by David McLeod
Eighty "boys and their dragons" have forged partnerships—life-bonds. But what are Paul and Larry, the Dragon Flight Leader and his partner, to do with them?
The Valerians have no records that can tell us when was the last war, except that it was a long time ago.
"We just don't count the years," Reagan said. "The number would be too large, and no one cares, anyway." He and I were sitting on a bench at the edge of the village of Sumpter where we'd established the home of the Dragon Corps. Before us lay the Valley of Valeus. It was Reagan's favorite spot for what had become our frequent and deep conversations.
I wasn't ready to give up. "If you kept records, you might be able to predict when and where the next incursion would occur. You could be ready!"
"Now you're not thinking clearly," Reagan said. "First, how could we be more ready than we were when you found us? And, do you think that Evil is going to wait until a certain time? Evil comes when it will."
"Quatrain 20," I said. "You're right, of course."
Reagan hugged me. "Not of course, my dear friend. Only because I have been immersed in this longer than you have. On the other hand, you are already surpassing me in wisdom."
Reagan was a lot like Larry. He always had something to say to me to make me feel good, even after I'd messed up. He was a lot different from Larry, though. He kissed differently, for one thing. Every kiss was as if it were his first—pure, innocent, and full of wonder. Every one of Larry's kisses was filled with the whole history of our love. I could almost see in him the pre-teens we'd been when we first kissed.
Larry had become the organizer. He knew exactly what each rider's capabilities were—where they were weak and needed further training, where they were strong and could be trainers. He knew what maneuvers each dragon had mastered; he knew exactly what supplies we had on hand, and what was on order. The entire valley had turned out to supply and support their Dragon Wing. Meat and flour, vegetables, cloth and leather, swords and lances—those things and more flowed over the roads and canals to our headquarters. And Larry kept track of it all.
Larry was also the planner. It was his idea to send the dragons and their riders on "cross country" flights. His argument for making longer and longer flights was based on the Quatrains.
"We need to know what's going on outside the valley. There's the quatrain about not waiting, but taking the battle to the enemy," he said.
"Cross country flights will give dragons and riders a greater knowledge of the territory around the valley and greater confidence in their own abilities" he added, and then giggled. "It will also give the members of a flight greater opportunities to bond—not that anyone overlooks an opportunity to bond.
"Cross country missions will also give us an opportunity to find out if we have neighbors—and whether they would be friendly or not.
"The Valerians have no records or stories of people leaving the valley except for war. They have no idea what lies over the mountains."
"Are the dragonriders ready for this?" I asked.
"They think they are. If anything, they're too confident."
"I don't like them being gone for days at a time without knowing what's going on."
"The dragons can hear one another. They can report," Larry said. "And some of the boys can communicate silently, one with the other. And all the riders can communicate with and through their dragons."
"Yeah, but for how far?" I asked. That was the first question we'd have to answer.
"Dakota, how far away can you hear another dragon?" I had asked. Dakota had no answer other than to say, "I do not reckon distance as you do."
Not very useful, I thought, and resolved to find an answer.
A day later, Larry and I were lying by a waterfall in the hills above the village the dragonriders called home. A vagrant breeze blew mist from the falls and cooled our skin, heated by sex and the sun. Dakota crouched on a dome of rock a few hundred feet above us, sweeping his wings, gathering magic.
Four days before, we had sent out a patrol: Spartan flight had flown toward the south. Each day at dawn, noon, and dusk, they had checked in by Dragon Comm.
"It's noon," Larry said.
"Can you talk to Spartan Flight?" I asked Dakota.
Yes. They report all is well.
"Please tell them to continue to the south, and to check in at dusk." I did not have to add that if the comm check failed, they were to return home the next morning. Those were standing orders.
"The patrol over the southern end of the valley. What do they report?" I asked.
After a pause, Dakota replied, they say that a brush fire is crawling up the mountain. The riders report that the monastery is not in danger.
"Thank you, and please thank the patrol." I told Larry what had transpired, and then asked Dakota, "Please check with the second flight." They had left two days ago, and were going to the west.
"Now what?" Larry asked.
I rolled on top of him and pinned his shoulders to the ground and kissed him. Above us, Dakota snorted.
We established that the range of Dragon Comm was about four days' flight or about 2000 miles. It became somewhat spotty after about 1500 miles, and depended, in part, on the affinity of the riders. Affinity, huh? Like we needed another excuse to share ourselves with one another, I thought as soon as I understood what that meant.
After a few weeks of communications tests, Larry was anxious to conduct a grand reconnaissance. We talked to Reagan, and together decided it should be to the south since historically, it seemed, enemies had most often come from that direction. At least according to Reagan's stories. As I wrote, earlier, there are no records other than the oral tradition.
There was no identifiable leader among the people who lived in the valley of Valeus, and we didn't know if we had any obligation to ask anyone, anyway. However, we did send a messenger to the monastery with a summary of our plan.
Odyssey Flight—that was Dakota, Larry, and I along with two other dragons and their riders—would lead six flights on a recon mission to the south. We would not go farther than 4000 miles, and we'd station one flight at the 1000, 2000, and 3000-mile points as communication relays. None of the stories, none of Dakota's memories, none of the quatrains mentioned this technique. Perhaps it was too simple and too obvious to be worthy of notice or memory; perhaps it was another new technology I was introducing into World. I hoped it was a good thing.
Dragons can easily fly at 50 miles per hour, and World's days have ten hours. We'd fly more slowly on the way out; more quickly on the way back. Larry figured we'd need about 24 days of supplies. Food for the riders wasn't a problem: the dragons could carry a lot of weight, although I suspected we'd quickly become bored with flat bread, oatmeal, and pemmican. At first, I was worried about food for the dragons, and realized only then that the logistics of feeding them restricted us to mountainous areas. That was before I learned that the dragons could, if necessary, subsist only on magic.
From the first day, we split the flights in order to cover more territory and to give the dragons a larger area in which to hunt. We'd resolved that we'd remain mounted when the dragons ate, even though it was a gut-wrenching experience that occasionally left riders spattered with goat blood. Odyssey Flight stayed in the center, on a direct route to the south. The other flights flew to the left and right of us, just beyond the range of dragon eyesight. We came together in the evenings, although sometimes we had to go a little way off course in order to find water: a lake, a river, or a stream. Riding while the dragons ate gave us another reason to want to bathe in the evening!
Dakota reported that Spartan Flight was circling a village. It looks as if it were burned to the ground, perhaps recently. They see no movement. No people. No animals.
"Who is the mage with Spartan flight?" I asked. Larry had become the adjutant, the detail guy, and he knows all the mages. In fact, he had accepted responsibility for training them. We'd learned from this world's Sun Tzu that even dragons could be the targets of magical attack.
"Calvin," Larry said. "He's good—offense and defense."
"Orders," I said, asking Dakota to relay. "Flight 3 is to remain at high cap, 5,000 feet AGL. Take Calvin to 1,000 feet to provide cover for Spartan Flight Leader to reconnoiter. If he thinks it safe, he's to land for a closer look." It was a good plan, a safe plan. Still, I wanted to bite my nails.
Dakota provided a running commentary which I relayed to Larry. "Circling at 100 feet. No movement. Dead animals in the fields. Stones remain. Palisade and building walls. Gate missing. Thatch and roof beams burned. Landing. A few bodies. Human."
The dead animals and the near total destruction told me this had been an attack. The few bodies told me that prisoners had been taken.
"Dragon fire, or just fire?" I asked. We'd practiced flaming stone walls and a couple of old huts. The dragons and riders knew what to look for: a pattern of scorching that was the sign of dragon fire.
"Just fire," Dakota reported.
"Ask them to wait. Ask all the others to come to that location. Let's go."
The bodies we found were mostly adults; some obviously had been executed after the attack.
"There are few children's bodies—too few," Spartan Flight Leader said. "They've taken the children."
"We must rescue them," Larry said. There was no hesitation or doubt in his voice, or in my nod of affirmation.
"Which way should we go? Either way, they've got a long head-start," I asked.
One of the riders immediately identified the problem. "Flip a coin, or split up," he said.
Then, Larry spoke. "West," he said. "The terrain," he added before I could ask. "It's rugged to the east, and it looks like there were a couple of passes in the mountains to the west. That makes the west the most likely avenue of approach and retreat."
I knew he was a smart boy.
The rescue was anticlimactic. The brigands—that's what I'll call them for lack of a better word—were slowed by their captives, many of whom were children, and by the need to hunt and forage to feed themselves and the children. They had not yet reached the first mountain pass when we found them.
The attack was simple. The brigands had picketed their horses and tied up their captives at some distance from their fire. Dragons swooped in, one following the next nose-to-tail, and grabbed a brigand in its talons. On the second pass, riders alit, swords drawn, to attack the few brigands the raiders had missed. In all, 32 brigands died. Oh, did I not mention that no one survived being plucked from the ground by the claws of a dragon moving at over 200 miles an hour?
The closest village was about 50 miles south of the burned village, and sat beside the same river. Surrounded by farms and pastures, it appeared undamaged, and at peace. "How can we land without scaring them?" Larry shouted.
"We probably can't," I replied. "Look—the meadow north of the walls. There's a hill. We'll land Odyssey Flight there. You and I will walk down the hill. The other flights will stay aloft, close enough to provide support and instill a little respect." I don't want to appear too friendly. I thought.
Larry and I walked down the hill toward the meadow. Behind us, three dragons sat atop the hill, sweeping their wings. They were merely gathering magic, but to the uninitiated, it looked much more impressive. High above, the rest of the flights circled, save the two that were escorting the survivors. They'd not reach here for at least another five days.
Two men, and then two more, came from the gate toward us. One of the men in front gestured, and the two behind stopped. The two in front approached us.
"I am Hearne, Village Master," one said.
A safe but noncommittal welcome. "I am Paul, Dragonflight Leader. This is Larry, Dragonflight Adjutant. A village about 50 miles north of here was attacked and burned."
Hearne looked at the second man, then both shrugged. "We did not know."
True enough, but not enough of the truth. "Yet, you are not surprised to learn of it," I said.
Hearne's eyes narrowed. He's figured out I'm a preceptor.
"For a thousand lifetimes, we have been at peace. Yet for those same thousand lifetimes, we have maintained the walls of this village and trained our boys to use sword and bow. Our stories tell of raiders who come from the mountains to the east and west, and from the desert to the south. Never have they come from the north."
"You do not seem surprised to see dragons," I said.
"Our stories also tell of dragons."
It didn't take long to convince Hearne that we were friendly. He didn't change his attitude toward us even after we told him that others were escorting the survivors of the northern village to this place, and that we would leave them in his charge and responsibility.
The Desert People
At six years of age, boy-children of the desert people are removed from their families and placed in the care of a cadre of veterans. These boys tweens teach the inchoate warriors the history and mores of their people through stories and song. Through exercise, the boys' bodies are hardened; through games, their minds are inculcated with the strategies of war. The boys own nothing. They sleep on the sand without bedroll or blanket. They eat from a common bowl, using their fingers. The strips of cloth, tied into fundoshis and worn only during exercise, are tossed into a washtub each evening, and meted out the next day.
Days are busy, but not full; the boys are stressed but not strained. Their trainers' goal is to strengthen minds and bodies, not to break them. There is time for rest and for talk. There is time for friendships to develop, even special friendships. This is the story of one of these friendships, the friendship between Darin and Petrus.
Darin was not the smallest boy-child in his cohort, but he was small. He wasn't the slowest in the foot races, but he never finished first. He wasn't the weakest at wrestling or the least agile with the quarterstaff or the least accurate with the sling, but he never won those competitions. About the only thing he was good at was laughter. His quick smile and easy laugh at a joke or a prank—including those played on him—earned him the respect of his cohort and the attention of Petrus.
Petrus wasn't the best of his cohort at anything, but he always placed high in the contests, and his congratulations to the winners were always sincere. He never shirked his duties, and often offered a hand to those less able than himself. In this way, he earned the respect of his cohort, and the attention of Darin.
On one day, the boy-children sat together in the sand. The leader of the tween cohort described their task. "Today, you will begin to make your first possession: a knife. The knife will be made of flint. You have learned to work with flint. The haft will be wrapped in leather. You have learned to work with leather. The knife will span the distance from your outstretched thumb tip to the tip of your outstretched little finger. As you work, you will sing to the stone. You will sing the Song of the Warrior. If you sing well, you will imbue the stone with something of yourself that will link the knife forever to you.
The boy pointed to piles of raw materials. "Take flint, here; leather cord, here; knapping stones, here. Begin."
Darin was not the last to select a piece of flint, but he was nearly last, and it may have been that among the pieces that were left, his was flawed. It may have been that in working the stone, he was clumsy. It may have been that he was in too great a hurry and tried to take out too large a chunk. Whatever the reason, the stone that was beginning to look like a knife, snapped. Darin gasped, and then bit his lip to keep from crying.
Petrus saw that Darin held a rather large piece of flint in each hand. He saw that the boy's lower lip was between his teeth, and he felt Darin's anguish. This can't be good, he thought.
Petrus squatted in the sand before Darin. The younger boy held the two pieces of flint in hands that had squeezed the rock so hard they were bloody. The anguish had turned to pain as Darin had cut himself. He looked up at Petrus.
Petrus held out his hands. Wordlessly, Darin dropped the two halves of the knife into them. Petrus pressed the pieces together and softly chanted. The break glowed like molten silver before fading to the gray of the native stone. The knife was whole. Petrus put the knife into Darin's hands and continued to chant. Darin felt his wounds close and their pain disappear. He looked at Petrus, puzzled.
"My magic is to fix things," Petrus said.
"What is my magic?" Darin asked.
"I do not know. Perhaps, when you become a boy you will learn your magic. Perhaps you will not have a magic beyond boy magic. Perhaps you are to have some other role. That is for tomorrow. For now, finish your knife."
The magics of the desert people are practical magics: the magic of the crafts, the magic to fix things, the magic to weave wool or to make swords or to train animals, the magic to heal, the magic to find one's way. Neither Darin nor Petrus understood that when Petrus sang together the pieces of Darin's bloody knife, he also sang some of himself into the stone. Neither Darin nor Petrus ever wondered if it was this magic or a more ancient bond that drew them together, but they were drawn together. When all the boy-children of Darin's cohort became boys, it was Petrus who Darin asked to be his partner in the sexual exploration that was the culmination of the Ceremony of the Mysteries.
Soon after Darin became a boy, he began to dream. These were not a child's dreams of the desert, but dreams of broad oceans and high mountains, terrain that Darin had never seen or heard of. He told his dreams to Petrus, who brought Darin to the Shaman, who said that the boy was a far-seer.
"We do not know what a far-seer sees, whether it is what is or what was or what will be. We do not know if he sees reality or dream. The ocean lies all about us, as do mountains. This is a useless magic." He dismissed the boys.
Petrus comforted Darin. "Do not be sad. What does he know?"
Darin continued to dream, but now he slept with Petrus, and it was to Petrus whom he spoke when he wakened.
"Dragons!" Darin said when he woke. "I saw dragons, and they come this way!"
Petrus quizzed his companion, and then went again to the Shaman.