DRAGON RESCUE – The Captive Draman is the conclusion of a two-part story which began with Dragon Quest and is the final installment in my series of fantasy novelettes. This FREE serialized novella 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 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 2
Dramanshire, mid-afternoon, the same day
With the long day’s lesson completed, Dane and his men packed up the training equipment. The Draman and their dragons stood nearby, spending a few moments together before the children returned to the tower for chores and the evening meal. Since Dane needed to see Wheet, he planned to send his companions back to Orchid, intending to follow later. He was about to send for the horses when the tower door flew open with a loud crack.
Margery, tears streaming and hair askew, rushed towards him and latched onto his arm.
“Our poor Croft! There is a message from the king. Come quickly!”
Expecting the worst, Dane ordered his men to wait and asked Sabina to get Echo and the hatchlings ready for a flight. Margery refused to let him go as they hurried back to the tower. Inside, he found Hugh comforting a white-faced and weeping Juliana. Hugh’s troubled expression told him almost as much as the tiny scroll.
“Augustus, King of Spiredale, to the orphanage at Dramanshire and NestMaster Wheet: News of Croft. The presence of Wheet, Captain Dane, Echo, and Sabina are hereby requested immediately to confer. Most urgent.”
As a father, Dane’s heart filled with dread; yet he was also a soldier who had been summoned by the king. There would be time later for worry, and he began handing out orders.
“Margery, prepare food and water for travel. Hugh, gather the children for prayers and do thy best to comfort them. If the king sends us to Pinnacle, it may be some time before we return. We will send word when more is known.”
Dane returned to his men, explained the situation, and passed on orders for Lieutenant Umfrey to take command in his absence. Both Draman and dragon were told what little he knew and several pairs chose to accompany him, Echo, and Sabina to see the nestmaster. Margery reappeared with their provisions and swept Dane into a rib-cracking hug. She smelled of tears and baking bread, and Dane gave up his usual restraint, allowing her to sniffle on his shoulder for a moment. He finally released her and stepped back, but she wasn’t finished.
“I know not what ill has befallen our Croft, and I bless the king for sending thee. Bring them both and thyself home, Captain, and Godspeed!”
Caught up in her emotions, Dane boldly leaned down to kiss her chastely on the cheek with a whispered promise and request.
“Thee have my word, and I covet thy prayers.”
Flustered and red-faced, the poor girl rushed back into the tower. Dazed by the rather intimate encounter, he turned to find Sabina watching him with a knowing smile. Moments later they were airborne. It would take hours to collect Wheet, reach Rose, and discover what lay behind the king’s urgent message. Keeping his worst fears at bay would be difficult, but his heart told him one thing clearly; he would sacrifice anything to bring his son safely home.
Early evening, en route to Rose
After sending a message via carrier pigeon to Dramanshire, the king made several quick decisions before heading home from the seashore. First, he commandeered the Whitehaven vessel, ordering Barda’s men to treat them as guests until further notice. Second, Augustus explained to Whitehaven’s envoy, Lord Wallington, that he must confer with his ministers before responding to the message. The oblivious man claimed not to know the actual contents of the communique he bore, though Augustus found this difficult to believe. At the moment, only Commander Barda knew what the foreign missive contained, and he was sworn to secrecy.
Favian’s response to the diplomatic note he sent via Croft and Rueloo was… unimaginable for a simple expression of condolence and an offer of friendship. To have dispatched a ship all the way to Spiredale was extremely unusual, to say nothing of an envoy on a secret mission for his sovereign! None of it made sense until Augustus read the message, and he cursed his own foolishness for putting Croft in harm’s way.
This entire affair would have to be handled delicately if he wanted to avoid war, but there were other considerations. Croft was in danger, Rueloo’s condition unknown, and his relationship with the dragons in jeopardy. Amid a roiling stomach and too much time to think, Augustus suffered an internal battle of the mind and heart. Could he save his friend and protect the kingdom at the same time? Somehow he must – yet the solution, for now, eluded him.
Rose, after dark
From Wheet’s back, Dane spotted a large circle of torches on the palace lawn, guiding them to their usual landing place. The dragons and Draman enjoyed traveling at night; he found it eerie and uncomfortable. More important, he was glad to have finally arrived, eager to learn exactly why they were summoned. He and Wheet, along with Echo, Sabina and the four dragonlets landed within the large circle, while the reinforcements settled in around the small lake nearby. Dane and Sabina dismounted as the king and several torchbearers approached. The king wasted no time on formalities.
“I am pleased ye came so quickly. We will meet with my counselors to discuss what has transpired, but I want ye to know first. Croft has been captured and is being held prisoner at Whitehaven.”
Dane flinched, Sabina gasped, and both dragons growled ominously at the news. Augustus then directed his remarks at Wheet, translated by Sabina.
“I take full responsibility for this tragedy. My diplomatic note must have brought Croft to Favian’s attention.”
Smoke billowed from Wheet’s nostrils; claws kneading the soft ground.
“You are not to blame, for it was I who sent them. What of Rueloo?”
“We do not know. The envoy knows nothing of Croft’s capture, or even the contents of Favian’s note! He is, in fact, little more than a messenger. I do not expect to glean further information from him.”
“What is to be done?”
“I will not leave Croft in enemy hands. I asked ye here to help us make plans, and we will speak more after thee and thy friends have eaten. Meet us at the new dragon stables.”
Dane and Sabina followed the king into the palace to eat and freshen up while Wheet, Echo, and the dragonlets flew off to the lake, joining the others for their meal. It all made for a somber mood, but it relieved Augustus to know Wheet’s anger was not, as he feared, directed at him.
The enormous new stone and timber structure was built on the pattern of a horse stable. Large doors on either end of the building kept out winds, rain and snow, while the interior held individual stalls for the privacy and comfort of each bonded pair. Several oversized fireplaces would help keep the interior warm during the cold winter months. The building was not currently in use, since Draman were not scheduled to begin their palace training until the spring. Each of the six dragons rested comfortably in a stall, their long necks enabling them to see and hear what took place in the central stone-paved corridor.
Augustus and his advisers were seated around a long table, strewn with maps and surrounded by torchbearers. Other than Augustus, only the minister of war knew what Favian’s message said. The king himself stood to read it.
“To Augustus, King of Spiredale, from His Royal Majesty, Favian of Whitehaven.
I have been informed of thy riches in gold and the dragons which protect thee. The nearby nation of Pinnacle has become a thorn in my side and must be removed. I call upon thee to send thy dragons to my aid in destroying this troublesome nest.
“I have in my possession the child known as Croft. If thee wish to see him released unharmed, neither delay nor refuse to come to my aid. If necessary, the child will be executed as a spy and we will then take by force what thee refuse to give freely.
Thee will send a response within five days by the hand of Lord Wallington aboard the Falcon.”
The reaction, as he knew it would, filled the large building with growls and shouts of incredulity. The boldness and audacity of this man went beyond the bounds of decency and reason! What he demanded was simply not possible, yet they must respond quickly or Croft would die. The king waited patiently to address them while they worked through their initial anger.
Dane, almost out of his mind with worry, needed to DO SOMETHING and do it now. Augustus caught his eye, and with a reassuring nod, let him know he was thinking the same thing. The king rapped one knuckle on the tabletop, bringing the confused babel to a halt. With Sabina’s help, he turned to address the agitated dragons.
“NestMaster Wheet, how does the nest respond to Favian’s message?”
Wisps of dark smoke escaped his open mouth, even as his wings trembled.
“We are at peace with the nest of Pinnacle, and will not help Favian destroy them. He must know we would defend Spiredale if his people attacked us here. If he was not holding one of our own, we would not involve ourselves. Croft must be rescued. If he harms the child or Rueloo – he will die.”
The humans gave hearty approval to Wheet’s words, yet Augustus noticed Dane had stopped his nervous fidgeting, apparently deep in thought and unaware of his surroundings. He wondered what the man could be thinking and stilled the room once again with an upraised hand to address him.
“Of all the souls assembled here, thee have the greatest claim on Croft. Do thee have an idea, Captain?”
Startled out of his thoughts, Dane looked up to find everyone waiting for him to speak.
“I would leave this very moment to rescue my son, but we must work together. If Favian truly believed he could conquer Spiredale, he would not be holding Croft. He needs the dragons to fight each other because he cannot. Did ye notice he mentioned “thorn” in his message? Perhaps he believes our dragons are nothing more than a winged army, to be sent wherever we wish. Since they fought Thorn for us, why not for him? Favian clearly does not understand our connection with the dragons or how they think.”
Dane’s ideas met with hearty agreement, though he was not finished. With a nod, Augustus gave the shrewd soldier permission to continue.
“What if… what if we appear to do what Favian demands? Send the ship back to Whitehaven with a message saying we and the dragons will arrive within the five days, but will not attack unless we have assurances of Croft’s safety. When we reach Pinnacle, we can secretly confer with them and find out what is truly happening. They may already have plans to rescue Croft or at least be able to help us.”
Dane’s idea closely matched the king’s earlier discussion with the minister of war, and Augustus smiled broadly. Enthusiastic discussion broke out among the assembly, and while dragons were unskilled at subterfuge, they believed the idea had merit. With a basic plan in place, the group worked well into the night discussing details until everyone was satisfied – well, almost everyone.
It seemed both Wheet and Augustus, feeling responsible for Croft’s predicament, intended to lead the expedition themselves, and the others simply wouldn’t have it. With a stubborn unanimity, the nestmaster and the king were convinced they could not be risked. Besides, if something went wrong and Whitehaven attacked, their leadership would be sorely needed here at home. Neither was happy about the compromise, but they understood the reasons and, grudgingly, agreed with them.
The Whitehaven ship would be sent off first thing in the morning with a carefully crafted message. Lord Wallington would have no reason to suspect any type of deception from Spiredale, and his report to Favian would give the foreign king a useful overconfidence. Once the ship left port, the contingent of human, dragon, and Draman would head directly for Pinnacle using a different route.
Except for Wheet, the others were all part of the rescue effort and bedded down for the night to get some much-needed sleep. Though the nestmaster did not normally travel alone, someone was needed to take word back to Dramanshire. Being awakened so early would not be appreciated, but supplies must be gathered and the Draman ready to leave at first light. Once they learned of their mission, no one would even think of complaining.
Following yesterday’s overwhelming victory, the last thing Pinnacle expected was an offer of truce from Whitehaven. Favian’s unctuous ambassador waited on the terrace as Zelara and Mirabelle met with their advisers. On the surface, Favian’s desire to make peace seemed reasonable. After all, Pinnacle clearly held the advantage and Whitehaven risked losing much more if things continued to escalate. So, while they welcomed the overture, something about it felt distinctly wrong.
Without making a final decision, Zelara dismissed the advisers and sent Mirabelle to fetch Merek. His response to the peaceful overture surprised neither of them.
“My brother is both clever and ruthless – do not trust him. His goal is to destroy thee, not make peace. I suspect he is stalling for time before making his next move.”
Mirabelle spoke first.
“What iss it thee expect him to do?”
Merek’s expression soured.
“I was uncertain until last night when Quinn passed on information from one of my palace spies. The very night they took Croft, Favian summoned a special envoy and sent him off in his fastest ship on a secret mission – headed south.”
Neither Mirabelle nor Zelara seemed to grasp his meaning.
“Consider this – at present, Favian cannot defeat thee alone and went to great lengths to capture Croft. Why? The child is not important to him, only the kingdom from which he came. Spiredale has two things Favian desperately wants; gold and… dragons.”
Zelara gnashed her teeth and growled as she began to understand her enemy’s twisted thinking. Using Croft as a pawn of war was abhorrent. Pitting one nest of dragons against another spoke of madness.
“This cannot be! How could Favian compel Spiredale to join him against us?”
Mirabelle translated, battling both fear and indignation.
“There are many ways. The most obvious is to threaten Croft’s life or perhaps military action. If my suspicions are correct, we have only a few days to prepare before they arrive. We know very little about Spiredale, but there is someone on Pinnacle who may be able to answer our questions.”
Rueloo grunted with pain as the healers manipulated the joints of her wing. Leaving it extended for days on end without use left her stiff and aching, and she longed to touch the sky once again. Though the wing continued to mend, and the healers believed she would fully recover in time, she was still grounded and limited in her movements. When they finished the exercises, a soothing balm mixed with gold dust was applied to ease the pain. She settled down to rest, allowing her injured wing to soak up the warm sunshine as she daydreamed of Croft and her precious hatchlings.
Zelara’s scent reached Rueloo long before she arrived at the temporary shelter. She, too, remained unable to fly until her belly healed and the scales re-grew. While Mirabelle could now walk without too much difficulty, she chose to ride; proudly seated on Zelara’s back. As they always did, the pair spoke to the healers first about Rueloo’s condition, pleased with her progress. Mirabelle spoke with her mind, intent to keep the conversation private.
“One of our advisers has suggested Croft is being held to ensure Spiredale’s cooperation.”
Puzzled, Rueloo lifted her head.
“I do not understand. What could Favian want from Spiredale?”
“It is believed he wants thy nest to attack us. Is this possible?”
Black smoke billowed from Rueloo’s flared nostrils.
“NO! We are at peace with Pinnacle. Neither Wheet nor Augustus would ever agree to such a thing!”
“And if he threatened Croft’s life? We believe thy people are on their way, and we do not know what to expect.”
Rueloo’s deep growl vibrated the ground and she turned her attention to Zelara.
“If our people are coming to Pinnacle, it will be to rescue Croft, and they cannot do so without consulting you. I tell you, sister, if Favian has threatened to harm my beloved, it will be his final mistake.”
Zelara had every reason to believe Rueloo’s words, and they ignited a spark of hope.
“Then you expect them to enlist our help rather than attack?”
“Yes. Even if they have plans of their own, you have nothing to fear. Alert your scouts to keep a careful watch.”
Zelara’s worry disappeared like a wisp of smoke in the wind.
“I will, sister. Their help may be the key to our success. Together, we must find a way to turn Favian’s plans on his own head and remove Croft from the castle unharmed. And, if we are fortunate, the people of Whitehaven will soon have an important choice to make.”
Rueloo did not know what Zelara referred to, but it warmed her heart knowing her people were on their way. Her only wish, aside from being reunited with Croft, was the death of Whitehaven’s king.
To keep Croft from being harmed, Favian must believe his plans were bearing fruit. Though it galled Zelara to deal with Whitehaven’s oily ambassador, she made a show of cooperating with the peace negotiations, buying time for the delegation from Spiredale to arrive. Meanwhile, she encouraged Prince Merek and the queen mother to begin plotting his ascension to the throne. It would be a delicate process; fraught with danger and depending on the goodwill and assistance of others.
Spiredale’s involvement remained unknown. How many were coming? What was their purpose? Would they cooperate with Pinnacle? Instead of uniting Whitehaven’s people under Merek’s leadership, a single misstep could cause unwanted bloodshed and needless division. Revealing the Prince’s existence and intentions too soon created a situation which might actually backfire; resulting in sympathy for Favian. In the end, Merek would have to risk everything to take his place on the throne. Only time would tell the best way to proceed, and it was running out.
Day three, aboard the Falcon
Roused from a fitful sleep by the first mate, Lord Wallington left his narrow bunk to appear on deck. The sun, a thin sliver on the horizon, revealed the familiar and welcome shores of Whitehaven. With thanks to God for a fast voyage, Wallington heaved a sigh of relief at the sight of home. Following a brief consultation with the captain, he scurried below to gather his things and conclude this curious assignment.
He waited patiently as the vessel returned to port, docked, and then received permission to depart. Wallington’s sea legs forced him to step carefully; no doubt a source of amusement to the watching sailors. He paid them no heed, and with the sealed message from Spiredale tucked safely in his dress tunic, hired a carriage to take him to the castle. Whatever this business between Favian and Augustus meant, he was eager to give his report and hoped never to be sent anywhere by ship again.
After careful questioning, Favian dismissed Lord Wallington with a flick of his wrist and retired to his private chambers to read the missive from Spiredale. Hands shaking, he broke the heavy wax seal and unrolled the scroll.
“To Favian, King of Whitehaven, from His Royal Majesty, Augustus of Spiredale.
Thy message has been received and understood. A large contingent of dragons and their riders should appear within two days of the arrival of thy envoy. They bring with them as much gold as could be carried. Once Croft is released to us, Captain Dane will commence with the battle. Victory shall be ours!”
Favian’s lip briefly curled upwards as he read the message over twice more. Short and somewhat ambiguous, it promised the very assistance he’d demanded. The child must indeed be as valuable to Augustus as Favian assumed. He, of course, would not release the boy until every Pinnacle dragon was dead. If they refused to cooperate he could always execute the filthy little scalie and use his fleet of ships to take what he wanted from Spiredale. With enough gold he could afford the troops and weapons needed to smash Pinnacle into the dust.
It was time to reveal his plans to the war minister and begin planning the attack. First, however, there was someone he wished to see.
Quinn unwrapped Croft’s arm, setting aside the wooden planks, gold bars and bandages so he could examine the limb closely. Probing gently, he noticed no bruising, swelling, or complaints of pain. In his experience, this type of complete healing in such a short time was akin to a miracle. Obviously, those bonded to a dragon enjoyed some distinct advantages. When Croft demonstrated normal use of the hand and arm without discomfort, Quinn slipped the gold bars into his satchel and set about re-wrapping the splint.
“I know this bothers thee, child, but if thee were completely human the splint would remain for many more days. It is best to hide thy abilities, especially around the soldiers or the king.”
Croft nodded and smiled at the kind man.
“I thank thee, Quinn. How iss Rueloo?”
The healer winked at Croft and finished tying off the bandages.
“Rueloo’s wing is almost completely healed, but she cannot yet fly. She misses thee terribly and sends her love.”
“Oh! Tell her to be careful and that I dream of her at night. When can sshe come for me?”
Quinn glanced nervously at the closed cell door and lowered his voice.
“Listen carefully, child. Rueloo cannot come, but thy friends from Spiredale will be here soon. Their true mission is to rescue thee, though Favian thinks they are coming to help him fight Pinnacle. There may be a battle, even if a way is found to get thee out safely.”
Croft was taken aback. Tears welled up as he realized his people were coming for him!
“When? Will it be today?”
Quinn hated to disappoint the boy, and lay an open hand on his mop of dark curls.
“No, not today, but very soon. There now, child, do not cry. Perhaps Moss and Catrain will be able to tell thee more tonight.”
The conversation ended abruptly with the arrival of someone outside the cell. When the guard was heard to say, “Thy Majesty”, Croft’s heart began to pound. Quinn whispered a final admonition.
“Remember – thee know nothing except what has happened in this cell. Take care with what thee say and do not provoke him!”
As the door opened, Quinn placed his ear against Croft’s chest, pretending to listen to his heart. The guard’s words brought both of them to their feet.
“Rise for His Royal Majesty!”
Favian swept into the small room, glanced about quickly, and settled on the pair before him. Quinn gave a half-bow, encouraging Croft to do the same. He felt no allegiance to this man, only hatred and anger at what he’d done. With some difficulty, Croft kept his thoughts to himself and stared at the floor. Finally, the king spoke.
“Why did thee come to Pinnacle?”
Dragging eyes upward, Croft looked at his enemy for the first time. Though nothing at all like Augustus, he certainly looked like a king. Favian was well-muscled and tall, with dark features and a stern, bearded face. Croft swallowed.
“We came to vissit the dragonss.”
Favian considered the simple answer briefly before replying.
“Did ye? And why would thy king send a message to us by the hand of a mere child?”
“I do not know. Do thee wissh to ssend me home with a ressponsse?”
Favian grunted in amusement.
“No. Thee will remain here as long as I find thee useful.”
Favian then turned to Quinn.
“Thee have cared well for the scalie. Is the arm healing?”
“Yes, Thy Majesty. If I may be so bold, it would do the child much good to walk about the palace grounds. Fresh air and sunshine may also help to lift his spirits.”
Favian’s eyes narrowed as he considered the request.
“Very well. Thee are responsible for him, healer. Should anything unfortunate happen, it will be thy head. The guards will accompany thee.”
With a swish of purple robes, Favian turned to exit the cell, giving the guards new instructions before making his way down the long winding staircase. He believed the scalie knew more than he was willing to reveal, yet it made no difference. The dragons of Spiredale were on their way, bringing victory over his enemies at last. Once the child served his purpose, nothing else mattered.
Near Pinnacle, after moonrise that same day
Dane leaned forward to stroke Cymbal’s neck as they neared the island chain, prompting a friendly growl in response. He’d come to know the great green-scaled beast very well on the exhausting journey here and wished he could speak mind-to-mind with him as the Draman did. During their frequent stops for food, water, and rest, Dane relied on Sabina to translate for them. His curiosity about the dragon was exceeded only by his concern for Croft, and they forged a unique bond of sorts.
Dane did not consider himself to be the best leader of the mission, believing one of the seasoned generals a more suitable choice. Once he heard Croft was being held captive, he intended to go to Pinnacle, with or without the king’s blessing. Augustus had other ideas. When he’d voiced his doubts, the king assured him of his unique qualifications.
“Captain, there is no other I would trust in this matter. Thee are a brave and accomplished soldier, are already familiar with the dragons, have a firm grasp of what must be done, and will put Crofts’ safety above all else. Tell me, on whose shoulders should this task rest, if not thine?”
Put in those terms, and in front of the kingdom’s trusted advisers, Dane acquiesced. The other chief concern was the youth and inexperience of his team. At first, he expected to take other battle-tested soldiers with him, not the Draman. Again, the king convinced him they were the best choice available.
“I understand thy concern, Captain, both as thy King and as a father. I do not send my precious Draman without misgivings, yet they are the only ones who can communicate with their dragons, have experience flying, and know how to defend themselves. Thee have trained them well and know what they can do. Thee will find no one more motivated than they to bring Croft and Rueloo home safely, and there is no combatant more fierce than one who has been wronged. I almost pity the ones who will face them when the time comes.”
Since landing earlier in the day, all nine pairs enjoyed the hospitality of a friendly nest of forest dragons. Early on, they were told of Croft and Rueloo’s visit on their way to Pinnacle, and that Moss and Catrain were even now deep inside enemy territory. Dane and the others were relieved to discover Rueloo was recovering from her injuries on the island of Dome, and not dead as feared. They were shocked by Whitehaven’s ambush, and saddened by the deaths and injuries among their Pinnacle comrades. If nothing else, it made them more determined to rescue Croft and put a stop to Whitehaven’s aggression.
The forest dragons knew nothing of more recent events, and they urged Dane to be cautious. Only two dragons would be going in tonight so as not to raise alarms, and they would determine when to signal for the others to join them. Several scouts from the nest were selected to wait on the southwestern shore of the sea; close enough to relay messages from the advance team headed for the islands. Once the moon lit up the night sky, Dane, Cymbal, Sabina and Echo started on their brief journey.
Detouring to the west took longer than a direct flight, but it would prevent them from being spotted. Now, the moon glistened across the still water, revealing the mostly dark islands ahead. Dome, as the largest, was easily recognized and, for some reason, partially lit. Though very unlikely, it was almost as though they were expecting visitors at this time of night.
At his signal, Cymbal announced their arrival with his distinct call and they slowed their approach. Moments later, four dragons and their riders rose from Dome’s surface, heading in their direction with a friendly call of welcome. When they were close enough, Cymbal told them who they were and what they wanted. The response was immediate.
“You are expected. Our NestMistress and her scale-sister are waiting to welcome you.”
Echo changed position so Sabina could get close enough to shout an explanation to Dane. Arriving over the island, they were guided towards a broad, torch-lit terrace. Before they could land a familiar call burst happily through the cool, dark air and Dane’s heart leapt with joy at the sound.
Both Echo and Cymbal answered her, and a glance at Sabina revealed a wide smile. When they landed, the four of them surrounded her with laughter and hugs. She responded with wet licks, growls of joy and a swaying tail. Dane, foregoing all decorum, threw his arms around the beautiful blue beast while Sabina translated for him.
“Rueloo! I have missed thee so! We have come to rescue Croft and return ye safely to Dramanshire. What can thee tell me of my son?”
“He was injured in the attack and taken prisoner. I am told his arm is fully healed now and he yearns for home. Catrain and Moss have been speaking with him in secret each night. He will be very happy to see you.”
Before he could respond, she asked Echo how her hatchlings fared.
“They are well and strong, but miss thee and Croft. The nestmaster is caring for them until thee return.”
Rueloo was surprised Wheet would take on four energetic little ones and wondered what kind of things they were learning from him in her absence. While it was a highly unusual task for a NestMaster, she trusted him to keep them safe.
Dane reached up to stroke her neck, happy to see her again and hoping to reunite her with his son very soon. Abruptly, he realized two strangers were waiting to speak with him. He bowed to the orange-scaled dragon and rider and introduced himself.
“Captain Dane, of His Royal Majesty’s forces at Spiredale. We have come to rescue Croft and assist ye in defeating Whitehaven.”
Zelara lowered her head to scent him and the others, growling in satisfaction. Sabina continued to translate.
“Welcome to Pinnacle, my friends. I am Zelara and this is my scale-sister, Mirabelle. Much has happened here and time is short. Have you brought others with you?”
“Yes, there are seven more waiting with the forest dragons for our signal.”
“Call them. Once everyone is settled we have many things to discuss.”
The next morning
The large central cavern was crowded. At a large table sat Zelara’s advisers, while the dragons and Draman formed a tight circle around it. At Dane’s insistence, all of his people were included in the meetings and Zelara welcomed them.
First, the situation between Pinnacle and Whitehaven was explained – including the attack involving Croft and the subsequent destruction of Whitehaven’s weapons. Dane then read the message from Favian and Spiredale’s response, confirming what Zelara already suspected. Lastly, Dane and the others were introduced to Prince Merek and his plans to take Favian’s throne. The surprising revelation required him to hastily re-think his orders.
Dane glanced up at Zelara, nodded respectfully, and then addressed his concerns to Mirabelle.
“Do ye trust this man to replace thine enemy?”
“We do. Our nationss enjoyed peace and prossperity under his father’s rule, and will once again when Merek becomess King. It iss not an eassy thing to ally thysself with sstrangers, yet we assk thee to trusst uss.”
Glancing at Merek, Dane continued.
“My instructions from the king were to rescue Croft and assist Pinnacle in defeating the enemy. If possible, we are to destroy Whitehaven’s fleet of ships and cripple their forces. I presume Prince Merek would prefer a more… reasoned approach?”
When the laughter subsided, Merek stood to speak.
“Indeed, Captain Dane! As Augustus knew nothing of my plans, his orders were quite reasonable. We are all agreed Favian must be stopped, but there is a way to accomplish our goals without further bloodshed and destruction. By sundown tomorrow, and with heaven’s blessing, Croft shall be free and Whitehaven will have a new king!”
The trumpeter’s alarm startled Lord Montague and he rushed from the command tent to find out what was going on. His third-regiment soldiers were pointing at the sky amid fearful shouts. Dragons! With Pinnacle’s latest attack fresh in their minds, and no ballistas for defense, they were an easy target. Curiously, the dragons did not seem intent on attacking, even as they surrounded he and his men from above.
One of the great beasts, carrying a long white banner of truce in its jaws, came in for a landing on the nearby clearing. Two robed and hooded figures dismounted and approached. With one dragon on the ground and a dozen more in the air above, it was obvious who held the upper hand. With a brief gesture, Montague ordered the men to lower their weapons and stepped forward, curious who Zelara might have sent to see him – and why.
Without a word, the taller figure pointed at Montague and his second in command before gesturing to the tent behind them. Apparently, whatever they had come to say required privacy, and he was in no position to refuse them. As they turned to go, the dragon followed – effectively blocking the entrance as it guarded the mysterious visitors. Inside the tent, Montague and his officer faced the strangers, waiting for an explanation.
Once again the taller figure moved first, reaching up to draw back the hood and expose his face. Shock and confusion wrenched disbelieving gasps from both soldiers, and the robed man put a finger to his lips to quiet them. It couldn’t be! Where has he been? What was happening here? The figure simply smiled as both men dropped to one knee, heads bowed. Montague’s whisper was thick with emotion.
“Prince Merek! We feared thee dead or missing, Thy Highness.”
“As thee were meant to, my friend. The time has come to take my place on Whitehaven’s throne. Will thee stand with me?”
Both men smiled, relief warring with surprise. Montague replied.
“I will, indeed, my Prince. How may I serve?”
Unprepared for another shock, the second figure slipped free of the hood and the men gaped at the apparition before them. Everyone knew the queen mother was long dead; yet here she stood beside her son, a lively twinkle in her eyes.
“Lord Montague. It pleases me to see thee once again. What we ask of thee is not without risk to thyself, but before we proceed I would have a pledge of loyalty to my son.”
Both men willingly repeated the ancient words, swearing allegiance to Merek alone as their sovereign. Merek then bid them rise and quickly got down to business.
“Bring me the most trustworthy of thy men. Once they have pledged their loyalty, thee must quietly detain any of thy number who support Favian. I cannot allow my brother to get wind of this or there will be bloodshed. Consult with thy spies and pull in the scouts and watchmen. Every man must be accounted for. When all is in order, we will do the same for the second regiment in the north.”
Montague looked uneasy.
“What of the first regiment at the castle? Is it thy plan to attack?”
Merek glanced at his mother, an impish grin on his face.
“Not exactly, Lord Montague. We have allies who are planning something of a surprise for the king. We will discuss it later. For now, we must move quickly.”
By nightfall, two thirds of Whitehaven’s forces pledged themselves to Merek. Favian’s spies and loyalists were rooted out, resulting in the quiet detention of a few dozen men, now closely guarded at a remote outpost. At the same time, the prince sent word to his own network of spies to round up Favian’s eyes and ears at large, lest word get back to the king before Merek could spring the trap. Well into the night, he and the queen mother met with Lord Montague and others, explaining their carefully crafted plan to remove Favian from the throne with as little bloodshed and disturbance as possible. If all went well, this dark chapter of Whitehaven’s history would be soon be forgotten.
Croft’s cell, later that night
Something was happening near the castle and Croft lay quietly in the darkness listening to the muted shouts of soldiers even as the acrid smell of smoke wafted in from outside. Since Moss and Catrain were late arriving for their nightly visit, Croft wondered if they were responsible for the disturbance. After some time, he heard only the soft chorus of insects and had almost fallen asleep when Catrain called to him.
“Croft! Are thee awake? We have exciting news!”
“I am here! I heard shouting and smelled smoke. What has happened?”
“Fear not! We found more ballistas and destroyed them. We do not want any of your friends from Spiredale to get hurt tomorrow.”
“What? Has someone come?”
“Yes! Nine of your Draman and their dragons arrived to help us. Dane is among them!”
Croft’s jaw dropped in delighted surprise.
“Father is here? Will they take me from this place? When can I see Rueloo?”
Moss chose to answer his questions.
“You will be rescued tomorrow, little Draman. Rueloo cannot be here, but you will be taken to her once it is safe. Favian believes Dane and the others have come to help him defeat Pinnacle, though your father will demand to see you first. We have spoken to Quinn and he is willing to help us. The plan is dangerous, Croft, and much could go wrong. Listen carefully, and I will explain what you must do.”
As Croft listened, his heart soared with hope, even as he worried about the dangerous task of setting him free. Long after Catrain and Moss left him, he lay awake rehearsing the plan in his mind, impatient for the sun to rise and get the day started. Oh, to see his father’s face and be reunited with Rueloo! Jittery with excitement, Croft fell into a fitful sleep whispering her name.
Rueloo awoke with the sudden flare of Croft’s presence in her mind. Having heard Moss and Catrain’s encouraging message, her beloved was now a powerful flame; strong and bright. Very soon, she would be reunited with her blood-bonded, and the wrenching separation brought to a merciful end.
Whitehaven’s castle, the next morning
Warning trumpets blared as the king’s men scurried into a defensive position in the courtyard. A messenger was dispatched, despite a standing order not to disturb the king’s council chamber. This situation demanded an immediate response and the frightened guard knocked once before entering. Favian looked up at the hapless man with an angry snarl.
“What is it, fool? Can thee not follow simple orders?”
The messenger hastily bent a knee and looked down at the floor.
“Forgive me, Thy Majesty. A large group of dragons have landed in the inner bailey. Their leader claims they are here at thy behest, from… Spiredale.”
The excited chatter ceased as Favian rose from his comfortable chair to lean over the table.
“Could they be from Pinnacle? What do the dragons look like? Quickly, man!”
Confused by the question, the guard swallowed hard before replying.
“They… they do not have the same colors as the Pinnacle dragons, and all have armed riders. Does thy majesty wish us to…remove them?”
Favian’s rusty chuckle, born of satisfaction rather than amusement, gave rise to a calculated smile. His skeptical advisers would now have little reason to doubt his sanity in the future.
“We will meet with them – now. Form a heavily armed escort and tell thy men to remain alert to my orders.”
As the harried guard left to do his bidding, Favian called for his battle armor, sword, and shield. He wasn’t about to provoke an incident, but the presence of so many dragons on his doorstep made him nervous. Though well aware of the stakes, he controlled this situation, and it would not do well for the king to hesitate.
The unwieldy entourage briskly made its way through the castle corridors to the main entrance and stepped out into warm sunshine. Waiting in the courtyard was a rather small number of dragons in an array of colors – not the orange and crimson of the Pinnacle beasts. On each of them hung a saddle of sorts, along with leather bags for weapons. The riders, save one, were all half-dragon children! What kind of fool was Augustus not to send properly trained warriors?
Favian shuddered as the loathsome scalies fixed their altered eyes upon him. He hated dragons for their power and influence, but scalies were hellish traitors to humanity and his skin crawled in the presence of so many of them. Thankfully, at the front of the group waited a grown human man in a soldier’s uniform atop a grass-green dragon. As Favian’s retinue drew closer, the foreign soldier dismounted and approached with a small bow. Favian looked him over, unimpressed with his bearing or lack of proper obeisance. The tension abated somewhat when the man spoke.
“I am Captain Dane, commanding the forces of Spiredale.”
Favian glared from a distance, surrounded by guards.
“Make no mistake, Captain; I am in command here. What is the meaning of bringing nothing but a few children?”
The agitated dragons shifted in place, watching the bellicose monarch intently with huge green and yellow eyes. Irritation flickered across Dane’s face before he replied.
“What thee see is only a small portion of our forces. I did not wish to reveal our true numbers to thine enemy. The others will remain hidden until the signal is given.”
Surprised, Favian cocked an eyebrow.
“A wise strategy, Captain, despite what I see before me. My counselors stand ready to explain the battle plans, if thee will follow.”
Dane stood his ground, shaking his head slightly.
“There is one thing I must first ask of thee. King Augustus requires I see and speak with the young boy, Croft, before we place our forces under thy command.”
Favian bristled. The request was not entirely unexpected, and his estimation of both Augustus and Captain Dane altered slightly. Still, it rankled him to endure another delay.
“Very well, Captain. I shall send for the child while thee wait here. If thee wish him to remain in good health, it will require both obedience and action on thy part.”
A disquieting rustle of movement and angry glares made it plain both dragon and scalie heard the implied threat, even as their leader nodded in agreement.
“I understand, Thy Majesty. Once I am assured of Croft’s well-being, we are prepared to engage with the enemy.”
There was something off about the man’s odd choice of words, but Favian had more important things on his mind. A pair of guards were sent to bring Croft down immediately and the two groups settled in to wait. Favian’s gamble paid off handsomely, and very soon, his vexsome neighbor would cease to be a problem – freeing him to meet his true destiny.
Meanwhile, outside the castle walls
Guarding the refuse gate was not considered a choice assignment. Only two soldiers were normally stationed there, and the pair on duty today were still fighting off the effects of too much ale the previous night. Due to a regular flow of carts laden with human waste or garbage, the gate remained open during the day, providing a perfect entry point for Lord Montague’s advance team.
A ragtag group of about thirty soldiers approached the gate amid painful moans and bandaged bodies. Startled, the guards readily believed their story of being attacked by dragons while patrolling the western boundary. Once through the gate, they hobbled off towards the barracks in search of healers, leaving the guards to their odiferous assignment.
Once they were out of sight, they cast off their phony bandages. The group split in two and made for the main gates on the east and north walls. Caught unawares, the palace soldiers were quietly removed, leaving Merek’s loyalists in their place. With friendly forces on the inside, there would be nothing to impede Lord Montague’s men from gaining entrance when the signal was given.
END of Part 2