Read an Excerpt
When he left this world, Tom Whitehead was daydreaming of a lady of his acquaintance and didn't even notice when he disappeared from the Capitol Hill Metro station.
He was fantasizing she'd be his very first grand passion. He was too proper, perhaps, to suggest anything more intimate than a drink at his place after their first date at the National Geographic lecture on--what was it?--the ancient Minoans.
Perhaps his doctoral research on late Medieval poetry was touching some latent romantic spot deep in his soul.
It's all fiction and never was like that at all, but that sort of life had a lot to recommend it. Damsels in distress. Sorcerers and...
A rush of warm, damp air interrupted his reverie. He was suddenly aware again of the world about him. It wasn't a Metro train at all.
It was a severe shock.
The stony brink of the low bluff on which he stood overlooked a wide river valley between rugged, wooded hills, and offered him a view of the valley treetops, green in the midday sun.
His first numbed dismay turned to a shaking surge of disorientation and disbelief, a crescendo of panic. This place! It wasn't Iowa or Missouri, and certainly not the gray-white Federal buildings and tree-lined streets of the District of Columbia.
My God, I've gone insane! he screamed silently, but then he shook his head angrily. No! I've lost my memory! And wandered here in an amnesiac daze.
Seeking desperately for something based in solid reality, he looked at his wristwatch: 5:25 P.M.-Mar 15-Fri. No time had passed at all between the cool subway platform and thissunny bluff's edge.... Where in God's name am I?
A flock of large, red-and-black birds shot close overhead, squawking happily, and dived into the stream valley. Even in his stark terror he saw they were ducks--but ducks that flew in shallow swoops with frantic beatings of short wings, like sparrows. They flew in a cloud, like crows, not in the neat chevron formations one would see over Iowa's fields or Maryland's wetlands.
The discontinuity brought him abruptly to his senses. He stepped carefully back from the brink and took inventory, like a man checking to see if anything was broken after a car accident.
What is real? He wore the familiar gray wool suit and vest he had put on that morning, and carried his suit coat and topcoat. He still wore the comfortable old black oxfords he'd bought years before, when he first came to the Capital from Missouri to take on his new, exciting post at the Library of Congress.
He folded his coat and topcoat slowly, neatly, laid them on a flat rock, then sat on them. His watch now said 5:27 P.M. but the sun was almost directly overhead--closer to noon than evening.
"I'm not insane! At least, I don't think I am," he insisted aloud, "and if I didn't have a loss of memory, how did I come to be here? And where is here, for Pete's sake?"
There were no sensible answers. There were dozens of nonsensical ones, of course. He knew the words--teleportation, translation, enchantment--but he just didn't believe in them. Not for twenty years, since his early Iowa childhood. Or ... had he stopped believing?
He laughed unsteadily. If this wasn't insanity, it was awfully damn close.
Tom gazed distractedly at the sunlit landscape until its peace was shattered by a great crackling and thumping among the trees at the foot of the bluff, along the bank of the rushing river. Treetops were tossed like rows of wheat in a summer's gale, until he saw a terrible beast emerging from the trees. It was fully fifty feet, from twitching nose to sharp spear-pointed tail.
Dinosaur! was his first thought, but when the fierce-looking animal turned in his direction, he saw it bore only a superficial resemblance to the thunder lizards in books or reconstructed in the Smithsonian.
For it was scaled like a carp, light green-gold in color with touches of red at the neck and mouth. It had four sturdy legs, four wickedly clawed feet, and a pair of vast, leathery, bat-like wings. It also had four pointed ears and a tapered, muscular tail as long as its body, ending in an arrowhead point, obviously a formidable weapon.
The beast left the edge of the stream where it had been walking on all fours, and raised its upper body until its wide-set, intelligent green eyes were at bluff top level. Noticing the young man for the first time, it snorted in surprise. A ten-foot yellow flame smelling of burning sulfur and hot asphalt shot out of its nostrils.
Tom jumped back and cried out in fear.
"Holy Cow! A Dragon!"
"Right the second guess. Not a cow at all. A Dragon!"
The all-too-real, by-your-leave Dragon coughed a cloud of yellowish green smoke behind a polite paw. Tom's wild disbelief was so top-heavy it broke down altogether. He spoke to the Dragon in an almost normal, if somewhat shaky, voice.
"I thought you were a dinosaur."
"Huh!" the Dragon snorted again. "A mythical being? Do I look like something from a human tale?"
It turned away in a huff and a puff, preparing to ford the stream.
"N-no, no, don't go!" called the Librarian. This talking Dragon, no matter how terrifying, was a source of information. Tom needed information.
"I'd like to ask you some questions, please," he shouted after it. The Dragon turned back.
"You didn't really mean to insult my Dragonhood, did you?" it said, the tone forgiving. "Some say I'm too touchy about that sort of thing, and I guess perhaps I am. I'm sorry!"
"No, no! Please forgive me and my ignorance. I'm a stranger here, you see."
"I do see. As I live and breathe! You're a human!"
The beast curled its tail under itself, snapping three good-sized trees as it did so and cocked its head to the left.
"Yes, I am a ... a human."
"I was sure of it! One can't always be certain at first glimpse, of course. But there are little things that give you humans away. Nobody else dresses like that! And that haircut! Well! I'm amazed to see that your kind is really ... real."
"At the moment," Tom admitted, uneasily resuming his seat on his coats, "I am not all that positive. Where am I?"
The Dragon looked long and closely at the human before it responded.
"This is the Kingdom of Carolna. We're about in the center of the country, for that matter. A few miles west from the seat of Murdan the Historian. He's lord of this Small Achievement."
The displaced Librarian thought this over while the Dragon idly splashed its tail in the river, much to the consternation of a school of purple-stippled fish, which swam off with a noisy splashing.
"Well, what's an 'achievement,' then?" Tom asked at last.
"You really are a stranger!" exclaimed the huge beast with some satisfaction. "Let me see! An 'Achievement' is a parcel of real estate and its inhabitants under the legal, social, economic, and political control or ownership of a ruler or group of rulers. A ruler 'achieves' power over the land and its people and it becomes his 'Achievement,' you see."
"Ah, I see. But why 'Small' Achievement?"
The Dragon shook the water from its tail.
"I suppose because there are other Achievements that are 'large,'" he said with a shrug.
This conversation has definitely taken an Alice in Wonderland turn, thought Tom. Before he could comment, the Dragon added, "I'd love to stay and chat all day but I must be on my way. I'm already late for an important meeting."
The young man looked so lost and frightened that the Dragon paused out of pity.
"Come along! I'll take you to Murdan. He's a Historian and it's his job to answer hard questions."
"Okay, but how?" asked Tom, spreading his hands to indicate his helplessness there in the wilderness.
Without further ado, the huge beast took the human in his gleaming foreclaws and set him on the flat top of his head, just behind his brow ridge and between the four pointed ears.
After a moment of breath-lost panic, Tom found the perch to be quite safe, although the Dragon's head-scales were hard, smooth, and slippery, like rounded tiles. He sat cross-legged upon them and leaned forward to steady himself by grasping the beast's front pair of ears.
The Dragon carefully handed up the human's coats and, before Tom could protest or question, launched itself into the air, beating its vast wings in a series of loud cracks to gain altitude, and circled smoothly up into the warm, still air.
His fear under control at last, Tom looked about curiously. They were moving away from the jumbled lands along the escarpment above the river, climbing at an ever-increasing speed over the tallest of the tors. Leveling out like a living airplane, his new friend glided high over a gently rolling plain that melted in the distance into a purple haze of hills. Far beyond were azure, mauve, and gray mountains, rank on rank, snowcaps gleaming like beacons in the midday sun.
The land immediately below them changed rapidly from open woodland to clear grassland dotted with blue lakes, then to neatly plowed fields separated by hedgerows. Here and there sturdy-looking farmhouses, barns, and sheds clustered under groves of shade trees.
Once, Tom thought he saw a small castle, surrounded by low stone walls and a water-filled ditch, but it rushed by beneath before he could study it further.
There were people working in the fields, and cattle and sheep grazing, but none of these paid the least attention as the Dragon flashed overhead.
After a time, Tom ventured to speak to his strange mount, "By the way, my name is Tom Whitehead."
Said the Dragon, "And my name is Retruance Constable. A very old, respectable name, Constable," it added.
Tom wondered dizzily if it would be proper to ask Retruance Constable's gender, but decided he didn't need to know.
"Charmed," he called above the wind, instead.
"I suspect that's true," rumbled Retruance with a nod that threatened to toss Tom high in the air. Only the Librarian's firm grip on the Dragon's forward ears saved him from a long tumble to the ground. "Charmed, maybe even enchanted or ensorcelled. You, I mean. Murdan might know."
Their speed was difficult to judge. They were approaching the foothills when Tom glimpsed three tall, silvery towers against the darker background of a steeply rising ridge.
"Overhall Castle," Retruance Constable told him. "The seat of Murdan's Achievement. My honored ancestor, Altruance Constable, built it. That was in the days of Queen Alix Amanda Alone, when Murdan first came west."
The castle seemed small at a distance, but proved enormous when they neared it. It clung to a long, rocky spur of the foothills. Its three soaring towers were of different heights, all perfectly matched, like the masts of a graceful ship.
Red and gold pennants flew from each conical tower top. Splotches of color marked windows and balconies lower down, awnings spread against the bright upland sun. The whole great complex was surrounded by thick triple ring walls of dark red stone, twice as tall as a man on horseback. Each wall was pierced, in one place only, by a solid gate-fort so placed that no one gateway stood in line with the others.
Tom saw movement within and without the walls. An army of men was fighting on the grassy flat under the walls, near the fortified drawbridge and gate.
"Soldiers!" he cried, leaning forward over the Dragon's brow to see better. They carried long spears or lances. Others, on the fringes of the skirmish, bent short, recurved bows, letting fly whirring clouds of arrows.
Other bowmen stood on the ramparts and shot down at the warring parties from on high. The Dragon and its passenger heard a rumbling, roaring sound, occasionally a piercing scream or a mighty blare of signal horns.
"I fear so," said his companion. "Murdan's trying to regain his Overhall from a troop of Mercenary Knights who captured it while Murdan was away. The Historian has been besieging his own house since his return, I've been told."
The Dragon dropped like a stone toward the melee--much too swiftly for Tom's stomach--roaring at the top of its thunderous voice and spitting great gouts of orange flame. At the sight, sound, and scorch of his approach, the black-clad soldiers ceased slashing at the men in orange and retreated in orderly fashion, back through a sally port in the outermost bailey wall.
Tom goggled in horror at a dozen bloody bodies littering the grassy plain. Wounded blackcoats were being helped into the castle while the orange soldiers dragged their own casualties down to a camp under the edge of a wood.
A company of orange-clad archers sent flight after flight of arrows after the retreating defenders, but most fell short of the too-distant marks. Even before Retruance Constable came gliding down in the midst of the tents, relative peace returned to the scene. The soldiers of Murdan threw themselves to the ground to catch their breath well out of arrow flight, among their tents.
Retruance Constable landed as lightly as milkweed down before a gaily flagged and pennanted orange pavilion with a commanding view of the stretch of greensward sloping from the forest's edge up to the level ground before the castle gatehouse. The Dragon lowered its head to the ground and Tom gratefully slid from his seat between its ears just as a huge man in tangerine-gold half armor burst from the big tent.
"Retruance Constable, you insufferable gargoyle! Where in the depths of hell have you been? Hey? Answer me that, oversized salamander!"
The huge Dragon, to Tom's great surprise, actually looked sheepishly down at the angry man of middle years, florid face, and short gray locks who stood, fists on hips, scowling at them.
"Now, now, now! Murdan!" Retruance sputtered. "We have a guest..."
"Burn the blasted guest!" shouted the gray-headed Historian. At once five husky marshals rushed forward to grab Tom's arms and began to drag him away.
"I want to know why, in the beloved name of Breedge, you took seven staggering, stultifying weeks to get here, you and your brother!"
Tom's escort paused, not wanting to miss the confrontation between the Dragon and the Historian.
"Now, now, now!" repeated the Dragon, waving his foreclaws at Murdan placatingly. "I came as soon as I got your message. Furbetrance will be close behind me, if he's not yet here, I'm sure. There, now really..."
As suddenly as it flared, the Historian's temper cooled and he rushed forward to embrace the Dragon's scaly snout, deftly avoiding a flaming sigh of relief. It occurred to Tom that the two were really quite fond of each other but, at the same time, that the Historian had great power, even over his new friend.
"Am I glad to see you!" cried Murdan. "Now maybe we can get something done here. Come along! We'll have a long talk and look things over."
He turned to stalk away but Retruance called after him.
"Our guest," he hissed, smokily.
"Guest? What guest?" rumbled Murdan the Historian.
"The one you just ordered burned at the stake," Retruance pointed out. Indeed, now that the argument had waned, the soldiers were resolutely dragging Tom toward a large stack of firewood piled around a post to which were attached iron chains and manacles.
"Oh, for ... Here! Here ... stop that! Cancel that last order," Murdan shouted. "At ease, men! Halt! Bring the young man to me."
Once Tom stood before him, the Historian gestured for the soldiers to let him go.
The two men exchanged long, evaluating looks. Tom decided at once that a bold face was necessary, but he kept silent until the older man spoke.
"A youngblood, friend Dragon, somewhat scholarly for all that. But a few days and nights hacking and banging on the killing field will put him in fighting shape. I misdoubt but he'll make a good soldier, good as any here, if he manages to keep his head on his shoulders."
"Yes, sir," Retruance replied, meekly.
"Sirrah, you have the gift of a closed mouth, which I like, but tell me your name and from whence you hail."
Tom took a deep breath to still his racing heart and cleared his throat twice.
"I am Tom Whitehead. I'm from Iowa and Washington."
"Where are these places? I've never heard of them." asked the other.
"In the U.S.A.--er, that is, in America, sir."
"Ah!" Murdan said blankly to the Dragon. "An enchantment at work, I would guess?"
"I would so guess," replied Retruance.
"And a human, unless I miss my guess! They're so scarce, many disbelieve in them, I know," continued the Historian. "Tell me of your human self, sirrah, pray do!"
"I am twenty-six years of age, and a professional Librarian," Tom hurried on. Every time he felt he was gaining a grip on reality, it slipped away again. He'd never thought of humans as being scarce.
"A Librarian? Very good! That's most interesting," boomed the Historian. "If you're not bespoken, I can use a Librarian in my service, lad."
"Well..." Tom hesitated.
"Now don't be slow to make up your mind. You'll spoil the impression I've gotten of you," chided Murdan.
Tom grasped at the chance for the stability of regular employment without thinking further about it. He would at least have some protection and a known place in this unknown land--which promised to be a highly dangerous place, as well. He remembered the bleeding bodies on the slopes before the castle gate.
"Er ... providing the terms are fair," he said quickly, surprising himself with his boldness.
"Best in the kingdom!" promised Murdan with a laugh, obviously pleased. "A hundred vols, payable at the first of each month, and all you can eat if we have it to give you. A bed, dry most of the time, and two blankets if it's cold. Mounts, of course--"
"He'll ride me," interrupted Retruance suddenly. He gazed proudly at the Librarian he'd found. Tom blinked back his gratitude.
"Very lucky, too, my boy!" cried Murdan. "A Dragon Companion is to be envied."
"I am sure of it, s-s-sir," replied the Librarian, although he had yet some doubts about riding a Dragon. "Forgive me, but I don't know the value of a vol."
"A vol--well, it's a thick silver coin the size of your thumbnail. A vol is one-hundredth of a prone. A prone is enough for a man to live in comfort for a year," Murdan explained.
Turning to the Dragon, he said, "I do like a man who takes care of himself in money matters! Will he do as well in battle?"
"How could it be else?" asked Tom, made breathless by the speed of events but recalling how the black-clad soldiers had fled at the sight of the Dragon. "With such a steed as Retruance Constable? Who could best me?"
"None but another Dragon Companion," said Murdan, seriously. "And then it depends on your own abilities and resources, Companion!"
"Dragon Companion?" asked the Librarian, wonderingly.
"The title of such men as a Dragon chooses to carry, of course. Retruance Constable has given it to you," Murdan responded. "Come along, now that's settled, you two. There's revenge to plan."
The odd pair, Dragon and Librarian, followed the Historian to the great orange-and-white pavilion. It was pitched on the highest point in the camp, under the eaves of the forest. Before entering, the Historian spun about and gestured over his shoulder at the castle towering above them, even at this distance. Tom saw now that between the sloped field of battle and the gate tower was a broad, steep-banked moat, filled with swiftly rushing water. It was spanned in front of the fortified gate by a heavy timber drawbridge, now raised on enormous chains.
"It's been more than two months now," said Murdan to the Dragon. "That Basilicae, rascally bastard, sneaked right in when I was away to Spring Session. Killed three of my good soldiers out of hand! Chased my daughter and her family out in the cold! Scurvy-ridden, curly-bearded son of a--"
Retruance Constable said hastily, "How have you fared since?"
"Surrounded 'em, cut 'em off from resupply. They're hungry, I'm sure."
"They've got all the water they'll ever need, of course," mused Retruance, thoughtfully. "Great-Grandfather Altruance planned the castle too well for that! But he thought you would be on the inside."
"Unfortunately, they have Gugglerun, yes," agreed Tom's new master.
"Guggle...?" asked Tom.
"Gugglerun," explained Retruance. "It's an underground stream that fills the castle cisterns and the castle moat. Great-Grandfather rerouted an existing mountain freshet to supply all water needs. If this Basilicae didn't have it, he would flee or surrender much more quickly. But..."
"Can't you dam the stream above the castle, at least temporarily?" asked Tom. He knew the medieval mind. It seemed the sort of thing the heroes of his epic poems might have done in such a case.
His two companions stopped looking at the castle and turned together to look at the newcomer.
"Now," puffed the Historian, "now, I call that thinking on one's feet! Why didn't you think of that, Dragon?"
"Well, no one has ever done it," said Retruance doubtfully, returning the Historian's accusing glare.
"A good reason for trying it once," observed Tom, getting into the spirit of the discussion, despite himself.
"Good idea!" cried Murdan. "This human might earn his keep, after all. See to it, Dragon and Companion!"
And he went into the tent and flipped the flap shut.
"Now wait a moment!" cried Retruance after the Historian's retreating back. "What if we do stop up Gugglerun? What advantage to our people then?"
"You stop the stream and deny them water and they'll be out of there like an arrow from a bow, I guarantee," said the Historian, popping his head out of the tent. "Get busy!"
He raised one great arm and shook his fist at tiny figures visible on the battlements atop the castle wall. At once a shower of black arrows flew but fell just beyond the moat, far short of the edge of camp.
"We'll see to it," agreed Retruance. "Come, Companion! Let us explore Gugglerun in depth."