Master of Dragons
By Margaret Weis, Brian Thomsen
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2005 Margaret Weis
All rights reserved.
MARCUS EXTENDED HIS HAND, POINTED BEHIND HIMSELF TO the buildings that stood at the entrance to the alley. The magic rolled out of him, rumbled through the earth. Stone walls shook and trembled, and with a roar like an avalanche, the two buildings collapsed. Marcus heard screams and cries and guessed that at least some of his pursuers had been caught in the cascade of rock and debris. He dashed out into the alley, with Evelina at his side, and it was then he felt the weakness.
It came over him suddenly, unexpectedly, a sensation of being exhausted, drained of energy. He could not catch his breath. His legs and arms and hands tingled. He stumbled and nearly fell.
Evelina caught hold of him.
"What's the matter? Are you hurt?"
He couldn't answer. He had to use his breath for breathing. Talking required more strength than he had, and he couldn't explain to her what was happening anyway. Nothing is free in this world. Everything has a price, including the magic.
Conjuring pixies from dust motes had been a little fatiguing, but the magic had never before sent him to his bed. Bringing down stone buildings and raising ice storms was apparently different. He was so exhausted, he could scarcely move.
Behind him, he could hear behind him the monks clawing their way through the rubble. He had to run or give up and die.
"Dearest Marcus, sweet love, we have to keep going!" Evelina was saying, her voice trembling with fear. "Please. Just a little ways and we are there, my heart, my own."
She tugged at him, pleaded with him. He nodded and continued on. But he could no longer run. It took all his resolve just to walk.
"It's not far now," she said, sliding her arm around him, supporting him.
He wearily raised his head to see that they had come farther than he'd hoped. The wall was directly ahead of them. They had only to cross a street and they would be standing in front of it. Fifty, a hundred steps.
And then what? He remembered entering Dragonkeep, remembered looking back at the wall through which he'd just passed and seeing no gate, no entrance, only solid stone. On and on the wall ran, without end. Around and around the city. No break. Noway out. A dragon eating its own tail ...
"Marcus!" Evelina cried sharply, frightened.
He jerked his head up, shook his head to clear it, kept moving, kept walking. He concentrated on picking up his feet and putting them down, picking them up, putting them down.
The wall came closer. Solid stone. Fused with fire.
Marcus called again, one last time. "Draconas ..."
The name echoed in the darkness of his little room. Echoed back to him.
One by one, the echoes died.
The street that ran along the wall was empty. He'd expected to find a river of brown robes. If the monks were coming, they had not yet arrived.
"Yet why should they hurry?" Marcus asked himself. "I'm not going anywhere and neither is Evelina."
He stood in front of the guard wall, staring at it, pouring his whole being into that stare, wishing it, willing it to give him some hint, some clue of the way out. He risked leaving his little room, risked roaming up and down the length of the wall, as far as he could see, risked using his magic to search for a crack, a chink in the endless stone. He stared at the wall so long that the stones began to shift and glide and he wrenched his gaze away.
He did not call to Draconas again.
Marcus reached out his hand, touched the wall, touched stone — solid and cold. He moved his hand to another part and then another, all the while telling himself that this was stupid, futile, a last desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable.
"Marcus ..." said Evelina urgently. "The monks ..."
He saw them rounding the corner of the building, walking straight for him. Some held fire in their hands. Some held steel. All of it was death, so it didn't much matter.
"Tell me the truth, Marcus," said Evelina quietly. "There's no way out, is there?"
"No," he said. "There's not. I had hoped ..." He let hope hang, shook his head.
"I'm afraid," she said and put her arms around him.
"So am I," he said, and held her close.
A hand thrust through the stone wall.
Marcus stared at it. "I'm going mad," he thought. "Like the wretched monks."
He blinked his eyes. The hand vanished and Ven stood in front of him, inside the little room.
"This is the gate," said Ven.
His blue eyes were the only color in a vast expanse of white.
"The way out!" Evelina cried. "I see it! Marcus, look!" She clutched at him. "There it is! Right in front of us! Hurry! Make haste!"
The illusion was broken and, as always when we see the truth, he wondered that he had been so blind as not to penetrate the lie at once. The gate was crudely built, constructed of wood planks and held together by iron bands. The gate stood open. From the rusted look of the hinges, the gate had not been shut for centuries. Perhaps it had rusted in place.
Beyond the gate was the forest and beyond that the river. No monks blocked the way. No dragon stood at the entrance.
Marcus looked back to the little room.
"Take care of her," said Ven. He held out his hand.
Marcus touched his brother's hand.
The gate vanished, dissolved into the wall.
The wall vanished, dissolved into illusion.
Dragonkeep was gone, and it might have never existed, but for the feel of his brother's hand, firm and warm, in his own.
* * *
Marcus guided the boat he and Evelina had stolen out into the river. Evelina sat rigid and upright in the stern opposite him, holding on to the gunwales with both hands. Her face was drawn and tense. She stared fearfully into the woods that were slowly, too slowly, sliding away. When the boat dipped slightly, as Marcus wrestled with the oars, Evelina grasped the gunwales tightly.
"Sorry," said Marcus. "I haven't rowed a boat in a long time."
"I thought I saw something!" she gasped. "Oh." She relaxed. "A deer." Evelina looked at him and managed a smile. "I'm glad you're with me. You won't let anything happen to me."
Marcus smiled back at her, trying to be reassuring, but he didn't make any promises. The shoreline was receding, though not as rapidly as he would have wished. Marcus expected to see the monks come swarming out of the forest to give chase. They would have a difficult time of it. After Evelina had plundered the boats for anything useful, Marcus had pushed each boat, one by one, out into the river, where the current caught them and carried them downstream.
He would have liked to have destroyed the boats, perhaps set them ablaze, but he lacked the strength to use any more magic. He had tried staving in the bottom of one of the boats by kicking it with his foot, but the planks were too strong and wouldn't give way. The current was slow here. The boats bobbed in the water, meandering lazily downstream. Any energetic monk could plunge in and recover them.
Marcus waited for that to happen, but no monk — energetic or otherwise — appeared.
The boat tent carrying him and Evelina rounded a bend in the river and he lost sight of the shoreline and the bobbing boats. The river was narrow at this point, the shore lined with trees, whose overhanging boughs, thickly intertwined, cut off the bright sun and made it seem as if he were rowing into a green and leafy cavern. Sparse patches of sunlight slid over his knees. The sun was directly overhead. Midday. Only noon. Presumably noon of the same day.
So much had happened, it seemed as if it should be noon of some day next year.
"I don't like this." Evelina hugged herself. "It's like a cave. Anyone could be hiding in those trees." An alarming thought occurred to her. "Speaking of caves, we're not going back there, are we, Your Highness? Back to that horrible cave beneath the water? This is the way. I remember it. I don't want to go back there. We should turn around. Travel downstream."
The sunken cave. Marcus remembered gliding through it silently, careful not to make a sound, lest Grald and the monks should hear him and Bellona. He didn't much like the idea of going back through that cave himself.
Perhaps that's why the monks didn't follow us to the shore. Perhaps they're waiting for me there. Maybe I should turn around and travel downriver, as Evelina says.
Marcus kept rowing upriver, pulling steadily for the sunken cavern.
"They're not chasing us, are they, Your Highness?" Evelina asked, peering over her shoulder. "They'd be here by now, don't you think?"
"Yes," Marcus replied. No use frightening her with his dark conjectures. "You must call me Marcus." He smiled at her. "We've been through too much for formalities."
Evelina flushed with pleasure. "Marcus — I like that. And you will call me 'Evelina.'" She sighed and let go of the gunwale. Wrapping her hands around her knees, she leaned forward and turned her attention to him. "You look tired."
"I'm all right," Marcus said. He was tired, although he'd recovered his strength somewhat after exhaustion had nearly overwhelmed him at the wall. He guessed that the exhaustion had been partly due to despair — a despair that had lifted from him when he'd felt the touch of his brother's hand.
Marcus didn't understand anything that had happened. He didn't understand why Ven had helped him escape the dragon after betraying him to the dragon. He didn't understand how Ven even came to be alive. The last he'd seen of his brother, Ven was lying in a pool of blood, a knife wound in his chest.
I don't need to understand. Not now. Now I have to concentrate on only one thing.
"You'd find the rowing to be easier, traveling downstream," Evelina pointed out for the third time.
Marcus shook his head. "Easier, but the wrong way."
"Where are we going then?"
"Home," said Marcus. His objective. His only objective.
"Your home?" asked Evelina, and she sounded troubled.
His home, his kingdom of Idylswylde. That was why he was risking the monks in the sunken cavern. He might even find the dragon there, for that was where he had first seen Grald, the hulking human form the dragon had appropriated. Marcus was ready to risk even that to return to his home.
He could not explain this longing, but the memory came to him of another time, a time he had been away from his home for months, trapped in a world of insanity from which Draconas had saved him. When the little boy, Marcus, had seen the towers of his father's castle shining in the sunlight, he had felt the ache of longing in his heart swell so that the towers were drowned in his tears. The man, Marcus, remembered and wanted to see those sunlit towers again.
"Watch it!" Evelina cried.
Marcus jerked his head around, saw that he was steering them perilously close to a tangle of grass and dead tree branches. He gave the oars a twitch and they cleared the hazard, though with only inches to spare.
"You're so very tired," said Evelina. She reached out her hand to him, bending forward still more. Her chemise slipped a little, revealing an enticing expanse of curves and shadows. "You would not even need to row if we went downstream. The river would carry us —"
"I told you back at the landing, Evelina," said Marcus, and his tone, though gentle, left no room for argument. "I have to go home."
Seated opposite Marcus in the boat, Evelina pouted. She was accustomed to having her own way.
"At least you have a home," she returned, sitting up straight. By leaning forward, she had just provided him with an enticing view of her breasts, and it all been for nothing. He'd barely glanced at her. Therefore, she would punish him. "Your brother took my home away from me."
This jab, meant to wound him with guilt, missed its mark. At the mention of his brother's name, Marcus's gaze went from Evelina's face to her blood- spattered clothes. His eyes darkened. His lips compressed. He looked out at the trees and continued to row.
Evelina's cheeks burned. So that was it. The blood was Ven's, the prince's monstrous half-brother. And she'd been the one to draw that blood. The last she'd seen of Ven, he was lying on the floor dying, or so she hoped. She had saved their lives. Marcus had told her that. He'd been grateful. Now he couldn't look at her.
"What's the matter, Marcus?" Evelina demanded. She clutched at the blood-stained bodice and tried, ineffectually, to rearrange it so that the brownish red spots did not show. "Why do you look at me like that?"
Marcus flushed. "Like what?" He tried to sound innocent and thereby clinched his guilt.
"Like I was something ugly and disgusting that you'd like to squash beneath your boot. You said you understood why I stabbed that beast of a brother, and now you hate me!"
Evelina burst into tears that were not feigned — at least not much. She buried her head in her arms and sobbed stormily, lifting her head once to cry, "Your brother tried to rape me! He admitted it! And he killed my father!" Then she gave herself up to the luxury of hysterics. She felt she'd earned it.
As she wept, Evelina expected confidently that Marcus would stop rowing the boat, take her in his arms, and comfort her. He didn't. He continued to row. Admittedly, they were fleeing mad monks and a dragon, but still Evelina felt slighted. Another man — a true man — would have thrown caution to the winds in order to soothe her and pet her and try to steal a kiss or slip his hand down her chemise.
Marcus just kept rowing.
Evelina was at a loss. Hysterics were wearing, and she couldn't keep this up forever. The prince obviously wasn't going to be of any help to her. She'd have to recover on her own. She let her sobs quiet and risked a furtive glance from under her tear-soaked arms to see how he was taking it.
He was rowing steadily, his eyes fixed on her. He looked uncomfortable. Maybe he was just shy, unused to women.
I wonder how long it will take to reach this home of his? Days, maybe. Days and nights.
Nights. Alone. Together. Evelina's pulse quickened and her breath came fast at the thought. She would have to be careful with her seduction of her prince, for he believed her to be a maiden pure, as well as a maiden fair. He must be made to think that he was the one who had seduced her. Evelina's dream — dreamt from the moment she'd first met him this very morning — was to be Her Royal Highness, Princess Evelina, wife of His Royal Highness, Prince Marcus.
She knew that marriage was long odds, however. The royal mistress. She would settle for that.
Evelina had already discounted the idea of trying to convince Marcus that she was a baron's daughter, kidnapped by Ven, who carried her, fainting, from her father's castle. She was pragmatic enough to know that she could never pass for noble-born. She could neither read nor write. She could not embroider or play the lute. Her hands were not the smooth, fair hands of one who has never had to dress herself, never had to wash her own hair or scrub out her own chamber pot. Princes married farmers' daughters only in the minstrels' tales. In real life, the princes took the farmers' daughters to be their mistresses. They set them up in fine houses in the city and gave them jewels and clothes and educated their bastard sons and made them abbots.
Evelina resolved to have the house, the jewels, the bastard son. Maybe not in that order. House and jewels often came as a result of the bastard son. Her primary goal in all this was, therefore, to get herself seduced. That was the reason she'd been urging him to travel downstream, away from his home. The more time she spent with him, the better. He would not go downstream, so she would have to act fast.
Her sobs calmed to hiccups and she timidly raised her head. Her tears made her eyes shimmer, even if the lids were red. The boat slid along the surface of the sun-dappled water.
"Marcus," Evelina said, her voice quavering. "I know I am not like the well-born, accomplished women you are used to being around. My father was a merchant in the city of Fairefield. Dear man. He was respectable, kind, and gentle. Just not very practical. My mother died when I was little, and father and I were everything to each other. I'm sorry I stabbed your brother. I'm a good person. I really am. Father and I went to church every week. It's just ... when I saw Ven ... I saw my poor father's body, all crumpled and twisted ..." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Master of Dragons by Margaret Weis, Brian Thomsen. Copyright © 2005 Margaret Weis. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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