by David McLeod
The Duke of Rome
Refreshed after a night in a real bed, with a real mattress—even though it was shared with a boy whose thirst to share boy magic seemed inexhaustible—Phillip was lingering over breakfast when Ronald rushed into the refectory.
"Phillip! There are soldiers at the door asking for you." Ronald spoke quickly and ran his words together. His eyes were wide and moved rapidly from side to side as if he were looking for enemies. The excitement in his voice did not mask his concern.
"Our friends from the caravan?" Phillip wondered aloud.
"No, these soldiers are from the duke!"
Oh, oh, Phillip thought. We had no difficulty, really, dealing with a king—nor with the Duke of Londinium. At least, once we got the ground rules established. It wasn't until we reached Barbican and had to deal with a duke—his sons, actually—that we ran into real danger. What might this duke know of us, and what might he demand from us? Did the king send a message about us? Did the boys from Barbican send a message that reached here before we did? These thoughts chased one another through Phillip's mind as he followed Ronald to the porch of the college.
There were six soldiers, a maniple, although the senior soldier wore a centurion's flashes. The soldiers' surcoats bore the same symbols that were on the flags that flew over the city: the golden spear Phillip knew was associated with the king's family, plus a wolf. Rather, it was the head and forelimbs of a wolf. The head was in profile, and the paws were poised as if to attack.
"Good time of day, Centurion. I am Phillip Windrider, Spartus," he said to the soldier with the centurion's flashes. "You seek me?"
"I am Marcus son of Argentus," the soldier said. "My master, the Duke of Rome, would speak with you."
"That he sent soldiers rather than a herald suggests this is an order, and not a request," Phillip said.
The centurion thought for only a moment before answering. "That, I cannot judge. If I could judge, I could not say. However, when he sent me, he did say please."
Phillip did not understand the smile that touched the centurion's lips, but felt safe with this man. "Then, by all means, let us go." Phillip turned to Ronald who had accompanied him to the door. "Please tell your master and my companions where I have gone."
The maniple marched through the street; however, the centurion walked in the rear with Phillip, and engaged him in idle conversation, pointing out one building or another, commenting on the especially clement weather, and making Phillip at ease. When they reached the ducal palace, the centurion gestured for Phillip to walk toward two figures who stood on the steps.
Phillip nodded to a tall and distinguished man who waited on the steps of the palace. "My Lord, your emissary said you wished to see me. I am Phillip Windrider, Spartus."
The child who stood beside the man giggled. "Uncle Cassius, he thinks you are I!"
"My Lord," the man said to the child. "That was rude. He does not know you, and he may not know our customs. You will apologize."
The boy pouted, briefly, and then smiled. "I am sorry, Master Phillip. My name is Antonius. I am the Duke of Rome since the death of my father. This very strict person is my Uncle Cassius. He is also my tutor and regent." The boy took the man's hand, looked up at him, and smiled again. Phillip felt the love between them, and knew the little Duke wasn't angry that his tutor had corrected him.
Before Phillip could organize his thoughts, the boy spoke, again. "Why did you not bow to him, if you thought he was I?" he asked.
Phillip nodded to the young duke, a bit more deeply than he had nodded to the man. "My Lord, I am not a subject of the Kingdom of Elvenholt. In the cities of Londinium, Elvenholt, and Barbican, a polite nod, acknowledging the station, but not the sovereignty, of a duke or of a king was quite sufficient."
The boy understood instantly. "You have met the king?" He was clearly puzzled.
"Yes, My Lord. And we have sworn amity."
"My Lord," Cassius addressed the duke. "Perhaps we should continue this discussion with your privy council."
"No!" the young duke declared. "Those old fuddy-duddies will bog us down with protocol and ritual. I want to hear about the dragon!"
The little duke took Phillip's hand and led him into the palace, through brightly lit hallways, and to a library. At least, Phillip thought, the shelves of books and scrolls as well as the maps upon the walls suggested that it was a library. After swerving to avoid several toys, Phillip realized that the room was something more. A large slate, upon which was written the conjugation of the verb, agare, Elvish for "to make," confirmed Phillip's suspicion.
"This is my classroom," Antonius said, pulling Phillip to a seat at a table. Cassius followed and pushed aside several books and a stack of foolscap. Then, he moved to the far end of the room. Taking a book, he sat in a way that he could watch Antonius and Phillip without it seeming too obvious.
"They say you travel with a dragon," Antonius said. "They say the dragon battled trolls so that your caravan could pass, safely. They say he's huge!"
"My Lord, it is true that I know a dragon, and that she—her name is Zosa—killed a number of trolls who lay in ambush on our path." Phillip continued with a redacted story of how he had been named Spartus, Dragon rider; of how he had found Zosa; and of their journey to Rome.
"We are here to seek advice from the mages at the college," he concluded.
Antonius listened attentively, and then questioned Phillip closely. Once again, Phillip was reminded that the elves matured physically much more slowly than humans, and that this child was years, perhaps centuries, older than Phillip, himself.
"You are not from Arcadia," Antonius said, abruptly. "Nor are you from Eblis. I don't think you are from across the mountains or the rain forest. So, you are a mystery.
"Where are you from, Phillip Windrider, Spartus?"
Phillip sat uncomfortably for several rather long moments before answering. "That is a bit hard to explain. And, it's something I don't like to talk about." He paused. The young duke waited quietly.
He's probably more than 500 years old, but he's still a child, and a child in a world that holds magic and mystery. I wonder . . . Phillip thought.
"My Lord, will you keep a secret?" Phillip asked.
The child clapped his hands with excitement. "Of course," he said.
Then, he frowned. "Unless keeping it would bring harm to my people." As he spoke, his voice seemed to change from that of a child to that of a person of power. It deepened and became harsher. The boy looked directly into Phillip's eyes.
"Your king and I have sworn amity—for ourselves and for those beholden to us," Phillip said. "Your king as well as I and my companions serve that which is good, that which you call the light. I do not believe anything I could or would do would bring harm to you or to your people. Nevertheless, I accept your conditions."
He took a deep breath. "My companions and I came to Elvenholt across the Eastern Sea, from an island called Solimoes. Solimoes is the home of elves whose ancestors were sent from this continent by an ancient king, who wished to preserve that which was bright and gentle in the elves. That was done centuries, millennia ago, but more recently, evil from abroad visited Solimoes.
"The elders among the elves of that island sent my companions and me as an emissary to the current King of the Elves. We have fulfilled that mission, but have another."
The boy's eyes widened, but Phillip had not finished. "Before reaching that island, one of my companions and I came here from a world that is far away—a world that circles a different sun."
Antonius nodded, as if this were a commonplace event, one even less remarkable than the story of the elves of Solimoes. "Uncle Cassius has told me a story about that—other worlds, I mean. He wasn't sure if it were true, but I always have believed it. Now, I am sure. Come—I'll show you." He seized Phillip's hand and urged him to follow. Cassius dropped his book onto a table and hurried after.
The brightly lit marble hallways gave way to granite gloom as they penetrated lower and deeper into the castle. Phillip was glad for the boy's hand on his; else, he'd not have been able to follow.
"There!" Antonius pointed. All Phillip could see was the boy's pale hand and face, and the face of Cassius, who stood a few feet away.
"My eyes aren't able to see in this dimness," Phillip said. "Tell me what is there, please."
"Oh, I can do better than that," the boy said. He released Phillip's hand. Phillip saw the boy-duke's hands flashing in familiar patterns. The tapestry, itself, began to glow.
"If I'm to keep your secret I've got to whisper to you, but you're too tall."
Phillip knelt, and the young duke put his arm around Phillip's shoulder and his mouth to Phillip's ear. "In that corner. See? It's a world. Over there? Two boys. They're falling from the world into the Ice Mountains, just as you fell into this world."
"That does look like a world," Phillip said. "Green and brown land and blue ocean; white ice caps at the poles. The boys do look like they're falling; their arms are outstretched and . . . yes . . . their tunics are fluttering as if in a wind. How do we know they didn't fall onto the rocks, and die?"
"Because of the story, silly," Antonius said. "They became great mages and warriors, and fought on the side of the light."
"When?" Phillip asked, although he knew the answer.
"Oh, a thousand lifetimes ago."
"And where are the Ice Mountains?"
"We must ask Uncle Cassius," Antonius said. He pulled Phillip to his feet. "Come on!"
"The Ice Mountains are said to be a place of great power," Cassius said after they'd returned to Antonius's classroom. "For that reason, alone, I would like to know where they are. The name suggests that they are snow-covered year round. None of the mountains in Elvenhold meet that criterion, today. Once, there were glaciers in some of our mountains; they still bear the scars of the ice.
"I believe—and I fear—that the Ice Mountains may be those that separate Arcadia and Eblis." He pointed to a map where a row of mountains ran east-to-west in the southern part of the continent.
"Fear?" Phillip asked.
"Eblis has often harbored Evil," Antonius answered for his uncle. "It would not do for Evil to find a place of power."
At Antonius's urging, his uncle told the story of the boys in the tapestry. "Most of the story is lost, for it is an ancient one," he warned before he began.
"A thousand lifetimes ago, when Evil rose in Eblis and turned its face to the north, there arrived in Arcadia two boys. They had come from afar, but not over the sea. Their language and customs were strange to those who came to know them. They quickly learned the ways of World, and swore to follow the Light. One became a great scryer; the other harnessed the heat of the sun and the cold of the glaciers. Together, they fought for the Army of the Light; together they defeated Evil."
Cassius paused. "That is all there is to the story. I heard it from my father and he from his. The story and the tapestry have always been linked."
"Why do you suppose the story says that they did not come over the sea?" Phillip asked. "With so much of the story lost, why was that particular detail remembered?"
Cassius was taken aback. "I have never wondered about that. Hmm." He was silent for some time. Then he pointed again to the map. "To the east of the mountains lies the Arcadian seaport of Barrone. Perhaps they fell to ground at Barrone, and people of that city thought that any strangers must have been sailors."
Servants entered, and offered tea and cookies. After they were served, Antonius questioned Phillip.
"Where is your dragon, now?" the boy asked.
Phillip closed his eyes briefly.
"At the moment," he said, "she is in the mountains south of the city, reducing slightly the population of mountain goats."
"May I see her? Will you bring her here?"
"My Lord!" Cassius said, "That may not be a good idea."
Phillip thought of the show that Zosa had put on at Vance's village, and realized that it would be inappropriate in a crowded city that had no contemporary tradition or stories of dragons.
"I believe your teacher is right," Phillip said. "I'm sorry."
Phillip saw and felt bitter disappointment flash across the boy's face and through his mind, but only briefly. "I understand, Dragon Rider," he said.
He's probably more than 500 years old, but he is still a child, Phillip thought, and resolved to find a way.
After lunch, Phillip related to his companions his visit to the duke and what he had learned. "Boys from another world fell to this world near the seaport of Barrone," he said. "That's on the southern coast of Arcadia. The story has been remembered, even though it happened aeons ago. There's an ancient tapestry, deep in the palace, which substantiates it."
"But we're not going there, are we?" Argon asked. "Zosa could never live on the coast, and you cannot live without Zosa, and I cannot live without you—so, I guess it's settled. We're not going there, and it's just a tapestry, anyway and who knows what it really means?"
Argon stopped talking long enough to catch his breath. In that instant, he saw in Phillip's face and felt in Phillip's mind, the sure knowledge that the tapestry did make a difference.
"We will travel to this coast, to this city. Zosa will accompany us as far as she can, or will."
"But you cannot leave her! You cannot not be a dragon rider!" Argon said. "You must—"
At that moment, Ronald burst into the room. He was too excited to see the expressions on Phillip and Argon's faces. "A village to the north has been attacked! A herald has summoned people to gather in the square to hear the news."
Drake had followed Ronald into the room and saw the expression on Argon's face. "What's wrong?" he asked. Argon shook his head and did not answer.
The square in front of the ducal palace was crowded. A herald stood on the steps where the Duke of Rome and his regent had greeted Phillip a few hours before. The herald's voice was amplified by magic; yet, he was getting hoarse. Apparently he'd been telling the news for some time.
"The caravan that reached the city this forenoon was attacked by trolls in the mountains. This is the second such attack in a month. They also brought word that the Village of Reeds, to our northeast, has been attacked by green frogmen. The duke's council meets, even now, to plan a response to this threat." The herald began to repeat his announcement. Phillip and his companions turned away.
"Frogmen?" Drake said. He snorted. "There's no such . . . "
Argon's eyes grew wide. He interrupted Drake. "Oh, yes, there are. At least, that's what the sailors said."
"Later," Phillip said. "Enough rumors will be started in this crowd. Let us hear what you know in the privacy of our rooms."
"Sailors from my country who had been far to the west returned with stories of men who looked like frogs. They lived in swamps, like the ones to the north of Elvenholt. They have green skin, no hair, and if you touched them, you'd get warts," Argon said.
"Could the sailors' stories of frog men have been, well, like the stories they told of trolls on Solimoes?" Phillip asked. "We know those stories were made up, exaggerations."
Argon thought for a moment. "No, I don't think so. You see, the stories of trolls were scary stories; the stories of frogmen—they called them lizoids—weren't scary. The sailors said the lizoids used stone knives and wooden spears, frightened easily, and had nothing to trade."
"Frightened easily? Then they'd probably not make good soldiers, yet we heard that they attacked a village. I think this information needs to get to the duke," Phillip said.