The Duke and the Duchess

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Chapter 9

Mortimer Carter gave them a sketch of the road to Rocky Point. Messengers went out and spoke to traveling merchants and found that it was only a half day ride, but the village road was little more than a cart track and a wagon would take most of the day to reach the fishing village.

The duke and duchess decided to ride, taking along Captain Gregg and twenty soldiers, Manny Carter to improve his father's map of the area, and just a couple of messengers and clerks. Two wagons with tents and supplies would follow and they would stay overnight. They planned to return to Seagate the following day, attend the ball, check on Baronet Jeffrey, and stay overnight. Then they would resume their planned journey which would take them south along the coast and eventually inland to Haverhill, the third largest city in Sothalia.

The remaining ten soldiers led by a sergeant would remain in Seagate to guard the rest of their belongings. Parker wanted to go as well, but Nick assured his valet he could manage to take care of himself overnight and left him in charge of their suite. Sylvie wasn't pleased to be left behind, but she wasn't sorry miss "roughing it" overnight, and she assured them she would have everything ready to prepare them for the ball when they returned.

Nick rode Falcon and Elizabeth rode Goldie. The ride was pleasant, the weather cooperating with a mostly sunny day. The road north was in good condition until they turned off the main road to take a side road to the village. That was just a wide path flanked by two ruts and they could see why the wagons would take so much longer to arrive.

The duke and duchess could catch glimpses of the ocean as they rode, but then the track veered inland around a rocky bluff. A little further along they crested a hill and saw a pretty village below, the broad span of the ocean, and a long high cliff of rock jutting far out into the water. At the end of the cliff were numerous rocky fingers and eroded blocks of stone protruding from the water with some flying creatures that were little more than dots at that distance moving around on and between them.

Nick and Elizabeth led their group down to the village, stopping at a group of large trees with a water cistern in the middle of a square of sorts. There weren't many businesses, mostly just a cluster of well-tended houses, many with fishing nets drying on poles or being mended in the yard. The one main road ended at the water with family fishing boats moored at several small docks.

They dismounted and a soldier took their horses to be watered along with all the other tired animals. Three villagers approached them, and older man and a middle-aged man and woman. The three stopped in front of the duchess and bowed, the eldest speaking.

"Lady, welcome to Rocky Point."

Elizabeth smiled to put the man at ease. "I am Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Sothalia, and this is my husband, Prince Henry, Duke of Sothalia. We have come because we heard you have some difficulty?"

Nick had moved to her side as she introduced him and the older man bowed again and said, "Forgive me, Your Highnesses, I didn't know who you were. I am Olin, Headman of this village, and these are my seconds, boat captains Helga and Wulff. We have little to offer aside from the bounty the sea gives us . . ."

Helga muttered, "Used to give us."

Olin continued, "Yes, well we're having some difficulty right now with our nets, Your Highnesses."

Nick said, "We were told some sort of animal was causing you a problem. That's why we're here."

The three villages looked far more interested in their visitors. Captain Helga said, "You could help us? But how, Your Highnesses?"

"Perhaps if you explained the problem, we could think of something," Elizabeth said.

The Headman gestured at the distant moving dots. "It's them. They came with the spring and they're fish eaters, Your Highnesses."

"Lazy fish eaters," Wulff added. "Your Highnesses, they raid our nets. When we're pulling them in and they're full, one of the big monsters dives into the water and rips the net and eats our catch, or if we're quick and get it up out of the water one of the smaller ones will fly right up and grab on to the net and either stick its head into the opening at the top or just tear a hole in it and gulp fish as they fall out. It's a wonder we ever get a full net of fish into the hold."

"Aye, and they've near capsized a boat more than once doing that, Your Highnesses. We've tried fending them off with harpoons, but they just push them aside or grab them away," Helga added.

"Have they attacked any people?" Elizabeth asked.

"No, not as yet, Your Highness," Olin replied. "We sound the alarm if any come near to the village and everyone goes inside, and puts animals into sheds if there's time, but we've lost two goats to those things."

"Just the little ones come into the village, the big ones stay out on the point, Your Highnesses," Wulff added.

"But what are they?" the duchess asked.

"Big flying lizards," Olin responded. "Never seen anything like them before, Your Highness."

Nick put his hand on Elizabeth's arm. "Thank you, your information helps." To her he added, "Let's walk down to the beach."

The three villagers bowed to them as the duke and duchess strolled away. "I don't think we'll get much of a better view from the beach," Elizabeth said as they walked.

"I'm going to show you a new trick I've learned." When they neared the water, they stopped and Nick put up his hands and traced a large rectangle in the air in front of them. Elizabeth saw the inside of it blur, then slowly clear. She could see Nick concentrating and moving his hands carefully in front of the defined space, and then she was looking through a window at a much magnified scene.

About two dozen tan, brown, and gray dragons lazed on the rocks, flew from one to the other, or slid in or out of the water. One turned its head and looked at them, and then all of the dragons turned their heads and looked directly at the two of them on the beach.

"Uh oh," Nick said, and Elizabeth couldn't disagree. Then the dragons all turned their heads and looked at one of the largest dragons who launched himself into the air and flew toward them. Nick quickly cancelled the window.

"Elizabeth, go have Captain Gregg organize his men. Keep them back and have them ready but not threatening."

The duchess had her sword half out of its sheath. "But the dragon is coming right toward us."

"I want to try to talk to it, and you know I can protect myself. It's harder if I have to protect two of us, and I need those soldiers under control. I don't want a mistaken attack while I'm trying to negotiate. Go, please."

She rammed her sword into its sheath and ran back up the road. Captain Gregg was already mustering his men, but she had a quick, quiet word with him that changed his orders. The twenty soldiers went back to their horses, half mounting and unlimbering lances, the other half retrieving and stringing bows. Gregg formed them up in a line thirty yards behind the duke, the lancers on one side and the bowmen on the other. The archers had arrows nocked but held their weapons pointing down, ready to raise them and fire when ordered. He and Elizabeth stood in front of the line, watching and ready to attack if necessary. The messengers, clerks, and mapmaker stayed back in the trees out of the way with the rest of the horses.

The dragon reached the beach quickly and landed with a wash of air. It advanced toward Nick, not lumbering as something that size should, but walking more like a war steed. The duke put up his matter shield, and then remembered that dragons were supposed to breathe fire and added an energy shield as well.

It stopped and stretched out its head toward him slowly and deliberately. The creature's long forked tongue flicked out to Nick's shields as if it were tasting them.

The duke wasn't sure what to do, but if he wanted to talk he supposed he should say something. He called out, "Greetings. I am Prince Henry."

The dragon pulled back its head and cocked it. Greetings yourself. I am _________. The name was a burst of something nonverbal in Nick's mind.

"I didn't catch that."

Pick a sound for me then.

"Fine, I'll call you . . . Sandy." The dragon was sand colored. Unoriginal, but Nick had other things on his mind. "Why have you and the rest of you group come here?"

It's been long since we were here. We felt the magic and came to taste it.

"You've been stealing fish from these people, damaging their nets and frightening them. You must stop doing this."

A fish belongs to whoever eats it. The nets gather them conveniently for us, but are of no use after that, they are just in the way. You are far from home, Mage.

"Uh, not that far." Nick thought that was an odd thing for the dragon to say. How did it know where he lived? "You're damaging these people's livelihoods. They need the fish to eat and to trade for other things."

You are a dragonmaster rather than a dragomancer?

"What? I don't understand you. Why don't you just go catch your own fish? Or aren't you capable of feeding yourselves?" Nick challenged, hoping the dragon had some pride he could appeal to.

Of course we are, but the big fish are far out under the water, and the land holds more magic for us, especially now that you have finally come.

Finally? What did Sandy mean by finally? "You were expecting me?"

Or one of the others we can taste here. It's been long since this land had flavor.

Nick had so many questions he didn't know what to ask first. He started with, "Anglia used to have more magic? What others? When were you here before?"

The dragon cocked his head again. I would be rewarded for bringing you home.

"I don't want to go home. Please answer my questions."

Sandy straightened his head and reached a front foot toward Nick. The duke saw it was huge, very hand-like with an opposable thumb, and clawed. He strengthened his matter shield.

His shields didn't help at all. The dragon wrapped his hand around the shields and just bent both shields in around Nick and picked him up, squeezing a little. The duke had to disperse his shields to keep himself from being crushed by them. As he did, Sandy eased his grip to just a firm hold, turned around, spread his wings and took off.

The duke heard yelling behind him. He looked back at the beach to see the lancers charging, but the archers held their fire, probably out of fear of hitting him. Elizabeth was running after the lancers and calling his name, but no one on the rapidly retreating ground could do anything to stop the dragon carrying him away.

Nick tried to transport himself out of the creature's hold and back to the beach. He felt his body jerk in the dragon's grasp, but that was all that happened. It was the first time the spell had ever failed and he had no idea why it hadn't worked. A second try had the same result.

It wasn't a very comfortable way to travel. He feet dangled out underneath the dragon's grip, and his head and shoulders protruded out of the top; he imagined the dragon biting off his head like a radish. Nick's arms were held firmly to his sides, and he tried to think of something he could do to make the creature drop him. The duke wasn't afraid of falling; he could form his matter shield underneath and fly himself to safety, although he was already higher up than he'd ever been before. The dragon was fast!

He could move his hands a little. Lightning was definitely out; he would shock himself senseless before he harmed the much larger dragon. Maybe a tiny bit of fire. He stretched his fingers out from his sides as far as he could and tried a flicker of flame.

It had no effect other than heating his thighs uncomfortably, so he stopped. Maybe if he bent his wrist forward and tried just one finger with his concentrated flame into the giant hand that held him. He tried a short burst, feeling the heat backwash too, but at least it had some effect.

Sandy had been carrying him low, underneath himself. Now he lifted Nick up and looked at him with his huge eye. Ow. Stop that.

"Let me go!" Nick shouted. He doubted his voice could be heard over the wind of their passage, but he hoped the dragon would catch his thought.

Don't be a fool, Prince Henry. Look around. If I dropped you, where would you go?

The dragon lowered him again, and Nick scanned the horizon. There was nothing but ocean. He twisted his neck, looking all around himself, but could see no land in any direction. He did see the other dragons following them some distance back. Well, at least he had solved Rocky Point's problem.

You see? You don't even know which direction the land is in; you have been too busy squirming around to pay attention. If you were powerful to just transport yourself out of my grip an unknown distance to a place you know, you would already have done it.

Nick knew the dragon was right. He was being abducted and all his magic couldn't rescue him, at least not until they arrived at wherever they were going and Sandy put him down.

"Where are you taking me?" he called out.

I already told you, home.

Nick blew out air in frustration. He had no idea what "home" meant to a dragon. Was it a cave somewhere filled with treasure? That was what the wonder tales would say, but this wasn't a story for little children. Sandy didn't seem to mind conversation while flying, so perhaps he could learn a few things. But first, maybe he could get more comfortable.

"Sandy? Could I ride up on top of you rather than in your hand? It's uncomfortable, and if you get a cramp you could squish me."

The dragon raised him back up to eye level and the creature's thoughts in Nick's head sounded just a little angry.

I will say this only once, Mage. I . . . am . . . not . . . a . . . HORSE. Do you understand?

"Uh, yeah, sorry. I just thought it would be easier for both of us, I didn't mean to imply anything else."

He was lowered back down. They flew on and on. After a while Nick ventured another question. "What's a dragonmaster and what's a dragomancer?"

You are very ignorant, Prince Henry. Someone with full magic is a dragonmaster. Do not think that means they tell dragons what to do. Occasionally a mage and a dragon are so well matched they connect with each other and become partners, but that is very rare now. A dragomancer is someone whose magic is damaged or something. I know little about them, they usually cannot talk to us.

"The Incelian ambassador to Anglia is named Lord Dragomance. Is he a dragomancer?"

There was a funny, ticklish feeling inside Nick's head, and he realized Sandy was laughing.

Possibly, they often give little jobs like that to dragomancers. But what an insult to be called a failed mage by name!

That gave Nick something to think about. The ambassador had always been aloof and unfriendly. Perhaps he'd been suppressing anger. And maybe this was connected to Incelia in some way.

"Are we going to Incelia?" he asked, speaking in a normal voice. If the dragon was hearing his thoughts, then he probably didn't have to voice them at all. But Sandy hadn't heard him thinking about lightning and fire, so there must be a difference in thoughts he wanted to say and those he didn't.

We're going home.

"Yes, but is home an island called Incelia?"

There was a long pause. We don't call it that. It is an island, but all pieces of land are islands, all are surrounded by water. Perhaps the humans that live there have a word like that for it.

That was likely the best Nick was going to get. If he was being taken to Incelia, he would be fine since his mother came from there and he could speak the language. At least there would be people wherever the dragon was taking him.

"When will we get there?" He formed the words in his mind and directed them at the dragon without saying them.

Oh, two or three days.

"I'll need food and water and, ah, a chance to, ah . . . "

Eliminate wastes. Yes, please do not do that in my hand. I would most likely dive down into the water to clean myself and stay under a very long time. After all, if you do not reach home no one there will know the difference. How well do you breathe water, Prince Henry?

"Not well at all," Nick admitted. "But you would lose your reward."

True. There are places we will make brief stops. Some have fresh water. The only food is fish. Do you eat fish?

"Yes, but not usually raw."

So you will have a new experience.

Elizabeth, the soldiers, and the villagers watched the dragon carrying her husband rapidly disappear into the sky. As it passed the other dragons, the entire group rose into the air and followed. She turned to Captain Gregg and asked, "What can we do? How do we track them?"

The villagers were cheering at the sight of the dragons leaving, but she heard his answer plainly. "I'm sorry but there's no way, Your Highness. Anglia could alert all her ships to watch for them, but by the time we notified someone in authority and they ordered the ships out, it would be far too late. Look how fast they are; why, they're almost gone from sight already."

The duchess realized he was right. Perhaps someone else with magic could track them, but the Royal Coven hadn't been set up yet and know one even knew if there were other witches in Anglia. Other countries had witches and sorcerers, a diplomatic mission could be sent, but it would take days if not weeks for them to send a message to Londinum just to have the order sent out. Her thought of tracking the dragon was hopeless.

Elizabeth looked around. The villagers were happily chatting with each other and making their way to their homes. The soldiers and Captain Gregg were all looking at her for her orders.

She called over a messenger. "I need you to get word to Londinum that Prince Henry has been kidnapped by dragons. They were headed east when last seen, but they could have gone anywhere. How quickly can Londinum be informed?"

"Your Highness, I will ride immediately for Seagate. From there I can have a messenger bird sent to Londinum. It will take days, though, to get there, and can only carry a short missive."

"Send at least two, word must get through. Go!"

As the messenger ran to his horse she turned to Captain Gregg. "There's no reason to stay here. We will return at once to Seagate ourselves and have the wagons turn back when we meet them on the road."

"Yes, Your Highness," the officer said crisply, and gave orders to his men. The clerks, remaining messenger and mapmaker all mounted with the soldiers, and within minutes they were on their way back. Elizabeth wasn't at all sure what she was going to do when they got there, but it would be late when the arrived and she doubted much could be done at that time except informing Parker and Sylvie and going to bed.

It wasn't until she was mounted and they were riding back on the village road that she began to cry. But she didn't let the tears slow them down. She had to do something to help Nick and do it quickly, although she didn't know what.

They found their wagons just starting to turn from the main road on to the village road and told the drivers to turn around and follow them back to Seagate.

Elizabeth was tired and a little sore by the time they clattered into the square in front of the inn. She dismounted, seeing Goldie led off with Falcon to be tended to. The sight of Falcon's empty saddle started her tears again. She wiped them away as she walked quickly into the inn and to their suite.

But on the ride back, she had thought of something that she could do. It was too late to follow the dragon that had taken Nick, but it wasn't too late to start the search for him. When she reached her suite she told Sylvie and Parker what had happened and directed Nick's valet to summon all the messengers. When they arrived she ordered them to go to the harbor and tell every Anglian Navy captain to report to her at once.

When the messengers had gone, Parker asked tentatively, "Your Highness, what do you mean to do?"

Elizabeth's first reaction was anger. He was only a valet, why was he questioning her? He wouldn't question Nick . . . well, yes he would just as Ralph had if Nick was acting precipitously. That calmed her and made her realize that having someone to discuss her ideas with before she gave orders was a good thing. Normally, she and Nick would have talked.

"I'm going to have them start searching. I'm a princess; I can order our ships in an emergency.

"Indeed yes, Your Highness. It's only that it may not be wise to spread word that our one and only magician is missing. Franck still has quite a few sorcerers and most of her army. I doubt that King Louis would want to try again, especially so soon after his defeat, but it would be better not to tempt him."

Sylvie said, "But we must save the prince, we must."

Elizabeth agreed, "We have to try to help Nick. The dragon didn't kill him immediately, so it might have just carried him somewhere and left him. Nick could be hurt, or lost and unable to come home without aid."

Parker said, "I was going to suggest having our ships look for the dragons and ask after sightings of them until we know which way they went. We could have them look for the prince under a pseudonym; I was thinking Lord Nicholas. That's close enough that Prince Henry would likely recognize they were asking after him without advertising to the world that we have temporarily lost our young prince and duke."

The duchess nodded. "All right, Parker , that seems reasonable. Now where are those captains?"

It took nearly an hour for five navy sea captains to gather in her sitting room. Elizabeth was assailed by doubts facing them. They were all middle-aged or older, and rulers of their ships. She knew next to nothing about ships and sailing and what she could reasonably ask of them. But they had to obey her, and perhaps this wasn't the time to worry about being reasonable.

"Gentlemen, I am Princess Elizabeth, Duchess of Sothalia. A man . . . a nobleman, Lord Nicholas, has been taken by a group of dragons." They looked at each other in disbelief so she continued, "This abduction was witnessed by Captain Gregg and his soldiers, the villagers of Rocky Point, and myself. There were perhaps two dozen dragons of mostly tan and gray colors. I cannot tell you which way they went, except they started out east, but could have gone anywhere. I want you to search the coasts, all the small islands, and ask at all major ports for news of dragon sightings."

The oldest of the captains, a short man of sixty or so with a gray beard and a bald head said, "Your Highness, it will take a very long time to do this with only five ships. I would suggest enlisting smaller local vessels for searching our own coastline and all the small offshore islands. It would cost a bit of coin to hire them, but they could do it better than our larger ships and free us to search out in the ocean and along the foreign coasts."

"That's a sensible suggestion, thank you Captain . . ."

"Orville, Your Highness. We will inform the Admiralty of course before we leave. How long should we say we will be gone?"

She wanted to say "until he's found" but that could mean forever since she had to admit to herself that Nick might never be found.

"I'm not sure, Captain. How long to search all of the northern lands, and south at least to the mouth of the Middle Sea?"

"Depending on the winds, a month out and the same back, plus time in ports--say three months at a minimum. But if we hear of sightings does Your Highness wish us to pursue until we find the fate of this man and the dragons?"

"I do. If you find Lord Nicholas, I don't care about the dragons, just give people warnings they are in the area. When can you leave?"

Captain Orville had a short conference with the other four men and then replied, "Your Highness, three of us can sail in the morning if we work all night to finish resupplying, the other two the day after. Captain Ben here will spend tomorrow hiring smaller ships for the local search."

Captain Ben, a tall middle-aged blond fellow, asked, "What is my budget for this, Your Highness?"

"Hire as many reputable ships as you can, Captain, the cost will be covered. And offer an attractive reward as well for information leading to the recovery of Lord Nicholas. Any other questions, captains?"

One of the other men asked, "Your Highness, this man we are searching for, what does he look like?"

Elizabeth blushed a little in embarrassment at not having thought of telling them such an essential piece of information. "Lord Nicholas is young, slender, has brown hair and blue eyes, and was dressed in a dark gray suit when he was last seen. He's a little taller than I am, and generally quite capable and used to being in charge. He . . . well, I suppose that's enough."

"Yes, Your Highness, thank you."

Elizabeth and the captains looked at each other. She could see them wondering who this missing man really was and coming to a conclusion. A princess of Anglia wouldn't use all these resources to find just any nobleman, but no one said anything.

"Anything else?" she asked.

There were no other questions, so the five men bowed and left.

Elizabeth sat down, utterly weary. Sylvie and Parker brought her tea and some of her favorite foods, but she wasn't very hungry and just nibbled a bit. While she appreciated their attempts to make her feel better, all she wanted was a bath and a warm bed.

Sylvie ordered hot water from the inn and Parker made encouraging remarks as he puttered in the sitting room, acting as if Nick would be back in the morning and commenting on how capable and powerful a magician he was. Elizabeth suspected he was trying to cheer himself up as much as her.

After her bath, Elizabeth was relieved to finally crawl into bed. Sylvie had made her bed comfortable with a bed warmer, but it was an empty bed without Nick. Elizabeth told herself again that the dragon hadn't tried to hurt him, so he would be alright. Depending on how far the creature carried him before setting him down or before Nick was able to escape, it might take a few days for her duke to return to her, but he would return. Surely, he would.

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