by David McLeod
Barrone and Beyond
"Come on, guys," Javari said. "We're all overdue for a hot bath."
"You, especially," his little brother Maranon said. "Have you been sleeping with your horse?"
"No," Javari retorted, "as you well know." The companions had ridden cross-country, detouring around hills that were too steep, trying to keep close both to water for themselves and their horses, and to the mountains that Zosa required for food and concealment. They'd been sleeping rough, and bathing in icy streams. The village of Questa was a welcome way station.
The two guards who greeted them at the gate were noticeably surprised to see elves, but accepted Phillip's assurance that the companions were peaceable, despite being heavily armed. Phillip had listened to Argon's thoughts as the boy read the guards' emotions, and had altered what he said, accordingly.
I don't like to lie, Phillip thought, but I must protect my companions. And we really aren't hostile.
Nor are they, came Argon's voice. Maranon smiled, and Phillip knew that Maranon had heard, as well. Phillip glanced at Javari, who winked. The boys' continuing association with Zosa, or with Argon's innate magic, or both, had opened their minds to one another. Not always, and not deeply, but often enough. And always, lying at the bottom of Phillip's mind, was the mellow note of the dragon's thoughts.
The guards directed them to the inn. The directions had not been necessary: the town had but one road, and but one inn. However, the bath was hot and the food—fresh from the farms that surrounded the village and spiced by days of eating nothing but trail rations—was, "Excellent," Javari said. Maranon burped, grinned, and burped again.
That evening, Argon whispered to Phillip, "The guards—they were worried about something. It wasn't us. I saw in their minds armed men—not soldiers, but like a mob. I thought you should know." Phillip sensed the boy's concern, and spoke reassurance to him before hugging Argon, and receiving his magic.
The next morning, Javari broached the most important subject. "I guess we need to start buying supplies," he said.
"Um, hmm," Phillip said around a mouthful of pottage. "I talked to the publican. There's a road that leads south, close to the mountains. It's a tenday to the next city—which is probably just another village. We'll pass the last farm associated with Questa after about two days. It'll be another six before we find outlying farms of the next village: Adelaide. So, eight days' supplies. Unless we want Zosa hunting for us again."
Maranon shuddered at the memory of the time that Zosa, sensing the boys' hunger, had swooped over their camp and dropped the bloody and mangled carcass of a deer in their midst. I know you don't like mountain goat! the dragon had said.
"Ten days' worth, please?" Maranon asked. "Just in case?"
After a day spent gathering supplies for themselves and the horses, the boys fell asleep quickly. Something woke Argon. The moon, which had filtered through the shutters when they'd gone to bed, had set. At least midnight, Argon thought. And then, What's that? A sense of foreboding settled on his mind.
He reached over Maranon to wake Phillip, when he felt Phillip's thoughts. And Zosa's. "What's the matter?" came at him from two directions, one in a whisper, one from the dragon into Phillip's mind and thence to Argon's.
"I don't know," Argon said aloud, and felt Javari and Maranon stir. "It's the guards, they're worried about—"
Whatever Argon would have said was silenced by the loud clanging of a bell.
"The village is under attack," Argon said, the images from the guards' minds now clear. The companions did not hesitate, but quickly dressed and armed themselves. Their status as visitors would not save them should the attackers breach the village walls.
"Elven archers?" the decurion was surprised, but also pleased. "There . . ." he pointed to a barbican. "And you other two—"
"We fight together," Phillip said. "And we are archers, as well."
The decurion had not argued, but merely waved them toward the ladder that led to one of the barbicans that overlooked the gate. "We're the only ones here!" Javari said when he reached the platform. "There are scores of them," he added, his elven sight penetrating the darkness of the night. "They have shields. It will be hard to hit anyone. And a battering ram . . . a big one," he added.
"Zosa?" Maranon asked.
The barbican shuddered when the ram struck the gate. The boys heard splintering sounds.
"Yes," Phillip said, even as he summoned the dragon.
Zosa had not waited. Sensing Argon's fear, and that of Maranon through her link with Phillip, the dragon had left her perch and was circling the village. As fast as Phillip called, she furled her wings and sped earthward. This is going to be tricky, Phillip thought as he saw through her eyes.
No more so than picking a mountain goat off a ledge, the dragon thought. She plunged straight down toward the ram; her mouth burst with flame and she pulled out of her dive at the same instant. Curling her head under her belly, she raked the brigand column with fire as she flew away from the village. That was easy, she thought. Are there any left?
Javari and Maranon were blinded by the flame; their eyes, more sensitive to light were also slower to recover. Phillip and Argon, however, saw burning bodies of men and horses, but no one alive. No, none, Phillip thought in reply to the dragon's question. He slumped against the stone wall of the bastion, and would have fallen had Argon not caught him. Both boys were crying. Phillip over the deaths he had ordered; Argon from the emotions he felt from Phillip.
"It wasn't like the trolls," Phillip said. His face was still puffy, and his eyes were still red. The companions had managed to return to the inn without having to face anyone. Phillip lay on the bed, with Argon on one side, and Maranon on the other. Both boys held him tightly. Javari wet a cloth with water from an ewer, and gently wiped Phillip's face, and Argon's.
"It wasn't like the trolls," Phillip said again, remembering the first time he had asked Zosa to kill. "The trolls weren't people, I don't think. And there was no choice. They would have overrun our convoy. But these were men—and I could feel them die. The village guard might have been able to—"
Argon silenced Phillip with a finger to his lips. Maranon spoke. "No, Phillip, they could not have. You did not see. There were too many of them, and the guard was small. The raiders were shielded, and their ram—on wheels—had already breached the gate. We were alone in that barbican, nor was there anyone in the other."
Finally, as sunlight began to filter through the shutters, Phillip slept.
They did not leave that day. Phillip woke at noon to find himself still cuddled by Maranon. Argon sat, dozing, in a chair. Javari came into the room with a tray of food. "Oh, good, you're awake. It's too late for breakfast." Javari's voice drifted off as he caught sight of Phillip's face.
"It's all right," Phillip said. He hugged Maranon, and then sat up in the bed. "I felt you all. Even while I slept, I felt you all. Thank you."
"Um, Maranon was right, you know," Javari said as the boys shared the bread, meat, and cheese from the platter. "Half the village is in the common room. The other half is clearing the road of . . . clearing the road. Well, those that aren't cutting trees to rebuild the gate. All the bars and most of the uprights on the left side were broken. The guard? The commander is a decurion. That means he has ten soldiers, right? Well, there are only five!
"The town would have been overrun had Zosa not saved it."
Zosa was delighted with the quality of mountain goats along the Southern Mountain Road, but they became scarce, and the mountains became lower until, when the boys reached Riverside, the mountains were little more than hills and the mountain goats were few.
Zosa? Phillip sent. We have learned that we are only a few days from the sea, and that the mountains will nearly disappear before we get there. You must go back, a few days of our travel, to find food. I must go on. I must leave you for a while.
Zosa's voice was faint. We will not have been this far apart since we met, she said. You will return?
Phillip was not sure whether he heard a question in her voice. He remembered their first conversation so long ago, when he thought she had been plaintive. Could a dragon be plaintive, he'd wondered then, and wondered it, now. He'd learned quickly that dragons experienced a range of emotions, perhaps wider than his own, just as his, which included jealousy and embarrassment, was wider than that of the elves and of the humans of this world.
This is something I must do, Phillip said. It is something that must be done for Argon. You know this, do you not? You know of our bond?
Oh, yes, Zosa said. The tenor of her thoughts was matter-of-fact in Phillip's mind. Your bond with him is different from the one I have with you . . . and the one I share with Argon.
If it is possible, I will return, Phillip said.
Whatever Zosa might have said was overwhelmed by the crunch of her teeth on a large mountain goat.
"I was expecting something a little bigger," Maranon said. They stood on a hilltop overlooking the town.
"It's a small port," Argon said. His eyes scanned the docks and the vessels that lined them. "Fishing and coastal shipping, and not much of either."
"But this is where we must be," Phillip said, and led his companions down the hill toward the sleepy little town.
Arcadia had been drawn into the war in Elvenholt, but the war was still largely confined to the western mountains, leaving the coastal towns untouched and untroubled. The boys had no difficulty convincing the lone guard of their loyalty to the prince and the legitimacy of their visit. When they asked about a College of Magic, the guard was unhelpful.
"College of Magic?" The guard raised an eyebrow. "I know of no such place. There are weather-scryers. You'll find them near the docks." He might have said more, but the barking of a dog was followed by a chorus of outraged quacking. A flock of geese ran toward the gate. By the time the goose-boy had gotten the flock under control, the guard had turned to inspect a farm wagon. Phillip shrugged. The four boys walked into Barrone.
"Where do we start?" Phillip asked. Their arrival at Barrone, a bath, and a night's sleep had lifted his spirits, although he was still pale and gaunt.
"The market square," Argon said. "That's where we'll find the story-tellers."
"Huh?" Maranon blurted.
"Argon is right," Javari said. "It was a story that brought us here. But, we should also consult with any mages we can find."
"Boys from another world? Boys who fell from the sky?" Phillip's question brought the same answer: seven storytellers had greeted the notion with skepticism at worst, shrugs at best.
Phillip thought they had struck out, again, when the eighth storyteller, an old man, narrowed his eyes, and asked, "Why would you be wantin' to know."
Rather than answer the question, Phillip said, "If you know the story and tell it true, I'll tell you a story that no one in Barrone knows."
The man's eyes widened slightly. "It'll take more than a promise to loosen my tongue." Phillip raised his arm and signaled the publican to bring another pitcher of ale.
The story the old man told was much the same as the one Phillip had heard from the young duke, Antonius. There were some differences.
"A hundred lifetimes ago," the old man began, "when Good and Evil faced one another across the land, two boys walked out of the mountains that separate Arcadia and Eblis and into the city of Barrone."
City, Phillip thought. Only a storyteller could consider this place a city.
"They were mages. The older was a Master of Fire, who saved the fleet when Eblis sent a fireship into the harbor. The other was a scryer who saw the evil in a spy from Eblis."
Phillip tuned out the storyteller's recounting of the boys' exploits, each more fanciful than the one before. Until—
"The boys found a place in a college of magic. But when the war came to Barrone, the boys joined the army and brought fire upon the Army of Eblis, winning the war for the Light."
When Phillip questioned the storyteller, he asserted that the war had, indeed been between Arcadia and Eblis. "Eblis is—so far—neutral in this war."
"And a college of magic?"
"I hear tell there's one in Arcadia and another in Rome . . . that's in Elvenholt," the man said.
Javari had been talking with a tween. He nodded, handed the tween a coin, and returned to where his companions stood.
"There's a mage we haven't spoken to," Javari said. "He has a place in the warehouse district. His name is Master Murchison. His cartouche is a pentagon of stars."
"Something is bothering you," Phillip said to Argon.
The boy flushed. Phillip could not tell if it were with embarrassment or with fever. "I just remembered something Drake and Ronald said. The Book of Heroes? The one with the stories of gates between places? He said it was written by a mage at the College of Magic in Barrone. But there is no College of Magic! Does this mean that all this is . . . a wild goose chase?"
Phillip understood instantly. "No! It means that . . . well, I think it means that the book, too, traveled through time. It's further proof that we will be able to do so, as well." He hugged Argon tightly, drawing smiles from a pair of patrolling soldiers.
The door to Master Murchison's establishment was wedged between two warehouses. Over the door hung a shingle on which was painted a pentagon of stars: red, orange, yellow, green, and blue.
The door opened to a narrow hallway. A few feet from the door, a small table constricted the hallway. A boy with brown hair sat behind the table. He wore a dun tunic belted at his waist, and sandals. "Hello," he said. "Welcome to Master Murchison's House of Magic and Divination. How may my master assist you?"
"My companions are Argon, Maranon, and Javari," Phillip said. "My name is Phillip."
The boy's eyes widened when Maranon and Javari stepped into the light. "I . . . " the boy stuttered, "I am Arbie. Are you really elves?"
"Arbitus!" a sharp voice rang. "Send them—no, bring them here."
"My master," the boy whispered. "He sees everything." Raising his voice, he replied. "Yes, Master."
Arbie stood and gestured for the others to follow. The long hallway opened into a square foyer. A window in the wall opposite the hallway provided the only light. Tapestries flanked the window. Doors to the left and right were closed. "Where . . .?" Argon began.
"Enter my chamber through the door to your left." The voice seemed to come from air in the empty room.
Phillip saw Maranon and Argon's jaws drop. He also saw Javari's eyes narrow. In spite of all the magic they've seen; in spite of the dragons they've ridden and the battles they've fought, they're still boys, Phillip thought. He exchanged glances with Javari and an understanding passed between them. Argon, and then Maranon sensed Phillip and Javari's suspicion as well as their confidence, and closed their mouths. Arbie opened the door and gestured for the boys to enter.
The room was large, yet it seemed small. Workbenches, wooden and stone, covered most of the floor. Their tops were filled with . . . an incredible collection of stuff, Phillip thought. One held glassware resembling a high school chemistry laboratory—or, rather, a madman's vision of such a laboratory—in which colored fluids bubbled and smoked. Another was littered with crystals of many sizes and colors that sparkled, glittered, and pulsed. Still another held the stuffed corpses of various animals. At least, they seemed to be stuffed until one—a fox—turned its head and stared at the visitors. Maranon took a nervous half step and stood behind Phillip. On another table, plants both familiar and strange grew in pots and tubs; their odors filled the room.
The far end of the room was elevated: a dais of sorts. A railing, like a fence, about four feet high separated it from the rest of the chamber. A chair, resembling a throne, in which sat a dimly lit figure, occupied the center of the dais. A low table beside the chair held a . . . It's a hookah, Phillip thought. A water pipe, straight out of Araby. And he's smoking cannabis!
The man swept his arm through the air. A rainbow of flame erupted from a brazier at his feet. "Here you will find your answers."
Phillip's suspicion as well as something he felt from Javari kept the interview short. "We have recently arrived in Barrone," Phillip said. "We are adventurers and wanderers who seek knowledge. Perhaps, however, today is not the day. It is late. May we return early on the morrow?"
"He's my uncle," Arbie said. He had walked with the boys to their inn, and was standing in the bath as Maranon scrubbed him. "My mother is a weaver who apprenticed me to him. My father was lost at sea. My uncle does care about me, in his own way.
"Oh, yes," Arbie added, in response to Maranon's question. "He doesn't make me work all the time. He is often at his studies. He really does have a great talent. I have friends. We play and swim in the bay, and share." His eyes turned the last word into a question, to which Maranon nodded.
"What do we tell this man?" Maranon asked.
"Nothing!" Argon asserted. "He is greedy, rapacious."
"Rap . . . what?" Maranon asked. His and Javari's command of the human common language was sufficient for everyday life, but this word was new.
"Rapacious. Like a raptor. A hawk or an owl, plunging onto its prey," Phillip explained. "Yes," he added. "We will tell him as little as possible."
"Do you think he knows the story?" Javari asked.
"Do you think he knows a place of power?" Maranon added.
"Do you think he will tell us? And, how will we ask." Javari asked the real questions, and then he answered them. "We find out what he wants, but cannot get for himself. We get that, and then we barter."
Phillip nodded. "A good strategy. But why do you think he wants something that he cannot get, but that we can offer?"
"Because he's a fraud," Javari said. "He can do some magic, but it's hardly more than boy magic and trickery. When he created the rainbow flames, I saw that he had hidden some powder in his hand. And, I didn't see magic when he did it."
"If he's a fraud, then why might he know what we want to know?"
"Did you not see all the books? He has as many books as were in the College in Rome. He may not know what's in all the books, but my guess is that he does. He just hasn't put it all together."
In Master Murchison's workshop, Phillip saw the smoke curl into a pattern, a pattern that was familiar yet not quite right.
Murchison looked at Phillip. "Your turn," he said.
I don't want him to learn the words. I don't trust this man. I wonder . . .
Rather than speak the words, Phillip called them into his mind, to scroll in Athabascan letters behind his narrowed eyes. Rather than chant, Phillip hummed softly. The sound did not reach the man seated on the throne, but the power of Phillip's magic pushed aside that man's feeble efforts.
Argon, and through him the others, felt Phillip's suspicions of the mage, and moved to stand between Phillip and the throne. Maranon glared at Arbie as if daring him to interfere.
The wizard frowned as the ragged vortex he'd conjured began to spin in smooth symmetry. He caught himself, and his face relaxed. His eyes were not on the vortex, but on Phillip. The vortex touched the workbench. Energy flowed, and pumped the electrons of receptive minerals into higher orbits. Falling, they released their energies as photons of multi-hued light. The stone cube glowed.
Phillip released the spell. Vague memories of half-life and Dirac holes and probability wave functions flickered through his mind. I do wish I'd paid more attention in that class, he thought. "It will glow for a while," he said. "I didn't make the spell permanent."
"An interesting spell," the mage said. "I know others that will create the same effect, and more easily, at that."
Horse shit. "No doubt," Phillip said. "However, we are not here to trade spells, nor will we remain in Barrone. We do, however seek your help." Which you'll likely not give away.
I shouldn't have said that, Phillip thought after three hours of fruitless negotiations. He knows I want something he has, and he knows I have something he wants, and he'll not accept that I cannot tell him the secrets of my people and of the lodge.
"Uncle, these are good boys," Arbie said. "Won't you please help them?"
"Help them! Only if I can learn something from them. What? What can I learn from them?" The man spit out each word as if it pained him to speak.
"Compassion?" Arbie nearly shouted. "You might learn compassion! Can't you tell? Phillip is sick! And Argon needs your help to get home—" Arbie tried to swallow his words, but they had escaped.
"Home? What do you mean? Why does he need magical help to get home? What is the truth!" The mage's voice seemed to push Arbie deep into his chair.
Arbie whimpered, not with pain but with the conflict in his mind. His oath to his uncle . . . that was the older oath, and bound him more than did the promise he'd given Phillip not to reveal what he knew about Phillip and Argon's origins. Besides, this may be the only way to help Argon. Sitting up straight, Arbie looked his uncle in the eye, and told him what he knew.
"Phillip? I told my uncle about you and Argon. He demanded that I do so," Arbie said. He did not flinch when Phillip's eyes narrowed.
Phillip sighed. "You are his apprentice and your oath to him binds you."
Arbie nodded. "I'm so glad you understand, and I hope that you do not think ill of me for it."
Phillip shook his head. "No. I knew, I think, that one day you would have to tell him. I just didn't think it would be so soon." He hugged Arbie, and kissed his forehead. "No, I do not think ill of you."
"Good," Arbie said. "For I know where to find a place of power."
"He told you?"
"Yes . . . rather, he told me stories that enabled me to find it. Or, at least where it should be. It's in Eblis, in the mountains above the city of Rook.
"I almost didn't tell you, for Eblis is an evil place, and Rook is the source of much of the evil that comes across the mountains."
"This is surely the place," Javari said after consulting his map. "See? The city is just where it should be; this vast bowl is another exact landmark." He pointed to what Phillip recognized to be a glacial valley, now filled with grass.
The cave is here. Zosa's voice lofted over the wind that nearly carried off Javari's voice, and threatened to blow the boys from the ridgeline. Phillip nodded, and then gestured for the others to follow him from the ridge and toward the stack of boulders Zosa had indicated. As he watched, the dragon disappeared into the mountainside.
An hour later, the boys scrambled into the cave. "Zosa? Where are you?" Phillip called. The dragon opened her eyes. Their glow lit the cave.
The passage opened into a cavern. In the center was a stone cube. The boys recognized it as a mage's workbench or a cleric's altar. Phillip stepped into the cavern.
"This is the place we've been searching for," Phillip said. He swept his arms through the magical field. The energy tugged at the light from Argon's lantern. Phillip seemed to be wreathed in flames. The boys had seen Phillip's magic before, but this was new. They stood, awestruck.
Phillip lowered his arms. "I can do this," he said. "I see the way to Argon's home, both the place and the time. Javari, Maranon, do you still want to come with us? I do not know if I can bring you back to your time—this time."
Maranon—the boy who had been Phillip's companion, friend, and lover for more lifetimes than either boy could remember—answered for both himself and his older brother. "As much today as the first time you asked. We are ready."
Zosa? Where are you? Phillip asked.
I am here. Her voice was strong. This is a fine cave. It is a safe place.
"You sound pleased to be here," Phillip said. "You know that we will leave you? Can you make your way back to Elvenholt? Will you be safe?"
Not to Elvenholt, the dragon replied. I will sleep, here, until my eggs hatch. This is a fine cave.
There was a pause. The boys knew Zosa had more to say.
I will look for you in another life, the dragon said. That is what you say, do you not? It is not a good bye, but an…'until seeing again,' is it not?
Phillip nodded, knowing that Zosa would feel that gesture, knowing that Zosa would feel what Phillip felt in his heart, knowing that for all his linguistic abilities, Phillip did not have the words to say what he felt.
Phillip looked at each boy. They wore their packs; their weapons were sheathed at their belts. "Come closer, then," he said. "Join hands—no, no—with me in the center."
Sweeping his arms again, Phillip began the chant he'd learned so many years ago—the chant that had brought Argon and him to this world; the chant that was the greatest magic of his people. Argon, knowing what to expect, watched as a vortex of light—rather than the herb smoke of the kiva—formed around them, in them, and through them. He held tightly to Maranon and Javari lest the boys' surprise cause them to loosen their grips.
There was a sudden, sharp smell of cinnamon, and then blackness. Unseen in the darkness that returned when the boys disappeared, six books that had been inside Phillip's pack fell to the ground.
Zosa felt Phillip's departure. The boy had cried when he had explained that he must fulfill his oath to take Argon home. Zosa was not disturbed by the news that Phillip and his friends would leave. The five eggs in her womb would need millennia to incubate. She spun a cocoon of magic about herself, and slept.
"Look!" Argon pointed. "It's my village! And there, at the dock! Father's ship! Oh Phillip, thank you!"
Phillip hugged the boy, who was now as tall as he. "That promise took a long, long time to keep. I'm glad you're home. Let's go see your parents."
"I had not noticed before," Phillip said somewhat ruefully, "but my books are missing."
"Huh?" Argon asked.
"They were in my pack in the cave; they were not in my pack when we arrived. Ergo, they didn't come with us."
"Master Murchison?" Maranon asked.
"No, I don't believe he was that powerful. Not he, but someone else, perhaps."
"But why?" Javari asked.
"I think," Phillip said, "I think that they would not be in harmony here."
"Or," Maranon said, "they were needed elsewhere."
Justin, the Prince of Elvenholt, stood near the top of the tor. He was accompanied by only two boys: the young legionnaires Kyle and Brendan. He kept them close, always: they were his sole remaining link to Phillip. Justin gestured to them. "Wait here, please. No matter what happens, do not interfere. I will not be far away." The boys nodded, shed their packs, and sat on the ground. Justin continued a hundred yards farther until he stood on the very top of the mountain. He closed his eyes, and thought.
Kyle and Brendan saw the dragon, first. Kyle jumped to his feet, but Brendan tugged on his arm. "Do not interfere," he whispered. "We are sworn." Kyle nodded slowly, and slowly sat.
"I'm so afraid for him," Kyle whispered.
"This is what he wants, more than anything," Brendan said. "He wants a dragon, or he wants to die. It is his right."
The dragon circled the tor three times. The wind of his landing nearly knocked Justin to the ground, but the boy stood firmly. Nor did he flinch when the dragon's head came within inches of his own. Flecks of gold swirled in the dragon's green eyes. Justin found himself mesmerized, drawn into a whirlpool of gold and green.
It would not work, you know. The dragon's voice was clear in Justin's mind. You are to be a king.
Justin knew that the dragon's words closed the door to his being a dragon rider. He sobbed once, only once. I understand. Thank you.
The dragon nodded and swept its wings to gather magic for flight. As it leapt into the air, Justin heard its voice once again. I will find you in another life. The boy stood watching through tears until the dragon disappeared into the distance. Not, "I will look for you," Justin thought, but, "I will find you," and was content.
Threads that weave through this story are related to the first two "Translator" stories, to "Pilots," and to other stories among "David McLeod's stories." Parts of this story continue in "Durch Ferne Welten und Zeiten" and a planned sequel to that book.
The seeming anachronisms of Zosa knowing the story of a druid who bound a dragon's wings with trees, something which would not happen for some thousands of years to come, and the arrival of Marty and Chandler, are explained by the notion that The Book of Heroes has been taken through gates both to different worlds and to different times. The first incident is related in "Dragon's Treasure"; the second in "Master of Fire."
Phillip's words about "ecstasy" are paraphrased from Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger, which ought by now to be in the public domain.
The two boys who fell to World are almost certainly Marty and Chandler. Their story is related in "Master of Fire" to be submitted soon.