by David McLeod
The reflections of the clouds and of the trees that lined its banks painted the river's face. Phillip sat in the bow of the third boat to carry the name, Xander. Argon's voice, soft at his side, jerked him from his thoughts.
"Do you remember how I was overwhelmed by all the boys in Javari and Maranon's village? We found out it was because of my talent?" Argon asked. Phillip watched the water slide under the prow. He nodded, and Argon continued. "I think you feel the same way, now." Argon sat down beside Phillip, but did not touch him, as he normally would have done. "You are overwhelmed . . . you feel suffocated . . . "
Phillip looked at Argon. "I am," he said. "Twelve people on this small boat? The only relief is when we anchor and bathe in the river, and even then, there's always someone wanting to touch, to play. . . " Phillip's voice drifted off, but Argon knew he wasn't finished.
"I lived with my aunt and uncle from the time I was three," Phillip said. "They had no children. It was a large house. When I became 15, I moved into my own home, and was alone. Even when Johnny Two-Horses and I were together, I lived at my home, alone, most of the time. At Chaco, when we lived in the cave dwelling. . . that was the first time I had lived with someone for more than a few days at a time. I, too, was overwhelmed at Javari and Maranon's home, but not as much as you were. There, I could find space to be alone–or nearly alone–on the seawall, or in the temple when I was studying with the cleric.
"Here, I can't be alone, and there's no place to go. But I must be with these boys. . . I am sworn to lead them."
"And the trees," Argon said.
"What?" Phillip said. He was clearly puzzled.
Argon waved his arms at the weeping willows and giant oaks whose fronds and branches overhung the river. "Your world, even in the canyon you call Chaco, was wide open. The sky was much, much bigger than on our world, except on the sea, of course."
Argon is right, Phillip thought. I have claustrophobia! It's the boat, the crowding, but it's also the trees. I can't see the sky. "Thank you," he said, reaching out to hug Argon to his side. "You are right. Now that I know, perhaps I can deal with it."
Xander traveled against the current, under sail. The prevailing winds blew from the east, so they usually enjoyed a fair wind. Occasionally, a bend in the river or a shift in the wind would cause Javari to order the jib to be raised and the centerboard, lowered. After a few days, Javari learned the new Xander well enough to sail into a quartering wind within 10 grads of the centerline. The first time the wind blew directly downriver, Javari ordered the boat tied up against the shore.
"Why do we not tack?" Phillip asked, quietly. Most of the boys were in the river, bathing. He and Javari were alone in the stern.
"The river isn't wide enough to make it worth the effort," Javari said. "Remember, each time we change tack, the boom sweeps across the boat. I don't think it would be long before one of our land-based brethren got a knock on the head."
Phillip nodded. He understood Javari's caution. Javari was glad to be in his element, in a place where he and his skills were important. Javari and Maranon had been a bit lost in Londinium, among boys so much more educated and worldly than they were. I understand, too, why Argon hid his knowledge of the water purification spell, Phillip thought. Even then, he sensed Javari's need to contribute, to be recognized for his contribution, to be a genuine part of things.
For hours at a time, Xander was the only boat on the river; however, several times each day they met other boats or barges traveling downstream. Occasionally they passed slow trains of barges going upstream. Javari always gave them a wide berth. The barges clung to the side of the river where the royal road served as a towpath. Usually, that was the south side, but twice, so far, the road had crossed the river, carried on low stone bridges.
Javari had slowed when they approached the first of these. They all watched two boys wind a capstan, and raise a wooden section of the bridge. Javari threaded the needle between the stone pilings, and Maranon dropped copper coins in the bucket the boys lowered on a rope. Phillip watched a train of barges pass under a section of the bridge, through an arch clearly designed for that purpose. The bridge was designed to allow the barges to pass under that section; and the barges were designed to fit. Someone planned that, he thought. Someone designed the drawbridge. They have running water and sewers in even the smallest villages. Despite their lack of technology, they are not primitive. Yet there is so much that they lack. And it seems to be tied to that electron thing. . . it's harder to scrape electrons off the atoms. Less lightning, and no electricity. I wish I had someone to talk to about that! Tucano understood enough to teach me the light spell, but could not grasp anything I said about electric current. I do wish I'd paid more attention in that class!
Most of the boats and barges going downstream were propelled by one or two people on sweeps. The sweeps moved slowly and added only a little speed to that of the current: just enough speed to provide steerageway. The boys were therefore surprised to see not one, but two boats with lateen-rigged mainsails set, coming downstream. Xander was sailing close to the wind, but Javari immediately steered to the left side of the river, as protocol demanded. The two boats followed suit, and it appeared that they would pass safely and at a distance. However, "Danger!" Maranon cried. He was in the bow, and saw what Javari at the tiller in the stern could not: the two boats had changed course and were moving toward Xander.
Maranon hesitated only for a moment. Xander was only a few yards from the left bank; he could see bottom. A turn to starboard would put them on a collision course with the two boats. Then, his decades of experience spoke to him. "Strike the sail!" he called. He drew his dagger as he spoke. One motion of the knife cut the line holding the jib to the bowsprit. That sail flew into the air, held only by its halyard at the top of the mast. An instant later, Maranon kicked the anchor over the side, and jumped back as the anchor line began to uncoil.
Without the Bernoulli effect created by the jib, the mainsail began to luff. Seconds later, it dropped rapidly as Phillip let out its halyard, heedless of the rope burns to his hands. By the time the anchor rope had played out, Xander was dead in the water.
But not for long. Maranon realized that the current would quickly swing the boat around the pivot point of the anchor, and directly into the line of the oncoming boats. He took the end of the painter in his teeth and jumped into the water. Four strokes, and he was at the shore. Within seconds, the painter was wrapped around a tree. Xander was secure, and less than 10 yards from the shore.
The crews of the two boats were surprised by Xander's maneuvers, and overcorrected their course. Before they could recover, they were 100 yards past Xander.
"What," Sandar asked, "was that all about?"
"Something we learned hanging around the docks of Londinium as you so roughly put it," Javari said. He'd gone to the bow, and was hugging his little brother. There was pride in his eyes. "Those boats were manned by pirates. No legitimate sailor would maneuver like that. We were cornered. Maranon did the only thing he could have done."
"What if they'd still been able to pull up alongside us?" Garness asked.
"Then we'd have had to fight," Javari replied. "But, by anchoring us and tying us up to the shore we'd have been exposed on only one side."
"Oh," Garness said.
"Um, is there anything else you learned on the docks?" Sandar asked. His voice was subdued.
"Well," Maranon said, looking at Javari, "there was this one boy who showed Javari–" Maranon stopped when he saw Javari's expression. "No," Maranon concluded. "I guess not."
The near miss with pirates was a wake-up call for Phillip. He called a council. At first, he was unsure which of the boys he should invite. However, he quickly realized not only that there was no place to hold a private meeting, but also that he didn't know the elven boys well enough to determine who had the skills and knowledge that might be needed. So, he invited everyone.
"I have been careless and lazy," he began. "We were under attack this afternoon, and only quick action by Maranon saved us. Javari told us that even that might not have worked, had the pirates been a little quicker. We have covered less than a third of our voyage. The risk of attack continues, and not just from pirates in boats.
"Tonight, I want to talk about what risks we might face and what we should do to prepare ourselves, to reduce risk, and to defend ourselves should that be necessary. Everyone may speak; no idea is to be judged silly or of little worth." Phillip tried to impress upon these boys the rules for brainstorming that he'd learned the day he sat in a council meeting with his uncle. He didn't remember them all, and there were no flip charts on this world. However, as in many non-literate cultures, the elven boys had exceptionally good memories, and Phillip was pleased with the meeting's outcome.
Darrell provided a summary. "We can expect attack from the river: boats, as we have already seen; and men from bridges." Sandar's map showed several more bridge crossings, and one of the boys had heard stories of brigands taking over a bridge, and attacking boats or barges when they passed under or through the bridge.
"We can expect attacks from the shore, especially at night. These are less likely, since brigands don't know where, or if, boats will tie up for the night."
Javari had offered to keep sailing through the night, but Phillip had vetoed that notion. "You and Maranon are the only ones of us who can safely sail Xander," Phillip had said. "And you are both kept busy doing so during the day. If the journey were to last long enough, others could be trained. In fact, I would like you to begin to do so, if only to provide you some relief when conditions are. . . less tricky."
Darrell continued the summary. "The first line of defense against river pirates will be Javari and Maranon's skills. They must decide what to do in. . . what did you call it, Phillip? Ah, yes, in real time, meaning at the moment. We will mount a watch on the bow, so that Maranon does not have to be both master-of-sail and lookout. The second line of defense will be bowmen, who will fire the instant we come under attack. We will all defend the boat with swords if pirates come close enough."
The boys listened intently as Darrell described the defense against brigands on a bridge, and attack from the shore. When he had finished, and before darkness fell, several boys swam to shore to cut sturdy young trees from which they could make pikes to fend off attacking boats, should that be necessary.
"When do we get to know what the boy on the docks showed you?" Phillip asked Javari. The two were sitting on the stern of Xander, feet and fishing lines dangling into the water. One of their companions was aloft, on sentry duty. The others were on shore, gathering firewood. They would cook the fish already caught, and any that Phillip and Javari caught, for lunch. They had become accustomed to stopping for lunch, usually every second or third day, and usually fish cooked on a campfire.
"Not yet," Javari said. He grinned, and pointed to Phillip's line. "You have a bite."
The attack, when it came, was unlike any they had prepared for. Xander swept gracefully around a gentle curve in the river to be faced with a hawser stretched from bank to bank. "Boom!" Javari shouted, and turned the tiller hard to port. The boys ducked below the gunwales; an over-reaction, to be sure, but one which Phillip had drilled into them at Javari's insistence.
"They have become overconfident," Javari had told Phillip a tenday before. "They're treating the boom as a test of skill and bravery. They're not ducking until the last instant; and. . . some of them aren't even looking toward the boom! I. . . I can't say anything. They're. . . well, they're all older and smarter than I am."
Phillip had nodded, and kissed Javari. "You are no less smart than any of them. They know things that you don't know. They know things that I don't know. But you are the only one I trust to sail Xander. . . this one or the last one. . . or. . . "
Phillip paused and thought for a moment, ". . . or the next one, for I think we will be sailing together for a long, long time. You tell me what you want. My task is to lead. I will give orders. And I will always depend on you to tell me what to say."
Javari's reflexes were fast enough that the boat's speed was slow enough, that when the cabin caught on the hawser, neither was the boat damaged, nor was anyone hurt. The planning and drills they'd conducted since the first, abortive attack paid off. Archers rose from the well of the boat, arrows nocked, waiting only for Phillip's order to shoot. Others of the crew crouched with swords and poniards ready. Two held the staves with which they'd fend off other boats, should anyone attempt to board Xander.
Phillip, crouching with the others, raised his head briefly to survey the situation. There. . . men swarming over the hawser from both banks; others in the water. "Cut the hawser!" he called. "Archers, f. . . f. . . shoot at will!" Why did I not say "fire," ran briefly through his mind, before he turned his attention once more to defending Xander and the boys who were. . . commended to me, Phillip remembered the words of the Duke of Londinium.
"Maranon! Catch the boom!" Javari cried. The boy threw himself across the boom, stopping its travel across the boat. The archers fired, and drew their second arrows. Four of the six men on the hawser fell into the water. Arrows had either startled or killed them. Phillip didn't know, and didn't care. Sandar, closest to the hawser, hacked at it twice with his sword. It parted, and the other men on the hawser dropped into the river as the rope whipped away from Xander.
The pirates had not been idle, however, and several arrows from the shore reached Xander. Garness had been struck. One of the arrows had slipped beneath his chain mail shirt, and pierced his belly. None of the other boys was a healer, so it was Phillip's knowledge of first aid from his lifeguard classes that was applied to stanch the blood, and keep Garness alive until they could reach the next town.
Javari sailed through the night, relying on the light from the stars and his elven eyesight to keep Xander from running aground. At dawn they reached a town. Phillip, with Sandar and two others carrying Garness, went directly to the temple. The somewhat dimwitted cleric who tended the poor box at the temple gate panicked. In his confusion, he sounded an alarm. As a result, several minutes were lost while Sandar explained the situation.
The healers at the temple assured Phillip that Garness would recover completely. "We'll lay up here until Garness is well. Not just well enough to travel, but well," Phillip said. "I know that will delay our arrival in Elvenholt, but I will not leave anyone behind. I hope you understand this."
The boys looked puzzled. "Of course we do," Sandar said. "Why might you think otherwise?"
Phillip looked from face to face. They all. . . even Argon's. . . bore the same look of puzzlement. "I should have known," he said. "But thank you for reminding me: loyalty is more important than time."
The sixpence per diem that Phillip paid to tie Xander to the quay helped pay for the guards who patrolled the docks and ensured the safety of the ship and its contents. Sandar convinced a reluctant Phillip that the ship would be safe. "Father said we would be safe in the towns, and besides, the weavers here depend on river trade. If the docks weren't safe, merchants wouldn't stop here. It will be all right! Besides," he added, "we all need a hot bath and a soft bed. And we'll find both at the inn."
The town of Kannapolis was indeed a "city of looms." A canal and aqueduct system led from upriver to the town, where the water powered not only a gristmill, but also several flax mills. From dawn until dusk, the rhythmic pounding of the flax mills was more intrusive than the susurrus of water against the hull of Xander had ever been, but after a few days, the boys became accustomed to it. It did not take long for people to learn that the boys had defeated two pirate attacks.
They became the center of attention. All the boys in the town found a reason to visit the inn, and the two humans, Phillip and Argon, were sought out as partners several times each day. Phillip, at first, had been reluctant to share with so many boys who were not known to him.
Thus far, on World, he'd been isolated, is the word I want, Phillip thought. Isolated and protected. In Japura's village, we shared first with Japura, and then with the boys in his cohort. Later, we shared with the boys in Padraig's cohort. Still, it was boys we knew. In Javari and Maranon's village, we shared with the boys in their family, and a few others, but still, it was boys we knew. In Londinium, we shared with a small circle of boys–friends of Sandar. Here. . . they expect that we. . . I. . . will share with any boy who asks. I am not comfortable with this.
Once again, Phillip realized that he could not include some of his companions in a council without including them all. When all but Garness, who was still at the temple, were seated, he began. "You all know that I am not from this world. You all know that my customs are different from yours. Yet, you have all sworn loyalty to me."
He blushed. "You cannot know how humble that makes me. And. . . there's something else that makes me humble. Um, I need your help in something. . . something that is very personal to me, and which makes me different from you.
"The boys of this town. . . they've asked me to share boy magic with them. Yet, I do not know them. I have sworn love and fealty with Argon, Maranon, and Javari. I have sworn to cherish and protect each of you. I don't understand how that. . . I don't understand how I can share with these boys whom I do not even know. Yet, that seems to be. . . expected? It seems to be the custom. Please, help me?"
That night passed more slowly than any night since Phillip had first met Argon. The boys offered their love, their support, and their understanding; however, they could not offer much help. Sharing themselves and their magic with other boys was such an integral part of their lives that they could not grasp the situation in which Phillip found himself. Yet Phillip kept pressing them for answers. In their loyalty and love, they did what they could to offer answers. Just as dawn lit the sky, Phillip had an epiphany.
It's like when Garness and Darrell tickled Sandar in front of his peers–it didn't embarrass him. It's like when Javari and Maranon, and Argon and I first shared in the lava cave after the storm. It's like . . . it's like all I've experienced since I arrived on World: not only do these boys not feel embarrassment, but also they don't feel jealousy. I could have sex with every boy on World, and Argon would not be jealous–nor would Maranon. That's why Argon believes in, and encourages my ancient ties with Maranon–he cannot be jealous. Just as "embarrassed" isn't in this language, neither is "jealousy."
"Thank you," Phillip said. "I think I understand, now."
The boys were pleased to have an opportunity to practice with the new swords that the duke had given them, and Darrell, an accomplished swordsman, was even more pleased when Phillip asked him to teach Javari, Argon, Maranon and himself how to use the new, longer and heavier weapons.
It was surprisingly easy to encourage the boys to practice their weapons skills and to teach us, Phillip thought. There is no hurry among these people, but there is no indolence, either. Life is not hard. None of these boys had what I would consider a job in Londinium. They could have wasted their time doing nothing, like so many of the boys I grew up with. But they don't, and I don't think they would if they could. What is the difference? Phillip tucked these questions into his memory.
They'd been in Kannapolis for a tenday, and had adjusted to the new rhythm of their life on shore: breakfast, a visit to Garness, weapons practice, bath, and lunch. Afternoons were free, although most of the boys continued weapons practice, and Phillip and a few others always visited Garness before supper.
On this afternoon, the boys decided to go swimming in the river. Phillip had declined; he hoped to have an hour or two alone, perhaps to write in his journal, perhaps simply to reflect. Although he understood the discomfort that too much closeness–of walls, trees, and boys–gave him, and although he loved all his companions, he relished the thought of some privacy. He was deeply engrossed in his journal, and didn't hear the door open. Javari's whispered, "Phillip. . . " startled him. "Phillip, may I show you what the boy on the docks showed me?"
An hour later, Phillip experienced the most incredible orgasm in his life. It was better than the first time he had lain with a boy: that was Johnny Two-Horses under the lanai on a sunny afternoon. It was better than the first time he and Jake Paloma had sex; and Jake was a talented and patient partner. It was better than the first time he had received Argon's boy magic, in the jail cell. Phillip hadn't known what happened, but felt as if he'd hit an electric wire with a screwdriver. It was better than the first time he and Argon had truly exchanged boy magic, after absorbing magic from the great kiva at Chaco.
Javari had touched places Phillip had no idea were so sensitive; he had reached more deeply inside Phillip than had anyone, before; he had evoked from Phillip feelings he didn't know he had. When Phillip was able to speak, some minutes later, he had asked, "Javari, what did you do? How. . . ?"
Javari grinned. "The boy was a courtesan, but he fell in love with me. He showed me how to see others' boy magic beneath their skin, and how to manipulate it to give another great pleasure. He said that I should be very careful with whom I did this, because it could make someone believe they loved me, when they were experiencing only lust. I knew. . . I know. . . that you already love me, so I wasn't worried about that."
Phillip hugged Javari. "You have the right of it, Javari. I love you, and Maranon, and Argon, and. . . and all of our companions. And I am happy in that love."
Phillip took advantage of their time in Kannapolis, and of Sandar's credentials, to explore the library of the temple. Argon, who had learned to read, mostly to please Phillip, and Sandar, who already knew how to read, helped him. In the library, they found this story.
A thousand lifetimes ago, in a place where World touched the stars, and a river of milk flowed from the sky, there lived a dragon. The dragon was lonely, for she feared herself to be the last of her kind. There had been other dragons: scores, hundreds, some said thousands of dragons; however, the Great War between Good and Evil had been fought by both elvenkind and dragonkind. Fire from the mouths of dragons and from the hands of their riders had burned not only enemy armies, but also the vulnerable skin of the enemy dragons' wings. The lucky ones plummeted from the sky, to die upon the rocks. The unlucky ones lingered, to starve to death.
Now, the war was long over. The sole surviving dragon did not know who won, nor did she care. She lived, she ate, and she hoped to encounter a male dragon with whom to mate. As she searched for a mate, something within her drove her from the land of the river of milk, southward. She flew along the spine of the continent, the mountains we now call the Aristas. Few saw her, and those who did marveled, for they believed that there were no more dragons. She traveled slowly, stopping often to feed, to rest, to sleep, and to dream.
One afternoon, she landed on a crag overlooking a lush meadow. A herd of grazers caught her eye. She knew them. They were the fuzzy ones. She had eaten a dozen in the months before the last winter. Their meat was tender, yet their hair caught in her teeth, and was hard on her digestion. There was something different about these. She swooped over the herd, and snatched one in her jaws. The hair was short! Delighted with this discovery, she brought her jaws together and crunched the bone, savored the sweetness of the meat and blood, and swallowed. The sheep, for that is what they were, milled about in panic. Several small dogs ran in circles around the herd, barking and snapping at hocks, keeping the sheep from stampeding.
The dragon beat her wings, rose, turned, and swooped down, again. As she approached the flock, a figure ran toward her. The figure was two legged, not four, and it brandished a long stick with a crook at one end. The figure made a high, piercing sound that was quite uncomfortable to the dragon's ears. Surprised, the dragon cupped her wings, and dropped gracefully to the ground. The blast of air knocked down the two-legged creature, which scrambled to its feet. It held the staff between itself and the dragon.
"I'm not afraid of you," it said. "One sheep–that was what you agreed last summer. And you have yet to scare away the wolves."
That the dragon was–startled? Yes, startled. In fact, that she was startled was an understatement. She had never heard a voice, before; she had never seen a human before; and she had certainly never agreed not to eat the naked-fuzzy creatures.
She did not know how she knew the language the creature spoke, nor how she spoke to it; nevertheless, she did speak. "I have agreed to nothing," she said. "And I do not know what are wolves. Are the things you call sheep the naked-fuzzies?"
The boy, for that's what the two-legged creature was–gasped, and his eyes widened. "You're not Ados," he said. And then, "I'm still not afraid of you. Who are you?"
The dragon looked at the boy. "I am. . . I am I," she said. "What is Ados, and what are you?"
The boy, whose name was Budde, and who had decided that this new dragon wasn't going to eat him, put down his crook and clambered onto a rock. When he sat on top of the rock, his eyes were ten feet from the ground, and were level with the eyes of the dragon, who had put her chin on the ground.
It took little time for the dragon to learn that the boy was a sentient creature, like herself, and that Ados was a dragon who had visited the boy in the meadow the past two summers. She learned that the naked-fuzzies were, indeed, sheep, newly shorn, and that they belonged to the boy–rather, to his village a few miles away. Each morning, the boy brought the sheep to the meadow to graze; each evening, he herded then back home.
The boy graciously told the dragon that while she might not eat the sheep, she could eat all the wolves she desired. After hearing the boy's description of wolves, the dragon opined that they sounded rather stringy, and tough. The boy laughed, and suggested that she hunt mountain goats which were plentiful. "Although," he said, "they are hairy."
"Oh, I know mountain goats," the dragon said. "Their hair is easier to digest than the heavy wool of your sheep.
"You said you were Budde," she said, "and that the dragon who visited you was Ados. Those are names, are they not? What is my name?"
"Do you not know?" the boy asked. "Ados didn't know his name, either, but I thought he'd simply forgotten. He said it had been aeons since he'd talked to anyone."
"I've never talked to anyone, before," the dragon said, "and I've never had a name."
"In that case, you'll be. . . " the boy paused. "I know, you shall be Daphne!"
The dragon, who now had a name, and the boy, who had always had a name, became fast friends. Daphne ate no more naked-fuzzies, but feasted on mountain goats, and chased away wolves until midsummer's day when Ados arrived. Now, there were two dragons to guard the fuzzies, and, by the end of the summer when Budde herded the sheep back to his village for the last time, Daphne had five eggs in her tummy, and the race of dragons began anew.
"That's a children's story, isn't it?" Phillip asked Argon.
"I don't know," Argon replied. He seemed puzzled.
"Sandar? What do you think?"
"I don't know, either," Sandar said. "Why do you think so?"
"The part about calling sheep naked-fuzzies, for one thing. That's something a child might say. . . and understand. The shepherd is a young boy, who talks to dragons and isn't afraid of them, for another," Phillip said.
"Yeah, but what about the crunching bones and blood? and the dragons dying? and war?" Argon asked.
"I think the story was written not only to tell children that dragons are real, but also to tell them that war is real," Phillip said. "You've heard the reports of trolls they tell in the market place, haven't you?"
Sandar nodded. The town master had pressed Sandar into service to read a proclamation at First Market, which had ended two days ago. The message, which had traveled downriver from Elvenholt, reported that a farm near the village of Sweetsprings, just days north of Elvenholt and on the northern flanks of the Gray Mountains, had been attacked by trolls. This was not the first such attack of which they had heard. Most attacks seemed to occur close to the mountains. All towns and villages, as well as farms and holts within 100 miles of the Gray Mountains were encouraged to be on alert, to strengthen their defenses, and to expand their guard force.
"My world was always at war, somewhere or other. Things happened more quickly there than here. I think this world is always at war, too. It's just that because things happen more slowly, that it doesn't seem like it. You elves don't seem to pay much attention to what happened in the past, to history. I think this story was written to help you remember."
Sandar nodded. He and the other elves looked at Phillip with understanding, and with a little fear.