by David McLeod
Mad King Tenebarum
The two riders who were to carry Darin and Petrus from their desert home to the Valley of Valeus had taken the two boys aside. The riders who were to carry the second pair of boys from the Desert People likewise were talking privately to their charges. I didn't need empathy to know what the conversations were about.
"We know that you are boyfriends," Colin said. He then gestured to his fellow dragon rider. "Dion and I are boyfriends, too. And, we're boyfriends with Aaron and Calvin. We are a Flight of Dragons; our bonding is something that happens more easily than usual because of the dragons."
"They let us see through their eyes and hear through their ears," Dion said. "And, they let us see and feel through their minds. You too, will feel—"
"I have felt," Darin whispered. "I felt you. I felt your joy as we flew. I felt your love for your dragon." He gasped for breath before he said, "And I feel your desire . . ."
Colin blushed a little. "Yes. And I would like to share with you, tonight. And Dion would like to share with Petrus. We believe that love shared is love enlarged. Whether we will bond with you as closely as we have with one another, and with our dragons, I cannot say. But I believe we will become more than just friends."
We had bundled the four boys of the Desert People in flying fleece borrowed and assembled from among our riders. The boys stepped gingerly onto the backs of dragons and surrendered themselves to be strapped to the riders.
"It will be all right," Colin whispered to Darin. I knew that he and Darin had shared the previous night. Darin's preception plus the dragon rider's words, were enough to reassure the boy. As soon as Darin was strapped in, he waved to his mentor, Petrus. The two boys exchanged wide smiles. Although Darin and Petrus had ridden dragons on the short flight from where we had found them, this flight would be much longer, much higher, and much more exciting.
A hundred yards away, the Shaman stood, isolated and apart from his students. I looked at the two-score boys lined up some distance behind him. I marveled at the way they reacted to his simplest gesture or command. He was isolated from them, but clearly in charge of them. I thought about the difference in our leadership styles. He was separate from his followers, but I was an integral part of mine. The difference was more than a difference in our ages. This was something I knew I would have to consider at some length, but later—today, we flew.
On the second and fourth days of our return flight, we joined with and collected the flights of three dragons, their riders, and the mages of the comm relay who had been stationed every 1,000 miles or so along the route. The reunions were joyful among the riders and mages after only a short time apart. As the boys bonded, and—as I was beginning to understand—spurred by their telemapthy with their dragons, we became closer and closer knit.
I knew that closeness would be a good thing. Esprit de corps would be critical when we went to war, and faced death and privation. It would be a bad thing, too, and I feared what would happen when boys—and dragons—so closely bonded, were killed. I knew from Dakota's memories that this was not only possible, but also likely. Despite the certainty of reincarnation and reunion in future lives, the death of someone close was still difficult to deal with.
I wondered about that, and thought about the Christians of my world who believed so strongly in an immortal soul and a paradise in their afterlife, but who seemed to be so utterly afraid of death, and who were so opposed to easing the suffering of a dying person. It seemed odd to me that they usually favored capitol punishment and eschewed gun control, but would never allow a dying person—especially if one of their own—the dignity of dying on his or her own terms. I found that difficult to reconcile.
By this time, I had accepted the reincarnation paradigm of World, and was beginning to recapture memories of past lives. I much preferred that to the guilt and fear of punishment I'd been taught by the Catholic Church on Earth. And I wondered if that applied to those we left behind on Earth. Would I ever see again my father? My mother whom I barely remembered? Would I ever see the boys and girls of the J'Ville LGBT Alliance?
On the fifth day of our return flight, we reached the village where we had taken the children rescued from brigands. Larry insisted that we stop there, mostly to assure ourselves that the children were being well treated. It was a reasonable thing to do. Further, we wanted these people to be allies, or at least, not enemies.
Hearne, the Village Master, was just as taciturn as he had been when first we met him, however, his manner seemed marginally more friendly, and he was courteous although a bit short in inviting us to bathe and to join the village boys for both the evening meal and breakfast the next morning.
At supper, Hearne told me that there were boys in the village who wanted to return with us, and to train as warriors.
"I wondered why there were four, only four, and the same four of the village boys at the baths, and now at table with us," I said, and then smiled to assure him I was not upset. I think the smile was wasted on him, though. "In the baths, these boys made arrangements to share with four of our boys."
I thought of the pairings that the village boys had made, and realized they were with the four riders from the comm relays who did not carry a mage on their dragon. Hearne had observed that each dragon could easily carry two boys, and made sure that his candidates knew which dragon rider had room for a passenger.
"Hearne, you should know that every dragon rider has at least some ability to see truth, although the number of semblers is no greater than in the general population. Every dragon rider has a touch of empathic sense, as well. Both of these abilities come, I think, from bonding with a dragon. Further, I have come to understand that the dragons, themselves, are incredibly powerful empaths who can see deeply into a person's mind.
"I will agree to take with us the four boys you have selected as candidates—if the riders with whom they have paired give me good report of their character tomorrow morning. Will that be acceptable?"
Hearne raised one eyebrow. It was the only emotion I'd ever seen on his face. I think he was showing surprise.
"You knew?" he asked.
"I sussed it," I replied.
I waited until the next morning to quiz the four riders about their partners of the night before, for I had not wanted to prejudice their answers. Once they understood the importance of the question, they each checked in with their dragon before answering. They found all four of the village boys to be acceptable. I told Hearne, and we agreed that the four would return with us to be trained, and then would form the cadre which would train the other boys of the village. Once again, we raided our packs for extra flying fleece; once again, we lifted from the ground with boys whose excitement overcame any butterflies they might have had in their tummies.
We had reached the Valley of Valeus in mid-morning. Our arrival, heralded by dragons as well as the boys on watch, interrupted training. Exuberant boys and dragons met us.
"We will tell you everything," I said to the clamoring boys. "This afternoon, if Reagan and his father agree." Reagan's father, who had taken the role of Seneschal and Reagan, who was Provost of the school, agreed to suspend training.
The boys had been assembled in one of the largest rooms. It was barely large enough to hold the riders and the auxiliaries. I was reluctant to speak, but Larry pushed me. You're Mr. Logic, he sent. They have enough excitement; they need logic, now. So, I spoke.
"You already know that we have returned with boys whose people will be our friends and allies. Four come from a village, not unlike those in this valley. Four are members of a desert people, much farther to the south.
"We learned three important things on this journey.
"First, we saw a village attacked by brigands, bandits who burned that village, killed the adults, and kidnapped children. That incident was isolated. We were able to rescue the children. An attack on a single village is an anecdote. It does not mean that brigand activity is widespread or that we will be attacked. It does mean that we need to gather more information about what is going on around us.
"Second, the headman of the next village to the south, the home of four of our new friends, told us they had stories of banditry, of war, and of dragons fighting on both sides of the war: on the side of the Light and on the side of the Dark. This reinforces Reagan's own stories, and we have come to understand that the stories we hear are almost always based on history. This means that we need to prepare for such battles.
"Third, the shaman of the desert peoples also had stories of great battles between Light and Dark, and of dragons. Again, stories guide us—stories and the quatrains."
That evening, Larry and I cuddled in what we thought of as our bed. Each pair (and the occasional trio) of boys had their own bed—a linen futon on a low platform, large enough for two—although the occupants of most beds varied nightly. Even those who had formed bonds, as had Larry and I, shared freely with others.
No matter who our partner was, however, Larry and I almost always found our way back to this bed for sleep. Even when we didn't then have sex with one another—and it was rare that we did not—we cuddled and whispered before falling asleep.
"Larry? Do you remember the night I turned down your offer to let me sleep with Deputy Sam Davis?" I whispered.
"Um, hmm," Larry mumbled into my ear. "And I told you it would be all right, too."
"I said you were the only person I wanted to have sex with," I said. "Do you resent that—"
I was going to ask if Larry resented that I had sex with so many other boys, but Larry's kiss cut off anything else I might have said.
"That didn't last past the first day we arrived on World," he said, "and I'm glad. I know you can see how I feel, and that you know I'm telling the truth. Besides, don't you remember our vow? I said it first, before we even left Earth, before we had any real idea what it meant: I will love you forever, and even longer. I know I am yours and you are mine, in this life and forever after.
"Besides," he added. "These boys think having sex with you is pretty special." He giggled, again.
"Why? Because I am their commander? Do they hope to gain favor?"
Larry laughed softly. "No, you goof. It's because you're the best there is."
The next evening, by the time I had left a meeting with Reagan, dropped my clothes in the hamper by our bed, and walked to the shower room, everyone else had reached the showers.
I knew that the hampers would be emptied by one of the auxiliaries, or one of the men who had come to support the dragon wing, and would be returned a day later, cleaned. At first, I had objected, thinking that the boys could wash their own clothes, as we had done at the monastery of Derry. It was a routine part of bathing. However, the parents who constituted the support group had insisted, saying we needed to focus our energies on training.
I understood: we were training their sons, and they wanted nothing to interfere with anything that might help their sons survive the coming war.
That evening, Rudy stood just inside the doorway of the bath, loofa in hand, waiting. "May I wash you?" he asked.
It was the standard invitation, uttered dozens of times each day. It was understood to be the prelude to a second invitation, to have sex and exchange boy magic. It would have been rude of me to ask, but I had to know why Rudy was waiting for me. How had he been selected? Had someone deliberately taken Larry out of play? Was I the prize in some sort of secret lottery? I couldn't ask any of these questions, of course, so I said, "Yes, thank you. I'm sorry you had to wait."
Rudy seemed genuinely puzzled. "I didn't really have to wait," he said. By this time, most of the showers were empty; the hot tubs—where once flax had soaked—were filling with boys.
By custom that had grown from an unspoken agreement, the hot tub on the left was the boisterous one: playing, ducking, splashing, and underwater groping, as well as an occasional round of fellatio on the edge. The second tub was for those who truly wanted to soak the knots out of tired muscles—although the massages that accompanied this were just as sensual as the horseplay next door, and the sex beside the right-hand pool was just as passionate as that beside the left.
Rudy took my silence for assent. He led me to the showers, and chattered as he scrubbed me. "Larry had already asked Mark, and I knew you'd be late, so I waited, even though Kalin was about to ask me just as Timothy asked him."
Was it really, then, just a coincidence? I looked at this boy—physically appearing to be a young teen, although I knew him to be four decades old. He was a true redhead with golden eyebrows and porcelain-white skin. The only marks on his body were a dozen freckles across his nose.
We stood face to face. I drew the loofa down his back, pressing hard on his buttocks to draw us together. "Rudy, will you share with me? It is nearly time for supper, so tonight—after evening class?"
"You bet," he said, and kissed me.
Reagan had early instituted classes after supper. Knowing that the boys bellies would be full, knowing that they would be tired from flying, he turned these classes into story-telling sessions. However, all the stories incorporated a lesson of some sort; many were based on stories in the Book of Quatrains.
But first, on every night, Reagan asked me to tell the boys what was foremost in my mind, what had happened during the day that was important and meaningful. Tonight, that was easy. I talked about how the shaman of the desert people had exercised leadership, and about how taciturn Hearne had been. I'm not sure it was important, and I suspected it would be uninteresting, so I kept my thoughts short.
Then, Reagan took the floor, and captured everyone's attention.
The Tale of Mad King Tenebarum
A thousand thousand lifetimes ago, in a time when the axis of World pointed in a different direction so that south was west and north was east, in the land that is now Elvenholt but was then ice-covered and cold, there lived a rich and powerful king named Tenebarum. Besides being rich and powerful, King Tenebarum was cruel. And here are the ways in which he was cruel.
It was hard enough for the king's people to wrest a living from the land during the short growing season; but the king made it harder when he sent his tax collectors to take 5 parts in 10 of the people's harvest. If a tax collector saw a boy or girl who struck his fancy, he would seize the child, as well his or her parents' grain, and present the child to the king in an attempt to curry favor.
That was not without risk, for the king would order the child to be scrubbed clean, and brought naked before him. If the child was blemished or did not strike the king's fancy, the king would order the child and the tax collector killed. If the child were unblemished, and caught the king's eye, then the tax collector would be rewarded, and the child made a concubine in the king's harem.
One day, the king looked out upon the village that stood without the castle walls and saw a boy, standing in the doorway of a hut, whistling to a dog. The dog had run through the snow, and was frolicking, but would not respond to the boy's whistle.
"Why do you suppose the boy doesn't go fetch the dog?" One of the king's courtiers asked.
When the king did not answer, another courtier suggested, "Likely because he has thin bones, and is afraid of the cold."
This piqued King Tenebarum's interest. He ordered the child brought into the palace, and then ordered that the boy's legs be cut off so that the king could examine the bones. They were, indeed, thin, for the boy was scarcely past childhood. Of course, the cutting caused the boy to die in great pain, but the king didn't concern himself with that.
One of the king's courtiers had a beautiful son, Jiuhou. The boy caught King Tenebarum's eye, and he ordered the boy brought to his bedchamber. The boy resisted the king, who killed the boy, and ordered the boy's father killed and turned into sausage, and ordered the boy's mother killed and turned into jerky, both of which he fed to the other courtiers so that they would know to fear the king.
The courtiers took counsel one with another. They saw that King Tenebarum's cruelty was dragging the kingdom into chaos and death. They created an army, attacked the palace, and set it afire. King Tenebarum led his army out to face the courtiers' army, but the king's army deserted him. He rushed back to the safety of his palace, and was burned to death.
"What are the lessons of the story?" Reagan asked.
The boys did not respond immediately. Finally, Mark, one of the older riders, suggested, "Evil contains the seeds of its own destruction."
"That is a very succinct way of putting it," Reagan said. "Would you expand the thought?"
"The king's evil stirred up against him those who might have been his allies. When he needed their help, they were not there—they were his enemies. It's like that Richard III thing you told us about, before."
"Very good. Another lesson?" Reagan asked.
"The courtiers, together, were stronger than even the king." I did not see who said that.
"Yes, also good. Another?" Reagan asked.
"Don't run into a burning palace?" Timothy said. He was one of the youngest, and a scamp. Most of the boys thought he was pranking Reagan, and many laughed.
"That's the beginning of the lesson; but there is more," Reagan said.
"Know where you can safely retreat?" Timothy asked.
"That is correct," Reagan said. "Excellent, Timothy."
"When is it okay to retreat?" Another boy asked.
"That is something for another day," Reagan said. "For the moment, remember this: The soldier who advances without coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thoughts are for the lives of his companions and his family, to protect his country, and of his duty to his leader, he is the jewel of the kingdom.
"That is reflected in Quatrain 75"
"Fight for your companions, for your name,
For your family, for your oath, but not for fame.
Fear not disgrace or loss of face
When you must turn about.
"And those are enough lessons for today. To bed, now; tomorrow comes early."
Rudy's skin seemed to glow in the candlelight. I had seen—and scrubbed—every inch of his body in the shower. Now, I touched his face. I drew my fingers across his shoulders and chest and down his tummy, and watched as porcelain shivered. His breathing deepened. There was a quiver at the end of each inhale; a sigh with each exhale. I bent to take him, and heard a whimper.
Chapter End Note: The tale of Mad King Tenebarum (Tenebarum is Elvish for "darkness") was inspired by "The Tale of Mad King Zhou and the Fall of the Shang Dynasty," a traditional Chinese folk tale of Earth Analogues II, III, VI, VII, and VIII. Reagan quotes a redacted version of Sun Tzu's Maxim 10-24 after telling this story.