by David McLeod
The Valley of Valeus
Larry and I cleaned ourselves and our clothes in a mountain lake. Although spring had officially begun—at least by the solar calendar—the water was frigid, and we were glad we had been able to buy blankets and a change of clothes before Dakota had met the female dragon.
"How often is that going to happen?" Larry asked, after we were clean, warm, and huddled beside a small fire.
As often as possible, Dakota replied. I relayed his words and what I heard as a laugh to Larry. I'm not sure Larry thought it was funny.
Dakota had been slowly waving his wings, gathering magic for flight. When Larry had complained about the breeze, Dakota had waved his wings with such force that Larry had been knocked down. I heard Larry's giggle, and felt Dakota's laugh before he lept upon a rock so that the breeze did not strike us.
"Next time we'll be better prepared," I said. This mollified Larry. I needn't have worried. Larry's kiss was nearly as passionate as had been the dragons' mating.
"Prepared . . . yes . . ." he managed to sputter between kisses. Our new clothes were quickly discarded, although we made good use of the blankets, for the air was cold. On the rock above us, Dakota snorted.
Night had fallen; Larry and I had made a supper of soup, tea, and flatbread. Dakota had stopped waving his wings, and lay on the rocks, his head close to us.
"Dakota? Even though you have known me, before, and believe that Larry and I have known one another in the past, we are new to World, and have many questions. The most important question is, Why are we here and who brought us here?
That's two questions, Dakota said.
"They are two questions," I said, "but why are we here and who brought us are, I think, really the same question. I think we were brought here to fight in a war. I think that we will be allowed to show the people here some, but not all, of our technology—the magic we use in warfare. The Immleman, for example, which I taught you, is something unknown, here—at least in this time. Yet, it is something I was allowed to teach you."
Dakota had no answers for me. These are not questions for dragon-kind, was all he could or would say.
The next morning when I woke, Dakota was back on the rock, gathering magic.
"Didn't you get enough, yesterday?" I asked.
There is never enough, he said. Especially if we meet another female. I am anxious to try the Immleman, again. He lept into the sky.
I prepared tea and oatmeal for breakfast before waking Larry with a kiss. He giggled at being served breakfast in bed, although bed was simply a couple of blankets laid out on a soft layer of pine needles.
"Where's Dakota?" he asked.
"Eating his own breakfast," I said. "He'll be gone for another hour. Do you want . . .?"
Larry set aside his empty bowl and cup and flipped back the blanket. "You bet," he said.
Dakota returned before Larry and I had finished. I felt him watching as I brought Larry to climax and drew his seed into my mouth. I felt the usual amusement from Dakota but this time, there was more.
He seemed to draw pleasure from that, I thought. Something else to wonder about. I had not noticed, before, but Dakota became excited when he watched Larry and me having sex. And his penis was huge! No wonder he was so anxious that the female would select him. I guess that after a few thousand years, I'd be horny, too.
There is a large settlement of humans two valleys to the west, Dakota reported. They can provide food and shelter, and may be able to answer some of your questions.
You know this place? I asked.
Dakota hesitated before answering. I have known it, he said. I do not remember how or why, but I have known it to be a good place.
That did not comfort me, although I think that is what Dakota intended.
The place to which Dakota took us was much more than just a town. The sun had barely risen behind us when Dakota swooped across a ridge and we saw below us a broad valley, well watered by streams from the surrounding mountains, and filled with farms. The innocent green of lush, spring crops filled the fields. We circled at about 5,000 feet AGL, keeping the sun at our back, and saw that the valley stretched perhaps 100 miles north-to-south, and about 50 miles east-west, although slightly narrowing at the ends, where it was closed off by mountains. Larry waved the signal to land, and I relayed it to Dakota.
"What did you see?" I asked while we unstrapped.
Larry turned his back to avoid the grit and pebbles blown about by Dakota's takeoff. While we had been scouting the valley, the dragon had been cataloguing the wild goats on the surrounding mountains; he would feed before returning to us.
"A very prosperous and well planned valley," Larry said. "Three large towns—one near each end and a larger one in the center. Roads connecting the towns to the farms that are located in concentric circles around the towns. Farms look to be no more than two hours apart for a person on foot. At least four water-powered mills in the foothills. Each of the mills is the center of a small village. Makes sense to put a mill there: the head of the streams would be greater. In the valley, itself, canals for irrigation, perhaps for travel, although I saw no boats—maybe too early in the morning. Windmills for irrigation or grinding grain scattered here and there. I'm thinking the Low Countries of Europe in the early 20th century."
Larry had seen a lot more than I had. He's a bright boy, and I guess that's why he's so much better at magic, although I'm learning a bit beyond boy magic and being a preceptor.
"Oh," Larry added. "There are no palisades around the towns, but there are lots of roads. They're not at war, and have had no enemies for a long time."
See? I knew he was smart.
"What should we do?" I asked.
Larry grabbed my shoulders and kissed me. "That is up to you. You're still Spock—Mr. Logic; you're the planner." He always knows how to make me feel good.
"Well," I said as I doled out the last of our bread. "We need food. Do you suppose these people use coins?"
"If not, I have bundles of herbs that I'll bet don't grow in this valley." Larry had learned a lot about herbs, both medicinal and seasoning, including the magic necessary to assess and analyze new ones for their healing properties—or their dangers.
I nodded. "Then, I guess we scramble down this mountain and walk to the nearest farmhouse."
Larry nodded, and I relayed our plans to Dakota just in time to feel him crunch an entire goat between his teeth. Sometimes, I think Larry is lucky he can't hear Dakota's thoughts.
The first farm we reached was more a sheep station than a farm, although we saw shoots of both flax and silage in the fields. "Makes sense for them to be growing flax," Larry said. "They're close to one of the water-powered mills—you would need that kind of power to pound flax."
The first person we saw was a boy herding sheep through a gate from one pasture to another. I don't know who he thought we were, but he simply waved to us and called back the dogs that had been running toward us—more in curiosity than in belligerence, I felt.
The noisy dogs had drawn the attention of a man and a boy who were hoeing a truck garden next to the house. They walked toward us, holding their hoes but, like the dogs, were more curious than worried.
The man greeted us courteously, but clearly was puzzled by our appearance. "We've come from over the mountains," I said, after telling him our names.
"Then you must have come by dragon," the man said. He chuckled at his own wit, and added, "For no one has ever crossed the mountains on foot."
Before I could reply, the boy blurted, "You are from the dragon! You are! You are! Where is he? Why didn't you fly here?"
We thought that at 5,000 feet above the terrain we'd be invisible—at least unnoticed. How had he known?
The boy answered my unspoken question. "I felt a dragon. It woke me up. It was a wonderful feeling! Will you take me for a ride?"
The man interjected himself at this point. "My son, Minky, is quick to assume friendship, for he can see a person's lamp—"
"Their Light, their goodness," he added, seeing the puzzlement on our faces. "He sees that you are good. Be welcome to our valley, named for an ancient leader, Valeus. Do you know of him?"
We both shook our heads, but I felt the importance of his question, and replied, "No, but we would like very much to learn." At the same time, I wondered at the boy's perceptiveness. He felt a dragon?
Larry, as usual, picked up the slack. "My name is Larry," he said. "My companion is Paul. And, yes, we came from the east on a dragon, who now feeds on wild goats in the mountains. We would like to trade herbs or simply hard work for food and shelter."
The farmer, whose name was Carver, declined our offer to trade, saying that it was approaching lunchtime, that there was enough and more than enough food to share, and that his sons would enjoy our company. Remembering that 'a kindness is always repaid,' I offered to take the boys for a ride on Dakota. Minky's eyes lit up, and he quivered with eagerness until his father agreed that he might accept the offer.
Lunch at the farm was huge, noisy, and fun. Minky announced to his brothers that he would be riding a dragon, and that if they were nice to him, he'd put in a good word and perhaps, just perhaps, they might get to ride, as well. I had told Minky and his father that we'd take the boys for a ride, but didn't dispute Minky's words. His brothers, all older, accepted their little brother's teasing, but I could feel their desire, as well.
"The people of the valley—they will see Dakota," Larry said before I called the dragon to the farm for Minky's ride.
"I know," I said. "But I also feel that they will be like this family—friendly to us. I also gather from what the older boys have said that Minky isn't unique in his ability to sense that Dakota is near. My guess is that everyone in the valley will know it before nightfall." I wished later that I had known what that meant, but years after and in retrospect, am glad I didn't, for if I had, I'm sure we would have fled, and we would have missed a great deal that was good.
Minky was literally, not just figuratively, breathless when we landed. I thought for a moment I'd have to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He began breathing quickly, so I did not have to do that. His brothers—seven of them—were equally excited about their flights, even though the eldest tried to pretend they had taken it in stride. No one believed them, of course.
Carver's invitation for us to stay at least a while with his family was so logical, we could not refuse.
"Your dragon needs to feed, and we are close to the mountains. We are also close enough to Umbria—the nearest town—that you can walk there in a few hours to trade your herbs for things you might want or need."
We accepted his invitation, and were happy to make an agreement to trade our labor and a few herbs for room and board. On the third day, Carver and Minky walked with us to Umbria, the northernmost of the three towns in the valley.
We had already decided neither to hide nor to advertise that we'd come over the mountains on a dragon. It didn't seem to matter: most of the people we met were incurious. Carver simply said, "visitors" when asked who we were. This satisfied everyone.
Larry sold some herbs to an apothecary for enough money to buy another set of clothes, but not enough to buy swords and poniards. I wasn't sure we would need them immediately, but with war coming, I was certain it wouldn't be long before we would need to be better armed.
We did, however, visit a smith's forge while Carver dickered for a new plow. These Scions of Valeus as they call themselves are a contradiction. We had already learned that they believe in non-violent resistance to evil. On the other hand, their smiths make most excellent swords. They're very much like the swords of the Samurai: slightly curved and made of steel folded hundreds of times, but with a larger guard.
When the boys are not farming or working, they engage in athletic competitions that include footraces and wrestling, but also archery and bouts with quarterstaffs. Yesterday, I saw two boys fencing with bamboo sticks, and realized that their movements replicated the sword drills Larry and I had learned at Derry. These people may profess some of the beliefs of those we called Quakers, but they could quickly become a formidable fighting force.
After some thought, I realized how foolish and illogical that last statement was, and vowed to understand what appeared to be a dichotomy. After some thought, I decided that the answer would not come from observation, and asked Carver. He saw that my curiosity was genuine, and told me the story of Valeus.
The Story of Valeus
A thousand lifetimes ago, in a kingdom so far away that even the wind tires before reaching it, there was born a Prince. His birth was not an easy one, for his mother was ill with the gray disease, and it was feared she would die before the child was born. She seemed to know the hour of her death, and by force of will, gave birth just before dying.
The boy-child was small, weak, and sickly. He was nursed by his cousin whose own child had just been weaned and given over to his brothers' care. That the boy lived was a wonder; that he grew strong was an even greater wonder, so that when he became a boy and was initiated into the mysteries, his father, the King, gave him the name Valeus from the ancient word, vale meaning "be strong."
The name worked its magic, for the boy became strong, and a fierce fighter who excelled with the sword, bow, quarterstaff, and battle-ax. He bested all the boys in his cohort, and earned his place as their leader through strength of arms.
One boy, however, believed that he should lead rather than Valeus. This was the boy Valeus had beaten to take command of the cohort. He had been boon companion and friend to Valeus. But, once Valeus defeated the boy, he cast him aside and treated him as all the boys in the cohort—that is to say, badly. Valeus rules only by his right arm, the boy thought. He imposes his will on us. He pushes us rather than leads us. There is a better way. I must regain leadership of the cohort and take them in the right direction. The boy wrote these words in his secret journal, and hid it under his mattress.
By custom, the boy could not challenge Valeus for the leadership of the cohort until one year plus one solstice had passed, but the boy was impatient. Not for himself, but for the boys of the cohort, who were becoming suspicious of one another, angry, and bickering. My heart breaks with the love I have for Valeus. Even though he has cast me aside, I still honor our promises of faith and fidelity, and that we would cherish one another forever. Valeus believes that discord weakens the others and therefore strengthens his command. He is half-right. It weakens the cohort, but it does not strengthen him. He is like a warrior wielding a sword of pot metal rather than one of steel! I cannot challenge him for almost 14 months. By then, this cohort will have crumbled. I will disguise myself! I can claim to be from Westoven for I was born there before my parents came to court. As an outsider, I can challenge. I can defeat him; I would have done so before except that I could not bring myself to see him fail. Then, I will gift the cohort back to him with the injunction to lead wisely and fairly. I know he can; I believe he will. These and other words the boy wrote in his journal.
It was not hard for the boy to leave the cohort. Several others had already deserted, crept from the castle at night, never to be seen again. Valeus dismissed this, calling it proof of their unfitness to serve a Prince. The boy left the castle, but he did not go far. He went only to the Ordinary Market, where he found a witch who agreed to create a disguise. The next day, when the boy left the shop of the witch, he was a different person. His hair, which had been golden, was as black as a starless night. His eyes, which had been blue, were likewise black. His face was changed: cheeks were sunken and cheekbones prominent; chin pointed; eyebrows rough. The disguise was an illusion, but one that would last through the day.
The boy presented himself at the gate of the castle at prime and issued his challenge. "I am Enian of Westhoven, and I challenge this day at the meridian Prince Valeus for leadership of his cohort."
The Prince accepted the challenge, as Enian knew he would, and when the sun was at its highest, the boys met in the courtyard of the castle. The swords were spelled not to cut, but only to mark. The boys were naked, so that neither might conceal a weapon, and so that the swords' marks would be clearly visible. The king watched from a balcony. The arms master dropped his baton, and the battle began.
At first, neither boy had an edge. This was a fight for points, for score, and they feinted and danced and dodged, taking one another's measure. Enian made the first score, drawing his sword along Valeus' thigh. It would have been a crippling blow save for the spell on the swords. Valeus made the second score, but it was a prick to Enian's left arm, only, and of little point value. Enian made the next score, and the next. Both blows would have been fatal, and he was within a few points of victory.
Valeus knew he had been bested, and did the unthinkable. He muttered the countercharm that released the spell from his sword, and struck Enian in his side, mortally wounding the boy. Enian saw what Valeus had done. He knew he was dying. He dropped his sword and fell to the ground. As he did, the witch's illusion faded. Valeus looked into the eyes of the boy he once loved and heard him say, "I forgive you," and then saw him die.
No one but Valeus knew he had broken the spell in his sword. The King and the boys in the cohort questioned why the boy had assumed the disguise and taken the false name Enian, but assumed it was jealousy and a desire for revenge. It was not until the boy's journal was found, and given to Valeus, that he knew the truth.
After reading the diary, Valeus realized the evil he had done, and the good inherent in what the boy with whom he had sworn eternal love had done.
Valeus went to his father and confessed. His father was stunned. He loved his son, but he was also aware of the boy's flaws. Before the King could speak, however, Valeus said, "Father, I know that your new Queen is with child. Raise him to be your heir, for I renounce my place and station. I will join the Temple and spend my life as my friend would have had me: as a leader and a friend, not as a ruler and a bully."
Valeus did as he said. He entered the Temple at Westhoven. After a century, he was ordained as Cleric, and became an errant. He had learned much from his friend's journal, and he taught many things to many people. After his death, those who followed his teachings called themselves Valarians.
"That is a good story," I said. "I understand why you who follow his teachings don't wear swords, but," I paused. "But if no one wore a sword and fought for the Light, wouldn't Darkness conquer?"
"Oh, yes!" Minky exclaimed. "Valeus did not teach that no one should wear a sword or that no one should kill. He taught that the Light will always need both the Sword and the Word by its side. He taught that some will wear one, some will wear the other, and some will wear both. He said that because he had killed wrongly and unjustly, he had stained his spirit and therefore, he elected not to kill again."
Minky's exposition reminded me, once again, how differently people on this world aged. Later, I asked, and was told that Minky was a boy of nearly fifty years. That was quite comforting when shortly after that he wormed his way into the bed Larry and I shared, and insisted on sharing himself with both of us.
"Valeus, himself, was the product of contradiction and conflict," Carver concluded. "We see this as a source of strength and as a necessity. He taught that we must use our minds as well as our bodies. There may be times, when even those of us who follow his teachings must don arms and armor to protect those we love. Turn the other cheek only works when someone is offering a kiss, is the way he said it."
"We know that evil exists outside our valley. We know that in the past, our boys and their dragons have left the valley to fight that evil and to protect their homes from evil's incursion." Carver stopped speaking, abruptly, and then said, "You look startled."
"Boys and their dragons, you said; boys and their dragons," I replied.
"Why, yes. Dragons nest in the mountains that surround this valley. They sleep between wars. That they have awakened tells us that a war is at hand. We were very happy when you finally arrived, for we were awaiting their leader."
"Finally arrived? Leader?" Those were questions, but my voice and face turned them into accusations. I understood instantly. It had been these people who had brought Larry and me here. I said so, and then asked, "By what right did you do this?"
Carver sat, silent for so long that Larry and I feared we had dreadfully offended him, although I felt he was puzzled, and not angry. At last, he spoke. "I think you must meet Reagan. He is our storyteller."
Reagan lived on a farm about 10 miles south of Umbria. Carver and Minky accompanied us there—Carver, because he seemed to feel responsible for us; Minky because he hoped for another ride on Dakota, and wanted to keep us where he could see us.
It was too far for Carver and Minky to walk home or back to the town before nightfall, but Reagan's family offered hospitality for the evening. Larry had not sold all of his herbs, and was able to gift Reagan's family with several of the most aromatic.
That evening Reagan, two of his brothers, plus Minky, Larry, and I shared a sleeping loft. Not a bed, but a platform, high in the eves of the house, covered with feathered mattresses and boys. Regan was first to offer to share, and I accepted gladly. Minky offered next, but I was reluctant even though I realized he was many years older than his apparent age. He was so small, so innocent—at least, that's what I thought until I felt what it was he desired.
The next morning, Carver and Minky left for their journey home, but not until after Minky extracted a promise that Larry and I would return, and that he would get another ride on Dakota.
Chapter End Note: Dakota's hesitation and uncertainty about remembering the Valley of Valeus is at odds with the shibboleth that "dragons are good at remembering." Our interpretation of this is that Dakota's experience in/with this valley is much older than other memories, or that his memories are second hand, perhaps learned through stories or contact with other dragons.
AGL is "above ground level," a measurement of height for flyers.
The "gray disease" is known in many realities as polio.