by David McLeod
"You are under arrest." The centurion's words still echoed in Phillip's mind. At least we've not been separated, Phillip thought. But, I don't understand. . .
"Why are we manacled?" Phillip asked.
Maranon and Javari shrugged, but Argon answered. "Try to use magic," he said. "For anything. You can't. At least, I can't. The manacles suck away the magic."
The three other boys' expressions went from alarm to chagrin, before settling on alarm.
"Why did they arrest us?" Maranon asked. "We did nothing wrong!" Despite his brave protest, there were tears in his eyes.
"Surely they saw the truth in what Phillip said at the gate," Javari said. Phillip had told the guards and sembler at Barbican the same thing he'd told those at the towns and villages along their route. They traveled to Rome to visit the College of Magic. It was true and, as he'd learned, it was enough of the truth to satisfy even the most intense scrutiny.
However, something had gone wrong at the gate of Barbican. Argon had sensed unease, even fear among the guards, and had tried to warn Phillip. A signal from one of the guards to the centurion negated Argon's warning. Before the boys could turn away, they had been surrounded, arrested, and relieved of their weapons and horses. They had been manacled—heavy iron bracelets linked by several feet of thick chain—and marched by a decuria of soldiers through the city. They were herded through a small door in the side of a large building, down several flights of stairs, and into what was surely a dungeon: barred cells, one after the other, on both sides of a corridor lit only by a few oil lamps.
Phillip whispered to Argon, "Can you still. . . uh, you know?" He referred to the boy's innate magic, which had manifested itself as empathy.
Argon shook his head. "No. . . no energy. . . the manacles. . . ," he whispered back.
"Any ideas from before? Did you get anything at the gate?" Phillip continued.
Again, Argon shook his head. "I don't know what they found that frightened them so much," he whispered.
Phillip sat on the floor between Argon and Maranon; Javari sat beside Maranon. Phillip pressed his side against first Argon and then Maranon. He was reluctant to try to touch them with his hands: the manacles were heavy, and he was afraid he'd hurt them with the heavy chain. In the dim light that came through the barred wall and door of the cell, he saw Maranon smile. "It will be all right, Phillip," the boy said. "You will make it all right."
I hope so, Phillip thought. But, at this moment, I haven't the slightest idea how.
The boys sat together, seemingly alone in the dungeon. They'd seen no others when they had been marched down the corridor; they heard no one else; and, they were afraid to call out. Who knew what might draw the ire of their captors? Who knew who might be listening?
The manacles made every task difficult. They could not use even the simplest forms of magic, compounding the problem. They were accustomed to using boy magic in so many ways. . .
"Phillip," Argon whispered. "Help me stand, please? I'm thirsty."
Water flowed from a spout at waist level on one wall, and then into a basin. From the basin, it spilled onto a hole in the floor from which rose a stench that confirmed Phillip's assessment: squat toilet, he thought directly over the sewer. Helping one another to stand against the weight of the manacles and chains, they could, with considerable effort, drink from the basin and piss into the hole. They each hoped—but none said—that they'd be released before they needed the hole for anything else.
With no light save what little came from an oil lamp across the corridor from the barred wall of their cell, time passed slowly or quickly or not at all. Phillip smiled when he heard Maranon's breathing slow and become a soft burble. He's asleep. Lucky for him. I'm so glad. . .
The sound of feet shod in hard leather, and the clank of a sword against a cuisse heralded the arrival of soldiers. Maranon woke with a start. Phillip struggled to stand.
"Stay seated," a man's voice snapped. Phillip slumped against the wall and bent his knees, sliding back down to a seated position. It was much easier to sit than to stand. Three tall figures and one shorter one cast shadows against the back wall of the cell. The people who cast the shadows were invisible from where Phillip and his companions sat; the figures were merely dark outlines against the light of the lamp.
Phillip watched the shadows as the barred door swung open, and the shortest figure's shadow grew taller. He's coming into the cell, Phillip thought. The shadow bent over, and then stood. It grew shorter as the person retreated. The door slammed shut.
"Your supper," the same voice said. The sound of feet shod in hard leather, and the clank of a sword against a cuisse faded, and the boys were alone.
Supper was a large bowl of pottage, oatmeal. There were no spoons. Awkwardly, the boys rinsed their hands in the stream of water, wishing for the boy magic that would have ensured cleanliness. Even more awkwardly, they ate, one handful of oatmeal at a time. A lot of fiber, Phillip thought. We're going to need that hole, before long.
The light of the oil lamp did not vary. Was it night? They'd been fed more oatmeal for supper, but that meant nothing. The boys lay on the floor of the dungeon, as close together as possible, and slept.
The lamp had gone out; Phillip woke to darkness. "Argon?" he whispered. "Maranon? Javari?"
Argon's whisper replied, "I'm awake, but just this minute. Javari's still—"
"I'm awake, too," Javari's voice came. "The lamp went out."
"Very observant, elder brother," came Maranon's voice. And then, "Listen!"
A creak-slam signaled the closing of a door. A wavering light and the flip-flop scuffle of sandals signaled the approach of someone who was not a soldier.
"The elder human will approach the door," came the alto voice of a boy.
"Well, I guess that's me," Phillip said. Even Maranon, who looks to be in his mid-teens, is centuries older than I am, he thought. And it's a stretch to think that I'm older than Argon. Yet, I have accepted leadership. I am eldest by rite, if not by right.
Phillip struggled to stand. Only by pressing his back to the wall, and drawing his feet under his buttocks was he able to do so. He stumbled to the barred door. He said nothing, but stared into the face of the figure across the bars. The boy carried a staff, the tip of which glowed with an actinic blue light. Phillip could barely determine that the figure facing him was an elf.
"Who are you?" the elf asked.
"Phillip Windrider Spartus," Phillip answered. "And who are you, please?" he added.
"I shall ask the questions," the elf said. "Where are you from?"
"Does your job description require that you be rude," Phillip said, "or did you decide that for yourself?"
The light from the boy's staff, held behind his head, was still too bright for Phillip to see his face, but he heard a gasp. "How dare you—" the boy sputtered.
"Humph," Phillip said. "Even my friend, the Royal Ambassador to Solimoes, wasn't as taken with himself as you seem to be."
"You. . . you speak the truth! But the drug must have worn off by now!"
Now, it was Phillip's turn to be puzzled. "What drug?"
"Um. . . no drug. . . I misspoke," the boy said. He might have said more, but another creak-thud was followed by the sound of soldiers approaching. The boy looked toward the sound. "Please, say nothing," he whispered.
"Jason, you were to have waited," a man's bass voice boomed in the stone corridor.
The boy flinched. Before he turned to face the man, he shifted his staff so that the light fell upon his face. "Please?" he whispered, again. He turned, and held his staff so that the light illuminated the man who approached, escorted by soldiers. "Yes, Master," Jason said.
The boy and the man are robed and unarmed save for daggers, Phillip thought. Clerics? Mages? The boy—Jason—he's certainly a sembler. The man, likely one too.
"What is your name, boy?" the man asked.
Phillip replied as before. "I am Phillip Windrider Spartus. And who are you, please?"
"I am Master Mage Coriolanus," the man said. Phillip glanced at Jason and, unseen by Coriolanus, winked at the boy. He was gratified to see that Jason blushed when he realized what Phillip's wink meant.
"Where are you from?"
Time to play the trump card, Phillip thought. "I am from the Athabascan Nation, and have been named their ambassador," he said.
The man turned and looked at Jason, who nodded. The man's not a sembler, Phillip thought. Only the boy, Jason.
Jason stepped to his master's side, and whispered into the man's ear. The man frowned, and then said. "Take them to the bath; feed them. Do not remove their manacles. Return them here. I will try again, tomorrow."
Phillip and his companions were taken to a bath. Awkwardly, they performed their toilet, and cleaned themselves and their clothes. Because of the manacles, they could not remove their shirts; without boy magic, they could not dry themselves or their clothes, which hung and clung damply to their bodies when they were led back to their cell. Phillip's protests to the boy Jason, who had accompanied them, and to the soldier who commanded the guard, were ignored.
Phillip felt Maranon shivering beside him. Their clothes were still damp, even though hours had passed since their bath and another meal of pottage, eaten with their fingers. Phillip huddled close to the boy, hoping to give him some warmth rather than stealing from him. Something from his childhood—his aunt's singing to him when he was an infant—called to him, and he began singing an Athabascan cradlesong. The first song I learned, he thought. He closed his eyes, sang, and remembered.
Argon's whisper was enough to cause Phillip to open his eyes. What the boy said, startled him only for an instant. "Don't stop singing, Phillip," Argon said. "Don't stop singing, but do look."
Phillip saw, in the flickering light from the corridor, a vortex of dust in one corner of their cell. A gate? My aunt's cradle song gathers magic? Do all our songs do so? Can I transport us from this place? But where would we go? The Shaman said a gate would take us to a place where we would be in harmony. No, Phillip sighed mentally while continuing to sing. This is not even as strong as the power the cleric and I used to send the flower and bead to Johnny. . . if it got there. He almost stopped singing when Javari spoke.
"Phillip, can you make it come to me?" Javari asked. He had sat up against the wall, and held his manacled hands in front of him.
Can I? Phillip wondered. He sang, and thought of the vortex moving toward Javari. Nothing happened.
But then, Phillip changed the words of the refrain. In place of "Spider," who in the cradlesong wove dream-catchers, he put the name "Javari," and imagined his companion weaving magic. Argon and Maranon gasped as the vortex began to move. Slowly, slowly, it moved across the cell until it rested above Javari. The boy reached upward and touched his manacles to the tip of the vortex. The metal disintegrated. His arms were free. In an instant he gestured, his hands made patterns that Phillip had never seen. Javari touched Argon's manacles; the metal crumbled, and the boy's hands were free. Phillip continued to sing while Javari broke open Maranon and Phillip's manacles. Next, Javari gestured toward the lock on the cell gate. The boys watched as rather smallish chunks of metal fell and tinkled on the stone floor. "We don't need the song, anymore," Javari said.
Phillip stopped singing and grinned. "Good," he said. His voice was hoarse. "Shall we go?"
"Um, where?" Maranon asked.
"Out of here. . . you will be armed with these chains until we can find other weapons. Up, toward the light, and away from this place." Phillip replied. "Argon? Has your power returned?"
When that boy nodded, Phillip continued. "Then you will lead, avoiding people where possible, and warning us when it is not possible. I will be behind you. Then Maranon. Javari? You will be exposed in the rear. I do not like it, but it must be.
"I do not know these people, but I do not like them. They have unjustly imprisoned us; they have ignored their own custom of treating an ambassador with courtesy. I will not hesitate to kill in order that we may be free. Can you. . . ?" He hesitated, and looked at his companions. He was reassured by what he saw.
They crept in single file down the corridor. Phillip was concerned that the creaking door would give them away, but Argon whispered that there was no one was near.
"Give me one reason I should not kill you," Phillip said. "I can, with little effort—and you can see the truth of that." A few minutes earlier, Argon had gestured caution, and held up one finger. They'd hidden behind a door. Jason had entered, alone as before, and been seized and immobilized by Phillip. Now, Phillip whispered to the boy, "Why should I not kill you? I will uncover your mouth. If you try to shout, you will die before the breath leaves your lungs."
Phillip felt Jason relax; he no longer struggled against Phillip's grip. "Truly," the boy said softly, "truly I do not know why you should not kill me, except that I have done you no harm."
"Wrong answer," Phillip said. "You consort with those who have done so; try again."
"My master and his soldiers will be along soon," Jason said. "You are no match for them. I will show you where to hide."
"Now you show yourself to have no honor," Phillip said. "Why should I trust someone who would betray his master's trust?"
The boy stiffened as Phillip's words penetrated his understanding, and then he slumped, again. Phillip felt the boy's body shake, and realized that he was crying.
"More coming," Argon whispered. "This way—" He gestured toward a door.
"I can still kill you before you can cry out," Phillip cautioned Jason, and dragged him after the others.
Argon led the boys through narrow hallways and small doors, up winding stairs and past clerestory windows. Within minutes, their feet were raising dust in hallways that saw little use.
"Where are we?" Phillip asked Jason.
"The back stairs," the boy replied. And then he sneezed.
"There's more. . . " Argon said.
"You're a sembler?" Jason gasped.
"Yeah, now where are we?" Argon asked.
"Behind my father's audience chamber," Jason replied.
"Your father. . . ? He's the duke?" Phillip asked.
"Then, you're a prince?" Maranon added, remembering the lessons in protocol Sandar had tried to teach him.
"Well, yeah," Jason said. "My eldest brother is the dauphin, and will become duke. My next brother is a solider; he commands the city guard. I'll be a mage. Maybe. If I live. . . " The boy looked askance at Phillip who still held him firmly.
Suddenly, Argon warned them. "Someone's coming. . . many of them. . . " Before they could react, panels along the corridor slid aside, and armed men surrounded the boys.
"Hold!" Jason called out. "He will kill me if you harm his friends."
Phillip released the boy and pushed him gently toward the closest soldier. "No, Jason. I would have killed you to keep you from betraying us, but I cannot kill you in cold blood." Phillip's shoulders slumped. He turned briefly to look at his companions. At least they understand, Phillip thought. He felt the warmth of Argon's understanding, and saw agreement in the eyes of Maranon and Javari.
"You show peculiar honor for a Thief and a smuggler," a tween's tenor voice said.
"Stewart!" Jason called. "My brother," he said to Phillip.
"I do not think these boys are either Thieves or smugglers," Jason continued, addressing the tween with centurion's insignia who had moved to the fore. "This one," he indicated Phillip, "is almost certainly an ambassador. And one of them is a more powerful mage than even Master Coriolanus.
"That is," Jason said upon reflection, "at least one of them is. They all may be, for all that I know."
"Why do you say that?" the centurion asked.
"Look at the manacles. . . or, rather. . . the chains. The locks were not picked; the bracelets were not broken as with a chisel. . . they were. . . disintegrated, I think," Jason said.
The centurion gestured to Argon, who then handed him the chain he still carried. The centurion chipped with his fingernail at the lump of metal on one end—all that remained of the bracelet—and watched as a chunk of metal broke off and tinkled onto the floor. He frowned. "I see. Yet you seem to believe we are not in danger," he said to his brother. His voice rose, turning the statement into a question.
"No, brother," Jason said. "These boys are no danger to us or to the city."
They met Jason's eldest brother, the dauphin, not in the audience room but in a small closet. "Father and Mother are away," he said. "My little brother has said that one of you is an ambassador, and that at least one of you is a powerful mage. We arrested you and held you captive; yet he also says that you are not angry, and are no danger to us. I would know why."
Jason flushed when called little brother. Perhaps to counter that, he spoke before Phillip could. "I didn't say they were not angry, big brother, only that they were no danger to us. They're probably plenty angry."
The dauphin looked. . . perhaps not worried, but certainly less sure of himself. What Phillip said may have eased his worries, but did nothing to increase the dauphin's self-confidence. "Your king and I have sworn amity; I can be angry—and I am—however, except in self-defense or when acting against evil, I will not harm one of his people. Are you evil?"
Rather than answering, the dauphin gestured for Jason to come closer. He put his arm around the boy, and whispered into his ear. "When I call you little brother, it is because I love you, not to belittle you. Perhaps I should not call you that except when we are alone, or with family?"
"Then," the dauphin continued for Jason's ears, alone, "stand beside me, and be my sembler. Touch my arm if these boys lie to me."
The dauphin stood and bowed to Phillip. It was a short bow, but one appropriate for an ambassador. Phillip nodded; it was not a bow, but it was sufficient for protocol.
"Are you, then, ambassador to my father, the duke?" the dauphin asked.
"No," Phillip said. "I have no duties, at present, save leading my companions to Rome and to the College of Magic, there."
"Have you truly been unjustly imprisoned?"
"Yes," Phillip said, flatly. "And ill-treated."
"How did you free yourselves?"
"That is a secret of my people, and of my companions," Phillip replied.
The dauphin glanced at Jason, who simply nodded.
"Why were they arrested?" the dauphin asked the second brother, Stewart.
"They were uncommonly close to the description of four boys who were known to be smuggling a particular drug into Barbican," Stewart answered. He hesitated, but his elder brother gestured for him to continue. "The drug is not only noxious and dangerous, it also dulls the mind so that one can deceive a sembler." He paused again, and then added. "There is no longer any doubt that these are not those boys and, even if they had taken the drug, it would have worn off long before this."
The dauphin nodded to his brother, and then asked Phillip, "What may we do to erase your anger, and to earn your forgiveness and respect?"
"Free us; return all that you took from us," Phillip said. "That will earn our forgiveness. My anger will be slow to cool, but will, in time. As far as respect? That cannot be earned in as short a time as I hope is left to us in this place."
The dauphin nodded. "I understand." He then spoke quietly to his other brother, the centurion Stewart. "Please take them as guests to bathe and be fed while their property is assembled. All of it, down to the last button or pin. If anything has been damaged, it is to be repaired or replaced to this boy's satisfaction.
"Jason, accompany them."
The dauphin spoke to Phillip. "Ambassador, my people acted with zeal in the performance of their duties. They also acted under my authority in the absence of my father, the duke. I, alone, am responsible for the harm that has been done to you. I ask. . . I would demand, but that would be presumptuous. . . I ask that your anger and disrespect be levied only upon me, and not upon my father or his people."
Phillip bowed to the dauphin; this time, it was as deep as the dauphin's initial bow to Phillip. "I had not thought," Phillip said, "that one could earn respect in so short a time, or with so few words. Thank you for that lesson."
Phillip dug through his pack until he reached the oilskin packet that contained his journal and dictionaries, and the Shaman's book. Relief lit his face when he found them intact. He frowned, however, when he realized that Jason was staring at both him and the books. "There is power, there," Jason said.
"Shit," Phillip said. "Why do you say that?"
"I can see it in the books and in you; can you not?" Jason asked. "And what is shit?"
Phillip beckoned for Argon to join them, and questioned Jason closely. "What do you see when you look at the books, and at me?"
"A glow of magic," Jason replied. "It's like boy magic, only different. It's like a healing potion, but. . . well, different. It's like an altar or workbench, only different. And what is shit?"
"Excrement," Phillip said. "How are you able to see it? Can others see it? Why didn't you say anything before now?"
Jason's answers were vague. He could see magic surrounding the books and surrounding Phillip because he could see magic. Some people could see magic without trying, but not many. Some clerics and mages could see magic using spells. And, he hadn't said anything, before, because the magic wasn't there until Phillip touched the books.
A series of experiments revealed that when Phillip and the books were separated by about 10 yards, neither they nor Phillip glowed. Jason was sure, however, that the glow from Phillip didn't just come from the books; it came from him.
Phillip remembered the words of his friend, the cleric Tucano, when he explained how he knew Phillip was the rightful possessor of the ancient medallion: . . . the strings of magic around the medallion and those around you are in harmony. They interact and reinforce one another when you wear or hold the medallion. "The books and I are in harmony," Phillip said. "Just like the medallion," he looked at Argon, who nodded. "Somehow we heterodyne. . . the books and I."
Why did I use that word? I remember it from. . . who was that kid? He was an amateur radio operator. . . talked all over the world from the Res. He showed me how radio frequencies heterodyne in the receiver to produce sounds audible to the human ear. I wonder if that's really what's happening? Some magical frequency of the books and some magical frequency from me. . . they're heterodyning to produce a magical light that Jason can see. Phillip tucked these thoughts into his memory, and said, "As interesting as this is, I cannot wander around Elvenholt glowing. Jason, how can I stop this? Can I screen it? Is there a way to shield the books?"
Jason did not know, but offered to consult his tutor, Master Mage Coriolanus. Phillip drew Argon aside. "He's sincere," Argon whispered in response to Phillip's question. Then Argon giggled. "He's cute, too."
"Well, we can't leave until I understand this glow thing," Phillip said. "Perhaps you two can get together—later."
Phillip saw the look that flashed across Argon's face. "I'm sorry," Phillip added. He gently touched Argon's cheek. "I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I'm not angry with you; I'm just frustrated because there are so many things I do not understand."
Argon nodded, and then kissed Phillip. "I know," he said.
Master Coriolanus agreed to help Phillip, and invited him and his companions to stay at the College of Magic. Jason, however, spoke to his eldest brother who, perhaps anxious to make amends, earnestly asked them to live in the palace. Phillip acceded to Argon's wishes, and accepted the dauphin's invitation. While Phillip studied with Master Coriolanus, Jason—relieved for a while of his own studies—took the others in hand.
Some three tendays after they'd moved from the dungeon into a suite on the top floor of the palace, Argon and Jason burst into the room where Phillip was studying. "Phillip! Look at this!" Argon called. Jason held a book in his hand. It was much thinner than most books, and nearly twice as wide, and tall. Phillip took the book, and opened it. He gasped. The picture seemed to draw his eyes into it. It was not magic: he had learned to recognize magic. It was art. It was the first picture book Phillip had seen, and the pictures were of dragons.
He turned the page, and the next; the book held page after page of dragons. And, the dragons had riders. Whether the riders were men or boys, humans or elves, it was impossible to tell. The riders were small compared to the dragon, and each was wearing gold or silver armor. Not the suits of armor of the medieval times of Phillip's world, but still: breastplates, sheaths on arms and legs, and a helmet.
There were two words on each page. Phillip frowned. The letters were of the roman alphabet, but none of the words made sense to him. "Do you know these words?" he asked Jason.
Jason examined page after page, before answering. "I do not recognize any of the first words, but some of the second words, I know. They're names. I know a few of them, and I recognize some. . . they're old names. See, this one? That was the name of the duke a thousand lifetimes ago. This one? That was the name of my great-great-great grandfather. I think the first word is the name of the dragon, and the second word is the name of the rider."
Tears welled in Phillip's eyes as he leafed through the book, silently pronouncing the words that were the names of dragons and their riders.
Neither Master Coriolanus nor his compatriots at the College of Magic nor the Clerics at the Temple of Barbican could shed any light on the book except to say that it was old, and to confirm that the second words were, or resembled, ancient elven names. Phillip pressed them to estimate an age, but once again, the elves' seeming disregard for time frustrated him. Everything past yesterday is "a thousand lifetimes ago," he realized. They really don't know what year it is!
Nearly a month later, Phillip and his companions rode westward from Barbican. Phillip and Jason's eldest brother, the Heir Apparent to the Dukedom of Barbican, had embraced, as had Argon and Jason. Master Coriolanus had shaken Phillip's hand. Other elven boys of Jason's cohort had said their farewells, as well. Phillip thanked Master Coriolanus for the knowledge he had imparted; what Argon and Jason said was too low for the others to hear.