by David McLeod
The Army of Elvenholt
Some two decades ago, perhaps longer—time had less meaning on World than on Earth—Phillip had been alone in the map room of the royal palace. The king's High Master Mage, Olmon, had spread maps over the table. Phillip was disappointed. The maps extended only to the western marches in which lay the city of Rome. Beyond that, they were marked, ne plus ultra and terra incognita. Phillip translated silently. "Nothing more beyond here," and "unknown land." They might as well say Ultima Thule, or, like the old Hispanglo maps, "Here there be dragons." Well, I can only hope!
"May I copy these?" he asked.
"Of course," the mage replied. "Here is ink, paper—oh, you'll copy them into your grimoire—oh, your journal—of course. Of course. I'll leave you to your task. Pull the bell rope, there, if you need anything." Phillip bent his head to his work.
Some hours later, the sound of a door opening pulled Phillip from his concentration on his task. He looked up and rubbed cramped fingers.
"Oh, hello," he said. It was not the mage who had entered; rather, it was an elven boy who appeared to be in his mid teens. That means he's probably only 2,000 years old or so, Phillip thought. I'm starting to figure things out.
"Oh, hello, yourself," the boy said. "Who are you?"
"My name is Phillip," that boy said. "And who are you?"
"My mother's name for me is Justin, and if you're Phillip, you're the dragon rider. You don't look old enough or tough enough to be a dragon rider. What are you doing?" The boy came to the table and stood by Phillip. "Those are maps."
"I'm not a dragon rider, yet," Phillip said. "Mostly, because I haven't found a dragon. However, I hope that these maps will lead me to one. The king's mage has allowed me to copy them."
The boy put his arm around Phillip's shoulder and leaned over the table. Phillip was acutely aware of the scent of cornflowers, and the warmth of the boy's body. He flushed, and became warm, himself.
"You know my son?" the elven king asked, again.
Phillip returned abruptly to the present in which he stood on a rocky plain, before the King of Elvenholt, and surrounded by that man's army. He blushed to remember what he and Justin had done on the map table and then in the window seat.
"Yes, Your Majesty, although I didn't know then that he was your son. I thought him only to be one of Master Olmon's apprentices—"
Hungry! Zosa's thought interrupted whatever else Phillip might have said. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty," he said, and gestured to the hill on which the dragon waited. "Zosa is hungry. I—"
"Does he eat trolls?" Justin interrupted. "There's lots of troll bodies."
"Neither trolls, nor anything already dead, Your Highness," Phillip replied. "And Zosa is a she. I must take her—"
"Please, may I go, too?" Justin asked. "Surely she's strong enough . . . please, Father?"
"It is not my decision," the king said. "And you are being impetuous." The king looked at Phillip. Only Phillip saw the slight lift of his eyebrows.
Thoughts flashed between dragon and dragon rider. They were followed by words between Phillip and the king. "Zosa would be honored for His Highness to join her for lunch," Phillip said. "I must warn him—"
"I'm not afraid," Justin said.
That's not what I was going to say, Phillip thought. Your father is right. You are impetuous—as if I didn't know that, already. I was going to tell you that she's a messy eater. However, now you'll have to find that out for yourself. "Well, come on, then," he said, and held out his hand to the boy.
Phillip and Justin clambered up the hill to the ridge where Zosa stood, fanning her wings and gathering magic. Justin showed no fear. He is a prince, and he is more than 2,000 years old, Phillip thought. Justin was, however, clearly in awe—awe that grew as they got closer to the dragon.
"I'll get on first," Phillip said. "Watch where I put my feet; when I'm strapped in, you climb up and sit in front of me. I'll strap you to me. Do you understand?" Justin nodded agreement. Phillip began to climb.
Riding Zosa when she was feeding was an experience like no other. She swooped among the crags, dove down sheer cliffs, zoomed to altitude to look for prey, and plummeted to snatch an unwary mountain goat in her teeth. The maneuvers were unsettling. Through Phillip's arms as well as the leather riding straps around Justin's waist, Phillip felt the boy's stomach lurch and heave. When a spray of goat blood flew from Zosa's mouth, Justin lost it. He turned his head and vomited into the slipstream. Phillip anticipated the move, and ducked.
"Are you okay?" Phillip called a few minutes later. Justin nodded firmly. The boy seemed to catch a second wind, and sat stoically when Zosa caught three more mountain goats.
We need to clean up, Phillip thought to her. Can you find a lake for us?
Zosa found a lake—the highest of four that lay like glass stepping-stones in a large bowl. She landed beside the lake. Phillip released the riding straps and helped Justin down. The wind had cleaned blood and vomit from the dragon's slippery scales, but Phillip and Justin's clothes were peppered with dried lumps that neither boy was anxious to examine closely.
"You did that deliberately!" Justin accused Phillip. "You knew—"
"I tried to tell you, but you interrupted me. Twice," Phillip said. "And, besides, what right had you to seduce me in the map room without telling me who you were? If we'd been found out, I would have been—I don't know—executed, probably, for lèse-magesté."
"Oh, no!" Justin said. "You don't really think that, do you?" While talking, he removed his clothes, piece by piece, and rinsed them in the lake.
"Well, probably not executed," Phillip said. "Your father is too civilized for that. Unlike his son who is too uninhibited to be considered civilized." Phillip blushed, remembering again the first time he'd met Justin.
"I knew you liked it," Justin said. He was now naked. His clothes—cleaned and dried—lay folded across a boulder. "Well, come on, you've got blood and goat guts all over you, too."
Phillip stared at the boy, and remembered why he had been attracted to him, originally. And gave in to the impulses that Justin created.
It will soon be night. Zosa's thought woke Phillip from the lassitude that had overtaken him. It was only then he noticed that the ground was stony and hard, and the air was cold. An hour later, when the color of the sky was like a purple-gray, Zosa landed beside the encamped elven army. Justin watched as Phillip removed the leather riding harness from the dragon. When Phillip had finished, Justin put his arms around the dragon rider and kissed him.
"Thank you, Phillip," he said. "My father is watching. Even if he were not, he will know. He's very perceptive. He will approve. My companions will know, as well."
The boy laughed. "They will be very jealous that I shared with a dragon rider. You will stay the night, of course. May I introduce you to my cohort?"
The sun was halfway to the zenith. Phillip stared into the bowl of porridge and apples, but did not see it. Boy magic is not, after all, a substitute for sleep, he thought.
"Phillip," Justin said. "Father cannot ask . . . no, that is not correct, for he is not a fool. Father cannot easily ask, so I will. Will you and Zosa and your companions join our battle? It has been too many years since we last fought a war. Our cities to the west face trolls and lizard men. Here, we face trolls as well as the possibility of a second front in an alliance with Arcadia against Eblis. Pirates—likely from Eblis—have attack our ships, and raided cities on the eastern shore. It is not only our kin on Solimoes who have experienced slave raids, but our ally, Arcadia, as well."
Phillip understood. Both the fears and hopes of the elves of Solimoes and of the ancient king who had sent their ancestors to that island had come to pass. The elves of the continent had faced wars against evil, most often from Eblis and from the tropical rainforest to the north. However, they had also found allies in the Light: Arcadia, to the south had joined the elves in their fight against the darkness.
"I will ask my companions what we should do," Phillip said. "We are bound in a way that transcends the ordinary bonds of oaths and brotherhood, and I must answer you with their words."
Chapter End Note: In this chapter, Zosa says that she is hungry. Elsewhere, we learn that dragons can subsist entirely on magic. Our interpretation is that the mountain goats that they find so tasty are a "treat" rather than a necessity. Perhaps the dragons' evolved in part to keep down the population of goats. It is no more incredible than the coevolutionary symbiosis between the Xanthopan morgani praedicto moth and the Madagascar Star orchid.