by David McLeod
All Roads Lead to Rome
Three very angry boys surrounded the dragon. "I saw what you did! Why?" Maranon demanded.
Phillip slid from the dragon's back. "It's okay, Little One," he said. He was still breathless, but his face shone and his eyes glistened. "Zosa and I took each other's measure."
"Well, I don't understand it," Maranon said. "And I don't like it!"
"It's about trust, isn't it?" Javari asked.
"Yes, it is, but how did you know?" Argon said. "I mean, I could feel it. But how did you know?"
"All the stories we've heard, they tell of the bond between dragon and dragon rider," Javari said. "Don't you see? A bond that strong has to be based on trust. Phillip showed that he trusted Zosa; Zosa showed that she could be trusted."
Zosa ignored the boys' conversation, and spoke only to Phillip. Of course, for battle you will need to strap yourself to me. During battle, I cannot always be mindful of you. I will show you how to make a harness.
The dragon's words jolted Phillip. "Battle? I don't—"
You cannot avoid battle, Zosa said. You cannot avoid battle unless you renounce your calling. Always before, riders have meant battle, always before.
Were the dragon's thoughts wistful? Could a dragon be wistful? Phillip asked himself, and realized that he had no answer, and that there was a great deal he needed to learn about dragons and about Zosa.
Argon, who had heard Phillip's words and sensed his emotions, hugged him; Maranon and Javari merely looked puzzled.
"Phillip, what's wrong? Why are you sad? Angry? Both?" Argon asked.
"Zosa said if I were to stay with her—if I were to be a dragon rider—I must be prepared for battle," Phillip replied. "I don't yet know what she means, but she seems certain that we will see battle. I am afraid that you three will be in great danger if you stay with me." His choked voice and rucked face reflected his anguish.
Argon released Phillip and looked down at his feet. He kicked one toe into the ground a couple of times, and then looked at Phillip. "You know that I feel what you feel," he said. "I feel what you feel when you look at Zosa. I feel what you feel when you look at Maranon and Javari and me, and I know that you love us."
The boy looked at his feet again, and then raised his head. "Phillip, you must become a dragon rider. That is what must be. We have all sworn to follow you, and we have all sworn to the Light. That hasn't changed. Zosa does not change that—Zosa cannot change that. Nothing can change that."
"He is right," Javari said. "You were afraid for us when you agreed to lead us across the ocean, but it was a grand adventure. You were afraid for us on the river to Elvenholt, and again when we set out for Rome. You are afraid for us, now. But, we are not afraid, Phillip! If we are not afraid, you should not be afraid."
Phillip listened, unconvinced, until Maranon spoke. "Phillip, we are not complete without you, and you are not complete without Zosa. You must understand this."
Almost as extraordinary as finding a dragon has been my companions' reaction to her. They saw her release me to fall, and then catch me, and were so angry when we returned that they accosted her! Three boys who are together smaller than her head challenged her and called her to account. I quickly reassured them that she hadn't been trying to kill me. Then, when Zosa said that she and I must prepare for battle, they endorsed that notion. Argon led the argument, saying that his magical talent assured him that I did not love him or the others less for loving a dragon.
Always before, riders have meant battle. Always before, riders have meant death. Always before, riders have meant male dragons, and new eggs. Always before.
Phillip stood by Zosa's head, and touched her cheek. It was not necessary to the telepathic connection, but he felt better for it. "Zosa, these boys are my sworn companions. We are bound by oath—and by love. I cannot leave them, nor can they travel as fast as you. The fastest horse could not match your speed—"
I do like the taste of horse, Zosa said.
"Zosa!" Phillip said. "I am trying to be serious. I don't know what to do."
I cannot tell you, Little One, Zosa said.
Zosa's thought broke Phillip's concentration. Little One, Phillip thought. That's what I call Maranon. It feels good when Zosa calls me that. I wonder if Maranon feels the same way—"
Of course he does, Zosa said.
"I wasn't asking you—," Phillip said. "How do you know, anyway?"
People are so transparent, Zosa said. When you say 'little one' to Maranon, a dimple appears on each cheek. Have you not noticed?
Phillip blushed. "Oh."
He continued. "We must travel to Rome. Even though Argon has released me from my promise to take him home, I will go to Rome and seek out the College of Magic. Will you come with us?" Phillip asked.
Zosa snorted. I go where you go, she said.
"I know that you must use magic to fly. You're too heavy to fly without some power other than your wings. However, I cannot feel how you gather or use magic. Is it with your wings?" Phillip stopped speaking abruptly. "Why are you angry?" he asked.
Zosa had extended her neck, nearly pushing Phillip from his feet. Tendons stretched tautly under her scales. You know this? How?
"Uh, general science class, and uh, something Argon said," Phillip stuttered. The answer meant nothing to Zosa. Her eyes seemed to whirl as she looked closely at Phillip.
"Aerodynamics, Bernoulli effect, square-cube law, uh, lift, um, force vectors, um . . ." Phillip stuttered. "It's something I studied long ago and far away. I really don't remember much. But Argon feels magic, and he said he felt you. It is true, isn't it?"
Zosa sighed and lowered her head to rest upon the ground. Her eyes were still higher than the top of Phillip's head. You know the weakness of the dragons, she said. We cannot fly without magic. Oh, we can soar for some distance if we take off from a high place. That is why we nest on mountaintops. That, and to protect our young.
I suppose it's not much of a secret, she continued. Men have stories about capturing a dragon by sneaking upon it and binding its wings—or sprinkling salt on its tail, although I do not know what is the power of salt. One story tells of a druid who lured a dragon into a forest and bound its wings with trees. It is not, however, something to speak of loudly.
"I understand," Phillip said. "We will stay in the mountains so you can rest on high places and be safe."
And eat, Zosa said. Although mountain goats are not as good as horse. Phillip thought he saw a twinkle in her eyes as she said this.
Despite the dragon's snores, the boys slept soundly that night and woke with the first light of morning. After breakfast, the others looked to Phillip for guidance.
"There is one thing I want to do before we go," Phillip said.
"What is that?" Maranon asked.
"I want to make the village believe Vance's story," Phillip replied.
The others looked puzzled, until Argon laughed. "And won't the village be surprised to see a dragon overhead!"
Phillip explained to Zosa how they had found her, rather, how they'd found the meadow in which they encountered her.
"The boy who befriended us," Phillip concluded, "and who told us where he had seen you has no self-doubt, but the others doubt him. I think he would like the others to know that he really did see a dragon."
Zosa understood what Phillip was asking. She chuckled. I suppose you want flaming breath, too, she said.
"Flaming breath? You can do that?" Phillip asked.
The flames are magical, of course, but they do burn. And yes, I see your desire to thank the boy who led you to me. I would like to thank him, too. This is truly the way to do that?
Phillip assured Zosa that it was.
The companions retraced their path until they were a few miles from Vance's village. Phillip scrambled to the top of a hill from which he could see the village. The others followed.
With a thought, Phillip called Zosa. The others looked around, wondering from which direction she might appear, until Phillip pointed to the south. "She's behind that hill . . . there!" he cried as the iridescent dragon swooped over them. Zosa turned toward the village, finding the direction in Phillip's thoughts. She climbed until she was invisible even to elven eyes.
"There!" Phillip said again and pointed to the sky. Maranon and Javari saw her first. With wings outstretched, she plunged from the sky toward the village. Perhaps a hundred feet above the ground and directly over the mill, she cupped her wings. Ten seconds later the boys heard the sound—a clap-bang that echoed from the hills. Zosa nearly came to a full stop before straightening her wings and gliding across the town and its gardens. She beat her wings to gain altitude, and then circled. Again she dove toward the town. She glided above the street, now filled with people. At an altitude of 1,000 feet above the ground she pursed her lips and blew fire—a tongue of flame more than 150 feet long. Then, she flew away.
"I hope no one was terribly frightened," Phillip said to Vance. He'd found Vance at the edge of the gardens, looking wistfully in the direction the dragon had flown. The other boys were with Gregory and Cody, playing in the village. They'd not told anyone about Zosa.
"Oh, no," Vance said. "Not really. A couple of the children, perhaps, but it was a fun kind of fright, one that makes you glad to hold the hand of someone close to you."
He smiled at Phillip. "I was with Gregory, helping gather grain. He reached out and held my hand. When the dragon flew away, he kissed me. Then he said he was sorry for having doubted me. I think he will become my friend.
"I think Gregory suspects that it was you . . . it is you . . . I mean . . . " Vance stopped speaking.
"After we leave, you may tell him and anyone you wish," Phillip said. "I'm so very happy that Gregory may become your friend. Are there others? I mean, what have the others said?"
"Yes," Vance said. "There are others." He grinned, again. "Some of them think I summoned the dragon. I've denied it, and the boys who are semblers have affirmed that.
"I have been kissed by five boys today—"
"Six," Phillip said. He held Vance close, and kissed him deeply.
"You know," he said after he caught his breath. "I, we would never have found Zosa except for you. I wish there were something—"
Vance stopped Phillip's protests with a second kiss. Then he said, "Phillip, in this life I am a goatherd. It is not a bad life, and it will be better, now. Someday, in some life, I may be a dragon rider, or I may be a goatherd, again. It's not important, you see. What is important is that I have been true to myself, and have served the Light."
Vance caressed Phillip's cheek. "I do not know what brought you and your companions into my life, but I will remember you forever, and even longer."
"Vance, I don't know, either, what brought us here," Phillip said. "It's been a very strange adventure. But I do know that neither my companions nor I will forget you. We will remember you forever, and even longer."
Something happened, today. I promised Vance that I would remember him forever, and even longer than that. Until today, I thought those words were nothing more than a cliché, something boys might say to one another casually. Today, however, I think, somewhere in my mind that I have accepted that I—whatever 'I' means—will live again after this life. I think I have come to accept the notion of reincarnation. When Vance and I shared last night, I thought I saw us at another time and place. The vision did not last long, and I was hesitant to ask Vance about it. I do wish I could talk to the Shaman!
"Where do we go, now?" Maranon asked as the boys rode down the mountain from Vance's village.
"Rome," Phillip said. "We will go to Rome, and we will seek out the mages at the College of Magic."
"But you're to be a dragon rider," Argon protested. "I thought we had settled that."
"I know," Phillip said. "Still, there is nothing that stops both our going to Rome and my being a dragon rider. Besides, the road to Rome leads through mountains. Zosa feels safer, and can feed more easily, in mountains."
"But I have released you—" Argon said.
"I know, and I love you for that, but still, I think we must go to Rome. No other destination suggests itself, and I do not think we should simply wander aimlessly," Phillip said. "No, we must go to Rome." And there, despite what you have said, I will find a way to take you home, even if that means leaving Maranon and Javari. Even if that means leaving Zosa. You released me from my oath, but it still binds me. It still binds me! And you're not the only one who can feel what others feel. I feel your yearning for your home.
Argon has grown. He still looks the same: an inch or two taller, perhaps. But he's grown. Yet, he's still a boy who was wrested from his parents, his family, and his world. I must find a way to take him home!
The boys returned to the village where they had heard the minstrel's song. The minstrel had left long ago, but the innkeeper remembered the two human boys who traveled with two elves. He expected a caravan within a tenday. "I know the caravan master; his caravans stop here, often. I'll tell him you traveled before with the army. That, and travelers' oath should get you a place."
The caravan master described the route to Rome in detail; Phillip was comfortable with what he heard. The road followed a river that had carved a gorge through the mountains. They would never be far from Zosa. With this in mind, Phillip negotiated a place in the caravan. They would be expected to fight with the guards if the caravan were attacked, but would not have to stand watches.
The caravan was accompanied by a collection of mercenary guards. Most were seasoned soldiers with army training and experience; two were tweens. Perhaps because the tweens were less experienced, perhaps because they were about the same apparent age as Phillip and his companions, the caravan master instructed the boys, Kyle and Brendan, to be their hosts.
"We were hired in Barbican," Kyle said. "To replace two guards that left the caravan, there. There are rumors," he added, "that this route is dangerous."
"It's more likely that they didn't want to face the cold," Brendan said. "We'll see snow before we reach Rome, and a lot more on the way back to Barbican."
"Here, this is the cook's wagon," Kyle said, interrupting. "Guards who are assigned the first night watch eat first in the evening. Those who are assigned the last night watch eat first in the morning. After that, it's whoever gets here. Don't worry, though, there's always plenty!"
"You can sleep under any of the wagons—just ask the wagoner. Oh, not that one, he snores," Brendan added.
"Um, we stand watch four nights in five. Tonight is out night off. We will sleep under this wagon. Would you join us?"
Perhaps because they were the youngest of the caravan guards, perhaps because they were so obviously companions, Kyle and Brendan had shared with no one but each other since leaving Barbican. They were eager to share with Phillip and his companions, and bonds of friendship and then trust formed among the six boys.
It was the twelfth day since they had left the village. Phillip and Kyle were riding side by side, comfortably and companionably, talking of nothing of great importance, when Kyle reined his horse to a halt.
"Look!" Kyle said. "A dragon!"
Zosa, Phillip thought. I thought you were behind us! The dragon's laughter echoed in Phillip's mind, and he caught the image of a fat mountain goat.
Aloud, Phillip said, "An eagle, perhaps—it appears much closer in this clear air. An eagle, which has caught a snake—"
Phillip looked at Kyle. "You don't think so?"
"Argon isn't the only sembler here," Kyle said. "Why would you lie to me, Phillip? I thought we were friends." Kyle turned his horse's head and kicked the animal's flanks.
"Kyle, wait. Please!" Phillip said and urged his horse alongside Kyle's. "Kyle. Please forgive me. I, I feel that I have to conceal Zosa, to protect her—"
"Zosa? Zosa!" Kyle said. "You know this dragon?"
"Please," Phillip said. "Not so loud. I'll tell you, but you must not tell the others."
"Then you must not tell me," Kyle said. "You know Brendan and I are heart-bound and sworn, and I can keep no secret from him."
"Only him?" Phillip asked.
Kyle thought carefully before replying. "And my centurion, if it affects the safety of the caravan," he said.
Phillip nodded. "A good answer and one I can respect and honor. I would not hurt you or Brendan, and I would not hurt the caravan. Do you believe that?"
"Therefore, Zosa will not. We are bound—in a different way than I am bound to my companions, and a different way than you are bound to Brendan. Yet, we are bound such that she will not harm that which I will not harm."
Kyle looked hard at Phillip, and then said, "I have to look at you differently, now."
"May we still be friends?" Phillip asked.
Kyle smiled. "Yes, since you ask it."
"Kyle?" Argon's voice turned the statement into an accusation. "You told Kyle about Zosa?"
"He saw Zosa," Phillip said. "He knows that I—we—know a dragon. Nothing more than that. He will tell Brendan. He may tell his centurion, if he believes it is something the centurion must know."
Argon frowned, but Phillip explained. "He does what he is sworn to do: he protects the caravan. He is a tween, and he is a smart boy. He'll say only what must be said."
Argon nodded. "I understand," he said. "I suppose eventually more people will learn about Zosa." And you will be in great danger, Argon thought, and wondered what he might do about that.