by David McLeod
The Army of Barbican
_All warfare is based on deception.—Sun Tzu Maxim 1-18
Phillip and Zosa flew hi-cap, scouting the route the others would take on horseback. They returned in time to share supper and nighttime bedrolls with Argon, Maranon, Javari, Brendan, and Kyle. Each morning, after breakfast, Phillip and Zosa resumed their aerial vigil.
There is an army encamped, there, Zosa said. Phillip looked closely. That banner! he thought. It's the Duke of Barbican.
It seemed that the rumors were true, Phillip thought.
It had been reported that lizard men and trolls were moving from the mountains, attacking isolated holts and smaller villages. The Duke had taken his army into the field to meet them. Does he know their strength? What are his plans? Dare we risk contacting him?
Zosa heard Phillip's thoughts, but she did not answer; those were not questions for dragon-kind. She slowly beat her wings against the thin air, circling the elven army until Phillip directed her to return to where the others of his companions waited.
That night, Zosa slept soundly. The reconnaissance flight had taken her far above the ground to a place where both magic and the air were thin. Phillip and his companions slept soundly, as well. Even Zosa's ponderous snoring could not compete with their exhaustion. However, the cold wind from Zosa's wings was enough to waken them before the sun had begun to light the eastern sky.
I will feed, Zosa said. Phillip nodded, wondering at Zosa's powers of observation when he caught her understanding of that gesture. Having gathered magic with her wings, the dragon leapt into flight. Phillip watched as she dwindled to a speck, and then disappeared. A great ache in his heart was only partly stilled by the knowledge that she would return. She promised, he thought. We are promised. He turned toward the smell of wood smoke and the small fire that Brendan had built.
Brendan handed Phillip a mug of tea that steamed in the cold air.
"As soon as Zosa returns, she and I will fly to aid the army of Barbican," Phillip said. He sketched their location for Javari, who was now awake, and who had taken charge of the maps. "We saw no one on this road. You should be safe. However, Zosa and I will return to you by nightfall."
"It will take perhaps four days to reach this point," Javari said. "We will look for you at dusk each day?"
"Jason was cute," Argon said with his goodbye kiss. "You don't suppose . . . ?"
Phillip ruffled Argon's hair. "No, I don't suppose his father took a very junior mage into the field with the army."
Through Zosa's eyes, Phillip saw the tent from which flew the banner of Barbican. Mindful that Zosa's presence would frighten horses, and likely men as well, he asked her to circle slowly over the encampment, gradually reducing her altitude and narrowing the circles until it was clear that the Duke's tent from which flew the banner was the focus. He watched as horses were led away from the tent, and as soldiers moved to stand in a circle a hundred yards away. He watched as a lone figure stepped from the tent, and stood, looking upward.
Zosa touched down halfway between the figure and the circle of soldiers. Phillip quickly alit, and closed his eyes against the grit and dust as she took off, again. When he opened his eyes, he saw the figure walking toward him, and realized that it was not the duke, but the dauphin.
"Phillip!" The dauphin embraced the dragon rider. "You are indeed, a wonder!"
Phillip somewhat awkwardly returned the dauphin's embrace. His father must be dead . . . and he the duke! Phillip thought.
"My father will be sorry he took the northern army, and was not here to see this," the dauphin said, giving lie to Phillip's fears—and then giving him a kiss. "Stewart and Jason will be very pleased that they elected to accompany me.
"Your companions? They are well?" The dauphin's voice lowered in pitch and volume.
"Yes, yes, they are well, and moving toward us. They will reach this place on the fourth day. Argon will be so pleased that Jason is here." By now, Phillip had spotted the dauphin's brothers striding from the tent toward him.
"How long before you are joined in battle?" Phillip asked. The dauphin looked to Stewart for an answer.
"Five or six days, based on what we know of the trolls' disposition and movements," Stewart answered.
"Then perhaps Zosa and I should first reconnoiter, and give you accurate and timely information. She can carry another person. Would it be useful if you accompanied us?" he asked Stewart.
Stewart thought only for a moment. "Jason is keen of eye and sound of memory. Further, he is a much better artist and mapmaker than I. It would be most effective and useful if he accompanied you."
Before Phillip departed, he had a private conversation with Stewart and the dauphin.
As he had promised, Phillip returned to his companions the first night. Argon ran toward the dragon, heedless of the dust that Zosa raised when she landed. Jason nearly fell from Zosa's back in his haste to free himself from the riding straps. He, too, ignored the sand and grit that flew about, and rushed toward Argon.
Two voices lifted above the susurrus of Zosa's wings, and then went silent as the two boys met, hugged, and kissed.
Phillip stood a few feet behind Jason; Javari and the others stood a few feet behind Argon. The five boys smiled at Jason and Argon's happiness. Let the boys play and love, they all thought. They will be in jeopardy soon enough.
The next morning, Phillip and Jason returned to the dauphin's encampment.
"Here is what we saw," Jason said while sketching enemy troop positions on the map. "Phillip kept us high in order that we might not be seen."
"Still," Phillip said. "They may know or suspect that they are under observation; they may change their plans, their disposition for that reason."
"You have the right of it," Stewart said. "However, look at the terrain. There is little they can do save continue in the direction they are moving, or retreat. If they move forward, and we can respond quickly, we can trap them, here." He pointed to a narrow defile.
"If they retreat, we can either ignore them, or try to move quickly enough to meet them, here." He pointed to a second position from which an attacking elven army would have the advantage. "Will you let us know what they do, tomorrow?"
Phillip agreed, and then added, "The rest of my companions should be here in fewer than two days, but still, I must consider their safety. They are close enough that I can scout both their position and route, and the trolls' position without tiring Zosa."
Stewart's first plan, to trap the troll army in a narrow defile, came to fruition. Phillip's companions, who led his horse, arrived at the elven encampment in time for them to witness the end of the battle.
That evening, Phillip found himself in the company of the dauphin while the boys frolicked.
"Phillip?" The dauphin's voice was slow and measured. "I think I know what jealousy is . . . although I do not understand it. Yet, I believe I see it, in you. Your companions and my little brother . . . my very dear little brother . . . are enjoying themselves. You stand aside so that they might do so. Yet, you are . . . lonely? Unsatisfied? Um . . . I do not know how to say it . . . unfulfilled?"
"Horney," Phillip said. "It's a word that probably doesn't exist in any language on this world, since there never seems to be a reason that two boys can't, uh, share anytime they want to. You are right, however. I feel that Jason's time with my companions, and their time with him, is precious, and that I should not interfere. After all, I will later have them all to myself.
"Oh, that is such a selfish thought!" Phillip said.
The dauphin reached his hand across the table that separated him from Phillip. "I understand. Truly, I do."
He paused. It was a long pause. Then, "Phillip, I am expected to become the duke; therefore, I am expected to sire children. Yet, I do not find that prospect of interest. Stewart, however, is attracted to one of the ladies of the court. I suspect that it will be he, not I, that is the progenitor of our next generation.
"Oh, it's all right. My father understands, and it's not entirely unusual." The dauphin cocked his eyebrow. "You must believe that." He laughed.
"In all the months you were in Barbican, I wanted to ask, but I didn't have the courage. You have given me that courage. Phillip, will you share yourself with me?"
He's the inheritor of a powerful dukedom; he is much less impressed with Zosa than was the little Duke of Rome. He asks as a friend, as an equal, Phillip thought in the instant it took to answer the dauphin's question.
"Yes, please," Phillip said.
The next day, a courier arrived from the east. His news was not good. An army of trolls had assembled in the Gray Mountains and was threatening the middle marches of Elvenholt. The king, himself, led an army of elves from the royal capital toward the mountains to seek the trolls before they could break out into the less defensible parts of the country. Phillip, remembering the aid that he and his companions had received from the king, and before that, from the Baron of Londinium, spoke to his companions. "Shall we seek out the king and his army, and offer him our help?"
He was reluctant to ask, because he knew the answer, and he knew that it would take him further from his vow to Argon. He was right. The assent had been universal, even from Argon. "Once again something stands between me and my home. But," Argon hastened to add, sensing Phillip's concern, "but, it is something that must be done. I do not know how I know, but I feel that we must become a part of this world, for only in being a part of it, can we then leave it."
Phillip heard. It's an aphorism, he thought. It's a clever saying. It is easier to accept such a saying than to think through a problem. Still, there may be some truth in it. I will accept this, for the moment.
The dauphin gave Phillip messages for the king; Stewart gave him messages for the general of the king's army. Jason and Argon bid one another a tearful goodbye, and the companions rode toward the east. Above them, Zosa flew, alternating between watching their route and snagging mountain goats from the crags.
The companions neared the Gray Mountains. Javari, accustomed to command as de facto captain of the several Xanders, led the way through the mountains while Phillip and Zosa scouted, looking for the elven king's army—or the army of trolls. They returned only at twilight, and only long enough for Phillip to eat, snatch a few hours of sleep, and eat again before departing before daylight.
During the days, Zosa flew high, higher than Phillip's eyesight allowed him to see the ground. The pine trees that were indigenous to the mountains created a smoky haze that even elven eyesight could not penetrate. Zosa, however, was considerably more gifted. Phillip lay along the dragon's neck, absorbing the warmth of her body, as they flew over miles and miles of terrain.
Zosa? Are there others of your kind? Phillip asked.
If so, they sleep, Zosa replied. I have not heard the voice of another of my kind in a long, long time.
Sleep? Phillip asked.
When we create new life—when our eggs grow within us, we sleep, Zosa replied. There! There is the army you seek. They had flown over a ridge. A rocky plain, cut by a river, lay before them. Phillip looked where the dragon indicated, but saw only a mass of people.
Zosa flew high above the terrain. The sun would not rise for another hour. There was no moon; only stars and two of the Bright Travelers lent their light. In the darkness, Zosa would be nearly invisible to those on the ground. Phillip's eyesight was unable to penetrate the stygian gloom that hid the land below.
What do you see? Phillip asked the dragon. She opened her mind to his. Spread before Phillip was the basin and range terrain of the land east of Rome. Here, a cluster of fires revealed the position of one army; there, a smaller cluster showed where a second army had camped. But who is who? Phillip wondered.
Zosa took that question as a command. She drew in her wings slightly, pointed the triple-triangular sail on the end of her tail upward, and began gliding toward the larger group of campfires. Before Phillip could see, she opened her wings and zoomed for altitude.
Trolls, she said. I smelled them, the dragon added. She soared, and then turned toward the smaller encampment. This time, she flew low enough that Phillip could see through her eyes, which had picked out the golden spear of the elven king's flag.
They're under attack! Phillip said, understanding at last what he was seeing. They're holding fast, he added, but not for long! Look—reinforcements—but they're trolls, not elves. By now, Zosa and Phillip were close enough that Phillip could recognize individual figures.
Scarcely had Phillip thought, than the dragon tucked in her wings and plummeted toward the ground. Less than 100 feet above the plain, she snapped open her wings, creating a thunderclap and a gust of wind. She abruptly changed direction, and skimmed less than five yards above the ground, directly toward the trolls. Phillip felt the harness tighten on his legs as her sides expanded. She filled her lungs, and then spewed fire that roiled over the troll army.
The sun had risen while the elves were mopping up the remaining trolls. Phillip and Zosa landed on a hill not far from the elven army. You can fly from here, if you must, Phillip said. I will be safe.
Zosa acquiesced. Or perhaps she did not, Phillip thought as he walked toward the elven army. What does she really think? How can a creature whose lifetime is measured in hundreds of thousands of years relate to a life as ephemeral as mine? As ephemeral, even, as the elves, who live ten times longer than humans?
The elven soldiers watched Phillip warily, but moved aside as he approached. The king's bodyguard would have stopped him, save for an unspoken signal. They parted, and Phillip halted only a few paces from the king. He nodded, but kept his eyes fixed on the man. "Your Majesty, some time has passed since last we spoke."
The king nodded, acknowledging Phillip's status as—perhaps not as an equal, but not a subject and certainly as a person of respect. "Too long, Spartus. But you could not have appeared at a better time. We would have at best been hard pressed to defend against the troll army. At worst, we would have suffered defeat. You have made it difficult for us to know what the outcome would have been."
Phillip's lips formed a tight smile at the king's words. Those words were tacit acknowledgement of what the king could not say aloud: Phillip had almost certainly saved his life—and his army. Phillip opened his mouth to speak when he spied a familiar figure. His heart skipped a beat. "Justin?" he whispered.
A boy stepped from behind the king. "Phillip?" the boy whispered. "You have found your dragon?"
"You know my son?" the elven king asked. But Phillip did not hear the question. His mind was two thousand miles away, and several years earlier.
Chapter End Note: It's said here and elsewhere that the dragon Zosa sleeps . . . in fact, she snores, which is the origin of her name. Elsewhere (particularly in Pilots II), it is strongly suggested that dragons, after having slept for millennia "between wars" no longer need sleep. We have not resolved that apparent conflict. Zosa does not know of others of her kind who are awake. Perhaps it's simply that she woke up too early. Do dragons have snooze alarms? Inquiring minds want to know.