Castle Roland


by David McLeod


Chapter 16

Posted: 14 May 15


by David McLeod

Urbis Romana

_The same forces that make a manan Anglican in London and a Mussleman in Medina,will make him a Confucian in Cathay._—John Stuart Mill, Earth Analogue VIII and others

We have lived for several decades at the monastery-that's-not-a-monastery called the Community of Light. At least, I think we have. Time means so much less to the people here than it did to us on Earth, and I've fallen into the habit of not counting years—or decades, it seems.

Larry is a quick and diligent student; his command of magic is nearly as great as that of the most senior clerics. That he has in such a comparatively short time exceeded both Artie and Alan does not trouble them. They are not jealous, but proud to be his friends.

I, on the other hand, have little ability beyond boy magic and some of the simpler uses of the great magic, although the senior is sure that I am a preceptor—one who can see the truth or honesty of a person—or perhaps an empath who can see more. He assures me that I will find my talent, whatever it might be. I am not jealous of Larry—but I am frustrated by my lack of progress.

I am also frustrated by a total inability to find who brought us here, and why they did so. None of the mages has any idea how a wormhole—which they persist in calling a "gate"—might have been created. I have described how magic seemed to explain itself to us, and made it clear that someone and not something was responsible for that. They know that someone is preventing us from talking about our science and technology, beyond the Middle Ages. They know that someone taught us their language. However, no one has any idea who that might be.

The weaponsmaster has taught us to use swords, poniards, and daggers to defend ourselves, warning us and impressing upon us that defense may mean killing one's opponent. I was not unhappy to learn that these people don't simply turn the other cheek to evil and aggression. I said something about that, and Alan giggled before saying, "Turn the other cheek only if someone's offering a kiss!" I mugged doing so, and received Alan's kiss. And an invitation to share with him.

I should point out, I suppose, that sex with an elf is just like sex with a human. Their bodies, other than ears and eyes, and some exotic hair colors, are completely like ours.

"When I first arrived," Alan said, "I was besieged with requests to share. I was the first elf most of the boys had seen, other than an occasional member of a caravan, and they were all adults. The boys seemed to think I was going to be different—I was even asked if my penis had hooks, like that of a cat—since my eyes reminded the boys of cat eyes.

"The hooks, which are more properly penile spines, do not keep the cats from decoupling after intercourse—although that is what the boy feared and something that had become something of a myth—but only rake the vagina in a way that may cause ovulation."

I must have looked surprised, for Alan laughed. "After being asked a third time if my penis had hooks, I did a little studying," he said.

I knew for a fact that his penis didn't have hooks or spines, but was smooth, large, and without a foreskin, although he had not been circumcised. The solution to that mystery was easy, although I blushed several times during my meeting with Brother Sebastian. Apparently, as a part of evolution of both elves and humans, the foreskin had been left behind.

If I exceeded Larry in anything, it was in the martial arts—swords, bow and arrow, dagger, and similar weapons. I was especially glad to learn that these people could and would defend themselves, since evil is becoming a problem.

The once-monthly caravan visits have dwindled to six or eight a year. The caravaneers are heavily armed and often accompanied by soldiers. They report that both brigands and trolls from the Gray Mountains have attacked caravans.

Yes, trolls. I remembered someone mentioning them, before, but had quite forgotten it. They are big brutes with the intelligence of a sausage and the disposition of a Hun. Live to fight; fight to live. They have, for centuries, been contained within the mountains, fighting one another. Apparently, they smelled blood—or perhaps ran out of other trolls to kill—and started foraging beyond the mountains and along the trade routes.

There is another notion which is bandied about here. It is one which I prefer to dismiss: that light and dark, the local symbols for good and evil, are engaged in an eternal fight; that this fight occurs in cycles of several thousand years; and that the forays of the trolls are the beginning of the next cycle. Nonsense! On the other hand, I keep these thoughts to myself, for I think the majority of the monks-who-are-not-monks believe them.

What's more important than trolls and theories of history, however, is that the most recent caravan brought a letter to Alan.

"Alan? What troubles you?" I asked. I didn't consciously recognize that I felt that Alan was upset. Rather, I think, I assumed that I saw something in his body language that revealed that to me. I thought of the training in body language I'd received as part of the Junior Deputy Sheriff's program in J'Ville. Yeah, I thought. That's it. In retrospect, I realized that thought came from my reluctance to believe in magic, even though I saw it in operation, daily.

"My father has summoned me home, "Alan said. "I am a nephew of the Duke of Rome. The late duke, that is. He has died leaving a child to inherit the title. My father has recalled me to take my hereditary place in the court. I will become a diplomat, rather than a cleric."

Alan didn't seem disappointed. Artie immediately announced that he would accompany Alan. Before we could begin to be sad about the loss of two friends, Alan invited Larry and me to join them.

"You said when you arrived that you would not stay here, but would search for a way home. You have said you don't know what you search for, nor where to search. Since you have no destination in mind, won't any path do?"

I was taken aback when he said that. It mirrored perfectly what the Cheshire cat told Alice of Alice in Wonderland when she asked the cat which path to take. Since she had no destination in mind, the cat told her that any path would do. That was a great lesson for me when I first read the story, and set me on the path to becoming a pilot. Alan made me realize that I'd been drifting for the past however many years it had been. His thoughts helped me renew my vow to find a way to fly.

It's rather selfish of me to mention this, but traveling with Alan also means that we won't have to earn our passage as drudges, which had been my fear. Alan generously offered to pay our way. Just as when he offered to buy us all pastries at the festival, I was uncomfortable at first accepting his generosity, but he assured me, and I believed him, that his offer was sincere.

"What is most important," he said, "is that I would rather have you as companions than as servants. That is certainly a selfish thought, but I've learned much here at the monastery. Although my father may not understand or agree, perhaps one the most important lessons is this: every task; every kind of work, every worker, be he paladin or publican, knight or knave, seneschal or scullery, has honor. Still, I'd rather you and Larry didn't have to work as drudges or drovers. Your talents lie elsewhere.

"Besides." Alan winked at me. "I know you will want to come to Elvenholt. They say there are dragons in the mountains."

I almost laughed, but knew that there was substance underlying Alan's jest. "You believe that," I said.

Alan was quiet for so long, I wondered if he had heard me. I took a breath, but he spoke before I could.

"There are stories," he said. "There are many stories, but they all begin, A thousand lifetimes ago. We don't know how long ago—but once, there were dragons. That is a certainty."

A boy stood in front of Alan's house, jumping from one foot to the other and clapping his hands together. Alan was the first to dismount. Hardly had his feet touched the ground than the boy rushed to him.

After several minutes of hugs and kisses, Alan disentangled himself and introduced us to Bibi, his little brother. Bibi was singularly unimpressed that Alan had brought humans home with him, until Alan told him we were in search of a dragon. That caused the boy's eyes to widen for a moment before he said, "Then you must talk to Casey."

Turning to Alan, the boy added, "You remember him. He is the son of Cousin Antonius's tutor, Cassius. Casey says there are dragons in the mountains west of Rome."

"How does he know?" I asked.

"Where," Larry asked, more practically.

The answer was lost when Alan's parents came forward to greet him and us. It was not until hours later, in the baths, that we were able to pose our questions to Bibi.

"Casey says he knows of a map that shows where there are dragons. It's in a book of maps from Antonius's library."

Scarcely daring to hope, I asked if we might see that map. I felt a great burden lift when Bibi said he would ask Casey to bring it on his next visit.

Before this could happen, however, Larry and Artie and I were offered a great honor. Bibi had become a boy some months before; however, knowing that his beloved brother, Alan, had been summoned to return home, Bibi declined to be initiated into the Mysteries until Alan could do that. As Alan's friends and guests, we were invited to take part in the ceremony. Not, of course, in the more intimate aspects.

During the years we were at Derry, a number of boys had reached the state that marked the transition from child to boy. It was always a cause—or an excuse—for celebration. The intimate part consisted of the new boy and his chosen companion spending the night together, after which the boy (and occasionally, his companion) would spend the next day in wide-eyed wonder.

As with many aspects of life on World, initiation into the Mysteries involved the conveyance of arcana, or "hidden knowledge." Over the years, Larry and I learned not only that this was primarily a description of the mechanics of sexual intercourse between boys, but also that it included a little of what I privately, of course, called mumbo-jumbo. The secret mumbo-jumbo consisted in large part of dread oaths, sworn by the participants not to reveal the so-called secrets. Rather circular, I thought.

In Rome—which I must call it, although the residents, using their Latinate language, call it Roma or _Romana—_a boy's initiation includes a deeper element: an oath to serve the light, and to serve their duke and their king who serve the light. That was explained to us, and it was that part of the ceremony in which we were involved—first as observers and then—without warning—as participants.

I swore not to reveal the secrets, so all I can say is that we (Alan, Larry, Artie, and I) were asked if we would support Bibi in his oaths. It was very much like an infant baptism on our Earth: parents and godparents promising to rear an infant as a Christian. The difference, of course, is that on Earth, the infant doesn't have any say in the matter. Bibi was eighteen of World's longer years old, and had been extensively schooled in language and logic. He was of age and mental maturity to understand the oaths he was being asked to take.

After agreeing to support Bibi we were asked if we would ourselves swear obedience and loyalty to the Light for this life and forever more. They hadn't warned us of this. It may have been the drama of the moment. It may have been something deeper. But Larry and I, without hesitation, took that oath. I knew, as we did so, that we had crossed an important bridge.

I had seen Casey at Bibi's ceremony, although I hadn't known who he was, and it wasn't until two days later that he came again to visit, this time bearing a book.

Casey was a cute boy, and the first butch elf I'd seen. His haircut was like a Marine from our world: short back and sides, and a brush-cut top. He was a boy—not yet a tween—but he had no baby fat. In fact, he had no fat at all: his body was lean, and his muscles were sharply defined. He wore a chiton, sandals, and a sword, even within Alan's home. He approached everything he did, from map reading to sex, with a single-minded purpose and a boundless energy. He expressed polite interest in our search for a dragon, and said that he would find it an interesting challenge to integrate an aerial corps into an army. I wanted to talk more about that, but was more anxious to see the map.

Casey opened the book and showed us a map of the terrain west of the city. It was labeled, as Bibi had said, with a notation: Here are dragons. I asked if I might copy it, even though it appeared stylized and notional; still, it was the best thing we had. Casey shrugged, and agreed to leave the book until the next day. He then shut the book and asked Alan if the bath were hot.

In the bath, Casey managed to isolate me from the others, although I confess I gave him no resistance. He approached sex as I thought he must approach all of his life: with his full energy and attention. At one point, I thought he might break my back.

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