Miles and I, along with my remaining characters, stood staring into the flames long after the Lord of the Forest and my Old Dwarf galloped straight into Dragon’s illusory fireplace and disappeared.
Miles was the first to speak. “Wha . . . what just happened?”
I raked my hand through my hair and cleared my throat. “I . . . I’m not sure. I believe the unicorn just took my Old Dwarf into the land to which the wish listeners had taken us last May, the land to which Dragon and my Arrogant One have returned.”
“Your Old Dwarf said Dragon was dying.” Cleric’s face was pale, and she was wringing her hands.
I nodded, but my voice caught in my throat when I tried to reassure her.
My Bounty Hunter scoffed. “How could the dwarf possibly know that?”
“It appeared the unicorn communicated that information to the dwarf.” Sorceress wiped a tear from the corner of her eye.
“Nonsense!” My Bounty Hunter scowled. “What possible reason would the Lord of the Forest have to communicate with that oaf?”
My Gypsy raised an eyebrow and fixed my Bounty Hunter with a cold stare. “Oh, I don’t know. What possible reason would the Lord of the Forest have for taking that oaf with him?”
My Bounty Hunter stammered. “Well . . .”
My Foreman snorted. “Because, of all of us, the dwarf is the one who has known Dragon the longest. Their friendship long predates the events Mistress Writer chronicled in her first book about us. The dwarf has a special devotion to the beast.”
My Young Hero nodded and rubbed the back of his neck. “And I daresay I would not want to be that elf if what the dwarf said is true. If the elf deserted Dragon, the dwarf will not rest until the elf has answered for his cowardice.”
The rest of us nodded and murmured our agreement. My Bounty Hunter paled, and beads of sweat formed on his brow as he stared again into the fire.
* * *
The Old Dwarf had barely been able to reach the unicorn’s mane, but he held on tight to the fistful he had grabbed. As the animal galloped toward the illusory fireplace, the dwarf leaped, and was jerked up onto the unicorn’s wide back. The old adventurer closed his eyes, muttered a few choice expletives, and hung on for dear life as they galloped into the fire.
The dwarf was aware of a surge of heat, heat so intense he may have passed out for a few seconds. Then he was falling, falling through fire, through steam, through mist, through branches of trees that reached out to break his fall. He ended his descent in a most undignified manner, on his bum. He jumped up, ignoring his sore rear and the multitude of scratches, bumps, and bruises he had acquired on his quick journey.
The dwarf looked around. He was on a trail choked with protruding tree roots. He could see only a short distance ahead or behind, as the trail in both directions curved sharply. Mist tried to swallow all but the closest vegetation on the sides of the trail, but with his sharp eyesight, the dwarf could see what the mist sought to hide. The land on one side of the trail rose gently, while on the opposite side, a wide shoulder led to a steep drop-off.
The rotund figure placed a hand to his ear and listened, turning in all directions. Hearing nothing, he called softly. “You-nee-corn? Be ye hereaboots?” He listened again but heard nothing save the squawks and trills of the forest birds, and the chattering of a few squirrels.
“Okey-doky. I be guessin’ ye be only me transport inta this place, and now it be up ta me ta be findin’ tha beastie on me own. Wale, I be thankin’ ye, you-nee-corn.” The dwarf looked around, a scowl darkening his features. “But I mebbe be thankin’ ye a whole bunch more iffin ye actually be tellin’ me where ta be findin’ me friend.”
The silence mocked him. The dwarf sighed, hefted his axe, and started along the trail at a fast clip. “You-nee-corn? Iffin ye kin be hearin’ me, I be hopin’ this be tha right direction. Iffin I do na be findin’ tha beastie in a few hours, by sunset, I be guessin’ I be commin’ back and tryin’ tha other direction this night.”
* * *
Sir Daniver inspected the work completed by his two companions. The knights had replaced the clods of grass and dirt that Dragon had gouged up during her disastrous landing. They had erased their tracks from the small field and plumped up the tufts of grass that had been flattened.
Nodding his approval, the commander beckoned the other two under the cover of the trees. “Hopefully, our position will be undetectable from above, should the green drake be on the wing. Now we will stand vigil over our friend, Dragon, and try to comfort her as she heals.”
Sir Jenneseer looked at Sir Daniver and gestured at the ugly gashes on Dragon’s side, her broken arm, and her tattered wings. “Did the balm you applied do any good?”
The older knight sighed. “It may have lessened her suffering by a small degree, but it was not a healing potion.” He gave his companion a sidelong glance. “Perchance you have such a potion? Something your sister, the hedge witch, may have shared with you?”
The young knight blushed scarlet and shook his head emphatically. “Nay! As much as I love my sister, I would never associate myself with the trappings of witchcraft or magic!”
“Pity.” Both men started and turned to find the third knight behind them, listening. When he realized he had spoken aloud, Sir Hrolf reddened, but shrugged. “Witchcraft and magic are not synonymous, but that is neither here nor there. Neither is inherently bad. Magic saved us and our castle when last this beast and her companions visited this world and aided us in our quest. We have oft accepted the magical aid of the wish listeners and the Lord of the Forest. It is my humble opinion that the time is long past when we should accept that magic is not evil, nor is it good. It is but a tool, like a sword or a hammer, and only the individuals wielding it can be evil or good.”
Sir Jenneseer furrowed his brow, but remained silent, keeping his thoughts to himself. Sir Daniver looked from one young knight to the other and shook his head. “That is a discussion for another time. Right now, let us do our best to keep the beast comfortable during her ordeal.”
As the three knights took up their positions watching over Dragon, the big creature began moaning and thrashing around.
“Watch out for her tail!” Sir Daviver pushed his two charges to safety. The three knights looked on helplessly as Dragon writhed and convulsed.
“We really could use some magic here.” Sir Hrolf looked pointedly at Sir Jenneseer.
* * *
The green drakes’ spiked tail twitched. He narrowed his eyes, and something akin to a chuckle rumbled deep in his throat. If anyone had been watching him, they would have thought him amused at the scene below – at the naivety of the knights who failed to realize how exposed they were, oblivious to the exceptional hearing and sense of smell inherent in the scaly behemoth.
As the afternoon marched toward sundown, the green creature kept his own vigil. Occasionally, he would sniff the air, relishing the taste of fear emanating from the knights below. Sometimes he would cock his head, listening to the whispered assurances they shared with each other regarding their safety. Mostly, he just watched and chuckled.
* * *
The Arrogant One galloped at breakneck speed down the tree-lined lane. He put spur to his mount and urged it on ever faster. But the end of the lines of trees, where the road entered the open fields, never seemed to get closer.
When the horse could run no further, the elf pulled it up. Both rider and mount heaved for breath and sweat poured off them both. After many long minutes, when the elf could breathe again without searing pain in his chest, he dismounted and looked around. The avenue, with its canopy formed from the branches of the trees on either side of the road, went on interminably in both directions. The elf could see neither the opening where he had deserted his companions and fled for his own safety nor the other end of the path, where the trees ended and the trail meandered through the rolling landscape approaching the castle.
“No, no, no! This is all wrong!” The elf looked about, bewilderment and fear showing plainly in his wide-eyed stare. “I could see the end of the tree-lined section of the road from the spot where I left the others! This part of the road was not that long! What is happening?”
The elf collapsed by the side of the road. His horse, whose breathing had finally returned to normal, stood nearby, snatching a few mouthfuls of grass and leaves as it waited for its rider to rise and remount. The Arrogant One did not move.
Darkness was starting to fall when the elf finally roused himself. He struggled to his feet and remounted the patient horse, who had not abandoned his rider all afternoon. The elf looked in both directions. “Well, horse, I seem to have lost my bearings. The trail seems identical in both directions.” He looked down, but there were no tracks in the dirt to indicate whence he came. He looked up, but the canopy of branches and leaves overhead gave no clue. Finally, the elf loosened the reins and gave the horse his head. The animal turned and started walking sedately down the path.
* * *
The Old Dwarf trudged along the trail, climbing over fallen trees, crawling through exposed roots, and tripping over clods of dry earth and vegetation. He couldn’t tell how long he had been walking, but he knew he was getting tired. He wiped the sweat from his brow and looked at the sky. It was tinged with the first colors of the setting sun. He sighed.
“Wale, I be guessin’ I be takin’ the wrong direction. I be guessin’ I best be turnin’ aboot and be goin’ tha other way.” He took off his helmet and scratched his head. He looked abashed and scolded himself loudly. “Ye daft old dwarf! Now jest who be it ye be thinkin’ ye be tellin’ this to? There do na be anyone but yerself wot be goin’ ta be hearin’ ye.” The dwarf chuckled and replaced his helmet. He turned around to retrace his steps along the trail but stopped dead in his tracks and gaped. The trail he had just traversed was gone, hidden behind an impenetrable wall of tangled branches.
The Old Dwarf dropped into a defensive crouch and brandished his axe as he looked all around for anyone who may have cast a spell creating the barrier. When he saw no one, he carefully arose. He narrowed his eyes and nattered to himself. “Be yon barrier ta be keepin’ me from tha path I be supposed ta be takin’? Or be it there ta be keepin’ me on the true path ta tha beastie?”
He looked around again and noted that dusk was quickly approaching. “I be guessin’ I best be keepin’ on in tha direction wot I been goin’. It would be takin’ too long ta chop through yon barrier and be goin’ back ta where I be started from.”
* * *
Darkness was settling over the small clearing. The green drake, high on the hillside, wriggled in anticipation. He knew there would be no moon this night, so soon it would be dark enough to conceal his movements. He lifted his head and sniffed the air again. Fear. It tasted so good. Soon, he would have his fill of it.
What does the green drake have planned? Will he succeed? Will the knights be able to defend themselves and Dragon from the drake and any unknown foes? Are Dragon’s wounds healing, or is she getting weaker? Will the Old Dwarf get to Dragon before she dies? And where is the Arrogant One? Be sure to come back next week and enjoy the next episode of this hair-raising adventure. We’ll leave the porch light on for you.