Sunday, September 25, 2011

Prodigal Son

“I told you to search the archives for an answer to how to neutralize the Black Knight’s armor. What were you doing on the battlements, Robert?”
I knew this was coming. Merlin is not the sort of father to forget a transgression because of other distractions. Merlin tended my mother, still unconscious and in her battle form, through the night. The next morning, Merlin took me into a side passage in the castle and confronted me. I was prepared, I thought. “I won’t hide in the library while others fight to defend the castle, Father.” I said it confidently, resolved not to let him make me regret doing what I knew was right.
Merlin’s gray eyes flared ember red at my defiance, and his voice cut as sharp as a sword. “Knowledge of the Black Knight would defend our lives far more effectively than one inexpert adolescent on the wall.” He closed his eyes for a moment and when he opened them again, they were gray, as gray as his hair and very tired. “I was needed out there, boy. I was counting on you to do the research that I couldn’t. We have to have that information.”
Guilt stabbed me. I assumed I’d just been given the assignment to keep me out of harms’ way. “I’m sorry, Father. I did search, for days and days, but I didn’t find anything about armor stronger than dragon scales.”
“Then search again! We must find a weakness in this strange armor or we’re all dead.”
“The boy cannot create knowledge from nothing, elder.” We both looked, startled, to the shadows under the stairs and found Fafnir, son of Eric the Red, sitting there, away from all the scrambling rushing people with an empty bottle of mead beside him.
Merlin’s eyes narrowed. “At least my son fought to defend our lives, rather than simply drinking himself senseless while his allies bled and died.”
Fafnir snorted. “I did as I was ordered. My father,” he paused and started again. “My king ordered me not to fight unless I had evidence that this battle was ours. You have shown me nothing that indicates this is anything but a battle between Green, Silver and Black.” He sounded tired and frustrated.
“I have foreseen. When Arthur is dead, Black will consolidate strength, then turn on the Red,” my Father told him.
“You have seen. How wonderful for you. Find a way to show me, or I can do nothing to aid you, not without defying my king.”
“I can do that,” said a familiar voice that shook with unfamiliar weakness.
“Mother!” I threw myself into the arms of the strongest person I had ever known, and she staggered back a step.
“Easy, child,” she murmured, but her arms held me tightly. “I understand I have you to thank for standing here.”
I smiled up at her, happier than I can ever remember being just to see her alive and awake. She wore her human form and a simple gown of fine samite with the emerald belt that Father made for her.
Merlin’s arms surrounded us both for a moment. He kissed Mother’s pale hair. “Are you well, beloved?”
“I live.” Something about the way she said it made me look up.
“Mother?” Her face was nearly as pale as the samite of her dress. Her sky blue eyes shone too brightly. My venom had not been enough to heal her properly. Perhaps if Father had been there, he could have …
“Hush, child,” my mother said. “You saved my life. With the amount of Black venom in my body, even your father could have done no more.”
It’s odd sometimes, having a mother who can read your mind. Between Lady Nyneve’s mind reading, and Merlin’s visions, I’d never gotten away with a single childhood transgression. Other children could fool their parents. My parents were no one’s fools.
Mother chuckled softly as she followed the direction of my thoughts and kissed my forehead. “You are no one’s fool either, child. What you did took great courage. I am so very proud of you.”
Merlin squeezed my shoulder. “As am I.” His brows furrowed into a frown. “But you should have stayed in the library.”
Fafnir snorted. “If he had, your mate would be dead. Not that it matters. They will most likely both die when the Black army comes over the wall.” He went to take another swig from the mead bottle, but found it empty.
Mother’s voice regained some of its normal steel. “If Eric had sent an army, instead of one useless drunkard, …”
Fafnir waved his hand in dismissal. “I have heard this admonishment, my lady.” His voice was rich with bitterness. “I cannot control my father’s decisions.”
I realized something at that moment. Fafnir didn’t like his orders. He wanted to fight with us, not watch the people who had hosted him and laughed at his tales die around him. That was why he drank himself senseless. “Mother, you said you could show Fafnir that the Blacks were a threat to Red as well?”
She nodded, looking tired. “Yes. I should have thought of this before. I can see Merlin’s visions with him, but unlike Merlin, I can share them.”
Servants fetched a large clear crystal and we retired to the quiet of the library. Fafnir was given more mead, to his surprise.
“You must accept the visions I will give you,” my Mother told him. “I cannot force them upon you.” Your mind must be at rest.
The crystal shimmered with images of war and death as my mother and father concentrated. They were intended for Fafnir, but I could see them as well.  Fafnir watched at my side. The visions were filled with confusion, and often conflicting. A dozen times, I watched the Black Knight slay King Arthur and his knights a dozen different ways. There were many images of the Black army attacking Red homelands, but it wasn’t clear why or when. I saw vivid flashes of silver scales dripping with blood and melting in fire that disturbed me deeply, but the images were brief, and I could get no sense of what they meant.
Fafnir sighed after a time. “This will not do, my lady. I’m sorry, but I cannot defy my king based on shadows and images of things that might come to pass, or might not.” He picked up the mead bottle and stood. “I need real evidence of a conspiracy against my people. I’m sorry.” He bowed and left the room.
Mother and father slumped against each other, both clearly tired from the magic they had done. “Without Eric’s aid, I have seen no future where any of us survive,” Merlin said softly.
Mother’s too bright blue eyes blazed with anger, but I could see her hands trembling with weariness. The venom of the Black sword had somehow damaged her great strength.
I followed Fafnir out of the room. He drank deeply from the mead bottle.
“There’s nothing you can say to me, boy.”
“My father believes that your people will die next. What if he is right, and you could have stopped it here?”
Fafnir looked at me, and his lips twitched in a shadow of his usual easy smile. “You’re a lot like him.” He went down on one knee so that he faced me eye to eye. “You give me something more to go on than just visions, and I swear I’ll win this war for you.”
That was when I knew what I had to do. “I will hold you to that oath, Fafnir, son of the Red.”
Without evidence that the Black Knight intended to attack the Red, Fafnir would not fight with us, nor send a messenger to his father for the fierce northmen to come to our aid. Without knowledge of the Black Knight’s armor, we could not find a way to defeat it ourselves.
Father always said that knowledge was a far deadlier weapon than a sword. It was clear to me that the knowledge we needed was not in the library, it was in the enemy camp, but the library might still hold the key.
I borrowed a servant’s tunic and a plain black cloak, put a long dagger in my boot, and went to the library that I knew probably better than I knew my own bedchamber. Behind one of the massive oak shelves was an underground passage out of the castle. Only one with a dragon’s strength could move the shelf without assistance. I had only the beginning of such power, but I used an iron poker from the fireplace for leverage to pry the shelf away from the wall a foot, so I could squeeze through.
I brought a small candle to guide my way through the passage. When I reached the other side, hundreds of yards beyond the castle walls, I snuffed the tiny flame. That left me in darkness so complete I could not see the dank, moss covered stones inches in front of my face. For a moment, I considered going back to the safety of the castle. But my fear was pointless. The castle walls would not hold forever. Their safety was illusion. Only knowledge could truly make me and my family and all who depended on us safe. Only the enemy had that knowledge.
I slipped out of the ancient door, concealed in a tree stump and found myself in the middle of the enemy camp. I moved from the edges of one campfire to another stealing a drying pair of pants here, an old shirt there, until I was dressed exactly like one of them.
I moved among them, just another of hundreds of soldiers. Many of them looked as young as I did, and since they were human, that meant they were really far younger. Merlin had taught me more than a dozen languages, and I found I could understand my enemies. I said almost nothing, for fear that my accent would give me away, but I listened.
I found a queue of men waiting for food from a huge cauldron, and stood in it. Two men in front of me chatted about the silver dragon that had been slain and wondered aloud why they’d had to drag its massive carcass so far. “Why not simply let it rot?”
Aunt Cion. What did they want with her dead body? She had not been beheaded as far as I knew, and there were powerful magics that could bring a dragon back to life if she still had her head. Did they intend to bring her back as a prisoner?
I saw a bright intermittent glow of fire near a set of very large tents. I slipped in behind them carrying the bowl of thick stew forgotten in my hand. Two guards stood outside the entrance. There was no way I could go in unnoticed. I walked past the front of the tent, hoping to catch a glimpse through the open front flap of what went on inside.
“You there! Boy!”
I froze as one of the guards called to me.
“About time. Get in there and feed the prisoner already.”
I was right. Aunt Cion was a prisoner now, not dead. That thought filled me with elation. I could tell Mother that her sister lived!
I nodded and tugged my forelock to the guard and walked into the tent. Hope died in me as I saw what was inside. It was Merlin’s vision. Only Aunt Cion’s skin was in the tent, draped over a wooden frame, blood dripping from her silver scales. Hollow sockets stared out at me from her spike-covered head.
I stopped cold, staring into those empty holes where her bright eyes should have been. My stomach heaved and I swallowed hard, struggling not to vomit.
Flame lit the end of the tent as a small red dragon breathed on Aunt Cion’s tail. The spikes melted into a puddle of metallic silver that pooled in a sword-shaped form. I had seen such forms in Merlin’s shop where he melted metals and reshaped them. But as the metallic silver goo that had once been my aunt’s skin melted into the form, it bubbled and boiled, evaporating into foul-smelling smoke.
The red dragon sagged in exhaustion. Chains attached to metal shackles around his throat and legs rattled as he moved.
“It’s no use, my prince,” a man said who stood next to the chained dragon. “Every time the Red melts the scales, they are destroyed.”
The Black Knight himself walked out from behind the draped form of my Aunt’s scales and shook his head. His coif was off, and I could see strong dark features, a man who would be considered handsome by many. “I feared as much.” He stroked the black scales covering his own thickly muscled arm. “Benci was a toadying old sot, but he was a loyal one. He gave his life willingly to keep me safe. That sacrifice must be part of the magic. Without it, this is nothing but rotting flesh.” He waved to indicate the bloody silver hide.
“Turn back into your human form, slave,” he ordered the Red.
The small Red dragon shrank into a Northman of average stature, just past his youth, so lean that his ribs and bones showed through thin pale skin. “Have I done well, master?” the Red asked, eyes oddly unfocused.
The Black Knight patted the man on the head like you would a dog. “Yes, yes, you’ve done fine. It’s not your fault it didn’t work.”
The northman smiled dreamily and rubbed against the hand that patted him. “Can I have a reward?” He held out his hand as if he expected to be paid.
“Of course,” The Black Knight bit the man on the arm, fangs sinking in deep.
The Northman’s eyes sank closed in bliss. He collapsed against the tent support pole he was chained to, and sank to the ground. He pulled his knees in tight to his chest and rocked, eyes closed and a smile on his face.
The Black Knight looked straight at me and my knees trembled. “Give him his food, boy. Don’t just stand there gawking.”
I handed the bowl to the naked chained Northman.
“Eat it this time, slave. Every bite. That’s an order.”
“Yes, master.”
“Useless to me if he starves,” the Black Knight commented to me or his companion. I’m not sure which. “Not that he’s much use anyway if we can’t convince another elder dragon to die willingly.”
The other man chuckled. “I don’t suppose you could just ask Merlin nicely to give up his life so you can turn him into a weapon to use against the Reds?”
The Black Knight barked a laugh. “No. But, perhaps he would sacrifice himself for a boy child of his own blood.”
I gasped and looked at him for a moment, eyes wide.
He looked back at me and a slow smile spread across his face. “Nice boots, boy. Very distinctive. And you smell of Green.”
I ran for the tent entrance, but a strong hand caught my cloak hood and pulled me up sharp.
I ducked out of the cloak and kept running. The guards at the entrance made a grab for me, but I dropped low and hit the right one with my shoulder deliberately in the legs. He whoofed and stumbled back. I rolled to the side and ran again, dodging between tents and soldiers and trying to find a place I could hide.
My first thought was to run back to the castle passage, but if I led the enemy to it, they could use it to get past our defenses.
I ran straight for the castle walls instead, not sure what I would do if I got there with half the Black army chasing me. Soldiers were being roused all around me and an alarm bell rang. Shouts of “Get him!” and “Over there!” followed me as I ducked under supply wagons and jumped over latrine ditches and wove between campfires, my heart pounding and my lungs burning.
I heard the wings of a dragon and looked up and behind me, just in time to see a huge Black’s long-taloned feet extend to grab me.

I woke up screaming in terror, and it immediately turned into a shout of frustration when I realized I was Damson, and I was back in my own bed in the 21st century.
I tried going back to sleep immediately to see what happened next, but no more dreams of Camelot and my father as a young boy came to me that night.

D Dragon

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Home is Where Your Cat Is

I got the White Knight back to the ambulance, and Jack and I took him to the hospital. My healing venom kept him alive, and put him on the mend, but he still needed time and rest to recover from nearly dying. I didn’t tell him what I knew. How do you tell a man that he is one of the creatures he’s on a holy mission to kill? He figured out that I’d done something to heal him, but I didn’t tell him anything about that either.
The dog, Rocky, rode with us. We couldn’t just leave him out there, and the local shelters were already overwhelmed with pets separated from their owners. Tamara couldn’t take him. She said her apartment didn’t allow pets.
Oh, right, Tamara Perez is the firefighter with the blue streak in her hair. I did, finally, find out her name. She’s pretty cool. When I told her about Knight on a white horse not knowing how to ride, she got it, and she gets Jack’s Monty Python quotes, too. We exchanged numbers. Next time something like free time happens for all of us, we’ll go take in a movie together or something.
Liberty gave me her number, too. I know, weird. She’s like the second in command of the entire national Protectors group, and the local Austin head. Knight told her about how I saved his life (again) and she seemed well, thoughtful, like I was a puzzle. I thought she was going to pressure me to join the Protectors again, like the Devastator did when he was in town, but she said no. She said that if I needed someone to talk to, that I could talk to her.
Um, yeah, right. Because we have so much in common. I don’t know what she has in mind, but I might use that number at some point. If nothing else, it’s nice to have one of the world’s most powerful superheroes on speed dial, just in case.
Jack and I were both dirty, beat up, and just plain exhausted by the time we delivered the Knight to the hospital and called it enough for now. I gave Jack an extra big hug in the parking lot, just for being awesome, and we drove to our separate apartments, his in Pflugerville, mine in downtown Austin.
I hadn’t even staggered in my front door yet when my cell phone rang. It was Jack.
“Hey. What’s up partner?” I asked, half asleep on my feet.
“Dee, I .. um…” He sighed on the other end of the phone, sounding incredibly tired and sad.
Instantly, I was wide awake. “Jack, are you okay?”
“I just don’t know who else to call. My mom and dad live in this little assisted living place. They don’t have any room and …”
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
“My apartment building burned down.”
I had absolutely no idea what to say for a few seconds. While Jack and I had been fighting the big fire, a smaller one had come and taken away everything he had.
“Oh, Jack. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. I just need a place to stay for a few days until I can find something. I know it’s a big imposition, but …”
“You don’t even have to ask. Ma would never forgive me if I didn’t drag you home with me. We’ve got a big couch and plenty of spare blankets.”
Jack sighed again and it sounded relieved this time. “We’ll be over at your place in about an hour, then. Thanks, Dee. I won’t forget this.”
“What are partners for, huh?”
It wasn’t until after he hung up that I realized he said “we.” Oh, right, Rocky, the dog with burnt paws. No biggie. I’d just have to see about paying the pet deposit if he ended up staying for more than a day or two.
I let Ma know as soon as I got up the stairs to our place. She was making chili and the apartment smelled like heaven. She flavors it with ham and just enough cayenne to give it a little afterburn, without killing your taste buds. I told her the situation with Jack, and that we were having company for a few days. She added another pound of hamburger to the chili and mixed up a double batch of cornbread. When I was a kid, Ma used to win prizes with her pies and chili and such. She’s an amazing cook forced to work with a really limited set of recipes cooking for carnivores like me and Dad.
She was practically dancing around our little galley kitchen at the thought of being able to cook for someone who could eat food that didn’t previously moo or cluck.
I had to admit I was a little excited about the idea of Jack staying with us, too. With our work schedules so busy, and me moonlighting as a superhero, we hadn’t had a lot of ‘us’ time lately. When Ma went to bed, we might get a little more practice in the fine art of kissing.
So, as tired as I was, when I answered the door a few minutes later, I had a big smile on my face. That vanished when I saw who was standing there. “Brad?” It was the big, obnoxious drunken jerk who slammed me into the ambulance door last time I saw him.
“Um, hi,” he said, holding a gimme cap in his hand that said Crippen Steel Works, and wearing a sweaty Longhorns t-shirt with soot stains and a few burn holes. “It’s real nice of you and your mother to let us come stay with you like this.” He didn’t have to duck under the doorway, but he did have to turn sideways a little to come in. He wasn’t as tall as Fafnir, but he easily outweighed Fafnir’s human form.
Jack came in behind Brad with Rocky on his heels.
I was still a little stunned about Brad the Troll showing up to come live with me, but the look on Jack’s face made me just open my arms and pull him into a hug that he obviously very badly needed.
Ma turned around and smiled. “Damson, you didn’t tell me there would be two young men coming.”
“Uh, yeah, sorry Ma. I forgot Brad was staying with Jack.”
Jack pushed away from the hug, a horrified look on his face. “I didn’t think about …”
“It’s no biggie,” I told him. I’d have said anything to make him feel better right then. “I’ll just get some more blankets.”
I dug Ma’s best quilts out of the cedar chest at the foot of her bed. She calls it my “hope” chest. It’s an old custom for mothers to make things and put them in a chest. The custom is to give the chest full of homemade quilts, baby clothes, lacy linens, stuff like that, to their daughters when they get married so the daughter can use them in her new family. Since I’m nearly 64 and haven’t made it past second base with a guy, Ma’s had lots of time to make things to fill it up. I guess she still has hope for me, in any case.
The boys took turns taking showers to get the grime and soot off, and I made up a pallet on the living room floor for Brad. He was too big to fit on the couch, so Jack got that.
Ma stuffed them both full of chili and cornbread when they were cleaned up. I ate my fair share of the chili, too, and Rocky got the leftovers.
I was all kinds of nervous that Brad was going to make an ass of himself, but he was shockingly polite to Ma. He called her maam and said thank you a lot, and complimented her three times on her cooking. I realized it was probably the first time I’d seen Brad when he was sober. Apparently, he works at a steel mill with heavy, dangerous machinery that frequently slices off workers’ hands. With his invulnerability, he doesn’t have to worry about that, and his extra strength comes in handy to his employers in a shop with thousands of pounds of metal coming through every day.
I asked him if he ever considered being a superhero. He certainly had the abilities for it.
He shook his head. “I’m not really the hero type. I just couldn’t do the kinds of things y’all do all the time. I’d get scared.”
“You might rethink that, buddy,” Jack said. “Brad saved an old couple and a guy in a wheelchair from the burning apartment building.” It was weird. The words were complimentary, but Jack sounded pissed off when he said them. I filed that away in the mental “figure it out later” file.
The troll saved lives. Wow. Okay, then. Time for a different nickname, I guess. “Do people call you something besides Brad?”
Brad chuckled. “Folks call me all kinds of things, but I wouldn’t repeat most of them in polite company.”
After I saw Brad shirtless, I decided maybe I’d just stick with Troll. You could skin that man and make a rug. He had a pelt like a bear. I gave him one of my giant sleepy T’shirts to wear that fell to mid-thigh on me. He could just squeeze into it.
When everyone was settled, I thought I’d sleep like the dead, but I lay awake in my bed for a while, thinking about a lot of things. Brad, the not so terrible troll, Jack’s place burning down while we were off fighting a bigger fire, White knight’s comment about heroes only being able to be in one place at a time, the White Knight being both a dragon and a Georgian, lots of stuff.
One question pounded on my brain the hardest, even thought it was probably the least relevant to my current situation: How in the world did my warrior grandmother end up getting skinned and turned into armor?
Then I heard something odd, a soft sound somewhere underneath Brad’s chainsaw snores. My eyes and ears are a lot more sensitive than they used to be. I tilted my head to listen and it sounded like ragged breathing and a small whimper. Maybe Rocky needed to go outside and water the landscaping.
I tiptoed out of my room, carefully avoiding the sprawl of giant on my living room rug.
Rocky looked up from the folded towel in the corner that was his personal pallet, and thumped his tail on the floor a few times.  Then he put his head back down with a sigh. I apparently passed inspection as a non-threat, unworthy interrupting his beauty sleep. Couldn’t blame him really. He’d had a rough day.
Speaking of rough day. My sensitive eyes that make me blind as a bat in broad daylight without special dark glasses let me see just fine in nearly pitch darkness. What my super duper dragon vision saw was Jack furtively wiping his eyes on Ma’s quilt.
Oh, Jack. No way you’re going to lay there on my couch and cry quietly alone in the dark where no one will see. Not on my watch.
Jack’s been my rock, the one person I could always count on to stay calm and sensible and even cheerful when I was about ready to walk in front of a bus, or run screaming in circles. I’d leaned on Jack so much I’d all but forgotten what it was like to stand alone when things got bad.
That road goes two ways, partner.
I didn’t want to wake up Ma or Brad. So I took Jack’s hand, pulled him gently up and guided him to my room.
He couldn’t see probably much more than a silhouette of me, just as well since I wasn’t exactly a super-model in my old Beatles T-shirt and baggy sweats. I could see him perfectly, the red around his eyes, the way his shoulders drooped.
I curled up in my twin bed with him spooned in front of me. The blanket tucked up under his chin and me plastered around him should have been uncomfortably warm, but he sank into it like I would a hot bath at the end of a long day.
I stroked his shaggy dark hair away from his face and whispered in his ear stupid, meaningless things like, “It’ll be okay.”
He barely made a sound, but my arm got wet where it curved under his neck.
“What did you lose that you can’t replace?” I asked him. I knew Jack. He wasn’t crying over losing his couch or his new TV.
“Brad saved three people. But I just want to punch him because he didn’t save my cat, Cam. He said he couldn’t find her.”
I held him tighter. I hadn’t had a pet in a lot of years. Too difficult if we needed to move suddenly. But I grew up surrounded by animals. I was one little girl whose dad really did buy her a pony. When that pony, already well on in years when I got her at 3 years old, died when I was 10, I bawled for weeks. I still tear up sometimes when I think about her.
I could tell Jack that maybe his cat made it out. I could tell him that she was in a better place, as if I knew where cats went when they died. I could tell him he could get another kitten. But in the end, I didn’t tell him anything, because none of it would have helped.
“What was she like?” I asked him.
He went from tears to laughing and back to tears a half dozen times. He told me she loved to cuddle, jumping on his lap the moment he sat down usually, even being a pest about it when he was trying to put on shoes in the morning, but she would get mad at him and refuse to cuddle if he stayed out too late. He told me she thought a freshly made bed was a perfect playground. He’d play with her with one of those fluffy things on a string that the pet stores sell. He told me she would stand on his chest and lick his chin and nose until he got up if he ignored his alarm clock. That’s why he was never late to work.
He described his tiny orange tabby with the super soft fur and the purr so quiet you could only tell by the vibrations, until I felt like I knew her.
When he finished, he finally fell asleep.
I slipped out of the bed as quietly as I could, tiptoed to the balcony, stripped off my Beatles T-shirt (no way I was letting that get shredded), tucked it in the back of my sweats, kicked off my fuzzy slippers, and jumped off the balcony. It was like 3 in the morning. No worries about anyone spotting me.
I flew to Jack’s apartment. I knew where it was, although I’d never been inside, and now I realized I never would be. I felt a pang of regret that I’d never seen what his place was like, never learned that little bit more about him.
I soared over the area, super duper dragon eyes watching like a hawk trying to spot a mouse in a wheatfield. After an hour or two, when the sun was just starting to mess up my night vision and make me worry about getting spotted, I saw what I’d hoped I might see: A tiny, orange striped cat with soot-smeared fur scrounging furtively through the contents of a spilled garbage can four blocks from Jack’s apartment building.
Cats are smarter than people give them credit for. I figured, if all the people got out, probably the cat made it out, too. But all the noise, the fire trucks, and the people and dogs wandering around would have been pretty scary to a cat not used to spending much time outdoors.
When I picked her up, she cuddled up in my arms and purred so soft I could barely hear it. Even though I’d never seen her before, I knew, without a doubt, I had the right cat.
I’ve never felt more like a superhero than when Jack got woken up later that evening when it was time to get ready for our next shift by his cat licking his nose and chin.

D Dragon

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Different Kind of Knight

It was bound to happen. Extreme heat and drought conditions made the whole state of Texas a big box of kindling. Some fires had already sprung up, but with the dry wind that had hit the state earlier this week, fire started attacking us like the worst supervillain in history. Thousands of acres have burned this week. Close to 2000 people’s homes. And I was in the middle of it.
Jack and I were sent to the Bastrop fire about 20 miles southeast of Austin, even though it was way outside our area. Everyone with any kind of skill that might help went to the 16 mile wide fire that ate a national park, a bunch of ranchland, and more than 1500 people’s homes. It’s still burning, even now, but Jack and I have done our part, and it’s up to others to keep up the fight against an enemy that doesn’t sleep.
I’m not sure I can even begin to describe what it’s like to face a wall of fire and smoke miles wide. I gained a lot of respect for White Knight. This is his day job. When he’s not fighting the forces of evil, he fights this force of nature that devours all life in its path.
When Jack and I arrived, White Knight, in full scale armor was directing the super aspects of the rescue and firefighting operation. Liberty was in charge of the Austin area Protectors, but she let White Knight take the lead here. He’d already done this once, when similar fires hit North Texas a couple months back.
As soon as he saw me, he didn’t even bother being snarky, just started telling me how he thought I could help. Officially, I was here as a paramedic, but we both knew I could do more than most. In addition to the ability to heal, he knew I was strong, knew I was fire resistant, but vulnerable to smoke inhalation. And he knew that I’d risk or do virtually anything to save a life. It was a little scary, really, how much this Georgian knew about me.
That left Jack doing normal paramedic duties on his own. The first person he treated, though, was the lady firefighter we met at the 18 wheeler wreck, the one with a blue streak in her hair. She’d been fighting this fire for hours and sucked in way more smoke than was good for her. She’d also gotten a minor burn on her arm, saving a dog from a locked kennel in the path of the fire. Her supervisor ordered her not to go back to the line, so she volunteered to help Jack out while I was drafted into supe duties. Jack put a little burn ointment and bandages on the dog’s paws, and it followed them around from then on. According to the tag, the dog’s name is Rocky. I still haven’t caught the firefighter’s name.
The next two days was a jumble of terrifying moments embedded in a lot of hot, dirty work. I got an oxygen mask, coat, and helmet from one of the fire trucks, which made me mostly fireproof.  Then, I got sent into a lot of areas that were already partially on fire to make sure no one was left. I got drafted to lift a downed telephone pole off a road. It was blocking the exit to a neighborhood, keeping people with their cars stuffed full of their kids, their pets and their possessions from leaving. Their homes probably would be gone in a day, but at least, once I got the pole out of the way, they could get out with a little more than the clothes on their backs. That made them luckier than some. The hot wind kept blowing the fire so fast, we could barely keep ahead of it.
I heard rumors that other fires had started in the suburbs around Austin: Pflugerville, Cedar Park, Leander and more. It felt like the fires were a living enemy, surrounding Austin and putting us all under siege. The thought gave me weird flashbacks to the siege of Camelot by the Black army. I called Ma to make sure she was okay, but she said there wasn’t anything near her in downtown Austin. For now at least.
I put away the cell phone and went to pick up my oxygen gear again, but White Knight put a hand on mine. “You won’t need that this time,” he said. “We’ve got a ranch in the path of the fire, with the owner out of town. We need to get about 500 cattle and horses out, without them trampling the firefighters. Do you know anything about herding cattle?”
“I was raised on a Texas ranch. Never done a cattle drive, but I’m familiar with the principles.”
White Knight nodded, “That’s better than anyone else available. Let’s get those animals out of there.”
“Let’s? You, too?” I asked as we headed for a small stable. About a half dozen horses were still in their stalls. I chose a compact quarter horse with a broad chest and a short body. I used to barrel race for fun when I was a kid, and she looked like she’d be good in the corners; might win me a trophy or two at a rodeo.
“No one else available. Civilians are too likely to get injured with that much panicked livestock.”
White Knight chose a lanky gray Arabian with a long flowy main and tail and a high shoulder. She looked like a prissy show horse to me, but I didn’t have to ride her. We led the other horses out of the stable and onto trailers for evacuation. “I’ve asked several of the normal volunteers to clear a path to the west for the herd to follow, out of the fire’s path. TakeDown is doing rescues on the other end of the line.” Knight strapped his shield to his back, and struggled with the bridle, trying to figure out how to get the bit in the horse’s mouth.
He gave me the rest of the rundown while I helped him get the bridle on. “Liberty is immune to electricity, so she’s clearing downed power lines. A couple of local flyers are dropping loads of fire retardant near a neighborhood. Even Lord Vile sent some minions to help under the command of some crazy scientist, calls himself Madspark.”
“Lord Vile sent help?” I found a couple of saddles and tacked up my chosen mount.
White Knight shrugged. “Fire doesn’t discriminate between hero and villain. For all we know he may have a secret base somewhere in this area. Madspark set off a bomb that blew out a quarter mile section of the fire. Too bad he only had one.” Knight started to mount and his saddle slid sideways.
I sighed, tightened his cinch, and gave the pretty white Arabian a little knee bump to get her to stop blowing up. “Where’s the Devastator?”
“He went back to California weeks ago. San Francisco is his normal HQ. He just flew in for the Mansfield dam bomb threat” He hopped up and down on one foot with the other foot in the stirrup. The horse danced sideways and laid her ears back.
“Not a big enough headline here, huh?”
Knight stopped hopping around and turned to glare at me. “He’s not like that. California needs heroes, too. We can all only be in one place at a time, Dee. Just because we’re not where you think we should be, doesn’t mean we’re all just glory hounds following the spotlight.”
“Right, how silly of me. You clearly don’t give a damn about the spotlight.” I’d seen him talking to reporters about the supe contribution to the firefighting effort earlier, all puffed up with self-importance as the acting leader of the supes. I was not buying what he was selling.
“PR is just part of the job. We lead by example.," he said, but blushed when he said it. "Our main goal is to save lives and bring criminals to justice.” He gave another hop, trying to mount the white horse who danced sideways again, all but laughing at him now.
I sighed, grabbed the mare’s bridle near her chin, and gave it a mild yank. I clucked at her reprovingly. She brought up her ears and stood steady while the Knight finally made it onto her back.
“Are you ready?” I asked as I swung up onto the bay quarterhorse’s back. At this rate, we’d have 500 head of barbecue.
Knight nodded, lips and jaw tight, holding the reins in one hand and the saddle horn in the other.
“Have you ever been on a horse before in your life?”
“Twice,” he said, but didn’t elaborate.
“Glorious.” This was going to be a very long day. I grabbed a lasso from its hook as we rode past it, and handed him the long-handled cattle prod I’d found with the tack. The rope took some skill, but all he’d need to do was poke with the electric prod and it should be enough to get a steer’s attention.
As we headed toward the nervously mooing and milling herd, it hit me and I started laughing.
“What?” Knight snapped, knowing I was laughing at him, but not knowing why.
“You’re a knight on a white horse who doesn’t know how to ride.” I giggled. He didn’t get it. Guess he wasn’t a Christian Kane fan. No taste.
He managed reasonably well to not get in my way, and keep his side of the herd moving more or less in the right direction for a few miles despite his horse shying from the cattle periodically. We really could have used about 3 more hands, but the little bay cutting horse I rode practically managed to be in two places at once. She had to be someone’s pride and joy.
Then things got a little hairy.
We weren’t moving as fast as we should have been and the fire started catching up to us. The cattle got a stronger whiff of smoke. We started to feel the heat and see some orange glow in the pine trees, headed our way. The cattle broke into a run, in the wrong direction. Instead of following the path to the side, cleared of fences and obstacles by the volunteers Knight sent ahead of us, the cattle headed toward a highway full of cars driving out of the affected areas and emergency crews and volunteers driving in.
The only thing between thousands of pounds of panicked beef and a bunch of cars travelling at 40 mph was a flimsy chain link fence and the White Knight.
He waved his arm with the cattle prod in it, yelled at the cattle and rode the white horse toward them at an angle to try to get them spooked the other way, but they only turned a little and kept running. The showy Arabian reared and spooked hard as the herd pounded toward her. Knight flew off like he’d grown wings and the mare hightailed it out of there without him.
He’d gotten the herd turned slightly, but the mare had thrown him into their path. He landed badly, but rolled back to his feet quickly. He held the cattle prod like he normally would a sword and faced the enemy, favoring one leg.
I smacked that little quarter horse on the rear with my rope and ran her as fast as she could go, weaving in between cattle and shouldering them out of the way when they wouldn’t give her space. Luckily, my legs are armored these days, so I wasn’t in any danger of them getting smashed in between thousand pound animals.
The leading edge of the herd got to Knight well before I did. He danced like a matador jabbing cattle away from him with the prod and side-stepping, but it couldn’t last. The cattle were packed too tightly as they turned at the fence and ran the other way, the direction we wanted them to run, for a human to fit between any of them without getting crushed.
Sure enough, that shiny silver-scaled figure went down in a sea of heaving, squealing, shoving, running sharp-hooved beasts. I felt my heart jump in my chest, and a lump well up in my throat as he went down. White Knight was a Georgian and an asshole, but I didn’t want to see him die.
I dug my heels into my horse’s ribs, but she was already doing the best she could to shove her way to Knight through the crowd of heavier cattle. I could see some of the beasts stumbling or jumping over an obstacle, so I knew where he was, whatever was left of him.
I took the end of the rope and put some super-strength into it as I whipped the cattle to either side of me. The cattle hit by the end squealed and jumped to get away from the pain, shoving the other cattle. It widened the space the little horse and I had to move in.
I made it to Knight after what was probably just a few seconds. I’d cleared a hole in the herd, enough to see him down on his side, curled up, arms trying to protect his head. I couldn’t stop with the panicked herd pounding forward all around me.
He got up to one knee when the pressure let up for a moment. He saw me, and held up a hand.
I leaned way to one side, gripping the horse with my legs and one hand fisted in her mane, and caught that hand as we rushed by. Knight hopped as I grabbed him, and I used the momentum of our speed to help swing him up behind me. He landed hard on the horse’s rump against my back.
The horse stumbled and almost lost her footing. I clung to her hard, and just hoped. If she went down, we’d go down with her, and all three of us would probably die. I had a couple of seconds to think how ironic it would be for Knight and me to survive supervillains, bombs and giant robots only to be killed by thousands of pounds of terrified hamburger on the hoof.
But the quarter horse didn’t let us down. She found her footing again and kept running, even with twice the weight on her back.
The cattle turned at the fence, instead of going over it, so they at least weren’t going to cause a massive traffic hazard. I worked my way to the edge of the herd and did my best to keep steering them in the right direction. There was no stopping them, but at least they were running the right way now.
I risked one quick look behind me and saw the hungry fire licking at the grass where Knight went down. Maybe the cattle had the right idea. We ran. The quarter horse gave us all she had, with Knight just barely holding on behind me. His grip was weak, but he didn’t fall off, and until we got clear of the fire’s path, that was enough.
The smoke thickened until I coughed as we ran. The horse I rode coughed with me, but didn’t stop running.
Suddenly, like riding through a curtain, the air cleared. A huge pasture opened up in front of the herd, hundreds of untouched acres with pine and oak trees along a creek. Enough room for them to run out their panic without doing any real harm.
I looked back, and could see the smoke blowing the fire across the land we’d left behind and on, perpendicular, not toward us. We’d made it clear of the fire’s path.
White Knight fell off the horse.
“Whoah, girl, whoah, easy.” It took me a bit to get the scared horse slowed down and turned back around to go get the downed hero.
She blew hard as I dismounted, but there wasn’t any bloody foam around her mouth or any other sign that she was foundered. Even as I worried that Knight was dead, I spared a part of my mind to be grateful that the brave little mare hadn’t killed herself to get us out of danger.
I knelt beside the Knight and took his coif off his head. I’d already seen his face, anyway.
He was unconscious, lips pale, skin clammy. He’d gone into shock.
His normally flat belly was bloated a little. Internal bleeding. I’d gotten him out of the path of the fire, but not before the cattle had already killed him. It was just a matter of minutes before he died, and I was miles from help.
The only way he was going to survive was with my venom.
I didn’t even think about not saving him. Maybe I should have. He tried to kill Fafnir and Vlad. He’d no doubt want to kill me if he knew what I was. But it didn’t matter.
I stripped off his right gauntlet so I could get to his wrist, and the feel of the tiny, fine silver scales in the glove felt familiar. I stripped off the leather glove from my left hand and looked at my palm, then looked at the palm of the gauntlet. Identical in all but color. I turned the gauntlet over and looked at the articulated plates that protected Knight’s knuckles and the back of his hand. Identical, even the color.
I touched the shimmering silver scales covering Knight’s muscular arm and the purple and green scales on my own arm. They were the same.
Dragon scales. White Knight’s armor was made of dragon scales. Silver dragon scales to be exact, my grandmother’s clan.
Knight was wearing the skin of one of my relatives.
It should have been repulsive, but instead I found myself weeping. Tears ran from my eyes for the, no doubt long dead, member of my family that I was touching.
On an odd impulse, I put the gauntlet on my right hand. Knight’s hands were thick, short-fingered and blocky with muscle. Mine were long-fingered and slender, but the gauntlet fit perfectly. It all but merged with my hand. I flexed and wiggled my fingers and found my movements no more inhibited than they were by the natural scales on my left. The gauntlet adapted to me, and I felt an overwhelming warmth that triggered more tears. Images in my mind of my grandmother, Lady Nyneve, flooded me. Soaring over the lake where she lived, hugging my father when he was little, holding hands with Merlin and looking out from the battlements at Camelot.
This wasn’t just any silver dragon’s skin. It was my grandmother’s. The images in my mind weren’t the bloody, angry, battle images that had filled my sleep the last few nights. They were gentle, peaceful, sheltering. It was as if the gauntlet, through time, sought to protect me.
It wasn’t just my grandmother’s skin, there was something of her spirit in this armor as well. And it wasn’t angry. If I was her, I would be so angry. Why wasn’t she?
I looked at Knight’s sword and shield with new eyes. I pulled his sword from the sheath and touched the blade. Though the edge was sharper than a razor, it didn’t cut me, and I knew it never would.
I saw images behind my closed eyes of Lady Nyneve doing battle, her claws striking down her enemies. I touched the shield, with the image of a knight slaying a dragon painted on the front like obscene graffiti. I saw swords and arrows, and even the fierce flames of the Reds, hotter than a volcano’s breath, turned aside by the heavy plates on Lady Nyneve’s breast and spine in her giant battle form.
I opened my eyes as Knight’s breathing caught and grew irregular. He was dying.
A few moments ago, I would have saved him without hesitation. I had saved him, more than once.
Now? I hesitated.
I looked at the gauntlet on my hand. Lady Nyneve hugged Robert, her youngest son, my father, close, and I felt it, not as if I were her, but as if I were the one being hugged. She knew me. She recognized me as kin.
Why aren’t you angry, grandmother? I thought hard, remembering her gift to read thoughts. This man is a Georgian. He’s sworn to kill us all on sight, and he’s using you to help him do it.
For a moment, I saw Fiona, my grandmother’s sister, hugging her son, Gawain. Then, just a flicker of images, Gawain holding a baby up and laughing. A woman grown who I knew to be that baby singing to her toddler son. The son grown and playing with dolls with his daughter. The daughter holding her son to nurse at her breast and smiling as she died from childbirth complications in a hospital that looked almost modern.
The last image was of the babe, now about six, getting in a fight with a much bigger and older boy on the playground at an orphanage. A little girl with a cut lip cowered behind him. The boy had hazel eyes and brown hair, and the bigger boy slammed his face into a merry-go-round splitting his upper lip and brow open to the bone, cuts that would leave scars on his face for life. But the little boy stood again between the bully and the little girl, tiny fists held high as blood ran down his face. He gave the bigger boy a bloody nose that made him cry and run.
The brave little boy’s face disappeared and I opened my eyes and looked at the dying Knight. The scars were still there, and the sandy brown hair that fell in his eyes.
A feeling of peace and love overwhelmed me. I bit his wrist gently, inserting a fang into the vein and giving him a full dose of healing venom.
I put the leather glove back over my scaly left hand to hide it, and reluctantly peeled the silver gauntlet off my right.
White Knight was a Georgian, but he was also a son of Silver. The armor and weapons that all but defined him wouldn’t have worked for him if he weren’t.
The Knight didn’t know it, but he was a dragon.

D Dragon

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Kiss Him or Kill Him

Vlad stabbed me hard right in the belly.
I whoofed air out and crumpled to the parched rocky ground, gasping for breath. We’d switched to metal blades for practice out on Vlad’s land once he’d figured out that I was almost completely armored now. Apparently, ordinary metal just didn’t go through dragon scales, not ever. It had to be something more.
“You are not focusing, Damson,” Vlad said, frowning. “If I were a Georgian, I would be taking your head right now.”
Once I had my breath, I growsed back. “If you were Georgian, I wouldn’t be fighting you with a lousy three foot hunk of metal. I’d probably go for a sub-machine gun.”
Vlad laid the flat of his blade over his shoulder and put his hand on his slender hip. It made him look graceful and rogueish. “And where, pray tell, would you acquire such a weapon? They do not sell such things at the Wag a Bag on the corner.”
He had a point. Irritating though it was. “Give em a decade or two.”
“Damson, what is occupying your thoughts?”
“My brain is being flooded with images of things that happened hundreds of years ago. My Ma is pissed at me for the notoriety I’ve been getting saving lives. I keep finding myself working side by side with one of the fanatics who murdered my father.  I can’t see in the daylight. Oh, and I’ll probably be completely covered in scales within a few years. Aside from that, everything is peachy. How are things with you?”
“Aside from the fact that the stock market is limping like a drunkard, the woman I love is in love with another, and my student with a penchant for deadly confrontations keeps daydreaming while I try to teach her to defend herself, things are ‘peachy’ with me as well.”
Talk about fighting fire with fire. Vlad gave good sarcasm.
I grimaced and sat down on a big limestone rock, ignoring the crunch of dead grass. Even the mesquite trees and prickly pear cactuses looked dreary and sad. This oppressive drought made everything feel bleak. “I dreamed about Camelot again last night, the battle where Lady Nyneve was stabbed by the Black Knight, and one of the Black dragons killed her sister. I’ve had that dream three times now.”
“It was a profound moment in the history of your family.” Vlad sat down next to me. “But why would a mere dream disturb you so?”
I bit my lip. How do you accuse a friend of murdering a family member? “The black dragon who killed Nyneve’s sister, he was small and he dove down on her from above, the way you did against the giant robots. I never saw him up close, but …”
“Ah, I see.” Vlad sighed, and set his practice sword aside. “It was another time, my love. Dragons ruled all the known world. The only question was which clan would rule which territories.”
“That wasn't just a dragon that looked like you. That was you.”
Vlad didn’t nod exactly, but he didn’t deny it either. “The one you call the Black Knight was my father’s younger brother.” His mouth made a wry twist. “My father’s legitimate younger brother, who was my grandfather’s true heir.”
“You killed my grandmother’s sister, my great aunt.” The bald truth of it tasted sour in my mouth. How had I thought I might love this man?
“It was war, Damson. We were soldiers. Your grandmother slew my cousin and my eldest half-brother. And if I had not killed the Silver, she doubtless would have killed more of my kind.”
I stood up and walked away from him, looking out over the cliff where he taught me to fly. “Do you expect that to make it okay?”
Vlad walked over and stood beside me, just beyond arm’s reach, I noticed. “Your father taught me that nothing I did or said would ‘make it okay.’ No matter how many times we fought together, or saved each others’ lives, he still thought of me as an enemy under truce.”
My father named this man enemy. Vlad killed my kin, personally, with his own claws and fangs. I had more reason to hate him than the White Knight, who at least hadn’t killed anyone in my family himself. I watched the way the moonlight traced the sharp bones of Vlad’s face and his long aquiline nose, and the wind stirred his wavy black hair. Heavy lashes laid soft against his cheek for a moment, as he closed his eyes. “You will not forgive me for this, will you Damson?” He said it flat, as if he knew the answer already.
I handed him the sword that he had given me to learn balance and self-defense in my new skin. I didn’t know what to say to him. He had saved my life repeatedly, been there when I needed him, even to the point of being overprotective. He had taught me how to fly, and for a time, I thought I was in love with him.
A vision flashed in front of my eyes, a flash of dream even though I was wide awake: a Black dragon arrowing down out of the clouds and breaking my sister’s neck. It wasn’t my memory; it was Nyneve’s. But I remembered as if I had been there. I felt the horror and grief and rage as if it were my own, and it was all I could do not to try to kill Vlad with that sword.
“Dragons have long memories,” I said softly, and leapt off the cliff, shredding the old t-shirt I had worn for fighting practice. Vlad had driven me there, but I could fly home now.
The hot dry wind blew in my face and made tears stream from my eyes. Yeah, it was the wind. Right.

D Dragon