by David McLeod
We are not Alone
Night was falling. Justin was waiting in the gloaming when I left his father's tent. I could not see his eyes, but I felt tears—and smelled cornflowers—when he hugged me. He was trembling. He's 1,000 years old. He's a prince. But he's still a boy, I thought, and pulled him tightly against me.
"Phillip, you and Zosa saved me. My friends said Zosa almost fell down the cliff, and that Farengeld plummeted, as well. All because I was stupid and selfish. I'm sorry. Will you forgive me?"
"Zosa and Farengeld were never in any danger. They are very good at what they do," I whispered for his ears, only.
I thought for a moment before I said the next. "Yes, you were stupid and selfish." I felt his body tense as if to pull away from my hug. "But we learned something important because of it."
I explained what Farengeld had said about ancient enemies. "Just because a person fought for evil in a past life, does not mean that he is evil in this one. Still, it appears the dragons may exercise harsher judgment than we. We know a little more about how they select their riders, something that may save lives in the future.
"I forgive you, and I do love you, and that is something we will have to reconcile with your position—"
"Why? I am free to love, and I do love you."
"But you are the prince, to be the king."
"And you are a Dragon Rider. Even my father recognizes your status. And even if you weren't, I am free to love any boy—noble or not, human or elvish. Even dwarvish, should we ever encounter dwarves. I don't think I could love one of those frogmen they're talking about, though."
"Has the army encountered frogmen?" I asked. My mind was no longer on Justin and cornflowers, but on my responsibility as a dragon rider.
Justin explained that the frogmen fought what I recognized as guerilla war: quick raids, kill a few people, seize some food, and then melt back into the swamps.
"They are a nuisance, but they do tie down a large number of army forces," I said. "I do not see how dragons could help in a campaign of that nature, but I will discuss it with the others, and Jonathan.
"But that must wait until tomorrow," Justin said, and kissed me. "I know you can't resist me . . . "
A quick check with Argon and Zosa let them know where I would be for the rest of the night.
Kyle and Brendan took their job as members of the Dragon Auxiliaries seriously. They were the first to understand not only that there would be more riders, but also that those riders would need more than someone to prepare their meals and wash their clothes. As soon as they heard that a second dragon had been recruited, they requisitioned leather straps and made a riding harness. They requisitioned fleece to make flight clothing. On the other hand, neither of them knew anything about sewing.
They found a sartor—an Elvish tailor. Although he was one of the king's soldiers, he was eager to help make clothing for Jonathan. The king learned of this and invited Phillip to his tent.
"Sire, please call me Phillip," I interrupted. "I find that title . . . awkward, at best, and a bit too much to be used in private conversation."
The king tilted his head, and looked at me for a moment. Have I gone too far? Should I have said that? I wondered. The king's words reassured me.
"Thank you, Phillip, and when we are in familia, you shall call me . . . Would you call me father? For I know you and my son are bonded in brotherhood, although it is in a way that I do not understand."
I thought about my own father, killed in a war in the Middle East, a war fomented by the USA, a war to protect the USA oil industry, the USA automobile industry, but not a war with any justice. I was just into my teens when that happened, and my father had been away for years. I had never really known him. I'm afraid my eyes were filled with tears when I answered the king.
"Yes, Father," I said. "I never really knew my own father. He died in battle while I was still young. I would like to think of you as my new father.
"And," I added, "I think my bond with Justine is something we need to talk about."
That discussion was put aside, however, for the immediacy of the moment. The king had something to say.
"I understand that you have recruited a boy, sworn to me, who is a tailor, and that you have asked my quartermasters to provide material for the Dragon Corps that you envision."
"Yes, Father," I said. "Your people have been very helpful in providing supplies—food, leather for straps, warm clothing."
The king knew we would search for more dragons. I think he knew that we would find them, for he had a grasp of history that could come only from his thousands of years of life.
"You will need more than an occasional bit of clothing. You will need a base of operations. You will need regular and frequent supplies of food for yourselves and your horses. You will need farriers, healers, tailors, teachers—
"You look askance, Phillip."
"Weapons masters, geographers, tacticians, others that will occur to us as we plan. You will also need heralds, perhaps ambassadors."
I was overwhelmed. When I'd agreed to become Zosa's rider and understood that meant I would be a warrior, I had no idea that I would be thrust into a situation this complex. The king must have seen the confusion and fear that danced across my face and in my eyes.
"Phillip, you will not be alone in this."
"I will help you find from among my people, the skills you need," the king, now my father, said. "I will think on this, and determine how it shall be."
"What about Justine?" I whispered.
"And Justine," he said. "I will speak to my son."
"I approve of—no, more than that—I honor your relationship, even though I know it fuels his desire to be selected by a dragon. That is what needs to be addressed. It is something for me to do."
I could do no more than agree with the king. I had no idea what else I could do.
Zosa and I accompanied Jonathan and Farengeld on their first feeding flight. Jonathan had flown with Farengeld on the day the boy had been selected by the dragon to be his rider. I do not know if Farengeld threw Jonathan from his back, only to catch him before he was dashed to earth, as Zosa had done to me. Perhaps there was another way to establish the bond of trust that was so essential to dragon and rider. I did not ask how that had been done, but I could see that the bond had formed.
Jonathan had not, however, ridden Farengeld when the dragon fed. This was something he must be able to do. Unlike the time I took Justine for a similar flight, I warned Jonathan what to expect. Still, it was a bit of a shock for the boy when he found himself sprayed with goat blood, and other things better left unexamined—and unmentioned.
I have come to the conclusion that dragons and tarns are inseparable, for it seems that every time a place to bathe is needed, Zosa finds a mountain lake, or a series of lakes. So was it, today. Zosa led Farengeld to a small valley in which a lake of frigid, crystal water lay.
Jonathan and I bathed and dried one another quickly, and even more quickly rinsed our clothes in the lake. Zosa was issuing her eponymous snores, which didn't seem to keep Farengeld awake. I pulled out blankets. There were ways to use magic to warm ourselves, but snuggling together in the blankets was a lot more fun.
I was reluctant to release Jonathan and Farengeld from my individual and personal supervision. I was afraid that without me, they would encounter a situation they could not deal with. It was Zosa who forced me to admit that I was being too protective.
You had no teacher save me, she said. Yet you did not come to an untimely end. Give the boy a chance—the boy who is, I should mention, about 1,300 years older than you are, and who has been a soldier for many of those years.
I'm afraid I blushed when Zosa pointed that out to me. The next day, Jonathan and I sat with the king and his generals, and outlined our plan.
Jonathan and Farengeld ranged to the west. They scouted not only for enemies, but also for more dragons. Kyle and Brendan accompanied them, although their horses were so much slower than the dragon, the only help they could offer was supper and companionship when the dragon and his rider found them in the evening.
"Jonathan? We are holding you back," Kyle said after he and Brendan had bathed the rider, and served a supper of hot soup and flatbread. "You could go farther without us, without having to find us at the end of each day."
Jonathan's hand, about to lift bread to his mouth paused. He looked from one boy to the other, and then put the bread on the leaf that served as a plate. He set the leaf and soup bowl in the ground beside the boulder he sat upon.
"Brendan? Do you feel the same way?"
Brendan looked at Kyle, and then nodded. "Yes."
"Well," Jonathan said. "You are both . . . wrong!" He shouted the last word, which then echoed from the walls of the canyon.
Jonathan stood. "Kyle? Come here, please."
Kyle trembled as he approached the blue-haired boy. As soon as Kyle was close enough, Jonathan reached out and pulled him into a hug. Then, "Brendan? Come here, please."
Brendan's steps were only a bit more sure than had been Kyle's. Again, Jonathan pulled the boy into his hug.
"It is my fault," Jonathan said. "I have not shown my thanks, my appreciation.
"Even with Farengeld for company, it is lonely, flying high over the world. I rejoice each evening when we land, and you greet me. I rejoice in the warmth and love we share, snuggled in blankets against the cold.
"Even though writing and drawing what I've seen is important, being able to tell you, each day, being able to share with you the wonders and to see your eyes widen, is an experience to treasure.
"That is so much more important than the hot soup, the brisk baths," Jonathan paused. "Your companionship is more important than all that; your friendship is more important than the sharing—even though that is very special.
"And you're not slowing me down! I do wish you'd pay attention to the maps."
Jonathan described his search pattern. "We are traveling west. However, I am flying north and south of our baseline. I fly a pattern that covers a great deal of territory, and still brings me to you about one day on horseback from where the day began.
"Next time we do this, there will be others to accompany us, and you two will fly with me, one at a time. Then you will see."
Jonathan kissed each boy and released them from his hug. For the moment, that was sufficient.
Phillip and Zosa ranged far to the south, flying through valleys inhabited by men—elves and humans—but lacking in dragons. Something over that range, Zosa said.
Phillip saw through her eyes a landing place, and guided her toward it. Releasing himself from the riding straps, he crawled up the hill. Phillip pushed his head above the ridge and stifled a gasp. In the valley lay a Dark army.
They cannot see you or sense you, Zosa said.
Still, we must not linger. Phillip crawled down the slope to the ledge on which Zosa stood. He grimaced as a rock rattled down the mountain. Nor can they hear you, Zosa said. Come.
Phillip stepped upon the offered wing root and climbed onto Zosa's back. He wrapped the riding straps around his legs and body, fastened them, and nodded. Zosa sensed the thought behind the nod and stepped from the ledge. Her wings were furled. Guiding herself only with the vanes of her tail, she plummeted down the face of the cliff.
Hold on! Phillip heard as Zosa opened her wings. Cupping them gently, she pulled out of the dive to skim over scrub pines before landing at the side of a small lake.
The boys who had been waiting by the tarn rushed toward Phillip and Zosa. Argon and Javari put their arms on Zosa's neck and stroked her head. Phillip slid down Zosa's side into Maranon's arms. The smaller boy hugged the dragon rider, pressing his head to Phillip's chest. "Oh! I was so afraid! I thought she'd fallen!"
Phillip returned Maranon's hug. "Shhh, my love, you knew we were safe. You know we used the ledge so Zosa wouldn't have to use magic to take off."
"I know, I knew," the boy said. "But what if she'd not pulled up in time?" Zosa caught the echo of those words in Phillips mind; her snort sent ripples across the lake.
Zosa and I scouted the dark army, and determined that it was moving south and west. We didn't know what was there. They were much farther south than any of the Elven territory. The king decided to merely keep an eye on them until we had a better idea of their objective, which did not seem to be Elvenholt or its allies in Arcadia.
It was Farengeld who found—or was found by—the next dragon, a female eager to be fertilized, but not so eager that she didn't lead the male in a merry chase across the sky.
After both dragons had returned to the king's encampment, Phillip spoke with Jonathan. They agreed that Jonathan and Argon would make the selection of candidates, this time.
"Should we begin with the eighteen remaining from the previous selection and add two more, or begin anew?" Phillip asked.
Jonathan was quick to reply. "Begin anew," he said. "My father was a carpenter. When he would measure planks for stairs, he would always measure all from an original plank, rather than measure one plank from the previous one. It kept error from creeping in."
Jonathan blushed, which to Phillip's eye contrasted oddly with the boy's blue hair. The fact that Phillip and Jonathan were naked and cuddled didn't make that any less odd.
"I'm not saying that your selection was not good." Jonathan giggled. "After all, you and then Farengeld selected me."
Jonathan paused, and Phillip felt the wonder and joy in the boy's mind. Phillip kissed Jonathan. "I understand, truly I do. You are right. We will start afresh."
Phillip gave private instructions to Kyle and Brendan to ensure that Justin was standing with his cohort when the selection began. After saluting the king, and watching Jonathan and Argon move toward the thousand boys arrayed on the plain, Phillip stood by Justin and held the boy's hand. "It wouldn't work, you know," he said quietly and privately to Justin. "You are to be a king, and something tells me that will be much more important than being a dragon rider. Besides, your father has made it clear—"
Justin kissed Phillip. "Do not worry, Phillip. My father has spoken to me, too." The boy giggled. "You don't think you can hide anything from me—or him, do you?"
Neither finding dragons, selecting candidates, nor watching the dragons select their riders from among the candidates ever became routine or anything but exciting. Always there was the fear in Phillip's mind or that of Jonathan, the two who alternated in creating a pool of candidates, the fear that one of the boys they'd designated would die. It did not, however, happen.
As more dragons were recruited and united with their riders, the Dragon Auxiliaries grew in number. Javari grew into his task, as well. And so did Jonathan.
There was no formal decision, but when the Dragon Wing became too large for a single commander, Phillip and Jonathan each assumed command of a cohort. They ranged farther and wider, searching for more dragons; searching for armies inimical to Elvenholt. Scouting the movements of enemy forces that seemed, at times, to be wandering without direction. There was, however, no doubt that there was a pattern, a plan to the dark forces. Everyone knew they had to discover it.
What they never searched for were dragons with riders. Therefore, it was a surprise when Phillip's wing encountered not one, but three such. The initial encounter was not, however, with dragons, but with a burning village.
The wing had flown over several empty valleys before cresting a ridge to see smoke rising from below. Zosa opened her eyes to Phillip.
It's a village, Phillip sent to the others. Zosa relayed his thoughts to the other dragons who relayed them to their riders. The way people build here, with wooden houses close together, this could be a natural disaster. On the other hand, I don't want to assume that.
Phillip thought of the great fire of London, near the year 1666 by his Earth's reckoning—a conflagration that had gotten out of hand because of the way the city was built, because there had been a drought, and because there was no organized firefighting system. Of course, the stupefied population knew that the fire, just as had been the Black Plague, was a curse from god—especially near a year ending with the number of the beast. When did we shake off that superstition? Phillip wondered, and realized that some people never had.
Then he saw the dragons and knew immediately, that he and his wing had been seen, as well. In that same instant, Zosa felt hostility, anger, and a bit of elation from the others.
Enemies, she said. All of Phillip's wing heard that word.
Three against three, he thought. Could be worse.
Zosa? Tell Farengeld what we are facing so the others will know.
That command acknowledged, Phillip dove toward the enemy dragons. Enemies, for sure: identified in an instant by Zosa. The others of his wing followed.
The dragons swirled and darted. Flames targeted the wings of their opponents. None, however, struck.
Let us settle this one-on-one, Phillip heard. Your leader and I, on the ground, with swords.
Agreed, Phillip thought, and watched as the two wings of dragons separated, and descended toward a rocky plain between two hills.
Zosa and the enemy dragon landed a hundred yards apart. Their riders dismounted at the same instant, and ran toward one another. They both stopped when they were still about 20 yards apart.
Who are you? Phillip sent. The boy who faced him did not reply.
He is one who was not selected, Zosa told Phillip.
He is not an elf, Phillip thought. How could he be one not selected?
Not here, Zosa thought, and filled Phillip's mind with an image.
Phillip saw a broad field on which boys stood. He saw dragons, a huge flight of dragons, descend on the field. Each dragon flew directly toward a particular boy. Phillip saw the boys look into the scintillating eyes of a dragon, and felt the bonds that were formed. He also saw boys who were not selected. He saw them gather, and heard an offer to be partners, auxiliaries such as Phillip, himself, was gathering.
He saw the boy who was facing him now reject the title of Auxiliary, turn and storm away from the convocation, his anger and disappointment leaving a miasma over the field where dragons and their new riders frolicked. He heard the boy's name spoken—Landon.
Where does this come from? he asked Zosa.
From his memories, Zosa replied. They are real, and recent. I can see no more.
The exchange between Phillip and Zosa had taken only an instant. Phillip and Landon were still yards apart.
"Landon!" Phillip called. His sword was still sheathed. "We need not be enemies! Let us be friends!"
Phillip sensed, more than heard, Landon's snarl as the boy drew his sword.
"We can never be friends," Landon cried. "It is much too late for that. You were not there, the day on the plain, when the dragons selected their riders. I could have been offered honor, but I was asked to be a servant."
Phillip understood from the images Zosa had sent. "Not a servant, Landon, a partner. Just as the auxiliaries of the elven dragon wing are partners."
It had become apparent that words would not sway Landon. Phillip drew his sword and met the boy's rush and his attack. The sound of the swords clashing echoed from the rocks.
Phillip realized quickly that he was the better swordsman, and determined to disarm Landon without killing him. It would be difficult and risky, but—
"You think we are your enemy," Phillip said. "But we are not. Will you listen to me? Will you learn?"
Landon's reply was a clumsy overhand blow with his sword. It was what Phillip had been waiting for. He met the blow, slid his sword along Landon's until the guards locked, and twisted Landon's sword from his hand.
Landon immediately drew his poniard. Phillip stepped back and held his sword at middle-guard, anticipating an attack. Before Phillip could move, Landon—wrongly sensing his disgrace and death—placed the point of his poniard against his stomach and thrust upward. The poniard penetrated Landon's chest, cleaving his heart. The boy's eyes and nostrils widened when he saw his death. His voice failed, and only his mind spoke. "You kill both me and my dragon, Johannam," the boy said as he fell. "There are two deaths on your conscience."
Phillip was buffeted by the wind from the wings of the male dragon—Johannam—as he leaped into the sky.
Zosa? What will happen?
He will fly very high above the mountains—high enough that ice will begin to form on his wings. Then, he will pull in his wings and plummet to his death. It is very hard to kill a dragon, she mused.
Phillip stood beside Landon's body. No, Phillip thought. Two deaths are not on my conscience! I know that both you and Johannam will find another life. Someday, sometime. I, too, will find another life. I hope that we will meet again, and that we may be friends, then, rather than enemies.
Two of the enemy dragons had escaped, flying southward with their riders.
"I think you frightened them," Maranon said when he and Phillip were reunited. "I think they were afraid. What people fear, they dislike. I remember that from somewhere. I think you told me, once, aeons ago, Phillip." Maranon grinned when he said this.
Phillip was growing accustomed to Maranon's flashes of memory of their past lives. I must believe these bonds. I believe I am bonded with Maranon and with Argon, and, in some way, with Javari. I remembered knowing Vance, the boy whose story led me to Zosa. Zosa says she remembers me. What else will I remember? He wondered.
"Come," he said. "We must tell this to the king."
The talks with the king and his generals lasted long into the night. It was agreed: reconnaissance would continue in flights of three. Training in swordsmanship would continue, and messengers would be sent to other cohorts of the elven army and to Arcadia with the news that there were enemy dragons.
Zosa, and Phillip through her eyes, saw the army: humans and lizard men, according to Zosa's nose. How many? Phillip asked, and converted Zosa's answer from hexadecimal to decimal. Nearly 500. We are too far away for Argon to hear us. Please fly a little farther down the road to ensure these aren't just the forerunners of a larger army. Then, we will return.
We can return more quickly if we cross those peaks rather than skirting them, Zosa said. Phillip nodded, and the dragon beat her wings more strongly. Phillip began the chant that would weave a bubble of air around himself. It was a spell from the Shaman's book, one said to pull air from water, allowing a person to breathe underwater. Phillip had wondered how useful such a spell would be in the desert of his home world until he had seen the Shaman's spider-like handwriting at the foot of the page: origin story—water world?
Having led their children through the sipapu to a new world, First Man and First Woman stood on a hill. Their voices blended into one. "We were foolish to listen to Coyote when he told us to build great cities, to bend other peoples to our will, to rape the earth, to let our shit flow into its waters and the smoke of our fires fill the air. The earth sought to cleanse itself, and threw us off. Had Spider not woven a thread to lead us here, we would have perished.
"But this world is not for us, it is for you. Listen to Spider, but not to Coyote. We will be watching." At that moment, First Man and First Woman ascended into the sky and became the stars we know as Man Who Rotates and Woman Who Rotates.
The children of First Man and First Woman became stewards of the Earth, and cared for it, eschewing great cities and respecting the dignity of other peoples. But they forgot the warning to beware of Coyote. Some say that he came as a snake, offering forbidden fruit. Others say that he adopted the image of a Shaman. Still others say he came in his own form, but was not recognized, so weak were the children of First Man and First Woman.
At Coyote's whispered urgings, the people once again began to rape the earth and subjugate their neighbors. The smoke from their fires filled the sky and the world grew hotter and hotter. The ice upon the mountains melted, and great floods swept down upon the people. Spider had seen Coyote's work and had chosen one Shaman and his family to be saved. The Shaman gathered his wife and his sons and their wives, their sheep and horses, chickens and dogs, and wove the spell Spider had shown him. And when the floods came, the Shaman and his family were borne in a great bubble of air along the web Spider had woven, and into the third world.
The Arcadian Army of the West moved through a canyon. They were exposed to ambush from above, and the trolls knew the mountains better than they did. Yet, this was the shortest route to Rome, where they were urgently needed. An enemy army of humans and lizoids was said to be approaching that city from the north.
Unknown to the Arcadian army, even to its leaders, they were being watched. So high that even elven eyesight could not have discerned them, Phillip and Argon rode Zosa. The boys were bundled in leather and fleece but still, the cold bit them. Argon, who rode in front of Phillip, was particularly cold, yet riding a dragon, and knowing that he was the only boy other than a dragon rider who could both hear and speak to dragons, made up for a lot of privation.
Phillip! Rumbles! Argon's thoughts passed from his mind to Zosa's and into Phillip's with no noticeable delay. Troll rumbles, the boy continued. Argon's feel for the source of the trolls' thoughts—for that is what the rumbles represented—was enough for Zosa to zero in her sight.
Phillip, seeing through Zosa's eyes, relayed what he saw to Argon. An ambush, he thought. The trolls wouldn't have come up with this on their own, he added after examining the deployment of the trolls. It took someone a lot smarter than they are to survey the route, select the site, and decide where to start the landslides. And it will take someone a lot smarter than the trolls to signal the landslides. See? They have boulders in two places about a mile apart. They'll wait until the army has passed the first, and then hem them in, front and back, with debris. Then, trolls rolling down more boulders can pick them off, easily. Warn them, Argon!
Argon concentrated, trying to reach any telempath in the army. "I can't!" he yelled to Phillip.
Phillip didn't hesitate, but asked Zosa to roll onto her side. The dragon lost altitude and gained speed. As she approached the lead scouts of the army, she snapped into a turn. Rushing toward the army, she blew fire, well above their heads. The army slowed. Centurions shouted and decurions cursed, and soldiers took shelter among the rocks. Phillip guided Zosa to a ridge above the center of the army and away from the trolls. He unsnapped Argon and then himself from the harness, and began to scramble down the mountain.
Phillip's somewhat unconventional warning had saved the army from disaster; the men were able to flank the trolls, climbing higher into the hills, and employing the trolls' own tactic. A few boulders loosened and rolled down the hill started landslides that forced the trolls to flee into the valley, where they were slaughtered by the men.
The wind of Zosa's wings blew dust and pebbles toward the score of boys who wore the brassards of Auxiliaries of the Dragon Corps. The dust and pebbles blew more strongly as the rest of the wing lifted from the plain. The boys were accustomed to this; a simple spell protected them from the dust and rocks. Nor would they have sought shelter; they would not, they could not, miss the sight of the dragons and dragon riders taking off into the dawn.
Javari, a sailor who had not seen the sea in more than three decades, but who now commanded the auxiliaries, lowered his hand and broke the spell. "To your tasks, please. The dragons will feed, but their riders will be hungry when they return."