by David McLeod
Always Before, Riders Mean Death
The terrain had grown more rugged and the air colder as the caravan climbed into the mountains. The older wagoneers said they smelled snow in the air. The gray clouds that hung flat over the mountains did not contradict this. On the morning that marked the beginning of the fourth ten-day of the journey, Phillip and his companions brought their breakfast to where Kyle and Brendan sat, huddled against a wagon wheel.
"Centurion asks that you ride in the center of the column for the next few days," Kyle said after their good mornings. "We will be traveling through passes and defiles that provide little warning of ambush."
Maranon's eyes widened; Kyle thought it might be with fear, so he added, "It's not likely that anyone would attack such a great force as we are, but we are always cautious."
Phillip nodded. "Where will you be?"
Kyle wrinkled his nose, and then looked into his bowl of pottage. "In the rear. It's the place for reserves and reinforcements, and for those with little skill." He and Brendan stuffed their bowls in their packs, mounted their horses, and sped away.
Zosa? Did you hear? Phillip asked. Where are you?
Phillip and Argon felt Zosa's pleasure in the taste of a mountain goat, and almost could hear the crunch of its bones. Do you see the bald peak before you? I am behind that. There are many fine goats, here.
"Tell her not to eat so many she gets too fat to fly," Argon said.
I hear you, Little One, Zosa replied.
"I'm not so little!" Argon protested. "I'm almost as tall as Phillip."
Zosa chuckled. Phillip spoke aloud for the others' benefit. "Will you fly high over the road before us, and tell me if you see anyone who appears to be lying in ambush?"
Yes! Zosa cried. Phillip felt Zosa's joy as she soared from her perch. Then, Phillip and Argon shuddered as Zosa emptied her craw of the remains of her breakfast: skin, hooves, and horns.
Dragon Rider! Zosa's voice broke into Phillip's mind. There are trolls in the mountains, ahead, after two turns of the road.
"How long before we reach them?" Phillip asked. His words evoked confusion in his companions until they realized that he was speaking to Zosa.
I do not reckon time as you do, Zosa said.
Phillip pulled his horse out of line. "Stay here!" he tossed over his shoulder to the others.
"Centurion!" Phillip called as he approached the front of the column. "There's an ambush ahead. Trolls."
"Why are you out of place!" The centurion's anger turned the question into a reproach. Then, his mind processed the new information. "What? Ambush?"
"Yes," Phillip said. He reined in next to the centurion. "Kyle told you about . . . about the dragon?"
The centurion was surprised, but only for a moment. "That was not some boy's fanciful story? I believe that Kyle believes what you said, but—"
"Neither fanciful nor imaginary, Centurion. And she reports trolls, concealed, lying in ambush on both sides of the road ahead."
"How many?" the centurion asked. Whether belief or an overabundance of caution motivated him, he was willing to accept Phillip's information.
"Um, I didn't ask." Phillip blushed, and then relayed the question.
"More than . . . What? Oh! She doesn't count the way we do. That's . . . hexadecimal. Um. At least 80. At least 80 and on both sides of the road."
"Is she sure they're trolls?"
"Yes, Centurion. She says she can smell them."
The centurion raised his hand in a signal to halt. The signal was relayed to the rear of the column and then echoed to the front. The units in the rear stopped, first, and then those before them. This maneuver kept the column from bunching up, which would have made it more compact and an easier target.
"Send up Legionnaire Kyle," the centurion called. One of his men sped toward the rear of the column. The Centurion turned to Phillip. "If you are wrong—"
"I am not, Centurion."
"If you are right, we cannot pass. What do we carry that would be of value to trolls?" The question was rhetorical, but Phillip shrugged, nevertheless. He had no answer, nor did Zosa.
An hour later, the column was still stalled while the centurion conferred with the two decurions. Zosa called Phillip, who then ran to where the centurion stood. "Zosa reports more trolls behind us. Coming this way." He knelt and with his forefinger drew numbers in the dirt. _Sixteen sixteens… _"At least 250!"
The centurion no longer doubted Phillip. "How far behind?"
"She cannot say distance as we do . . . ah, four turns of the road."
The centurion thought. "An hour, perhaps. We are indeed between the mountain and the dragon."
"You mean, between the volcano's fire and the dragon's breath," Phillip said.
"Yes, that is the whole of the saying. Why do you ask?" the centurion asked, but Phillip was deep within his own mind, and that of the dragon.
Zosa? Phillip asked.
? the dragon replied.
You know what I want. Phillip thought, and suddenly understood. You know what I want, but I must ask it. Is that right?
Phillip felt Zosa's warm approval. You must, she replied.
Will you flame the trolls who lie in ambush? Will you kill them?
I will, Zosa said. These men with you, they may see me?
Phillip shrugged. They know about you; they might as well see you, he replied. The thought was scarcely finished when Zosa swooped from behind Phillip's right shoulder and spun through the air. It was almost as if having hidden for so long Zosa wanted to be seen. The dim winter sun sparkled on her scales. She flew toward the pass and disappeared between the hills. Minutes later, a column of smoke arose. They are dead, Zosa reported.
Phillip was ill from the smell of scorched and roasted flesh. The fire had consumed the forest that lined the pass, and the skeletons of the trees concealed those of the trolls; still, Phillip's imagination supplied what his eyes could not see. It was only through great effort that he did not vomit.
Argon sensed Phillip's discomfort, and rode beside him. "Phillip? What is wrong? Oh!"
The boy saw the images in Phillip's mind: images of men fleeing before a dragon's flaming breath, falling, screaming as the fire touched them, writhing as the fire consumed them.
"Phillip! They were not men! They were trolls!" Argon said. "They are evil. They would have killed us."
"I hear what you say," Phillip replied. "I feel the love that is behind the words you speak. Still, Zosa and I have killed." He held up his hand to forestall Argon's objection. "She would not have done it had I not asked it."
Phillip's night was restless. He still smelled the smoldering rubble that had been forest and trolls, even though it was miles behind them. He still felt Zosa as she blew magically created fire onto the hillside where the trolls lay in ambush.
What did she feel, he wondered. She seemed so eager when she appeared above us.
"I felt as you feel." Zosa's voice was strong in Phillip's head. "I feel the emptiness that comes when a life is taken. The trolls do not have immortal souls, you know. Nor do they live for more than a few score years—less even for those who take up arms against the elves.
"However, Argon is right. They are not men. They are dumb brutes. They do not have souls. They are machines that react, that obey. Machines that kill and that would have killed."
"Will we have to kill men—elves, humans—too?" Phillip asked.
"I cannot say, but it is possible. Always before, riders have meant war; always before, riders have meant death." The words did not comfort either Phillip or Zosa. Still, both understood what they meant—and foretold.
"It is good, then, that our first killing was of Trolls. But I do not ever want to forget how I felt."
"I will help you remember." Zosa said. "Dragons are good at remembering."
Phillip sighed, and then jumped as he felt warm arms wrap around him.
"I'm glad you and Zosa sorted that out," Argon whispered. "Tomorrow, you may tell me what you sorted out. For now, I want you." The boy's mouth pressed Phillips before moving down his chest. Phillip's breath caught in his throat before he gave himself over to the boy. Minutes later, perhaps an eternity later, Phillip arched his back as he pulsed in Argon's mouth.
Excitement rippled through the caravan—before noon of this day, they would reach their destination—Rome, or Urbis Romana—the most western outpost of Elven civilization. Kyle and Brendan urged Phillip and his companions to the fore of the caravan. "You will want to see this," Kyle said.
For two tendays since the trolls' aborted ambush, the road steadily had been climbing, following the flanks of the mountains, slowly creeping upward. The terrain had long since changed from wooded hills to rocky crags populated with little more than scrub. Now, a steep wall of rock rose to the left while on the right the side of the mountain dropped sharply. A low wall on that side would provide only token resistance to a fall.
Phillip rounded a turn and abruptly reined in his horse. The others stopped as quickly when they came alongside him. Behind the four, Kyle and Brendan grinned with vicarious pleasure at the awe and joy they knew their new friends were feeling.
"It's the whole world!" Maranon gasped.
Phillip nodded. Even when flying with Zosa he'd never seen as much or as far. Rank upon rank of mountains, each higher than the one before, marched toward the west until they were lost in the distance.
"They must touch the sky!" Argon said.
The beauty of the mountains barely eclipsed that of the city that lay a few miles away. On a broad plateau whose sheer edges fell into a mist-filled valley stood the elven city of Rome. It did not lie on seven hills as would or had its Earth-counterpart; yet, its architecture was similar. Unlike the turrets of Londinium, the spires of Elvenhold, or the eponymous barbicans of that city, the buildings of Rome were low and broad. Colonnades of white stone held roofs that were only slightly peaked. No building seemed to be more than two stories high.
"There are no city walls." Javari said.
"This city doesn't need them," Brendan said. "It sits on a plateau, surrounded by deep defiles. The road is the only approach. You'll see. Come on—the rest of the caravan has caught up with us." The boys urged their horses forward.
Phillip and his companions had left the caravan, after thanking both the caravan master and the centurion. They exchanged hugs and promises of eternal friendship with Kyle and Brendan, and then set out for the College of Magic.
The college was similar to many buildings they had passed. Like much of the city, it was made of white stone and decorated with columns and friezes along the roofline. A banner flying from the roof bore symbols they had seen before.
"Those symbols—they were on the robes of Master Coriolanus and of Jason," Maranon said.
The others felt Argon's sudden hurt at hearing those words. Argon and Jason had become fast friends while they were in Barbican, and Argon missed the boy deeply.
"I am sorry," Maranon said, "I only meant—" He couldn't finish.
"It's okay, I know you did not mean ill," Argon said. He smiled at Maranon, although he was clearly troubled.
Phillip understood Argon's sense of loss. He squeezed the boy's hand and whispered to him before dismounting from his horse, and approaching the tween who stood by the door.
Before the tween had a chance to challenge him, Phillip spoke. "My name is Phillip. My companions are Maranon, Argon, and Javari. I have a letter for the High Master Mage." Phillip had removed the letter from within one of his books, where it had lain hidden until now.
The tween, who wore the robes of a journeyman mage, was clearly puzzled. He saw that the horses were exceptionally fine, but their riders were dressed in rough wool and canvas, and wore buskins rather than the fitted boots of the nobility or the wealthy. Rome was a cosmopolitan city, and the boy had seen humans, before. However, he'd never seen one as self-assured as the tween who handed him the letter. The seal on the letter piqued the boy's curiosity. It was a simple oak tree yet it was the symbol of the King and Kingdom of Elvenholt. To the boy's trained eyes, the seal glowed with the magic that attested its authenticity.
"P . . .please," he said. "Come in. Uh, wait, please. I . . . I'll be back." He was obviously flustered, but dashed away before Phillip could say anything to calm him.
Minutes later, Phillip and his companions sat at a table in the library of the Collegium Magisterium Romanorum: the College of Magic of Rome. Across the table sat a man who had introduced himself as High Master Mage Sorgatz, Provost of the College. At one end of the table sat the acolyte who had greeted them.
Master Sorgatz addressed the acolyte. "Drake, you are to reveal nothing of what you hear in this room, nor speak of it with other than these boys and myself."
"Yes, Master," the boy spoke his assent.
Sorgatz turned to Phillip. "My liege king requires—" the man looked at the letter, now spread on the table in front of him. "—requires that I listen to you, keep your secrets, and provide whatever assistance you request to the limits of the resources of this college. That is most extraordinary, but of course, I will obey." The man folded his arms. It was obvious that he was waiting for Phillip to speak.
"Master Sorgatz," Phillip began. "When I first met your king, I told him less than the complete truth. That caused our relationship to begin—awkwardly."
That Sorgatz was both puzzled and amused showed in his raised eyebrow and smile. At the end of the table, Drake smiled, too, although he wasn't sure what his master found humorous. This boy has met the king? There is nothing funny about that.
Phillip then told the mage who he was, who Argon was, how they'd met on Phillip's Earth, and how they'd come to this world. He told of their sojourn on the Island of Solimoes, the discovery that Argon was years—perhaps centuries—away from his home, and of their commission with Javari and Maranon from the elves of Solimoes. Phillip touched on their sea and river voyages to Elvenholt, and of their meeting with the king.
"The king encouraged us to travel to Rome, for at the College of Magic, there, he believed lived the greatest mages in Elvenholt. If there is a way to get Argon home, he believed you would know it." Phillip folded his arms and sat silently.
Master Sorgatz was slow to speak. "Your letter was legitimate; your story is true; and I am more astonished than I have been in centuries. Thank you, Master Phillip, for bringing your quest to Rome and to this college."
Phillip was startled by the mage's choice of words, but before he could comment, Master Sorgatz spoke, again. "As you suggested, a lack of information may not only delay the search, it may impede it. What else can you tell me, and what may I tell those who must assist in this effort?"
Until vespers, Phillip and the High Master Mage of Rome discussed who might be told, what they might be told, and what secrets they were to keep. A bell interrupted a conversation that had become repetitious.
"Drake, " Master Sorgatz instructed. "You will please take Phillip and his companions to the baths, and then bring them to the refectory for supper."
Drake clung to Phillip, ensuring that he was the one who traded scrubbings with that boy. Despite the boy's eagerness to touch Phillip, Drake made no offer to share. Phillip guessed that the boy was unsure of his station, therefore offered an invitation to the boy.
"Drake, I do not know where we will sleep tonight, nor if you can visit us there, but if you can, I would like to share with you."
"Oh, you must stay here," Drake said quickly enough. "I live in a small dormitory with three others, but there are beds enough, and chests, for a dozen. And Master Sorgatz said the full resources—"
Drake looked around to be sure they weren't overheard, and then whispered, "He said the full resources of the college and has invited you to supper. Surely, that means he will offer a bed, as well."
Drake was correct, and after supper, he led Phillip and his companions to the dormitory.
"Oh," Drake said when they reached his room. "Here is . . ." He stuttered, unsure what to say to the boy, several years his junior, who waited there.
"My name is Ronald," the boy said. "I am this hyper tween's forever companion. He is named Drake, for he is a goose!"
Drake's gentle cuff of the younger boy's arm and his smile suggested he was accustomed to the appellation, and not uncomfortable with it.
It is just as when Sandar's companions tickled him into submission in front of his cohort, Phillip thought. It is just as I learned at Kannapolis. These boys just don't embarrass, and there is no jealousy. And that may be a large part of why—even in times of great danger—life is so much fun for them.
Chapter End Notes: Obviously the pun of a drake being a goose does not translate exactly from Elvish. Please forgive the liberties the translators have taken with that language.