Introducing the realm of true magic to an apprentice is not an easy thing, and must be done with extreme care. Excitement in a young mind can be all too boundless, temptation all too great, and dangerous lapses of responsibility or attention all too easy in those with insufficient discipline, as more than one mage has found out through bitter experience.
With Mason Alderson I had no qualms. I began his education as a mage a few days after he was forced into, and won, a confrontation in our bathhouse with the bully, Pruyn. Pruyn had already been warned once. Soon I sent the bully home for good, his training ended. It was an action for which he never completely forgave me.
But that had little to do with Mason’s immediate needs. Few boys ever become mages, but all have some ability or aptitude which can be fostered, and which can then support them comfortably in life—as clerks or scribes, perhaps, or priests or healers or minor shamen. Seeing a child started on his way is gratifying to any teacher, but mages always search and hope to find someone like Mason, a boy to mentor, a lad who has the elusive, true spark of magic in him. When we find him, we nurture him carefully and with a great deal of hope.
As he grew into manhood and his skills matured, I gradually reduced the number of my students, and it wasn’t long before the loft quarters over the kitchen stood forlorn and all but empty.
Summer swung down toward autumn and the nights grew cooler. In the trees groups of birds gathered and chattered, flocking and swooping in precise unison in the sky. Soon they would depart for warmer climes, leaving the snows of Kendorn far behind. The warmth of the fire was welcome in our cottage of an evening.
I was half Seeing, disturbed by a change in the Power, its memory now lost. In its wake, I was now lost myself in my own hollow memories, wandering among dreams of my childhood with friends long dead. The sorrow of outliving most of one’s contemporaries, of seeing those one most cherishes returned to Mother Earth before him, is one burden a mage bears in exchange for the knowledge he carries, for the long life he lives, for his Power. Nature and life itself have scales with a complex, delicate balance. To have, you must give; to take, you must provide. Tip the balance too far and chaos results. But my loneliness gnawed at me these days, worried my bones with needle teeth that would not leave be. For once I almost cursed my Gift, wished myself an ordinary man, long since turned to dust with all those whose passings I had mourned.
But then I would think of Mason…there was so much yet to teach him!
He was sorting through stacks of documents that lay in jumbled piles, all but covering the surface of the wooden table. Some he organized, some he consigned to the fire, some he made notes on; occasionally he asked a question, or read a document aloud to me. I admit to paying little real attention.
“A chief in a village to the north,” he said for the second time, “has seen dragons.”
Slowly, I looked up. I was far away in a sunny meadow where Carolee and Tow and Adrielle and I, all children fostered to the mage Tanqui de Laqline, happily gathered armfuls of flowers to braid daisy chains. That had been a long time ago, a long lost time of innocence.
“I believe we should investigate,” Mason said, holding my brief span of coherent thought with his gaze, bringing me back to the present with his voice. I suddenly realized that he was now a man grown, no longer a lad, but a young man clear sighted and strong in his own power. “Your help is needed.”
“How can I help someone track a myth?” I asked dully. I was in a glum mood. I was, after all, no more than a village teaching mage.
“Master, you have never been a fool,” Mason replied. “Don’t be one now.”
I turned my bleak gaze on him and only then recognized that he bore marks of worry and concern nearly equal to my own. He, too, had heard the Power strain and cry; it had worried his days, woken him in the night. A man now looked steadily back at me and into my soul, not a boy; a man strong and confident, if not yet seasoned. “Did you say dragons?”
He nodded, a carefully masked twinkle in his eye. “Dragons have been seen in the high passes near Tavla, decimating the flocks.”
Dragons. There hadn’t been dragons in the land since time past remembering. It was generally accepted by learned men that there was no such thing as dragons, and probably never had been, that they were, in fact, no more than myth. But myths often have at their hearts some kernel of truth.
“How could I help this…Aktonat…” I began, and stopped. I had not read the letter, nor had Mason mentioned a name, yet it came clear to me. Mason suppressed a flicker of a smile. “Odd name.” I rolled it, and the idea of dragons, around in my brain for a bit. The corners were sharp, and didn’t quite properly fit, but they were enticingly close…
“Near Tavla?” I asked. “That’s your home country, isn’t it lad?”
Mason nodded. “Aye, master. And Aktonat is my father’s father.”
Tavla, a land amid a range of high mountains, where nomad sh’ypherds followed their sh’yp from pasture to pasture, and miners dug into the Mother’s breasts for minerals and gems.
Aktonat…and Tavla…and dragons. It was the first thing to have captured my interest in weeks. Behind his quiet half smile, Mason’s eyes were sparkling.
There was certainly little enough to hold us here. A village lad could tend the place for a time, and there were always willing friends who would adopt a cow or a goat and be glad for the additional milk. The garden could do without tending ‘til spring, if necessary.
“We’ll go,” I said, making my mind up with a speed that surprised me by its very recklessness, “Let your family know we’re coming; use a swift flier.”
The young man bent his head to hide his grin as he drafted the message.
◊ ◊ ◊
At dawn two days later, our affairs properly in order, we departed. There had been cries of dismay from some of the village elders, who claimed constant need of my advice. I didn’t bother to point out that a mage is his own law, and I was in no mood to use tact. The less tractable among them backed down soon enough, although there was the usual amount of grumbling from the usual quarters.
The journey took us over broad, rolling meadows, following the network of dirt roads that connected the agricultural villages. We passed fields of maize and beans, pastures with sleek cattle and horses beside which our mules looked ragpicker’s steeds, all of it broken occasionally by copses of aged trees or wild meadows, or the carefully tended orchard of a fruitman, neat and trim and heavy with ripening fruit. Up the lowland escarpments we climbed, toward the low foothills, where fields gave way to rolling prairie with wind-blown grasses tall as a man. Birds chattered there, and insects flicked the ears of the mules and darted about our own faces.
As we went higher, the prairie gathered in the occasional tree, the bright, shining kind that can tolerate the thinner soil and the colder winds, and pines that drape over the steep shouldered slopes like a grandmother’s shawl. The nights grew colder. One morning, camped in a pine circled clearing where the dense bed of needles cushioned our beds and silenced our footfalls, we woke to find frost on our blankets and a rim of ice on the nearby pond. The mules were frisky, their small hooves fairly dancing on the rocky ground. The clear air revived us; the early sun was warm on our shoulders.
Aktonat’s nomadic camp lay in a high, remote valley well above the tree line, ringed by the tall peaks that stood sentinel over one of the highest mountain passes, a pass that linked this rugged moorland into which we climbed with the bleak and barren lands beyond. For centuries, the people of these precipitous moors had guarded that pass against invaders, their tough warriors on wiry ponies fiercely swooping down on any enemies who were able to successfully cross the steep and treacherous Tavlan Pass. Many had died in defense of their traditional grazing lands; many more would undoubtedly die in their defense again.
Word of our coming preceded us, and riders came out to meet us, although Mason knew the way. The trail led us up and across a rugged ridge exposed to the full fury of wind and mountain cold. We descended then into calm and the tiny village of felt-sided huts thatched with moorgrass. Evening fires were being lit and beyond the huts, men were picketing ponies and corralling cattle for the night. “It never changes,” Mason observed contentedly. This nomad encampment had been his home once; now his home was the stone cottage of Hagen Templeborn, Mage.
We slept well in the guest hut that awaited us; and the heat of our morning coffee penetrated to our very bones, helping to dispel the stiffness and heavy lids of sleep.
Sitting cross-legged around the small fire in his hut, Mason’s grandfather told his tale.
“We saw them first in the high meadows,” he said, cradling his pottery cup in knotted hands, “feeding. We didn’t know whether the beast had made a kill, or merely scavenged the dying. It fed for a time, then flew away to the southeast.
“Since then, we have seen more, but never more than a few at one time—probably a dozen different ones in all. If approached too closely, they’ll defend their kill, hissing and striking and pummeling with their wings. One of our men was bitten. The wound remains to this day open and purulent; it will not heal.
“Bait and fire have proven ineffective against them; they ignore our weapons like so many gnats.”
“Grandfather, describe them,” Mason respectfully requested.
Aktonat looked up in remembrance, his eyes slitted in concentration. “Long, the length of three ponies or more. At the shoulder they stand as tall as a bull, and easily as broad. A long body that tapers back to a slender tail. The neck rises slender and fine to a long, wedge-shaped head with a narrow muzzle and long, tooth-filled jaws. Their legs are short, flexible and strong, with sharp claws on five toes, opposed like hawks’ feet. And there are wings, broad, strong, flexible wings.”
“Lizards?” Mason hazarded in an aside to me in Trace.
“Perhaps,” I answered back in the same wizard’s language, “but unusually large ones.”
◊ ◊ ◊
While we waited for another sighting, Mason and I went to see the injured man.
It was an ugly wound. The creature had grabbed the man’s thigh between the knee and the groin, leaving a deep set of puncture marks before and behind. The wounds were now purple and festering ovals, separated by spans of skin as white as snow and as bloodless. As a healer and as a mage, I had never before seen the like, nor felt it. The wound seemed to ooze some dark, viscous miasma that clouded my mind, dulled my senses. More sensitive than I, Mason simply commented that he felt a great evil in the injury.
We treated the man as best we could, but I had doubts that our efforts were of much use, other than to make him feel more comfortable with his fate.
We made use of the time of waiting to gather herbs and other supplies, but when a rider came galloping into camp one afternoon to report a sighting we were astride and following almost as fast as I can tell of it.
The country here was flowing moorland, broken by rugged cliffs and ridges of bedrock that protruded like broken bones. One moment Mardat, Mason’s uncle and our guide, would be right in front of us, the next moment hidden by raw rock, then in sight again, his pony bobbing through the knee deep, ripening forage grasses. He finally drew rein and waited for us just below the crest of yet another anonymous ridge. The wind smelt of snow. Beneath us in the grassy defile, the scents were of moist earth and living, growing things. And dragons. Although neither Mason nor I had ever encountered the beasts before, we were very much aware of their musty, acerbic scent.
“Below us, and to the left,” Mardat told us, flattening himself against the ground and leading the way up the last few feet to the top of the ridge. Mason, Aktonat and I followed, leaving the ponies behind. I focused my viewing glasses carefully where Mardat indicated; in the frame, long-stemmed meadow grain swayed gently, its rippling motion at odds with the direction of the wind. Grasses were bent back, too, and trampled as though a great weight had lain there.
“There,” Mason whispered, pointing, and I turned to see. Bare-eyed, Mason had seen the dragons before I had. Gradually, a nose came into view—a flattened, narrow nose, pale grayish blue with tiny flaring nostrils—a nose that sniffed the wind. Through the shimmering dark distortions of magic, I was able to define the top of a head, tiny ears, the black arc of a claw. The creature lay stretched out along the course of a dry creek bed, almost entirely masked by the waist-high, shimmering grass.
“Do you see?” Aktonat asked.
“Oh, yes,” I murmured. “I see indeed.” But my vision was clouded; I was not certain what I saw.
“Master,” Mason whispered, “there are two. One large, one quite small.” He had Seen.
Moving slowly, I rose and began a careful descent into the hollow below, Mason behind me. Mardat and Aktonat followed less closely, concerned, but firm in their resolution. I had no idea, leading our little parade, exactly what these dragons might be, or what kind of temperaments they might have. I could be leading us into bloody death.
The first dragon blinked slowly and raised its head, staring in our direction. Its eyes may have seemed small and weak, but it could smell us, even though Mardat had taken care to place us downwind. I continued walking slowly, softly chanting a protective spell. Mason, at my side, had already begun to weave his own; a fine mist was gathering and spreading about his feet.
It was as well we had protection. The beast roused fully. In one smooth, swift motion it rose to its full height, spread its wings and launched into direct attack. I had time only to notice black eyes flecked with gold and sharp, in-curving teeth before being bowled over as the leading edge of one wing sent me sprawling.
Instinctively, I curled and rolled. I came to a shaken stop and looked around for my companions as the beast swung away for another approach. Mardat lay on his stomach under an overhanging ledge, his eyes wide in fear. Aktonat had squeezed into a narrow cleft nearby; and Mason was rolling smoothly back to his feet, quite unhurt. Above us the dragon hovered, its long scaly tail switching angrily, its red tongue visible through opened jaws. Its full attention was on me.
During what seemed an eternity we stared at each other, the hovering creature and I. Meanwhile, Mason was moving quietly at the very edge of my peripheral vision. He counter attacked with consummate skill. The rock he threw struck the beast just below the left eye and drew blood. The dragon bellowed, although more from surprise than from injury, and swung to face its attacker. The diversion gave me the chance I needed: I was on my feet and running even as that massive head swung back toward Mason. I launched myself at the dragon, and caught it just behind the ears, where the head joins the slender neck, wrapped my arms about its neck and my legs about its scaled body, and hung on for my life.
Considering its strength, size, and the rank whiff of its breath, it had an excellent chance of dislodging, and then killing me. Certainly it did its best. Riding that writhing, bucking muscular mass was an exercise in determination; the creature was all muscle and surprises, strong and flexible and without finesse. The earth and the sky became a rotating kaleidoscope of color; sound was limited to the heave and surge of the creature’s breathing and the ragged bellows that were my own lungs.
But I hung on through the dizzying battle, even when my arms weakened, my brain tired from the dizzy battering. By pure will I forced myself to retain my grip on that whipping, steely scaled neck, to stay atop the beast and out of reach of its lethal claws, which could rip a man apart with ease.
I had a brief, arcing glimpse of Mason, standing rock still, his eyes half closed, his hands stretched before him as if he gently cupped a living thing in his palms—and perhaps he did, for he was working magic. There was no chance to warn him, for this dragon’s desperate flight just above the grass was far from over, and that leathery head and whipping tail demanded all my attention. There was no doubt that there was magic in the beast. I could feel it in my hands and fingers, feel it seeping into my bones.
Mason’s spell worked—in a fashion.
The dragon’s movements ponderously slowed. It shook its reptilian head, and finally, exhausted, settled into a watchful stance on the ground, half coiled and panting, its leathery wings half spread.
Helpless as a newborn, I simply slid off. I lay, then, staring up at a swirling blue sky dotted with clouds, and that wedge-shaped head. I could not have moved if my life had depended on it.
Finally I sat up, senses still reeling. Mason bent to lend me his strong arm. I looked up and reached for his hand, saw what lay curled in his other arm, and stopped cold, for in his arm lay another, much smaller, dragon.
“It’s all right,” he said. “The mother has settled down; she won’t harm us.” The dragonling blinked great gray-blue eyes at me and tipped its head in curiosity. I looked to the adult dragon, then back at the baby, which lay coiled around Mason’s arm and shoulder, watchful and content.
Mason stood back, satisfied, after checking me over carefully. Nothing broken, but my vision would take some time to clear. Mason and the baby dragon were ringed in an iridescent bluish haze that bore no relationship to that of magic. They glimmered softly, shifting colors and angles without notice. I shook my head to clear it, too late wished I had not.
“She was only protecting her young,” Mason explained, rubbing gently at the base of the youngster’s still damp wings. “She knows that we mean her no harm.”
“We don’t?” I murmured absently, fingering a lump on the back of my head. It hurt, and would be a nasty bruise later.
“Of course not,” Mason replied, giving me a sharp look. Whatever the circumstances, I was far from easy around two dragons.
But the afternoon had more surprises in store.
Walking toward us across the moor, graceful as a hill deer, came a woman. She caught Mardat and Aktonat totally by surprise, and I could see little more than a darkness in my vision, but all of Mason’s senses were alert.
“You have found my pet, I see,” she said as she came within earshot.
“Your pet?” Mason asked mildly, caressing the young one gently.
“Do you have a better term, bantling?” the woman asked, taking Mason for no more than the hill lad he seemed.
“Hatha,” she ordered firmly, “home.” The dragon only turned its head in her direction and blinked those great gold-flecked eyes. “Home, I said.” When the beast failed to move she shrugged, and aimed a look of pure malevolence in its direction. “They’re such dull-witted beasts,” she muttered, looking around her. She dismissed the two village nomads at a glance as of no importance, then paused at sight of the burden Mason carried. “Ah, so that’s why she won’t obey.”
She reached for the dragonling with proprietary hands. At that, the beast called Hatha raised her head, hissed, and threateningly spread her magnificent wings, but it was the little fellow who spat and fastened needle-like baby teeth into the woman’s outstretched hand, striking too fast for her to react.
She snatched back her wounded hand with a violent curse—and in her half turn away from the attacker both revealed her fertile, swollen belly, and saw me. For only a moment those beautiful, passionless eyes, so well remembered, registered a single, naked emotion. “You!” she said, perhaps also remembering a day long ago, and another child, one that was not destined to live.
“Adrielle,” I acknowledged. Despite my mage blindness and the distortion of my vision, I had recognized the raven black hair that nearly swept the rocky ground, the wide-spaced violet eyes in a milk white face. Adrielle was a woman unmistakable; her presence explained the darkness in my vision. I did not attempt to rise; the ground beneath me still moved, and was only now beginning to subside.
“I suppose, then, that this one is yours?” Adrielle commented, sucking at the blood that welled redly from her too white, injured hand, and gesturing toward Mason. The lad watched, bemused, masking his thoughts well. Idly he stroked the baby dragon.
“In a manner of speaking.” I had not knowingly sought him; he had, in fact, sought me.
“A stray? As I recall, you always were a good one for picking up strays.”
“Did you consider yourself a stray?” I asked mildly. I had once, long ago, taken Adrielle under my wing, offering friendship and kindness.
I nodded, watching the lovely face as she deliberately ignored Mason, baiting her hook as surely as any fisherman. I too had been taken in by that fragile beauty, more than once. We had a long history, did Adrielle and I. She had changed very little. The hair was longer, but the skin was as smooth, the face as lovely as ever. I hoped Mason’s good sense remained intact; there was no way to warn him of what lay behind the mask.
“But then, I never actually took you in, did I?” The ground was steadying now; I took the chance of carefully standing up.
Adrielle tossed her head sharply, her stare icy; neither of us had forgotten. “I never allowed you to,” she corrected me acidly. I made no reply.
“You’ve changed,” she finally said, having studied me intently for several moments. She didn’t see much—just a tall, fairly lean, hardly noteworthy man of middle years, his hair and beard going from brown to grey. Only the eyes hadn’t changed; they were still the clear turquoise blue of a summer sky.
“And you have not,” I replied. “What magic keeps you young, Addy? What magic has made dragons real?”
“We were asked to help,” I told her simply, nodding toward Hatha. “Apparently your pets are causing a problem.”
“A problem? To whom? There’s naught in these sere hills but eagles.”
“To these good men,” I replied. “And to their families. Your pets deprive them of their livelihood. You owe them reparation.”
“Reparation,” she repeated dismissively. “Dragons hunt where and when they will.”
“Dragons would not be here,” Mason reminded her, “but for you.” Adrielle shot him a poisonous glance.
“Your puppy grows bold,” Adrielle observed tersely, watching as Mason murmured softly to the adult dragon, reached to gently stroke that great scaled head. The dragonling was now curled contentedly between its mother’s wings, dozing.
“What,” I asked her, “made you choose dragons?” My head was now quite clear, my vision sharpening. The slanting sunlight painted bright shadows and gilded highlights on the moor, a pattern bringing pleasure to the eye and premonition of the complete dark that would soon follow. We needed to soon return to the village, or camp here for the night.
“Hagen, you grow too bold,” Adrielle said abruptly, swirling away from me to beckon to a man just cresting the ridge behind us. I recognized him, too—Arcas, who had been her hostler for all those years, a muscular and swarthy man, solid and sullen. At his heels followed a pair of long, lean hounds, much scarred. “Take them back and pen them well,” she ordered him. “I will follow.”
So Mason and I, with his uncle and his grandfather behind us, stood in silence as Arcas and his dogs herded the two dragons away. Adrielle followed, her skirts swinging, her long hair swaying in an arc across her back. Even through the distortions of my senses, I could read some of the fury that lay there. She turned briefly as she crested the next ridge.
“Mind not my business, Hagen Templeborn,” she warned, then crested the ridge and was altogether lost from sight.
◊ ◊ ◊
After sending Mardat and Aktonat back to the village, we made camp and shared a traveller’s supper, leaving our wiry ponies to graze peacefully outside the small dry cave where we had settled for the night.
“Tell me of the Lady Adrielle,” Mason said.
“The Lady,” I said, “is no lady, but one of the few female mages. Even as a child she was ravishingly beautiful, the stuff of a young man’s yearnings. She learned early of her effect on men. Once, she even set her wiles on Tanqui himself—until he made it firmly clear that he was completely, totally disinterested. My foster brother Tow was a target too, but he was far more world-wise than I, and saw what she was about even before she began to pursue her course. In private, he laughed at her. When she learned of his scorn her fury was absolute and her revenge swift. And I…well, I had a confrontation with her, too. I have few fond memories of the woman, but those I have are…exquisite.
“Tanqui finally dismissed his student and foster daughter. Where she received the balance of her training I do not know, but she has become a skilled, subtle, and dangerous mage.”
Mason heard me out in silence, staring deep into the remains of the fire in that vacant manner that is common to those deep in thought or reverie, or to those who See. “Is she truly so dangerous, then?” he asked, looking up.
“Use great care,” I cautioned him. “She is indeed. Although variable, the female’s power can be even greater than our own.”
◊ ◊ ◊
I must have dozed, for I was next aware of Mason’s voice at the cave mouth, low and urgent; in silence I joined him. On the silvered moorland the ponies stood silhouetted against a rising moon, their heads up. Below them, far down the slope, a double shadow moved, a man only half visible in the darkness, toiling up the slope toward us, a saddled beast behind him. He made no effort to conceal his progress.
“Who comes?” Mason hailed him softly. The stranger paused to look in our direction, then came straight on.
“A friend, in need of shelter.” Something in the tone of the rich voice triggered a spark of memory, but I could not track it, had to let it go.
“There is shelter enough,” Mason said. “Join us, in peace.”
The steady, sure footfalls approached through the shadows, then a tall, broad-shouldered man with a cowl covering his head and shielding his face was standing before us, unsaddling his beast and settling himself for the night. He managed to keep his face in shadow, but once settled across the remains of the fire, he turned to face me directly.
“When rumor reached me of a mage in these hills,” he said, “I was compelled to seek him out. But I hardly expected you, Hagen Templeborn. I could not have asked for a better ally.” His voice was familiar, as was his easy stance, and yet…
Then he pushed back the cowl to reveal his face.
It was Talbor Greenglade, my own foster brother.
Finally I found my addled wits. Grinning like two fools, we embraced in delight. It had been many years; there was much to be said between us. We caught up, briefly, on family news, then more urgent matters took precedence. We were, it seemed, following the same trail.
Later Talbor Greenglade, travelling now as the minstrel Gairgus, shifted position, stretching tired muscles slowly. “She came to Hellebar at the time of Council, some say to enchant the King, and stayed on until after the death of the Lady Queen. When Karl wasn’t amenable to her plans, she tried for the younger brother, Landros, but that, too, failed. She was last seen in these hills with one of the ‘Rondi warlords, and with her was a dragon, a fine red dragon. Now there are easily a hundred of them, located in a valley not far from here, tended by a group of ‘Rondi troops.”
“Now I understand,” Mason said quietly. “Why one of the King’s own circle travels alone in the high country, under a name not his own.” He looked up to find Tow studying him carefully, his clear-eyed gaze boring deep. Mason met the appraisal squarely. I watched, the outsider, while those two Saw into each other’s souls. “What did Adrielle do to you?” Mason finally asked softly. I was surprised at the boldness of the question, but Tow took no offence. He smiled a bit sadly.
“Briefly, we were lovers,” he answered. “Adrielle had been experimenting—against all the rules of the Teaching—with transformation spells and shape-changing.”
“Which is why Tanqui banished her.”
“Yes. When I finally spurned her, she changed me into a draft horse, a fine sorrel gelding. It was nearly a year before the spell wore off, a year during which I could do nothing of my own will. I slept in a dark stable, none too clean, with fowl roosting on my rump; I bore heavy loads, or pulled a rackety cart with a harness none too clean. I had galls on my withers and burrs in my mane. I still suffer an incorrigible fondness for oatmeal.” Tow laughed softly at himself; Mason digested the news in silence.
“Hagen, she conspires with the warlord Jaimoza to weaken Hellebar and break through the mountain defenses. One must suppose that she offers Jaimoza power, in return for position and power of her own once the realm is defeated.”
“But will she succeed? And having succeeded, will she honor her word?” It was a dismal thought; I shuddered, too easily able to imagine life under ‘Rondi barbarism and Adrielle’s evil.
◊ ◊ ◊
Days later, at dawn, just below the wind- and snow-carved razor edge of a ridge we looked down into a broad bowl-like valley ringed by sheer cliffs on three sides. In the valley lay a green meadow, and scattered across it were cattle in pastures bounded by well-built fences. At one end was a stockyard; beyond it lay the dragons. Big and small, fancifully patterned and plain, they lay relaxed, their scales gleaming, their wings folded. Their heads were bloody with recent feeding; near their feet lay the stripped bones of their prey. They had fed well; now they rested and preened.
“I don’t see Hatha,” Mason said, scanning the sea of scaly heads, sinuous backs, leathern wings.
“I can’t see clearly,” Tow sighed, handing over the viewing glass and rubbing at his eyes after taking a long, careful look. “Have a try, lad.”
After one despairing glance in my direction, Mason settled to his task, adjusting the glass and focusing not on the shapes of the living forms below, but on what only he could see.
“They’re not,” he said after a few moments, “what you think they are. They may look and behave like kine—and that’s how the butchers see them, too. They’ve no idea they’re slaughtering beings like themselves for use as dragon food.”
“Like themselves?” Tow blurted. “Like us?”
“Just like us, like the ‘Rondi. Adrielle must have great skill, to transform so many—cobblers, soldiers, husbands, fathers, nomads roaming the hills—into dragon form.” Mason spoke with utter despair.
“Could our once foster sister perform such travesty?” Tow asked. I glanced over at my foster brother, saw his deep pain, could not bear to meet his eyes..
“There’s no panic among them,” Mason continued. “No fear. They seem devoid of thought, their minds empty. Even those facing the knife are placid. Most are male, only a few are females, and there are some calves. ‘Children’,” he corrected himself. His voice caught, tears ran unheeded down his cheeks.
“The dragons lie waiting,” he finally managed to say. “All bewitched, turned into dragons by Adrielle’s hand.” I reached toward the lad, but Tow stopped my hand.
“Mason,” he said gently, “I know it’s painful, but can you look for one more thing? It’s important.” The lad was slow to acknowledge the request, but finally nodded.
Mason took a deep, steadying breath, squared his shoulders, and precisely described the complex and beautiful wing pattern of gold and blue and black, the neck design and leg marks of the handsome dragon that preened languidly below.
“Prince Landros of Hellebar,” Tow murmured. “Taken in battle these weeks past. She could not win him as a man; so she took him for dragon, to fight against his own. Never should he have come to these hills…” We sat in silence for some time. Human cattle, to feed a flight of dragons, dragons that had once been human. A proud prince, turned to weapon against those whom he most loved. Dragons, mythological creatures unseen for centuries, creatures who never had existed, creatures of dreams, creatures of nightmares, creatures of no substance. To help bring down an honorable man, an honorable country.
“Why?” I finally asked.
“Because King Karl of Hellebar is an honorable man and immune to Adrielle’s charms,” Tow answered, an edge to his voice. “Because Landros has no desire for the crown and could not be manipulated.”
“He’s rising,” Mason said. The blue dragon stretched lazily, then gathered himself and was airborne, a smooth graceful expression of power in motion, elegance in the air. He climbed steadily, a shaft of metallic blue cutting clearly through the sky.
“A leader among dragons,” I murmured in admiration despite myself.
“What,” Mason asked practically, “will happen to those bewitched?”
Tow’s voice was kind, if his words could not be. “If we cannot defeat her, they will continue as they are until they die, or until she releases them; there is no other way. If we can defeat her, those who yet live may be free.”
A long silence, then Mason’s thoughtful voice. “There are three of us,” he said, “against one.”
“Three males,” Tow said, “against one pregnant and powerful female, a flight of dragons, and Jaimoza’s massed troops. They lie just beyond the far cliff-tops. But her power does still wax and wane. We must take advantage of that, and strike when she is weakest.”
“But how do we know when that is?”
“You will tell us,” Tow said calmly.
Mason gave me an imploring look filled with misery. “I can’t.” He sagged visibly, dropped his head onto his arms.
“One is never truly certain of Sight, lad,” Tow soothed. “You have already done more than I ever could have done, or Hagen.”
“But involvement clouds Sight,” Mason persisted. “I can’t be certain of what I See…because of Hatha.” I hadn’t picked up on the clue, being clouded myself and temporarily all but Sightless; but Tow did. He sighed deeply, then looked up in complete understanding. “Hatha is your sister, isn’t she?”
Mason nodded miserably, then squared his shoulders. “But I can’t just leave all those innocent people to die, or to kill, for evil,” he said firmly, raising his head. “They are honest folk who deserve a better end.” His eyes were wet and ancient beyond their years; all too soon he was suffering part of the continuing price of being a mage.
Gently, I pulled him to a seat on the sun-warmed stone. Perhaps it would help to ease some of the ice that wrapped his heart.
“Then I will aid you,” I said. “Adrielle can do little without her dragons; you can do little without our help.”
Partway up that now-shadowed slope, my mind searching for a way to overpower Adrielle’s inhuman spells, I found myself thinking about the rich power of the Mother Goddess. Was there a way for a mage, a man, to tap into that strength, to gain the Goddess herself as an ally against the evil of our mage sister?
Something tugged at my memory, something Carolee had told me years before. The Goddess, she said, was part of the living earth itself, her body golden as the sun, solid as the warm-colored stone on which all foundations were laid…
Could I, with my Sight and my mage’s powers, link to that great power?
At the time, I had thought Carolee referred to the great golden topaz, the gemstone worn by all Her priestesses, including Carolee. But I had been busy that day and Carolee’s words had simply drifted through my head and out again without recognition or a chance to properly take root.
Now I paused to look more closely at these steep hillsides. I saw a rocky moorland, cut by boulders and scarps, stripped by the wind and the weathering of the seasons, burnished by rain and snow, glowing golden with the sun. I saw towering cliffs, their faces cracked and scored, and streams amid green grass, all surrounded, supported, underlain, by this same warm golden stone. Was this, then, the golden body of the Goddess of which Carolee had spoken so many years ago? Was this the Mother Goddess herself? This bedrock, upthrust and exposed to the elements, split and cracking, rugged as eternity?
I bent and picked up a chunk of the stone in my hand; it was creamy yellow, and felt warm to the touch.
And I knew.
I smiled then, knowing that I had at last come to terms with my searching, and with myself.
I turned to share my discovery with my companions—and stopped in mid-gesture. Far above us where he soared, the blue dragon had seen us. He had turned in his flight, and now dove straight at us, claws extended and jaws spread wide in attack, screaming.
“Down!” I yelled, flattening myself and tumbling Mason from his seat in one frantic motion. Tow was slower, reeling backward from the assault of wings and teeth and claws, his cheek sliced neatly open from eye to chin. The dragon swept up and on by, preparing to attack again and calling his fellows to his side. I had thought to position ourselves and attempt to call the Goddess—how, I had no idea. But suddenly there was no time. So much for good plans.
The dragons rose and gathered, they struck from above in a tumbling wave of wings and claws and teeth, screaming violence. I ducked instinctively as the first wave reached us; Mason rolled away just as claws snatched at the air where he had been. I did not see Tow. Even as the first of them were swooping up and away, others were rising from below to join the fray, launching themselves into flight until the sky all around us was filled with their writhing bodies and beating wings. Only the rocky scree and our own reflexes stood between us and bloody death.
Then, with the flicker of time between one eye-blink and the next—my Sight returned.
I rejoiced. I exulted. I delighted at its return, even as I fought for my life. And I yelled, hoping Mason and Tow could hear me above the hissing, screaming din.
“Adrielle is here!” I screamed to them. “This is her power we fight, and it is failing!” I might just as well have been talking to the roaring waters of a mountain river, or discussing philosophy with the sky, for all the good it did.
Below us Adrielle stood in the meadow, her head uplifted and her loosened hair flying in the air currents from the dragons’ wings. She was crying, chanting, ordering their flight with all of the power at her command. Above and behind me stood Mason, his head tilted back. He was rising slowly to his full height, fully exposed to those battering wings and ravaging teeth, rising to confront the full fury of that attacking horde. Around him slowly rose the weaving mists of enchantment. On his face was an expression of certainty, of calm joy. And he was singing!
Among that attacking horde, a single gray-blue dragon checked its flight and cocked its head in curiosity. It was Hatha, slowing to swing in toward the hillside. Just below Mason’s feet she landed gracefully, then very deliberately raised her head in song. They made a strangely beautiful duet, those two unlike voices.
Slowly the other dragons followed Hatha’s lead, slowing and descending, breaking off from their attack and hovering nearby or sailing in to land, curious about the strange music.
I was astonished.
Adrielle’s frustration was plain. In a matter of minutes only the single azure male remained in the sky, while on the slope three men stood clustered together, below them on the scree a mass of dragons bright as a living crazy quilt.
Mason stood on an outcrop of that warm golden stone, in full sight and totally unprotected from attack, wreathed in the pale mist of magic. He was singing, accompanied by a chorus of not altogether musical dragon voices. The air around us fairly vibrated with their song. I, too, slowly stood and stepped out into the open, chanting softly and calling my own power.
The blue dragon Landros dropped down into the shadowed bowl of the cirque and landed near Adrielle, returning moments later with her on his broad back. He flew straight to where I stood and hovered there, just clear of the ground. Adrielle’s hair whipped in the wind, her eyes glittered in fury.
“Hagen Templeborn,” she shouted over the noise of his wings and the lullaby that was now weaving quiet peace all around us, “You cannot do this!”
Through the light cloud of my expanding power, I laughed at her.
“And how shall you stop me, sister? Even now your child moves within, fighting to be born. He saps your strength, your power, and he will not be denied.
“May your bones wander in eternal despair, Hagen Templeborn!” Abruptly, Landros shifted beneath her, rippled and slithered out from under her, leaving her scrabbling for her feet on the rocky hillside. Landros soared up and away, then sailed gracefully back to roost just down the slope with the other dragons.
“By the Goddess Herself,” I challenged back, “and by the blood of the mage-child you bore, I call you to answer.” Adrielle faltered, for it was a strong injunction. She hadn’t known that I knew she’d murdered our newborn son so long ago. That gave me a slight advantage.
The singing stopped, so smoothly and suddenly that its echoes rose into the air long after the voices themselves had ceased.
Mason turned slowly toward Adrielle, drawing on the strength that would later make him great. “By the powers of the earth and the voices of the trees,” he intoned in a voice compelling and rich with power. “By the whisper of the winds and the roar of the rivers, release these souls.” His outspread arms gravely indicated the sinuous forms that lay all around us, and the kine that stood below in the green meadow. “They belong not to you. They are themselves, and human, each with his purpose, each with this reason. They are free men, not slaves. Release them.”
Disbelieving, Adrielle stood staring at Mason’s mist-wrapped form. Then she turned her fury from an unknown, unacknowledged foe, to one she knew.
“What right have you, Hagen Templeborn, to command me?” She faced me boldly, those violet eyes smoldering with hate. Behind them I could read passing pain as the child moved within, and fury that he would not let her be.
“The right of the Teachings,” I answered. “The right of the Word; the right of the Law. You have broken the first rule of the Teachings, have flaunted the power of dark magic before those who are innocent of wrong. I call on the right of the Mage-born!” My words fell into a hushed, expectant silence that included the very air we breathed, the rocks on which we all stood.
A rich, rolling thunder gathered along the hillside, rose from the valley floor, became a voice that broke the silence.
“Be gone,” it intoned. It was the voice of my brother Tow, standing now beside me, tall and straight as a mighty oak, wreathed in clouds. He was as immovable as the golden rock upon which we stood, and oblivious to the blood that ran from his cheek and dripped from his chin. “Be gone. Share no more these hills, this sunlight. Be gone until you have learned to live within the Law. Be cursed until the day you renounce the powers of evil for the powers of good.”
Nearby, Mason was chanting again, but too softly for me to hear. He stood relaxed, his eyes closed, and he wore a soft, bemused golden smile.
“Silence, mage-woman!” Tow’s command cracked through the near silence.
Then Mason’s unheard words were in me, singing through my mind, words that I did not know, words that the Teachings said could only be used by the priestesses of the Goddess, words of such power and beauty and strength that the very mountains heard them with joy—words to call the Goddess. They flowed through my mind like a rippling stream in sunlight and issued from my mouth—and from the mouth of Tow, behind me, as well—and rose to touch the very sky.
The chant never faltered as we three men together called the Mother Goddess.
Adrielle, standing before us, wore an expression of absolute disbelief, which shortly turned to absolute horror.
◊ ◊ ◊
She came in glory, she came in fire.
The grasses of the meadow turned silvery, then disappeared beneath a rising layer of fog. Wispy tendrils of smoke and steam arose along the cliff edges and joined with it to form a milky, evanescent haze that climbed higher, a slowly turning, twisting column graceful as a dance.
I felt the hair rising along the back of my neck. The growing Power resonated along the fibers of my body, echoed in my bones. I closed my eyes and welcomed it.
Beside me, Mason’s song continued unbroken, sweet and true and strong.
The mountains muttered and trembled. A section of weathered cliff ponderously sheared from its place, paused for a heartbeat, then fell away and shattered in a cloud of dust. The dragons skittered nervously, sending stones rattling down the cliff-sides, a bright glissando of sound.
The column of cloud, the column of light, climbed higher. It wrapped Adrielle in its embrace, wreathed her in pale luminescence before it coiled in drifts and eddies about her dragons, and our own feet.
“The spiral dance,” Talbor Greenglade murmured, unaware even that he spoke. “The sacred pattern made real.”
Gradually the luminous cloud slowed. It coalesced, solidified, took on shape and form and substance—and became a woman of light, light so bright it dazzled. A frozen waterfall was Her hair, gleaming silk Her gown. Her face was old, weathered, serene and loving; Her eyes sparkling blue, the color of the ocean on a sunlit day, bluer than the mighty arc of sky.
“The Mother Herself,” I whispered, looking full upon Her face. Never in my wildest dreams had I expected our plea to be so clearly heard, so powerfully answered. She had come, regal and powerful, all wise and all knowing. I felt Tow’s flicking glance in my direction, saw Adrielle cringe; Mason’s song never wavered.
I breathed deeply, of snow and dragons and power beyond dream, thoughts potent as a prayer.
History lay in the making, and I, Hagen Templeborn, stood at its heart.
◊ ◊ ◊
Although I was there, I remember few details of what happened next. When at last awareness returned, I was sitting alone on the sharp stones of the hillside, arms around my knees, head down, too exhausted to move. But once again I could see and hear.
“She did it, you know,” came a quiet voice at my side. I lifted my head and saw Mason Alderson, then my gaze drifted away. The mists were gone. Clear sunlight bathed the hills and the valley below.
“She came. She read the charges—they were writ in fire, Hagen!” Mason continued, his voice catching. “Adrielle has been punished. She Who is Mother to All promises that most all will be right again. Look…” He pointed across the valley floor, where even now the King’s Hellebaran troops were pouring through a breach in the valley wall, all but unimpeded by the few ‘Rondi who remained to oppose them. Directly below us, troops were establishing a command center.
All around them the enchanted were wandering aimlessly, small groups forming and reforming; some were already beginning to return to their human forms. Hellebaran healers would soon be gently gathering them in, offering succor and support.
“The Mother said those longest under her enchantment would take longest to recover,” Mason said. “She also said…” he took a deep breath, as though having to prepare himself for what he had next to say, “She said there was yet much that we must do. That they will need tending, those who have been under Adrielle’s spell.”
“I suppose so,” I replied. My voice was a croak, as though dusty, long-unused, my mind drifting with memories of a woman of light, a woman in white—who had spoken to me?
I cleared my mind, my throat, with better success tried again. “How?”
“You’ll have to ask King’s General Jarus for the military explanation. As for Adrielle, the charges were many, and grave. In the end—well, you can see for yourself.” He pointed toward the green-black smudge of a copse of pines across the valley. I looked, and there, just visible, saw Adrielle’s two hounds. They appeared to be in playful pursuit of what appeared to be a bird. Closer examination revealed their prey as a quite ordinary, black and white hen. Both dogs had feathers raffishly stuck to their faces, giving them comical expressions. To the hen, the game was far more serious. She dashed and darted, fluttered and fussed, keeping her coal-black wings and tail just out of their reach.
“A hen?” I asked. “Why a hen?”
“The Mother’s punishment, and curse,” Mason replied. “‘You would have power,’ she said. ‘I leave you powerless. You would be proud; I grant you humility. You would be beautiful; I make you plain. You would live among the greatest; I leave you among the very least.’”
“A powerful injunction.” But a hen?
And what of the Adrielle’s unborn babe? Presumably it was fathered by Jaimoza, but at least once before, Adrielle had conjured up a child. Was this another devious ploy? Had she lost control of the life she now bore? The thought was chilling…
Across the valley, the hen made a sudden fluttering dash for the lower branches of a tree, her wings flashing. She was quick, but one of the hounds was quicker. With surprising agility he jumped and caught her in flight, even as she rose from the ground. Once back on his feet, he dropped to the ground, then pinned her with his paws. His brother soon joined him, and together they began to softly mouth and play with their prize, turning and pulling her this way and that. Soon the hen was frantic, a damp mass of rumpled feathers with bright, terrified eyes.
In a brief moment when she was right side up on the rocky ground, she gave a single brief squawk and in abject terror laid a single, glistening white egg.
What was this new toy laid before their noses? The hounds broke off from their play to sniff at it. A moment’s inattention was all their prey needed; the hen broke frantically away from their clutches, darted into the trees, and was gone.
But the hounds seemed disinclined to pursue her. Instead, they began to nose the egg, sending it rolling and bumping erratically along the ground. With a solid thump, it finally bumped up against an exposed root and cracked partially open. Now the hounds gave it their full attention, wagging their tails, pushing at it and pawing. When it finally broke fully open, they eagerly lapped up its contents until the shell fragments were sparkling clean..
Once done, they lay down happily together in the sunshine and, like two cats, began to wash each others’ faces.
I sighed. Rather an ignoble end to them both, even if they were Adrielle and her child. But what was, was. This was the Mother’s work, and there was nothing I could do to change it, even had I so desired. “What of Tow?”
“Down the hillside, looking for Hatha among the dragons.”
“Ah…” My mind made the connection I had not seen before. “Hatha is your sister,” I said. “And…?”
“His wife.” The dragonling, then, was not only Mason’s niece, but also Talbot Greenglade’s daughter. No wonder he had not been able to See clearly, and had asked for Mason’s aid.
I sighed, for connections missed, for eyes that had not seen, and focused on the future.
As always, the Mother was right. She had acted as She saw fit; now it was left to others to finish the task where she had left it off. There remained a great deal of work to do; now that I was thinking again, I could see it clearly.
The King’s General would need advice.
Those enchanted would have need of a mage to aid them through what for some could be a very difficult time of readjustment. Perhaps additional enchantments would be needed to help them on their way…
I began, awkwardly, an attempt to rise, but my legs had been too long still and were reluctant to move. It took Mason’s strong arm to help me to my feet.
“What now?” he asked, studying my face.
“We find King’s General Jarus,” I replied. “There is much yet for us to do.”
— End —
D. M. Recktenwalt is a retired graphic artist, writer/editor who’s addicted to chocolate and popcorn (not necessarily in that order) and to the written word in most of its forms. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of small press publications; her non-fiction work in several specialty magazines. She gardens; spins; knits, crochets and quilts—often “helped” by her two cats.