DRAGON RESCUE – The Captive Draman is part two of a story which began with Dragon Quest and is the final installment in my series of fantasy novelettes. Readers may notice the finale is double the size of the other four books, so it may take a bit longer to read. It won’t be found anywhere else, and you get to see it first – but only for a limited time!
An enemy ambush leaves Croft imprisoned and Rueloo seriously injured. When Spiredale learns of his capture, a special team is sent to Pinnacle to rescue him and end the despotic reign of Whitehaven’s king. In a plan fraught with risk, who will pay the price to set Croft free and reunite him with his dragon? Prepare for the exciting conclusion in DRAGON RESCUE!
DRAGON RESCUE by Alexander Elliott
First Edition Copyright © 2019
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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DRAGON RESCUE – PART 1
Continued from Dragon Quest…
On the return trip to Dome
Every stroke of Zelara’s wings sent fiery jolts of pain through the sliced skin and muscle of her abdomen. The flying spear grazed her underbelly, shearing off a wide row of scales and cutting into the tender tissue beneath. She was fortunate, knowing full well some of her people were dead and many others injured, including Mirabelle.
The ambush by Favian’s soldiers took them all by surprise, and the chaotic, moon-lit escape which followed left no time to treat injuries or collect the dead. The rag-tag group behind her shared a singular goal; return home and assess the damage. Zelara broadcast a distress call over and over as she neared the island, alerting the others to stand by. Mirabelle moaned in agony, clinging tightly to the dragon’s neck as each movement jarred her leg. The arrow was lodged deep in her upper thigh and she hung on with white-knuckled determination as Zelara came in for a bumpy landing on the terrace outside their nest.
She crouched low, allowing Mirabelle to slide awkwardly off her back and onto the soft grass with an undignified grunt. They were met by several dragons and a large group bearing torches – faces creased with worry and shock. Zelara leaned down to scent her scale-sister and lick the tears from her face. Mirabelle reached up a trembling hand to stroke her neck.
“Yes, I love thee also. Leave me with the healers. Do what thee can for the others and then have them look at thy wound. Thee cannot hide thy pain from me, dear one.”
They carried Mirabelle off to the nest where the healers could get a better look at her leg. It was difficult leaving her, but Zelara forced herself to focus on the others as they arrived, counting heads and sending messengers to the other islands for additional healers and supplies of gold. Two injured dragons landed nearby with no riders, keening with grief for their now-dead bonded. More came to the terrace with puncture wounds, torn wings, and broken bones.
The shared anger and sense of betrayal was deeply felt by all, and Zelara kept her fury barely contained. This she knew – Favian would pay for this outrage, even if she could not attend to it herself. Her thoughts were interrupted by the distinct bark of WaveWatcher’s call, and she reached out with her mind to speak with him.
“What is it, my brother?”
“I have brought Rueloo- gravely injured. She will have to be carried.”
“I will send two with a net. What of Croft?”
The water dragon hesitated, and Zelara braced herself for the worst.
“Taken by the soldiers. I do not know if he lives.”
Zelara’s dismay caused more pain than her injury, and she knew Rueloo would be wild with fear when she realized the truth.
“If the soldiers have moved on, there is nothing we can do for him tonight. I would ask you for one more thing.”
“Name it, sister.”
“Search the waters for our dead and bring them to us.”
Two strong defenders were sent to the shore to retrieve an unconscious Rueloo from WaveWatcher’s broad back. Human helpers spread out a heavy net in the shallow water next to the sea dragon, catching her body as it slid off. The dragons quickly snatched up either end in their talons and flew the swaying burden to the Terrace of Meeting. As they laid her gently on the grass, Rueloo finally awoke with a start. The agony of her crumpled wing became secondary when she realized Croft was gone. Zelara’s sharp voice cut through the haze of pain and alarm.
“Remain still! If you wish to fly again, the healers must do their work.”
Rueloo obeyed, scenting the air for her bonded.
“Where is Croft? Why do I not sense him? Did he… has he been killed?”
“Steady yourself, sister. The soldiers have taken him. We know nothing more.”
“NO! He trusted me to protect him and I failed. I must find him!”
“Croft is strong and there is nothing we can do for him tonight. Seek him out carefully. If he lives, at least you will know.”
Rueloo ignored the pain as healers began stitching her mangled wing back together and opened her mind. She focused her thoughts towards Whitehaven, searching…searching…until, yes! Like a tiny candle flame, the smallest flicker of Croft’s presence burned in the darkness. Alive! She could not go to him or even speak at this distance, yet her beloved lived. If there were any way to rescue him, she would find it – or die trying.
Meanwhile, at Favian’s castle
Quinn hurried across the cold stone floors at the base of the south tower, eager to reach his patient before he awakened. The young prisoner had been taken to one of the uppermost cells, leaving the aging healer out of breath when he finally emerged at the top. With a grunt of recognition, the guard on duty unbarred the door and allowed him inside. The small room, lit with several torches, smelled of mold and disuse. The scale-brother, or scalie, as the king derisively called him, lay motionless on the thin straw mattress, clothes still damp with seawater.
Quinn knelt down and carefully examined the boy, noting the blue patterns on his skin. While the coloring looked like scales, the flesh was slightly ridged and cool to the touch. Except for the clearly broken left arm, he appeared to be in good condition. Concern for his unconscious state remained, though the traumatic separation from his dragon probably affected him more than the arm. He would need to quickly set the bone before the child awoke, or the pain might be overwhelming.
King Favian’s orders were quite clear. For now, his instructions were to treat the boy’s injuries and keep him healthy and reasonably comfortable. Whatever the king planned, Quinn feared for the child’s life and wondered if there were any way to help him escape. Such thoughts betrayed his true loyalties, and if discovered, would result in imprisonment or death. He’d served the old king for many years with joy and honor, but Favian was nothing like him and Quinn desperately wished Prince Merek were on the throne instead.
Long before Favian’s reign began, Quinn learned to treat both dragon and their bonded – one of the reasons the king selected him to care for the young prisoner. Fortunately, it was a clean break, and he splinted the arm with ease. What he lacked was fresh gold to wrap around the wound. He knew the scale-brother would need it to encourage healing and reduce the pain, but the king would not approve. Instead, Quinn resolved to bring it with him first thing in the morning when he checked on the boy.
As he finished wrapping the splint in place, the child began to stir, moaning softly. His odd green eyes opened and the look of confusion quickly morphed into desperation.
“Where iss Rueloo? Sshe is hurt – I musst find her!”
Quinn quieted him, lest the guards take an interest, and helped the boy sit up.
“Hush now! Thy dragon is not here and thee are a prisoner of King Favian.”
Croft’s face crumpled as he began to cry.
“Let me go! Rueloo needss me!”
Quinn gently rubbed Croft’s back as he leaned closer to whisper an explanation.
“Listen carefully, child! The king ordered thy capture and will not let thee go. I will help thee if I can, but the guards must not know. Pay no heed if I speak harshly to thee in front of them. Thine arm is set, and I will return in the morning with gold. We must keep it a secret – do thee understand?”
Croft nodded his head and winced when he glanced down at his left arm, wrapped in the bulky splint. The worry about Rueloo prevented him from fully noticing the source of his pain, and the arm throbbed beneath the wood and bandages. The older man seemed kind yet Croft did not know if he could trust him.
“Who are thee?”
“I am Quinn, one of the palace healers. What is thy name, child?”
“My name iss Croft. Pleasse help me – I cannot sstay here!”
Quinn reached down to pull a small bottle from his satchel.
“There now, one thing at a time. First, thee must get well. Drink this, Croft. It will help with the pain and make thee sleep.”
Croft swallowed the nasty liquid and lay down again as his head began to feel very strange. Before his heavy eyes closed, Quinn pointed out the chamber pot and water bucket in the corner.
“Rest now, and when I come in the morning we will speak again.”
Croft barely noticed as Quinn gathered his things and opened the cell door. He could hear the healer talking to the soldiers and then a heavy thud as the crossbar dropped into place. The strong medicine he’d been given eased the pain in his arm and made him sleepy, leaving only his sluggish thoughts of Rueloo. He could not sense her in his mind, and it frightened him. Had the soldiers killed her? Could he live without his dragon? Would he ever escape this place?
Fear and worry were finally swept away by a deep, dreamless sleep.
On the Talon Sea, early next morning
Lord Wallington’s stomach heaved again as he retched over the handrail aboard Favian’s fastest sailing ship, the Falcon. Unused to sea voyages, the special envoy was having difficulty adjusting to the lurching movements which upset his digestion. While the captain sympathized, he and the crew took secret delight in his obvious discomfort. Having spent the entirety of his life on solid ground, Wallington did not fully understand why he had been chosen for this particular mission when others were better suited to the task.
He’d been awakened in the wee hours of the morning by a royal messenger, instructed to pack for sea voyage, and then hustled into the king’s presence before dawn. There, Favian hurriedly explained his task, handed him the official documents, and sent him to the docks in haste. Moments after reporting aboard the Falcon, the ship set sail and his misery began in earnest. Between bouts of nausea, Wallington pondered the short and highly unusual exchange with the king.
“I have chosen thee to deliver a message to King Augustus of Spiredale. Ye shall travel by my fastest ship, and if winds and weather favor us, return in seven days time with a response.”
“May I inquire as to the contents of the message, Thy Majesty?”
“Thee may not. The message and response are to remain sealed, and thee will not discuss the mission with anyone, Lord Wallington. Understand?”
“Of course, Sire. I am thy obedient servant.”
He’d never been sent on a mission of such importance without knowing the purpose. As an experienced envoy, it was insulting to think Favian considered him nothing more than a messenger. Even so, he would do as instructed and keep the king’s secrets – no matter what he might learn along the way. Assuming, of course, he survived the voyage in the first place.
Orchid, Dane’s quarters
A fortnight came and went without word from Croft and Rueloo. Dane tried not to be overly concerned, failing miserably as worry turned to frustration and anger. Perhaps they were comfortably ensconced in their nest at Dramanshire this very minute, too tired from the journey to make a trip into Orchid. This was highly unlikely, Dane admitted, as Croft would surely want to see him as soon as he returned. No, this situation required less worry and more patience. Besides, he would be in Dramanshire in a few days for another round of weapons training with his students. Perhaps they would know more by then and he could relax. If not, he may be forced to track them down himself.
Rose, the royal chambers
Queen Nelia knew her husband well, and something was obviously amiss. He’d been unusually quiet, distracted, and unnecessarily curt with the servants; past time to find out what was on his mind. After dinner, she took him aside privately.
“Thee are not thyself, husband. What vexes thee so?”
Chagrinned, Augustus sighed deeply and turned to pace as he spoke, robes rustling with the movement.
“Forgive me, wife. It is pointless to hide my true feelings from thee. Croft and Rueloo have not returned, and I am concerned with the delay.”
Nelia was unsurprised, as she herself waited anxiously to hear from their dear friends.
“I take it there has been no word from Dramanshire. Is there anything to be done?”
Augustus shook his head.
“Not yet. There could be any number of reasons for the delay, yet I wonder at the wisdom of them going alone on such a long journey. Wheet seemed confident they would have no trouble, and perhaps they are on their way home already.”
Nelia stopped his nervous pacing, embraced him, and pulled back to cup the side of his face with a bejeweled hand.
“Thee are not the only one who worries for them. There are whispers in the court and Lillain watches the sky every day. How long will thee wait?”
“It is no simple matter to travel such a distance, and if they have begun their journey we could miss them on the way. I will wait a few more days and then consult with the dragons. Perhaps they would be better suited to the task.”
Back on Dome
To assist the healers in their work, all the wounded were camped out on the terrace of meeting, creating a colorful patchwork of temporary shelters. Volunteers provided food and drink, cleared away waste, and made their friends as comfortable as possible. Gold sped the healing process, yet some of the more seriously hurt would be recovering for many days. Injuries on this scale were unheard of on Pinnacle, and the devastating attack left everyone angry and on edge.
Though both Zelara and Mirabelle were themselves bandaged and healing, they insisted on visiting the others being cared for. Most were making steady progress, needing nothing from their leaders except a few encouraging words. While plans were being made to respond to Whitehaven’s aggression, Zelara chose to wait until things settled down here on Dome before acting. Tonight’s ceremony for the dead would help her people grieve properly and unite them for the difficult days to come.
The additional problem of Croft and Rueloo weighed heavily on Zelara and her scale-sister. They were responsible for protecting honored guests and failed spectacularly when both were injured and separated during the attack. Yes, duty required them to help their new friends, though this went well beyond duty. They represented another nest who’d sent them in good faith and would no doubt be distraught when they learned what happened. Croft was in enemy hands and no one knew his condition or what Favian wanted with him.
Rueloo’s situation was no less traumatic, as she not only suffered a serious injury, but was desperate to rescue her beloved. Along with guilt, anger, and forced separation, she remained helpless and at the mercy of strangers, far away from home. Zelara resolved to do everything in her power to make things right and reunite the pair as soon as possible.
At the moment, Rueloo partially rested under a large awning; her left wing fully extended in the warm sun and propped up by large stacks of freshly-cut summer grasses. Several healers hovered over their patient, applying a thick gooey paste of fragrant pine sap and gold dust to the stitched up remnants of her wing. The beautiful blue dragon lifted her head as Zelara and Mirabelle approached, yellow eyes shadowed with pain and worry. They stopped first to speak with one of the healers about Rueloo’s condition and whether she was cooperating with the treatment.
Mirabelle, knowing the dragon missed Croft’s touch, asked Zelara to bring her closer so she could reach out to stroke the smooth portions of Rueloo’s neck. She rumbled with pleasure at the simple gesture, eyes closed as thoughts of Croft overwhelmed her. After a minute of silence, Zelara opened the conversation.
“You are not alone here, my sister. We will do all we can to treat your injuries and reunite you with your bonded. The healers tell me they are encouraged by the new growth, and your wing is responding to their treatments.”
“I am grateful. Will I be able to fly again?”
“They believe so, but you must be patient. Remain here and rebuild your strength before attempting a journey home.”
“What of Croft? Where is he? Why was he taken?”
“I have heard nothing. I believe Favian has a plan, but do not know what he intends. Croft will be well-guarded and difficult to reach, especially if he is being kept in the castle. I wish I could tell you more.”
“He is too far away to sense me, and will be afraid and confused. I must be able to contact him!”
“If you have an idea, I will hear it.”
“Is there contact with your forest brethren to the south?”
“We trade with them occasionally. Why?”
“On our journey here we met a pair of scouts, Moss and Catrain. If they would be willing to come, I believe they could get close enough to speak with Croft and relay messages or even find a way for us to rescue him.”
Mirabelle spoke before Zelara could respond.
“Yes! Forest dragons are small, fast, and stealthy. They should have no trouble getting past the guards! We usually send Russet when trading, so they already know him. He could easily bring them back in a carry net.”
Stirred with excitement at the possibility, Rueloo’s tail thwapped repeatedly against the soft ground, startling the healers into nervous laughter. Zelara rumbled in agreement at the idea, eager to actually do something helpful.
“An excellent idea. We will send Russet to speak with you first. If he leaves soon, and can convince them to come, they could be here by nightfall.”
Croft’s cell, Whitehaven
With nothing to keep him occupied and no one to talk to, Croft sat on the cold stone floor of his dreary cell. His thoughts and dreams were filled with Rueloo, the attack, and of going home. Was Rueloo alive? Would someone rescue him? How many of the others were injured that night? Did Dane miss him? Would he ever see Dramanshire again? Unanswered questions swirled round and round, leaving him close to despair.
The only bright spot in his day was when Quinn came to see him, telling the guards he needed to adjust Croft’s splint and look after his welfare. Though the arm continued to throb, the pain was far less noticeable once Quinn placed thin gold bars against the bruised skin. Thankfully, there were no more doses of the bitter medicine which made his head feel so strange. The kind healer also promised to return later today with some surprises, and Croft wondered what they might be.
At length, several new voices were heard outside his cell before the door hastily opened in a rush of cool castle air. In strode Quinn and several others carrying various things, including a heavier mattress, a small table and chair, additional blankets, and a fresh set of clothing. When the new items were in place, a bucket of warm water and a rag were brought in and Quinn removed the splint gently before instructing Croft to bathe himself.
He winked at the boy and then complained loudly to the guards that the cell smelled of excrement, instructing them to empty the chamber pot more often. In addition, the prisoner should receive more food, “lest the king arrive to find nothing but bones!”. Croft smiled at Quinn’s performance, grateful to the kind man for seeing to his comfort. He was, however, having a difficult time cleaning himself one-handed while keeping an amused eye on the healer.
Quinn closed the cell door and opened his worn leather satchel, removing fresh bandages and a small bag of thin gold bars. Noticing Croft’s predicament, he took the rag and gently finished washing the boy down before redressing him in the clean set of clothes. He then steered Croft to a chair and carefully laid his broken arm on the tabletop. With quick efficient movements, Quinn re-set the splint with fresh gold, wrapping the arm with clean strips of white cloth to hold everything in place. He spoke softly to the curly-headed child while he worked.
“The king may visit thee soon. Be respectful and answer his questions – no more. He dislikes dragons and their bonded, so do nothing to upset him. I do not know why he holds thee prisoner, but Favian does nothing unless it gives him an advantage. I hope to find a way to get thee out of here, and there are others who would help me. Not everyone in Whitehaven supports the king.”
Croft leaned forward to hug Quinn’s neck, spilling tears.
“I thank thee, Quinn. Thee have been very kind.”
“Take heart, child. I will do what I can without getting both of us into trouble, but I must go. Rest easy, and I will return in the morning.”
As Quinn gathered his things, he slipped two dark leather pouches under the new mattress and put a finger to his lips. Croft smiled, nodding silently as the healer opened the heavy door and stepped out into the hallway. With the door barred, Croft’s curiosity prompted him to investigate. Under the bedding, he discovered one bag contained a handful of colorful marbles, while the other held little wood figurines of horses and soldiers. Normally, he would have no interest in such games, but anything which helped pass the time was glorious treasure.
Dome, late afternoon
The sun was low in the sky by the time Russet returned, his carry net heavy with passengers. Though an uncomfortable way to travel, Russet was forced to take an even longer route to avoid being seen by Whitehaven’s spies. Moss and Catrain did not seem to mind since it gave them the opportunity to fly – something forest-dwellers would not normally experience.
As they neared Dome, Russet’s call prompted Zelara and Mirabelle to join Rueloo on the terrace, ready to greet their new comrades and explain the mission in more detail. At any other time, the inhabitants of Pinnacle would have welcomed the newcomers en masse, offering them food and a tour of the islands. Tonight, however, was the ceremony for the dead, and with everyone busy making preparations, they’d had to forego the pleasantries.
Russet pumped powerful wings to slow his descent, gently placing the heavy carry net on the grassy terrace. Moss and Catrain quickly disentangled themselves and thanked their winged brother for his assistance. After meeting Zelara and Mirabelle, they rushed to Rueloo’s side to comfort her. Informed by Russet about the attack, they were eager to help find Croft and make contact.
Zelara explained their mission as Mirabelle unrolled a map of Whitehaven, pointing out the castle’s location and surrounding forest land. Next, they decided how they would contact one another and relay messages. Tonight’s mission: locate Croft, pass on Rueloo’s message, and look for a way to rescue him safely. Everything else could be dealt with later. After a hurried meal, Moss and Catrain stepped into the net once more and were lifted back into the sky.
With the sun now set, Russet would have less chance of being seen by the enemy, yet an indirect approach remained the safest option. He headed south across the calm, glassy sea before circling eastward over the dense forestland abutting Favian’s castle. Gliding silently above the treetops, he scented the air for soldiers and looked for a safe place to land. Ahead, he spotted a clearing formed by an old burn scar – far enough from prying eyes and ears, though easy to see from the air. With a quick warning to his passengers, Russet set them down gently; scenting the air again as they freed themselves from the net. After a silent dash to the tree line, Moss chirruped softly and they disappeared into the forest. Russet scooped up the empty net in his rear talons, lifted into the sky, and returned home the way he came.
Pinnacle, after moonrise
Dragons and their bonded are both long-lived, and many years had passed since the last ceremony for the dead. The humans living on Pinnacle practiced their own burial traditions and customs, yet they too were in attendance. Virtually everyone on the seven islands gathered on Dome to pay their respects. Participants filled the Terrace of Meeting while observers crowded around the edges to watch. On the nearest stretch of shoreline, water dragons and merfolk waited patiently for the ceremony to begin.
Near the center of the grassy terrace, large flat stones were placed close together to form a temporary bier. Surrounding it were smaller piles of kindling, spaced at regular intervals. On top of the bier sat what looked like an enormous bird’s nest, made of intricately twisted branches. Side by side in the center, much like oversize eggs, lay the bodies of Emeline and Lief; each wrapped in multiple layers of dried brown moss.
Their grieving dragons, Patch and Thunder, stood nearby keening softly. They had both lost bonded before to old age; never ones so young, or at the hands of an enemy. Their pain was deeply felt by all, and Mirabelle openly wept as Zelara began the ceremony, widely broadcasting her thoughts.
“A bond is never easily broken. Today we honor the memory of our scale-sister Emeline and our scale-brother Lief. In life they brought us joy, kindness, love, and friendship. These things transcend the body, enriching us all, and they will live on in our memories. My brothers – it is time to say farewell to your beloved.”
Patch and Thunder approached the platform from opposite sides, facing one another across the pyre. Together, fire streamed from their open jaws, enveloping the bodies in a maelstrom of flame. As the wood crackled and consumed, they sent calls of grief into the night sky, joined by the nest in a cacophonous wave of mourning. So loud was the lament, it could be heard across the water in Whitehaven, frightening people out of sound sleep. Favian himself was roused from his bed by the awful clamor, seeking someone who could tell him what it might mean.
When the heartbroken cries finally stopped, individual mourners approached the pyre to show their respects. Dragons added gouts of flame. Scale-brothers and sisters each tossed a branch or log onto the fire, uttering words of farewell or fond memories of the dead. Some paused to offer physical comfort to Patch and Thunder, gently stroking their scales.
By the time the bereaved filed past, the rocky platform contained only a large pile of ash and bits of bone. In the morning, it would be gathered up and deposited in the burial nest; a large cave on the island of Plume. Out of sight; never forgotten.
Awakened by the awful sounds of mourning from across the water, Croft wept for his friends. Outside his cell, the frightened guard fell to his knees, muttering half-hearted prayers for protection from the unknown. When quiet finally returned, Croft lay awake for some time wondering who died, fearing it might have been Rueloo. The last time he saw her, she lay still and broken in the water – their connection gone dark. Somehow, they had never discussed the possibility of separation or death, leaving Croft totally unprepared. His future, if he had one, seemed pointless without her.
Exhausted in mind and body, his eyes eventually grew heavy as he lay on the more comfortable mattress Quinn brought him. When the dreams came, they provided no solace – only disjointed images of the attack, the nest at Dramanshire, and the faces of those he loved. If time passed, it did so without his notice until an urgent voice roused him from slumber.
“Croft! Croft, can thee hear me?”
He sat up in the dark room and tried to focus. A mind-voice! How could any of his friends get close enough to speak with him?
“I am here! In the castle!”
“This is Catrain. Moss and I are outside!”
Heart pounding, Croft stood and looked up at the small moon-lit opening far above his head. Someone had come for him!
“Catrain! How did thee find me?”
“Rueloo sent for us and we came to tell thee she is alive and well.”
Alive! Not among the dead after all!
“Take me out of here! I need to be with her!”
This time, Moss answered.
“We cannot. I am sorry, Croft. You are in a high tower of the castle and well guarded. Rueloo’s wing is healing, so she cannot come. Are you well, little Draman? Do you know why they have taken you?”
“My arm is broken, but the healer, Quinn, has wrapped it with gold. He does not know why I am here and is the only one who sees me. If ye could talk to him, he might be able to help.”
“Do you trust him?”
“Yes. He has been very kind and protects me from the guards. I am no longer hungry or cold and he comes to see me every day. He says there are others like him who pretend to follow the king.”
“He may be of some use to us. Wait a moment…”
His friends fell silent, leaving Croft to his own thoughts. Now that he knew Rueloo lived, all was not lost. If a way could be found, Zelara’s people would come for him. He ached to be with Rueloo, but knew he would not be leaving this place soon. The last thing he wanted was for anyone else to be hurt or killed in a rescue attempt. Catrain startled him when she spoke again.
“We have an idea. Healers use willow bark, and there is a large group of willow trees near the shore where the fishermen bring their catch. If Quinn will meet us there, we will talk to him and see what can be done. When will thee see him again?”
“He comes every morning. What shall I tell him?”
“Ask him to meet us there at midday. If he comes to gather bark, no one will be suspicious. We will remain hidden in the treetops, so tell him not to look up when he hears me speak. If he cannot come then, we will try again after dark.”
“Yes, I think he will do it! Will ye come again tomorrow?”
“We will. Do thee have a message for Rueloo?”
“I love her and miss her so! I think of her always, and she must get better so we can go home before the others start to worry.”
“We will tell her. Be brave, Croft. Thee have not been forgotten!”
With the connection broken, silence returned, and Croft lay down in the darkness wide awake. Rueloo lived! Help was on the way! Seeds of hope began to grow in his anxious heart, and though no one could see it, the little Draman smiled.
On the seashore, later that night
At the appointed place, far from any soldiers, Moss’s strange cricket-like chirrup carried over the calm waters of the sea. The thick fog made it difficult to see much of anything, though he and Catrain soon heard a splash in the distance. Rippled waves began lapping at their feet as they cautiously waded out to meet their ride. WaveWatcher surfaced, just far enough for them to climb aboard, and headed directly for Dome. The great sea dragon listened to their report on the way, relieved to hear of Croft’s condition. The merfolk had been worried, speaking of little else lately, and the sea dragon was eager to share the news with them.
When they reached the protected cove, Moss and Catrain thanked WaveWatcher and agreed to meet him again before sunrise for a trip back to Whitehaven. Minutes later they found Rueloo awake, eagerly awaiting news of her beloved. They left nothing out, describing Croft’s location in detail, as well as the placement of soldiers and weapons along the seashore and around Favian’s castle. Rueloo’s tail thumped lightly against the ground when she heard Croft’s message and learned he was being looked after by the healer. The news of a possible meeting with Quinn surprised and worried her.
“Be careful. It may be a trap if the healer is secretly working for the king.”
“We will, sister. Be sure to tell Zelara what we have discovered. We will return tomorrow after visiting Croft.”
Catrain wrapped her arms around Rueloo’s neck, stroking her scales, as she’d seen Croft do.
“As soon as a way is found, we will bring him to thee. Take heart, Rueloo. Thy bond is strong and the boy loves thee.”
Rueloo thanked her friends for their help and settled down to sleep. Reaching out with her mind, she found the strong flicker of Croft’s presence. It wasn’t enough, but for now it was all she had.
Dramanshire, early the next morning
At mid-morning, Dane and two of his men came to the terminus of Dragons Road, removed their gear, and handed over the horses to Edward. The Draman were not quite ready for their weapons class, so Dane took the opportunity to ask about his son.
“Any word from Croft and Rueloo? I am beginning to worry.”
Edward’s expression gave him the answer.
“We, too, are concerned. Hugh has led the household in prayers for them every day, but we have heard nothing at all. I suspect Wheet is also worried by the delay, and wants to see thee when the lessons are done.”
As Edward led the horses to the barn, Echo and Sabina, along with the dragonlets, landed nearby, buffeting he and his men with the downdraft. Much to the soldier’s amusement, the hatchlings swarmed Dane, taking in his scent and covering him with wet licks. Sabina frantically tried to relay their questions and concerns.
“Is Croft coming back?”
“Where is our Dam?”
“I want my nestmate!”
“Why have they not returned?”
Echo quieted them down with a sharp growl and Dane did his best to sound reassuring.
“I miss them also, but we must be patient. When the lessons are finished, we will all go see the nestmaster. Perhaps he will have an idea of what we should do.”
Echo managed to get the whole group airborne again for their morning hunt, leaving Dane and the soldiers to prepare for the lesson. Today they were working with spears, specially-made for the children, though no less deadly. He was pleasantly surprised how quickly his students caught on to each of the weapons he’d introduced.
They needed more practice with bow and arrow, yet were doing well with the crossbow, dagger, and baton. His chief concern now was how they would react when actually threatened and under pressure. He believed they would perform well if properly motivated, but still hoped they would never really need to use the skills he taught them.
The tower door opened and Dane watched as Hugh led his charges out, dressed, fed, and ready for their lesson. Juliana followed him as far as the doorway, leaning heavily on Margery for support. She’d been feeling ill the last time Dane visited and he hoped she would improve soon. Margery met his eye with a shy smile, fanning herself in the cool morning air. The pretty girl always seemed to flutter about whenever Dane came to Dramanshire, though she rarely spoke to him. He’d seen such behavior before and knew what it meant. He would not be encouraging her interest, however sincere.
At thirty and one, he was at least a decade older and already married to his occupation. Certainly, she could find someone younger and more suitable, though convincing her to look elsewhere might hurt her feelings. She loved Croft deeply, which meant a great deal to Dane, but he didn’t see how a match between them could ever work. He acknowledged both ladies with a courteous nod before turning to his students and the task at hand.
Meanwhile, on Spiredale’s seashore
The commissioning of ships in the king’s navy was a rather new practice, started shortly before Augustus began his reign. On the beach stood a small platform, adorned with colorful banners, a crimson carpet, and a small podium. In the harbor, a magnificent new galley and three smaller cogs sat proudly at anchor.
Opposite the platform were the captains and crews, standing at attention on the warm sand. True to his word, King Augustus was in attendance, and all bowed their heads as a priest began the ceremony with a blessing on both sailor and vessel alike. After the prayers were finished, the assembly waited for the speeches to begin.
As the chief naval officer of Spiredale’s growing navy, Commander Barda made suitable remarks, thanking the shipbuilders and sailors for their service to the crown. Never fond of long public address, Barda quickly relinquished his place at the podium, bowing as the king stepped forward to speak.
“There are many nations along the shores of this great Sea, yet it is our navy they envy, and with good reason. These fine ships, and the others before them, remind us all of the blessings Spiredale enjoys, but it is thy toil and sacrifices which safeguard our shores and enable a thriving trade. Wherever the winds may take ye, ye serve a grateful nation and a proud king.”
With Barda by his side, Augustus descended the platform to speak with the newly-appointed captains and mingle with the crew. It was a long journey from Rose to the seashore, making opportunities like this rare, and he wanted to make the most of it. Likewise, most sailors never interacted personally with the king, and they were honored to meet the man to whom they swore allegiance.
Even more pleased were the shipbuilders, who were rewarded with a bit of gold for their excellent work and the attention of a very interested monarch. After plying them with questions, a small group was chosen to accompany the king on a tour of the new galley. Before they even left the beach, an alarm sounded and one of Barda’s men approached with an urgent message.
“Forgive the intrusion, Commander. A vessel has entered our waters flying a diplomatic flag.”
Barda considered this unusual and possibly dangerous. He needed more information.
“Which nation? What type of vessel?”
“It is a small ship built for speed. Their flag is unknown to us.”
Barda made a quick decision and turned to the king.
“Thee are exposed here, Thy Majesty, and it is my duty to keep thee safe. My men will accompany thee to the fort and will keep thee informed. Until we know more, thy presence will be kept secret.”
“Very well, Commander. I will await thy word.”
Augustus and his entourage were hurriedly ushered off the beach, and the platform removed. Barda then ordered an escort for the visiting vessel and the crews hastily boarded their new ships, leaving the shoreline deserted. It may turn out to be nothing at all, but the king’s presence meant Barda would take no chances. Hopefully, the newcomer was simply a visiting dignitary and they could all go about their business as usual.
Pinnacle, that same morning
By dawn, Dome was teeming with over a hundred determined dragons, teeth gnashing as they waited for the final signal to move out. Pinnacle’s carefully planned retaliation for Favian’s ambush would soon begin, though Zelara, Rueloo, and four others who were still healing would have to stay behind. With the advice of Prince Merek, the reconnaissance information supplied by Catrain and Moss, and a useful trick revealed by Rueloo, every precaution was taken to minimize the loss of life on both sides.
The ballista remained the primary human weapon most feared by the dragons. Pinnacle not only knew where they were stationed, but where they were being made. If successfully destroyed, the odds would be even and bring them one step closer to rescuing Croft. Though it would infuriate Favian and escalate their conflict, a response to the king’s aggression was overdue.
With a final admonition to be careful, Zelara’s battle cry pierced the peaceful morning calm. Armed with large boulders, nets of loose rock, and tree trunks, the dragons took to the air, settled into three formations, and headed towards Whitehaven. In the nearby coastal waters, a group of sea dragons made a very public show on the surface, clearly warning Favian’s navy to remain at anchor and out of the fray.
Even as the ships nervously watched scores of dragons pass overhead, trumpets up and down the coast sounded alarms. Unsure of Pinnacle’s intentions, soldiers near the shoreline remained at their posts until the first rocks rained from the sky. Terrified, they fled or risked being crushed to death. To keep them on the run, they were harried from above and behind by gouts of flame and ear-shattering calls. On the ground, small fires filled the air with smoke as the ballistas were crushed or burned to ash.
Further inland, the second group went after those who were building the king’s deadly tools of war. Ballistas and other large weapons were produced in two different yards, and the dragons knew precisely where they were. Making as much noise as possible on the first pass, they surprised the workers, causing them to scatter like frightened ants.
Coming back around, the dragons dropped heavy tree trunks in waves with enough momentum to flatten the forges and buildings in their path. Once it was safe to land, they burned everything in sight; consuming even the stacks of dry lumber. By the time they returned to the sky, only blackened soil and smoke remained.
The third group faced the most dangerous task – taking out ballistas surrounding the castle. Those in the open were crushed with stones, while the devices hidden in the woods were swept up in purposely started forest fires. Only a few weapons survived the purge, leaving Moss and Catrain to sabotage them individually. Favian’s men, taken completely by surprise, were unable to fire more than a few arrows and spears before fleeing their posts.
In a short time, Whitehaven found itself stripped of its primary defensive weapon, and the victorious dragons returned to Pinnacle without a single injury. If the king decided to attack again, he would find himself at a distinct disadvantage and more lives would be lost. Zelara, and all of Pinnacle, hoped Favian would give up this foolish war before it got completely out of hand.
Favian’s castle, late morning
One after another, the king’s ministers reported on the aftermath of Zelara’s multiple attacks. Weapons production completely destroyed. Two key craftsmen and a dozen soldiers dead. Great sections of forest and shoreline reduced to ash. The goldmine near Exeter once again under Pinnacle’s control.
Whitehaven’s monarch sprang from his chair, leaning over the polished table on white-knuckled fists.
“Damn her! Damn them all. Those hell-spawn dragons will regret the day they were hatched before I have finished with them!”
Favian’s minister of war attempted to reason with the king.
“The situation is dire, Thy Majesty. Our most effective weapon against the dragons has been destroyed and our ships are of no use while the sea serpents patrol the waters. The people are crying out for protection and we have none to give them. We are powerless to strike the enemy, leaving victory beyond our reach. Perhaps it is time to seek a… diplomatic solution.”
Favian’s eyes narrowed, but instead of lashing out he turned away from the expectant stares. Hands clasped behind his back, the king walked slowly around the table, face pinched in concentration. No one dared speak, having learned the hard way not to interrupt him while deep in thought. Faces flushed and sweaty, the assembled ministers waited for the king’s next pronouncement. At length, Favian returned to his chair; a crooked grin raising hackles all around the table.
“No doubt Zelara believes she has the upper hand and surrender is our only choice. Let them enjoy their victory even as we send diplomats to argue over terms of peace.”
Smiles broke out around the table and just as quickly vanished when Favian continued.
“Know this – neither I nor this great nation will become vassals to Pinnacle! Very soon, when my plans come to fruition, it is we who will have the upper hand and the islands will be cleansed of the filthy beasts once and for all.”
Favian remained quiet as the astonished ministers began arguing amongst themselves. The only person involved in his plan should have arrived in Spiredale by now. If they responded quickly, the conflict here would be over in a few short days and his ministers could stop wondering if he had lost his mind.
END of part one.