Dragon Keep

Watcher stood alone on a hill, watching the human town called Dragon Keep. He sighed and turned to the North. Another dragon approached, a tiny white speck in the blue sky. He did not have long to wait before the other shot overhead, her wings making the noise of a blowing gale. She circled and landed beside the Old One. He blinked as the sun shone from her white scales in a myriad of rainbow colours. "How went your mission?"
   "It is as you thought," said the white dragon with a shake of her head. "No one can penetrate the wizard's defenses."
   Watcher growled deep in his throat. "I don't like being excluded from any part of the world," he grumbled. He frowned for a moment, then said "We need another to aid us." He looked at the smaller dragon.
   "Who do you think..." her voice trailed off when she saw Watcher's look. Her eyes grew wide. A mix of fear and hope showed on her face. "No! Please, not him! My Fronnie would be devastated."
   "We need another, Holbrooke," said Watcher. "Anyway, she will get over it-" Holbrooke's hand moved like lightning, crashing hard against the ancient dragon's snout. He blinked in surprise as he massaged his jaw.
   "How would you know?" she said bitterly. "You wouldn't say that if you lost your-" she choked to a stop and bowed her head.
   He reached out held the smaller dragon. "I do know what it's like," he said quietly. "I lose everyone I know." She looked up at him and he smiled. "That thump would have broken a castle's gate."
Thunder looked down at the three little dragons and smiled at their upturned faces. "Hello."
   "Hello," they chorused.
   "You're very big," added the little yellow female.
   The brown male with stripes growled at him.
   "Shush, Kev," said the other male. He was a plain brown colour.
   "Illy! We have to protect our home!" hissed the one named Kev. He turned to the dragon towering over them. "Why are you here?"
   "I'm looking for someone," said Thunder. "But I don't know if I have the right lair. What's your mother's name?"
   "Mum," chorused the little ones.
   "And your father's name?" But he knew the answer before they spoke.
   Thunder nodded. "So what does your dad call your mum?"
   The young ones held a whispered conference. "Fronnie," said the female. "Sometimes he calls her Stormfront when we have visitors."
   "I'd like to see her." Two of them instantly ran back to the lair, but the one named Kev glared at Thunder and growled. "What are you doing, Kev?"
   Kehvarl stopped growling. "I'm warning you that this is our home," he said before returning to his threats.
   Thunder drew a deep breath and lowered his head. Kehvarl's growls squeaked to a stop. The great dragon opened his mouth, and roared.
   Echoes of the roar bounced back from the distant hills for many minutes after Thunder had finished. He stared Kehvarl who had sunk into the long grass until only his striped back and a pair of wide, round eyes could be seen above the blades.
   "I suppose you could live here too," whispered the little dragon.
   Thunder burst out laughing, then a shout from the lair made his heart leap.
   "DAD!" Stormfront ran toward him in a series of long leaps.
   "Fronnie!" He braced himself for the pounce, but his happy daughter knocked him onto his back.
   There was a rush of wings and Mavrik landed beside the laughing pair. He carried the bodies of four large kangaroos. "I thought I heard you," he said to Thunder. "So I picked up some extra food."
   Later, as the group fed on the grass in front of the lair, Mavrik asked for news of his brother Prahan.
   "The Council has made him the official historian," said Thunder. "He's teaching the youngsters about our history."
   Mavrik blinked at Thunder. "Prahan?"
   "Yes," said Thunder with a nod. "He's telling them all the old stories."
   "Prahan?" wondered Mavrik. "But... he never said more than a handful of words a month!"
   "He is quite remarkable. I'd like to meet the rest of your family. So where is Stargazer now?"
   "She went with Bindi to embarrass some knights," said Stormfront.
   Thunder frowned at her. "'Embarrass'? Is that another word for 'attack'?"
   Stormfront and Mavrik smiled. "No," said Mavrik. "In their case it means 'embarrass'."
The two knights shuffled back until the arch above the barbican shaded them from the noon sun. "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with 'p'," said the taller soldier.
   "Well played James."
   "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with 'h'."
   "Good one, Frank."
   "I sp-" Frank stared at a pair of specks in the far distant sky, and his eyes widened. "Bloody hell! Are those dragons?"
   James blinked the distant shapes, then jumped at the gate and banged the hilt of his sword on the wood. "ALERT! Dragons approach!" he shouted. The silence on the other side was shattered by the sound of a garrison making ready for attack.
   "Oh no," muttered Frank.
   James turned to stare at the approaching dragons. His fear that they will attack the keep was replaced by a more personal fear. "Oh jeez! Not them! Please tell me they're not-"
   "It's Stargazer and Bindi," said Frank with a groan.
   They held their breath as the dragons approached, then let it out as the pair shot overhead.
   "Do you think they missed us?" asked James, somewhat hopefully.
   "No. Look." Frank pointed off to the right.
   James saw the dragons flying in a tight, banked turn to throw off speed. They glided low and slow over the town then landed before the gate with a rush of wings and a blast of wind. They sank to their bellies until they were eye-to-eye with the two knights
   Frank drew his sword. "Halt in the name of the King," he said with some embarrassment.
   The two dragons looked at him and smiled.
   "Oh Francis!" exclaimed Stargazer.
   "Frank," mumbled Frank.
   "You're so cute when you do that!" She ran a finger down his armoured chest. "Nice chain mail," she murmured.
   Bindi smiled at the other human. "I missed you, James."
   "Uh. Yeah," stammered James. "Hello Bindi. It's been ages."
   "How is my favourite knight?"
   "Married, with two boys." He turned slightly as the gate started to open. "Sh! The captain's coming," he whispered. Both knights came to attention, much to the amusement of the dragons.
   The captain of the gate stood before the dragons, removed his helm and bowed. "The king wishes to meet with you," he said. "If you would follow me I will lead you to the keep."
   "Can we follow James and Frank?" asked Bindi.
   The captain blinked at them. "But they're on gate duty-"
   "In that case we will wait here until the king joins us," said Stargazer. The two dragons settled down, blocking the road.
   "I see," muttered the captain. He turned to the two knights. "Escort our visitors to the keep," he said, then shouted orders to open the gate.
   "Yessir!" said James.
   "If you'll follow-" began Frank, but stammered to a halt as Stargazer lowered her head until her chin touched the ground at his feet. She looked up at him.
   "Ride me like you did last time."
   "But- But I'd have to steer you with my knees, like a horse!"
   "You can play horsy with me any time, hon."
   Bindi and James looked at each other and smiled. The gates opened and they walked through. The bodies of the dragons completely filled the arch; their wings brushed the vaulted roof. Once through, Bindi lowered her head and James climbed onto her shoulders. "The main door is in the North side of the keep," he murmured. She nodded but kept her gaze fixed on the armoured men surrounding them, swords at the ready. The captain gave an order and they cleared a path for the two visitors.
The three little dragons stared at the mountain of meat before them. Their parents had arrived earlier with four large kangaroos, and then their Grandfather arrived with the entire body of a wild white bull.
   Stormfront quickly dismembered a kangaroo. "Children! Your food is here."
   "Can we have some of the white thing?" asked Ilyrin. He had already tried to bite through the skin, but it was too tough. Kehvarl and Aurani were currently trying to open a hole with their talons.
   "That's your Grandfather's food," said Stormfront. Kehvarl and Aurani stopped instantly and backed away. "I think he might give you a taste if you ask nicely."
   Thunder paused in mid-chew when he found himself pinned by three pairs of baby-dragon eyes. He shrugged and used his talons to slice off a sizable lump of thigh which he threw to them. They pounced on the meat.
   "Hey! HEY!" shouted Mavrik. He reached over and pulled the meat from the melee. "Behave! You are not scavengers!" They bowed their heads. "What do you say to Thunder?"
   "Thank you Granddad," they mumbled. Thunder nodded before returning to his meal.
   Mavrik held the meat out of reach. "Now, eat the kangaroo-"
   "But Dad!"
   "-And you can have this to chew while we're in the lair."
   "That's an odd lair you have," said Thunder with a swallow. "Did you really dig it out with your hands?"
   "Sort of," said Mavrik. "Magic helped move the rubble."
   "There's opals in the walls!" said Aurani. "Black ones."
   "I have some in my hoard if you want to look," added Kehvarl.
   "You have hoards?" asked Thunder. The three young ones nodded. He smiled at Stormfront and Mavrik. "So! There really are some normal instincts in this family." He waved a thighbone at them. "That's good!"
   "We're a normal family, Dad," said Stormfront.
   "Except for the Magic," added Mavrik.
   Thunder nodded while he chewed thoughtfully. "Do you think you could help dig me a lair near-by?" Stormfront looked at him. "I'd like to live here in The Wilds." He looked at his daughter and added "Near my family."
   Stormfront went to her father and embraced him. Mavrik moved to join her but spun instead and slammed his hand down on the lump of beef, just missing three small snouts. They jumped back in surprise. "Almost got you."
   Late that afternoon, as they lay in the sun and idly chewed the leg bones, the young ones carried their little hoards into the light to show Thunder. He frowned at the lumps of black, glassy rock, wondering what the appeal was, but as he examined one in the light the stone glowed with iridescent reds, blues, yellows and greens. He gasped aloud.
   "They're beautiful!"
   "Yes," said Mavrik. He watched the scavengers fight over the remains of their meal a hundred yards away. By this time tomorrow there would be little remaining of the bull, and nothing of the kangaroos. "Those stones are unique." He looked at Thunder who was staring at the stone in his hand. "And they belong to my children," he added pointedly.
   The old dragon blinked at him. "What? Oh! Yes, of course." He placed the stone back in Aurani's pile. "You dug them from this hill?" He pointed at the lair and Mavrik nodded. "Do you think-"
   Mavrik laughed. "There's a good place to dig at the other end of the ridge. We'll start tomorrow if you can contain your hoard-lust that long."
   "He's going to steal our hoards!" shouted Aurani. The three young ones leapt at Thunder's hands and held them, growling and laughing at the same time. Thunder cried out in mock pain and rolled onto his back.
   Mavrik and Stormfront laughed, but Mavrik stopped when he saw the silhouettes of his two sisters flying in great haste from the north. The others saw his frown and followed his gaze.
   "I thought your sisters would be at Dragon Keep for some time," said Stormfront.
   "So they said," muttered Mavrik. "Something's wrong." Thunder carefully moved his grandchildren off his chest and rolled to his feet. Aurani, Kehvarl and Ilyrin noticed the change in the adults and ran to hide beneath their father. The group waited and watched as the two approached, braked and dropped before Mavrik.
   "Dragon Keep is under attack!" said Bindi breathlessly.
   Mavrik blinked at her. "What?"
   "When we left an army was half a day's march away," said Stargazer. "They should have the town surrounded by now." She looked at the visitor and gaped. "Thunder!"
   "Hi Gaz," said the old dragon.
   "You'll have to tell me all about Prahan's adventures in the East."
   "Later," said Mavrik. "You look exhausted."
   "We flew straight here," mumbled Bindi. "Didn't stop."
   "But that's a two day flight!" said Stormfront. "Mav, get your sisters some food." Mavrik nodded and launched with Thunder close behind. She ushered the two exhausted females into the lair.
   The sun had set behind the range before Stargazer felt fit enough to talk. Bindi ate then immediately fell asleep in a corner. Stargazer told them about their flight, and then about the siege.
   "The King must have known it was coming," said Stargazer. "He questioned us about the other army almost as soon as we landed."
   "Did you see it?" asked Mavrik.
   "Yes. It was half a day's march away. We left as soon as the towns folk were safe in the bailey."
   Thunder shook his head in puzzlement. "I don't see what a human war has to do with us." he rumbled.
   "King Derrek is the one who returned my mother's-"
   "Mav!" said Stormfront quickly. Mavrik looked at her with a frown, so she indicated with a nod the three young ones gathered around his feet.
   "-Things," he finished lamely. He looked down. They stared up at him, unmoving. Kehvarl's eyes flicked briefly to the high shelf then back to his father's face. Mavrik nodded and retrieved the slab of beef from its hiding place. Their anxious looks faded and three little forked tongues flicked out eagerly. "Be civilized," said Mavrik and handed it to them. He turned to Thunder. "So Derrek acted honourably, and I said I'd help his defense if he needed it," he finished.
   "Dad? Why don't you bring home cow meat?" asked Aurani.
   Mavrik thought back to his first adventure fifteen years ago. He nearly lost his life because of a cow. "The animals are too big,"
   "Granddad brought one home."
   "He's bigger than me."
   "Oh." Aurani went back to eating.
   "We should leave tomorrow," said Stargazer. "But who will look after them?" She indicated the three young ones. The four dragons turned to look at them.
   "Ah," said Mavrik.
   "Everyone is at the Council Ring to see Prahan," added Stormfront. "There's no one who could mind them."
   "They can come with us," said Thunder.
   The young ones looked up suddenly. "Where are we going?" asked Ilyrin
   "Dragon Keep," said Mavrik.
   "Ew! Lots of Humans," said Kehvarl. Aurani screwed up her snout.
   Ilyrin whispered something to them. Mavrik caught the word "Wizard" and noticed a change in their attitude. There was a brief round of shouting from the young ones as they argued over who they would ride. He noted one name was missing. "Don't you want to ride me?" They looked at him, then returned to the argument.
   Stormfront put an arm around her mate. "They can sleep with us tonight, and Bindi and Stargazer can have their den."
The Captain Of The Watch peered through an arrow-slit and observed the army around the north side of his castle. He sighed and sat with his back against the parapet. "We're right for water, but the food won't last."
   Frank sat beside him. "The Bomar aqueduct is big enough for a man to walk through. If we block it we could move out to the point it goes underground. That's three miles away."
   "Yes, but we'd have to block it at the Bomar River," said the Captain. "At the moment it's a bit hard to get out there." He fell silent for a minute. "Will your dragons come back?"
   "Yes, and they're not my dragons. Sir," he added. He also sighed and leaned back, letting his gaze travel to the distant, blue mountains to the south. He smiled suddenly. "I spy with my little eye, something beginning with D."
   The Captain frowned at the knight then followed his gaze. He jumped to his feet and ran down the steps leading to the parade ground. "Clear the ground!" he shouted, and began ordering his men to get the refugees out of the way. The towns people were unwilling to move, but when the five dragons passed overhead they ran for cover.
   Frank found James, and together they waited for their friends to arrive. The Dragons braked and dropped lightly to the ground. The garrison and towns-folk kept against the walls, but the two knights and the Captain came forward.
   "I said we'd be back," said Bindi. James opened his mouth to reply, but no sound came when he saw the tiny Dragon perched between his friend's wings. Bindi saw his look. "Aurani? Come down and meet a friend."
   "Aurani?" whispered James. He stared in wonder as the little yellow dragon scrambled from her auntie and sat at his feet, looking up at his face. He reached out to touch her but she flinched. James looked at Bindi.
   "She is named after Mav's mother."
   James nodded. "How would you like to stay at my house?" he asked Aurani.
   Aurani looked at Bindi and asked, "Is that all right?"
   Bindi nodded. "James might have food." She saw his worried look. "We can catch our own," she said. "We didn't expect you to feed all of us."
   "I think I have some beef-"
   "Beef?" Aurani's eyes lit up. Kehvarl and Ilyrin ran over and sat before the Man.
   "From a cow," said James uncertainly. He felt uncomfortable being at the focus of three intense stares. A shadow fell across him and he looked up. The other dragons surrounded them. Bindi introduced the other two young ones. James frowned at the one named Kev. The young dragon was wearing a leather thong around his neck from which hung a pouch against his right side. James squatted and pointed at the pouch. "What's in that?"
   Kehvarl looked furtive. "My favourite opal," he whispered.
   "I would be pleased if you could mind them for us," said Mavrik.
   "Splendid, James!" said the Captain. "These three might enjoy playing with your children. Draw extra meat rations and look after them for us. There's a good fellow."
   James sighed and rose to his feet. "Follow me, whoever wants some beef." With that he walked off, the three young ones running along side and talking excitedly.
   "Not you, Dad," said Stormfront.
   Thunder looked at her. "But he said..." He saw her look and stopped speaking, but he watched the departing group until the four disappeared behind a house. He shook his head. "This fighting for land is so stupid, so- so human."
   "I'm afraid so," said King Derrek. He had walked unseen behind group while they were talking. The Captain dropped to one knee before the King. "But you have to admit, we did not start this." He motioned for the Captain to stand. "See that our guests are housed. And pass word that any beast they kill to eat will be compensated for from my own pocket." The Captain nodded and ran off, shouting orders as he went.
   "Thank you, Derrek," said Mavrik.
   "We could also supplement your siege diet with game, without anyone complaining," added Stormfront.
   "That would be appreciated," said the King. "Sir Frank, you and Sir James are now in the service of our guests. Where is James?"
   "He's looking after Mavrik and Stormfront's youngsters," said Frank.
   "Oh dear," said the King with a smile. "He has trouble controlling his own boys."
The siege dragged on. The dragons' daily delivery of fresh meat made the people's diet bearable, but the days passed slowly.
   "I'm getting sick of this," said Thunder as he pulled yet another arrow from his wing sails. "The king is a man of honour, why can't he deal with them?"
   "The men he is dealing with are not," said Mavrik. "Derrek's father killed the previous king, and the man leading this siege is the ex-king's son."
   Thunder frowned. "And you approve of this regicide?"
   "Yes," said Mavrik with a sigh. "That man was the one who murdered my family," he added quietly. He hung his head, then raised it as Stormfront rubbed him under the chin.
   Thunder blinked at the dead beast on the ground before him. "Now I see why you involve yourself in the affairs of this castle." He looked up, and gasped. "Look there!" he said quickly, and pointed behind Mavrik.
   The dragons turned and saw five small figures creeping along the top of the wall behind the parapet: three young dragons and two young humans. As they watched they saw Ilyrin look through a gap. Mavrik quickly studied the men up there and recognized one.
   "Michael! Stop them!" he shouted urgently. He ran to the wall with the others close on his tail.
   The guard ran doubled over toward the youngsters. James scrambled up a ladder and ran, a hail of arrows following him. He leapt at Ilyrin and dragged him down, the guard named Michael arrived seconds later and pushed the others into shelter. The dragons arrived at the foot of the wall and heard James swearing.
   "Shit! Bastards! Bastards!"
   Mavrik stood on his hind legs and lifted himself until he could see the wall walk. James lay one the ground holding his side, a bloody arrow protruded between his fingers. Blood stained his leather jerkin. The other dragons stood beside Mavrik and lifted the five frightened youngsters to the ground, then herded them away from the walls.
   Bindi stood once more and carefully lifted her friend. "Poor James! That was very brave!" The knight said nothing as she lowered him to the ground.
   The Captain of the guard ran across the parade ground and asked what happened. Frank gave him a rapid report, and the Captain rounded on the two boys and told them in no uncertain terms what he thought about their stunt. The three young dragons clung to Stormfront's arms and shivered.
   The Captain finished and glared at the young dragons. Stormfront pushed them forward and nodded to the Captain. He repeated the tirade for the dragons, then stalked back to the wall to have words with the guards.
   Stargazer bent down until her head was near the two boys. "Your father is injured," she whispered. "Go to him." They looked at her in shock, then ran to where Mavrik was tending their father.
   They arrived as Mavrik examined the man's wound. "It's in deep," he said.
   James was pale and sweaty. "I'd better get drunk before you pull it out."
   "You can't. You're going into shock," said Bindi.
   "You're a bunch of good news." mumbled James. He looked at his two boys. "Peter, could you get a bandage?" he asked the younger one, who ran off. "What were you doing up there, Dave?" he whispered to the other boy, and passed out.
   "Dad?" David looked at Mavrik. "He'll be all right, won't he?"
   Mavrik nodded and closed his eyes for a few seconds, breathed deeply, then placed his hand around the wound and told Michael to carefully remove the arrow. The guard slowly withdrew the bloody shaft until the head was clear.
   "I'll get something to stop the blood."
   "It's stopped," said Mavrik.
   "Look." Mavrik removed his hand. Michael and David saw the tear in the blood soaked leather, but the skin beneath showed no signs of a wound apart from a cold, white scar.
   David examined his father. "How did-?"
   "I'm a healer," said Mavrik. "But he's still in shock. We have to get him to your healers." David ran off to the Healer's hall.
   Thunder watched the healing from the middle of the parade ground. He frowned as he tried to comprehend what had happened. Finally he turned to Stormfront. "They shoot at children!" he exclaimed. Stormfront hugged her distressed youngsters and nodded. "We have to do something to stop this." With that he launched and flew over the wall.
   Stormfront gaped in surprise. "DAD! No, wait!" she shouted after him, but he was gone.
   Mavrik and the men at the wall looked up in surprise when Stormfront shouted, and watched the large dragon pass overhead and drop over the wall.
   "Where's he going?" wondered Michael.
   "I hate to think," muttered Mavrik as he stood to look through an arrow slit. The besieging army was assembling in a defensive position as Thunder approached. Michael helped lift James onto a stretcher, then climbed a ladder to join Mavrik. Stormfront joined them. Bindi looked over her shoulder, then left them at the wall.
   "I think he's going to attack them," she said. "Or he'll try to reason them into submission. I wish he wasn't out there."
   In the middle of the parade ground the three young dragons clung to each other, fearful at suddenly finding themselves alone. Ilyrin sniffed. "Auntie Stargazer?" he whispered.
   Stargazer turned and saw their distress. She sat before them and spread her wings around the three so a wall of olive green leather surrounded them. She looked down the dark tunnel and saw three small faces looking up at her. "It's all right, Illy," she whispered.
   "Something is going to happen to Granddad."
   "He's going to be okay," she said softly. Ilyrin looked at her with teary eyes and shook his head. A shiver ran up her back. She looked around the yard quickly and found Frank. He came running at her call.
   "What's wrong?"
   "Look after the young ones." Stargazer swallowed. "No matter what happens," she added.
   Bindi stared at her, a look of puzzlement on her face. "Gaz?"
   "I have a horrible feeling Stormfront and Mavrik will break the siege," said Stargazer. "We have to be with them."
   Bindi frowned. "Why would they-" She stopped in astonishment and gaped at her sister. "Thunder!" she gasped.
   Stargazer pushed the youngsters over to Frank. "I hope you're wrong, Illy," she muttered, and the two ran to where their brother was watching over the wall.
   Ilyrin buried his face in the tall man's cloak. "I wish I was," he sobbed.
   Frank squatted and threw his arms around the three, but he didn't know what to say. "Let's go back to the guard house," he said.
   Stormfront's heart was in her mouth as she watched her father face the army. "Can you protect him?"
   Mavrik closed his eyes and breathed deeply. "Yes," he said eventually. As they watched a rain of arrows was loosed at Thunder. All the shafts burst into flames and ash, leaving behind a fall of arrowheads that bounced harmlessly off Thunder's scales.
   Stormfront let out her breath with a gasp of relief. "We have to get him back in here."
   Mavrik nodded. "I'll go- What?" All four dragons stared in disbelief as Thunder pitched forward onto his chest, then rolled over.
   Stormfront shook her head. "No!" she whispered. With a cry of anguish she leapt over the battlements, Mavrik following closed behind.
   The Captain of the watch turned to Bindi and Stargazer. "Give us a few minutes to rally and aid you," he said.
   "No," said Bindi quietly. "Your men will die if they go out there."
   "To die defending our homes-"
   "The enemy won't be the ones attacking." She gave the man a look that sent shivers up his spine, and the two dragons leapt into the air and joined their brother.
   Stormfront bent over the motionless form of her father and held his head. "Mav! Do something!"
   "I'm trying!" said Mavrik. "Something is blocking my healing! I can't do it!" he wailed.
   Thunder opened his eyes and saw Stormfront crying. He lifted a hand and stroked her face. "Be brave, Fronnie," he whispered. He closed his eyes and went limp.
   Mavrik blinked and looked up at his mate. "He's dead! I couldn't-" He felt his throat close and he had to stop.
   Stormfront threw back her head and roared a terrible cry of loss. Mavrik held her and let his own grief flow in a roar of anger and helplessness. Stargazer and Bindi stood either side of the grieving pair and glared at the men. Bindi bared her teeth, and the closest men murmured and stepped back. The noise of the army snapped Mavrik and Stormfront out of their cries. They placed themselves between the army and the body of Thunder.
   From the battlements they heard the Captain call. "Good hunting, son of Myall!"
   Mavrik smiled horribly at the men before him. They looked at each other nervously and the word passed rapidly through the ranks. "He's Black Myall's son!" The shield wall wavered slightly as the four dragons crouched, then broke as they leapt.
Thunder blinked in the bright sunlight on top of the hill and stared at a town in the far distance. He recognized Dragon Keep standing in its midst. After a few seconds he shouted in fright and clutched at his chest, frowned, then felt all over feeling for the arrow. He glanced down and shouted in fright again. Instead of being a familiar sandy brown his scales were white. He stared in wonder at his hands and saw iridescent flecks of colour deep within: greens, reds and deep blues.
   "Ah! You've arrived."
   Thunder spun in fright. He blinked in surprise at the ancient black dragon who had arrived silently. "You- You're the Watcher!"
   "Yes." Watcher smiled. "I'm glad I caught you before you left the circles of the world."
   "I need your help," said Watcher. "And there's someone who wants to see you."
   "Who?" asked Thunder. Watcher smiled and indicated something behind. Thunder turned and saw another dragon with white scales. He gaped at her. "H- Holly?"
   "Hullo Rumbles," said Holbrooke.
   "Holly!" Thunder shook his head in wonder. "But... But I saw you under the tree. I held your body!" He turned to Watcher. "You did this?"
   Holbrooke fell on her mate and knocked him to the ground. "Watcher couldn't stop what happened," she said as she hugged him tightly.
   "And I needed help," said Watcher. "I caught her the same way I caught you."
   Thunder laughed and wrapped his mate in his arms, legs and wings, holding her tight against his body. "I missed you so much!"
   Holbrooke started to cry. "I know. I was there but I couldn't reach you." The two hugged each other silently for a long time.
   Watcher finally broke the stillness. "We have work to do," he said softly. "I need a dragon with your magical ability, Thunder."
   "Me?" said Thunder, looking up at the ancient dragon standing above them. "I don't have a magical bone in my body!"
   "Someone has set up a barrier around the North Pole," said Watcher. "Anyone with any magical ability triggers it off. You won't."
   Holbrooke rubbed her chin on Thunder's chest. "I think whoever is trying to kill Mavrik is up there."
   "Not just Mavrik," said Watcher. "It's every dragon with magical abilities."
   Thunder stared at the town in the distance. The keep in the centre was now obscured by smoke. "But that means Kev, Illy and Rani are in danger!"
   "Yes," said Holbrooke. She got to her feet and pulled Thunder to his. "Our grandchildren are in grave danger."
   "We have to do something!" said Thunder urgently.
   Watcher smiled and nodded. "As I said, we have work to do."
Mavrik snarled and raised his hand to kill the man before him, but a gentle touch on his arm distracted him. He turned and saw Stargazer, her eyes full of sadness.
   "That's enough, Mav," she said quietly. "No more killing."
   Mavrik felt his anger drain away and he blinked at the frightened man pinned beneath his left hand. He sheathed his talons and lowered his right hand. "No more killing," he echoed. He grasped the man around the shoulders and lifted him to his feet. "I am sorry. I should never have allowed this to happen." He sighed deeply. "But your master and his family have cost me seven members of my own family."
   "Go," said Stargazer. The knight bowed slightly and ran off in the direction of the Keep. They looked at the bodies laying piled before the gate, at Stormfront hunched over the body of her father, at Bindi staring numbly into space. "What have we done, Mav?"
   "I always wondered if Myall was mad or evil," said Mavrik. "Now I know we are all capable of pointless killing." He looked at Stargazer. "We've done evil," he said simply. They walked back to the keep. The smell of blood was strong in his nostrils and he looked at himself. His arms and chest were covered in a thick layer, red against his black scales. The others were in the same state, except the blood darkened their lighter hides. He left Stargazer with Bindi and went to the gates and knocked. "We need water to wash," he said. Orders were shouted, and soon a small flood issued from a pipe in the wall and flowed down the channel that ran through the centre of the town.
   He called to his sisters, and together they cleaned themselves at the base of the wall. The postern gate beside the main entrance opened and the three young dragons ran to him, gave him a quick hug then ran to their mother.
   Stormfront cradled her father's head and wept. She heard the calls of her children but she did not know what they were saying. All three had to shout "MUM!" in unison before she would even look at them. They clustered around the tip of her tail.
   "Come away, Mum. It's all wrong," said Aurani. She reached out and touched her mother's tail.
   Stormfront looked up as Mavrik approached. "Come and get cleaned, Fronnie," he said. She looked at her hands and saw they were covered in blood. Mavrik led her back to the water channel. She stood silently as the group washed her down, making no effort to help.
   The main gate opened and a dozen soldiers emerged. They spread out on the battleground and began examining the bodies. Frank appeared, pushing a wheelbarrow full of heavy blankets. "The captain says these will help get you clean." The dragons took the blankets and began rubbing each other down.
   "What are they doing?" asked Mavrik with a nod in the direction of the soldiers.
   "Identifying the ones you…" His voice trailed off as the three young ones clustered around his legs. Small hands grabbed his clothes as they looked for comfort amidst the scene of death. He looked at his scaled friends and saw the distress they were feeling over what they had done. Mavrik was holding Stormfront, Bindi stared blankly at the water and Stargazer surveyed the battlefield and wept. He felt a great sorrow for them, but he did not know what to say. Someone tugged at his pants leg. It was Kehvarl.
   "Pen's coming!" he whispered excitedly. Seconds later a cry came from the battlements. A Wizard on horseback approached from the west.
   Half an hour later Pen rounded the northeast tower leading his horse. He dropped the reigns when he saw the dragons and walked over. He said nothing but stared at Mavrik, his face very pale. Finally he said "Why?"
   Mavrik could not meet his gaze. As a fellow healer and magic user, he felt ashamed at what he had done.
   "Uncle Pen?" said Ilyrin. "Granddad went away."
   Pen frowned at him, then at the knight. The knight pointed to something below the battlements. Pen's eyes widened when he recognized the body. He took a step forward then stopped. "This is wrong!"
   Mavrik sighed and nodded. "Everything today is wrong."
   Pen turned to face the dragon. "No, it's… it's wrong."
   "That's what I said," said Aurani.
   Pen squatted before her. "You know what I mean, but your Dad is too upset to feel it," said Pen. "If he would let go, the magic would show him."
   "Magic couldn't help Thunder," said Mavrik. Stormfront sobbed loudly.
   Pen did not look up, but scratched Aurani under her chin instead. "Let's help Auntie Bindi while your Dad thinks about it," said Pen.
   Mavrik watched the two men lead his children over to his sister. Pen said something to Bindi who sighed loudly and sank to the ground where she curled up, obviously asleep. The men lifted the young ones into the small space surrounded by the sleeping dragon where they snuggled down and lay quietly. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the flow of magic around him.
   The world around him changed. Grass and trees took on the dull red glow that indicated their slow life force, while the people glowed with a soft golden light. Four brilliant white patches marked the magic users, Illy, Rani, Kev and the wizard. He cast around and saw the hard brown lumps that marked the buildings. He frowned. Something was… wrong! Thunder was missing. Even his dead body should give some indication of its presence, but there was only a blank area that radiated a feeling of wrongness. Now he could see what Aurani and the wizard were talking about. He opened his eyes and walked to where Thunder lay. As he examined the body the feeling of wrongness increased until he thought he'd throw up. Frank and Pen joined him.
   The knight bent over peered at something near Thunder's left armpit. "There it is!" he said, pointing to an arrow shaft almost totally buried in the body. He reached forward to grasp the feathered end. Pen's hand shot out and grasped his wrist.
   Mavrik and the wizard exchanged a look. "I think we need some mail woven of Elvish silver," said Pen.
   Mavrik sat back. "Can you get us some, Frank?"
   "I'll have to ask the King," said Frank. "He's the only one with Elvish armour." He ran back to the gate and disappeared inside.
   "If that arrow is tipped with a shard of sorcerer's stone, it would explain why I couldn't save him," said Mavrik softly.
   Pen sighed. "Mav, if the arrow is tipped that way, it was meant for you."
   Mavrik felt cold in the pit of his stomach. "Don't tell Fronnie that!"
   "Of course not! She does not need another worry," said the wizard. They looked at Stormfront. She and Stargazer were clinging to each other and weeping. "I think you should go to her. I can do this." He watched the dragon go to his family, then squatted beside the body. "Oh Thunder," he sighed. "I hope you're with Holly now." He looked up as a group of men approached, the sun glinting on their armour. Leading them was the king in his silver mail.
   "Hello Pen!"
   "Ah, Derrek!" The wizard gestured to the mail suit. "That wouldn't happen to be Elvish, by any chance?"
   The King frowned. "It is. It's my one luxury in battle."
   "I need to borrow a gauntlet."
   Derrek's frown deepened but he removed his right gauntlet without a word. He looked surprised when Pen put on the gauntlet and pulled the arrow from the body of the dragon. Everyone took a step back as the arrowhead emerged. It looked to be fashioned from crystal but it glowed with a faint green light.
   "Oh dear," said Pen softly.
   "That looks poisonous!" exclaimed Derrek with a shudder.
   "Worse than poison," said Pen. He held the arrow gingerly by the feathers. "It's made of sorcerer's stone. It eats life and magic." He shuddered as he brought his left hand near the hated crystal and muttered a word of power. The arrowhead flashed a brilliant white then went dead. He held the shaft so the King could see. It looked like a perfectly ordinary arrow with a crystal head. "There!" exclaimed the wizard. "It's dead and safe." He grasped the arrow with his bare hand and handed it to the King, along with the silver glove.
   Derrek handled the arrow gingerly as he examined it. Finally he handed it back to Pen. "These men have volunteered to be a burial detail," he said, indicating those around them. "I have the master stonemason ready to construct a chamber-"
   "You should be telling Mav and Fronnie that," said Pen. He let his gaze wander around the battlefield. "And you'd better get the burials started soon, or you'll have a serious health problem."
   "I know." Derrek rubbed his face. "They killed 93 knights, you know. And they did it because of my relatives. How do I face them?"
   Pen shook his head. "I don't know." He clasped the King on the shoulder, and went to talk to Mavrik.
   The soldiers and villagers worked all day, and by late afternoon there were nine new mounds on the northern edge of the town. On the eastern side of the castle wall, just to the right of the main gate, were the foundations of another much larger mound. The diggers had laboured all that day to excavate a large circular pit.
   On the morning of the day after Thunder's death, Mavrik and Pen used their combined magic to lift his body and place it in the grave. The stonemasons then gathered and quickly erected a vault of skillfully fitted stones. The walls arched over the body and the soldiers filled in the earth as each layer was finished. As afternoon wore on the masons placed the capstone, a slab of rough-hewn slate, a foot thick and five feet across. Finally only the southern side was unfinished.
   The dragons and the wizard gathered and looked into the open side of the grave. Only Thunder's head could be seen now, but they knew his body was curled as though he were sleeping. They stared in silence. No one moved.
   Kehvarl darted forward unexpectedly. Mavrik feared the young one would climb into the grave, but Kehvarl stopped and turned to face them. He took off his precious leather pouch and removed his favourite opal. It flashed in the golden afternoon light.
   "Granddad liked opals," he said with a sniff. The opal went back into the pouch then he reached through the opening and carefully placed the little gift on the nearest of Thunder's hands. With that he turned and ran blindly back to the group. Mavrik caught him and held him tight as sobs wracked the little body.
   Mavrik nodded to the Captain of the guard, and the man ordered the work to be finished. The masons swiftly closed the gap. The sun sank below the horizon as the last stone went into place. Torches were lit and the soldiers filled in the earth to complete the mound. Finally, grass turves were placed over the bare earth.
   At last Thunder's Barrow was finished, and the dragons retired for the night. As they settled into the hay barn that had been their home for these nights, King Derrek posted a guard to keep people away. Pen watched his friends as they drifted off to sleep until only Mavrik was awake.
   The dragon looked at the human standing in the door. "Thank you, my friend."
   "I wish I'd been here to help," said Pen.
   "I don't think Paveway or even Mach at his most powerful could have helped."
   Pen sighed and nodded. "These are evil, evil stones, Mav. I wish I knew who was making them."
   "We will find out in time," whispered Mavrik. "And then we will deal with him."
   Pen nodded again, wish Mavrik a quiet sleep, and retired to his own bed.
Mavrik woke suddenly from a deep sleep. He looked around but could sense nothing that would wake him, so he let his head sink into the straw and stared out the door. The Morning Star glinted whitely above the castle wall. He stared at it and guessed the time to be an hour before dawn. Stormfront sighed deeply. When he looked at her he was surprised to see a pair of eyes staring at him. Kehvarl carefully extracted himself from the tangle of arms, legs and tails and came to him.
   The pair lay side-by-side and stared at the star.
   "I think I should start teaching you to use your magic," said Mavrik softly.
   "I can do magic."
   "You have the instincts but not the skill."
   Kehvarl looked at his father. "I stink like magic?"
   Mavrik smiled to himself. "How about I ask Paveway and Mach to help?"
   "And Pen?" asked Kehvarl hopefully. "Oh, I forgot. He's human." He sounded disappointed.
   "Magic is magic, no matter which race uses it," said Mavrik. "I'll ask Pen, but he's very busy."
   They lay in silence for a while. "I think I'll give my opals to Illy and Rani," said Kehvarl suddenly. "They make me sad."
   Mavrik scratched the little striped back. "Your Granddad was glad you collected them. I think you should keep them, and be happy." From the corner of one eye he thought he saw a pair of white dragons standing off to the right of them, but when he looked the barn was empty. Stormfront sighed again in her sleep and murmured softly.
   "Can we go home?"
   In the distance a cock crowed.
   "Yes," said Mavrik. "We've been away too long."

copyright Den Whitton 1997
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