| A large crowd stood
in silence in front of the entrance of the cave occupied by Umatar and
her charges inside the Mount Of All Gods. They had been waiting since dawn
with a growing apprehension. The Golden dragon was certainly in no hurry.
Let them soak in their worry, she pondered, that should bring their delusions and superstitions down to a manageable level.
The sun had reached its zenith and quite a few Shamen wished they could wet their parched throats, but they did not dare drink in public lest they lose face. So when Umatar finally appeared, her audience was ripe for the picking.
-“Hail, everyone! I see that our Shamen and Tribe Chiefs have diligently relayed my message! She-Who-Speaks-To-Dragons is well pleased!”
Why do some people have to be bullied? she reflected. If those Shamen were not clowns of the worst sort, things would become so much easier and more civil. Well, she was saddled with those strange humans and deep inside her, she was experiencing a new feeling of concern for all of them. Was that what humans called love or care? The life of a Dragon was definitely less difficult to manage: simple pleasures, unlimited freedom, very few concerns and the whole world for you to roam about!
She braced herself for the chores to come and went on:
-“Hear me and hear me well! Evil practices have lasted all too long! I hold all Tribe Chiefs and Shamen responsible for what has happened till this day! If you do not redeem yourselves immediately, I shall see you banned to the northern desolations until the end of your sorry lives! No one shall help you there! No women or children to bully! No tithes or unearned offerings! No love or respect! No one to light your funeral pyres when you shall die! If that is what you want, you are free to go, but know that I shall be aware of your whereabouts all the time and you shall not escape my wrath!”
Not everybody in the audience seemed willing to follow her leadership as yet. Some faces were openly hostile. She hated to do so, but she realized a magic show of some kind was in order at long last to settle things once and for all.
-“From now on, Shamen and Chiefs will have to earn their titles! All those beads, feathers and talismans will have to be regained through deeds and hard work for the benefit of your people!”
At these words the concerned individuals saw all their paraphernalia spill and fall onto the ground. Horrified Chiefs and Shamen scrambled to pick up their accessories and fix them back to their original places. But they kept on spilling and falling again and again.
Umatar waited for a while. One by one her listeners gave up their futile efforts and stood with heads bowed in shame. The embarrassment and fear were palpable. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and barked:
-“Enough! You shall pick that rubbish later! What I am going to say, I shall not repeat, so open your ears and commit my words to memory! The Mount Of All Gods will cease to be! You shall call it The House Of All Tribes! We shall rearrange it as a shelter for orphans, destitute Tribespeople, widows and whoever else may be in need of assistance! This place shall become sacred for other reasons than conducting dark rites in impunity! In the future, a place of meeting shall be created south near the Elf Forest half way between Beaulieu and the Western Shores where all the Tribes can meet with each other and trade not only among themselves, but also with other Races for the mutual advantage of all!”
Umatar challenged them to try and protest again. This time, although it surely cost them, nobody ventured into so much as say a word. They understood that the days were changing. Many among them were crafty enough to see some advantages compensating for the lost privileges. It should take them a long time to accept but no one dared cross the creature that demonstrated real magic for the first time in their lives. But the Golden Dragon had not finished yet.
-“Each tribe shall delegate a Chief and a Shaman who will come here on the first day of each moon to discuss and establish new customs. But know that from now on, the tradition of buying a woman for wife has seen its last day! Men will have to earn their wives and share their wealth and possessions with their spouses. The adoption of orphaned children shall be done through talks within the Tribe or with other Tribes! Many of you need new blood in your families and those children shall become an irreplaceable asset! Abandoned children shall be brought here for care. Any Shamen found guilty of evil practice on that particular point will have to face my wrath! Moreover, each Tribe shall recommend one young warrior to come here to learn about true medicine and care. I have seen enough useless pain to last me a life! We shall resume that talk tomorrow at the first hour after dawn! You are dismissed!”
Umatar turned on her heels and went back through the cave entrance leaving a deflated band of Tribesmen who began arguing in earnest as soon as she had disappeared.
Let them have a day and a night to reflect on their new life. They are still in for a few more surprises tomorrow! The young woman thought.
The boy and the Apprentice had obviously heard the whole harangue by the looks they gave her. Boy was confused but his elder wore a small ironic smile on his face.
-“Don’t you think you are going a bit far too fast, She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons?”
-“Maybe. But how long do you take to break in a horse? These people understand only authority. They will always find it easier to criticize decisions than to assume them. Once they have been given a definite code of conduct, or a set of customs, as they will call it, they shall be able to manage themselves. Shamen will lose their influence to the medicine men we will form, but their loss can be compensated by referring to them as representatives of their Tribes. The Tribe chiefs will prove the hardest to deal with, as they shall have to put a stop to their feuds and fighting, an issue I shall have to tackle tomorrow morning. I shall have to put some steel into their women, too. Don’t forget we shall probably have to go through the same demonstration two or three times to cover the whole of the Steppes. I shall also conduct surprise visits on a constant basis. I just do not trust our people!”
-“ And may I ask how you plan to achieve such a vast project? Do you have any idea of the distances you shall have to travel?”
Umatar let out a small laugh.
-“I sure do, and I have the power to move faster than you could ever imagine! Which brings us to an important change in our relations!”
Her two friends’ puzzled looks made her doubt the wisdom of her resolution. She shrugged her shoulders. The sooner they knew, the faster they would get used to it.
-“Have you any inkling of the reason why I chose She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons as my name?”
Boy reacted first:
-“Who are we to discuss or investigate our leader?”
-“May I remind you that both of you one day will have to assume your responsibilities without needing to look if I’m still behind you to help around? Sooner or later, you will lead our people in your own capacities and you should be ready not to take everything at face value!”
A pensive Apprentice ventured:
-“The fact is that we do not know anything of your origins, family or birthplace, to think of it. Who are you?”
The brutality of the answer left Boy gaping at her in a mixture of shock, horror and disbelief. Apprentice was grinning foolishly as his right hand rose in a denial gesture.
Umatar stood up.
-“Come with me outside!”
When the Tribesmen and Shamen mostly sitting in heated conversations saw the three emerging from the cave, they jumped on their feet clamping their mouths shut.
-“Please do me a favour… ignore us and resume your talks! And do not forget to replenish your bodies with food and drink!” Umatar commanded waving them down with her hand. “The three of us are going to climb to the top of the House Of All Tribes. Nobody is to follow us!”
Apparently, no one was very interested to join them and naturally enough they went back to their arguments.
It took them the best of an hour to climb to the top of the plateau as a treacherous lane no wider then a goat’s trail dangerously snaking up the cliff was the only way up available.
Once on the top of the mountain, Umatar allowed her companions to rest for a while before addressing them.
-“No one should be able to see us from down below, especially with the sun on our backs! All right, brace yourselves!”
Although the transformation could be done instantaneously, she chose to go through it gradually so as not to spook her spectators.
Even so, both of them recoiled in fear as her body slowly changed into a magnificent golden dragon. Soon she stood the height of three adult men and the length of her body from tail to snout three times that again. She slowly unfolded wings as long as her body and stood erect on her four legs in a majestic posture. Boy and Apprentice were frozen in awe at the sight. Humans had forgotten a long time ago the true appearance of a dragon in its full glory. The few that could be found on tabards and family Arms were too poor a representation to do justice to reality.
Her two friends, expecting a roar or worse to come out of her maw, were puzzled to hear the dragon speaking with the same voice as Umatar.
-“For people’s sake, are you going to recover? I’m not going to eat you! You had better get used to my true self very quickly as we are going to share that secret many a time from now on!”
She lay down on the rock surface folding her wings along her body and beckoned them forward:
-“Come nearer! Look at me! Touch me! Feel me!”
Summoning their courage at last, the two humans approached the Dragon on wobbly legs but stopped at a short distance of Umatar’s long-fanged mouth.
-“I told you I shall not eat you! Come and feel me with your hands!”
Dragons of the higher kind feel a strange compulsion for physical contact from other creatures they entertain a special relation with. She had not shared and enjoyed any companion’s intimacy since her departure from the River Blue Valley. She suddenly felt an overwhelming yearning for kinship and pined for the comforting company of her brothers and sister.
She closed her eyes and waited.
Boy, probably because of his innate child’s trust for the woman he had known as She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons until then, approached her at last and gingerly touched her neck just behind the imposing head. The skin was warm and the scales very small there. His worries suddenly disappeared and he began caressing her in earnest. Umatar exhaled a purr of encouragement. Apprentice still would not come any nearer. Boy called him.
-“Apprentice! She is so warm and smooth! Come and touch her! She is incredible!”
Boy’s familiarity with the dragon broke Apprentice’s reticence.
-“Boy! “She” has a name! Even if you are allowed to feel her, you still owe She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons proper respect!”
Umatar interrupted him.
-“Apprentice, relations with a dragon in her flesh are different. We need physical contact to create a lasting bond. Only in such a way can we fully accept and trust each other! We dragons are a third kind of creature after humans and animals, but we are actually more a combination of the two enhanced by magic than a separate entity! I tell you what: since it is a nice day, it would be a shame not to enjoy it! Why don’t the three of us take a nap while those silly Tribesmen exhaust themselves with their futile arguments? Come and sit by me!”
The two humans did as invited and sitting on the ground with their backs against the dragon’s flanks. They were soon enough fast asleep. Umatar possessed that power to induce not only fear but also calm and peace of mind, and she certainly was making full use of it at the moment.
The following day at dawn she called for another meeting with the Tribes’ delegations.
Many puffy eyes and bleary faces among the audience told her that quite a few Tribesmen had spent the previous night without much sleep. It became evident that all their talks and heated arguments had brought them scant agreement or understanding. She did not see any reason to keep them any longer.
-“ Hail, Tribespeople! Has the night been of kind counsel to you all? I sincerely hope so as I do not wish to hold you any longer from returning to your clans and families!” she added, not bothering to hide the tone of derision in her voice. “But before you comply, I have a last instruction for the Tribe Chiefs!”
Very few among the latter managed to conceal their dismay. What else was going to befall them?
-“To put it mildly, I’m sick of your feuds and wanton killings ending in more useless deaths and sorry lives! Therefore, each Tribe Chief will send all his sons over nine years old to be fostered by other Tribe Chiefs’ families until the age of eighteen! As all sons will be exchanged, you will understand you had better treat them as you would do with your own! I leave the choice of fostering parents to your own will, but all your brood will have left by next moon! Be sure I shall conduct a thorough check on you all! Try my anger, if you will!”
A young Chief, showing more mettle than the rest, ventured into a question:
-“She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, with all due respect, may I ask you how you plan to verify if your orders have been obeyed or not? I might anger a lot of my elders when I say I fully agree that all these crippling fights should cease and that this fostering idea will greatly help, but I need more assurance!”
-“Well spoken, He-Who-Speaks-His-Heart of the Tribe of the Long Grass! I do know you and I expected no less from you!”
Some politics were not to spit at. Let’s make some friends among the younger generation for a start, she reflected.
-“You shall understand what I can do when you see me arriving at your camps. How I do it, I shall explain in good time. Now, all of you go back to your Tribes immediately and do not forget our next gathering on the first day of next moon!”
As to emphasize the finality of her words, she turned back and disappeared inside the Home Of All Tribes.
Her two companions were calmly waiting for her.
-“Tonight we shall be flying!” she announced.
Instead of surprise, she discovered elation, joy and excited expectation in their eyes.
Ekan was cutting wood as was his habit every morning. Although Turgas felt he deserved better and could always have asked somebody else to do the chore, Ekan had requested the right to do the work as it gave his body the regular exercise it needed. The fresh morning air felt good on his skin. The servants were already up and busy in the kitchen and elsewhere. Mareeva was playing with Claudius, the gardener. The black giant was about to carry in a load of cut logs for the fireplace when he heard a strident female scream from inside. Sensing a catastrophe, he dropped the wood and hurried into the kitchen.
The cook and his two assistants lay on the floor. The servants stood around them in a clear state of shock. One or two were on the verge of hysterics. Ekan pushed his way in to kneel by the bodies.
The three had died quickly. He noticed a beer jug lying on the ground near the dead cook. He took it and brought it to his nose. His dragon’s smell detected poison. He did not have any personal knowledge of such matter but he knew for certain it was deadly and swift. The three dead men must have passed the jug around for a quick drink before resuming their work. Cooking bread in the morning was thirsty work for sure. He rose.
-“Do not touch anything!” Turning to the nearest woman, “Call Turgas immediately and the rest of you stay here and keep quiet!”
The man’s imposing presence and strong voice seemed to calm everybody down for a while. Turgas soon entered the kitchen and stopped short in front of the sorry sight of his cook and assistants dead on the floor. He looked at the hard eyes of his giant servant.
-“Jonas, what has happened?” he asked in a tight voice.
-“Master Turgas, I’m afraid your house has fallen victim to a plot. Your cooks have been poisoned. Who has had access to the kitchen since last night?”
Ekan’s voice held a timbre of authority that surprised all the occupants of the room into wary attention. Nobody had ever figured out such strength of character from the gentle giant. Only Turgas had a faint idea of whom he was facing since he had heard about the fight on the slavers’ ship.
Turgas took on the responsibility to answer.
-“As far as I know, I was the last to lock all the rooms after all the staff had left. Nobody could have entered the room until I opened the doors this morning. Now, who do we have here?”
He had a quick look around him. Everybody seemed to be here. A frown appeared on his face.
-“Where is that kitchen boy we hired yesterday?” The Blue Mermaid was sorely short of menial staff due to the increased popularity of the establishment. “Coming to think of it, he was the last to leave as he had to clean the floor before I could close the place. Has anybody seen him?”
Silent denial gestures from his staff were all the answer he could get.
-“I see. Now we have three bodies on our hands. How are we going to explain their deaths to the constabulary, I don’t have a clue. Moreover, we shall have to notify their families, not to mention, we have nobody left to run the kitchen!” Turgas heavily sat down on the nearest stool, his head bowed. His servants were despondent in heavy silence. Ekan chose the moment to interfere:
-“Master Turgas, this might sound callous to you, but what has been done has been done. It’s a fact you have made enemies with your prosperous business. That cannot be helped…at least for the moment. Why don’t you close the tavern for the day? Look after the inn and your clients staying overnight. In this way you won’t have to worry too much about the food. Send somebody for the constabulary. The sooner, the better!”
Seeing the good sense of the dragon’s advice, Turgas shook himself and sent someone to fetch the city guards while he put out a sign to signify the tavern was closed for the day.
While they were waiting for the constabulary to come, Ekan drew Turgas aside.
-“Master Turgas, I understand this is not supposed to be any of my business, but the time has come when we should stick together. As I said before, the prosperity of your establishment was bound to arouse jealousy and make unwanted enemies. Could you be as kind as to tell me where your suspicions might lay? Forgive my brutality but we have little time left to speak.”
The innkeeper had a long look at the giant’s stolid face. Shrugging his shoulders in resignation, he replied:
-“Jonas, I still know you very little but you have proved your worth enough during the short time you have stayed with us, so I believe I owe you some explanations. Before you came, shall we say that business was about equally divided, or “well-shared” as some people would say, between the various inns and taverns of this district. The day I hired you, I realized I could at last get rid of all the more unpleasant kind of customers. The idea to guide them to some other place instead of obviously barring them the way in was proper and I have nothing to say against that. So when that riff raff started patronizing the other establishments, they actually made their owners happy. But when a better class of customers elected to come here, we began to make more money than some of our neighbours, and that is when trouble started. Do you remember some of the nasty customers you had to throw out recently?”
-“I do, actually. You just made me realize we did have to take care of a few the last two weeks!”
-“Well, all of them were obviously trouble-makers. And I’m pretty sure our dear neighbours, the Green Anchor, had hired them. Their owner has been visiting me quite a few times, complaining that I was taking an unfair share of the customers according to the Guild rules!”
-“Of all the nonsense!”
-“You’ve always been too kind with your language, Jonas! I would call that sheer bullshit! Well I had seen trouble coming and actually planned to consult with all our neighbours in our street. But how could I have imagined someone would use poison to kill my staff and business! The worst part is that I cannot prove it!”
-“We shall see. I have a notion that those criminals will not be averse to make another mistake after what they have done so far! Be on your guard, Master Turgas! But know I shall be near!” Turgas did not miss the hard note in Ekan’s voice.
-“I know that, Jonas, and you have my eternal gratitude. But what are we going to do about the kitchen? And how am I going to solve that problem before tomorrow?”
-“Master Turgas, I have kept an eye on your cooks and their work since I arrived here. I am confident I can help you with the kitchen. Lend me two servants out of your present staff until you can hire more and I shall take care of the food. Frankly speaking, I shall enjoy it, but I shall not forget my other duties. You will not regret it! I can ask Claudius to look after Mareeva who will probably learn more in his company than by sticking by my side! What do you say?”
Master Turgas had another long look at the towering black man.
-“Jonas, why do I have that feeling that the longer I see you, the less I know about you? Why do I also have the impression there is a purpose, a hidden one at that, in your coming here?”
A gentle smile appeared on Ekan’s face.
-“I doubt you could say that when three good innocent men have lost their lives. But you have a very sharp mind, Master Turgas. Do not fear, I am your friend, and as such you shall never have a complaint about me. Shall we leave it at that for the moment? I promise, when the right time comes, that I shall have a good story to share with you over your best ale.”
Ekan held out his right hand to Turgas who shook it in agreement.
-“Jonas, I pray you, do not make me wait too long. All those mysteries and trouble are just too much for me!”
Looking at the entrance, he commented: “Ah, here comes the Constabulary!”
Whoever was in charge of the government sometimes proved a source of puzzlement to casual visitors to Dunlago, but the City Guards, or the Constabulary, as they were aptly named, were obviously given the charge to insure the peace by whatever authority existed. In a town remarkable for its population of generally tall and heavy-set people, the Guards were chosen primarily for their size, power and toughness. They had a habit to arrest and throw trouble-makers, drunks and petty criminals into jail until the next morning when the latter would face the Judge. The justice delivered in Dunlago was rough and expedient, but generally fair. In any case, most of the citizens actually had a healthy fear of earning broken bones, regardless of their facing the Judge or not, so the majority behaved accordingly, but for foreign sailors, plain idiots and the inevitable criminals inherent to any large city. The Constable and his two cohorts had to bend to enter the door to the kitchen.
Turgas welcomed them:
-“Constable Petren! My thanks for coming so swiftly!”
The Constable, a middle-aged black giant almost as tall as Ekan, looked at the innkeeper under his bushy greying eyebrows made more prominent by a clean-shaved pate.
-“Greetings, Master Turgas, Guards, at the door! This room is crowded enough like that! Now, what do we have here?”
The innkeeper explained the sudden death of his chef and two assistants and Ekan’s suspicions they had been poisoned.
Petren turned his eyes onto Ekan.
-“Good man Jonas, it seems to me you are new to Dunlago. Where do you hail from?”
An unfazed Ekan stolidly replied:
-“ I hail from a fishing village in the North, Constable. I came to Dunlago with the Seadragon. Captain Adir can vouch for me!”
-“Captain Adir! I shall have to find him first! The Seadragon is presently at sea,” started the Constable when a light of recognition appeared in his eyes, “wait! Your name is Jonas, right? I should have known better. Quite a few people have heard of you and your exploits during that fight with the slavers!”
Ekan’s face showed a rare pained look.
-“Constable Petren, I would be grateful if I may call on your discretion on that matter! It has brought unbearable sorrow onto many people. If I have to wait for Captain Adir to come back and vouch for me, I shall. Until then, …”
-“My apologies, good man Jonas. I do not doubt your words. Do understand I have a job to do. Now, innkeeper Turgas here tells me you think poison is the reason for the death of those three men. What brings you to this conclusion?”
Without a word, Ekan picked up the almost empty beer jug still set by the dead cook. He handed it to Petren who brought it to his nose and smelled it. His disgusted face made his discovery plain.
-“Sinwort! Of all the poisons I know, this one is probably the most deadly! How come people did not find out before drinking their beer?”
Turgas explained that the cook and his assistants had to go through hot work baking bread in the morning, which meant a compulsion to quaff their thirst in a hurry from the cask set in the kitchen for his staff’s use.
-“Which means somebody who knew of your staff’s work and habits could have dropped that poison into you beer barrel!” commented Petren. “And are these all your people who have access to your kitchen here?”
The innkeeper explained that except for the newly hired kitchen boy, all his servants were present in the room.
-“Now that you mention this boy, that would have been another reason for our paying you a visit this morning. Let me tell you that your servant found us rapidly because we were already on our way. A boy was discovered last night floating in the harbour with his throat cut! A witness mentioned that he had been working for you. How did you come to hire that kid?” Petren’s face surely did not look gentle when he uttered the last words. But Turgas did not flinch.
-“He simply showed up in the morning asking for work. We are a very busy place and need all the hands we can find. So, I told the boy to start his duties right away and that I would talk to him at the end of the day. My servants know their job, so I didn’t worry about his welfare. Everybody here works hard but is treated probably better than anywhere else in this city. Anyway, he did his work well enough and was the last in the kitchen, as he had to clean the floor. I gave him his wages for the day and asked him where he lived. He said he stayed with his mother nearby. I told him to come back next morning with his Ma to regularize his situation. I even told him I would be ready to give a job to his mother, as we are really desperate for more personnel. He promised to come back today and left. I locked the kitchen and made my rounds. That is all, Constable!”
Petren thought for a while. He passed a hand over his glistening pate, then shook his head.
-“Master Turgas, I’m bound to believe you for two reasons: first, that witness seems to me as too convenient and second that boy lied to you. He was an orphan as far as we could find out. This is certainly not according to the letter of the rules as all of you are prime suspects, after all, but I suppose it would not do to arrest you all when I personally think that you have nothing to do with this despicable crime.” The sullen faces of the innkeeper and the black giant tended to convince him his hunch was right. “Alright, this is what we are going to do: I shall report the incident to the Judge as it is, and ask him a couple of days for more investigation. We’ll see what we can do until then. If anything untoward happens during that time, make a swift call for me! Since we know the cause of death, you’d better dispose of these bodies and look after their funerals. I’m afraid you shall have to announce the bad news to their families. And one more thing, since I don’t see any point of taking that beer barrel with us, make sure I find it as it is the next time I come here! Good day to you!”
Turgas returned the salutations to the Constable who went out with his two Guards without any further comments.
The innkeeper’s first task was to call for a horsecart to transport the bodies of the deceased to their families. Ekan accompanied him through the town. His presence did help a lot to fend off curious questions on their way as well as to deliver the victims to their bereaved kin. The whole day was spent taking care of innumerable formalities concerning the registration of the deaths, arranging for the funerals and various bureaucratic hassles that Turgas had taken the responsibility to assume so as to relieve his former cook and assistants’ families. Ekan greatly appreciated the man’s sense of duty and thanked for the day he had followed Captain Adir’s advice.
Although he did not need the extra motivation, his resolution to help the innkeeper and his business was made the firmer.
For the second time in his short time spent with humans, a dragon’s rage started burning inside him.
Numnir and his thirty dwarves were all on the upper deck, staring at the distant harbour of Dunlago with avid eyes. The former slavers’ ship captain got slightly worried at all that weight massed on the starboard side.
The whole trip had proved a continuous revelation to the denizens of the Iron Crags. First the long walk to the fishing village had shown what a desolation that part of Alymndes was, although the dwarves’ stamina and resistance to the extreme weather saw them through without any incident. But once on the sea, they had to overcome a gut-wrenching fear of the ocean immensity. Numnir had to use all his authority to instill calm into his charges. Only when he did turn to technical terms to explain the infinity of the ocean, its existence and depth, the sun sinking in the water in the faraway horizon, he creatures of the sea and the skies at night, that the dwarves’ interest overcame their fears. The following days had been fully occupied by his lessons to a rapt audience. The Flint Dragon mused that the day they would land his Dwarves would know more about the mysteries of nature than most of the other inhabitants of Alymndes.
On the morning following
the murder at the Blue Mermaid, Ekan was already busy organizing the kitchen.
With his two women servants they were actually doing some good work. His
two companions already had a sound practice of cooking with their families
and should not experience too much trouble with their new responsibilities.
The Black Dragon was already planning to ask Turgas to assign them permanently
to the kitchen and recruit more staff for the inn. He had cut the logs
himself, lit the fire before waking up Mareeva. While sharing their morning
meal with the rest of the house he formally asked Claudius if he would
accept to look after his daughter and begin teaching her his craft. The
old man’s beaming face and Mareeva’s cry of joy had been enough to understand
hat his choice had been right.
(Chapter 12: Meetings))