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

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