More of the story
Braghm held tight to the dragon Amistra's neck. She was careful, flying just after dawn made her bulk visible in the sky. Amistra stayed low to the ground, coasting over farm land and hills.
"There! That's our homestead," Braghm called.
The dragon circled the settlement, waiting to see if any intruders lingered there. It was a ruin of blackened timbers and tumbled rock. Corrals that once held horses and cows were shattered and empty. At the back of the destroyed structure four graves had been dug and covered. Braghms mother and three farm hands lay in death's repose within the mounds. He felt his throat contract with sorrow, but swallowed the grief and dismounted from the dragon's back. He ran to a patch of harvested earth, nearly frozen in the winter's cold. An ancient oak tree hid a little well covered in green moss. Kneeling, he pulled at a brick on the well's side. It gave way and he retrieved a leather sack about the size of a man's head.
Running back to Amitra, he mounted and said, "let's go."
The dragon wheeled upward, her wings sparkling in the morning sun. Up, up, out of the range of the weapons of men she rose. The air was colder up here and Braghm huddled low against her body. From up here, Braghm could see the blue river like a ribbon running through the tawny hair of a young girl. Banks of trees, their winter fingers reaching toward the sun, swayed and bowed in the wind. Where the army had marched, the land was scorched, blackened by the fires of the encroaching legions.
Amitra turned toward the cliffs and the safety therein.
Ysabeaux neared The Altar. It was in a grove of sturdy oaks. Mistletoe twined within the tree's branches adding spots of red. The grove was beautiful in the slanting morning sun. After concealing her mount at the back of the Alter in a thick stand of gorse, she took the tools she would need to perform the ceremony from her saddle bags. Incense, brought by traders from Cathay many years ago, two crystals, one clear as spring water, the other a cloudy purple hue, she lay side by side on the Altar. She added a cup and filled it with water from the sacred well at which she had sheltered two nights before. Princess Ysabeaux crushed the incense, placing the golden bowl that held it on a brazier lit from beneath with a low flame. The incense rose in a slender white column of smoke. She knelt before the altar muttering her spell. She felt the same heat, the same electric spark that she had felt as a girl when she first realized she could communicate with DragonKind.
Bending forward, Ysabeaux lay her forehead against the cool tiles before The Altar. Her voice rose slightly as she chanted. Wherever the dragons were, they would hear her and come.
Ysabeaux rose slowly, settling back on her haunches. As she did she felt something sharp prick the back of her neck. She raised her hand to the spot, pulled it away, and saw blood. Turning about quickly her eyes met those of a Roman Legionnaire.
Far across the plains Amitra wheeled to the left.
"What are you doing?" Braghm asked. He knew that time was the most important part of this quest. The Roman army would not wait for them to return to the mountain peaks.
"A Caller. I heard the voice of a Caller in the north. There . . . I can hear it . . . but, it is . . . gone"
She circled a few more times trying to hear the voice again without success. Amitra turned for the cliffs once again.
She flew higher, the rising sun shedding bits of light that twinkled like stars on her blue-green scales. Amitra swerved suddenly to the side. A great force had knocked into her. She whirled about crazily; causing Braghm to cling tightly to her neck. Once again something slammed into Amitra's side. Braghm saw it, a good sized blue dragon. He was turning about again for another strike. The blue dragon flew beneath Amitra and pulled up short in front of her. He flew forward, his talons outstretched. He grabbed at Amitra's chest, sending his deadly claws into her body. She gasped, and rolled away, spinning rapidly down toward the ground.
"I . . . will . . . try to stay . . . righted." Amitra struggled to speak, "dive . . . for the . . . trees . . ."
Braghm huddled close to Amitra's neck. As he held on, the blue dragon swooped low and pulled the leather sack from his belt where it hung, and flew off.
"I . . . am . . . done."
They crashed into the tops of trees, skidding along through the branches. Cracked tree limbs fell on Braghm. He was thrown off of the hapless dragon who's body hung suspended by heavy tree limbs. The top of one tree punctured her wing, tearing the sparkling membrane sending a shower of light blue scales onto the forest floor. Amitra was dead.
Braghm stood slowly. His ribs were cracked and cuts and scrapes lined his face and hands, but he was other wise in good shape. Inhaling, his ribs caused him a deal of pain. He removed his bear skin, then his tunic and cut the shirt into strips. He used the strips to bind his ribs and replaced his bear skin for warmth.
The Stone is gone. Now we are truly lost. But, what would a dragon want with The Stone, when I am returning it to the Dragon Master?
These thoughts went through Braghm's head as he struggled up an incline and down to the northward road. He walked along, wary of any other presence. The woods could be teaming with Roman soldiers for all he knew. The sun was high in the sky when he came to The Altar. Braghm was not familiar with this place. He looked about and noted the recent offerings, water in a stone cup, incense, all but burnt out now, and the two crystals. He looked around for the supplicant. Finding no one, he called out. Only the whiney of a horse responded. Carefully he pushed through the brambles to see a mount dressed in the livery of King Adelbert. He noted the horse's hooves had been muffled against tracks and noise.
"A king's man. Where is your rider? Watching the army, no doubt."
Braghm patted the horses neck, soothing the animal. He climbed on its back and steered him toward the ridge that ran juxtapose the road. If any soldier's columns traipsed this way he would be above them.
Belaris accepted the leather sack, opening it deftly with one claw. The Opal Stone shone dully in the cast light of the huge fireplace.
"I will keep this here," he told Estu, Sopang's son. "You have done well. Your reward is assured. When I am dragon overlord, all dealings with human's will cease. Our lost descendants will be vindicated at last."
Sopang hung his head. His worry was the breaking of a treaty, the dishonesty that he was caught up in and the hatred of Belaris for forcing him into this situation.
"I will leave now," Sopang said.
"Hold, Brother Sopang. Swear a blood oath that you will not tell any of the whereabouts of The Stone."
"I . . . . I swear."
With the oath agreed to, Belaris rolled the ball back into the sack, pulled the draw string tight and lifted the bag to place it into a large iron chest against one wall.
Sopang bowed his head, a semblance of respect and left the chamber. Now he was bound by honor to do an evil thing. He growled and hurried along the corridor. He might yet save the circumstances, if he hurried and if he could find The Caller in time.
The enemy encampment stretched a long way to the west and south. A multitude of tents had been planted like so many crops in ordered rows. Braghm surveyed the camp from the ridge. He dismounted and crawled closer, the road below him was filled with troops on the move.
It will take a bit of luck to get past them, he thought.
He brought the horse down the other side of the embankment. Leading him into a small grove, he tied the animal to a tree and patted its neck. Climbing back up the hill, he lay on his stomach watching the movement of the troops. He lost the Opal Stone, the dragon sanctuary was miles away, and though he had the horse, the thought of climbing that mountain again with aching ribs, filled him with weariness.
"Stone bearer . . ."
He heard a woman's voice call as distinctly as if she were next to him.
"Stone bearer . . . I know you are near. Help me."
Braghm turned over and looked all around. No woman stood near, no other person was behind or around him. He shook his head and lay back on his stomach to watch the troops.
"Stone bearer, please, you must help me!"
"Who are you?"
There was a pause in which he heard nothing, then, the voice said, I am in the camp, help me . . . then silence.
Braghm climbed a tree at the hilltop to look into the Roman camp. At first he only saw soldiers, busying themselves with preparations for their onslaught. As he watched a man in the King's livery was pulled from one of the tents and dragged across the campground.
That must be the King's man who's horse I found. But, where is this woman?
"Stone Bearer, help me."
The captive man's head fell back and Braghm could see that the livery clad man was a young woman. The woman who's voice was inside of his head.
Braghm thought quickly. The road was useless to him, soldiers made a constant stream of passage along its route. He would have to backtrack through the valley, around the hill and across the river in order to get to the camp. He rushed to the horse, mounted and sped off westward. He would have to hurry, he knew her life hung on his swift response.
Sopang whirled in the late afternoon sky. High above the earth, he looked like a bird circling on a windblown current. No one would suspect he was a dragon. He looked down. The Roman camp was indeed as huge as the humans proclaimed. He could swoop down, burn them all to a crisp, but Belaris would still have the Opal Stone and still be able to carry out his plan. Sopang did not relish the idea of rebellion. Helping him against the humans was one thing. He did not hold a soft spot for them and his suspicions of their motives followed. But, against the Dragon Lord, he did not want to fight. He feared decimation of the youthful dragons lured by Belaris' words. They knew nothing of their past, only what had been told to them. In many instances Humans had been a help in their hard times. True, they had hunted DragonKind, but for the most part and in most of the past years, they had lived together in mutual trust and harmony.
If Sopang could get the Opal Stone away from Belaris, then perhaps the humans would have a chance. Belaris planned to wait until the Romans attacked King Adelbert's fort, then join the fight on the Roman's side. Grateful, the Roman army would not hunt them. Belaris was not counting on the fear that the Roman's would feel at the site of the huge beasts, flooding down from the sky and attacking. Perhaps they would even think the dragons were attacking them. Sopang did not like this plan, it pitted DragonKind against one another. It disrupted the peace.
He wheeled to the left and headed back toward the dragon strong hold. But, what was that?
Help . . . me. . . Stone . . .
Sopang dove closer. A Caller! It had to be a Caller.
From his vantage point in the sky he homed into the voice and saw a soldier in the King's livery being taken from one tent to another.
A Caller had spoken and Sopang was very interested.
"Quisnam es vos?"
The man waited for Ysabeaux's response. The language was foreign to her. She raised her head defiantly. She did not understand, but she would not show this invader fear.
"Quisnam es vos?" The man asked once more.
"Qua es vos iens?"
Once again Ysabeaux did not answer. The man came close to her and looked at her face. He picked up her hand and turned it over. Running his hand along her palm, he turned to another soldier and spoke again in his strange tongue.
"Is est non a agricola."
He sighed and sat down on a camp chair before her.
"Vos es a mulier constituo. Foristan is est ieiunium, tribuo suus victus."
He waved his hand and an attendant brought her a tray filled with meat and fruits. She turned her head away, though her stomach begged her to take a piece. In her mind she amplified her plea for help. If they discovered her true identity, she could be held for ransom forcing her father to quit the battle field.
Where is the Stone Bearer? She thought as a soldier led her across the tent floor to a seat where the tray of food was settled next to her. Her questioner studied her. Perhaps, she thought, he is trying to think of way to communicate. The man came close to her. He looked down at her and smiled. He was trying, she decided to put her at ease. Ysabeaux understood why he had examined her hand. He could see she was not a peasant, not a worker and had some quality about her station. His interest in her piqued, she had little to do but bite a piece of a sliced apple and looked up at him. Biding her time was her best bet with hopes that the Stone Bearer would come to her aid.
Translation of the Latin text
:"Quisnam es vos?" "What is your name?"
"Qua es vos iens?" "Who are you?"
"Is est non a agricola." "She is no farmer"
"Vos es a mulier constituo. Foristan is est ieiunium, tribuo suus victus." "You must be tired and hungry, here eat."
Braghm looked for a way into the camp. It seemed impossible, every entryway was blocked by sentries or wary soldiers who certainly would deal the death blow as soon as Braghm was noticed. He could ride his horse at break-neck speed through the camp and cause quite a commotion, but he did not know where the prisoner was being kept. He decided to bring the horse to the edge of the camp and wait for the sun to set. It would not be long from now. He settled behind a thick copse of sedge and waited. The horse was tied to a tree in a stand of pine. The beast would not be noticed since all the soldiers were sticking close to the camp.
As the sun began to set, camp fires were lit. The men settled into their evening preparations for the next day's march. Some sharpened swords, some ate, some of them checked over their gear, not one of them was expecting the rider-less horse that charged into the camp, a large clump of burning bushes anchored to its hind end. Pandemonium reigned, sending soldiers to run to the camp's boundaries to inspect, others drew weapons and formed a loose phalanx intended to defend, while others chased down the horse to douse the flaming brush.
Braghm watched as the legionnaires ran about the campsite trying to catch the frightened beast. From one tent in the midst of so many, Braghm saw the woman's head peek out and quickly duck back inside when the guard at the door shouted some words at her. Now, he knew where she was.
Once again, he heard her voice in his head.
"This way, Stone-Bearer. This way."
Slowly, Braghm crept through the gathering shadows as the soldiers tackled the nervous horse. He ducked between tents, keeping down low. As he reached the tent where Ysabeaux was held captive, he lifted the tent wall and looked inside. There she was, sitting on a low couch, her dark eyes filled with expectation.
"I am here, Caller. Come with me."
She turned her head toward the tent flap and nodded at the guard's back that stood there. She did not speak, but Braghm heard her voice.
"We must be careful . . ."
The guard entered the tent, checking on the woman. She looked up at him and smiled. The guard coughed a bit, turned about to leave, but she called him back.
"Do you have water? Water . . . drink?"
Ysabeaux made a face over the glass of wine as if it made her ill. The guard approached and picked up the wine. From the guard's back, Braghm ran toward the soldier. With his knife he made one clean cut across the soldier's throat. Ysabeaux was already at the tent wall, ducking low beneath it. Braghm joined her and hand in hand, they ran toward the border of the encampment. As they reached the bushes, Braghm scooted through the brambles and pulled Ysabeaux behind.
Darkness had descended; the only light this night were the fires in the camp. The pair made their way over the ridge and deeper into the forest. From the camp the sound of trumpets blared. They heard the shouts of many men. The dead soldier had been discovered and with it, Ysabeaux's absence.
"We must get away, quickly," Braghm said.
Ysabeaux led Braghm to a giant oak in the forest's glen. It was wider than ten men standing hand in hand. On the backside of the tree, a deep crevice had been formed. She pulled Braghm inside. Someone long ago had excavated a cavern deep inside the living tree. As they stepped inside, the ground sloped downward to a bed of roots and soft earth. They could wait out the search here and not be discovered. After the encampment settled down, they would make their break.
Ysabeaux trailed a thick bundle of gorse and weed behind her as they entered the tree's trunk, pulling it up across the door and obliterating their tracks. With the entrance sealed from view, the pair settled in for the night. Soon, they heard the footfalls of men beyond their hiding place. They noted the flicker of firebrands which the soldiers carried for wont of light. Their strange language was shouted back and forth, and the ring of ready swords fell on their ears.
Ysabeaux smiled at Braghm as the soldiers drifted away, looking in other spots for the fugitive.
"They do not know about you. They believe I am alone. That is an advantage."
"Who are you?" Braghm asked, munching a chunk of bread which he shared with Ysabeaux.
"I am King Adelbert's daughter, Ysabeaux. I am a caller. You are the Stone-Bearer, true?"
"I am Braghm, son of Boylon, Bearer of the Opal Stone. I had the Stone, but a dragon's band took it away. They killed the dragon I rode upon. I don't think they were from The Dragon Lord."
"Then you do not have the stone?"
Ysabeaux stretched out her legs and folded her arms behind her head.
"There is nothing more we can do then."
"I must get back to the Dragon's Hall. I must tell the DragonMaster that the stone was taken."
"Yes, and we will go. Let us wait until the camp settles down. Still, we must be vigilant. After this escapade, they will double the sentries on the roads. It's alright," she added, seeing the discouragement on Braghm's face, "I know a path that they will not even dream exists."
Ysabeaux smiled at Braghm and closed her eyes. A little rest was what they both needed.
In a rocky outcrop, Sopang settled down. He folded his grey mottled wings over himself, blending in wonderfully with the stone around him. The dawn would come soon. He did not want to risk exposure against the sun. He did not fear the army he had inspected last evening, he feared Belaris. He would sleep until night, then return to the lair. By then, the attacking army will have taken the field around King Adelbert's castle. By then, it may be too late to do anything, but Sopang valued his life. Once the night had risen, he would hunt for the Stone Bearer and the Caller. He sensed that they were together, though he did not know where. He hoped that the Caller would speak, advising him of her whereabouts. But, he would need them both to complete the defeating spell. With one eye peeping through his gathered wings, Sopang rested, waiting out the day.
Within the darkened tree stump, Ysabeaux knelt and began to chant. She scribed symbols and sigils into the earthen floor and raised her hands even with her face. Closing her eyes, she waited. Braghm noticed a soft white glow fill the rounded wall of the enclosure in which they sat. Soon the soft earthen wall disappeared and a doorway came into focus.
"This leads to a sidh."
"A fairy home? Are you mad? We'll be captured and held."
"Not if you follow me and keep silence. I have done this many times."
She scribed one more symbol and the door swung inward. Nothing greeted their sight but pitch blackness.
"You must crawl. You must keep strict silence. If they hear you we are lost. Follow me."
Braghm followed Ysabeaux into the dank, dark earthen passage. Around them the walls were close and tree roots made the tunnel even lower. At some point they scrambled forward on their stomachs.
They passed a turnoff from which the most delightful aromas emanated. Sweet music of the harp and flute resonated against the walls and vibrated through the floor. Ysabeaux could feel that Braghm was no longer behind her.
"Come, Stone Bearer, you must not tally"
Braghm heard her voice in his head, yet still he lingered, listening, dreaming of the food attached to the wonderful aromas.
"Follow me! I command it."
Braghm knelt at the turnoff, a smile on his lips. He was thinking of home and his mother's cooking. He pictured their table filled with a feast, and all his smiling relatives around him, utensils poised to partake of the bounty.
Ysabeaux grabbed Braghm's collar and shook him hard. He looked up and wiped drool from his chin. The spell was broken and he followed the girl quickly through the rest of the tunnel.
As they neared its end, they could discern a waning full moon through a hole that meant they had come to the exit. Braghm heard Ysabeaux's directions in his head as he crawled forward.
"Do exactly as I do. Turn about so that your feet come out first. Feel for the ledge beneath and hold on to the ledge even with your chest. Walk along it to the left."
Ysabeaux slipped quietly down, only her head visible in the moonlight. The sound of pounding surf let Braghm know they were near the shore.
He followed, turning about and feeling with his feet for the ledge. He gained his balance and holding on to the ledge above, he side-stepped across the face of a cliff that fell off sharply into the boiling sea. The ledges were wet and slippery, but he held his footing and followed Ysabeaux to solid ground.
"We are on the coast now, far from the legions. We have traveled for an entire day beneath the ground. But we must get to my father's castle before dawn. The Romans will attack this day."
"What good will we do? I told you, a dragon stole the Opal Stone."
"Do not give up hope, Stone Bearer. We may yet see victory."
Ysabeaux settled herself on a grassy hammock and closed her eyes. Braghm stood nearby, watching this marvelous young woman. He had relied on her once, and she had come through. He did not know what she was up to now, but he would place his destiny in her hands once more.
Something large and dark blotted out the moon light.
Braghm looked up and saw the unmistakable outline of a dragon fly across the moon's face. It twirled and dove down toward them. The dragon landed at the edge of the cliff, securing its foothold with talons that glinted in the moon's light.
"Caller . . . how may I be of service?"
"Take us to the Dragon's Lair. This is the Stone Bearer, and someone has taken the Opal Stone."
"Climb onto my back," Sopang said. "I will take you to the stronghold."
The pair climbed onto Sopang's scaly back. Ysabeaux with her arms around the dragon's neck, Braghm's arms secure around Ysabeaux's waist. Sopang flapped his enormous wings and lifted into the sky.
As he rose he considered what would happen to his passengers should he turn over in mid-flight. He pictured their bodies broken and lifeless on the jagged rocks below. He pushed the thought away. He had aided Belaris enough. He would not be a party to outright rebellion against His Lordship. Turning into the wind he flew west, toward the towering Dragon's Stronghold.
Bryan sat at a high arched window watching the sky. He had seen a shooting star pass. That boded no good will and he nervously ran his finger along the sword blade he was sharpening. He heard the flap of wings and watched as a great dragon settled onto the wide courtyard. From the back of the dragon two figures scrambled down to the ground. He knew one of them was Braghm and he ran through the passageways to join his brother. Sopang quickly departed, flying off to the center of the complex where the roof was opened for his entry. He disappeared into the building as Ysabeaux and Braghm watched.
Braghm hurried to Bryan's side and they clasped each other's forearms.
"I thought you dead."
"How is Burk?"
"Little brother is fine. He does nothing but ride his weirling. They are inseparable."
"We have no time for chatter. Come," Ysabeaux said pulling Braghm's arm. The action caused him to recall the ribs he had cracked. He winced, but denied any real pain, explaining the reason. They strode quickly across the courtyard and through the large doors.
"Gemarion will see you immediately, humans."
A youthful yellow dragon had greeted them. He led them down a steep passage and into a great hall carved out of the living rock. Stalactites and stalagmites littered the floor and ceiling as they passed through, as if the rock formed a forest. Through the hang of rock Gemarion could be seen, waiting for them.
"Humans. Where is the Opal Stone? For, here is the Caller."
Ysabeaux genuflected before the great Lord. Braghm told Gemarion about the theft.
"Which of my subjects would dare to rise against me?"
Gemarion's voice boomed, echoing off the walls, reverberating through the passageways. Within their chambers, the dragon horde knew something was amiss and left their quarters for the great hall. As the dragon's assembled, he stood to his full height.
"The human states that one of you has taken the Opal Stone. One of you has plotted rebellion against my orders. Come forward and reveal yourselves."
No one stepped forward and Gemarion noted the absence of several of the younger green and yellow dragons and a few of the elders as well.
"Where is Belaris?"
When Gemarion received no response, he raised his head and shot a line a flame across the ceiling which dislodged several of the hanging stones. They crashed to the ground sending dragons and humans into hurried flight.
"It will not go well with them. I know who they are and what they aim for. Now, go and prepare yourselves for battle. If we do not hold the Stone of Persuasion, we will fight and die for our freedom!"
The dragons hurried away.
"We've got to find that stone," Braghm decided.
"But if the dragons have it, how will we reposes? How do we even know where Belaris is?"
Ysabeaux smiled softly at the brothers.
"I can find it. Go, prepare as Lord Gemarion says. Let me prepare in my own way."
A youthful dragon appeared in the chamber, calling Braghm and Bryan to accompany him. In the room in which they were left there were swords, shields, helmets, armor and maces. They were told to pick whichever suited them and make ready for the morning's battle.