General,” said Lali, “will he recognize you?”
“We should choose a name for the man we’re following,” suggested Chander. “Since we have no idea what it really is, we can use anything. Ideas?”
“Hambone,” said Lali.
Lang laughed. “Sorry, I can’t … we could never have a serious conversation about him!”
Lang shook his head. “How about something that reminds us he’s actually … dangerous?”
“Striker,” said Chander. “Because he might, at any moment… strike.”
“Striker. I’m good with that. You, ma’am?”
“Sure,” she said, but I did kind of like ‘Hambone’!”
“Another problem is that he would recognize me.”
“And the horses?”
“No. There were a hundred in the stables, and I don’t think he ever got within a mile of the fort. Had no interest in it, and certainly no interest in our horses!”
“So the problem is … you. He certainly won’t know us.”
“Simple,” said Chander. “You were always in uniform, right?”
“And you were always absolutely sharp, clean, impeccable.”
“And you were in Zandor … many miles that way.” He waved a hand behind him.
“So with no uniform, dressed in ragged traveling clothes (we could dress you down a bit more), and with some dirt here and there … a hundred miles from where he expects you to be … oh, and take off the moustache. And I’ve got some glasses here … nothing but glass in the lens, just for disguise … here they are,” he said, digging them out of his pack.
“So … clothes, place, cleanliness, glasses, moustache … and let me shave your head. It’ll grow back in a month, and meantime, your own family would have no idea who you are!”
They trotted the horses into a shaded grassy area off to the side where a small stream meandered across their path. After they dismounted, Lali poked around in her pack, and came up with a stick of soap.
“Come on, she said, and waved Lang to the stream.
“I thought I was supposed to be dirty!” he objected.
“You do not want Chander to shave your head without a little help from this,” she laughed, and rubbed her hands in the water with the soap. “Don’t bother taking your shirt off. If we make it look even more travel-worn, the better.”
He knelt down by the water, dunked his head, and she lathered up his head.
“And my moustache,” he said sadly. “That will take longer to come back!”
“I think the new army regulations in Zandor will allow Generals to have full beards,” said Chander. “In fact, I’m sure of it!”
He pulled a knife from his belt and a stone from his pack. “Let me freshen this up a bit.” Stroking the knife across the stone a few times, he smiled. “Nice.” He drew it gently down the top of his arm, and a smooth bare patch appeared. “Very nice. Ready?”
Lang sat cross-legged where Chander could work from behind, and soon the ground around him was well decorated with dark brown hair.
“Here,” he said, “hand me the knife. I can do the moustache.” And he did.
When they were finished, and he put on the pretend glasses, Lali clapped. “Wonderful! What was your name, again?”
“Actually” … said Chander … “what is your name? It can’t be Lang!”
“I’ll guess,” said Lali. “Robert?”
“How in the world…” exclaimed Lang.
“Your painting. Signed by R.L.”
“There you go,” said Lang. “Half of magic is just paying attention, I suppose!”
“Much more than half,” agreed Chander. “Much, much more. So … Robert it is. Does what’s-his-name… Striker… know that?”
“I would be amazed,” said Lang. “He cares less about his people than he does about their horses. Although … strange … I never realized that until now, and I don’t think anyone in Zandor has … but if you asked them, and they thought about, I’m sure that would be the answer!”
He stood staring at the ground. “Strange. Very strange.”
“All right, then. I’m Robert, and we’re following Striker. Going by your own names?”
“Yes, we should,” said Chander. “We were there recently, and changing names would cause confusion, and that would draw attention.”
Robert jumped on his horse. “Let’s go! I’m getting excited about … helping to change the world, maybe! Instead of spending my life running small errands for a very strange man!”
They rode into Combin at evening. The town was ghostly silent. No lights were in the windows, no people were in the streets. Several times they had to walk the horses around tree branches, large ones, lying in the street as though some giant had pitched them there. At one point Chander pointed to a shop with a severely damaged roof, and then to a great stone that was in their way. “That came from there, I think.”
Eight blocks in, they came to the castle and soldiers approached them with torches.
They halted the horses and waited. Three soldiers came to take the bridles of the horses, and six more formed a circle around them. All had swords drawn. Two archers came up between the soldiers and the castle gates, with bows partly drawn and arrows fitted.
Nothing was said, and a man walked slowly from the castle gate to stand behind the soldiers.
“Who are you?” he said.
“We are Chander, my wife Lali, and a friend from Zandor, Robert. We left Romain a couple of weeks ago, and passed through here on the way to Jardan. Sent by Rossen, in fact.”
“I remember you now,” the man said. “I am Vintar, Rossen’s brother, Regent of Combin. Please dismount, and come with me. The men will tend to your horses.”
He turned and walked back to the castle, and Chander noticed he was limping and moving quite slowly.
They dismounted, handed the reins to soldiers, and followed him.
As they mounted the steps of the castle and entered, soldiers took place on the steps and the doors were firmly closed.
Vintar let the way to a side room off the great hall, and invited them to seats clustered closely around a fireplace with embers burning. He stood in front of them, and said, “Tell me of your journey.”
“The only thing that matters,” said Chander “ … well, two things. Shunn, the man of Salient that was sending treasure hunters in this direction, will do so no more. And beyond him, at Jardan, ruling over Zandor, we found a great evil. We believe he has come this way, although he may have turned north to Whitestone.”
“He came this way,” said Vintar, and waited.
“No one knows his name, or age, or origin, and certainly not his thought or purpose. But he heard of the diamonds, sent soldiers to gather some, and was apparently furious when they came back empty-handed.”
He looked at Robert. “Our friend is the general who led that effort, and was then demoted. How do you like the disguise?”
Vintar laughed. “It is perfect. Thank you, I needed to laugh, it has been a rough couple of days! I will assume ‘Robert’ is also a disguise, and not ask for more!”
Robert nodded to him.
“Well. That fits. Our evil friend has apparently gone to Romain, and I have sent messengers to warn them… if they can arrive soon enough.”
He paused, turned to the fire, and set a small handful of kindling on the embers. Straightening up, he stretched, as though his back were stiff and hurting.
“But you have described one man,” said Vintar. “There were two.”
Chander and Lali looked at each other.
“No,” said Lali, “that is news. We only know of one. Perhaps he brought someone from Salient?”
Vintar shrugged. “I should tell you what happened, for I don’t mean to keep secrets, and perhaps you can go quickly to Romain and help them. They will need it… I suspect there is more to you than a simple traveling couple.”
He raised an eyebrow at Chander, who nodded a simple acknowledgement.
“You are … are you Charis’ father?” he asked.
Again, Chander nodded, and Vintar smiled. “I see the resemblance,” he said, looking at Lali and drawing a hand down his face. “I do. And if the resemblance goes as deep as I think it does, you should hurry. Let me feed you and the horses, and tell you what I can. You can be on your way as soon as you are rested enough.”
He waved to a soldier standing by the inside of the door, and gave instructions. The man quickly left.
“They came yesterday morning,” Vintar began.
“People were at the markets, children in the streets, a beautiful day. Two men walked in from the east. One was dressed in black, silent, looking about. Did not have the look of a traveler, somehow… he could have stepped out of a building moments earlier, and looked no different.
The other was dressed in white, bald with many tattoos, and very different. No shoes. Nervous, jumpy, could not be still.
At first we did not realize they were together, because the man in white came into town most of an hour before the other one did.
The first one … the one in white … began doing magic tricks, when he came to the place where we stopped you. A bird would appear in his hand and then fly up. Or one would fly down to him, sit in his hands, and when he closed and opened them, be gone. Simple things, but the children gathered around, and soon the adults did too.
Our men then noticed the second man arrive. He never looked at the clown, or whatever he is … but with everyone’s attention on the clown, he walked along the storefronts and around the edge of the clearing in front of this building.
One of my men saw him stealing food from a baker, and then the butcher, as they were distracted. He simply picked things up and ate them, with no effort to pay. So my fellow confronted him, and suddenly my soldier was unconscious on the ground. The visitor then calmly walked on, as though nothing had happened. A guard here at the gate called an alarm, and we quickly had the fellow surrounded.
He just stood there, saying nothing … but at that point the clown burst into flames, and everyone went into a panic. Some tried to help the man who was burning, others simply ran away.
Pretty quickly it was obvious the flames were a trick, and the man was not burning at all. But when we looked again at the black-robed man, he was gone. And suddenly he was standing on the steps of the castle.
“Where is the king?” he asked one of the guards.
“In Romain,” said the guard. “Then I will be king,” he said, and began to walk into the castle. The guards declared he would do no such thing, and held their pikes across the entrance. There was an explosion, and they were thrown to the side.
I came to the door at that moment, from the inside, and confronted him. He demanded to know who I was, for he took me as a king, I suppose. Indeed, I was the king, before … well, never mind. So I told him I am the Regent, serving the King who sits in Romain.
“‘Romain!’ he exclaimed. ‘Romain is the capital of this place?’”
I nodded, and he simply turned around and walked back into the street.
“‘You! He shouted as a man who stood staring. ‘Which way is Romain?’ My poor fellow pointed, and the man started walking that way. Then he turned, and shouted to the … clown, or whatever … ‘give them something so they’ll remember us!’”
“And suddenly trees were falling, and buildings were exploding, and people were running, hiding, and being hurt. I don’t think we lost anyone, through all that, but … it was terrible.”
“And then they left?” asked Chander.
“And then they left.”
“When was that?”
“Yesterday … morning.”
“So they would be in Romain by this evening.”
“We should hurry,” said Lali. “Can we ride at night? Can we ride and be sure we will not overtake them on the road?”
“You can take a southern road that comes into Romain on the other side of town. It’s probably two miles further, but on horseback, that’s not much. Would you prefer I give you three fresh horses?”
“Not for me,” said Robert, “but for you two that would be good. I want ‘Tasty’ with me.”
Vintar looked at him with a questioning look.
Robert smiled. “That’s what the dragon called her… so I guess that’s her name now!”
Again, Vintar laughed. “Again, thank you. Well… you should eat and go.”
“Before we do…” said Chander. “Stand here for a moment.”
The Regent stood where Chander indicated, and Chander placed his hands on his back. “Here?” he asked?
“Does it hurt there? Very much!” said Vintar.
Chander stood with his hands on the place, and as a couple of minutes went by, Vintar steadily relaxed, and stood straighter.
“Much, much better, my friend. I won’t even ask what you did! Now eat … through here, it should be ready … and I’ll go have fresh horses prepared.”
“What are diamonds, really? Besides something the people fight over?”
Gondel and his brother were the only black dragons Gelat had ever seen, and since they came to Whitestone to apologize for what happened in Salient, they were becoming good friends.
“I don’t know. Stones, I guess. They sparkle, at least when you see them from up above and the sun is bright.” Gelat and Gondel were curled up at the side of the cavern, while the older dragons talked about what could be done about the treasure hunters.
“They talked about them all the time in that place where we were in cages,” said Gondel, “but I couldn’t tell that anyone there had ever seen them either.”
“I’ve seen them,” said Gelat. “But only far away. Want to go look?”
Gondel looked across the room. “Sure. Nothing to do here!”
They walked slowly around the edge of the great meeting room and slipped out the hallway to a cave entrance.
“Is this the one that disappears?” Gondel asked.
“They all do that. This one goes out pretty low on the east side, not too far from the mountain where the diamonds spilled out.”
“Have the older ones looked to see where they’re coming from, and how much there is?”
“I don’t think so,” said Gelat, pushing through the brush that partially covered the cave opening. The afternoon sun was behind them, shining on the face of the ‘diamond mountain’. “They don’t care about them, so it’s just a nuisance… they put a shield over them, like they do over the cave entrances, but … I don’t think anyone has actually been on the ground there.”
They flew up from the entrance and headed across the valley.
“I don’t see anything.”
“It’s on the other side of this one,” said Gelat. “Maybe that’s why we didn’t know it was there until after the crows saw it.”
“That’s who carried the news to where we were,” said Gondel.
“How did you get captured by those people?”
“Nets. We were sleeping outside that night, in a low place with cliffs around, and they came at night and threw nets down on us.”
“Were your parents around?”
Gondel was silent for a moment. “Haven’t seen our parents for a long, long time,” he finally said. “Maybe they got caught too, I don’t know … but I don’t think those nets would have worked on them. They just never came home, one day … and we’ve been alone. Something happened to them, I guess.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” said Gelat. “Maybe we can go find them! Look, down there. In shadow now, so you don’t see them sparkling… and they’re hidden, of course. We have to get closer.”
They glided down to a rocky valley where it looked like a recent rockslide had poured down like a waterfall from a tear in the side of the mountain. As they landed on the rocks and sand, the shiny diamonds appeared all around them and far up the side.
“Gelat, look!” Gondel put his foot down on a diamond, and it crushed to powder.
“I thought they were rocks! These diamonds are soft… like sand!”
Gelat poked around to find a large one, then pressed on it and the same thing happened.
“I’ve never heard of diamond dust!” said Gelat. “Maybe these aren’t diamonds after all!”
He poked around and stepped on a few more, and every one of them did the same thing.
“Let’s take some back, if we can carry them without turning them into powder! I want Sir Argus to see this!”
They each took a few into their mouths and flew back to the home mountain. It was a quiet trip, since they dared not speak, for fear of crushing the precious cargo.
When they walked back into the meeting hall, the discussion was breaking up. Gelat found Charles and stood in front of him without speaking.
“Gelat? Is something wrong?” Gondel came up beside him, and they both gently rolled the “diamonds” out of their mouths onto the floor.
“You brought some of the diamonds? Why?”
Without speaking, Gelat raised a claw and gently pressed down on one of the stones. It turned to powder under his touch, and he pulled his claw back.
Charles stared at the ground, then put his claw down on another one of the stones and did the same thing.
“Sarden,” he called. “Come look at this.”
Sarden came to them, and Charles said, “Watch.”
He pressed on a third stone, and took back his claw.
Both the older dragons looked at it for a moment, then looked at each other.
“Those aren’t diamonds,” said Sarden.
“These are from the diamond spill, right, boys?” said Charles, and both the younger dragons nodded.
Charles raised his voice and called the council back together.
“Gelat and our new friend, Gondel, have been exploring,” he announced. They have brought us some interesting news. The ‘diamonds’ causing all this trouble are not diamonds at all, but a glittering rock that crushes to powder at the lightest touch. I believe taking some of these to each of the cities will end the treasure hunt fever. I will leave for Romain in the morning, and from there travel to Combin, then Salient, then to Jardan… and perhaps we can put an end to the madness.”
He turned back to Gondel and Gelat. “I may need a little help carrying things,” he said. “Would you — and your brother, of course,” he added to Gondel, “like to accompany me? I believe Charis is at Romain, still, in case it matters, Gelat.”
All four of them left early the next morning, and Charles had no hope of keeping up with the younger fliers.
Put It Down!
Chander, Lali, and “Robert” rode into Romain on the west side of town, just at dawn. A few lights were on the homes, and as they came more into the center of town they found a shop or two opening for the day.
Lali looked around. A nice place. She needed to spend more time here someday …
As they approached Castle Romain, soldiers stepped out from between a bakery and a dark, apparently unused shop and seized their bridles. Chander raised his hands, open palms out, and the others did the same.
“Chander and Lali,” he said. “Rossen knows us, and Charis will vouch for us as well, if she is here.”
The soldier holding his bridle looked at a fourth man and nodded towards the castle. The fourth man ran that way. The others pulled the horses behind the empty storefront into an open yard.
They did so, and stepped away from the horses. One soldier stood with them, and the others pulled the horses to a back fence and tied them there.
Suddenly Soren burst into the yard.
“It is you!” he exclaimed. “And …”
Before he could speak out the name of the third traveler, Chander offered it. “Robert,” he said. “You have not met before.”
Soren looked at Robert a moment longer, and then relaxed. “All right, welcome … Robert.”
He turned back to Chander. “Do you know what has happened?”
Chander shook his head. “But I can guess who did it. We followed him here from Zandor, and Vintar told us he had come this way.”
Soren nodded. “Demanded the throne, and things started blowing up when Rossen tried to throw him out. Then the King came, and Charis … well, you need to come help!”
He raised a hand to the soldiers. “I need to get him to the castle - the kitchen entrance.”
The officer in charge waved at two more, and started that way, with himself and Soren in front, and the other two behind, swords drawn.
“Those will be no use,” said Chander to the officer, “but I suppose you know that by now.”
They ran three blocks, turned to the south for two blocks, then east again, and came to the back of the castle. The officer waved his hands at those guarding the entrance, and they pulled the door open, so the travelers ran straight in without stopping. Through the kitchen, into a hallway, and out into the main entry hall. A cylinder of blue energy vibrated in the middle of the hall, with a man standing inside it. Another man seemed to be lying motionless inside the cylinder at his feet.
“Sire, I’ve brought Charis’ parents!”
“I cannot turn to look at you, but welcome to you both, Chander,” said the King. “If you can relieve your daughter, I’m sure she could stand a break from this task … but it takes at least two of us to contain him.”
Chander stepped up next to Charis, and in a moment Charis stepped away, obviously strained and tired. She turned and came to hug Lali.
“My mom is on the way,” continued the King. “We sent an eagle for her. With you here, and with her help, I think we can … deal with this.”
“Is Rossen all right?” Lali asked Charis, as they stood together. Lali felt like she was holding Charis up, that she must be exhausted.
“Yes, maybe …” whispered Charis. “Unconscious, but breathing … his heartbeat is all right … I hope so.”
Aldan, the second man in the cylinder of light, stirred, raised his head, and looked around. Zagon kicked him, and he slowly got to his feet. Something was said between them, and Aldan raised his hands. Yellow light and black smoke filled the blue cylinder, and it began vibrating.
“Charis…” said Chander.
Before she could respond, the blue light vanished and a force exploded from inside the cylinder that knocked everyone in the room off their feet.
Zagon had spoken, and he began walking towards the main castle door. He stopped, and waved to Aldan to go first. Aldan took three unsteady steps towards the main entrance while those in the main hall struggled to get to their feet and follow him.
As Aldan approached the doors, they heard a woman’s voice from outside.
“You still stink! I told you years ago not ever to come here again. You have disobeyed me. Goodbye!”
Lali stared at the man in white. He stopped, stiffened, held his throat, and fell over. He did not move again.
Zagon, the man clothed in black, stepped over Aldan’s body and stood looking out the castle entrance. The King, Chander, and Charis stood behind him, spreading out, and the blue cylinder formed around him again.
The woman outside appeared on the wide steps in front of the door, and an eagle flew up from where she stood.
“Thank you!” she called, without looking away from Zagon.
“Welcome,” said the King. “I think we are all here now. This man claims the throne. We have told him our response, and he has treated us badly. What is your response?”
She shook her head.
“That seems to make it unanimous,” said the King. “Whatever your real name might be, you are guilty of attempted murder of my regent, attempted murder of myself and my soldiers, an attack on my kingdom, and enslavement of whoever that poor soul was that you brought with you.”
Zagon laughed. “So what?”
“Put it down, and you can go,” said the Lady of Combin.
Zagon’s laugh stopped. He looked at her without speaking.
“Put it down,” she repeated. “Now.”
The circle of light tightened around him, leaving only a few inches of space around his body. He did not move.
“Very well, the offer now changes. Put it down, and you will only be imprisoned, but not destroyed.”
“You cannot …” he began, but no more words came. A storefront across the street behind the Lady burst into flames. Without looking back, she raised a hand and it was extinguished. The blue circle tightened.
“No more of such. Last chance. Put it down.”
Zagon slowly reached for the cord around his neck, and untied it at the back. Slowly, slowly, he pulled a large golden circle out from under his robe and held it in both hands.
“Do not look at it!” the Lady called out sharply, and Lali understood she was not talking to Zagon. Hopefully others around understood it too.
“Set. It. Down.”
He quickly raised it over his head and shouted. Lightning flashed inside the castle hall, a strong wind swirled about them, a curtain caught on fire, and the pennants and draperies began waving about.
As one, the Lady, the King, Charis, and Chander raised their hands towards Zagon and the golden plate. Lali stared. What in the world was going on?
Electric tension filled the air. Sparks appeared and disappeared all around them. It became hard to breathe, from the pressure in the air. The golden plate was glowing, and Zagon still held it high over his head.
Something has to happen, thought Lali. This cannot go on!
A flag stand stood near Zagon at the side of the hall, a stand forged in iron and set in stone, twenty feet tall or more and weighing more than any ten men. The King’s pennant flew madly about at the top of the stand, and the stand itself began to rock back and forth on its massive base from the force of the wind surging through the room.
Lali ran to it, fighting that same wind to stay on her feet, and pushed. The wind pushed it back, then she pushed again as the wind swirled about and came to her aid. Soren saw what she was doing, and came to help. It teetered, and with one more sudden gust of the wind, it tipped. They pushed again, guiding it what little they could, and it came crashing down on top of Zagon, on top of the blue cylinder, and on top of his golden plate.
Thunder exploded in the room, throwing furniture and people in all directions. Complete darkness swallowed them all up. Then it was silent. Nothing moved.
The Lady walked in from outside, waving her hands about, and the darkness swirled, and thinned out, and became curls of black mist floating about. They could see each other again, and the room slowly cleared, as though a fire had been put out and the smoke of it was drifting away. A very strange smoke indeed, as though solid chunks of the deepest night were floating before their eyes and slowly dissolving.
The stone floor where Zagon had stood was blackened, and burnt cinders littered the room. The heavy base of the flagpole had broken into a hundred fragments, as though a hammer made before the world began had struck it with an irresistible force. Bits of leather cord lay on the floor, and something … something round … like an old serving platter the cook had thrown away … lay there, held to the ground by the iron flagpole, a piece of trash waiting to be carted away.
Lali stared at the scorched and broken stone.
“Thank you,” said the Lady, standing over the burnt and broken stone. “It was all we could do, to hold him… to hold it… and you saved us all.”
Chander came to her, walking unsteadily, and wrapped her in his arms. They stood for a while, silent.
Charis came over and joined the hug. “Thanks, Mom. That was wonderful.”
“Well,” said the King, rubbing his face, stretching his arms, and looking about. “That was fun!”
“Fun?” said Lali.
“I’m kidding. Let’s clean up this mess!”
He found some of the kitchen staff hiding in a closet, and asked them to bring wine and wet cloths. “Maybe later, on the wine?” he said, “Just now, we need wet cloths and mops to clean up the floor!”
The Lady poked around in the debris with the toe of her leather boot. “I suppose it’s safe,” she said. “He’s gone, and I don’t think he can get back without … without that thing.”
“Who is he, really?” said Lang, picking himself up slowly and climbing out from a jumble of overturned chairs that had been blown into a corner with him underneath it all.
“I think, maybe, the question would be … what is he?” suggested Chander.
“And hopefully… ‘what was he’?” added the King.
“And I’m glad that other one is gone, too!” the Lady said, scrubbing the stone with one of the cloths. “He still stunk, after all these years! Could you smell that?”
The King laughed. “What a thing to notice, in the middle of all that.”
“No, really,” his mom said. “It was awful!”
A New Ambassador
By noon the floors had been cleared, the tapestries remounted, and the fallen flag stand removed to be repaired by the blacksmith. They sat down to a mid-day dinner in the great hall of Castle Romain. The Lady and her son sat at the head of the table, with the Regents Rossen and Vintar at their sides. Soren took his favorite place at the very end of the table, with Leif at his feet.
“I can see everything from here,” he whispered to Alicia. “And get out quickly if things start exploding again!”
“General,” said Lali, turning to the soldier at her side. “You found some fresh clothes!”
Lang smiled. “Soren is amazing. He dug up a left-over uniform that’s just my size!”
“Looks good. Are you part of the King’s army now?”
“No, no,” said Chander. “He has a job to do.”
Lang looked at him and waited.
“What’s that about?” asked Alicia, and Soren shrugged. “Wait, I think I know!” he added. “Listen!”
Chander stood, and tapped on his wine glass with a silver fork. The conversation around the table came to silence, and everyone looked.
“I have an announcement.”
He looked around, smiling.
“The former President of Zandor has left the capital and traveled far to the west. In fact, he paid a brief visit to our lovely castle, if you recall.”
Groans and laughter ran around the table.
“But it appears he met with an unexpected fate, and won’t be returning to govern his people. So I would like to introduce to you General Lang, commander of the army of Zandor, and the most likely next President of Zandor!”
He held both hands out towards Lang, and waved him to stand. “Please, General … what are your thoughts on the matter?”
General Lang stood and looked around. “As only the second representative of Zandor to visit Castle Romain in recent history … and the only such visitor to have survived the experience! …”
The King clapped, and applause rose from all parts of the room.
“I would be honored to accept that role, should the people of Zandor approve,” he continued. “And I hope they will. In the meantime, I will consider myself Ambassador to the Realm of Combin and Romain, and beg you to accept my humble service in that regard!”
Alicia poked Soren, and pointed out the main doors, which stood wide open. Soren looked out, and quickly stood up and left the room.
In the courtyard before the castle doors stood three young dragons.
“We have met before!” exclaimed Soren. “Just a moment!” He started back into the dining hall, and met Charis on the way out. ‘I see them!” she said. “Let’s see what’s happening!”
As they returned to the yard, Charles arrived, and the courtyard became very full indeed. The smaller dragons carried sacks in their claws. Charis and Soren bowed to the King of the dragons.
We have news, said Charles, and Charis relayed the conversation to Soren. The diamonds are nothing of the sort, and we have brought samples to share with each of the cities who will be interested in that news. Here is a collection for your King. Simply squeeze them in your hands.
“Shall I take one for Combin as well?” asked Soren. “The Regent of Combin is at table with us, as we speak.”
Please do, said Charles, and nodded to Gelat, who set another sack before Soren.
“And we have news,” said Charis, as Soren accepted the sacks from Gelat and Gondel. “The evil that was ruling Zandor has been destroyed, and that region will now be a friend again, both for you and for us.”
Excellent, said Charles. Is someone here from that realm, so that we can convey our false treasure without having to travel so far?
“I will bring him,” said Soren. And he returned to the dining hall.
“I believe you failed to mention another part of your new role as Ambassador …” and he pointed to the doors. Through them everyone could see the green and yellow face of Sir Argus, King of the Whitestone clan.
“He would like to meet with a representative of Zandor, if one is available.”
General Lang laughed. “And as the only representative from Zandor to have ridden on a dragon… at least in recent memory! … and the only one to have survived the experience … I would be honored to include Whitestone in my duties as an Ambassador!”
With that, he walked out to meet Charles.
“And there is further news,” Soren added, while he still had everyone’s attention.
“The diamonds of Whitestone are not diamonds at all, and the dragons have brought us samples to demonstrate their true value. Here is a collection for Combin, and here is one for Romain.”
He set the two bags on the table before Rossen, Vintar, and the King.
Rossen reached into the bag and picked up a stone. He held it up for everyone to see. “Beautiful,” said some. “That’s worth a fortune,” said some. “How many are there?” asked someone. The light of the afternoon sun struck it through the western windows, and the stone was brilliant.
“I believe you are to squeeze them in your hands, sire,” said Soren quietly.
Rossen closed his hand on it, and opened again. White powder fell on the table. Gasps and exclamations of amazement quickly followed. “That’s not a diamond at all!”
“And there is the answer,” said the King. “Hopefully a simple display that will end the fever running through our people. Whatever this mineral is, the value is not enough to buy the broom needed to sweep it up!”
The King left them to the discussion and walked out to meet Charles.
“You have friends with you, I see!” he exclaimed from the steps. “Greetings to you, my old friend, and Gelat, of course. Who are these that I have not met?”
They were rescued from a cage in Salient, by Charis’ parents and our friend Soren. They have joined us at Whitestone. Gelat is promising to go find their parents someday, but he does not know I have heard that idea, so … don’t tell him.
The King put a finger to his lips. “Not a word.” Gelat looked at Gondel and his brother, and they laughed. Not a word!
Do you like the playthings I brought you? asked Charles.
“Wonderful,” said the King. “Rossen and Vintar will calm the people down with a few demonstrations of their great value, and we can be done with this treasure-hunting foolishness!”
That is my hope as well. And since they and our new Ambassador from Zandor …
He turned and nodded to General Lang.
…will carry samples to all the people for us, we can return home in peace.
Charis again translated for the General, and he bowed.
“When Charis is off adventuring, I would be glad to accompany you to Whitestone, General,” said the King. “I know you had a brief visit, but you must really see the amazing caves at Whitestone, and visit Charis’ people north of there.”
“Speaking of Charis,” he said, turning to her, “I believe you invited us to visit your home somewhere south of here? I understand it comes and goes at your command!”
“At your pleasure, my Lord,” she said, with a deep and formal bow.
“Oh, don’t!” laughed the King. “I won’t even recognize you, if you start treating me like something special! After all we’ve been through? I don’t think so!”
She smiled, and came to him and hugged him. “We can go anytime. I’d love to show you the place, and tell you the story! And you must meet Mr. O ….”
Come, said Charles to the dragons. They have guests and a dinner to eat. Let’s go home.
And with a flurry of wind from their wings, they were in the air and on their way.
“Shall we eat?” said the King to those who remained. “It’s been a very long day, and I would not want to disappoint the cook … or miss her cherry-filled pastries at the end!”
When Oysters Can Sing
A week later, Chander, Lali, and General Lang rode slowly into Jardan. They rode past his house and on to the Presidential palace. At the wide, heavy ornamental iron gate, they dismounted, tied the horses, and stretched.
A soldier came to greet them.
“Yes?” he said, without opening the gate.
“General,” said Chander, “Is this the way dignitaries are greeted in your city?”
“Used-to-be general, don’t you mean?” scoffed the soldier.
Chander peered at the soldier’s insignia on his collar. “What is your name, used-to-be-sergeant?”
“I am Sergeant Josep,” he replied. “Who are you, and what do you want? The President is not here. We hope he has gone to Whitestone to gather diamonds for us all!”
“The President will not be returning, Private Josep. Would you prefer to open the gate, or be court-martialed for insubordination?” asked Lang.
Josep looked back and forth at them, but made no motion to open the gate.
“Very well,” said Chander. He put a hand on the gate and the lock popped open. He pushed, forcing the gate wide open and knocking Josep backwards.
“Welcome, General, you’ve had a long journey,” said Chander, as they walked into the property. “Perhaps there is someone here who can make the public announcement for you, and take Josep into custody.”
“Oh,” he added, turning to Josep. “Here is one of the diamonds of Whitestone. Perhaps it will be some consolation to you, in your new rank of Private, to be the first of the people of Zandor to become incredibly wealthy.”
He handed the soldier a stone, and General Lang laughed. “Indeed,” he said. “A fine consolation indeed.”
They walked up the steps and entered the building. A small office on the right held two desks, and a man sat reading at one of them.
“Ligan,” said General Lang, “place Josep under custody. He is charged with insubordination.”
“General … Private … Lang, sir?”
“I know, I look a little different, but I am still General Lang. Is the communications officer on duty this morning?”
“Yes, but … well, since there’s been nothing to communicate for a very long time … I’ll see if I can wake him. Sir.”
“Thank you. And don’t forget about Josep,” waving at the man coming in the door behind them. “Some time in solitary will help his attitude adjustment.”
Ligan put Josep into a chair in the hallway, and said, “Stay there.” Then he disappeared down the hall. In a moment he reappeared with a short, thin man trailing after him, rubbing his face and buttoning his shirt.
‘On duty?” Lang said to him, when they approached. “Like that?”
“Yes, sir!” he replied, straightening up and trying to look in order. “General… Lang?”
“May I?” said Chander, and General Lang nodded to him. “Please inform the people that the President will not be returning, and that we will hold elections for his replacement a week from tomorrow. Also let them know that General Lang would like to offer himself as a candidate to serve in that office, at the pleasure of the people.”
The communications officer stared.
“Is there a question?” asked Chander. “Does someone else need to take care of this matter, or will you be able to do it?”
“I… I can do it, sir … are you sure?”
“The former President will return when cows can dance and oysters can sing,” said Chander. “You can put that in the announcement if you wish.”
“I .. I… if you don’t mind, I probably won’t,” he said. “Is that all?”
“Good decision,” said Lang. “I think we will be able to work together just fine. Now, if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to see what needs doing in the office.”
“Oh, and please offer refreshment for my wife? We’ve come a long way,” added Chander.
“Of course, certainly, but … The President’s… office?”
Chander looked at him.
“All right, sir … cows and oysters… I understand. Will you need any help?”
Chander laughed. “He learns quickly, General. I like him. I think he’ll be fine!”
The two men turned down the hall and walked up the two long flights of stairs. There was not a sound other than their footsteps.
The President’s office occupied most of the second floor, and had almost nothing in it.
Chander walked to the middle of the room and remained there with his eyes closed for a few minutes. Lang walked to the window where the President had stood ignoring him a few days before.
“I don’t think there’s anything else here,” said Chander finally. “It was all in that … thing … he wore. Seems clean. I think you’ll be fine here.”
“And now,” said Lali, standing in the doorway. “I think we have a promise to keep.”
Lang raised his eyebrows.
“My husband promised that we would have dinner with you again, at your home!
“We will do it!” he replied, and went to her and hugged her. Then he turned to Chander, and smiled and bowed.
“I still have no idea who you really are, either one of you, but thank you, thank you both. For more than I can ever say. For everything.”
To the Mountain
“We should take Charis to your home,” said the King.
His mom agreed. “Nothing more to do here. Rossen and Vintar will spread some ‘diamond dust’ around, and our friend Lang will do the same in Zandor, and things should be at peace again. Are we ready?”
Charis stood on the castle steps and watched three eagles float down from a clear blue sky. Just barely visible at first, then bigger, and so very graceful as they finally circled above the castle and glided down to land.
You called? Asked the first to land.
“Thank you for coming, Golen,” said the Lady. “If it would not be too much trouble, I am ready to go home, and my son and our new friend Charis would like to visit me there.”
Let us be on our way! he replied, and each of the eagles turned their backs to the waiting passengers. Charis eased up onto the smallest of the three, and Golen took the Lady.
“What is your name?” asked the King, of the one carrying him. “I think I know you!”
Shia, at your service, my Lord. We have met before, when the evil cloud attacked your home. I carried you then.
“And your name?” asked Charis, stroking the feathers down the back of the head of the one carrying her.
I am Rahkin, my lady, and pleased to meet you.
They rose as one, and quickly the castle was far beneath and behind them. “I remember my first ride with our eagle friends,” called the boy. “We were headed the other way, and the storm was boiling over the castle!”
The Lady laughed. “So glad those days are behind us!”
The evening sun was shining full on the sheer cliffs when they arrived, and Gyda stood on the wide, smooth porch that reached out above the canyons below.
“How long have you been standing there, Gyda?” called the Lady. “My goodness!”
The eagles landed softly on the porch, bowed again, and then stepped off the edge and glided away into the western sun.
“Welcome,” said the Lady to Charis. “And welcome back, my son. It is so good to be together again, and not having to â€¦ but wait! I just realized something! We had to keep it secret, so you would be safe, so I’ve never told you! Would you like to know your name?”
“I would!” said the King. “And yours, too! If you have a name besides ‘Mom,’ I don’t even know what it is!”
“Come sit down,” she said, looking around for where to sit. She glanced at the chessboard, and a look of despair came over her face.
“Oh, Gyda, has the owl been beating you again? I must teach you about the end game! We simply cannot let this continue!”
Charis knelt down and wrapped her arms around Gyda. ‘I’ll help you,” she said. And Gyda licked her face.