Charles John Stratton rode his mare proudly. He was twelve, big for his age, and rode well after all the practice he'd had this past year. He had a sword he barely knew how to use at his side, and was nominally in charge of his little expedition to take him from his home in Aggradon to Sothalia.
It had gone well for the first week. He had had a sergeant riding alongside and two guards driving a wagon with his clothes, training gear, school books, and gifts for his sister Princess Elizabeth. But then one of the wagon horses had a leg swell up and they'd had to stop in a town while the sergeant took the animal to a healer, and then he and Charlie went to get a replacement. The idle guards took the opportunity to get drunk, got caught in a brawl, and one had his arm broken protecting his head from a flying chair.
After the guard had seen the healer and had his arm splinted, they continued on, the one guard doing all the driving while the other sat on the jouncing wagon grimacing every time his arm was jolted. Three days later the sergeant became ill.
At first he said it was nothing, but he became feverish and passed out, nearly falling off his horse. Charlie and the healthy guard got him in the wagon and stopped at the next town. The healer there said the man was very ill and it would take weeks before he could travel if he managed to recover at all.
Charlie was determined to go on. At home, he was always in his older brother's shadow, and he was looking forward to going somewhere new and different and having his own responsibilities as a page in his sister's castle. He was sure she would make him do school too, but there would be lots of fellows his own age there to do things with and more things to do than just school and work in a stable, which was pretty much his life since Gramp started up the horse farm.
So he sent the healthy guard back to Gramp on the sergeant's horse to get help. Then he paid the healer to continue to take care of the sergeant and the injured guard, gave the guard money for food and lodging, and went on by himself, driving the wagon with the mare tied on behind.
It was perhaps a little foolish, a boy with a wagon of goods and three horses was a tempting target for thieves. But he got away with it, arriving safely a few days later at the the castle of Earl Bruce of Landsford.
Earl Bruce owed a debt of gratitude to Prince Henry for saving his youngest son's life in a stable fire. As soon as he realized that Lord Charles Stratton was the prince's brother-in-law, he was determined to take care of him. He made sure Charlie bathed and was well fed, and kept him for a day to ensure he rested. Charlie would rather have pushed on, but he was trying to be adult so he was polite about staying the extra day.
He was glad he did. He found burn-scarred Lord Albert sparring with a lean young knight. He'd had enough training to recognize the high level of the sword work.
"Um, hello, I'm Lord Charles Stratton. Could I go a round or two?" he asked when they paused.
Albert grinned and handed him his practice sword. "I'm Lord Albert, and good luck. Nobody beats Sir George here, not even Sir Graff."
At Charlie's questioning look, he added, "Sir Graff is our arms master."
Charlie took a firm grip on the hilt and went on the attack only to be immediately disarmed. He retrieved his weapon and took a more cautious approach but only lasted a few seconds longer before Sir George's sword tip was lightly touching his breast.
Charlie backed up. "Wow, you're as good as my sister Elizabeth."
Sir George cocked his head and said, "I sparred with her last year, and at that time I was better. But that was before the war, so who knows? What is she doing now?"
"She's the Duchess of Sothalia as well as Princess of Anglia. Hey, she wrote to us that there wasn't hardly anybody in Sothalia when they got there and I bet she needs an arms master. I'm sure she would hire you if I said she should, especially since she already knows you."
Sir George looked thoughtful. "I would like such a position, but would there be anyone there to train? And she may already have found someone since her most recent letter."
"That doesn't matter," insisted Charlie. "Even if she has an arms master you could be my tutor. She said in her last letter that there were some knights there now, and they had boys, and there were soldiers which means officers, and I'm sure you would get lots of business since you're so good. You should come to Sothalia with me."
"That might not be a bad idea. If there wasn't a place for me there I could always return here. I would like to travel, see new places and meet new people," Sir George said.
Lord Albert added, "My father would be pleased, I think. Not for your going, but for the safety of Lord Charles on his trip. I, of course, would miss you badly, but I can always go back to beating Sir Graff." Aside to Charlie he added, "Our arms master is an excellent swordsman, but growing a bit slow with age."
When the idea was presented to Earl Bruce he was enthusiastic about it, so Sir George accompanied Charlie when he left as well as six soldiers and a sergeant. The remaining trip was boring which pleased the men but disappointed Charlie, at least until they actually arrived at Sothalia.
The moon rose full and except for the speed the flight was pleasant. Nick snacked and dozed, and jerked awake to find he'd dropped his shield but was not being buffeted by the wind.
I'm holding your shield up for you. My two short spines were designed for you to hook a shield onto and I can feed power through them to maintain it. But you need to give me more magic now.
The duke did, pleased that the dragon had taken the initiative, and also proved his ability to do magic. "Puck, do you have any idea how long before we get to Anglia?"
Daybreak, probably. It's been a very long time since I made this flight and it was under my own power without access to additional magic, so I'm not sure. Nick?
Could you give me another name? This will be a new beginning for me, one where I won't just be fighting all the time and I don't want to be named after something bad. I want a real name, a person name. I'm intelligent and I want to be treated like a person, not an animal.
"Um, sure. Like what? Bob, Joe, Tom?"
Nick felt the rumble of laughter under him. Something like that, but maybe more dignified?
"You know what you want better than I do. Why don't you just name yourself?"
Oh, I could, couldn't I. I guess if I want to be treated like a person I have to learn to act like one. I never had much chance before, except with my mage. Let me think a bit.
They flew in silence. Nick had expected a quick answer, but the dragon was taking his time considering what he wanted to be called. Eventually the duke dozed again. Sleeping in the saddle was a skill most knights and mounted soldiers gained, and though he didn't have a saddle he was reasonably comfortable.
The dragon flew on, occasionally waking his rider to feed him more magic. In the pre-dawn light the dragon spoke again. I think I'd like to be called Maximillian. You can call me Max, but everyone else should use my full name. Does that sound all right?
"Sure, Maximillian is a good name. Am I seeing something on the horizon?"
Yes, we're almost to the coast. When we get there I'll look for a cave so I can take a nap before we go on.
"Okay, I need to take a break too, to . . . uh, you know."
As they approached land Nick saw a rocky cliff off to the right with shadowed places that could be caves, but to the left was a gentler landscape with a fishing village a few miles down the coast.
"Drop me off on the area to the left and pick me up there again when you wake up. I want to talk to the folks in the village and figure out where we are."
Max was amenable and glided in to a landing on a grassy slope. Nick took his half empty waterskin and knapsack and floated himself down. The dragon took off and headed for the cliff. Call me if you need me he thought back at the duke. He was out of hearing range so Nick just thought his agreement.
The duke walked for a while to stretch his legs. Then he began transporting himself ahead. It was getting easier to pop himself from one ridge to another and he was nearly to the village when the sun rose. He stopped using magic then and walked in.
Boats were already going out and there were people around. The village well was a busy place where women and older children were getting water. They stopped and stared at Nick, obviously not used to strangers arriving at dawn.
Nick almost greeted them in Incelian but switched to Anglian before he spoke. "Good morning. I'm a bit lost; could you tell me where I am?"
That got him a round of giggles but one girl said, "You're in Gull Beach, of course."
"Am I in Sothalia?"
Almost everyone had their buckets full and they were starting to leave, but an older woman replied, "No, you're on Warwick lands."
Nick grinned at her. He really was back in Anglia! "Is there anywhere in Gull Beach where I could trade a copper for breakfast?"
The woman smiled. "Follow me, I'll feed you, and won't my man be surprised when he gets back and I show him I earned a copper."
The duke fell in beside her and took one of her buckets for her. "Do you happen to have anything besides fish?"
"I have hens, goats and a garden. I can give you an omelet with cheese, onions and peppers, and a bit of ham plus bread I baked this morning. Will that do?"
"Very well. My name is Nick, what's yours?"
"Florence. Here we are. Thank you for helping me with the water. Show me your coin and I'll get to work."
Nick could smell the bread and quickly gave her a copper. But she stared at it in her hand and he realized it was Incelian. Slowly, she gave it back. "I don't know that coin," she said.
The duke dug out a silver. It was a huge overpayment, but silver had value no matter what the design on it. Florence refused to accept it.
"I can't take silver just for a bit of food. I could be punished for stealing if I did. Besides I have a lot of chores. I need to milk the goats, feed the chickens, split kindling for the fire, sweep the floor, and lots of things. Robby will be upset if I don't get my chores done, with him working out on the boat all day."
"How about this? You take care of the animals, I'll do the wood, and whoever gets done first sweeps the floor. I'll give you the copper too, and if it's not worth anything here you still have my labor to pay for the meal."
Florence thought a bit and then said, "All right, that will do. And the coin will be a curiosity. If it doesn't spend, I'll keep it for a good luck piece."
Nick chopped enough kindling to fill her kindling box, and then split logs until she was finished sweeping; he would rather chop wood than sweep the floor. Florence gave him a big breakfast and offered him food to take with him, but Nick declined. He still had dried provender, and with a little luck he would be home for dinner.
He took a long, slow walk back toward the cliff and the caves. There was no rush, he had no idea how long Max would sleep and from the air the dragon would be able to see him even if he wasn't all the way back to where they'd parted.
The duke saw the dragon coming about the same time the dragon saw him. Max settled down a little way off so the wind from his landing wouldn't buffet Nick.
"Have a nice nap?"
Yes, but I'm getting a little hungry after all that flying. Will you be able to feed me when we reach your home or should I hunt?
"I'll buy you an animal when we get there. Head northeast," Nick said as he mounted. "I should be able to spot landmarks and take us right to the castle."
They took off, Max flying more slowly and without magical assistance so Nick could watch the ground for roads and landmarks to give him directions. Only a few more hours and they'd be in Sothalia.
There was no way to tell when they actually passed over the border, but Nick began to see road patterns that seemed similar to Mortimer Carter's map of his duchy. They were approaching a large city that he thought might be Haverhill by the size and the distant spire of a cathedral when there was suddenly a loud bang and at the same time Max jerked in midair.
The duke felt a sudden tug on his magic and he opened his aperture and let magic flow into the dragon. He could feel the matter shield form below them and the dragon was climbing, gaining altitude rapidly also assisted by magic.
"What was that, what happened?"
I don't know, but it hurt. There's a hole in my wing.
Nick scanned Max's wings and saw a small round tear hear the back edge of the left one. He was relieved to see it wasn't near any of the bones in the wing.
"Can you keep flying? Do we need to land?"
Yes, and no, the injury is small and will have little effect on my ability to fly. But when we get to your castle it will need tending to. What sort of weapon was that?
"I have no idea. I've never encountered anything like that before. You should stay at a higher altitude until we get home. I thought we were out of arrow range but apparently that's not high enough."
Will I be attacked when we get there?
"There are knights and soldiers there and they tend to get excited at the mere possibility of a dragon. We'll have to land out a little way so I can get between them and you and protect you until they calm down."
Are you sure they will listen to you? You aren't a very large human and while both of us can shield we can't maintain shields forever.
"They'll listen," Nick said grimly, "or they'll be in big trouble. I am their duke, and I'll be obeyed or . . . or . . ."
He wasn't sure. He'd wanted to say "heads will roll" but would he really execute someone who disobeyed him? The anger he felt at the unprovoked attack on Max made him think that just maybe he would.
Nick was able to point to a thin line below that he thought was the road to Sothalia and told Max to follow it. Since there was no longer a need to go slowly to look for landmarks, the dragon went into magic assisted flight and they sped along very quickly.
When they came in sight of Sothalia the duke couldn't help but smile. A great deal of rebuilding had been accomplished in his absence and the castle was looking like a castle again instead of a ruin. And somewhere down there was Elizabeth. He had Max slow down and circle, dropping gradually while he looked for a place to land.
The castle and city were too crowded with buildings and people and the forest didn't have an open space big enough for the dragon's wings anywhere near the castle. They needed to stay away from the road too. Nick was surprised to see little dots moving around some of the rubble piles from the castle's construction. What were people doing there? But there were others that looked deserted, so he chose a large one and had Max aim for landing behind it.
It was obvious when they were spotted. The little dots were looking more like bugs now that had had their nest disturbed, running this way and that. The duke wished he had a spell that would amplify his voice so he could tell them to hold their fire, but he didn't. He tried waving his arms as they descended, but he doubted anyone could see him from below or understood what they were seeing if they did.
Just before they dropped behind the mound of broken stone, Nick saw a knight and some soldiers abandon a wagon on the road and come charging toward them. There were foot soldiers emerging from the city gate as well and he knew the knights and lancers wouldn't be far behind.
Before Max had fully settled on the ground the duke formed his matter shield, got on, and took himself to the top of the rubble. He waved his arms and shouted "Stop!" several times, but no one did. He yelled, "Shields!" back at Max and put up his own.
Most of the armed men paused at the base of the heap but some started going around the sides to get at the dragon. Nick called out, "Halt! I am Prince Henry, Duke of Sothalia, and I command you to stop where you are. Do NOT attack the dragon, he is intelligent and a friend."
There were a half dozen armed men on one side of Max by that time, who turned to face them. The dragon lifted his head and bared his mouthful of sharp teeth in warning. One short man had dismounted his skittish horse, drawn his sword, and was advancing toward Max. Nick's jaw dropped when he recognized him.
"Charlie, no, stop that!"
A knight that was with the boy stepped his horse forward, leaned over and grabbed Charlie by the back of his jacket and stopped him, shook him once and said something to him. Charlie reluctantly sheathed his sword. Relieved, Nick turned back to the crowd and mentally asked Max to come up beside him. The dragon did, but with a watchful eye on Charlie and the men with him.
"This is my dragon friend Maximillian. Say 'hello', Max."
Max understood the situation. He needed to convince everyone that he was a person, not an animal, and quickly before someone attacked and precipitated a battle. Even though he didn't like talking out loud, he rumbled, "Good afternoon".
Most of the crowd lowered their weapons and stared. Then there was a buzz of conversation as they turned to each other to confirm that the dragon really had spoken. Nick noticed a wedge of horsemen working their way through the mob and recognized who was in the lead.
"Elizabeth! I'm home."
She waved and jumped off her horse, tossing the reins to Ralph mounted next her who managed to catch them while dismounting himself. She worked her way through on foot calling out, "Go home, everyone. Soldiers, back to your stations."
People sheathed their swords and put arrows back into quivers. Some started to disperse, although some just stayed to see what would happen next. Nick dropped his shields, bounded down the rubble pile and met her at the bottom.
Elizabeth could barely recognize him. He was dirty, smelly, bearded, dressed very oddly, and looked taller, but the big grin she knew. They hugged each other fiercely.
"Oh Nick, I didn't know if I would ever see you again. I'm so glad you're back," she said in his ear.
"Sorry it took me so long, I had a hard time getting off of Incelia. I'll tell you about it later," he responded in hers.
Before they could kiss a voice piped up, "Hi, Elizabeth."
They separated and she turned to see her brother. "Charlie, you made it."
"Yep, and I was going to kill the dragon for you, but Sir George said not to. You remember Sir George? He would make a great arms master."
Nick said to her, "Max has been flying a long time, he'll need food, maybe a cow? And his wing is injured, it will need seeing to."
The duchess was never so glad to have Ralph nearby. Seeing she wanted to be with Nick and not deal with administrative matters, he took charge.
"You, soldier, escort Lord Charles and Sir George to the castle and see that they have refreshments and the soldiers with them are seen to as well. I'll be along shortly to arrange housing." He turned to the dragon and asked, "Do you prefer your meat cooked or uncooked?"
Nick interjected, "Either is fine for right now."
Winkershime gestured at another soldier. "Go have your cook sort out a cow and have it driven out here for the dragon. Then fetch Esme to see to his wing." He turned to the duke and duchess. "I'll let Parker know the prince has returned and is in need of a bath, razor, fresh clothing, and likely a meal." To no one in particular he added, "And I suppose I'll have to find housing for the dragon as well."
Ralph mounted and put three more soldiers on guard around Max to make sure no one would bother him and rode back to Sothalia with Charlie, Sir George, and Earl Bruce's men following.
The show apparently over, most of the remaining crowd trudged back to their daily lives with a few standing a little way off to just stare at the dragon. Max pushed around some of the stones at the top of the rubble pile to make a smooth place for himself and settled down. It had been an odd beginning to his new life, but no one had actually tried to kill him, his new rider had protected him, and there would be a cow for him soon. Not too bad. He rather liked the little man that had given everyone orders, whoever he was.
Elizabeth and Nick were mostly alone, with one mounted soldier holding her horse's reins nearby.
"I have so much to tell you," she said. "A lot has happened since you've been gone."
Nick just stepped forward and kissed her as he'd been wanting to since he arrived. He took his time about it, then came up for air. "I think I need that bath and shave, and probably a haircut. Then we'll talk, okay?"
Elizabeth nodded happily and reclaimed her horse. The soldier recognized he was one person too many, dismounted and gave Nick his ride. It wasn't that far, he could walk back easily. The duke and duchess rode together to Sothalia.
Prince Arthur Louis Warwick sat in a hard wooden chair in the middle of the top level of his tower. He stared out an open window at the blue sky and few white clouds drifting past. He'd done nothing else for the last two days besides eating and sleeping.
He wore his soft blue robe and held his sword, Arbitra, across his lap, one hand on the hilt and the other resting lightly on the bare blade. He was waiting.
Arthur knew everyone in the palace considered him slightly demented about the blade, even though he was Anglia's Warleader. It was a burden he had to bear.
He thought back to that fateful day he'd acquired the sword. He had been on his knight's quest for a year. He took it seriously, even though as a prince he didn't have to, he would be knighted even if he just went to the hunting lodge for a couple of weeks and told some fanciful story when he returned to the castle. But he couldn't do that, it wasn't honorable.
He'd nearly given up and was returning home, not sure what he would say, although it really wouldn't matter to anyone but himself. A fool dressed in a sheet or something had come up to him and presented him with the blade along with some flowery speech about his worthiness. Arthur had been tempted to take it and cut off the man's head or at least snap the blade in two and throw it in his face.
Of course he'd recognized the weapon. He'd played in the armory as a child, and back in one dusty corner were a lot of old weapons no one would ever use in battle for fear they would break. No one cared about them so they were his to use in imaginary battles. The sword was one he had played with, but someone had added some gewgaws to the hilt for some reason.
There was something different about it though. It was the same old sword, but there was an aura, a pale glow that only he could see. And the name Arbitra came into his mind when he touched it. The idiot in the sheet ran off as quickly as he could and left Arthur staring at the weapon.
It confused him. It was meant as a hoax, but it was real. Only his family had unlimited access to the armory, and Arthur felt the presentation of the sword to him had been meant as a kindness to bring him home. So it had to be one of the people who cared about him, or even all of them. The fellow who had given it to him didn't believe it was anything extraordinary, he was play acting and Arthur knew it. The sword itself hadn't been anything special before either. But he couldn't declare the sword a fake and discard it when it wasn't, when he could feel it was special now and that it was meant for him.
So he'd taken it back to Londinum with him, and let everyone feel sorry for him for being so easily fooled, for thinking he was important when he wasn't, at least no more than any other prince. His family was kind, which was harder to take than the snickering behind his back that he pretended not to notice. But perhaps it was all part of what he had to do to earn the blade. Humility had never been one of his strengths before.
And now Arbitra was telling him something. It had come to him for a purpose, and that purpose was drawing near. He had been given the magical weapon for a reason, and that reason was to fight Evil. Not the little everyday bad things that happened, not even the war although the sword had helped him a bit there. No, there was something truly Evil coming but he didn't know where to go yet to meet it. It was his destiny coming and the sword's destiny too. He might succeed in destroying whatever it was, he might fail, but he would do his best and he knew Arbitra would too.
It frightened him a little that he could sense nothing beyond the coming battle. Would Arbitra be destroyed, would he die? And if he failed, what horror would be released on the world? But that was courage, wasn't it, being afraid and going forward anyway. He was ready. He was the Warleader and he would fight for Anglia, for all the good in the entire world, for his family that he loved, and even for those who laughed at him. It was his job, and when he'd accepted Arbitra it became his fate.
But if he had to give his life, he wanted something in return. He still had a little bit of pride left; he wasn't a saint after all. He wanted one person to know what he had done, to understand that he'd given up being respected but kept his honor. If just one person understood this and kept it in his memory, that would be enough.
Arthur shifted in his chair. Such depressing thoughts, but what was coming was far worse than just depressing. Waiting was the hardest thing, once he was moving, acting, he would be fine. He hoped it would be soon.
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