|Home - Writing - Scribbles||Mail Hal C F Astell - Site Map|
A sheen of sweat coated Petal's harsh yet somehow beautiful features. Dawtrina was working her dragon hard, for this was something very important indeed.
It had been a year since magic had returned to the world, due mostly to this diminutive pair and the wild talents they proved to possess. The catch, for there is always a catch, was that these wild talents continued to manifest themselves without any hope of control, and Daw was determined to somehow alter that.
They had done it again, more than once too. One moment they would be in one place, the next somewhere totally different - and all without travelling the distance in between, or at least not in any way that could be easily understood.
Petal herself didn't understand it and neither did Daw. Kitten may well have understood it, judging from her expression; but if she did, she wasn't saying...
'Let's work through this again,' said Daw, with her hands on her hips. 'We know you can jump, You've done it six times. Now all we have to work out is how you do it.'
Petal gave her a tired look, as much from despair as from exhaustion. They'd been through this for a year and they still hadn't got anywhere. Every time that they did jump, it was instinctive and seemingly unrepeatable. The fire, the drowning boy, the collapsing building - all their jumps were products of pure reaction. Petal nuzzled her jaw above Daw's ears to tell her that as much as they didn't understand how it was done, it was definitely a combined effort.
'I know, love, I know. But just think what we can do if we can only master it. Oh, to be able to choose! Just think where we could go...'
The current method they were using was strenuous to say the least. Both would run to the limit, pushing their heart and lungs to the maximum, then collapse together and try to meet minds. So far nothing, except toned muscles and lost breath.
'Maybe we should try something else...' sighed Daw, fully aware that they'd seemingly tried everything else already.
If she had a thought, Daw didn't finish it. Out of nowhere came such a powerful migraine that her legs gave way under her and she dropped to her knees. It hit hard and fast, but was gone just as quick, leaving her dazed. She had nearly blacked out and an echoing silence was roaring at her. Stumbling to her feet, she rushed as fast as her pummelled constitution would let her towards her dragon.
Petal had felt the same thing - that was patently obvious, as the dragon was trying to sprawl upright, a puzzled expression painted roughly across her eyes. She too was dazed and the pair held each other close and mentally threw question after question at each other, letting their empathy say what words could not.
And then it hit again; as fast, as sharp, but a hundred times clearer. It was a scream, a psychic scream that pierced the mind like a skewer. And Daw recognised it, not who it was but what it meant, and Petal was right there with her and they jumped...
Into mid air! At last Daw knew what it was to fly, to hover as if suspended on blankets of cloud and watch it reflect the sun from above. It momentarily dismissed all thought of the scream and their unexpected jump into... somewhere. But when she looked at Petal to share the moment, she saw the panic on her dragon's face and then she realised that they weren't flying. After all her dragon couldn't fly...
As they sliced down through the cloud cover, Daw found herself able to breathe again but the speed of their fall stole the breath from her lungs. And on top of everything else it was raining! She could feel the moisture clinging to her as if happy to find a free ride downwards.
They hit the water hard, even with Petal's subtle alteration of position to make entry a little smoother. Daw was thrown loose with a powerful jolt as Petal went underwater and Kitten, who had somehow picked her moment to come aboard by leaping onto Petal's tail and gripping hard with her teeth, yowled loudly as she too was hurled loose by the impact. Kitten really didn't like water... but as Daw surfaced, she was just thankful it wasn't land they'd appeared over.
She was thankful too that, despite the light rain, the sea was calm; and it wasn't that difficult to find Petal's back, or to haul a thoroughly disgusted Kitten aboard too. The cat quickly scooted up Petal's neck like an acrobat, where she shook herself, settled down between the two ridges of the dragon's head and waited for them to find shelter for her. Petal obligingly curved her ears over the cat to offer a little at least.
Daw was pragmatic too, and after retrieving her breath and her dignity, she leant forward and said calmly, 'So, where to now, Petal?'
But Petal was already slicing her wings down into the gentle waves and they were hastening along at a quickly growing clip. Daw had good eyesight, but it was no match for that of a dragon and, even though she couldn't see it, Petal had spied land. For her part, Kitten had curled up under the dragon's stretched ears and looked to have fallen asleep while waiting for her companions to fix the situation that they'd put her in.
Land came quickly with Petal's small yet still powerful wings keeping up a regular stroke. Tired though she was from earlier exertion, she still managed to recover a little energy too.
And to their surprise, waiting there on shore for them was a bedraggled figure in a long coat. He was hunched a little and and shivering, and making a poor attempt to hide it. Also failing to hide beneath the rain and sand and grime were firm strong features and lively dancing eyes. Daw instantly saw past the peasant exterior to a man of inner strength and powerful character.
What was especially intriguing to her was that despite such strength it was taking him obvious effort to stay anywhere near her dragon. Maybe that in itself was a sign of how strong he really was.
'My name is Raymond,' he said to Daw, his eyes never leaving the dragon, even when bowing deeply.
'You knew we were coming?' asked Daw.
'My brother called you,' he said simply.
'And how did you know who we were? Or where we were? And why us?' Daw wanted answers, but forced herself to be wary. She felt somehow that she could trust this man but she didn't know why.
Raymond looked sheepish for a short moment before recovering his composure. 'We didn't,' he said quietly, 'and you honed in on me.' Then he quickly changed the subject. 'I can offer you shelter and food, if you'll follow me?'
Daw merely nodded her head and giggled quietly at the gamut of expressions that danced over his features as Petal carefully deposited a thoroughly disgusted Kitten on the ground, waited for her to skulk off and then violently shook herself dry.
Obviously not having noticed Kitten before, Raymond stood in stunned amazement at the scene and Daw had to prompt him to lead the way. Even as he walked he kept his bright eyes on the dragon, flicking away only to check out the others as if he was trying to fit logic to the situation and consistently coming up short.
As if finally reaching a decision he started to open up a little more. 'My brother and I are the reason that you're here. But you know nothing of our plight - so why did you come?'
Now it was Daw's turn to look embarrassed and Petal cunningly angled her head away. A long moment of silence was punctuated only by Kitten snickering, then Daw admitted, 'I don't know. Someone needed so we came.'
'And can you help?' He had no conception of how a girl so obviously young would be able to help, but she did have a dragon, after all. And why else would she be here?
'That would depend on what you need,' said Daw.
Raymond answered quickly. 'We need you to rescue my brother.'
'I don't know.'
Daw was impressed with his quick honesty. 'Then neither do we. But we can try.'
Raymond was gracious as well as honest. 'That's all anyone can ever do - and we thank you for it.'
And he led the way to his inn with its welcome warmth and shelter.
Even in the approaching darkness Daw had noticed the floodwater dotting the lush green with fractal patterns. Raymond had kept pretty quiet for the journey, noting only that 'they'd brought it with them,' and he'd 'explain on the morrow.' That was all that Daw could get out of him.
But when the morrow came, the sun brought with it fresh reservations for all involved. For all their deliberate wariness, Daw and Raymond had found some sort of mutual trust in each other and both felt inclined to run with that.
Yet Daw had questions, so many questions. How had Raymond's brother called them? If he could do that, why was he in such a fix? And why was he in such a fix in the first place? Who would steal away a peasant and what for? And was he a peasant? For all Raymond's outward decrepitude, Daw felt sure that he was no peasant. In and amongst all the mud and grime his fingernails were clean and sharp; those courtly manners; and the way that the inn's host had stolen a solid glance or three at him and then refused to charge them for food or shelter... something really didn't add up and she wanted answers.
And Raymond... he believed that providence had delivered him a solution to the problems besetting his nation, but didn't understand how. This was a little girl! However tough she may be, she was still a little girl. And she had a dragon! The only dragons he'd ever seen were scary sharp-tailed specks in the sky. How could someone keep one as a pet? That was playing with fire, for sure. But how dangerous could a dragon be that let a cat sleep on its head?
Of course these were merely human thoughts. Petal's almost symbiotic relationship with her mistress meant that their feelings were very closely tied. If Daw felt it, it was good enough for Petal. And as for Kitten, she curled herself up into a blissful ball of sleepy fur, benignly above such concerns.
When they rose and settled down to an excessively sumptuous breakfast served personally by the inn's landlord, their respective dams gave way to simultaneous torrents of questions, breaking the ice in a method better than any that could have been planned.
After a brief laugh, Daw was quickest to resume. 'Tell me who you are,' she asked out straight.
Raymond sat back, seemingly torn for a moment. Then, after checking that the inn was temporarily empty, he slid off one of his boots and twisted the heel, exposing a secret compartment. Inside was a signet ring that Raymond slid onto the oaken table under his hand. He watched Daw's eyes carefully as he slowly removed his hand, and then sank back into his seat again, shaking his head with disbelief.
'Where are you from, mystery lady, that you don't recognise the King's crest?'
'Not here,' said Daw. 'I don't know where we are, but it isn't home. And my name is Dawtrina. You've met Petal and Kitten. You work for the king?'
Raymond kept his eyes firmly on Daw's. 'The king has twin sons. The other one is called Henry.'
'You're a prince? Now I understand why he was kidnapped,' cried Daw.
Raymond put a finger to his lips. 'Not quite,' he interjected. 'We aren't just connected by birth. We hear each other's thoughts.'
'I understand that well,' put in Daw.
'No you don't,' said Raymond quickly before realising that just maybe she did after all and so graciously apologised.
Daw filled the gap again. 'Who could have taken him and why?'
'Now that we know. The kingdom is under threat. It's not quite this simple, but imagine two cities divided by mountains. These invaders are right there in the mountains and...'
'So flush them out,' interrupted Daw. 'Surely you have men who know the mountains like the backs of their hands?'
'Yes, we do,' Raymond replied with patience. 'Plenty of them. But these people bring the weather down against us and lose themselves in the mist. We've never had so much rain. How can they do that?'
'There are a lot of weird talents out there,' said Daw, carefully not mentioning her own. 'Look at you and your brother. How many people can do that?'
'Just the two of us, that I know of.'
'There you go. And they took him for ransom?' Daw asked.
'Sort of. They've divided us up - they've cut off all trade routes, all communication. We can send spies in long enough to find out snippets but we had only one way to send the information on to each other. The cities are on their own...'
'You and your brother,' Daw noted.
'You're very perceptive,' said Raymond. 'Yes, we were the one means of communication left. What came to me I thought across to Henry and he could act accordingly � and he could do the same right back across to me. We began to fight back and we were getting somewhere too. Then they took him and we're right back where we started. Or worse...'
Daw could feel Raymond's pain emanating from him, not just for his lost brother but for his kingdom too. 'But can't you just ask him where he is?'
'Only if he's awake. They're keeping him unconscious. I spend all hours waiting for him to wake, so that he can tell me just that, but we've only had one moment in two weeks. All we could do was send out that signal - it took all we had.'
'Isn't that long enough?' Daw knew well that time had no relevance to that sort of special contact.
'Normally, yes. But he was out for transit and hasn't a clue where he is now... I'm hoping for more, but can't expect it. We can guess, of course - and certainly narrow down the search, but we lose our spies so quickly...'
'And they're ransoming him? What do they want for him?' asked Daw.
And Raymond sat back with features again suddenly dishevelled. He spoke quietly. 'Total surrender.'
Daw had never met a king or been in a war, so she had no conception of how a war council was run. All she knew was that it was likely to be extremely unlike the scene in the inn's stable that morning. Daw sat on a short stack of hay, Kitten levitating above her lap the way all sleeping cats do, and talked to Petal. They were in a far corner of the stable, well away from the pair of ragged horses who felt no need to disguise their reluctance to be anywhere near such a large beast as Petal. Luckily for them, she was small for her kind...
Even their conversation was strange to behold. With the passage of time, their uniquely strong connection had grown stronger still. Though it wasn't outright telepathy, it was an empathy of unparalleled closeness, and they 'talked' in a mix of thoughts and words. It was an hour before they started to get somewhere.
'What if they really can control the weather?' asked Daw. 'It would be perfect for them. They'd be able to hide anything. They could go wherever they liked and nobody would see them. But it would have to work both ways though, right? If they can't be seen, then neither can anyone else... that will be how Raymond's spies get in. But once they're in, they'd be discovered straight away and it wouldn't help in the slightest. What we need is a way to get in without being discovered...'
Petal thought back to a year before, but they both laughed when Daw asked, 'Are you friends with any butterflies over here?'
The thought triggered off an idea in Daw though. 'Animals are the key though, surely. They can look out for people, but not animals. How would they know what to look for? If they're in the mountains, there must be all sorts of creatures wandering around. They can hardly worry about all of them...'
The idea floundered as they realised how the horses were reacting to Petal's laughter. They obviously didn't like the dragon anyway, but a laughing dragon seemed to be even worse. Petal remembered the butterfly landing on her nose, either oblivious of danger or aware that there was none; yet here even horses were afraid of her. They obviously couldn't rely on any help from the beasts of the wild this time.
'What about dangerous animals? Mountains have bears, right? Bears might not be afraid of you, but these people will be afraid of bears...'
And then came clarity with lightning speed. 'Erm, but they'd be even more afraid of you, my love! Look at how Raymond could hardly stop from running, and you were just being friendly. What if you flared up? He'd run for sure!'
Petal grinned, in as much as a dragon's fierce jaws can ever form a grin, and nudged Daw, who promptly grinned back. 'Of course! They'll be looking for soldiers and spies, not little girls and dragons!'
And the plan started to come together...
Four days later they were in the mountains.
Raymond had done plenty. He had found means for them to be fed and sheltered while being transported out of sight of the people - after all, dragons here were merely specks in the sky. He had heard nothing further from Henry, and his network of spies had reported little of use; but every snippet was something to be worked on, and worked on it was, narrowing the search down by a little each time. When Raymond felt that it was narrowed down enough, in went Daw.
The mountains were tall, but not too tall for such a well-exercised pair, and they weren't as high as they could have been; but the going was slow as visibility in the fog had become almost nil. Daw travelled close to Petal, though not close enough to warrant both of their captures, if they walked into the wrong place. They could still feel each other mentally and know each other were safe.
They kept quiet too, secure in each other's mental presence, and listened out hard for voices. Sound behaved strangely up here - some noise echoed loudly, yet sometimes got quickly lost in the landscape. Raymond's spies had found the enemy in this area by using their ears, so Daw felt sure that she could do the same, especially with Petal's stronger dragon senses. All the same, she was despairing a little after three days of nothing but birds and surprised deer.
But the fourth day brought voices, and many of them. Sure that they were on to an enemy camp, they waited for night, realising that it offered no real difference in visibility, but did carry the probability that when they did encounter the enemy, they would be asleep.
And asleep they were, when a scouting Daw walked straight through the opening of an unexpected tent she couldn't see for fog, but were soon awake again when she tripped loudly over a campbed. She managed to make it out of the tent away from the mad scramble of sleepy blind soldiers, but ran straight into the hands of a guard, obviously making up for not having seen her on the way in. But, other than having been captured, Daw felt no obvious danger and mentally urged Petal to keep her distance. At least for now...
The camp was on full alert when Daw woke in the morning. She was in another tent, but a small one, not well guarded either judging from the single guard outside the doorway. These people may take their prisoners seriously, but they obviously didn't see much threat in a young girl - which was fine by Daw, of course... The soldier wouldn't talk to her, but she heard plenty through the thin walls of the tent. Officers castigated their men for being asleep on duty, and soldiers muttered about not being able to see the ends of their noses.
It was a good few hours before an officer came to see her, calling quickly for food and apologising profusely for the way his men had treated a young defenceless lady. She fielded his questions easily; the only detailed ones concerning why she was in the area, which weren't too hard to answer either, Daw explaining that she was a local farmgirl looking for lost sheep.
Eventually he left her with still more apologies, yet more food, and an assurance that she was free to go at any time. Daw, however, was quite happy to stay, at least until the food ran out, Raymond's supplies being tasty but rationed. And her ears remained open. But leave she did, carefully and conveniently getting frequently lost on her way out of the camp in order to hear as much as possible.
And right slap bang in the middle of the camp, it paid off. Inside a large circular tent, the very officer who had so subtly and politely interrogated her earlier was tearing a strip off one of his men.
'There are farms here, damn it! We're supposed to be out of the way of these people. Just be thankful it was some idiot farmgirl who came upon us, instead of a battalion of soldiers! Now we're going to have to move further up the range. More delays. And I don't want any more men asleep on duty - none, you hear!'
'Sir!' cried the soldier, his voice betraying that he was no quaking private. 'The men were awake, sir. They just couldn't see because of that damn wizard's fog...'
'My fog is all that's keeping you alive,' croaked a new voice, presumably the damn wizard in question, chuckling as he continued. 'Not that you will be for long, mind you.'
'Enough!' snapped the officer. 'Do you honestly think the few of us could take two whole cities? The only chance we have is to con them out of their freedom. And the only way we can do that is by disguising our numbers by the use of this damnable fog. You think I like it any more than you do? It's all we've got, soldier, that and the freak prince over there. We may not have enough brawn, but we have the brains to take this kingdom and that's what we're going to do. Now go get the men mobilised. I want them moving out within the hour.'
Lying flat and inconspicuous underneath a tent flap, Daw had found the answers she'd been looking for, not that she found them easy to follow. A wizard who could summon up fog? Well, never mind that - it was still an identified target and she smiled through the chill in the air.
Mentally calling Petal to hurtle through the camp towards her, she rolled underneath the tent flap well out of sight of the officer and the chuckling wizard, who looked about the least like a wizard as she could imagine with no hat and no cloak and no beard. He did have a cauldron though and he was busy stirring it with a long iron ladle.
The tent was obviously a command base, but a very small one, backing up the officer's remarks about the size of his army. The officer stood talking with his secretary, the wizard stirred his pot; and at the other end of the room sat Raymond, or an exact replica of him, his head on his chest, supported only by the ropes securing him to the chair. It was obvious now that they were identical twins.
Sprawled on other chairs around him were two guards, obviously bored out of their brains guarding an unconscious man. And one of them, rolling his head as if it sat uncomfortably on a crooked neck, saw Dawtrina! He leaped to his feet, fumbling for his sword, as his companion looked nothing less than flummoxed. And as the officer screamed orders and the wizard quietly chuckled, Petal burst through the side of the tent like a stone through a wet paper bag.
Her speed was incredible and in an enclosed space highly dangerous, as she soon proved by colliding at speed with the two guards who never knew what hit them. Daw shouted her support as the trio slid directly into the side of the wizard's iron cauldron. Both guards dropped like rocks, and Petal recoiled slightly dazed. The pot itself teetered and teetered, finally falling over onto it's top, flooding the ground with a steaming badly-smelling mass.
Daw had just enough time to see the wizard smile and the officer blanche before soldier after soldier poured through the tent opening. Emptying the cauldron obviously meant something serious... but she had other things to think about now. The soldiers were slowly surrounding them, and she quickly grabbed one of the guards' fallen swords and sliced away the prince's bonds. Petal obligingly hauled him onto her back along with Daw, but by that time they were fully surrounded.
Petal advanced but the obviously scared soldiers had their swords drawn and ready, and she didn't fancy hurtling through pointed weapons. She pulled back and manoeuvred, searching for an opening in their ranks, but in vain. Daw thought frantically, desperate for a means of escape, their mission accomplished, but seemingly so fleetingly.
Petal twisted and turned, resisting capture as long as she could, always searching for that opening, and as she turned, Daw caught a horrifying image out of the corner of her eye. A sword, not held up strong and starkly threatening by a soldier, but flying through the air, straight at the prince's head. Daw screamed and Petal reared and then the air broke and they were gone, leaving only a loud crack and a flying sword and an empty space.
Six days later the last of the invaders was rounded up. The fog had gone with the sickening mass from the cauldron and the rain soon cleared up too. With easy visibility the force was an easy target, especially given its size, smaller even than Daw had envisaged. It was no army, just a mere band of outlaws, but with a fiendish mind at their head.
All this Daw had from Raymond. Or Henry... she still couldn't distinguish one from the other, though Petal seemed to know. The twins dressed the same, smiled exactly the same smile and enthused their gratitude with much the same words. Whichever, she had the news, and she was thankful.
But she spent most of her time with the wizard. It seems that he was an unwilling participant in the whole affair, having been blackmailed into his part by the officer who proved to be the mastermind behind it all. Daw wanted to find a way to get home and the wizard seemed to be the best choice.
Not that she was having any luck with it. The wizard had been recruited purely because he had little success with any sort of spell whatsoever. Whatever he tried to do, however complex or simple his spell, he always seemed to end up making fog...
And it was he that she tore herself away from, so as to join Petal and a haughty Kitten, upset at not being part of the fight, and process up to see their first king.
|Home - Writing - Scribbles||Mail Hal C F Astell - Site Map|