|To anyone that is new to this story, please got to my portfolio and start with The Mid-hills. It may help you follow along, and then again it may not.
Her view was a cruel one, looking south to a sun that no longer shone, it being merely a dull gray bruise on the horizon. Her prison was lofty, not at the highest point of the tower, but near enough to her captor to keep her quiet and secure. She pressed her hand to the glass and felt the cold beyond. Below her the city was frozen; she couldn’t remember how long it had been this way. She longed for the simple rainy days, when the sun peaked through randomly, but you knew it was there and would shine again full someday, when spring came.
With this winter she felt there would be no spring. He, the dark one, brought this on, she thought, shuddering at his memory. At least she was left to herself most of the time, not tortured, yet, and fed well enough. She was no longer shackled as before, when first she had found herself aware again.
Something black had taken her, while on her mission to warn her father of the storm. She hoped he would know, but he had probably forgotten, all of the signs of what was coming. Now he could walk into a trap, without knowledge.
She drifted in and out of herself, dreaming.
He was there, Penn. He was laughing at something floating in the sky, a puff of something. He tried to capture it lightly in his hands, but it would always slip away. He was determined to catch it to see what it was. He must have been dreaming too.
She felt the shadow of the tower like Penn did, but from the inside. She belonged here, and was tied to this place as much as any of the players. Her uncle had held her here when he could, when her private school would allow it, and when she wouldn’t run away.
She ran a lot, but he always caught her. Her father was out there, condemned like most of the others, to search for that thing that could bring some sense to the world and what was going on with the future.
The arms of Kilmer III reached far, they were strong and grasping, unrelenting. He had gathered many agents and mercenaries to his cause, and they were more than willing to do the bidding of one so austere. Small minds are easily led.
He searched, like her father Tom, for the secret of Seth, Penn’s long dead grandfather. He was obsessed with anything having to do with Penn and his inheritance. His plan was years in the making, intricate manipulations of circumstances, exploiting any that he could. Kilmer’s spies were woven deep in the fabric of the city.
Chloe had always feared him, loathed him. She knew it was him that held her now, far above the frozen city streets, though she hadn’t yet seen his bony face. Instead she had endured the claustrophobic grip of the thing as it bore her to her captivity in the tower. It was darker than her uncle, looming in the shadows, waiting, observing. She was sweating with fear and her breath fired in and out of her lungs.
There was nowhere to go. The single door to the massive office was locked, and the windows were thick safety glass, with sixty stories of empty space before the sidewalk. She could think of no possible escape.
She stayed near the window because of the light, even though it was cold there. Just now she was leaning into the glass looking down into the white, the skies angry gray above her. Something caught her eye like a snowflake, floating quickly past. It reappeared a moment later, incredibly against the wind, and bobbed about for a short time inches from Chloe’s face. She watched until a violent gust caught the little puff, and cast it out into the void.
A small table had been set with a meager meal, which she hadn’t touched. A scrubbly little man brought her food while a larger man stood guard just outside the door. What few words she heard were full of expectation and dread anticipation. Something was expected to happen on the upper floors of the skyscraper. She had been here almost two days, and her nerves were taut
It was from above that she felt the thing darker than Kilmer.
Chloe slumped against the wall, wishing she had told Penn at least a little of what she knew. He was left unaware, with demons prowling at the doors. He was smart, but untested.
She slept for a while, how long later she couldn’t remember. She woke and saw a mouse upon the table eating the meal she hadn’t.
The rodent turned and grinned at her, “If you don’t want it, I’ll be taking care of it for you. Food is getting scarce these day’s, thanks to the dark thing upstairs.”
Chloe perked up at that.
“When is lunch served in this part of heaven?” The mouse asked politely, “This bread is stale.”
‘What’s your name old one?” Chloe asked.
“Charles,” He answered, “Lunch?” He turned slowly from his dried fruit.
“Oh, lunch is when they decide I deserve it, I guess. But they all seem to be upset about something, or waiting for an event of some sort.” Chloe looked at him for answers. She guessed he had more than a few hidden behind his fur.
“They are, and it’s coming. Just don’t know when.” Charles licked the last of the butter from the plate, “But it will be soon, and people are looking for you.”
“Looks like they already found me,” Chloe gazed upward.
“Those aren’t people,” Charles admonished, “Any of them.”
“But my Uncle Kilmer…” She started, but trailed off in uncertainty.
“The Kilmer, you mean,” the mouse replied, “Evil, yes, and dangerous. He is nothing compared to the thing above. And Kilmer is no longer a person, either.”
“Can you help me, Charles?” Chloe asked, “I need to get word to a friend of mine. He is in danger and doesn’t know it.”
“If it’s that drunken boyfriend of yours, he knows now.” Charles replied, “And just maybe it snapped him out of his stupor. I’ve got somebody else watching him.” He thought about Crow and rolled his eyes. “And what do you mean old?”
Bill wanted so much to follow after his old friend Thomas, knowing apples were hidden like treasures in the old coat he wore. But he had done what he needed to help Tom see clear, and that was all he could do. Thomas was now Tom, and he smelled different to Bill. Old Thomas was there, of course, but taken up by something more. Purpose.
Bill the Pony trotted off muttering to himself, hoping when he returned Patrick would have something treat-like for him.
Like Tom, he found his place, turned, and was where he needed to be.
He arrived at dawn near the second stream that flowed from Old Cherry Farm, close to his favorite drinking hole, and found a surprise. A man lay half frozen in the frigid waters, bleeding and shivering. He was half dead, though his eyes, ice crusted and glazed, showed life. His lips were blue.
Bill grabbed the man by his jacket, and dragged him out of the water. He pulled him into the lee side of a huge maple, letting him rest into a pile of frozen leaves. The man tried to reach out to Bill, but fell back in exhaustion.
Bill galloped to the river and dipped his head, and whinnied into the current with all of his pony power. His message carried quickly downstream to his master, who at that very moment was washing his face in the icy torrent.
Bill was frantic. He knew the man was hurt, and that he was important, and could help in the war. He smelled the stench of the wolf things on him, and also knew he could do nothing else to help. He stamped his feet in place, and listened. Nothing came back. His brothers in the pasture back at the farm were silent.
Above him crows cawed, echoing among the tall firs and cedars of the grove. Ice shattered, brittle in the high branches, crashing down in the silence of the trees.
Bill knew, or at least thought, the man was safe here in Patrick’s Forest.
Before too long Patrick came bounding through the trees, and looked at his visitor in wonder.
This one should have been in the warmth of Ruthy’s house, not torn and broken in the forest. Who then, was the guest for dinner, Patrick pondered for an instant. He had to push it aside until he tended to his long ago neighbor.
Patrick dragged Fox further under the cover of the maple, glancing back toward the river, looking furtively upstream. He could smell creature just as Bill could. He went to a near cedar and pulled thin, dry paper bark from the trunk, and gathered light twigs lying in his path. He built carefully a fire, the flame sparked by something he had pulled from the deepest of pockets of his cavernous coat. He held it above the tinder and spoke a word, and flames burst from within. He buried it again in his coat, having used it only at great need.
It was his forest; he heard the chatter of brown squirrels across the valley, and the distant snuffling of a black bear searching for grubs. Patrick knew when the wind blew on the hilltop, even when he wasn’t there. He could recite the names of every beast that traveled in his land. His territory was large, but after ten years of imprisonment in it, it had become small, and he was part of it.
But now he smelled something new, and it was rancid.
It was here now! After so long watching for signs and reason, the moment was come. He was loose, the dark thing long expected.
Patrick quickly understood the peril he was under. He smothered the small fire with a few handfuls of snow, and pulled up limp Fox by his scruff. He turned, and Bill was there, ready to accept the injured man.
He pulled off his huge coat and draped it over Fox. They had to get under cover.
It seemed mad to Patrick, suddenly, that the best place to go was the one he had most avoided. Under the old railroad tracks lay the caves, only a hundred yards, but mostly in the open. He was off, pulling Bill behind him like luggage on rollers, and Bill galloped along without complaint.
He knew exactly the trail he had to follow.
They moved quickly across the frozen meadow, the only sounds breathing and muffled footfalls, until the trees finally surrounded them. Fox moaned lightly from Bill’s back, his eyes opening, life returning.
“Keep quiet, Fox,” Patrick whispered, “We’re almost there.” He motioned ahead toward a silent wall of moss-covered granite, looking for a passage long unused but well remembered. The way opened before them, a path unfolded in the rock, the same he traveled with Penn years before.
Above them like black lightning flashed a flamethrower. It roared its independence across Patrick’s forest, setting the captive free. Patrick felt the warm flow of outside air already returning to the frozen lands of his imprisonment.
They rested in the mouth of the cave, far enough from the entrance to avoid the occasional gobbet of fire, belched up from the depths of Naug’s rotten belly.
Patrick found a flask of some liquor in Bill’s saddlebags, forcing a good bit down Fox’s throat. Color returned quickly to his bluing lips, and he sputtered aware.
“What the hell was that?” Fox rubbed his eyes with his one good hand, and reached for the liquor. “And who the hell are you?”
“Patrick Abbott at your service,” He grinned and handed over the silver flask. “Its moonshine and herbs from the Forest, my own recipe. You don’t spend this long locked in eternal winter and not learn what you can do with what you’ve got.” While Fox nursed the concoction, Patrick nursed Fox.
“You’ll live,” Patrick declared after poking and prodding the wound. He wrapped the wound in dried moss he pulled from his coat. “But we need to get you mended. And quick. We’re going to war Fox. You understand that, don’t you?”
Fox’s eyes narrowed, his nose twitched, and he took another snort of the brew.
"Patrick? Really? After all these years," Fox hardly recognized the bearded woodsman.
“You don’t really mean,” Fox had a stunned, and stoned, look on his face, “That there was a dragon all along?”
“Was. Still is.” Patrick looked into the narrowing cavern with interest. “And he’s really, really, pissed.”
He turned from the pale pink sun beaming from the morning forest “Let’s see what the old worm left behind.” He walked down the tunnel into darkness, Bill following obediently.
“All those years you took me dragon hunting, we really were looking for a dragon. Incredible.” Fox pulled again hard on the flask. “But you and your family could have been a little more up front about what was really going on.”
“This has been a curse, or a blessing, on my family for many long years. And none of us have any good idea of what it’s all about.”
Patrick smiled huge through his red beard at the wounded man lying over his faithful pony Bill.
It looked to Fox like his friends hair might catch on fire from his excitement.
“The ways are open Fox. I am free. The dragon is released, somehow, and so am I.”
“Let’s take those chanterelles I found in your shirt to the best cook in the valley. And maybe we’ll have some sourdough biscuits to go along, sopped in lamb gravy.”
“Let’s,” Fox grinned back. He knew Ruthy’s cooking almost as well as kin, though long it had been.
Patrick’s taste buds were waking up after a long drought in anticipation of his Aunt Ruthy’s expertise in the kitchen. He hurried along with purpose.
The way was relatively short to the chamber that had for centuries held the dragon Naug. After going down several steep passages, where in darkness Bill never stumbled, a wonderful glow struck the three when they stepped into the cell. Fox wondered at the light in the darkness, as jewels and golden treasures glistened in his blurred vision
“Get me down off of poor Bill. I think I can walk for a while now.” Vitality returned though his shoulder still slumped and seeped. “I want a prescription in perpetuity for whatever is in that little silver flask.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Patrick answered, his eyes gleaming in the golden radiance “Let’s first see what we can find of use in a dragon’s hoard.”
“How long now?” Fox asked Patrick, “Have you been gone?”
“In the forest?” he responded, while digging through jeweled goblets and ornate crowns, “or gone?”
“Since you disappeared,” Fox replied. He wandered little from Bill, needing the support of the sturdy pony. He was drunk now, or drugged, or both, he thought absently. The pain in his shoulder had almost disappeared, but the limb still acted like dead wood.
“Almost fifteen years.” Patrick was sorting now through a variety of swords and lances, choosing function over form, evaluating weight to value. “Seems like yesterday that Penn and I lost each other. Where does the time go?”
“It travels under our feet like rolling earth while we are standing still, it seems to move so fast.” Fox muttered. “We all looked for you. The official search was short, of course. You’re folks, well mostly your dad, wrote it off as a fools fate.”
“It was,” Patrick pulled from the hoard a blade tarnished with age, used yet still useful. He held it to his chest. “And now the fool will avenge the lost years.”
“Grab a weapon Fox,” Patrick instructed, “Something you can use with one hand. The path may not be clear.”
Crow burst in suddenly, looking quite worn. It was almost midnight but the old mouse was awake.
“Late!” Sebastian said, “As usual.”
“I know, and I’m sorry.” Crow croaked.
Sebastian was speechless. Crow never apologized, only complained.
“I have a report, Sir!” Crow said. He had never bothered with protocol before either.
“Go on,” Sebastian said.
“Rats, thousands of them, have taken the bridges north of the city. Some of them are huge; wharf rats from down on the docks it looks like. There are a few nasty looking dogs about also. They look like they’re sniffing for something, all over the city.”
Sebastian provided Crow a small drink of wine. “Anything else?” He asked.
“I followed that puff thing for a while. I lost it when a gust took it toward the tower. I tried to follow, but was attacked by seagulls. Of all things, damned rats with wings. Whether they were attacking me because they are new soldiers of the dark army, or just wanted crow for lunch, I don’t know. I got out of there in a hurry.”
“I think it was probably a lot of both,” Sebastian replied. “No garbage in the streets to feed on, and most of them are feeble minded.”
“I know what you mean,” Crow went on, “The rats patrolling the bridges are looking pretty thin and scraggly. None of them sounded happy with the slim army rations they were being allowed, when I could get close enough to hear them. And I think that Tom friend of Charles’ is crazy. Just before I got here he ran off up the hill muttering about remembering something having to do with maps. Charles probably told you that already.” Crow looked around, “Where is the little rodent anyway?”
“I wish I knew,” Sebastian answered with sadness, “He hasn’t been seen for two days.”
They both sat silent for a time. Crow finished his wine and ate stale pieces of bread.
“I know it’s late, and you’re on short sleep and rations,” Sebastian started, halfheartedly.
“And you need me to fly another mission?” Crow finished for him.
“If you’re up to it, yes.”
“Another sip of wine, to keep my blood warm, and you’ve got a deal.”