Prince Robert gave the suggestion thought and replied, “It is kind of you, but we prefer to stay together.”
The innkeeper gave the impression of sighing and the other Kiards stirred. He walked to the wall, buckled on a sword, slung a quiver of barbed arrows over his shoulder and picked up a bow larger than the men.
“If you do not return, it is your choice, but we cannot allow children to go into danger without helping. Four of us will join you, you will not need more.” He walked out and the other three Kiards joined him. The group looked at each other with stunned expressions. Alkion gave a delighted grin.
“My Prince, I dare say they are right, with four of them we need not fear any creatures.”
“Except those of magic.”
“Ahh Jescus, the ale did not lighten your mood? For magic we have the best of them all - you.”
“I am no wizard, only a philosopher who has dabbled in magic.”
Alkion teased, “Do we name you philosopher or dabbler?”
“Why should I be bothered by what a man who uses his muscles for brains calls me?”
The mood in general was lighter, despite the light bickering. Only one thing bothered them now and Prince Robert went to Aqutina.
“Would Iziko be insulted if we ask him to carry the ladies?”
“It depends on how you ask him, I’d think.”
“You would not mind?”
“I’ve travelled on his back. I prefer to walk thank you, it is far easier on my spine and derriere.”
Prince Robert took Iziko aside, explained that the females and children are not strong enough to walk all day, and asked him to carry them. Iziko agreed, first insisting that Candy keep her position just behind his head.
As they were preparing to leave, the sharp-eyed Kiards saw two figures in the distance. Prince Robert thought they might be messengers from his father so he delayed. As they came closer, he saw that one of them was a woman, so he knew he had waited without reason, as his father would not send a woman on such a dangerous trip. As they came even closer, he realised that they were both women. Actually, more like eighteen year old girls. The one was dressed as Princess Cherine is for this trip; pants wide enough to be comfortable, but not wide enough to interfere during swordplay. She did not carry her sword by the hip, as is customary, but had it strapped to her back, the hilt within easy reach of her hand. Prince Robert was not the only one intrigued by this odd couple, so they waited.
Even before their voices could be heard, the sound of girlish laughter carried to those waiting. They seemed to be having an animated conversation or else they were kidding each other and seemed totally relaxed at the sight of a dragon and warriors alien to their species. The one in pants seemed to lead and when they arrived, she ignored protocol, if she knew of it, and walked straight to Princess Cherine. She half bowed.
“My lady, Princess Cherine, I am a loyal subject of yours and have admired you for years. I am named Jade and my companion is Cass, though we are better known in the streets we live in as the imps. We have come to share this adventure with you. May we join you?”
Princess Cherine had glanced at her brother as Jade had spoken and had been amused by the slight reddening and tightening of his face. She thought to herself, ‘He was stuffy as a boy, is stuffy as a man and god knows what he will be like as a king’, but she was amused, for her thoughts and criticism was coloured by her love for him.
She made her voice gentle, but slightly severe. “First of all, your loyalty is owed to Prince Robert, if you are of the McUrly. Did you advise your parents of your intentions or are they worrying and searching for you?”
Jade grinned, not at all fazed. “They are probably spending a fortune paying the priests whatever they ask to show their gratitude for our departure.” Her grin became even cheekier as she turned to Prince Robert with a slight bow. “Greetings Prince Robert and the undying loyalty of your two subjects, Jade and Cass. Do you think the gods were responsible for our leaving?”
He burst out laughing. “Perhaps the gods needed you out of their hair for a while, I do not doubt you gave their priests a hard time. I am puzzled, you are no longer loyal to Princess Cherine and have transferred your undying loyalty on the instant to myself?”
She shook her head happily. “We are loyal to many.”
Cass spoke up. “We are coming with you, but first our loyalty to our stomach requires we ask if this town has an inn with food suitable for our kind.”
Prince Robert asked of the innkeeper, “Let them stay behind to eat and I ask that one of your people see them back through the forest. We do not need two more female children with us. Would five coins be suitable reimbursement?”
Jade stiffened, her knees seemed to buckle and then, with a sideways leap she was crouching, the sword in her hands. “On guard Prince Robert. If I draw first blood, shall you return while I lead with Princess Cherine in your place? We have no place here for those who lose to female children.”
Princess Cherine was instantly between her brother and Jade, her sword already in her hands. “’Tis treason to draw a sword on your Prince and future king! Sylvestro, Alkion, disarm them.”
Jade and Cass seemed to perform an intricate ballet, twisting, turning, tossing the sword from one to the other as they evaded the two soldiers until Jade stood before Princess Cherine, the tip of her sword resting on the ground at her feet. “Would you have us be ruled by a king who insults his subjects with impunity? I challenged without intent to harm, only to force an apology. Princess, I only bow my head to those I respect.”
Alkion and Sylvestro were angry and grabbed her arms. She did not struggle, only staring Princess Cherine in the eyes. Severely, Princess Cherine said, “You are both old enough to know that actions you take and words you speak bear a consequence. Let her go. Maid Jade and Cass, we cannot wait for you, eat of what we carry with us or not, as you wish. Next time I will not be so lenient. As for my brother, he has the right to decide how you will be punished.”
Prince Robert was embarrassed. His two best warriors had been bested by these frail looking girls before their new allies. He doubted the Kiards would be as understanding of their failure as he hoped. To punish the girls for making fools of his men would only make him look petty. “Since you insist on coming with and have some dancing skills, I place Princess Cherine’s daughter, Dominique, Candy, Iziko and Bitsy under your guard. Protect them with your lives if you have to, for I will not forgive any harm that comes to them.”
They walked as they ate and Cass mumbled, “Are we expected to wipe their bottoms for them?” Jade quickly retorted, “Okay, you do the dragon.” The innkeeper chuckled.
“I am Simdi. Your technique was unorthodox, do you repeat the same movements each time or do you vary them?”
“Glad to meet you Simdi. Do you know what a city is?”
“Yes. Legend says the Kiards once lived in cities that covered half the world.”
“Cities are filthy places with too many people. More than half of them are criminals and most of the rest of them would be, if they did not fear the law. We did not have money for a second sword so we developed what you call our technique - at least it is a politer word than that used by our almighty Prince. We often face the same bullies, so to use the same technique each time would help them plan how to trap us. Surprise has to be half of the technique.”
“Why would the men trap you? Is it a mating ritual of your people? If so, why do you have to resist, do you not want a male?”
Both girls fumbled as they tried to explain and did not notice that Simdi was shocked. He’d had no concept up to this moment of the possibility or desirability of raping a female. He thought of the games that were part of the mating rituals among his people and decided the males of the city are barbarians, worse than animals. He was embarrassed for them and to cover it, he asked whether they know what the Prince is searching for.
“All we heard is that a sorcerer of another land tore at the spirit of Princess Wendy on the day she was to wed our Prince and the wedding was postponed. Then we heard that the Prince and his sister, with trusted soldiers and others of the royal court left the city to recover the stolen part-spirit. We decided it was an act worse than rape and came after them to help.”
“They spoke of searching for the blue eyes of death. Would the eyes hold the spirit prisoner?”
“We say the eyes are windows to the spirit so it may be the evil sorcerer has used eyes.”
Cass nodded, “Or else he used jewels and named them the Blue Eyes of Death.”
Candy had asked Iziko whether Dominique could sit on his neck, with her. He’d agreed, but Dominique was riding stiffly, her legs straight and angled forward. Every time he moved his head to either side, her foot would kick him. Half in jest he grumbled, “One of these times I will forget and think they are food. Maybe then she will stop kicking my face.” Dominique heard and blushed. She tried to force her legs straight down and she swayed, nearly losing her balance. Candy grabbed her.
“Hold on to the ridges on his head, he will not mind.”
“Thank you. It is not the same as riding a horse. He keeps bobbing up and down!”
“How old are you? I’m five and a bit.”
“Nine. Do you really not remember your parents?”
“I don’t remember anything before he named me. Well, sometimes I think I do, but the memories go before I can remember them.”
“That’s sad. I don’t remember my father, he died when I was a baby, but at least I have my mother. Sometimes, when she thinks I am asleep, she holds his sword to her and cries inside.”
“Yes. No tears come out, but I can feel them inside her.”
Candy said, “She is beautiful, I hope my mother is.”
The track they had been following reached the end of the area the Kiards cultivate and died out where the ground began to rise to the hills. As they reached the brow of the first hill, Kganya pointed at a reddish hill that stretched as far as the eye could see to either side.
“It is said that those who cross it can never return to their homes. That is where the travellers come to, for there are stories of immense wealth on the other side. If you are not searching for wealth, then we should not cross it.”
Since Candy had not shown any interest, Prince Robert felt free to choose according to the prophecy.
“It is said we must cross it though everything be illusion on the other side.”
“I see it. Have any travellers passed this way recently?”
“No. Not for the last four years.”
“We better go see what manner of man would spend so much time here, I don’t want some stranger creeping along our back.”
They rode over the next low ridge and saw the man sitting by his fire. He looked up and smiled when Princess Cherine frowned. He got to his feet, nearly two metres tall, slim but wiry, dressed in specially treated chocolate brown leather pants and boots, a simple cotton shirt without buttons, but with two extensions at the lower end that were wrapped around his waist and tied. He bowed.
“Welcome my lady, what took you so long? I have coffee ready for all of you.”
“Thorn! What are you doing here?”
Candy was just as fascinated as everyone else, but she did not recognise his normal aspect. With his rich blonde hair, she thought he is handsome.
“What else my lady, I am here to protect you through the dangers that lie ahead.”
They did not need to ask him how he got here, for Thorn King is a well-known sorcerer. He had courted Princess Cherine for nearly a year and had left when she refused to even consider him as a future mate. She was not pleased to see him and feared he was grabbing the opportunity to be by her to woo her again. Cherine knows that the man she loves, though he is dead, or, as she thinks of it, not with her in this world and life, will be part of her life again and again until the end of time, so she is determined to avoid Thorn. She was about to make a cutting remark to discourage him when her brother spoke.
“Do you have knowledge of the land beyond the red hills?”
“Red hills? There are no red hills that I know of close by. Do you speak of the thorn tree barrier? How were you planning on passing through it?”
“Thorn trees!” Swiftly Prince Robert climbed to the brow of the next hill and stared.
“He is right. We’ll have to cut our way through.”
“You may try to. No doubt, you will join the skeletons of others who thought the same. Those are no ordinary thorn trees, they were placed to form a barrier and can re-grow their branches faster than you can hew them. We need fire and you have a dragon with, is it old enough to flame?”
“I am not an it! My name is Iziko. Of course I can, I’ll show you.” Iziko was mortified to find he could not. He wanted to run away and hide, but the girls were still on him.
“I am sorry Iziko, I forgot. Here you are, chew on it like last time.” Eagerly he waited for his mother to place the small rock on the ground so as not to bite her fingers by mistake. He crunched and swallowed. “He will be able to flame in a few minutes.”
“Was that enough for him to flame through two hundred metres?”
“No. The flames will only last about one minute. There is no nitre around here so we’ll have to find a different solution for the thorn trees.”
Thorn looked at the Kiards. “Two of you should be strong enough to carry all the nitre we will need. Come with me.” Willingly two of them made ready to accompany him on a long walk, but he touched them and they disappeared. The other Kiards did not seem anxious but they were curious, so Princess Cherine explained to them about Thorn.
They were soon back with two large sacks filled with rocks. Aqutina supervised how much Iziko was allowed to chew and they resumed their march. It was sundown by the time they arrived at the thorn trees so they decided to wait for morning. Iziko moaned and his belly rumbled until, in exasperation, Prince Robert told him to let off a blast at the thorn trees before them. Happily he burnt a tunnel to a depth of about twenty meters, sat down by Candy and softly moaned that he is hungry. She offered him the rest of her meal but he refused it. Aqutina got up without a word, got her weapons and left, a Kiard silently trailing her.
“She is remarkable!” his voice boomed and everyone, except for the Kiards, jumped up in shock. “She found a buck, but there was no cover to get her within the distance her little bow can shoot accurately, so she talked to the buck until she was close enough to kill it with one arrow!”
“Where is the buck?”
“I offered to carry it back, but she told me to leave it for the dragon to eat there.” Iziko jumped up, forgetting in his excitement that Candy was sleeping on him and she was knocked over. Partly from the shock of the rude awakening and partly from her head hitting the ground she burst into tears. Dominique rushed from her mothers’ side to console her little friend. Everyone froze when Wendy got up and going to Candy picked her up in her arms. As she cradled her, she softly hummed a tune and Candy quietened, her blue eyes staring up at Wendy's face, transfixed by an obvious rapture. Wendy made soothing motions as if rocking a baby until Candy fell asleep. Thorn smiled to himself and closed his eyes, feigning sleep as his mind raced.
Dawn proved that Thorn had spoken the truth. The tunnel Iziko had burnt was closed, no sign of the devastation he’d wreaked in evidence.
“We need to know how fast it grows back before we enter a tunnel. Iziko, can you make another tunnel?” They watched as the branches grew back, closing the space within twenty minutes.
Jescus said, in astonishment, “Well, I’ll be…this forest stretches for as far as we can see. For all of it to be so alive and capable of regenerating, potent magic must have been used, far above my limited capabilities! What could such a powerful sorcerer fear of our people?”
Thorn laughed. “You misunderstand. They do not fear us, the barricade was created to hold back magical creatures that would have quickly swept the Earth clean of all men - Kiards too. Be careful when we enter, even the scratch of one thorn can kill.”
“But, many magical creatures are able to fly, how would it stop them?”
Thorn concentrated and an ugly bird that looked more like a reptile took form. Its cold eyes stared down at Thorn and then it flew over the forest. A cloud of thorns shot up and the bird fell.
Alkion insisted they take the time to have a full meal as they cannot stop within the thorn forest and they do not know what awaits them on the other side. Prince Robert looked happy for the first time for a long time. Without making it obvious, he watched Wendy and Candy. Wendy's face had more colour to it and as she fed Candy, she talked to her.
First the men, then the women and children and then the Kiards at the rear formed a tight phalanx behind Iziko. Proudly he chewed a couple of extra rocks though he did not need them yet and then he raised his head and flames shot out. As the tunnel formed he moved forward and they all followed. The Kiards looked back as the tunnel closed behind them and they discussed it amongst themselves, but nobody was able to discern any signs of disquiet or worry, it was more like an interesting game to them. About a third of the way through, Iziko had to stop to chew on more rocks. He then needed a couple of minutes and the thorns were closing in on them when he finally grunted and opening his mouth resumed his task.
They all came out of the tunnel on the other side covered in soot and with rasping throats. Water bottles were passed around and then everyone praised Iziko. He was happiest when Candy hugged his smelly snout and told him she loves him.
Despite feelings running high, Cass could not resist teasing Candy, asking her if she plans to marry Iziko when she grows up. Candy replied in all earnestness, “No, I can’t. He told me he will take nearly a hundred years to grow up. I’ll be old by then!”
“The meat we brought with is going bad, we will have to hunt soon.”
“I apologise, I should have thought of it on the other side.”
“I’ll bring us a buck, if there is one.” Kganya offered. Without waiting, he grabbed his bow and quiver and left. A very small fire was made and they boiled water for coffee. This time even the children were given a mug. They could see a small river in the distance so they were not worried about refilling their water bottles. The hours passed and dusk was settling over the land when the other Kiards stood up.
“He should have returned by now. We will search for him.”
They returned three hours later without Kganya. “He is dead.” Morosely they sat down, but now they did not face the group, siting themselves at three points so that between them they can watch for an attack from all directions. Even Thorn was shocked, he’d also thought the Kiards invincible. For a moment he wondered whether it was wise of him to stay, but he could not use his powers to return. The thorn barricade would kill him and he could not think of a reason why the others would agree that the baby dragon accompany him back through the thorn trees. He was stuck here so he would have to throw his lot in with them. It only now dawned on him that his safe return depends on enough of the others surviving for him and Iziko to get back through the barricade. Whether he likes it or not, he now has to assume the role he’d taken in earnest.
“The night-time is likely to be more dangerous. Prince Robert, will you ask the ladies and children to lie down in the center while we take positions around them? I doubt many of us will get to sleep tonight. We also better eat during the night before the rest of the food goes bad - we can’t depend on chance providing food for us in the immediate future.”
Whatever had killed Kganya must have broadcast the news that strangers are in their land. Quickly a multitude of creatures surrounded them, yet they did not attack. Jescus was arguing this with Thorn, defending his reasoning that something must be preventing them. Aqutina gave Iziko his fill of nitre and kept more easily available as he will not be able to pause for long if they are attacked.
A few hours before dawn a number of large creatures flew in. As they arrived, Iziko became excited and called out. They were full-grown dragons. Voices were raised, but no one could understand what they were squabbling about. A dragon stepped closer and all became silent.
“You belong here with us. Leave them.”
“She is talking to you Iziko.” Dominique pointed out.
Iziko’s eyes glowed as he glanced at Aqutina. “I am with my mother, I belong here.”
“What!!” The old one was very obviously disturbed. “Explain. Which one is mother to you? Are you not a dragon?”
Aqutina stepped forward. “I found him when he was hatching. The body of his mother lay close to him. He accepted me as his mother.”
“Then both of you leave the others, you will not be harmed, no dragon has ever slain a dragon and we consider you a dragon.”
“I have friends here, I cannot leave.” Iziko said.
The old dragon matriarch had a fiery temper and she tried using her voice (and posture) of authority to order him. Then she threatened to name him a non-dragon (the other creatures pressed forward eagerly at this) and when he still refused, in absolute terror and cowed but refusing, she stepped forward and stretching her neck brought her snout to his. Out of fright, he let go a small flame that licked her face. Caught by surprise she pulled her head back and then laughed. “My own babies have done that to me. I do not like your name, it is not fitting for a dragon, but you are a dragon, not a shape-shifter. There are no dragons in the other land, how did your mother get across?”
“One of the ridges above her one eye was a green colour.” Aqutina volunteered.
“Sebetta! We have been worried about her. This is grievous news.”
“That is her name? Iziko, now you know your real mothers’ name.”
“Why would she risk the barrier? No matter, little one, I ask you one last time, bring your mother and join us, you owe nothing to the others.”
“I can’t. I love Candy.”
She struggled with herself, knowing it would infuriate the other species. “Bring her then. Which one is she?” Iziko pointed her out with his snout. “That half hatched? No matter, bring her with.”
Dominique whispered to Candy. She ran over and hugged his snout. “No Iziko, we cannot leave, they will kill everyone, even Wendy!”
The old lady did not wait, she turned around and spoke loudly, “All dragons are withdrawing. I warn you, anyone attacks the two dragons in this group, your entire species will be hunted down by us. Nobody attacks a dragon without incurring our wrath.”
One of the surrounding creatures called out, “We are allowed to feed off the others?”
“They are not our concern.”
A creature that looked like a cross between a lion and hyena stepped forward. “What if those dragons attack us? Do you expect us to do nothing?”
“The one dragon is a baby and the other does not know better. Any attack on them, whatever the reason, and we will sweep this land clean of all of you. Do not tempt us to break the agreement imposed on us centuries ago. To be certain you do not harm ours, I suggest you only attack the others when they stray from the group.”
“Great Mother!” Aqutina called out, “one last request.”
Without turning her body, she looked back. “You are a polite creature, we do not recall your kind being that civilised. What is your request?”
“We need to feed Iziko, we could not carry enough food to feed him for even one day. Taking him with on the hunt would guarantee that we are not successful. We need your protection for the hunts.”
“Not granted. If you must split up to hunt, then make certain one of you is always with each group.”
“Great Mother? I speak not these words - they are yours. When the Blue Eyes of Death are found and the spirit knows itself, on that day all of dragonkind will cease to exist, living on as a myth only.” Aqutina stumbled to her knees, a look of horror on her face.
Jescus shouted, “She spoke the truth, the words are not hers, she has the gift of prophecy and did not know of what she was about to speak.”
Aqutina was shaking. “It is no use, all of us will be gone from this land on that day and exist no more. All of us.”
The old lady had turned again and faced them with a puzzled look in her eyes. “This thing, it is what you entered our land to search for? Dragons know all jewels and all artefacts of magic, there is nothing bearing that name or description.”
Jescus nodded. “I have considered that possibility. Could it be that the Blue Eyes of Death are the eyes of a man or some other creature? If so, could the prophecy be wrong? If this creature is so lethal, is it not our only chance of survival to find and kill it before it destroys our worlds?”
The old one was silent for so long that many creatures that are by nature born short of patience were fidgeting, exchanging angry words with those of other species and even getting into fights. She shook her massive head as if wishing to rid it of something unpleasant.
“Mankind, your talent for bringing trouble with you is not a quality that endears you to us. For millennia we survive peacefully without dire prophecies and within one day of your arrival we face extinction? If you will not turn back, Iziko, by the time you find the eyes you will be older and your voice of the mind should be stronger. Call to us and all dragons will come to help you fight the evil that man speaks of, with claw, fire and magic.”
She ran a few steps, flapped her wings and rose into the air. All the other dragons joined her and everyone watched them until they faded from sight.
Jade said, in response to a comment, “Well, I like her. She is strong, fair and protects her people, unlike some leaders.”
Princess Cherine bristled. “Are you trying to hint at something?”
Jade flushed. “Oh no Princess Cherine, I would never say that about you. You are one of the straightest people I know. You are not always sympathetic to the plight of your people, but then no one of royal blood is. If I was a Princess I would like to be exactly like you.”
Alkion chuckled. “Your tongue twists and turns even more agilely than your sword arm.”
Cass asked sweetly, “You are not still angry with us are you?”
“I never was angry with you, I was angry with myself for letting you get away with your street games.”
“Iziko is hungry. Damn! With all those monsters around us, any game will have been scared away. What am I going to do?”
Thorn stood up and gave a gracious bow. “If you will trust me I can take you beyond them. You must come with my lady, or else they will attack if I go alone.”
While they were gone, a gross looking creature that was almost manlike came closer, his arms raised. “I come to see the baby dragon, no harm is intended.”
No one answered him so he came even closer, but carefully stayed out of the circle. “Oh my! Dragons are the most beautiful of all species, but you Iziko, you are definitely the most beautiful dragon I have ever seen. I am glad you found your way back into the land of your mother.”
“I’ll be following you, for I too am interested in seeing those dreadful eyes you seek. Take care my princling and we shall speak again.”
They took turns sleeping that night, but nothing came close. There were many howls of frustration, but it seems no species felt up to challenging the might of the dragons. By morning it could be seen that most of the creatures had gone, only the most vicious and slow-witted in appearance remained.
Aqutina had kept apart a haunch and they cooked it, drank their coffee and aimed for the river. The creature that had spoken to Iziko was close by, so Jescus called out to it, “The warning given by the dragons, does it apply to the creatures of the river?”
“It does, but they might not have heard since they would not have been present. It is unlikely any other creature would have passed on the warning, since they too are hunters or prey.”
Sylvestro muttered, “Magical creatures! Does their flesh yield to the sword?”
“If they attack us physically. They mostly seem to be creatures of strong appetites, so I think it is likely they will.”
Their hopes of bathing were gone, but they got water to fill their flasks without seeing anything that seemed threatening. Princess Cherine searched through her things and pulling out a ball of twine, she tied one end to an arrow. “Sylvestro, throw a small piece of meat close to that fish.” As he did so she aimed and waited for it to come close to the surface. Her arrow found it in the head and it died quickly. They hauled it out of the water, pleased to have a change from their diet of game.
As they finished their meal and warily relaxed, the creature came closer again.
“Prince of dragons, please explain so that someone as simple as I can understand how it is a glorious creature such as yourself chose such a…a different species as your mother.”
“Do not answer Iziko.” Prince Robert called out, “You shall not ask any questions of him.”
Its voice ingratiating, it almost whined in reply, “I did not mean to offend you, I was only curious.”
“Yes, I’m certain you are, are you hoping to find out how to acquire a baby dragon of your own?”
“No, no, I am only impressed by his devotion to those of your species. Your species are renowned for their cunning, but the idea of bringing a dragon with you, especially a baby dragon that cannot be ordered by other dragons to leave its mother, that is brilliant! You should not have lasted more than one day in our lands, and yet you now walk with impunity as if it is your garden, with the fiercest creatures of this land as your allies. Surely you are deserving of study? I would also like to learn more about the glorious Iziko, he is so charming!”
A Kiard raised his sword. “Go away!” As soon as the creature was out of earshot, the Kiard explained. “Lady, do you recall how you hunted the buck? That creature is a hunter, but it does not use claws, teeth or swords, it uses words to lull us. When we feel it is familiar and relax, it will strike.”
Alkion nodded. “It is good to remain wary of all until we return to familiar grounds.”
Over the next few days, as they travelled upriver, the creature followed them, every sundown approaching Iziko to flatter and praise every move he had made that day, while also insinuating that Iziko is a far grander and better being than his companions. Iziko had not accumulated the wisdom living brings us and his head began to swell and sometimes he would strut, putting on airs. It was comical, since his actions were those of a spoilt toddler, but the adults in the group soon realised their tolerance of the creature was putting them all in danger.
“My young lord, most beautiful dragon in the whole world, today I have a secret I will share with you. The others must not hear, will you come closer?” Candy put her arms around his front leg to stop him as Aqutina told him not to leave the group.
“But I want to hear the secret.”
Candy saved the day. “Do you want to keep secrets from me? I tell you everything.”
“I’ll always tell you my secrets Candy.”
“But if he tells you a secret that we must not know, then you will keep it from me.”
Iziko needed time to work that out. He was not being offered the time as the creature kept on pressuring-tempting him while Candy had to rely on staring into his eyes sadly. Finally, the creature made a mistake.
“I wish to declare myself your servant and guardian. I would gladly lay down my life for you. How can I be your servant if you do not know my name? I cannot let all hear my name, it is too dangerous for me. Come just for a moment so that you alone hear my name and have power over me.”
The concept of servants meant nothing to Iziko and his entire life till now had been based on affection, trust and love; he felt no need, not even a childish one, to have power over another.
Thorn laughed, moving a couple of feet away from the group, as if daring the creature to attack him. His voice showed his amusement, “Iziko, he talks nonsense. In this land, dragons have power over everyone. You do not need his name to make him your servant. It is only a trick to move you away from us so that we can be attacked. They want to kill your Candy.”
Flames roared out of his mouth as Iziko made to attack the creature. Everyone rushed to stop him. Angrily he stared at the creature, obeying their orders to stay with them. When he calmed down, Candy clambered up onto his neck and systematically tapped at the bony ridges on his head. Iziko patiently waited, wondering what she was doing.
Candy climbed down and stood in front of him, a grin on her face. “A lot of them have holes…I mean they are filled with holes, there is nothing inside. Maybe, as you grow, your brains will grow into them and you will become clever. You are such a silly baby sometimes, but I love you so much!” She hugged his snout tightly so that he could not breathe without blowing on her, so he waited until she let go and then gasped as he inhaled. His tail whacked the ground a few times, prompting everyone to quickly get out of the way. “I love you too Candy. Anyway, I’m not silly!”
Thorn was the only one not surprised when Wendy picked up Candy, her face soft with affection and amusement. “He is silly, a little bit, but he is a baby Candy. Can you sing to him of your love? I’d like to hear you sing.”
“I don’t know a song for that.”
“Make one up.”
Enchanted by her sweet childish voice they listened as she sang a wordless song. Wendy gradually joined her, strengthening her song and Prince Robert felt tears in his eyes as he stared at his love. For the first time he felt his love extend to Candy also.
Later, after their meal, they sat warily relaxing with small talk, when Candy walked past Prince Robert. He put out his arm, blocking her, and when she stopped he put his arm around her waist and pulled her to him. At first, she was nervous, but he continued talking with the others, his hands absentmindedly stroking her arms until she relaxed. She leant back against his chest and closed her eyes, her face radiating her happiness. Prince Robert had not lived in an environment where adults openly display affection for children and had surprised himself when he’d pulled her to him. He could not understand what had come over him and was slightly embarrassed, but he had to admit he enjoyed the feeling of her tiny body sitting on him.
Dominique, in jest, had named the creature ‘Iziko’s shadow’ and thereafter, when they spoke of it they referred to it as the Shadow. It continued to dog them, making itself useful in little ways. It gradually dawned on Alkion that the other creatures kept their distance from Shadow and when he pointed it out they all became alert again, worrying what its powers are.
Softly Thorn said, “If they all fear it, it must be truly dreadful but, all the same, it is of some use to us. I’m certain that many of the beasts would have tried to attack us while we collect firewood, or hunt or sleep. At least we only have one enemy to contend with, however lethal it is, while if we were attacked by a multitude of beasts using magic, claws and teeth, we would not survive. Jescus, surely you and I together can handle any magical powers it has?”
“This is a land of magic, they live and die by it, their powers must be far more developed than ours.”
They all hated to ask Shadow for a favour, but after a few weeks of trudging through the heat of the day, the women were all nagging to be allowed to wash. Even the men admitted to themselves that they themselves smelled rather rank and something had to be done.
“It would be risky for me to get close enough to communicate with them and even if I succeed, they are just as likely to ignore the dragons edict. I don’t understand your need to bathe since I find your scents sweeter than they were when we first met. I should warn you that as we get closer to the city the water beasts grow more vicious and less intelligent.”
“City? What city?”
“You did not know? I thought that was the purpose of you taking this direction. I was surprised and worried that you are willing to risk such a fine dragon by approaching a city. They are the only species not bound by the agreement enforced on us centuries ago and they still wage war on dragons - when they feel like it.”
“Of what species are the inhabitants of the city?”
“They claim to be of your species. I would not trust them if I were you.”
“I thought it was said there are none of our species on this side of the barrier!”
Shadow made a mock bow to Thorn, “You are wise.”
“Wise! You mean they are not? What are they then? Shapeshifters?”
Only Thorn and Jescus caught the undertones of amusement in its reply, “If they think they are of Man, perhaps they are? I shall wait outside the influence of the city until you resume your journey, if you do. Would you like Prince Iziko to wait there with me? It would be safer for him, I’ll guard him with my life if need be.”
Its offer caught them by surprise and because it carried so much sense, they found it difficult to reject it outright. They argued among themselves, the Kiards pointing out that it was an honourable offer and they should not insult the Shadow by rejecting it. Alkion grew increasingly impatient as they discussed it, until he could not contain himself anymore.
“Prince Robert, you cannot be seriously considering accepting! A touch of cynicism might be healthier for all of us. Not only have our own senses warned us that this creature is treacherous, but the old dragon made it clear that mankind is hated by all the species of this land.”
I hope you enjoy reading this story of fantasy, adventure and love - and should some of it be true for our reality, I hope you will love our Cherine.
Αλέξανδρος Ζήνον Ευσταθίου(Alexander Zenon Eustace)
14th February, 2020
- posted: 14th February, 2020
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