Authors: Donita K. Paul
“Hello, Pinto. Hello, Fernan. You rascal, Jodi, have you been harassing these boys again?”
With Kale right beside him, he could mindspeak with any of the little dragons. Mikkai, who had bonded with him at birth, was the only one he could communicate with freely. These would pester him like a horde of children surrounding their favorite uncle.
“Shoo,” said Kale. “Bardon and I are having a serious discussion.” She almost blurted out her annoyance with her husband, but she knew the reaction she would get. She was the Dragon Keeper, but he was the head of the house. The leader’s leader. They’d want to know details and then side with him. “Go on, go back to your games and snacks.”
They flew off good-naturedly, not concerned with Kale’s impatience.
“Where were we?” asked Kale. “Your crops. Who’s going to take care of them? And your overseeing of the villages? And your role as magistrate? Someone has to be here to maintain the system you worked so hard to establish. And your council duties for Paladin? You can’t walk off and leave that duty.”
“Mort, Crownden, and Rasmiller.”
“They’re all coming to the castle?” She followed him through a back door, into a cool, dim corridor.
“It’s a houseparty! I can’t leave my mother to deal with all that. And Taylaminkadot is with child again. She doesn’t need to be catering to guests.”
“Both your mother and your housekeeper will be thrilled with the opportunity to show off their flair for hospitality.”
You’re suspiciously determined, Sir Bardon.
“I’m determined that my wife have some excitement instead of day-today drudgery for a while.”
I’m not all that fond of excitement, especially when it involves armies of wicked bisonbecks.
“There hasn’t been an army of wicked bisonbecks in Amara since you and your father took care of Crim Cropper and Burner Stox.”
Whenever I’ve ventured from home, all sorts of evil pops up out of the ground, swoops out of the sky, and tramples down the grassy plains to get to me.
Once more Bardon gathered her into his arms and spoke as his lips touched the top of her head. “It won’t be like that this time. Amara is at peace.”
Kale leaned into Bardon, wanting to generate the same enthusiasm pulsating through him.
She lifted her head. “Toopka!”
“What about Toopka?”
She started off again as if she could outrun the disagreement. “I’m her guardian. I can’t just abandon her. What kind of guardian goes off and leaves for who knows how long?”
“Sir Dar. He’s the kind of guardian who goes off and leaves for who knows how long!”
Ah! He’s going to make this point, too, unless I come up with something.
“Well, it’s true that we have joint guardianship, but—”
“But, nothing. We’ll take Toopka with us and drop her off with Sir Dar.”
Kale stopped in the middle of the large entryway that faced the wrong side of the castle, having been built with much enthusiasm by a water wizard. She shouted to be heard over the many rivulets cascading from the walls. “Why are you in such a hurry?”
“Because,” hollered Bardon, “Regidor is not going to wait for us. He’s already gone, and we have to catch up.”
“Why wouldn’t he wait?”
“Because Gilda wants her egg to be presented at the meech colony and nowhere else.”
Bardon left Kale to rush about doing the things she thought extremely important and sought out the company of Librettowit. Kale had transported her mentor’s castle to this location, and her parents had joined it to the main building. Fenworth’s home still resembled a massive group of cygnot trees. Most people got lost walking through the round corridors within tree limbs. Major parts of the rooms were dedicated to books. In a back room of this library built in a tree, the tumanhofer Librettowit sought sanctuary.
The creak of the door broke the silence as Bardon entered. The librarian raised his head from the book he was reading and gazed over his wire-framed glasses at the intruder.
“Hello, Master Librettowit.” Bardon bounded into the room and pulled out a chair at the table piled with books. With a happy chirrup, Mikkai flew to an open book containing maps. Bardon moved two at the top of the pile in front of him so he could see the librarian. “We’ve new neighbors in Fairren Forest. A whole village of new neighbors.”
Librettowit sighed, put a bookmark in his place, closed the book, and gave Bardon his attention.
Bardon leaned on a pile of books. “I’d like you to investigate.” The books began to slide. He caught two and shoved them upright, then scrambled to keep them from falling the other direction. “But I fear you couldn’t get in. There!” He settled the mixture of open and closed books in their precarious tower and met the tumanhofer’s sharp gaze. “The citizens are made up entirely of mariones and o’rants.”
“Harrumph! Totally against Wulder’s principles.”
“Oh, there’s more. A suspicious lack of children under ten. Odd, regimented clothing. Leaders who dominate instead of lead. Doctrine that’s been dunked in a fish barrel.”
Librettowit took off his glasses and wiped them with a clean cloth from his pocket. “A faction?”
“I think so.”
“Indeed, something must be done.” He replaced his spectacles and shoved them up with one finger so that the bridge sat high on his nose.
“How many are caught in the lie?”
“In that village, I would say under a hundred. Maybe sixty to seventy. But the leader, Echo Marson, said it was only one village, implying there were many more, and he said the movement is growing.”
Librettowit pried himself out of the cushy reading chair and paced the room. “Who can we send?”
“I thought of Holt.”
He stopped and frowned at Bardon over the glasses that had again slipped down on his nose. “Holt? That young man who hung around N’Rae years ago?”
“Why this ne’er-do-well Holt?”
“Because he hasn’t been associated with us in eight years, and he is a ne’er-do-well as you say. Who would suspect that we would send him to uncover the truth?”
“Why should we trust him?” countered Librettowit.
“I think we can. He is more lazy than evil, and he is inclined to do heroic deeds if they are not too troublesome.”
Librettowit went to his bookshelves and appeared to study the titles. Finally he returned his attention to Bardon.
“Do you even know where he is?”
“No, but I count on you to find him and give him the assignment, if his present circumstances indicate he will do well. In other words, if he isn’t in the middle of chicanery of some sort.”
“Me? I’m a librarian, not a director of espionage. Why don’t you do it?”
“Kale and I are going on a quest.”
Mikkai sat on a book in the shelves and demanded through a series of chirps to be listened to. Bardon got up, pulled the book from its place, and laid it open on the table at the top of one of the piles that seemed to be less wobbly.
Librettowit paced with his hands behind his back as Bardon returned to his seat and told him of his visit to Paladise.
“Paladise?” Librettowit harrumphed with even more vigor. “What kind of mockery is that of our Paladin and his role in preserving the Tomes, educating the people, exhorting and disciplining the followers of Wulder?”
“They present their society as more dedicated to Wulder than the average person.”
“Better than the rest of us, huh? A sure sign of hypocrisy.”
Bardon got up again to retrieve another book for Mikkai. “Another point of interest is the symbol they have on their doorsteps, a big bird with wings outstretched. I can’t say it is a bird I recognized.”
Librettowit stared at him as he pinched his bottom lip between thumb and forefinger. A light sprang to his eyes. He held up one finger and headed for the door. “I’ll be right back.”
Bardon sat down in one of the overstuffed chairs, put his feet on an ottoman, and leaned back. So far the day had been eventful in good and bad ways. The visit at Minasterloan’s castle had relieved the constant pain of stakes, and he had learned from the kimens that this new commune had sprung up right under his nose. The opportunity to investigate and set wheels in motion before he left the region eased his conscience.
He didn’t want to miss this important quest, and he wanted Kale to have some time to enjoy life. She worked so hard, and the fun-loving lady he married was often too tired at night to read or chat. When he played his flute for her, she went right to sleep. They’d turned into a very old couple when they should still be having a grand time. The stakes slowed him down, but he would make a concerted effort to allow his wife some lighthearted enjoyment. He’d been conspiring with Regidor to make it happen.
Librettowit returned with a scroll, which he put on the table and spread out over the peaks of book stacks.
“Look at this symbol and see if it resembles this bird you saw.”
Bardon rose from the chair and came to examine the old parchment. “That’s it. What does it signify?”
“That is a Sellaran, the bird Pretender rode when he first fled from Wulder’s presence.”
“I’ve never seen one like it.”
“They are extinct. The eggs they laid rotted in the nests until they laid no more.”
society uses this symbol to signify their allegiance to Wulder?”
Librettowit pursed his lips and furrowed his brow. “It is possible that they came across an etching of a Sellaran and did not know its significance. But somehow, I doubt it.”
He rolled up the scroll. “I’ll find Holt and put him on their trail. If I find him unsuitable, is there another we can send?”
“I’ll ask Sir Dar when I see him tonight.” Bardon placed a hand on Librettowit’s broad shoulder and grinned. “Thank you, my friend. When I first located this hidden village, I thought my plans to take Kale away for a while would come to naught. But Wulder reminded me, ‘A leader leads by entrusting those under him.’ I am pleased to be able to entrust this problem to you.”
“Ha!” said the librarian, blustering but with a smile on his lips. “I’d be pleased to get out of this if I could, but I see you are going to pull principles on me if I try. Where are you taking your wife?”
“To the northern reaches in search of the meech.”
For a moment the old man’s eyes lit with the yearning for adventure. Then he shook his head. “I’m a librarian, not meant for questing. Questing is a miserable business. I’ll stay at home, thank you very much, in my cozy dens, with my lovely wife close at hand, and little Taracinabloo to make me feel young again.”
“Sounds like a good plan.” Bardon extended his hand, and the two men clasped forearms and shook. He started for the door and signaled Mikkai to join him. The little dragon reluctantly left his books and flew to perch on top of the knight’s head. Bardon called over his shoulder as he went through the door. “When Kale’s father arrives, he shall have a new contraption to show you. I’ll be in touch sooner than you would think.”
The chill air in a misty cloud tingled Kale’s skin. She reached behind her neck and pulled the hood up to cover her head and the veil down to protect her face. Celisse soared through another shred of vapor, following Bardon on Greer. Toopka rode in a soft basket woven from strips of cloth. The contraption hung from Bardon’s back as if it were a knapsack. And, indeed, the little girl inside already napped. While awake, Toopka chattered constantly, so Kale was glad for her husband’s sake that the doneel snoozed as soon as the dragon reached a higher altitude.
Bardon’s minor dragon curled up on top of the knapsack. But Mikkai wasn’t sleeping. Kale suspected the dragon served as an alarm should the little doneel awaken.
Kale connected with Bardon’s mind, hoping to ask a few more questions, but found rider and dragon deep in conversation. They discussed trade winds.
Trade winds! How boring.
Kale let go of their thoughts and returned to her own musing. She muttered to herself, “How is Father going to handle both his castle in the Northern Reach and all the business of ours?” A breeze tugged at the hood. She held it in place with one hand.
She smiled at the thought of Regidor’s wide grin. “I really want to see Regidor. Perhaps after we have a short visit, Bardon will be content to return home.” She scowled. “Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Men like to go questing. It’s in their nature. But I wanted to stay at home. I wonder if Gilda feels the same way.”
Celisse lifted her neck, covered with ebony scales, and tilted her silvery-white head.
“You’re listening to me puzzle this over, huh? Well, I don’t mind. You won’t tell anyone what a wishy-washy wimp I am. Really, I do well on my own ground, but I’ve never been all that great at questing. And I’m perturbed. Most of it is because of Bardon rushing me out of our home and not letting me be any part of his plans.”
They banked, and Bardon pointed to a herd of chigot deer below.
“See the newborns. There must be a dozen of them. Amara is recovering very well from the years of war.”
Yes, I see them. They’re cute. Too bad they grow up to smell like heaps of rotted cabbage.
She heard Bardon’s answering chortle and turned her attention back to her conversation with Celisse. “Bardon’s very excited about this journey. And if it will keep his mind off the possible deterioration of his health with the stakes, well…”
The minor dragons wiggled out of their pocket-dens in the moonbeam cape. They crawled to the opening, sniffed the air, decided it wasn’t too cold, and scampered out to run over Kale’s body. She recognized their mood. It would seem they rejoiced with Bardon at the chance to go adventuring.
Dibl jumped to Celisse’s back behind the saddle. He tucked his wings close to his body to keep from being caught and tossed into the air by a draft of wind. He scurried up and down the prominent scales to perch near Celisse’s tail.
Metta sat on one of the riding dragon’s broad shoulders, and Filia on the other. They rocked to and fro in response to the powerful wing muscles moving beneath their feet.
Pat crawled forward to roost between the big dragon’s ears. He held on to the ridge that formed a shield protecting his stout, round body from the wind. Gymn climbed to wrap around Kale’s neck, under the moonbeam cape with only his head sticking out. Artross sat on one of her legs, and Tieto fastened his claws into the back of Kale’s glove, where she rested her hand on the saddle horn.
Crispin emerged last from the protection of the moonbeam cape. His red skin glistened as patches of sunlight reflected off his scales. Young and inexperienced, he trotted forward, passing the horn and Tieto. With a jump, he landed on Celisse’s black neck. He lost his footing and spread his wings to help regain his balance. The wind caught his kitelike frame and flipped him head over heels. He hit with a thud against Kale’s chest.
The Dragon Keeper laughed and picked him up, being careful not to squeeze his leathery wings. She felt a twitch in his abdomen and turned him sideways just in time. The little dragon hiccuped, and a small flame shot from his mouth. He blinked in surprise, hiccuped again, and the fire spewed out once more.
“Oh, dear.” Kale sighed. “I know you can’t help it, Crispin. Don’t fret.”
The small red dragon kept up the fiery blasts with each rhythmic snag in his breathing.
“Try to breathe slowly,” Kale suggested. “Try to breathe deeply.”
The next explosion from his mouth outdid all those before it.
Her husband’s voice came into her mind.
“Greer says not to start saying, ‘Tut-tut.’”
“‘Tut-tut’ like Fenworth, your predecessor.”
Bardon, this is serious.
She heard both her husband and his two dragons laugh.
Well, perhaps not life-and-death serious, but Crispin is most uncomfortable, and if he doesn’t learn to control this…this side effect of—
“—hiccuping, sneezing, coughing, and even big sighs, he’ll someday burn us out of house and home.”
learned not to sigh in full force.
Kale caught the sense of where her other minor dragons were and quickly shielded her thoughts from the fire dragon in her hand. She felt Dibl inching up her back, using the moonbeam cape as if it were a vine to climb up the side of a building. She could see Pat approaching along Celisse’s neck. She had no need to wonder who had initiated this attack on Crispin to surprise the hiccups out of him. Dibl would choose this way to do a good deed.
She tried to act just as nonchalant as the rest of the minor dragons who feigned ignorance of the plan. Tieto, Gymn, Filia, and Metta all ignored the progress of the two mischief-makers. Artross grunted occasionally, as if he could just barely keep either from laughing or giving out unwelcome advice.
Crispin inquired politely if Artross also suffered from the hiccups. As the white dragon struggled to answer, Dibl jumped over Kale’s shoulder and slid down her arm. Pat synchronized his pounce beautifully, and the red dragon screeched out his shock at being attacked. A huge shot of flame accompanied his shriek but fizzled quickly.
Kale and her friends waited, hoping for the best and counting. When they reached twenty without another eruption from Crispin, they all cheered.
“What in all of Amara is going on back there?”
A cure for the hiccups. I believe Crispin is all better now.
Greer turned westward, and Celisse followed.
Bardon, where are we going? I thought Regidor and Gilda headed north.
“To visit Wizard Namee.”
He hesitated, waiting for her response.
Kale purposefully did not respond. She projected profound silence to her husband, knowing that would exhaust his patience.
Sure enough, he couldn’t stand the wait and prompted for a reaction.
“You aren’t going to ask why?”
I am using my strength of will to force you to tell me without my asking.
Kale not only saw Bardon laughing as he looked over his shoulder but also felt the rush of joy as it swept through her husband.
You’re having entirely too much fun, Bardon, and it makes me feel like you’re up to something.
He shook his head.
“Regidor and Namee have been working on a special project. We’re stopping at Namee’s castle so he can demonstrate a weaving of a strange gateway, one that will come in handy on our quest.”
Kale raised up a bit in the saddle and leaned forward.
Tell me more.
“No, you have to wait.”
She heard the laughter in his voice and refused to be baited. She would not beg for details. With her lips pressed together, she scowled at him. He laughed even harder.
You wretched man.
“You are going to have some fun tonight, lady of mine. And tomorrow, some surprises. Then off we go adventuring.”
I can find adventure in our very own castle.
He picked up on the hidden meaning in her manner.
“What are you talking about?”
Oh, I forgot to tell you. You rushed me around so, and I didn’t check…but Artross is here. I can ask him.
The tone of his thoughts was as clear as a bell.
So it’s all right for you to keep secrets, but not me.
“If there is a snake in the castle, I need to know about it.”
There isn’t a snake now. At least, I hope we got them all.
One mother snake and a nest of hundreds. Well, maybe only one hundred. Artross says ninety-seven eggs, and they were all destroyed.
“What kind of snake?”
She thought back through the sequence of events. Bardon understood as clearly as if he had stood beside her during the search and rescue of Gally and Mince.
“I’ll send a message to Librettowit to get one of his tumanhofer friends to inspect the lower regions of the castle.”
Wizard Namee will have a messenger we can send. But Toopka told Taylaminkadot, and I’m sure she told Librettowit. She’s no more fond of snakes than I am.
“Wizard Namee will not mind sending the message.”
Kale caught a hint of humor in Bardon’s statement, and then he shielded his mind from her. She wondered if he hid his thoughts because he was more concerned about the snake incident in their home than he wanted her to know. But that would not account for the ripple of laughter that accompanied his last thought. She sighed. Her husband would tell her in due time. He was not in the habit of being secretive for long.
The magnificent scenery distracted Kale. They were flying over the region called Tuthoutu. Supposedly, below them, two thousand and two lakes riddled the land, everything from big puddles to lakes too vast to swim across. The lush green vegetation and startling blue of the water made a spectacular view. The eastern slope of the Morchain Mountains swept up from the plains just beyond the wetland.
Namee’s castle towered out of a chasm between two peaks. He had chosen a traditional architecture with nine towers dominating the roof line. Kale remembered it was Wizard Namee who constructed a formidable tower watching over one wing of their own castle. Daily she climbed to the turret at the top to survey the surrounding fields and observe the dragons.
The sun dipped behind the mountain peaks, leaving a ragged silhouette against streaks of orange, purple, and a greenish blue. The castle didn’t hide in shadows, though. Namee had summoned what appeared like bursts of starlight perched on slender poles all around the grounds and on the palace itself. As they approached, Kale saw people scurrying about, some servants and some dressed in finery.
It’s busy here tonight.
“Namee is having a ball. We shall dance. We haven’t danced in years.”
Excitement bubbled in Kale, suppressing her former complaints and ill-humor.
Bardon, this is a wonderful surprise. Thank you. Thank you very much.
“You’re welcome, my Kale. It was worth your fussing to bring you here for the surprises.”
How many surprises are in store for me?
He hummed a ditty in his mind before he answered. The ploy made Kale more anxious. Just before she demanded he quit trying to drive her mad, he answered,
“‘Patience rewards twice, once while waiting and once when waiting is no longer needed.’”
She growled in annoyance. If he was going to quote principles to her, she would give him patience in spades.
As they drew closer to the lighted castle, Kale saw more activity. She searched the area, pushing her talent to the limits, trying to identify guests and details of the events planned for the ball.
She met with frustration. Wizard Namee had cloaked the area so that his guests could maintain their privacy from prying mindspeakers.