| Ekan was thoroughly
enjoying the clear starry night. No moon was visible, but even a human
could see his way on the ship without the help of an oil lamp. The black
dragon at the helm was making use of some of his magical senses to guide
to the boat, fully realizing he was somewhat cheating. Ekan had volunteered
for the night shift to be alone and think about his Captain's words in
He had not yet grasped the full meaning or import of the word slavery. Dragons in their normal state were certainly not renowned for their concern for such niceties as freedom, rights and other ethical values.
But to achieve full shapechanging abilities, they had to accept another world of thoughts and morals. That was what confused Ekan. The best thing to do probably lay in trusting one's instincts. Eons of knowledge inherited at his birth and Glamrun's teachings should have provided enough counsel for his future dealings with these humans he was developing a fondness for. Unfortunately, he had just come to realize that the human world was far from a clear-cut option as his dragon's kind.
-“We should find the village where Ekan sailed from behind this last dune” Glamrun indicated to the Wolf loping alongside.
They had finally crossed the Desolation south of the Iron Crags by the shortest route and veered south along the deserted shore as they had planned to travel to Dunlago as close as possible to the coast to avoid unneeded hardships.
Glamrun as a dragon, even in disguise, had enough stamina and reserves to go days or weeks without any food, and if you knew where to look, water was always available. He could not tell about the Wolf who tended to disappear at night, probably hunting and feeding. All kinds of rodents, lizards and even snakes ought to make good enough food. The old Dragon could sense the teeming life of the desert wake up with the last sunrays sinking behind the horizon. The two of them mostly walked in the early mornings and late afternoons and slept in whatever shade or shelter they managed to find in daytime.
-“Ancient One! Something is terribly amiss over that dune. Can you smell it?”
Indeed, Glamrun’s nostrils flared at the smell of smoke blown up by the wind before he actually could see it. They pressed forward.
An awful sight welcomed them from the top of a dune. Only a few hundred yards away, a small coastal village was in the last stages of a fire. The few original houses had all been torched. Only smoldering and blackened stumps were left standing over the collapsed remains of the dwellings. Bodies apparently dead lay haphazardly on the ground.
No sound could be heard except for the wind, the crackling of the last burning wood and the cries of the sea birds come to feast upon the victims.
-“When did that happen?” inquired the Wolf.
-“I would say yesterday afternoon at the latest.”
“Do you think we might discover any survivors to explain what happened!”
-“ I wish I could tell you. Hurry! At least let’s try and investigate. Our help may still be needed!”
Ekan was still deep in his thoughts when a peculiar sound reached his ears. Or was it inside his head? Maybe his particular dragon’s senses were playing a trick on him. But soon he perceived the sound again.
It was a disquieting feeling…
Imagination? Wishful thinking?
But the impression developed into a tangible sensation. The young dragon was suddenly overcome by an incredible wave of grief, sorrow and fear. He heard the cries and among them the mute fright of a little defenseless being.
Wildly projecting his dragon’s senses all around him, he realized the source lay somewhere at sea on his left. At last able to concentrate his attention, he directed his listening to the east.
Soon enough, his dragon’s sight located a dark ship only a couple of miles away. What was it doing there? And why did it emanate so much suffering?
Obeying his instincts he kept the Seadragon on a course parallel to that of the mystery vessel and patiently waited for the break of dawn.
-“What’s your name, boy?”
The young lad looked at Umatar with incredulous eyes.
-“Where do you come from? Don’t you know boys cannot own or be given a name before their own coming-of-age ceremony?”
Well, well, I have left myself with a lot to learn… Umatar ruefully thought.
-“Fine, fine! Listen, boy! Why don’t we suppose I come from a far away land, which is true by the way, and that you teach me your customs?”
-“Women! Pah! All the same everywhere, aren’t you? Know nothing! Just good to cackle around a fire and look after babies!” her puffed up companion of the moment retorted.
-“Cut that out! You are only repeating somebody’s words! Or would you prefer to really know what kind of female I am?” the Golden Dragon answered with a thin smirk slowly stretching across her stony face.
The boy belatedly understood he had suddenly ventured on a very slippery ground and shut his mouth.
Umatar, feeling pity for the poor boy whose bravado had been his sole defense, prodded the kid.
-“Why don’t you explain your presence in this cave? It would help both of us, wouldn’t it?” she said in a far gentler tone.
The deflated youngster found his voice and started relating his story.
-“I am, actually was, the son of He-Who-Walks-With-The-Wind. But my father and mother died when warriors of the Tribe of Thunder attacked our camp three days ago. According to the laws of our Tribe, an orphan is left in this cave until somebody wishes to adopt me. But it is also said that if nobody comes within the first day, demons will take the orphan away. That is why I thought you were a creature of Hell!”
-“Very simple yet completely unethical! What kind of people are you to leave your orphans alone? And why did they tie you as well?”
-“Orders of our Shaman. To make sure that demons take only my spirit, but not my body! The Shaman promised he would come next moon if nobody adopted me and give me a proper fire-cleansing funeral.”
-“I see… and of course your laws are devised by your Shaman…” Umatar snorted in disgust. “The next moon is a couple of weeks away. I shall keep you fed and watered, and you tell me more about your people and then we meet your Shaman!”
The last was uttered with a cruel grin that made the boy retreat his head inside his shoulders.
-“Why the hell didn’t you call the next watch? The whole crew is gone mad! Nobody knows what’s going on!” a disheveled Adir shouted at Ekan on his way up to the stern castle where the young dragon was still steering the ship as if nothing untoward had happened.
-“And on what course to hell are we?” continued the Captain who was having second thoughts on his choosing the man.
Ekan silently pointed starboard. The boat he had followed was now clearly visible to everybody.
-“Slavers!” Adir exclaimed, “What are you thinking, Jonas? Do you want us to get into a fight?”
-“Think a bit, Adir! Why do you think this ship sails so close to the coast?”
The captain felt caught between kicking the man out of his way, although he knew that it was bound to prove physically impossible. Calming down, he decided to opt for the latter, for the simple reason that a Captain losing control certainly would not look good to the rest of the crew. Accordingly he began thinking.
-“You might be right, after all. They are too close to the shore. So perhaps they are bound somewhere to do their evil deeds!”
-“Where do you think they come from?
-“From the north, of course… Hang on! The only significantly inhabited area north of our present position is the harbour village we left together! The bastards!”
Adir had a long look at the ship and growled:
-“Jonas, keep steering. We’ve got a job to do!”
-”Captain, may I suggest I take part in the fight? After all, I guided your ship into that trouble. Also, I’m pretty sure I’m as good as any of your men. Moreover, I have one more reason to deal with that scum!”
-“What reason, Jonas? One day, the two of us shall have a very long talk. There are too many things for one person to learn in such a little time, aren’t they? You are certainly not fooling me! You’re something big, or I’ll be damned!”
-“Captain Adir, for the moment I am just a member of your crew and I would be grateful if you treat me as such. Now, shall I tell you the one more reason we should give these evil things their due?”
-“They have abducted a little girl among others!”
-“I don’t believe it!”
A single look at the hard unsmiling face of the giant hammered the truth into the Captain’s incredulous mind.
Barely keeping himself in check, he turned round, rushed down the stairs to the main deck, took one of the axes from the emergency rack and slammed it against the ship bell.
-“To arms! To arms!”
The bewildered crew came streaming out of all the various entrances and openings of the ship. They followed the direction shown by Adir’s pointing left arm while he kept banging his axe against the bell. More confusion ensued.
-“But these are slavers, Captain! We stand no chance!” cried the bosun.
-“These bastards have just raided your village Adnan! Is that enough of a reason!” Adir roared back.
The mood among the crew changed at these words. Formerly confused sailors were presently preparing themselves with a grim precision and determination.
Ekan went to join them after the captain had ordered one of his more experienced men to take the helm without having to tell him to keep course straight to the slavers’ ship.
Other men brought ropes tied to hooks. Jonas came to stand among them with his hand son the handrail.
One sailor called to him.
-“Jonas, what of your weapons?”
-“I don’t need any such things!”
The mate looked at his hands and noticed that the wood of the railings was splitting under the incredibly tense knuckles of the black mountain of a man standing at his side.
-“I don’t know what happened in our village, but the bastards are surely going to pay for it!”
-“You can count on me, mate!” Ekan tersely replied.
The Seadragon kept moving closer and closer. They could see the slavers’ ship crew looking at them with disbelieving stares. Certainly none of them had heard of a merchant ship willingly assailing one of their vessels. They were almost laughing. But when they saw the grim faces of all the opposing sailors gathered along the bulwark, they started to panic.
Their captain, a tall, thin, pale man dressed all in black, finally started to shout orders and his crew proceeded to organize themselves for the coming bloodletting.
The man at the helm of the Seadragon knew his job and soon both ships were sailing parallel only a few yards apart. Hooks were thrown, ropes were pulled and suddenly both ships met with a jarring clank.
Ekan had not waited that long and had landed on the deck after an immense leap. Ignoring the enemy crew and swatting them away like flies when they would not budge, he went directly to the slaver captain.
His opponent tried to cut him with his sabre but only got a broken arm in the process. Ekan slammed him against the planks of the stern castle, and his left grabbing his surcoat, he lifted him off his feet as if he were made of straw.
-“Where are you bound?” he growled.
The villain grinned through his pain spat at the young dragon’s face.
-“I’m asking you for the last time,” continued Ekan ignoring the insult, “or you’re going to regret the day you were born! Where are you bound?”
His foe spat again.
Ekan suddenly went berserk, his dragon’s nature taking over. Lifting the captain high above his head, he went to the bulwark and holding the wretched creature above water, he slowly turned to face the battle raging on the ship. A hush went through the fight. All combatants stood frozen in place. Without a single word and never sparing a glance at his screaming victim, his left hand grasped the unfortunate man’s neck and slowly twisted. The sailors watched in horror as the whole head that was now completely facing the other way was pulled from its body. Ekan negligently let the blood-gushing body fall into the sea while still holding the head of the former captain in his left hand. He held the head high for a while and finally dropped it, too, over the bulwark into the sea.
The young dragon started forward.
From then on, it became pure and simple butchery. The Seadragon’s crew, upon seeing Ekan’s deeds had gone berserk, too, and could not be stopped.
Soon the deck was cleared of all living slavers when a scream came out of a trap leading to the deck below. Ekan was already down the entrance before anybody could react. As he landed downstairs, his eyes caught the spectacle of a sailor, one hand grabbing the hair of a shackled male captive and his other hand brandishing an evil-looking sabre. Ekan’s scream momentarily froze the man in place, long enough for the giant to reach the villain and grab him by the throat.
“Who are you working for? Where were you bound? Tell me quickly or you will hate this day you faced me and deal with a life of suffering!” But the man’s Eyes had already gone vacant.
Sensing a foreign power, the young dragon’s mind frantically burst into his foe’s head.
-“The Hammer of Fate… beyond the Fire Mountains… the black dr…” The life suddenly winked out of the sailor whose body fell limp in the dragon’s hands.
Ekan stared at him in frustration for a moment. Then discarding him like a bag of refuse, he walked in front of all the prisoners tied to both walls, breaking their chains two at a time in a methodical, almost mechanical manner.
Where is she? Where is she? He thought with increasing anguish. Where was the source of the cry he had heard last night?
At last he reached the far end of the hold. There, in the farthest nook sat a little girl, no more than nine years of age, her arms grabbing her legs and her face against her knees. Ekan kneeled down. Not wanting to frighten her with his large stature, he prodded her with his Dragon’s senses. The poor thing was shaking uncontrollably, her mind a jumble of terrifying images and sorrow.
Seeing no way to bring up her attention, he chose to make her sleep, a feat easily accomplished since the girl was so much in need of peace. Her body relaxed and as she made to lie down, Ekan gently caught her in his arms and lifted her.
When he emerged again from below deck he moved to the other captives now freed of their chains standing or sitting idle in small groups.
-“Does anybody know this girl?”
One of them, lifting his head, looked at the big man.
-“Yes, we surely do. But sorry to tell you, she is an orphan now. Her mother died when one of these slavers hit her head with his truncheon as she tried to protect her. Nobody knows her father.”
-“Then, is anybody willing to take her and look after her?”
All the former prisoners turned their faces away or avoided the dragon’s eyes when he looked at them one by one inquiringly. His dragon could not visualize the refusal to protect a defenseless child, less understand it. He then made a decision and called the Captain.
-“Captain Adir, could you please be kind enough to reiterate my question to these people? Is any one of them willing to take and look after her?”
The grizzled man shrugged his shoulders and repeated the question. When nobody answered, Ekan addressed him again.
-“Captain Adir! Please bear witness! Since no one among her people will vouch for her, I shall adopt this child as mine right now and here!”
-“But, Jonas, she should go back to her village first.”
-“With no family there and no one to protect her here? Captain, she will be safe with me and I shall strive to give her a new meaning to life!”
-”I don’t doubt it, Jonas…So be it! We have more pressing matters at hand to sort out first!”
Ekan certainly did not appreciate the last comment, but he held his peace, realizing that there was indeed a bigger task left to finish.
By law of the sea, any ship caught in a fair fight became the property of the winner. Since the Seadragon’s bosun had probably become the most notable citizen of the village raided by the slavers, Captain Adir formally handed the ship to his former second-in-command.
The first chore was to clean the vessel of any slavers’ bodies and artifacts, except for the gold and valuables. But the chains and their weapons followed them into the sea. All the sailors who hailed from the same village joined the bosun as his crew and they soon made off back home with the former captives to see how much of a life they could build again.
Captain Adir was left with a depleted crew but that did not worry him too much, his conscience at peace with the satisfaction of a job well done, although he could have lived without it.
The Seadragon continued her voyage to Dunlago with a hurry. Adir and Ekan took turns at the helm as all other mates had their fill of work, with the difference that the giant stayed at his duties in daytime only.
The little girl always stayed close to the young dragon, who kept on sending her soothing messages. As he knew it was for the best in the present conditions, he blocked her mind off any memories and acceded to all her needs. At night, she would not fall asleep until he had taken her inside his enormous arms against his warm chest, and she would wake up immediately whenever he tried to move. A human would have been sorely tried, but no one knew of his dragon’s inexhaustible patience and love for the child in spite of all the workload he had to assume.
On the third day, while they were preparing to sleep, he asked her name. She hesitatingly answered:
-“Well, dear Mareeva, soon we shall arrive in a big city. Do you understand? It is a place where you will meet many people. You will find other children there. You shall make new friends!”
-“Will you be with me all the time?”
-“Of course! I’m your father, aren’t I?”
Mareeva looked at Ekan confused. But then she relaxed and soon fell asleep inside the giant’s arms.
-“Ekan, are you there? I’ve been trying to contact you for the last four days!” rang Glamrun’s voice inside the black dragon’s mind.
-“Sorry, Father! I’ve had a hard time. I simply could not afford to open my mind.”
Ekan related the vents of the last days to his father’s growing dismay.
-“Ekan, my son! Do you fully realize the responsibility you are bearing? A human child is no dragon. She won’t be able to fend for herself for a long time! And even after that, she will stay your charge. Can you really assume such a duty?”
-“Yes, I can. I have made my decision. A consuming task she will become, no doubt, but she will help me to control myself! I became a dragon on that slavers’ ship!”
-“That cannot be helped! Many more times your dragon’s nature will take over and you shall need it more often than you can imagine! I suppose we shall have to discuss that problem from time to time, especially with Umatar apparently behaving in the same way!”
-“Your help, Father will always be appreciated, and you are aware of it. Have you found the village that was raided by the slavers?”
Instead of answering directly, Glamrun sent a picture of the devastated village they had walked through. They were now helping clean it with the few survivors they had managed to extricate from the ruins and out of their hidings. They had interred the dead as little wood could be found for funeral pyres. The last four days had been taxing to the limit for what was left of the original population. With the help of Glamrun who had kept his true identity a secret, they had built a makeshift shelter while the wolf had spent day and night catching and gathering food. They would not starve or go thirsty, as the wells had been left intact. Slavers made a rule to stay as little as possible after their disreputable work.
Ekan informed his father of the help coming soon with the ship full of former captives and village sailors. Glamrun’s relief was palpable.
-“Well done, son! But think carefully about your daughter, since that is what we shall have to call her from now on, and like your brothers and sisters, try to keep me regularly informed! I’m tired of chasing you around!”
-“Consider it done, Father!”
The contact vanished, although Ekan sent a last picture of Mareeva to Glamrun who felt his dragon’s chest tighten.
-“You will have to keep your word and check on them regularly. They are still very young and inexperienced, aren’t they?” the Wolf suggested.
-“Yes, Wise One. And that worries me no end!”
-“Since we are two to worry, you should not tarry. We still have lots of work to until that ship comes!”
-“Tell me, Wise one! I’m marveling at your all-encompassing knowledge. How come you’ve heard of ships and how much could you tell me of them?”
-“Stinking places, for all I know!” the Wolf chuckled.
-“How could a wolf have the experience of the inside of a boat?”
-“Using people’s senses!”
-“Dragons do that, too! You are so clever, aren’t you, Wise One?”
For once the Wolf thought she might have gone too far. Glamrun was far too intelligent for a dragon…
Dargelblad entered a large clearing atop a hill in the very heart of the Forest of Whispers, the most primeval part of the large woods that covered the width of Alymndes from the border with Beaulieu almost to Western Sea. Large brightly-coloured tents and canopies surrounded the hill along the rim of the trees. He could distinguish all kinds of them; elms, birches, beeches, oaks and many more as if all varieties had been gathered and planted in that place with a will. He suddenly understood the love and care for all those trees and his dragon’s mind found a new resolve to preserve them.
In the middle stood two single wooden thrones with awnings made of interlacing branches with grapes of purple blossoms hanging from them protecting their occupants from the noon sun. The silver dragon soon realized that the thrones were in fact two very ancient wisteria trees fashioned by hands to grow in the shape of chairs. The avenue to the throne was lined with a crowd of elves on both sides. Dargelblad felt the weight of scores of eyes riveted to his appearance.
The Elves, a usually reserved race not easily moved, could not completely hide their surprise at the newcomer. The Silver Dragon had chosen a striking disguise. His thin but wiry body towered over seven feet above ground, a head higher that the tallest of his onlookers. His long hair of an almost white gold was bound by no circlet or thin ribbon of cloth or leather as was the fashion among most male elves. His face, neither that of a human, nor that of a denizen of the woods had an impertinent, even mocking mien. His constant thin smile challenged his curious audience, daring them to address him.
The warriors who had been preceding Dargelblad halted a few yards in front of the thrones and went down on a knee, allowing the dragon to have a good look at Queen Ellana and her Prince Elect Aerdhel.
An Elf Queen became so for life, but her consort was elected by a council of leaders representing the Clans of the Woods. For political reasons, the Princes Elect served only a few years long tenure before stepping down to let the council choose his successor. Queens were known to sometimes marry their consorts, although it was far from a rule, due to their very long life. Dargelblad knew that Queen Ellana was still not betrothed and had proved a most difficult woman to satisfy or please.
Ignoring the prince, Dargelblad closed his eyes with the Queen’s.
Ellana, an elbow nonchalantly resting on one arm of her chair, in contrast with her stiff companion, kept looking at the newcomer standing at ease his hands inside his belt. The Silver Dragon felt her probing inside him, but his senses had no problem to bar the way to his thoughts, allowing no intrusion go past carefully erected mind walls. This woman possessed extremely powerful magic but of no avail against him. He maintained his smile and waited patiently for her to take the next step. The audience around them grew still, guessing something was happening but of which they had no hint.
Queen Ellana, getting bored with the game, relented and welcomed the stranger.
-“Greetings to the Forest of Whispers, traveler from a far land! May I call your name?” She spoke in high elf, a tongue reserved for nobility only.
“Greetings, Queen Ellana. Yes, you can have my name. Wilfred it is.”
The assembly gasped at the Silver Dragon’s impertinence as nobody could imagine him as a member of the nobility. The Prince Elect was visibly seething with offense. But Queen Ellana’s glance was enough to calm him down.
-“Wilfred, I do not even know if you are an elf, a human, a noble or a commoner and I confess you are troubling me since you would not open your mind to me!”
Male Elves had no secrets for the Queen who could read them at will. The public admission of her failure caused a ripple of dismay among her subjects but left Dargelblad totally cold.
-“I am neither an elf or a human, neither a noble or a commoner, but all of them. I have not come here to play riddles or to entertain a bored court. I wish to have a private audience with you only, Queen Ellana. And as I am pressed for time, would you please be kind enough as to accede to my request at once!”
A murmur of anger and outrage rose from the crowd around them. Dargelblad’s words were tantamount to open challenge. Hands moved nearer to their weapons.
-“Enough!” the Queen snapped. “Wilfred, I understand this apparently uncouth manner of yours hides something of potent meaning. Follow me, if you please?”
She stood up from her throne, ignoring her consort and court and made for the largest tent in the clearing without a second look. Dargelblad followed her at his own pace, taking his time, caring little about the angry stares aimed at him.
Ekan stood on the pier of Dunlago, main harbour and unofficial capital of the Land of the Races of the Desert and the Sea. The land had never managed to give itself a name or a nation as its people had never been fond of putting themselves under a single authority, although they recognized Dunlago as their capital and its monarch as their king as they were loosely called. The latter acted more as a man of accepted authority than as a royal figure. He reigned thanks to the vote of the Chamber of Representatives, as were called the heads of the powers that be in the land. In fact, their form of government was probably more democratic than any other form of leadership in the whole of Alymndes. As long as their king proved to be a fair judge and a competent administrator in his subjects’ opinion, no questions would be asked. Incompetent kings, on the other hands, did not stay long in power. They were simply deposed and thanked by the Chamber without any bloodshed or apparent acrimony. Military takeovers or coups were almost unheard of.
The races of the Desert and the Sea varied between dark brown and ebony black for the majority, but fair skinned examples could be found among them. Their members had little to do with racism or xenophobia, traits considered tasteless and reprehensible. They were a peaceful hard working people and they enjoyed their pleasures, too. Great revelers, they were famed for their food and drinks, although the latter were mostly imported. They were hard to anger, but would be difficult to control or appease if aroused. Nobody in all Alymndes, even the Elves, would consciously provoke their ire.
The only creatures they considered as enemies to eradicate at all costs were the slavers. To that purpose the Chamber of Representatives had pooled money to create the King’s Navy, whose main task was to chase and destroy the slavers’ ships and keep the Eastern Sea safe.
-“Are you sure you do not want to stay with us, Jonas?” Adir inquired.
-“No, Captain Adir. I shall sorely miss you, but I have work to do here and I also have Mareeva to look after. This is not a life for a little girl. When she grows older, maybe. But I wouldn’t dare assume on her future wishes, would I?”
-Fair enough, but it pains me!” He then handed a purse to Ekan. “These are your wages as promised.”
Ekan took the purse. It was heavy.
-“Captain Adir, I expected only fair wages. Why do you give me all this?”
-“Shall we say it is for thanks? You helped save a lot of people and you deserve it. Moreover, you will need for that new daughter of yours!”
Ekan took a long look at the Captain.
-“That is very generous of you, and I am extremely grateful. Would you be as kind to tell me where I could find an inn in need of a strong hand? It would be easier to look after Mareeva this way.”
-“We are always short of men like you in this city, I can assure you! Why don’t you go to the Tavern of the Blue Mermaid and ask for Turgas, its owner. He is a personal friend of mine. Tell him I recommended you. You shall find his establishment up the main road from this pier. You cannot miss it. This is the biggest house in the whole street and moreover painted in blue. Bad taste if you ask me, but Turgas is a fair kind!”
-“My thanks again. I am in your debt. By the way, Adir, do you remember that slaver I found below deck?”
-“Sure I do! And you gave him his due!”
-“You are wrong, Captain. I did not kill the scum. Somebody or something else did it before I could talk to him. And this is why I can promise right now, that one day and probably sooner than I would wish, we shall sail together again. Until then, Captain, fare thee well and keep in touch with me!”
Jonas, Mareeva on one shoulder and his bag on the other moved away at a brisk pace in the direction of the inn leaving a nonplussed Adir in the middle of the pier. Soon he shook himself awake.
-“Well, I still have myself left to visit the Palace and inform the King of what happened during the few last days! Let’s pray I shan’t have put myself into more duty that I had wished for!” the Seadragon Captain grumbled to himself.
(Chapter 8: Umatar)