by David McLeod
Slipping the Surly Bonds of Earth
We had been in Rome for only a month when I had learned all I could from Casey's books and maps. I talked to Larry; together, we decided that it was time to leave. We told Alan that we must depart for the west.
I thanked Alan for his hospitality both on the journey to Rome and while we were in that city. "But even more," I said, "thank you for breaking me free of the doldrums—"
"Another new word!" Artie interrupted. There was a catch in his voice. "I shall miss you," he said. "Thank you for all you have taught me."
"I shall miss you, too," Alan said. "You must have horses."
I knew that to be a very generous offer. However, we could see the mountains from the roof garden on Alan's house, and I pointed out that we'd soon run out of road, and would be climbing rather than riding. Alan nodded, and Casey said we must have rope. The next day, he came with lengths of rope that were made, as he put it, of silk and magic. They were, indeed, strong and Larry said he could see a magical aura about them.
When Casey gave us the rope, he looked wistful. He knew we were on a grand adventure, and he would like to accompany us, but he was bound to duty, here. I saw and felt his yearning, and privately promised him that we would never forget him, and that if we did find a dragon, I would make sure he knew. When I said that, I was not sure how I could fulfill that promise. That didn't reach my understanding until many years later.
The primary gate to the city, the one through which we had entered with the caravan, was in the eastern wall. From there, we would have had to travel several hundred miles east and south before finding a route to the west. However, Alan's father arranged to have a western, postern gate opened for us. Outside that gate was a narrow bridge over the great chasm that surrounded Rome.
Alan, Artie, Casey, Bibi, and the other boys of the household came to wish us well. Guards from the house opened the narrow gate and were winding up the portcullis when Alan's father took my arm and pulled me aside.
"Thank you for being Alan's friend," he said. "And thank you for bringing your quest to us. You go into great danger, but you seek a greater adventure that will lead to a greater reward. Follow the Light, and be always present in our memories, and welcome in our home."
I stammered my thanks, and turned to find Larry standing outside the open gate, waiting for me. A quick kiss with Casey, Alan, and Artie, and I was outside the gate with Larry. We stepped onto the narrow bridge and heard the gate thud shut behind us. I shrugged my backpack to a more comfortable position, took Larry's hand, and began walking westward.
Paul's hands were bleeding again. The blood dried instantly in the cold, dry, thin air, leaving ochre blotches on the rocks. I climbed carefully; the splotches of blood guiding my hands. I was afraid for Paul, afraid that his obsession would take him to his death. And mine, I thought, although I feared more for Paul than for myself. I ducked my head as pebbles rattled down. If we don't find a dragon! I forced my attention to the task of climbing the mountain.
Moments later, Paul's voice broke through my concentration. "Give me your hand." I looked up to see Paul's face and right arm hanging over the edge of the mountain. I took his hand and scrambled to the ledge. "Look," Paul said. "We're here. We made it. We have reached the top."
My chest surged as I gasped for breath, but my eyes followed Paul's gesture. We stood at the edge of a dome of rock, a few acres in size, which rose only a few feet higher than the ledge. We had indeed reached the top of the mountain. Below us lay the world.
Now what, I nearly asked, but bit my tongue rather than appear to question Paul's judgment. Instead, I asked, "How long do you think it will be before we see a dragon?"
"No time at all," Paul replied. "Look." He pointed to the south. I turned and stopped breathing for a moment. An iridescent dot turned and floated through the air over the mountains. Initially just a point of light, it grew into a mayfly, and then a dragonfly before resembling a large bird—an eagle, perhaps, that had caught a snake and was taking it to its aerie. However, no eagle exhibited such color. Against the darkling sky, a backdrop like a purple-gray, the dragon flew high enough to catch the last rays of the setting sun and glistened with all the colors of the rainbow, and more. In the last light of day, it was revealed: long, sinuous neck and tail, bat-like wings, huge body and triangular head. "It can't possibly fly," we both said.
"Think bumblebee," Paul said.
"Think magic!" I asserted.
Paul took my hand. Our eyes locked onto the approaching dragon. "He's seen us," Paul said.
"I hope he doesn't see us as supper," I said. My laugh was weak. "Hey! How do you know he's a he?"
"I don't know how I know," Paul replied. His voice held neither doubt nor fear. "However, he is curious, not hungry."
The dragon circled the mountaintop once, twice, again. His head turned toward us. His eyes never left us. Paul watched those eyes, enraptured. I felt the dragon's magic. "He's gliding, but not losing altitude," I said. "Wings not moving, no updraft, I feel magic. He's more than a bumblebee on steroids."
Paul's laugh was bright, and rang through the air. He squeezed my hand. "I'm so happy we are together to see this," he said. "I'm so glad you came . . . ." He tore his eyes from the dragon to look at me.
"I promised. We promised," I whispered.
"You have been more true to that promise than I," Paul said. "I used it to lead you here."
"I knew. I have always known," I said. I stood on tiptoe and kissed Paul. "Eew! Chapped lips! Ow!" I laughed, a laugh that dissolved into a giggle. "I don't suppose you have any Chapst—" The rest of my sentence was blown away in a gust that nearly toppled us. While we had been otherwise occupied, the dragon had landed.
The dragon lowered his head until it rested on the rock not six feet from us. I squeezed Larry's hand, glad—so very glad—that he was with me. The dragon's eyes, which glowed in the twilight, were two feet above ours. He looked at Larry, and then stared at me. I know you. The dragon's voice resonated in my mind. The mental sound of his voice evoked a nascent image, but it was gone before I could capture it.
How do you know me? I asked. I have never seen a dragon, before. Awe and hope fought to dominate my mind. Could the monks have been right? I wondered. Could we have lived here, before?
The dragon heard my unspoken question and answered it: Yes.
Larry and I had accepted the reality of longevity that had been impressed upon us: we have been on World for more than 80, maybe 90 years, but still we appeared to be in our teens. We had accepted, without understanding, that our bodies had been altered to comport with the thousands of generations of evolution that separate these people from those of our own world. We have no apocrine sweat glands, nor the hair follicles into which these glands dumped the products of their apoptosis. We have accepted that we had no vermiform appendix, as well as the disappearance of Larry's wisdom teeth. These, and more subtle changes, including the loss of body hair and the changes in muscle attachment the spine, as well as the changes to our neural cells that allowed us to capture and use the power that translates into our minds as "magic," we have accepted.
Yet, no matter how convincing the monks' arguments, we have not been able to grasp or accept the notion of the reincarnation of our—soul, being, ka, animus—that which made us individual, a reincarnation on this world or one of those which occasionally touched it in ways not even the monks understood. We did, however, agreed without reservation to the words of the oath that had bound us, the words that bound us, "for this life and for those to come."
"Larry, too?" I demanded. Do you know him from before?
No, the dragon answered—too quickly, I thought until he added, but I see your bond, and such a bond cannot exist except in those who have been reborn together many times.
"What are you two saying?" Larry asked.
"I can hear you speak, but I can't hear either of you when you're just thinking! Doofus! Talk out loud!"
I blushed. "Oh."
I suppose I'll have to carry you both down the mountain, Dakota said.
"Yes, please," I said. "But how? There's no place to hold to, and you look very slippery."
Humph, Dakota said. I am very good at what I do. At Dakota's directions, we climbed onto his wing and then upon his back just aft of his neck. There was a natural hollow formed by the muscles that lifted his wings.
"He's gathering magic," Larry said. "I can see it."
You see this? Dakota asked.
"Yes," I answered for Larry. "He's a very powerful mage." I hugged my friend, seated in front of me. Dakota sprang smoothly from the rocks into the air.
It had been nearly a hundred years—a hundred of World's longer years—since Larry and I had flown, but we still remembered the thrill of slipping the surly bonds of earth, of the glint of sunshine on a lake below us, of breathing the wetness of a cloud before bursting into the open air.
"Where will we go, now?" Larry asked.
"Since I don't know where we are, I don't suppose it matters," Paul said, half in jest.
"Seriously, we're out of food." Larry had dug through both our backpacks but found little but pemmican—and not much of that.
"Then, to the nearest civilization," Paul said. "As long as it's a place Dakota will be safe."
The dragon snorted. What would I fear?
"Other dragons ridden by evil persons; mages who would disrupt the magic you use to fly; men with war machines that throw a quarrel that would pierce even your scales . . . ." Paul's list—accompanied by mental images—gave Dakota pause.
There are still men like that? Did not the Light win the last war?
"I believe it did," Paul said. "However, I also believe that another war has started."
This is something I've not admitted to myself, much less to Larry. Still, it eats at me; it haunts me. Were we brought here to fight in a war? Is that why we are here? And who brought us!?
We talked long into the night with me translating for Dakota who can hear Larry both through his ears and in his mind, although Larry cannot hear him. It was nearly dawn before we fell asleep. Larry and I, that is. I don't think Dakota sleeps, now. He has many clear memories of the last war. He said that it was as if no time had passed, although I knew it must have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of centuries. Dakota almost sounded abashed when he admitted that he'd been asleep for most of that time. He'd explained that all of the females were holding eggs, and were asleep while they incubated, and that male dragons cannot do what Larry and I do—although it does fascinate them.
After a few centuries (perhaps millennia) of celibacy, he had gone to sleep. He said that the other males had done so, as well.
It was not until nearly sunrise that I asked him what had wakened him from that long sleep.
I do not know, he said. But it was something powerful, for I hear my fellows, and the females. They, too, are beginning to wake. The young have hatched and are growing apace. The race of dragons rises, once again.
I am afraid. I think that what woke them was a clarion call to war. That is only one of the many things I worry about. We have found a dragon. Or, he has found us. And, this dragon said he knew me in an earlier life. He seems to be certain of that.
Is this some sort of strange coincidence? I do not believe so. My belief that someone is guiding our movements has been reinforced, and I am not happy about that. Still, it has not been entirely unpleasant, if one discounts losing most of our possessions, including our swords and poniards, while climbing a mountain. Oh, and I have a promise to Casey that must be kept, although I do not know how to do that.
Although we have achieved a goal—to fly, again—there are two problems. First, I know Larry still wants to go home despite the time that has passed. Second, I'm uncomfortable about being jerked around like a puppet. Third—yes, three problems—dragon riders are expected to be warriors, and Alan and Casey were right: there's going to be a war.
Dakota has been awake for perhaps a year. He has established his hunting territory, some 2,500 square miles, and knows where there are human towns within it. He will take us to the closest one, and remain in the hills above it while we reconnoiter. I do not like to leave him, but he promised that he would be quite near, and always in my mind.
Larry must constantly remind me to speak aloud when I talk to Dakota. Even when I do, Larry hears only half of the conversation. Larry cannot hear Dakota's mental voice, nor mine. It is easy to forget.
Dakota landed just before dawn in a field outside a small town. Larry and I jumped off, and he flew away, to hunt and eat in the surrounding hills. Larry and I walked into the town with the sunrise.
The people of the town were humans, the first town of such we'd seen since entering Elvenholt from Derry. They were neither friendly nor unfriendly, and they did not recognize the images on the coins we had, but the silver was pure, and we were able to purchase food, a set of clothing each, blankets, and new packs to keep things in. We were walking back to a place where we could meet Dakota when Larry drew me toward the wind-powered gristmill.
"What? Do we need flour? We have bread, flatbread, and crackers," I said.
"Not flour, but bags . . . the coarsely-woven bags they use to carry grain," he said. I must have looked skeptical, because he explained.
"We have little money left. One gold coin and two of silver. We're going to need money, and the best way I know to get it is to gather herbs—flavorful as well as medicinal. And they're all over these mountains."
I knew he was a smart boy.
Paul formed in his mind the image of an Immelmann turn, the maneuver from the First World War made famous by the fighter ace of that name, then modified for more modern aircraft. Can you do this?
The dragon's reply was puzzlement.
Wait a minute. Paul thought. He recalled the diagrams in his aerobatics handbook and sent them to the dragon. Lift, force, he explained, and magic, since you don't have ailerons.
This time, Dakota's reply was joy as he performed flawlessly, reaching a commanding position above the second dragon. She wants to know how we did that, Dakota said.
Don't tell her! Paul thought. Please, he added. She attacked us!
Attack? Dakota's laughter echoed in Paul and Larry's mind. She wants to mate. But first, she will test me, to see if I am worthy. Throughout this conversation, Dakota and the other dragon had continued to circle, wheel, and—in the case of Dakota—to soar and roll in the new maneuver.
Mate? Um, I don't know . . .
Humph! Dakota snorted. Like the two of you have been celibate or something?
That's not what I meant. I mean, how do you . . . ? And, can you do it with Larry and me on your back?
You are right. You would certainly not survive the encounter. Dakota pulled in his wings a bit, and began a slow descent.
Hmm, you're losing altitude very slowly. I guess I'll have to teach you how to 'slip,' too, Paul thought.
Paul and Larry stood in a mountain meadow and watched the spectacle in the sky. Paul had related to Larry the conversation he had missed. They had long ago resigned themselves to Larry not being able to hear Paul's thoughts, and when aloft even shouted speech often was blown away by the wind of flight.
However, both boys felt Dakota's exaltation, and both boys heard his triumphant bellow a second later: the female had assented. Despite the cold, the boys were suddenly warm, and then hot—and hard. There was no time to remove their clothing. They fell to the ground, gasping and grasping; bodies entwined; mouth pressed to mouth. They quivered as their own orgasms followed that of the dragon. They lay, side by side, their heated breath forming clouds above their heads.
"That was incred—" Larry began, and then the dragons made contact again.
Chapter End Notes: Neither Paul nor Larry record the conversation in which Dakota either revealed his name or accepted a new name from Paul. We assume that this was of little consequence or did not impress either of the boys.
Compare Dakota's claim that he was "good at what he does" with similar claims by other dragons. Apparently, this is a shibboleth of dragonkind.
The line, "slipped the surly bonds of Earth" is contained in the poem, High Flight, by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American pilot serving in a Royal Canadian Air Force unit in World War II. He was only 19 when he died as a result of a mid-air collision.