by David McLeod
Not To Make a Decision
Immediately after breakfast, Phillip and Zosa flew from the encampment of the king's army. They had scarcely gotten airborne before Phillip felt Zosa's question.
Phillip felt curiosity, and what he thought of to be worry in Zosa's voice.
What? he asked.
It may have been a voice I have not heard in a very long time, Zosa replied. But it is no longer there. Perhaps it was just a memory. She swept her wings to gather air and magic, and then banked to follow the road, now nearly two miles below them.
A voice? Phillip wondered, and then focused on his task. His eyes could not see that for which they searched: his companions. He knew they were near. He rode with his own eyes closed and saw through Zosa's eyes. The link between their minds was strong—strong enough to feel emotions. If I believed a dragon could fear anything, Phillip said, I would think you were afraid.
Not afraid—, Zosa snorted her derision. Rather, I am cautious. It was the voice of a dragon whose rider fought on the side of that which you call the Dark.
I thought dragons were amoral—neither Light nor Dark, Phillip said. Why would we fear him?
I do not know, Zosa replied.
By mid morning, Phillip and Zosa had rejoined his companions. On horseback, they were only a few hours away from the king's army.
"We were worried," Kyle said. "Until Argon told us that you were safe. You must not have been far away."
Phillip hugged Kyle. "I'm sorry I caused you to worry, even if only for a little while. I sensed Argon and the rest of you close by, and knew you were safe, as well. The king's army lies over that ridge. In fact, they have watchers—scouts—even now, on the ridgeline taking your measure. They will send word back to the encampment. Of course, they've seen me land near you, so they will know you are allies, and will welcome you.
"There is something we must talk about, however, before you ride farther toward them."
The boys had dismounted. Now, they loosened the girths of their horses, and found boulders on which to sit. In these mountains there was no shortage of boulders.
"The King has asked for our help in this war," Phillip said, explaining the message Justin had given him. "By any reasonable standard, we have repaid our debt to these people."
"But—" Kyle said.
"We can't—" Maranon and Brendan interrupted.
"That's not all Phillip has to say," Argon interrupted them, in turn.
"However, I no longer believe that we are bound by reason," Phillip continued when the others had stopped talking. "We are, however, bound by oaths, and my oath to take Argon home, and your oaths to stand by me, are still in force."
"Phillip! I have released you . . . we have made a new oath that means you are to be a dragon rider!" Argon protested.
"I know that you have released me," Phillip said. "You released me. I did not release myself. Nor am I released from the unspoken promise I made to my uncle and to the Shaman—an oath that I would take you home."
"Very well, then," Argon said. He stood by his horse and grasped the horse's cinch belt as if to tighten it. "I will leave. I will go where you cannot find me. I will run away and join Jason . . . I can find him, you know. And he and his brothers will protect me, even from you . . . "
Whatever else Argon would have said was smothered as Phillip pulled Argon to himself, and pressed the boy's head to his chest. He hugged Argon tightly.
"You could not go where I cannot find you," Phillip whispered for Argon's ears, only. "We are bound . . . I don't know how, and it is different from the bond Maranon and Javari and I share; it is different from the bond Zosa and I have. You and I are bound forever.
"Through that bond, I see your yearning for your home; but I also see what you said not long ago: that only by becoming part of this world can we leave it.
"I do not know what you meant, but I think you were right. We will become part of this world, and we will help our friends and those to whom we are sworn. Only then may we leave this world."
"What shall we do, then?" Javari asked. "You have said we were to remain together, because we are on a quest. Yet if you are off flying, providing reconnaissance for the army, taking messages from one army to another, what can we do except become baggage—impedimenta to the king's army?"
"I do not think that is going to happen," Phillip said. "Remember what Zosa has told us? Always before riders have meant war; always before riders have meant male dragons, and new eggs.
"She has always said riders and dragons, plural. More than one. There will be more dragons. More than just Zosa and I.
"Zosa isn't the only dragon who has wakened. Already, she has heard at least one other. If the stories we've heard are true, and most of the stories we've heard—whether about dragons or something else—seem to have some kernel of truth, then other dragons are already wakening.
"You five know more about dragons than any living person save me. It may be that you, yourselves, will become riders. It may—"
"Not I!" Javari asserted. "The back of a horse or the crow's nest of a ship is as high off the ground as I want to get, thank you very much!" Phillip felt assent from the others.
"Then, my captain," Phillip said, reminding them all of Javari's role as commander of three Swallows, "you shall be the Captain of the Dragon Auxiliaries. And you will need lieutenants. Who better than boys who are bonded to you, who know your desires even before you express them?"
Brendan and Javari, who had partnered the night before, blushed. Phillip understood instantly. "That's not what I meant!" he said.
Javari spoke to the four: his brother, Maranon; the elven tweens Kyle and Brendan; and Phillip's bonded, Argon. "Are we in agreement, then? We shall become the core of the auxiliaries who will support the dragon riders? We shall not be servants, but helpers, although no task that aids a rider or his dragon will be too small for us? We shall serve the Light in the way we best can?"
The others indicated assent. There was no need to ask for an oath: the oaths that already bound them were sufficient basis for this commitment.
Landon felt curiosity, and something else in Jahannam's voice.
What? he asked.
A voice I have not heard in a very long time, the dragon replied. But it is no longer there. Perhaps it was just a memory. He swept his wings to gather air and magic, and then leapt into the sky.
Where are we going? Landon asked.
To find others, Jahannam replied. To find others like you and like me. Dragons and riders who are strong, bold, and not afraid to grasp for power and greatness.
Before Phillip and his companions could resume their journey, Zosa sprang into the air. Moments later, high above the mountains, two soaring figures that might have been eagles but which were not, collided.
In the high meadow below, six boys watched. Phillip and Argon were the first affected. Phillip's bond to Zosa and Argon's empathy linked them with the dragons—and the other boys. The boys tore off their clothes and fell to the ground. Phillip pulled Argon to him, and gasped as the boy entered him. Argon's innate talent not only heard the dragons, but also amplified it—and sent his feelings to the others. Within seconds, all six boys were naked, writhing, moaning, and gasping. Above them the dragons parted, circled, and collided again, and again.
An aeon later—or at least an hour after the dragons had coupled—it was over. Zosa drifted down to land on a hummock. The other dragon flew west and disappeared into the haze of the mountains.
Are you ready to travel? Zosa's thoughts filtered into Phillip's mind.
What was that? Phillip struggled to ask.
That? Do you mean the male dragon? Zosa asked. I now have a fertilized egg.
An egg? One? Phillip wondered.
Oh, yes, Zosa said. I have room for five.
Five? I'm not sure we can live through that four more times, Phillip thought. Argon, however, convinced him otherwise, once Phillip had explained to the others what had happened, and what the dragon had said.
Upon their return to the king's encampment, Phillip and Zosa landed abruptly, and only a few yards in front of the column of soldiers that escorted his companions. Dust from Zosa's wings flew into the eyes of men and horses. Horses and men panicked. Phillip was angry, and Zosa echoed that anger. Smoke curled from her nostrils. Remembering her recent attack on the trolls, the men cowed.
Phillip heard from behind himself Jason's voice calling, but ignored that voice. He walked heavily toward the five horses of his companions, the only horses that were not rearing, bucking, or running away. Drawing his dagger, he cut the ropes that had tied his companions' feet together under the belly of their horses. Then he reached up and cut the bindings on their hands.
Jason had arrived. "Phillip! What?"
"Scouts reported to the centurion that they had seen my companions with me. The centurion was too stupid to understand that they were allies. He bound them in a dangerous manner to their horses. He refused to believe Javari who identified himself as a Captain and the others as Lieutenants—all of whom outrank him! He refused to summon a sembler, even though there must be at least one in his century." Phillip bit off each word, trying to control his anger. He wasn't angry with Jason, but it was hard not to levy his anger upon that boy.
The centurion had gotten his horse under control. Handing the reins to a soldier, he walked toward Phillip and Jason.
"Centurion," Jason said, "take—"
"Your Highness," the man bowed slightly.
"Do not interrupt me!" Jason said. Now, he was the one biting off his words. "Take yourself on foot to my father the king. Tell him all that has transpired. Leave out nothing."
"Your Highness," the centurion began.
"I hope for your sake that means, Yes, Your Highness, at once," Jason said. His voice was colder than the wind that swept over the barren plain.
He's a prince, and he's more than 2,000 years old, Phillip thought as the centurion bowed, turned, and walked toward the king's tent.
"Phillip?" It was the king.
"Your Majesty," Phillip said. His bow was no less deep than it had been previously. It's not really his fault, Phillip thought. The buck stops here can't be applied to someone who must rule an empire as large and complex as his, especially in times such as these.
"Phillip, you taught my soldiers and me a valuable lesson, today. Several lessons, I suspect. Among those would be the need to use all one's resources in making a decision. There's another which I remember from my childhood, Never look a gift horse in the mouth. I think my centurion did that."
The king sat on a boulder and gestured to Phillip, who sat on a boulder beside him.
"Did you grow up with such aphorisms?" the king asked.
"Yes, Your Majesty. My people raised horses, and the expression you quoted was known to us. So was another, Never invest in anything that eats. It was meant to apply to horses. It contradicts the first one. Many of our aphorisms contradicted one another."
"Um, hmm," the king said.
Encouraged, Phillip said, "A stitch in time saves nine told us to take immediate action to avoid a greater future difficulty. Haste makes waste told us not to act too quickly. A penny saved is a penny earned encouraged thrift; but Don't be penny-wise and pound-foolish encouraged looking at the broader picture and not to be stingy."
"Phillip? You are indeed a treasure," the king said. "Do you know that there are only two people in World with whom I could have this conversation? My brother, whom you know as Master Olmon, and you?
"I have come to ask that you not to demand I execute the centurion. He acted unwisely, but he has learned an important and difficult lesson."
"Your Majesty! I would never demand anything of you! I would certainly not demand a man's life when no real harm has been done.
"In fact," Phillip said, "I was afraid you had come to demand that I leave because of the rash way in which I dealt with the situation. I was afraid I would never be allowed to see Jason again."
The king stood. Phillip followed. "I would never demand anything of you," the king said. "And I would never deny my son your company, for although he is impetuous, he does love you in his own way."
"Tomorrow," the elven king concluded, "will you tell me about this Captain and his Lieutenants, and about the Auxiliaries you have created?"
Phillip explained to the king and Jason why Javari was a captain, and why the others, including two very young elven tweens, were lieutenants. Phillip's assertion, "We must remain together," was sufficient and acceptable justification.
Phillip also described why, from Zosa's memories, he was sure that there would soon be more dragons, and that there would be a need for more riders.
"The bigger problem is this. The dragons' stamina is much greater than that of the boys who will ride them. Yet, dragons bond with one and only one rider per lifetime. In order to get the most utility out of the dragons, their riders must be relieved of mundane tasks—everything from washing their own clothes in the baths to preparing their meals to digging latrines to sharpening their own weapons. They will need sparing partners for the times they can practice with hand weapons—"
"I do not understand," Jason interrupted. "Why would a dragon rider need to know swordsmanship?"
Before the king could chastise his son, Phillip responded. "Some of the stories we have heard suggested that riders used swords. Whether that was in some sort of aerial battle with other riders, or when dismounted from their dragons, we do not know."
Jason nodded comprehension if not complete understanding.
"Javari and the others have been doing those things for me almost from the moment we met Zosa. Perhaps the five companions who accompany me are a bit too many for a single dragon rider, but please remember that these boys know dragons better than any others. They will not only be the leaders, but also the trainers of boys who will help other riders."
The king asked the more important question. "When might we see more dragons?"
Reluctant to provide the story of Zosa's encounter with the male dragon on the previous day, Phillip simply said, "Zosa has had contact with at least two. If you will agree, Your Majesty, my companions and I will ride to the south, tomorrow. It is there Zosa thinks we will find other dragons."
Zosa sat on her tail and legs. Her upper body was erect; her wings were opened wide. She waved them slowly as if fanning a fire. Her head swiveled; she scanned the valley and the surrounding hills. The boys were bathing in the tarn; its waters were too cold to encourage any play. The boys stayed but briefly before scrambling onto the shore.
"That's cold!" Javari said as the wind of Zosa's wings caressed his wet skin.
"She's gathering magic," Argon said. "How long—?"
Phillip drew his hands downward, keeping them an inch or so from Argon's body, using magic to wipe off the cold water. "Plenty of time for us to warm up," he said.
Phillip and Zosa flew ahead of his companions, on patrol. His companions followed more slowly on horseback. Suddenly, Zosa dove for a crag while warning Phillip, Dismount, quickly! A male approaches! Phillip unfastened the riding straps while the dragon sought purchase on the rocks. Her claws scrabbled on the ridge, knocking loose boulders that crashed down the slope and disappeared into the clouds below. Phillip sensed rather than saw a flat spot, and leaped from the dragon's back, landing on all fours. He crouched as Zosa's wings swept above him, buffeting him, knocking him to the ground.
Zosa! Phillip stood, and called after the departing dragon. Don't forget to ask him . . . The rest of Phillip's thought was lost when Zosa and the male dragon made contact. Phillip collapsed onto the ground, and lost consciousness.
When Phillip awoke, Zosa and a second dragon were perched side by side, only a dozen feet from him. Phillip sat up gingerly, and stared at them. Other than their eyes, they seemed to be identical. His befuddled brain asked the first question that came to mind, How do you know he's male? The dragon on the right reared back and spread his wings. Phillip's eyes were drawn to the dragon's distinctive, very male, and very huge anatomy.
Oh! Phillip thought, and realized that there was an unpleasant wetness in his trousers. Oh, oh.
Did you enjoy yourself? The voice of the male dragon was as distinctive as his eyes.
Phillip blushed. Not really. How could I have done so? I was unconscious!
The male dragon's laughter echoed in Phillip's mind. I remember a rider who became unconscious the first time. After that, he . . . The dragon's voice went silent for a moment, and then continued. The female you call Zosa says you will allow me to select a rider. Are there truly those who are worthy?
I do not know, Phillip said. Neither our stories nor Zosa can tell us what makes a boy worthy or unworthy. Nor do our stories tell us . . . Phillip hesitated and gathered his courage. Nor do our stories tell us what might cause a dragon to kill those found unworthy.
Nor can I tell you, the male said.
Why will you not tell me? Phillip said, looking from one dragon to the other.
Not will not, but cannot, Zosa said.
Neither the words nor the memories are there, the male added.
Perhaps we can find the words, Phillip suggested. And they will evoke the memories.
Perhaps, the male said. It was apparent that he was uninterested.