Daughters of the Dragon Keeper
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Daughters of the Dragon Keeper
Well over ten thousand years have passed since the destruction of the City of Spire, which left the land with one dragon, one Dragon Keeper, and a handful of others who had the ability to use magic. Peace came to the land once the dark magi were no more. Half a millennia ago, twin daughters, Hagatha and Rozar, were born to Queen Cinna and the Dragon Keeper. The girls inherited their father’s magic powers and immortality. Whether coincidence or fate, the world of Dominion began to change about this same time, and life was not so peaceful. Both women are now queens. Unfortunately, Hagatha has chosen to ally herself to the dark mage Argyllu and the dark priests of Agnor. Rozar has no desire to tangle with her sister Hagatha, but when a young man who works in the palace kitchen has a premonition his queen is in danger, she finds herself caught up in the storm of destruction her sister has started.
The young man, Higley Poste, entered the room he shared with a mystical creature of great intellect, the Lampala cat, Arcubus. He slowly followed the marmalade-colored cat over to the chair the cat had claimed as his own —and waited for his friend to get settled down before he spoke.
“Did you see the tears in her eyes? I have never seen her cry, Arcubus. Do you think she is in danger?”
Arcubus stopped licking his paw. His chocolate-colored eyes with orange specks studied the young man he often called “boy” as he considered how best to answer the question. “She is the queen, Higley. She is always in danger.”
“Yes, but this time it is different. I saw her crying, and I felt a disturbance surrounding her. The danger was so real, it made my body shake inside. I wanted to cry too. My mind urged me to flee the room, and it took every ounce of my will power to stand there until she dismissed us.”
Arcubus looked intently at the young man with sandy-colored hair before he spoke. “We are bound to her by threads of a destiny that cannot be broken, Higley. Her fate is our fate. Best we find out what it is that threatens her.”
Higley sighed. A worried scowl appeared on his face. “Yes, I suppose we should, but a part of me truly does not want to hear.”
“Then put away that part from your mind and stand tall, Higley. It is your duty to serve her. You cannot change the blood that runs in your veins.”
“How you talk, Arcubus. I am but a palace servant. Then, only because someone was kind enough to leave me on the palace doorstep, and the queen allowed Beretha to raise me. My bloodline has no value,” Higley stated.
The Lampala cat smiled to himself. He knew differently.
“You are stronger than you know, Higley, else you would have bolted from the room as your mind bid. You have sensed she is in danger. The queen needs to know. We will go see her after she has had her dinner. I will tell her of your experience, and we both can hear what she has to say about it.”
“Thank you, Arcubus. I doubt she would listen to me if I told her what I felt,” Higley said, his deep blue eyes dark with worry.
Arcubus had not seen tears in her eyes or felt the danger the boy sensed, but he had noted that lately his queen’s face was grimmer than usual. He knew the high queen better than most, for he had witnessed her birth and her coronation. All in all, he had been with her for over five hundred years. For many years now, the only emotion he had ever seen her display when it came to matters of state or servants was anger. Arcubus could think of only one person who could crack the hard shell she had built around herself. His eyes darted toward Higley. The boy is in danger, he told himself.
Arcubus was unaware his claws had unsheathed from their pads until he heard fabric rip as he raked his talons across the silk pillow he sat on. I’m getting old, he thought as he looked down upon the damage he had done to his favorite pillow.
* * *
Higley stood nervously beside Arcubus, listening as the cat explained to Queen Rozar the premonition of danger he had sensed. As always, the young man cast secret glances at the queen to see whether he needed to back farther away from the throne in case she flew into a rage. That he was afraid of her was no secret. He had once seen her use magic to smash every vase in the throne room when a priest from Agnor—one of the blackrobes—had angered her. Even so, his fear did not keep him from admiring her beauty or the wreath of pink shewlilies with blue centers that matched the color of her eyes. The queen rarely wore her gold crown, complaining it gave her a headache. Instead, she preferred to decorate her golden-colored hair with flowers. His body gave an involuntary jerk of surprise when her eyes met his.
“We are here because we are worried and wish to help, my lady,” Arcubus added when she remained silent.
“Leave us, Higley! I wish to talk to Arcubus alone,” Rozar commanded.
Higley cast Arcubus a look of relief, gave the queen a quick bow, and dashed out of the room.
“My queen, I did not mean to upset you,” Arcubus apologized, laying one paw out and bowing humbly before her as he noted the agitation on her face.
“Don’t bother to cat-foot with me, Arcubus! We do not have time to waste on such things.”
“That is why I am here, my lady.” Arcubus lowered himself until he was sitting on his haunches. “I may be able to help if I know what it is that has you troubled.”
The queen’s ice-blue eyes grew colder than usual as she stared blindly toward a painting on the wall. She knew the Lampala cat had powers he rarely acknowledged, but she wondered if he could hold his own against her sister if the need arose. Hagatha’s magic was powerful, undoubtedly more powerful than her own and the cat’s put together. Her sister had spent years under the tutelage of the dark mage Argyllu and those cursed blackrobe priests of Agnor. She inwardly shook off her dour thoughts and turned her focus back on the cat. “It is Hagatha. She wants to sacrifice the boy.”
Arcubus’s claws once again slid from beneath his pads upon hearing the name of the queen’s twin sister—a woman he had helped raise—who now practiced dark magic.
Rozar watched Arcubus’s face closely and so did not see his protruding talons. As far as she could tell, he was not surprised or alarmed by the news. That surprised her. She had thought he would at least growl when he heard the news.
“We both knew this day would come, did we not?”
“Yes,” Rozar answered. “But know this, Arcubus, I will not give up the boy.”
“You care for him then?”
“You know I do! He is my son,” Rozar snarled, angry the cat would even ask such a question. “I will not let him die.”
“You see what?” Rozar cut in.
“I see a way out. Give her another.”
“Another!” Rozar cried. “You know by now, Arcubus, only bloodlines of the fairy kings, Vitar or Shelya, can appease the hunger of the Great Dragon. Any other, and we will all face his wrath. While Hagatha may not know who Higley’s mother is, she does know he is the son of Richard and has Vitar bloodlines. There is no way for me to deny that.”
“In that case, give her the boy’s grandfather, King Orlean. He is the only other living descendant of Vitar’s line, besides you, Hagatha, and the boy. Shelya’s bloodline is no more.”
The queen shook her head. “Orlean must be close to a thousand years old. Much too old to appease the Great Dragon, I would think.”
“Then we are all doomed. As you well know, Prince Richard is dead and Queen Estera is past the age of bearing anymore children, which means there will be no more children born with Vitar blood in them and there is no heir in King Orlean’s household. The word is the king has named Queen Estera’s brother, Herther Stoutree, as his heir. Unless Higley goes forth and claims the crown, the reign of the Vitar bloodline in Brih is over.”
Queen Rozar flinched upon hearing the cat state Higley could be the next King of Brih. An unbidden memory of Richard embracing her filled her mind. It took her a few seconds to realize Arcubus had voiced an answer to the question she had been struggling with these past few months.
“Ah! You are so right, Arcubus. Higley cannot be sacrificed without Hagatha dooming us all.”
“Yes, that is the way I see it,” the cat said, his left ear twitching slightly as he congratulated himself on a well-thought-out plan.
“Of course, you know we cannot be sure Hagatha will agree to wait. She may decide to demand Higley’s life, regardless of whether it could bring about the death of our world.”
“Yes, she could do that, my queen, but if I were to take Higley far away from here, she would not be able to harvest him so readily. She would then have to go after King Orlean.” Arcubus had used the word “harvest” to drive home the dire consequences should Queen Rozar deny his plan. “With enough gold in my purse, he can travel as a nobleman, find a suitable wife, and sire children.”
“Children?” Rozar spat, giving the Lampala cat a hard look.
“Yes, my queen. In this case, children are what is needed to ensure the continuation of the bloodline.”
Rozar sat back in her pink satin throne as she thought about the cat’s words. It did not take her long to see Arcubus’s suggestion was a good one. “I believe you are right,” she admitted, nodding her head slightly as she considered the Lampala cat’s suggestion. “Higley must produce children, but you are wrong about traveling to a distant kingdom. I want the boy close by.”
Arcubus reluctantly nodded his head and wisely kept any sign of disappointment out of his eyes. He had hoped for more distance between the two queens and Higley.
“I think it best you find lodging in one of the outlying hamlets to the north,” Rozar said, pausing to put a hand to her chin as she mentally put the parts of her plan together. “Better yet, I will send Beretha to the land market. She can buy a farm in one of the lake valleys. That should keep Higley busy.”
“As you wish, my lady,” Arcubus said, pleased by the thought of having lodging Higley and he could call their own.
The cat wished Beretha could go with them. They were both Lampalans. The fairy woman had been his companion throughout the ages, but he knew there was no hope for that. Beretha’s place was at the side of the queen, and rightly so as she protected Rozar as he protected Higley.
“Travel north toward the lake valleys, and be slow about it, Arcubus!” Rozar continued. “There will be inns along the way for you to take shelter at night. Beretha will let you know where to go when she has found you a place to live. Once you settle in, let me know.”
“Would that be safe, my lady? I mean, the priests might be able to trace the magic our mind-to-mind conversations will create.”
Rozar shook her head. “No. Father once told me the blackrobes are blind to fairy magic. It has something to do with light having dominance over darkness—one of the ancient laws of the Great Dragon, I think.” The queen waited for the cat to acknowledge her words before she continued. “Also, Higley cannot continue to use his own name. He will need to take on a new identity. Hagatha could decide to put out a search for the boy.”
“Ah. A good point, my lady, and one I had not thought of,” Arcubus lied smoothly, pretending he had not already considered they would need to change Higley’s name. Everything was working out to his satisfaction.
“Higley will be just another young man going out to make a life of his own,” Rozar murmured, more to herself than to the cat as she sat there mentally going over her plan. “You, Arcubus, will be nothing more than an oversized house cat when anyone is around. If someone were to hear you talk, they would spread the word. It would not be long before the priests would come to investigate. You know magic is forbidden to all but dragons, the dark mage, the priests, and children of the Dragon Keeper. The blackrobes would most likely deem you to be cursed and try to burn you and Higley on a pyre.”
Arcubus frowned at the thought of having to play the role of a house pet. It was not part of his plan. When he heard her state the dark priests would try to burn him on a woodpile, he growled softly before reluctantly admitting to himself her warning had merit—not that he and Higley would be in any real danger, but they would have to run once he disabled the priests.
Rozar pretended she did not hear the cat’s protest as she mentally sorted through names common enough for Higley to use. She recalled the clockmaker’s visit last week. His name had been Bottomsworth. As good as any, she thought, and continued on with her instructions. “We can use the name of Bottomsworth, Arcubus. There are lots of Bottomsworths around the land. Too many, in fact, for anyone to ask questions. The boy can use the name Henri Bottomsworth. It’s a common enough name, and he is apt to respond to others when called, since both names sound similar when spoken.”
“Good choice, my lady.”
“Yes, I believe it is. Now, go make preparations, and make sure the boy understands his life is at stake if anyone finds out who he really is. Of course, do not tell him who he really is, Arcubus, or the reason why you both need to flee. I forbid that.” As Arcubus continued to stare at her, she added, “You are a Lampala cat and of quick wit, so I am sure you will be able to think of something to cover the situation. Tonight at the twelfth hour, meet me in the treasury room. You can then advise me of the story you have fabricated.” She paused to look at him. “You will be able to carry whatever gold you need in that fairy pouch around your neck, won’t you?”
“Yes, my lady,” Arcubus said, rising to his feet.
“And, Arcubus, I need not tell you the quicker you leave, the better for all of us. Hagatha could show up without notice. If Higley is here, I might not be able to persuade her to leave him be. I want you both gone by daybreak. I do not wish to start a war with my sister. I am not sure it is one I can win.”
“We shall be gone by the first rooster’s crow, my lady, and I will do my best to see the boy comes to no harm,” Arcubus reassured her, bowing slightly before turning to leave.
Higley followed Arcubus into the small farmhouse and looked around. He was amazed to see the kitchen, dining, and sitting area were all in one room. The furniture looked worn, but sturdy. A comfortable-looking green tapestry sofa sat against one wall. As it was the only padded pieced of furniture in the room, he decided he would wait until Arcubus picked the end he preferred to sit or nap on before sitting on it himself.
Higley—or Henri, as he was now named—opened the door to the bedchamber and walked into the room. Arcubus padded in behind Higley. The room was as long as the first room, but only half as wide. A feather tick lay upon a mid-sized rope bed, and there was one chair in the room with a carved wooden back and a padded seat. A wooden shelf for clothing that leaned a bit to the left was the only other piece of furniture in the room.
The cat jumped up on the chair’s seat and found the padding did little to soften the seat. He jumped back down on the floor and walked over to give the brick chimney pit in the far corner a closer look. Well built, and recently cleaned, he thought as he looked upward into the chimney and saw blue sky. They would make good use of the pit come winter. He made a mental note to have Higley start gathering wood. It would take a good size rack of sawed limbs to keep both the kitchen section and this room warm during the winter freeze.
Arcubus decided the narrow slit of a window, placed just below the rafters and over the bed area, was the only bright thing in the entire room. They would need to buy new chairs, several rugs, a wardrobe to replace the shelf, and some small tables to set the fairy lamps on that Beretha had given him. Both he and Higley liked to read before going to bed. With the queen’s permission, he had borrowed several dozen books from palace’s library. He was looking forward to reading them.
The cat went back to the dayroom. He was pleased to find a sink by the stove with a water pump above it. It meant Higley would not have to carry in water. There was a short hallway lined with pantry shelves that led to the back door and a privy room which held a large copper bathing tub. All in all, the Lampala cat was satisfied with the house Beretha had purchased. “It is a small farm, Arcubus,” she had told him when she contacted him with her mind. “We don’t want anyone looking any closer than they would at the boy’s shirt buttons. It is a big enough farm to attract the attention of mothers with daughters, but not big enough to spark speculation on wealth, which could start rumors that might interest the blackrobes”
Arcubus noticed Higley had wandered outside and went to look for him. He saw the young man was staring out at the apple orchard, a look of wonder on his face.
“Are all of those apple trees ours too, Arcubus?”
“Yes, I believe so. Beretha said the deed map they gave her shows the house and orchard are surrounded on three sides by forest land.”
“Wow! Higley said, looking at the trees. “I don’t begin to understand why the queen got so angry and banished me from her palace, Arcubus. I was only trying to help her. Nor do I know why Beretha bought us a farm? But, I am glad she has. I am going to do my best to earn enough from the apples to pay her back.”
“I doubt Beretha wants her money back, Higley. You are the son she never had. She wants what is best for you. As for the queen, you know by now she has a temper. We are not the first, nor will we be the last to be thrown out of Alcyon.”
Higley sighed. “You are right about that, Arcubus, but even so, I am going to miss the palace. And, as impossible as it sounds, the queen too. She has always been a part of my life.”
“Whether we be there, or here, she is still our queen, and deserving of our love and loyalty, Higley.”
* * *
A week later, Arcubus was sitting in his new front room chair when Beretha contacted him with her mind. Once they were caught up on telling each other how the other one was doing, the cat told her about the wardrobe he and Higley had found at the local cabinetmaker’s shop.
“It has two drawers in the bottom section and is made as well as any I have ever seen. I think the man must have some fairy in him as he carved water mushrooms on each door. The piece is very similar in appearance to the wardrobe you used to have in your bedroom when we lived in Orinthia,” Arcubus communicated with his mind to Beretha.
“That is interesting, Arcubus. Perhaps a family member once visited Lampala and brought the design back to Dominion. I look forward to seeing it when I come that way.”
“You are coming here?” Arcubus asked, clearly surprised by her words.
“Well, not right away, but I am sure I will get to visit with you sometime in the near future.”
Beretha had no idea of how prophetic her statement would be. Though, she would be in such a hurry she would have little time to look at the wardrobe.
Higley rose early and was outside gathering up pitch-soaked cones to use for kindling from beneath the tall pine trees that ringed his farm when he saw her. She came galloping up on a black horse with a very unusual white blazing sun mark on its forehead. He watched as she reined in the animal and then stopped to stare openly at him. He noted that while her clothing was simple, the horse’s saddle was of fine leather, adorned with silver mounts and trimmed in blue velvet. It was obvious to him she was more than a local farm girl. He tried to smile at her, but when his blue eyes met her green ones, his face muscles failed him.
“Hello,” she greeted, flipping a wheat-colored braid away from her face before patting her horse’s neck with a sun-browned hand.
Higley nodded his head in greeting, too overwhelmed by her presence to speak.
“I am Lily, Lily Jahala. I live in the next valley over.”
Higley cleared his throat. “I’m, uh…Henri Bottomsworth,” he said, catching himself just in time from blurting out his real name.
“Are you the one who purchased Coate’s Acres?”
Higley gave her a blank look.
“This,” she said as she motioned with her hand to the farm. “We local folk call it Coate’s Acres, but I suppose that will all change now to Bottomsworth’s Acres.”
“Orchard,” Higley stated.
“What?” she asked, not catching the meaning of the word.
“I plan to call it orchard, not acres. Bottomsworth’s Orchard.”
“Oh, of course. Right. My father calls his estate Lakeland, due to his land bounding Lake Arhone.”
Higley said nothing as he looked up at her, but smiled to show he had heard her words.
“Well, I better be on my way. If I am late, Mother will not be pleased with me,” she said. “But, I am sure I will see you again as I ride by here at least once a week.
“I look forward to it,” Higley said and then blushed at the thought of uttering such bold words.
Lily nodded and gave the young man a friendly smile before kicking her horse into action.
Higley went back to filling his canvas bag with cones. When finished, he headed back to the house. As he dumped the cones into the pen he had built for them, he debated whether he should mention the girl to Arcubus, but decided there was nothing to tell, other than she was beautiful.
* * *
Higley spent most of his time in the orchard taking care of the trees. It had been a dry year with little rain, and it took up most of his day packing water from the backyard pump to the trees. Arcubus had told him he would need to build an irrigation system, but there was not time to make one and keep the trees alive this year. It was hard work, but he thrived on it. At the palace he rarely got to go outdoors. Beretha always had a list of kitchen chores that took up most of his day, and Arcubus kept him at his studies the rest of the time.
Three weeks passed before he saw the girl again. This time, she brought her horse into the orchard before she dismounted. She explained she had been on trip with her family, and that was why it had taken her so long to make a return visit. As she chatted with him, he tried to field her questions as best he could, keeping to the story Arcubus had made up for him. Sometimes he knew he got some of the facts mixed up. It worried him, but Lily did not seem to pay any attention to his mistakes.
Two days later when she again came to the orchard, Higley was pleasantly surprised by her return visit. The two of them spent an hour or so getting acquainted.
Higley found himself laughing with her as she told him some of the problems of owning a Sahdian horse that was able to share his thoughts with her. That revelation had surprised him. He had never heard of a horse with magic before. He started to say something about Arcubus, but caught himself just in time.
When she was ready to leave, Higley dared to help her mount her horse. He respectfully looked the horse called Chade in the eye and bowed before he approached him. One of Lily’s earlier stories had been about the horse’s habit of nipping the stable boys when he felt they deserved it. He did not want to get bitten.
His face burned with embarrassment for hours as he thought of how it had felt to touch her as he had helped her mount her horse.
Hagatha materialized in Rozar’s bedchamber. It was late, but she knew her sister would be waiting up for her as she had sent word of her intention to visit earlier in the day.
“Hagatha,” Rozar greeted when she saw her sister appear, “I did not think to see you again so soon.”
She noted Hagatha’s hair was more reddish in color than blond, which meant her sister was, as usual, agitated.
Both queens were beautiful. Alike in many ways as only twins can be, but the two were as different in nature as day from night. Rozar was the fair one with hair as yellow as spun gold, sky blue eyes, and ivory skin. Hagatha’s hair was a riot of color that changed as her mood changed. Her eyes were dark as a moonless night and her skin the color of honey. They were both daughters of the Dragon Keeper, a mage said to be almost as ancient as the dragons themselves. He was so ancient in fact that no one knew his real name, and none dared ask. It was also said the Dragon Keeper was quick to anger, and his wrath terrible when unleashed upon man. In truth, no one living, other than his daughters, Arcubus, Beretha, and a few palace servants, had ever seen the Dragon Keeper, let alone witnessed his wrath. It was from their father the two queens inherited their titles, their immortality, their magic, and their acidic nature. Their beauty came from their mother, Queen Cinna of Daybreak, who had died soon after they were born.
“Needless to say, I am in a quandary over the kitchen boy. Where is he? I do not sense him in the palace.”
“I sent him with Arcubus to the horse sale in Grintlee. My carriage horses are getting old. They ought to return the day after tomorrow,” Rozar lied smoothly.
“The Dragon Keeper”—neither woman ever called him father—“is not pleased with my intent to sacrifice the boy. He believes the boy needs to produce children before he is taken. That we all risk the Great Dragon’s anger seems to make no difference to him,” Hagatha complained.
“He is right, Hag. If you kill the boy, you kill the line. We both risk annihilation if that happens.”
“True enough, but I would take refuge underground in Agnor with Argyllu and those who serve him. And, you know I do not liked to be called Hag,” Hagatha snapped.
“Are you so naive you think the Great Dragon cannot reach down into Argon and pull you out by your hair if he so deems?” Rozar scoffed.
Hagatha scowled darkly at her sister for guessing the truth of it all. The Dragon Keeper had all but said that very same thing to her only a few days ago.
She got up from her chair and wandered around the room. A gold dragon pin lying atop a dressing table caught her eye. She picked it up and looked at it.
“You still favor this pin the dragon gave you,” she said, turning around to look at her sister. “How predictable you are, Rozar.”
“It is still one of my favorite things to wear. Jerifl has always been good to both of us, Hagatha. He gave you a pin too, remember?”
“Yes, I still have it somewhere, but I have never worn it. Like this one, it is ugly,” Hagatha said, turning to put the pin back on the table.
Rozar did not see Hagatha’s eyes blaze in anger as she thought about Jerifl. The dragon had always held Rozar up as an example of how one should act and her as an example of how one should not act. A wicked thought pricked her mind. Letting her eyes rest upon the pin, she whispered a few words of a curse she had recently learned.
“Well, since I cannot have the boy, Rozar,” she said, laying down the pin, and spinning around to look at her sister with a smile on her face, “I will fetch old King Orlean for the Great Dragon.”
Hagatha hid the fact she intended to sacrifice another—the king of all magi, the Dragon Keeper. Such a prize would keep the Great Dragon happy for a long time. She had no need for the doddering old King of Brih, but nevertheless, she would sacrifice him. With Orlean gone, there would be one less ruler to oppose her takeover of the queendom.
She gave Rozar a wicked smile before she added, “Perhaps he will appease the Great Dragon’s appetite for fresh blood for a time. However, should he decide the boy is the only one who can satisfy his hunger, I will return.”
Before Rozar could respond, Hagatha disappeared in a puff of black travel smoke.
* * *
Higley did not realize all the hard work he had been putting in on the orchard and wood gathering had chiseled him to a rock hard figure most young women would consider handsome. His face, arms, and hands were now as sun-browned as Lily’s were.
Arcubus, however, did notice the boy was becoming a man worthy of looking at and prepared for the women who, undoubtedly, would seek the boy for a life mate. The Lampala cat found himself frowning at the thought of another person living in the house. He would not be able to read his books or sit and talk with Higley after dinner. He sighed at the thought.
Arcubus decided he would go out to the orchard and find Higley. He could use some fresh air, and he was bored with reading the history of the Sahdian Empire. If the historian had written a true account, it was no wonder the empire had fallen to a curse. A king putting himself above the dragons invited such misery.
The Lampala cat was only halfway through the orchard when he heard laughter. He slowed and looked around. He moved into one of the rows between apple trees, and saw Higley sitting on the ground beside a young woman. The pair did not see him as they were facing the other way. It was apparent to Arcubus the two were well acquainted for they were less than an inch apart and the girl had her hand on Higley’s arm. He decided not to interrupt as it might embarrass the boy, so he turned and padded back to the house. He would wait until after dinner to question Higley about the girl.
As Arcubus sat reading the last of his book while waiting for Higley to come in for supper, Beretha spoke to his mind.
“The queen needs you to return to the palace, Arcubus—immediately! She is greatly disturbed by a dream she has had and insists we all are in danger. Leave Higley there as you can travel faster without him and he is safer where he is.”
Arcubus was tempted to tell her no, but she disappeared before he could make up his mind to do so. “Mouse droppings!” he swore as he shut the book with more force than needed.
He sat for a minute going over Beretha’s words before he moved to the table and scribbled a note for Higley, telling him he had to return to Alcyon. He growled as he read the note. Never had the boy been left on his own. He started to contact Beretha to argue the folly of leaving the boy without his protection, but realized neither she nor the queen would have him leave Higley’s side unless there was no other choice. He reluctantly laid the note on the table.
Arcubus used a front paw to find the invisible strings on the fairy pouch that hung off a cord around his neck. He pulled the pouch from his head and laid it down on the table. He then spoke the one word incantation to make it become visible and pulled the pouch open. The boy will need to pay for the wagonload of boxwood we have ordered, he told himself
“Coins,” he said. Gold and silver dots the size of nail heads worked their way to the top of the leather bag.
Arcubus counted out two gold and ten silver ones and laid them on the table. He chanted the ancient fairy word, “Nimbri!” The dots grew immediately into the coins used by those on Dominion. He set those down on the table by the note for Higley.
He fetched the ancient book of Sahdian history he had left lying on the chair, shrunk it down, and then put it back into the pouch. He made the pouch invisible again. As he put it back around his neck, he recalled he had been a youngling the day the fairy had given it to him. “No cat should ever be without means to barter for their food, Arcubus,” Beretha had told him the day she held the bag out for him to look at. She then went on to explain as she put the sash cord around his neck, “A fairy pouch is a wonderful invention by Atalea, a fairy queen of the First Age. No matter what you put into the pouch, it will have no weight. Of course, not all fairies can make a fairy pouch,” she had finished, her eyes glowing with pride. Arcubus scoffed at that last thought. There were no more fairies; Beretha was the last of them.
The cat had just opened the door to leave when Higley came in. He stopped long enough to explain. “I have to go, Higley. The queen has called for me. I have put a note on the table explaining everything. The money to pay for your boxwood we ordered is on the table. I will return as soon as I can, but it will probably be at least two weeks or more due to travel time.”
Before Higley could ask questions or protest, Arcubus was gone out the door.
The Dragon Keeper’s Visit
Arcubus limped into the palace at Alcyon. His paws were cut and bruised from treading over the sharp lava rock of the underground kingdom of Agnor. One side of his face bore evidence of an attack. Blood seeped from a torn flap that ran down his jowl line to his chin, and one leg was dark with matted gore. His eyes and steps were weary for he had traveled far and had slept little in the past week.
When Queen Rozar saw him, a look of sorrow passed over her face. She valued the Lampala cat as a companion and a friend, even if she had never admitted that to him. “Arcubus, you look awful,” she stated bluntly.
“I am sure I do, my lady. It has been a long and harrowing trip, and my news is not good.”
“Is it anything that requires immediate action?”
“No, my lady.”
“Then, go have Beretha tend to your wounds! When she is finished and you have eaten, come back and tell me what it is you have found out!”
Arcubus was surprised by the concern on her face. “Thank you, my lady,” he said, bowing stiffly. “I will bring Beretha back with me. Her input will be needed.”
The queen’s eyes narrowed in speculation as she watched him walk out the door. His words told her she had been correct—Hagatha was plotting against her.
Beretha took one look at Arcubus as he entered the kitchen and ran to fetch a clean towel. She laid it over the seat cushion of her own chair, as it was the only padded chair in the room. She gently lifted the cat and laid him on the towel. She then hurried off to get the basket of medical supplies she kept in the pantry.
When she returned, she pulled up a stool and bid one of her helpers to bring her hot water and a towel while she took out several bottles of medicine and ointments. The injury to Arcubus’s face came first.
“I knew your task would be dangerous, Arcubus, but you almost lost an eye,” Beretha said as she examined the cat’s face.
The fairy’s dark eyes filled with tears as she worked to clean the dirt and fur from the cut. She used her sleeve to wipe her eyes and then her magic to stitch the skin painlessly back into place. Once she was satisfied the job was done, she carefully applied a healing ointment as she chanted a spell. Arcubus’s jaw began to visibly mend.
She next examined the deep cut to his foreleg. “I don’t see how you were able to walk on this leg, Arcubus. The wound sliced into muscle.”
“I used a bit of my own magic to heal what I could and wipe the pain away,” Arcubus said, opening one eye to look at her as he spoke and then closing it again when he finished.
Beretha searched her mind for a fairy spell that worked for muscles. When she deemed she had the correct one, she chanted the words, “Asidi reses tutum!”
“Were you not able to protect yourself in the underworld?” she asked as she tenderly spread a layer of ointment on each of Arcubus’s paws.
Arcubus saw her shaking her head when she saw the numerous cuts on the cat’s feet. “The condition of my feet is due to the volcanic rock that covers the ground in Agnor,” he explained. “The rest of my injuries are due to several of Hagatha’s wolves following me when I left the palace in Daybreak. The creatures were on me before I could react.”
“Ah, I see. I assume they soon regretted that,” Beretha said as she put her jars back in her medicine basket.
“Yes, they are now but ashes, scattered by the wind.”
“A fitting end for those who would attack a Lampalan cat,” Beretha proudly approved.
Arcubus made no comment. There was no need. He had been Beretha’s companion from the time he was weaned. She had been a young fairy girl and he a kitten. Together they grew to maturity, though not necessarily in the same order as Lampala cats reach their ageless point at around forty years. Fairies celebrate theirs on their one-hundredth birthday. Beretha was still the same slim woman with nut-colored skin, long dark hair that was almost always braided, intense dark eyes, and pointy ears as she had been at her ageless celebration. Neither the cat nor the woman had aged a day in the twelve millennia since.
“You must be hungry, Arcubus. I will have the girls make us supper.”
“Yes, I am. Food has been scarce these past few days. I will lie here and rest a bit if you don’t mind?”
“Oh, Arcubus, you know I do not mind. I will call you when it is ready.”
“If I fall asleep, Beretha, do not hesitate to wake me,” Arcubus commanded, his eyes heavy. “I am weary, but you will need to hear what I have to say before we go before the queen. Besides, as I stated, I am hungry.”
Beretha’s brow went up, but she did not question him. Instead, she picked up her basket and pushed herself off the stool. Once she had put the basket away, she moved to the center of the room and clapped her hands to get the kitchen girls’ attention.
“Arcubus and I will be dining together tonight, ladies,” she announced. “While Darlily and Brindle prepare the mutton chops and beans, you, Mavel, can go fetch a pitcher of dark ale from the cellar.”
* * *
“It is far worse than you suspected, my lady. The boy is not in danger, you are. Your sister plots to take your crown. She wishes to take over the queendom and send you to the altar,” Arcubus said, keeping his voice flat as he spoke. There was no way to soften the blow.
“You know this for a fact?” Rozar questioned, even though she knew in her heart the cat spoke the truth.
“Yes, my lady. I heard it with my own ears. The Dragon Keeper forbid it, but your sister has plotted with those in Agnor.” Arcubus paused, searching his mind for the right words. There were none, and he looked toward Beretha for support.
“She has to hear it from someone, Arcubus,” Beretha murmured.
Rozar’s eyes darted from the cat to the fairy and then back to the cat. She felt a cold chill of apprehension run down her spine.
“It pains me to have to tell you this, my lady. The mage Argyllu and a conclave of the priests surrounded your father’s home in the middle of the night, bound him with magic, and took him away. The old servant, Qwake, had been severely beaten, but was coherent enough to tell me he heard the dark mage tell the priests to take the Keeper to the altar and sacrifice him to the Great Dragon. They used a travel spell, so I was unable to follow them. I did what I could do for Qwake and then traveled back to Daybreak to see what I could find out.”
Rozar’s eyes dimmed, and she swallowed painfully. Despite the fact she had seen her father only a few times in her life, it still hurt to know he was not only dead, but his blood was on Hagatha’s hands. “And of the dragon Jerifl? What did you learn of him?”
Arcubus shook his head. “I did not see the dragon, my lady, nor did I think to ask Qwake. I was in a hurry to get to Daybreak to see what I could find out.”
Rozar nodded in understanding and told herself Jerifl had surely escaped the priests. He is too strong to be overtaken by mere spells, she thought.
“I changed my fur color to black coal and returned to Daybreak,” Arcubus continued. “No one paid me any attention when I entered the palace behind a group of priests. I wandered around for a day or two gathering what information I could. When there was a flurry of activity in the kitchen, I followed one of the kitchen boys and found the maids were filling the table in the great dining hall with large platters of bread, cheese, and wine. It was easy to see they were making preparations for a large feast. I scooted in under the table and took up position on one of the inner legs so I could see any who entered the room.
“Several hours later, a half dozen priests came in and sat down at the far end of the table. A few minutes later, a group of men came in. When your sister entered the room, they all went silent. As for myself, I held my breath, for I was not sure if she would be able to sense me, but my luck held. The mage Argyllu came in last and took a seat at the foot of the table while the queen--” Arcubus paused, his lip curling in disgust at having to use a title for the woman who had ordered the murder of the Dragon Keeper “—sat at the head of the table. She then bid the servants to bring in the food. I must say it was a miserable time for me. I was hungry, and the air was heavy with the smell of meat and wooded ale,” the cat finished.
“Oh, Arcubus,” Beretha said, shaking her head in sorrow. “I should have gone with you.”
“I wish you had, Beretha. Together we might have been able to save the Dragon Keeper,” Arcubus said, turning to look at the fairy woman.
The cat shook off his anger and continued with his report. “I found out the men were her regents, my lady. Once dinner was over, she announced her intention to do away with you and become the high queen and take over the queendom. She then commanded the priests to spread sickness throughout the land and rumors that you are the one to blame. The regents were told to raise an army and be ready for battle when she called. It is her plan to take Alcyon and send you to the Great Dragon. Higley she intends to spare long enough for him to sire children, and then she will sacrifice him.”
Rozar’s face lost its color as she heard her sister’s plan for her and Higley. “How long do you think we have before Hagatha attacks?”
“It will take some days before the regents can build up a large enough army to assure a victory. It is not only an expensive venture, but many will not want to join an uprising against you, and I doubt Hagatha will move against you until she is sure she can win.”
“Then we will begin tomorrow to work on a plan of defense. It is late, I am tired, and I need time to sort this all out with a clear mind,” Rozar said. Both Beretha and Arcubus bowed and turned to leave, but stopped as she added, “The two of you are to join me here for breakfast.”
The fairy and the cat turned back to give a slight bow with their head to let her know they would see her in the morning.
Rozar stood and made her way to her bedchamber. While she slipped out of her dress and into her nightgown, she recalled how her father had warned years ago to beware her sister’s hunger for power. It had been among the many other warnings he had given her that day. Now she wished she had paid him more attention, but at the time, she felt his lengthy list of what she should or should not do was more an annoyance than counsel.
* * *
Rozar had drifted into a restless sleep that was disturbed by memories of the past. She was not sure how long she had been asleep, but her eyes snapped open when she heard someone calling her name. She sat up and looked around the room. That was when she saw him.
“Father?” she called out, swallowing nervously as she spied the wraith-like bearded figure standing at the foot of her bed.
“Sayo,” the specter greeted.
Rozar knew it was her father. He was the only one to ever call her “child” in the tongue of the Keepers.
“I thought I had lost you, Dragon Keeper. Arcubus told me you were taken to be sacrificed.”
“Aye, my time grows near.”
“Can you not save yourself, Father?
“It is too late for me, sayo. I am leaving this world as we speak.”
Rozar gave a cry of alarm.
“Do not mourn me, Rozar. This is not the time for tears. Instead, listen to what I have to tell you. As I feared, your sister has allowed the dark priests to corrupt her soul. She now plots to take the queendom and sacrifice you to the Great Dragon as well.”
“Arcubus just returned from Daybreak and has said as much,” Rozar stated, trying to reign in emotions that threatened to overtake her.
“Then you have her part of the story, which makes it easier for me.” The Keeper’s figure wavered, and he moaned.
“Father!” Rozar cried.
“Listen to me, sayo!” he commanded. “The Great Dragon has never demanded sacrifices. That is a myth created by ancient priests to rid the world of those who would rival them with magic. It is not blood or sustenance he desires, it is our spirit and our memories. Once we move out of this world, we go to join him if we are found worthy.”
“Can you not leave?”
“No, daughter. My body can no longer hold my spirit. The priests have lit the pyre.”
Rozar put her hands to her face and began to cry.
“Do not mourn me, daughter. I willingly go to be with my master. But, it is not your time to follow me. You must live to protect the Shelya bloodline.”
Rozar lowered her hands and stared at her father’s figure. She did not understand his words. She had been told King Shelya’s bloodline had died out long ago. She looked at her father with confusion.
“Aye, I have hid that fact from you. After Spire was destroyed, Jerifl and I decided it would be better if no one knew I was a descendant of King Shelya. Even back then, those of the Shelya bloodline were hated and hunted by the priesthood. They have always been jealous of those who can use old magic. You and your son are now the only hope we have of continuing the bloodline.”
Rozar flushed. She thought Higley’s birth was a secret only she, Arcubus, and Beretha were aware.
“Yes, I know of the child, Rozar. But again, we have no time to delve into the past,” the Dragon Keeper stated. How he had learned that information he kept to himself. “It is the future we must protect. Your future and the boy’s. You have no way to defeat Hagatha. Her powers, along with the powers of mage Argyllu and the priests, are greater than anything you can withstand. You must flee from the queendom and this world.”
“This world?” Rozar asked, shocked by his words.
“Yes. There are many worlds besides this one, Rozar. Go to the Stones of Dragor. They can be found on the east border of Plynth. Once there, and when the moons are at their fullest, speak the word, ‘plithura’!”
The Keeper saw the confused look on his daughter’s face and felt grief cut through to his heart. She was her mother in both image and goodness. She was the one thing in this world he still loved, and he had never told her, and he would not do so now as it would only serve to cause her more pain.
“The Stones of Dragor mark the portal to other worlds. A Guardian will appear and take you through the light. But, be warned before you step into the portal, Rozar, you must join hands with whomever is with you. No matter what takes place, do not let go of that hand! Else you risk being cast into a different world with no way back. Do you understand?”
Rozar nodded and repeated the word “plithura” for him.
The Dragon Keeper smiled wistfully at her. “You also need to take as much gold as you can carry with you!”
Rozar put a hand to her head, which was beginning to ache.
“Gold is just as valuable in any other world as it is here, Rozar. And, you will need wealth to ensure you survive,” he explained when he saw the confusion on her face. “Take food with you also! It may be some time before you find a place you can begin a new life. The Guardian will place you in a world that is suitable for our kind, but be aware not all worlds have magic. Should others find out you or anyone with you does, it could endanger your lives.”
The Dragon Keeper raised a hand and spoke several ancient words. Rozar shuddered as new energy and memories flooded her body.
“I have just shared my knowledge with you. It will ensure you and Higley will have the power of magic for eternity, or for as long as you can escape the Great Dragon. My mind is at ease now knowing you are safe.”
Before Rozar could protest, he was gone. She sobbed as she slipped out of bed and slid her feet into her satin slippers. She grabbed her cloak off the chair and dug out a handkerchief from a pocket. She wiped the tears from her eyes. Once she had buckled the cloak’s gold clasp, she used her magic to create a floating light and told it to follow behind her.
As she left her chamber, she headed for Higley’s room, hoping Arcubus would be there. If not, she would get Beretha to help her find the cat. There was no time to lose. She had no idea of how far it was to Plynth, but she did know it was less than ten days until the moons would shine their fullest. They needed to be on the road before dawn’s light.