Castle Roland


by David McLeod


Chapter 22

Published: 25 May 15


by David McLeod

Dreams of Dragons

Darin dreamed of dragons. The Shaman had dismissed his stories even though they were brought to the Shaman by the tween, Petrus, and Petrus was an earnest young man. While not the strongest or the most gifted, he was acknowledged as the best teacher of the boys' cohort.

Neither Petrus's earnestness nor his skill as a teacher was enough to impress the Shaman. "The magic of our people is practical magic: the magic to create, the magic to build, the magic to wrest our livelihood from the desert. We have the magic to know what is good to eat and what is poison. The boy's dreams, even if they come from magic, are worthless. They are less than worthless, for they distract him—and you—from that which is important."

The Shaman added. "You are his teacher and his bonded companion. You share this fault with him. Correct him and yourself."

Petrus's lips drew tight. He drew the dry, desert air deeply through his nose into his lungs, and drew his body erect and tall. Then he spoke. "There is no fault. There is nothing to correct. The dreams of Darin are a true seeing.

"There are dragons," Petrus continued. "There are dragons and they come to fulfill the old stories, the old prophecies."

"You will obey me," the Shaman said. His voice was flat and showed no emotion. He knew that there could not be any challenge to his authority, for the survival of the people was precarious. To challenge the Shaman was to challenge the people. To challenge the Shaman was to challenge the survival of the people.

The Shaman's voice rose in volume, even though he spoke only for the ears of Petrus and of Darin, who had accompanied his friend. The Shaman spit out each word. "You will obey or you will be declared anathema."

Darin trembled with fear. He wanted to reach for Petrus's hand, but dared not.

If the Shaman declared Petrus anathema he would be shunned by the entire community, and not just by the boys' cohort. Shunning meant Petrus would not be allowed to drink water from the community well. It would mean that he could not eat food from the community supply. It meant that he would be forced to walk into the desert to die. Overcoming his fear of the Shaman, Darin seized Petrus's hand. "You must obey. I will forget—"

"No," Petrus said. He looked down at Darin. His heart nearly burst with the love he felt for the boy. He, too, trembled with fear, but the trembling was only in his mind, and did not appear outwardly to either Darin or the Shaman. "The Shaman is wrong. This must not be allowed."

Petrus spoke then to the Shaman. "You will not have to declare me anathema. I leave of my own accord. I will find these dragons, and I will bring them to you. Perhaps then you will believe."

Petrus released Darin's hand. Without speaking another word, not even a goodbye to Darin, Petrus turned and walked toward the north, away from the community, away from the boys' training area, into the desert. Petrus wore only the fundoshi that was given to each boy at the beginning of each day, and the flint knife that he had made years ago, before he changed from child to boy. I have learned much, he thought. Will it be enough?

Petrus did not see Darin follow him into the desert. Nor did either boy see the expression that flashed across the Shaman's face when Darin turned to follow Petrus. Neither Petrus nor Darin had the gift to know what the Shaman thought. If the boy is right, then he will be the one to learn that. If he is wrong, we've lost only two boys of average skill. The People will survive. The People will live.

Petrus knew the desert. He knew it better even than the Shaman. After he had walked a mile or so from the community, he turned downhill until he came to a wadi. It was dry now, but it was a place where water ran during infrequent rains. It was a place where plants grew with roots deep enough to pull moisture from underground. He cut succulent leaves from one plant, careful to avoid the quills that the plant grew to protect itself from desert animals—at least, from the animals not clever enough to have developed tools. Even more carefully, Petrus peeled the dark green rind from the leaves, and sucked moisture and starch from the inner pulp. The moisture and slight nourishment would keep him alive, long enough, he hoped, to be rescued by the dragons he believed Darin had seen, the dragons he believed were coming.

Darin did not know as much about the desert as Petrus, but Darin was both observant and clever. He followed Petrus's footprints, and saw the place where Petrus had turned toward the wadi, and he understood. He saw where Petrus had cut leaves from a plant. He saw the rind that Petrus had removed, and Darin understood. He hoped that the moisture and nourishment from the plant would keep him alive long enough, long enough, he hoped, to find Petrus.

Night had fallen, yet Darin trudged on. The stars shone unblinking in a sky unlit by any of the Bright Travelers or by the larger moon. Tiring, Darin lay on the sand, huddled in the lea of a bush. He was already cold and knew the temperature would drop even more before the morning sun blasted its heat across the land.

"Darin? I know you are there." Darin heard Petrus's voice. "Come here. It will be cold, tonight."

Darin scampered in the direction of Petrus's voice until he heard a command. "Do not run! It is dark. If you injure yourself, we both may die. Walk slowly toward my voice."

To lead the boy toward himself, Petrus began to sing. It was not a song of valor. It was not the Song of the Warrior that the boys sang as they created their weapons. It was a cradle song, a song Darin had not heard since he left his mother's side to join the boys' cohort. Calmed by the song, he walked carefully until he felt Petrus's arms wrap around him.

"Did you dream?" Petrus asked the next morning. He carefully skinned the xerus his trap had caught, and handed chunks of the raw meat to Darin. The boy ate, eagerly.

Between bites, Darin spoke. "I did dream. There were dragons—one more than a hand—and they came toward us. The dreams are getting stronger. I can see the boys, too."

"Boys?" Petrus handed Darin another hunk of meat. This was the first time Darin had spoken of boys. Something stirred in Petrus's mind, but he pushed it aside.

"The boys who ride the dragons. Dragons and their riders," Darin said, his eyes wide with wonder.

"We are being watched," Larry announced at breakfast.

Six dragons—those who remained after we'd stationed our comm relays along the route from the Valley of Valeus—lay nose-to-tail in a protective circle around the six remaining riders and two mages. "I've thought so for a while," Larry added. "But only last night was it clear."

Calvin, the second mage, looked around. "From where? I see and sense no one."

"Not from anywhere in eyesight," Larry said. "And not with eyes. Someone sees us in his mind. I can see him—well, I can't see him, but I can see through his eyes, and I can see his companion."

"How do you know—" Colin began. He blushed. "You can see that?" he whispered.

Larry giggled. "It gives an entirely new meaning to sharing." The other boys understood instantly and exactly what he meant.

When the boy's giggles—if not their erections—had subsided, Larry added. "As soon as these images begin, I block them. But I can see the boy's companion and, in his companion's mind, perhaps, I see an image of the boy, himself.

"The boy is a mage of some kind. He sees us, but not as clearly as I see him."

"Are we in danger?" I asked.

"No." Larry's voice conveyed his certainty.

"Then the mission shall continue," I ordered, crossing my fingers as I did so.

Yes, I understand superstition, and I understand that crossing my fingers is about as effective as praying, meaning not at all. Still, I am a creature of habit and of beliefs inculcated when I was young.

"There!" Larry called, even though I was the only one who could have heard him. He had directed us into a desert valley between two mountain ranges. We had flown through a very narrow northern pass. The land was nearly flat with only a few low hills to break the monotony. The geography explained the desert: moisture from north, east, and west was lifted as air approached the mountains, and fell as rain or snow on the sides away from the valley.

I looked where Larry was pointing, and saw on the ground only a few hundred feet below, two boys, looking up at us.

"They're the ones . . . the ones I saw," Larry added, somewhat unnecessarily.

"We—Dakota, Larry, and I—will descend," I sent through Dakota, vocalizing the command for Larry's benefit. "Everyone else—remain at hi-cap.

"Calvin?" I relayed through Dakota, "we know one of them—maybe both of them—are mages. Keep a sharp eye out for magic." I didn't have to tell Larry that.

The two boys had seen us. They stopped walking and moved close together and waited.

Dakota landed a few tens of yards away from the two boys. At that range, I could feel more strongly the emotions of the boys. The younger boy clearly felt that our presence was a victory for him. They both felt a touch of awe, but not of fear. A feeling of superiority from the older boy was strong.

"Paul? Are they a threat to us?" Larry asked.

"No." My voice held a tone of certainty that had come with increasing skill as a preceptor. "They are not a threat, nor are they afraid. The younger one seems to think that we are to become allies. The older one seems somewhat disdainful, although I cannot see why he thinks that."

The boys did not seem uncomfortable in their undress: they wore nothing more than a fundoshi with a flint knife stuck in the belt. On the other hand, I could see that they wondered about our clothing and weapons. Our knives and swords were sheathed at belts, in boots, and clipped to belts or baldrics.

"My name is Paul. My forever-companion, Larry, has said that he has seen you. We believe that you are not our enemies.

"I swear that if you serve that which is right and light, then we will be your friends.

"I also believe that you are in a somewhat precarious position, in the desert, without supplies or water, but . . . but with perhaps a greater knowledge of this desert than we have."

I looked directly at the older boy. "However, unless I misunderstand, you think very little of us."

"My name is Petrus," the older boy said. "I am companion, teacher, and guardian of Darin. You, and not we, are in a precarious position. Your bodies are covered. You have much weight hanging from your clothing. You must be terribly hot, therefore sweating, and losing moisture. You will die if you do not correct this."

Wow! This guy thinks quickly and doesn't pull his punches. "You are correct," I said. "However, where we fly, the air is much colder than here on the floor of the desert. We carry water adequate to our needs."

I felt something from the younger boy. "Would you like some water?"

The boy—Darin—looked at Petrus, who thought for a moment.

"Why do you hesitate? Have I said or done something wrong?" I asked.

"If we accept water, we accept a debt," Petrus said. "I . . . I do not know . . ." This boy is a Shaman, Petrus thought. He knows what we are thinking.

"I offered friendship," I said. "Between friends, no debt would be created other than one expressed by a fundamental truth of our people: a kindness is always repaid. It need not be repaid directly or even to the person offering it, but perhaps by a different kindness, and perhaps to someone else entirely. By helping others, we create bonds and balance. Those are fundamental to us, they are perhaps the most important concepts in which we believe."

And he is wise, Petrus thought. Something that had percolated through his mind solidified. It was a free-floating thought that had teased him ever since Darin first told him about the boy's dreams of dragons, and which had become more insistent when Darin said that boys rode the dragons.

Petrus fell to his knees. Darin was not too startled to follow instantly. Petrus took his knife from where it rested in his fundoshi and made a shallow cut across his right palm. Again, Darin followed the gesture instantly.

Petrus spoke for both boys. "Dragon-rider, will you accept my fealty and that of my beloved, Darin?"

I knew this was not a time to access the many paths that logic told me could lead from my decision. I knew this was not a time to dither or ask advice. This was a time that I, as the leader, must make the right decision quickly. I drew my dagger and made a cut across my right palm. I took the two steps that put me in front of Petrus. I took his bloody hand in mine and pulled him to his feet.

"Petrus, I accept your fealty and swear to you loyalty, trust, and love. I swear to provide for you as I provide for myself. I swear to protect you with my life."

Petrus looked like something I would never see on World: a deer caught in the headlights. He stood, silently, while I took Darin's hand, lifted him, and swore the same oath.

By then, Petrus had regained his composure—and caught his breath.

"That was not what I expected when I asked you to be my master, and Darin's," he said. "But I remembered—you said bonds and balance."

I called the rest of the dragons and their riders to join us. We sat in a loose circle on the desert, sharing water and food. Our "trail rations" of dried pemmican and flatbread were ambrosia to Petrus and Darin. In turn, they showed us which succulents among the desert plants were safe and good—and how to eat them—and we relished the taste and moisture of freshly-cut green plants. The understanding that we each brought something important to the other strengthened the friendship that was forming.

Our palms had stopped bleeding quickly in the dry air of the desert. I discussed custom and tradition with Petrus, and learned that it would not be wrong to bind and heal our wounds. I asked Calvin, whose magic and knowledge includes healing, to do that. Both boys were surprised with the quickness with which their wounds healed. Another something we can offer, I thought. They likely have the power, but not the knowledge.

After healing Petrus and Darin, Calvin explained what neither boy knew. "They have something in their skin that reflects sunlight. They do not get as hot as we would, and their skin does not burn. Ours will, however, as we know it does at altitude. We will have to be careful."

Infra-red and ultra-violet, I thought. Their people must have lived here for a very long time to have evolved those protections.

Petrus showed us how to find moisture in a wadi. Larry and I showed him how to draw moisture from the ground into a drinking cup. In the world from which Larry and I came, a "desert still" required something like Saran Wrap® in order to work; here, there were workarounds. Still, it was pretty impressive to be able to collect moisture, and magic did the job that the technology of our world could not do here.

Our magic applied to water collection impressed Petrus and Darin more than even the dragons.

"Our magic is the magic of the desert, the magic that enables us to survive. However, we did not have this magic. You freely taught it to us. I'm beginning to understand what you meant by love."

He blushed and quickly turned away.

Hmmm. Something else to consider, I thought.

The dragons were subsisting entirely on magic—there were few animals and no mountain goats in the desert, and the dragons didn't require water. They were content, but I didn't want to keep them away from real food any longer than necessary. On the other hand, night was approaching, and I don't like to fly at night. It's a relic of piloting a single-engine aircraft and not being able to see a place to land in an emergency. I especially didn't want to approach the boys' settlement at night. We camped in the wadi.

"Paul? You spoke of bonds. Do boys in your world bond for life, or do they share themselves freely among their friends?" Petrus's blush was hidden by the growing darkness as the sky turned from rose to something like a purple-gray.

"Yes," I said. And nearly spoiled the moment by giggling at Petrus's puzzlement. His brow furrowed and he looked at my feet.

Then, he giggled. "You mean, both!" he said.

"Love shared is love multiplied," I said.

"Then will you share yourself with me?" Petrus asked.

I pulled him into a kiss as an answer.

I've read—maybe said—that humans find elves exotic and that elves find humans exotic, perhaps because we all think that something different from ourselves is exotic. I don't know if that was what Petrus thought, but he was inflamed by something. He was agile, strong, gentle, and eager. He took me into himself until his lips pressed against my pubis. I gasped from the sensation of his tongue and throat, and gasped again as he pulled my seed into himself.

I could not do what he had done nearly as well as he did, but based on his soft cries and copious cum, I suspected that he'd enjoyed himself, too.

"Do we continue south, to meet this Shaman? Do we return to the Valley with what we have learned?"

"Or," I added, "is there another option."

Larry took a moment while the others were thinking about that, to kiss me.

"I knew that Mr. Spock was just hiding," he said.

"Seriously," Larry added. "Are you okay with . . . with all this?"

I nodded, and returned his kiss.

The decision was made: we would continue to the south, and meet this Shaman. I was reluctant to think that we would have to accost the man; however, I felt a prediction of conflict in the thoughts of both Petrus and Darin. They had told us why they were in the desert, alone. I tried not to let that color my opinion of the Shaman, but I wasn't entirely successful.

We circled . . . Dakota carrying Larry and me, and the two dragons of the second flight carrying Petrus and Darin . . . until the cluster of boys moved away from the low hill. Then we landed, dismounted, and walked toward the boys. On the hill, the dragons remained, occasionally snorting fire from their nostrils. It was a pretty effective display, I thought.

Darin stood beside me. He had wanted Petrus to take that position, but Petrus had said, "It was your dream, Darin. You must be the one to speak."

The younger boy nodded. I felt his uncertainty. I felt a little fear. I felt a bit of desire, and held out my hand. Darin grasped it, and we walked together toward the man—the Shaman—who stood before the assembled boys.

Larry and two dragon riders in flight gear followed us.

The Shaman's first words shocked me. "You challenge me for leadership of the people. There can be only one leader. It is the leader who unites the people."

My mind flashed back to my childhood: Thou shalt have no other gods before me. I remember thinking, then, that god—the one who is supposed to have written those words—implicitly acknowledged in them that there were other gods. His commandment was that these other gods should not outrank him in the Hebrews' heavenly hierarchy. I never did understand how that simple thought escaped the people who not only thought that the Hebrew Bible was literally, word-for-word, true, but also thought that there was only one god.

I understood why Moses (or whoever) had created that rule: worship of a single god by all the Hebrews would unite them. Of course, with Moses' brother as the high priest, worship of a single god would also consolidate Moses' power. It looked as if the Shaman knew that same lesson—except that he was setting himself up as the god of this people.

I wondered, too, if he had any real magic, and if we would have to fight him for leadership, and if that fight would be to the death. I had sworn fealty with Petrus and Darin, and would fight on their side, should it come to that.

"You have brought the dragons," the Shaman said. "But do you know what this means for the people?"

From the stories that Petrus and Darin had told us, and the Shaman's own mind, I read the truth. He had ignored the old stories, the old prophecies. Now, he was afraid for his people. He was afraid that they would be drawn into something for which he had not prepared them. He was afraid of his own failure, and of his fate should the People discover that he had failed.

This needs to be addressed immediately, I thought. We cannot assume leadership and I do not think either Petrus or Darin is ready for that. I nodded deeply to the Shaman.

"Indeed, Darin and Petrus have brought us to you. Had you not taught the desert to them so well, they would have died before they found us. Had you not taught honor to them so well, we might have disbelieved the truth of their story. Neither Petrus nor Darin nor we know what this meeting holds for the future of your people and ours. I do know, however, that these boys have shared their knowledge and understanding of the desert with us, and that we have had an easier flight because of that.

"I have sworn fealty with them, and they with me. Naturally, this oath does not negate any oaths they may have taken with you, as by our custom the older oath supersedes the newer. However, we will not allow them to be harmed.

"It is likely that we can learn much from you, and you from us."

The Shaman did not reply for several minutes. I tried to read him, but after that first seeing, he blocked my preception. He does have some magic, I thought, and closed my mind as I had been taught.

"I see your power," the Shaman said. "I also see your honor in the minds of these two boys."

Oops! I thought. They don't know how to block.

The Shaman couldn't read me, but he certainly was able to figure out what I was thinking. He smiled for the first time. I felt Darin, whose hand I was holding, relax.

We stayed with the desert people, who had no name for themselves other than "the people," for a tenday, sending the dragons by flights toward the mountains to feed and frolic with their riders in the many tarns on the far side of the peaks.

The desert people knew nothing of metallurgy, even though they lived atop vast deposits of raw minerals. They did not, however, have the coal, or trees from which to make charcoal, to smelt the metals. They did not have clay with which to make pots, but they wove baskets and cooking pots from the desert plants. To cook something, they would put it with water into one of their baskets, and then drop rocks, heated by their fire, into the basket to boil the water.

Their existence was precarious. I knew that should even a small aspect of it be threatened, they might die. That was unacceptable. Rather than gaining an ally, we had found someone needing protection. Or, who needed knowledge and tools with which to protect themselves. Or, both.

The Shaman released Petrus and Darin, plus two other boys, from their oaths to him. They would return to the valley with us. We would send metal weapons and tools. Then, other boys—freed from labor by these gifts—would return to the Valley of Valeus to be trained as warriors.

"The dragons know that their kind lives in these mountains," I told the Shaman. Our boys—and I—had learned that the hard way when our dragons mated with the desert mountain dragons.

I thought it likely that some of these local dragons would find riders from among the desert people, and agreed with the Shaman that they might come to us for training.

This is going to be a long and bloody war, I thought. We're living a trope: the hero who gathers companions in order to accomplish a mission of which he may be unaware. I am afraid.

Chapter End Note: "Preception is, of course, not an English word, although "preceptor" is. In English, a preceptor is a teacher; on World and in Old Elvish, a preceptor may be a teacher or someone able to not only see the truth in what a person says, but also to see emotions and thoughts.

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