© Lexi Revellian
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This is a sequel to ‘Rising Fire’, but I don’t think it matters too much if you haven’t read that.
Trav Zander makes his first appearance here.
In ‘Rising Fire’ Corfe, King Skardroft's cold-blooded agent, tortured thirteen-year-old Pom to find out the whereabouts of the Hundred Knights. Gwenderith, daughter of the true king, Urquin, rescued Pom by smashing a chair over Corfe’s head.
Skardroft is now dead. Tor is Skardroft’s granddaughter, the only female Knight, and married to Barlanik.
(And be reassured - the two strands of the story merge, in what I hope is a satisfying way, just after this extract finishes).
‘I wish to acquire a dragon.’
‘Did you have a particular dragon in mind,’ said Trav, ‘or will any old dragon do?’
‘Why?’ Carl of Thrales sounded suspicious. ‘Do you know of any dragons?’
Carl's eyes raked him up and down as though he was having second thoughts, while Trav stood looking back at him. Carl was in his mid-twenties, and had inherited the kingdom of Ser six months ago on the death of his father; he had an air of sleek confidence, lolling as he was on his ornate gilded throne. A smooth face, a slight curve of the mouth and arched eyebrows gave him a calm superior air. Mouth and eyes, looked at separately, seemed to be smiling; taken together they were not.
Apparently shelving doubts raised by the unkempt appearance of the man in front of him, he said, ‘Zander, you come highly recommended. I’ve been assured you are discreet, or I wouldn’t have sent for you.’
‘Silent as the grave, drunk or sober is my motto.’
Carl gave him another dubious look.
‘You can rely on my discretion,’ Trav added. Katrin used to complain he never knew when to be serious. If he didn’t shut up he’d talk himself out of this job. She would have told him to wear something smarter, too. She’d probably have been right. Still, the guy wasn’t hiring him for his dress sense.
‘You work alone?’
‘Yes.’ Trav had tried employing people, and concluded it was not worth the hassle. He knew he could rely on himself.
‘Do you have any experience of dragons?’
‘Does anyone? There haven’t been dragons round here since my grandfather’s day. Like everyone else, I heard they were used in the battle for Tarragon.’
Carl eyed him doubtfully again, considering, then seemed to make up his mind. He leaned forward. ‘There’s a dragon at present living in a cave in the mountains on the border. I want it. I want you to find it, and bring it here.’
‘Supposing it doesn’t want to come?’
‘I have heard it said that dragons are rational animals, and in that case I give you full authority to offer it anything it asks for.’
‘Anything at all?’
Carl smiled. ‘Anything at all. But I leave the details to you. I just want you to get it, whatever that takes. I don’t care how you do it.’
‘Tricky job. Those caves are pretty inaccessible, and there’s a hell of a lot of them. And the one thing everyone knows about dragons is they’re big and breathe fire. How much are you paying?’
‘What are you asking?’
Trav did a fast calculation. Super-rich ruler of Ser, a prosperous little country; dangerous and unprecedented assignment; his own record of under-charging. Go for it. He said as casually as possible,
‘Forty thousand ducats.’
‘Very well,’ Carl of Thrales agreed, without turning a hair.
Damn, thought Trav, should have asked for double. He added, ‘Half in advance.’
Carl smiled again, but not a friendly smile. ‘Now you ask too much. Do you think I am not to be trusted?’
‘I don’t think anything. I don’t know you.’
‘You’ll get your money on delivery of the dragon. Take it or leave it.’
‘Without an advance it’s fifty thousand.’
Carl’s eyes narrowed for a moment, then his features resumed their former serene expression.
‘It’s a deal, Zander.’
Trav walked out of the palace trying to limit the smile that wanted to spread itself all over his face. He would have punched the air and whooped, but for the numerous Palace Guards he was passing. Yes, he’d done it…for the first time he was positive he was charging enough. And Carl of Thrales could certainly afford it. Trav had never been anywhere so elaborately and richly decorated as the room he’d just left. It was all new, too, must have been done after Carl’s father died. Fifty thousand ducats…real money at last.
Trav had a long-standing problem with money. He did not have enough of it. He was a hard worker, and had been in turn a bounty hunter, an arms smuggler to would-be rebels, a spectacularly insubordinate and therefore unsuccessful mercenary. These jobs had kept him alive, but that was all. Now he had found his metier working solo as a professional risk-taker, a trouble-shooter, a solver of problems. He excelled at it, and was never short of work. One satisfied customer handed him on to another.
But however promising the deal the profits never amounted to much. Quoting a price when each job was different was not easy; Trav had a regrettable tendency to underestimate the costs. Fearing to lose the work if he charged too much, he usually ended up charging too little. Now and then he actually lost money on a job. It was one of the things Katrin used to nag him about; one of the reasons she’d left him.
‘I’m fed up with never knowing how much money is coming in, Travis. And too often it’s not enough. I deserve better, and so does Kit. I’m getting sick of it, living hand to mouth, always scrimping and scraping, never having anything new to wear.’
‘Sorry, Katrin, I had no idea this one would take so long, that’s why there’s not much to show for it. I’ll get it right next time…’
‘That’s what you always say! Then you come back looking sheepish with a handful of ducats to last a week. You’re impossible. Other men have proper jobs, why can’t you?’
It was no accident she was now married to a very wealthy merchant, whom she obviously thought made a better father for Kit. When Trav insisted on paying towards their son’s upkeep, Katrin had laughed.
‘Keep your money, I’m sure you need it more than we do. Lysle sees that we want for nothing.’
In spite of this, on each visit to Kit, he gave Katrin a bag of coins that she would immediately lay down somewhere. The last time he’d been, he saw the money he’d brought the time before, still sitting where she had put it weeks ago.
Thinking about Katrin had made Trav’s smile fade. He didn’t want to think about her. He put their failed relationship firmly to the back of his mind, and started to plan the dragon hunt.
Trav inched his way up the rock face, dusty and sweat-streaked, his fingers clinging to impossibly small crevices, on his way to the forty-third cave. He had been climbing since dawn, and was beginning to wish he hadn’t counted them. Trav believed in early starts, and besides, he didn’t know if dragons stuck to the same cave, so he needed to finish the task in one day. He did not want to complete his cave-by-cave search, only to find the creature had moved overnight to one he had already checked out, meaning he had to start all over again. Every now and then the unwelcome thought recurred that he had only got Carl’s word for it that there was a dragon here at all. Nobody in the nearest villages had mentioned it, when he’d asked casual-seeming questions about the mountains and what was up there.
Trav levered himself over the edge into the cave. At first glance it looked to be as empty as all the others, but he sat and leaned against the wall having a breather and waiting for his eyes to get used to the dim light at the back of the cave. Some of the caves went back into the rock a long way, and he was thorough. He had fifty thousand reasons to be thorough. He knew he had not missed the dragon so far, and that was the way he wanted to keep it.
Feeling thirsty, he got out his water bottle and had a drink. As his eyes adjusted he noticed something metallic-looking shining on the floor at the black back of the cave. He went over to check it out, thinking of treasure. Gold, he thought, but what is it? He had never seen anything quite like it, and he was not sure what it was supposed to be; some ancient artefact, he guessed, beautifully made and perfectly preserved. In the near dark he could not tell if it was metal or carved and gilded wood. Putting out his hand, he touched it. It was warm. It twitched away from his touch. It was the end of a dragon’s tail.
He jumped back, his heartbeat accelerating.
A small voice said, ‘Go away now and I won’t breathe fire over you.’
Trav looked around him until he located the dragon’s head up by the cave ceiling, just visible over the top of the rock it was hiding behind. Big golden eyes were watching him from about fifteen feet away. Well within roasting range, Trav imagined.
‘Uh, could we just talk about this for a minute before you do something hasty you might regret…’ Trav edged away. ‘I’d rather not go just yet, because there’s something that maybe you would want to hear about. I came to put a proposition to you. You never know, you might be interested in it. Let me introduce myself, my name is Trav Zander. Trav short for Travis. No one calls me Travis, though. Well, my girlfriend did, but only when she was annoyed with me. So she called me Travis quite a lot…we’ve split up now. Probably just as well. You don’t want to hear about that, though. Why don’t you come out from behind there? You look a bit squashed. Then we could talk.’
The dragon thought. ‘I’m coming out now, but remember I can breathe fire any time I want to. I’m very good at fire-breathing.’
The dragon backed out of its hiding place. Trav thought it big, not knowing the size an adult dragon attained. This one was only half grown, and attractive; Trav was somehow positive it was a female. Her scales were almost translucent, like golden glass. She seemed to glow in the gloom of the cave. Her shape was light and elegant with many pleasing curves. Once emerged into the larger space, she turned round and focused on Trav. Then she put her head right down to his level and looked closer. She shut her eyes and opened them again, intent on Trav. Her breath was warm and pleasantly savoury.
‘Hi,’ said Trav. ‘What’s your name?’
‘That’s a nice name.’
The dragon hesitated, then said, ‘It’s not the name I started with. I chose it. The man who reared me called me Goldie. When I flew away I wanted a better name.’
‘Why did you fly away?’ Talking was good. The dragon wouldn’t breathe fire while it was talking. Probably.
‘He was going to sell me, I think. I wasn’t sure I’d like where I was going. I thought I’d go and find some other dragons.’
‘Did you find some?’
‘No. I’ve got to think where to look.’
‘I’ve heard where there are some dragons. The Hundred Knights have got three. Maybe we could make a deal.’
‘What sort of a deal?’ said Seraphine, curling up comfortably on the floor of the cave and putting her head on one side. Trav was warming to her. He sat down too, by the edge of the cave with a panoramic view of country and sky behind him. She was a nice intelligent little dragon, he thought, and he’d never expected her to be so friendly. It surprised him how easy it was to read the expressions passing over her face, though it was so different from a human’s. He wouldn’t mind having a dragon like her; in fact he wished he had found her on his own instead of as Carl’s agent. A dragon might be useful in his line of work.
Trav started the negotiations. One of the reasons he had satisfied customers was his integrity. He believed every party to a deal should know all the facts, or it wouldn’t stick. In his time he had brokered a lot of deals. He told Seraphine about Carl of Thrales sending him to get her. He even told her about the fifty thousand ducats.
‘Who is Carl of Thrales?’
‘He’s the ruler of Ser. I don’t know much about him, he only took over recently. I come from Kimber myself. Carl’s father got hold of the country by staging a military coup twenty years ago. He was pretty good as unelected rulers go, had a reputation as a man of his word, hard but fair.’
‘Why does Carl of Thrales need me?’
‘He didn’t tell me, but I guess he wants to start a Dragon Battalion of his own. How do you feel about being a warrior dragon? He said to offer you what you wanted. What do you want?’
Seraphine considered. ‘First I would have to meet Carl of Thrales to see if I liked him.’
‘And if I liked him, then before I worked for him, I would want you to take me to meet the other dragons you spoke of.’
‘I’m sure that could be arranged.’
‘Also I want you to stay with me.’
‘I would like it.’
‘I expect Carl’s got some guy of his own lined up to take care of you. And I don’t know that I want to work for him full time.’
Seraphine's expression became stubborn. ‘Then neither do I. I’d rather work with you.’ Trav, though flattered and tempted, had not forgotten the fifty thousand ducats, or his reputation for doing what he had said he would do. He had an agreement with Carl. A compromise was called for.
‘Supposing he would agree to you working for him part time, say alternate weeks or three weeks out of four? If he wants you as a fighting dragon I don’t see he’d need you there every day. Then I’d have time for my own stuff, and you could help me if you wanted to.’
‘What if he agreed then wouldn’t let me go?’
‘How could he do that? If he wants you to work for him he can’t keep you chained up. You’re a dragon – you could always fly away.’
‘Then, if he agrees, we have a deal?’
‘Yes,’ said the dragon, ‘but there is something I should tell you. I was lying before. I can’t breathe fire, I’m too young. I will when I’m bigger.’
Trav grinned. ‘No one’s perfect,’ he said. ‘I can’t breathe fire myself.’
The journey back to Carl’s palace in Ravendor, Ser’s capital, was much quicker than Trav’s journey to the caves, because the dragon gave him a lift on her back. Trav felt precarious; her scales, each the size of Kit’s hand, overlapped smoothly, forming a slippery surface. He sat between two of the central spines, which was not very comfortable. But he was staggered by how fast the trip was, flying straight as an arrow’s flight. It would be worth keeping a dragon just as a mode of transport.
They neared Carl of Thrales’ palace, and Trav told Seraphine to land in a formal walled garden just outside. She flew lower, level with the tree tops, then raised her head and beat her wings more vertically to slow down. Trav wasn’t expecting this; he grabbed her round the neck to avoid slipping off; her back feet landed, followed by her front feet, and Trav made an inelegant and unexpected descent on to the grass, upright but not quite sure how he got there.
Seraphine and Trav waited a minute while the palace windows filled with watching heads, then a guard came and led them under an archway through a court and into a large room. The big double doors closed behind them with a muted booming sound. Trav began to have misgivings. Carl entered, followed as he always seemed to be by an excessive number of guards. His eyes glowed when he saw Seraphine. He turned to the captain of the Palace Guard by his side and spoke to him.
Seraphine moved closer to Trav. She nudged Trav insistently, and looked at him round-eyed.
‘I don’t like him,’ she whispered.
‘You haven’t met him yet! He might grow on you.’
‘I don’t like him. I don’t want to work for him.’
‘Are you sure about that? You’re not going to change your mind?’
‘No. I don’t like him, and I never will like him. I don’t like it here. Can we go?’
‘That could be difficult. We shouldn’t have come inside.’ The guards had spread out round the walls while they were talking. ‘Just agree with what I say. The first chance we get, we’ll fly away.’
Carl approached and Trav introduced him.
‘Seraphine, this is Carl of Thrales. Thrales, this is Seraphine.’
‘Welcome to Ser, Seraphine,’ said Carl.
He beckoned to some of his men. ‘Take the dragon to its quarters.’ He turned to leave the room, saying to Trav, ‘Come with me.’ Trav followed him through the doorway.
‘Hold on a minute. Seraphine has come here like you wanted, but she has one or two requirements she’d like to discuss. You need to make sure you’re both happy with the deal.’
Carl raised his eyebrows. ‘You are exceeding your brief, Zander. I hired you to bring the dragon here, not to act as its lawyer.’
‘You told me to offer the dragon what it asked. You haven’t heard what that is yet.’
‘No, I told you to bring the dragon here by offering what it asked. There is a difference. There’s no need for you to be involved further.’ He nodded at two guards who came and seized Trav’s arms and removed his weapons. Carl continued,
‘You made the same mistake with the fifty thousand ducats, I’m afraid. Again, it was just an inducement to get what I wanted. Now I’ve got the dragon, expendable is the word that comes to mind to describe you. Superfluous, that’s another one. Redundant, surplus to requirements, that’s what you are, Zander.’ Carl was enjoying himself. ‘Do you know, I really can’t think of any reason why I should want your services in the future sufficiently to hand over such a large sum now. A tiny fraction of that amount will keep you in bread and water in my dungeons for as long as you last. Far more cost effective, I think you’ll agree. Or, and this might be an even better idea, I could have you killed. Now that wouldn’t cost me anything at all.’
‘Release me, Carl, you lying devious scheming bastard, or the dragon will torch you and all your guards.’
Carl smirked. ‘Unlike you, Zander, I do know about dragons. I’ve done my research. This little specimen is not nearly full-grown. She won’t be breathing fire any time soon. But what makes you think she’d leap to your defence?’ He gazed thoughtfully at Trav. ‘I think I’ll send you to prison after all, keep my options open a little longer. Just in case I think of a use for you. That’s the nice thing about power. I can do anything I want. Absolutely anything.’
He snapped his fingers, and Trav was taken away.
Carl went to his library. His father had been a keen reader and collector of books, an enthusiasm he had failed to pass on to his son, but there was one glass-fronted locked bookcase on a wall apart from the others that was exclusively Carl’s. In it was a small collection of volumes, among the oldest and shabbiest in the library, that Carl had gone to some trouble to procure. He took out a key and opened the case, running his finger along the titles. Fogwatt’s ‘Guide to Rare Beasts’, Nicholas Campion’s ‘Compendium of Four-footed and Winged Creatures’, ‘The Natural History of Large Reptiles’, ‘By Wing and Fire, a Dragon Master’s Story’, ‘A Dragon from the Egg: how to hatch, rear and bond with your own dragon’ by Sir Piers Tytherton, ‘The Dragon Keeper’s Guide: a Manual of Dragon Lore’, Wyncham’s ‘The Compleat Dragon Master’…
Carl took out the last three books, and sat down in a comfortable chair by the window to find the information he needed. He suspected something inconvenient and irreversible had happened with regard to his dragon and Zander, and wanted to check whether he was right.
Ah…the first book he opened, right on the title page of Sir Piers Tytherton’s guide; there it was, a prominently placed disclaimer:
‘Let it be remember’d by He that readeth this my Booke, (though indeed ‘tis without Rival for Excellent Counsel), the Man chooseth not the Dragon: ‘tis the Dragon which maketh his choice of Master, as his Heart ordains, and oft times his Preference is beyond the Wit of Man to comprehend. No Money return’d.’
Carl closed ‘A Dragon from the Egg’ and flicked through the other two. They said much the same thing, at greater length. He put the books away and stood for a while, deep in thought.
Trav lay on the gritty straw that covered the floor of his cell, exhausted and worrying about his mother and his son. He had planned to take Kit to see her at the weekend, and she would be anxious when they did not arrive, thinking something had happened to him. And it had.
He was out of breath, having just finished the exercises he did daily in an effort to keep his strength. Every day it got a little harder. He knew his muscles hadn’t deteriorated in a week; the problem was simply insufficient food to fuel them.
When he arrived in the cell Trav’s overwhelming feeling had been disbelief. Carl could not intend to keep him locked up. He had done nothing. It seemed unreal. Perhaps it was just to teach him a lesson and prevent his making a fuss over not getting paid? For a day or two Trav had half-expected to be released at any moment, escorted to the city gates and told not to come back. He was now beginning to face the fact that Carl had meant what he said.
He looked up at the narrow slit window, with its uninspiring view of a stone wall. Not enough light made its way in for the cell ever to be anything except dim. Trav took off his boots and got to his feet, standing beneath the window. He gathered his strength and leaped up the wall, grasping the jutting edges of stone till his shoulders were level with the window. Tantalisingly, it was just wide enough to get his head through. They said where your head could go, your body would follow, but Trav was not able to get high enough to try before he slithered back down. One time he had got his arm into the window and grabbed the far side, but could not lever his weight over the edge. He had hung there, grimly sweating and struggling for five minutes before dropping to the floor.
If he got his head at the right angle he could see a patch of pale blue sky.
Probably if he did get through he’d be no better off. It seemed to be a light well. No sound came from it. He subsided on to the thin straw again. The silence pressed against his ears.
He was also worried about Seraphine. Although she was a dragon, and surely dragons were not easy to browbeat, she was young and inexperienced and he did not trust Carl to treat her properly. Also, she seemed very attached to Trav for some reason, and might be missing him. He hoped she would have the sense to fly away as soon as she had the chance.
On the wall opposite the window, from shoulder height to the floor, the stone had a different texture. It was caused by a multitude of tiny grouped scratches; six verticals, crossed out by a diagonal line. Trav knew what they were; he had been trying to ignore them, not wanting to face their implication, but now he went over to look closer. Whoever had made the marks had organized them into groups within bigger groups. It was the record of a man’s life passing in this cell. Trav counted; nineteen years, seven months, two weeks and four days. Ten years’ end was marked by neat capitals, MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON ME. No other writing, no name. A chill fell on his heart. He sat under the window staring at the wall, imagining the prisoner who had been here before him.
Suffocating panic rose in him that a year, ten years, nineteen years from now he would still be here in God knows what sort of a state, life going on outside without him. Never feeling the sun on his back, not seeing Kit grow up. Not seeing anything except the four walls, the inadequate window, the cell door made of iron bars. How long could he hold on to his sanity alone in a cell?
Trav got up and took off his belt. He turned the buckle so the prong was apart from the rest. Carefully, neatly, he scratched six vertical marks and one diagonal in the stone wall adjacent to the one already covered. The stone was hard, and it took him the best part of an hour.
He started high up, to leave plenty of space.
Hours later, the clank of keys signalled the approach of the gaoler, a massive man who reminded Trav of a dancing bear he’d seen once at a village fete. It was time for one of the more exciting moments of Trav’s day; supper. The other highlight was breakfast. They didn’t seem to know about lunch down in the dungeons.
Sometimes on a good day he got a bit of a conversation going with the gaoler, too, but he was a man of few words, slow on the uptake, and clearly terrified of befriending a prisoner. He must have been warned against it. Today there were four Palace Guards with the gaoler, and no food. Perhaps Carl had decided he definitely wasn’t going to have any use for Trav, and was taking appropriate action.
‘Come with us,’ one of the guards said. Trav got up and went with them, brushing off bits of straw, not feeling up to whatever was coming his way. They passed other cells, most of them empty, a few with huddled figures in them, then ascended stairs, went along dingy passages and through a door into a different zone, with the rich decoration Trav remembered from his first interview with Carl.
‘Where are you taking me?’
The guards took no notice and his question seemed to linger, ineffectual, on the air. They reached an imposing door, and a guard knocked. Carl’s voice said, ‘Enter.’ Two guards came in with Trav and stood inside the door on either side.
It was a dining room, not very large but opulent, its colour scheme a simple one of gold on gold, shown off to fine effect by the evening sun. Carl of Thrales sat at one end of a polished table, eating his dinner. At the other end sat a self-possessed young woman with pale blonde hair and a low cut green dress. Carl glanced at him. Trav would have looked out of place in that room a week ago, but now, with seven days’ growth of beard, prison pallor and slept-in clothes, the contrast with Carl’s burnished good looks was extreme.
‘Take a seat, Zander.’ He pointed to the chair next to him. Trav sat and waited. Carl was helping himself to more cutlets. The smell of them made Trav’s mouth water. The young woman pushed back her chair, got up and walked over to Trav. She poured wine into a goblet and handed it to him, then resumed her seat. Carl looked at her curiously.
‘What did you do that for?’
‘I felt like it,’ she replied indifferently.
Carl turned to Trav, who was drinking. The wine was very good. He could feel it putting new heart into him.
‘You know, Zander, it’s just as well I didn’t kill you. It turns out I have a job for you after all.’
‘I don’t know why you think I’d take any job you offered me,’ Trav drawled. ‘You haven’t paid me for the last one.’
‘Come now, you cannot seriously have thought I was going to pay you fifty thousand ducats for a day or two’s work? I think we both knew that was just talk.’ He reached down beside his chair and picked up a bag and tossed it at Trav who caught it. ‘Five thousand ducats. More than generous, I would say.’
Trav put it on the table in front of him. He waited. Carl waited too. It turned into the sort of silence where the first person to break it would be capitulating. The young woman sat back in her chair watching them, a slight suggestion of a smile on her face. Trav finished his wine and put the goblet down beside the money. A long minute passed. There was a scratch on the door, and servants came in to clear the plates and serve the next course.
‘He will have some,’ said Carl, and a plate of some light pastry confection with cream was placed in front of Trav. It was a delicious change from the past week’s meagre diet. When Trav’s dish was as clean as if a cat had licked it, he looked up. The other two were barely halfway through theirs, the woman toying with her pudding while studying him with green eyes that matched her dress.
The pudding plates were removed and brandy, fruit and nuts put on the table. The setting sun was deep amber, and most of the light in the room now came from the candles. Carl gestured for the servant to pour the brandy, and nodded impatiently when the man paused for permission before serving Trav. Carl shifted in his seat then spoke as though there had been no hiatus in the conversation. The woman’s smile intensified for a moment.
‘You’re to take over looking after the dragon. Train it for war. You’ll stay where I put you in a house in the city until I tell you you can go, and not take the dragon out flying for more than an hour at a time. If it escapes, I will hold you responsible. Keep away from the palace, the Guard has orders not to let you past the gate. Try it and you will be punished. One hundred ducats a week, if I’m satisfied.’
‘I’ll consider your offer.’
‘You will accept my offer.’
‘What makes you think that?’
Carl reached for some grapes and smiled. It was not a pleasant smile. He did not seem to do pleasant smiles. As he got older this would spoil his looks.
‘He’s a nice child, little Kit. I think that, and I’m not even his father. I’m certain you wouldn’t want anything disagreeable to happen to him.’
Trav sat, stony faced. In his cell he had reckoned his situation could not get much worse. He had been wrong. Carl continued, ‘He likes it here. I’ve given him a nice apartment in the palace, and even brought his mother to look after him. I thought he might miss her, if I’d brought him here on his own.’
‘You brought my son here?’
‘Yes. You can see him tomorrow. I’ll send a guard to get you. But you understand why I’m entirely sure you will do as I wish.’ He turned to the guard. ‘Take Zander to where he’ll be staying.’
Trav got up stiffly. The green eyes were still on him as he left the room.
Trav followed the guard out of Carl’s dining room and the palace, across the courtyard to the fortified gate in the surrounding wall, and along several streets. They reached a narrow door in a small building adjoining a much larger one with a walled grassy area to one side of it. The guard departed. Trav realized Carl wasn’t bothering to have him guarded, and indeed there was no need. He would stay as long as Kit was there. Kit was the one who would be guarded.
Trav went inside, lit a candle and looked around. The accommodation was simple, but quite adequate; one main room on the ground floor, and off it a kitchen and a room to wash in, with stairs leading to a bedroom above. As far as he could see in the dark, there seemed to be a small garden behind it. He came downstairs, took off his clothes and washed. It was good to feel clean. Reluctantly, he got dressed again in the same things; he did not have a change of clothes and would have to buy some as soon as possible in the morning.
He left the house. There was no point searching for Kit tonight, as he would be in the palace, probably asleep, and the guards would not let Trav in. You can see him tomorrow, Carl had said. But he wanted to find Seraphine. He wandered about for a while, and bought himself a pie from a street stall before a guard challenged him. Trav told him he was looking for the dragon he was to be in charge of, and was directed back to where he had come from. Seraphine was in the large building next to his. There was a big dragon-size door, bolted on the outside, with a small one within it. He pushed open the little door and went into the vast arching space.
Seraphine was over by the far wall, shuffling sadly beside it in the moonlight that came through the high windows, pushing a ball along the floor with her nose. Her scales had gone a dull mustard colour, like tarnished brass.
The dragon looked up, saw him and hurtled across the room. She skidded to a stop and put her head, surprisingly light for its size, over his shoulder. Trav patted her. His neck felt damp.
‘Seraphine, are you crying?’
‘No,’ she said, pulling back her head and looking at him. Another big tear spilled out of a golden eye and Trav wiped it gently from her face. ‘I didn’t like it here on my own,’ she said. ‘I thought perhaps you had died. I stayed in case you hadn’t. They wanted me to fly and things but I didn’t want to so I didn’t. They got cross. I didn’t like them. Can we fly away now?’
‘Not yet,’ said Trav. ‘Let me explain.’
Seraphine did not want Trav to go, so just for that night he fetched himself a blanket and stayed with her. He told her stories to get her to sleep as he used to with Kit, and fell asleep himself on the straw beside her. It was thicker and newer than the straw in his cell had been. In the morning he woke and crept out so as not to disturb her. He wanted to have a wash, shave and change before he saw Kit. As he emerged yawning and blinking into the daylight, he saw the blonde who had been dining with Carl knocking on his door. She was composed and elegant in midnight blue today. She looked at him, seeing he was no better turned out than he had been the night before.
‘Do you always sleep in your clothes?’
‘Doesn’t everyone? Saves valuable time in the mornings.’ He opened the door and she followed him in. She gazed around her with interest before she turned to Trav.
‘Carl didn’t introduce us. He can be so crass. I’m Isolda.’
‘Are you Carl’s wife?’
She smiled, showing perfect white teeth. ‘Hardly. When he marries, it’ll be to the most highborn princess who will have him. I’m just for now.’ Her voice was cool and amused.
‘You look like a princess to me.’
‘Not that I’ve met any.’
‘Don’t spoil it.’
‘Wouldn’t Carl mind you being here?’
‘I’m not just going to do what Carl wants me to do.’ She moved a little closer, and he could see her eyes really were as big and green as he had thought them. The only other eyes he’d seen that colour belonged to a cat. Her skin was pale and flawless. Her voice went lower, but every word was still distinct. ‘I’m trying to work out what makes you so attractive, even though your hair’s just starting to go grey and you’ve got lines on your forehead. Perhaps it’s your nice straight nose. And your eyes, sort of kind but wary… Maybe it’s simply that you’re so different from Carl. And it’s ridiculous, but I’ve always had a weakness for men with a few days’ stubble...’ She ran a finger along his jaw.
Trav was not a vain man, but even so he could hear alarm bells going off. He backed away.
‘Don’t you think I’ve got enough trouble with your boyfriend already? Give me a break, Isolda. There must be dozens of men around here who don’t remind you of Carl. Some with full beards, probably.’
‘Unfortunately they are all scared of him. I thought yesterday I’d met someone who wasn’t,’ she said, with a hint of coolness in her voice.
‘You thought wrong. I’m scared of Carl all right. I’m scared of what he could do to Kit, I’m scared of what he might do to Seraphine, and I’m scared of what he might do to me. Okay? I’m not a hero, I’m just an ordinary man who wants to get back to his ordinary life with his son. Preferably in one piece, with all the arms and legs I had when I started out. Put that together with the grey hairs and the wrinkles, Princess, and you can see there’s nothing about me that could interest a girl like you. Nothing at all.’
‘You’re right,’ Isolda said. ‘I made a mistake. I’ll see you around.’
The guard, when he arrived to take Trav to see his son, did not escort him to the palace but to an open space of grass surrounded by trees. As he got nearer, Trav could hear the shouts of young men and the thud of a ball. There in the middle of a football game was Kit’s fair head; he looked small among the much taller guards. Trav saw with relief that he seemed fine, and was evidently enjoying the game. Katrin stood watching, and he went and joined her.
She ignored him to start with. He remembered this tactic of hers from their time together, and a great weariness swept over him. Foolishly, he’d hoped she would be an ally. He should have known she would be furious with him. She flushed, and spoke still looking ahead.
‘I don’t know how you’ve got the face to speak to me after what’s happened.’
‘Come on, Katrin, how was it my fault?’
She turned. ‘How was it your fault? We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you and your stupid job. Our son’s life is at risk because you’ve upset someone important. You weren’t clever enough to keep in with Carl, or keep us out of it. You must have fouled up big time for him to kidnap our son.’
‘It wasn’t like that…’
‘I don’t want to listen to your excuses. I had enough of them when we were together. I’m sick of them and I’m sick of you. I can’t believe you’ve got us into this mess. I’m telling you, you’d better do something to get us out of here again fast.’
Katrin was shaking. She’s angry because she’s afraid, thought Trav. He tried to comfort her. ‘It could be worse. Kit looks happy enough for now, and at least you’re here with him. And Carl won’t do anything as long as I do what he says.’
‘Terrific. I don’t know why I’m complaining. My son being dragged away from home by soldiers and held hostage, that doesn’t matter at all because I’m a prisoner too. And you say his safety depends entirely on you, so of course now I’m completely reassured.’
There was a cheer as Kit kicked the ball between the piles of jackets that marked the goal. He spotted his father and ran over. Trav picked him up and swung him round. A young, pleasant-faced guard followed him, hanging back a little.
‘Did you see me score? I’ve got to go back, the game’s not finished yet. Are you watching me?’
‘Yes,’ said Trav. Kit ran off, the guard loping easily beside him. Trav went and sat down, his back against a tree, some way away from Katrin.
‘Have you got any metal polish? I’ve finished mine and the stores have closed.’
Skeate, who was cleaning his boots, reached into the cupboard by his bed and handed Davenant his.
‘Thanks.’ There was a pause while Davenant worked on his jacket buttons, which had an intricate design of a flaming sword in a wreath. He used a brush to get in the crevices, being careful not to spatter any polish on the black wool. ‘You know, when I joined the Guard I didn’t expect my first job would be looking after a kid.’
‘Makes a change.’
‘What’s he here for?’
‘So’s his dad doesn’t run off. Carl needs him for the dragon.’
Skeate was a few years older than Davenant. He had been in the Palace Guard for eighteen months and Davenant found him a useful source of information.
‘So the kid’s a hostage?’
‘That’s not very nice.’
‘None of our business. You don’t want to think too much. Just do what you’re told, that’s the way to get on in the Guard.’ Skeate lined up his polished boots by the bed, and put the cleaning things neatly back in his cupboard.
‘His mother’s not too happy about it.’
‘You're telling me. And doesn’t she let us know it. Never stops complaining.’
‘His father looks all right. It doesn’t seem fair.’
‘There’s only one judge of what’s fair in Ser.’
Davenant thought this over. ‘Has anyone ever tried to kill Carl?’
‘I don’t think so. Why?’
‘He has so many of us following him around. I just wondered, that’s all.’
‘Well, try not to. Obey orders, you’re not paid to wonder.’
POM FINDS A FRIEND, CORFE REMEMBERS AN ENEMY
Outside the Dragon Tower at Kallarven Castle Tor and Pom, in full armour, fought with sword and dagger among the falling autumn leaves. To an onlooker, it seemed like a fight in earnest; it was fast, the blades flashed in the sun too quickly for the eye to keep up with; it seemed at any moment some deadly injury must occur. But to Farren, as he walked towards them, it was plain that Tor was controlling the fight. With the eyes of a Knight he could see that Pom was going all out, but Tor was too good for him to be able to hit her, and she was not using her superior skills to hit him. A Knight herself, this was an exercise for her squire. Farren sat down and waited for them to finish.
A few minutes later Tor stopped the training session and they took off their helmets. As they came towards him, she was saying,
‘That was good, Pom, you’re getting there now, but remember to watch me and anticipate my moves. Don’t get too carried away with what you’re doing. Hi Farren, what brings you here?’
‘Hallo Tor. It’s really Pom I came to see.’
Tor grinned at him. ‘I’ll leave you to it then, I’ll go and take this lot off. See you later at dinner?’
‘I’ll look forward to it.’ Farren turned to Pom. ‘It’s good to see you. Are you taller or am I imagining it?’
‘No, I’ve grown,’ said Pom, starting to take off his armour.
‘How old are you now?’
‘A bit old to start training for a Knight, but you seem to be catching up fast. That was a pretty impressive fight. You’re lucky in your teacher, Tor’s good.’ Farren paused, then said, ‘I came about my father.’
‘Oh,’ said Pom, his smile vanishing. He had known Farren’s father briefly, and liked him a great deal. He had been with Quintern just before he died fighting a whole troop of Skardroft’s soldiers, a week before the end of the war for Calambria. If he had got out of Atherly Berrow only an hour earlier, he would have been alive now. It hurt Pom to think about it.
‘I want to go to Atherly and see where he died. I think it might help me come to terms with it. It’s not that I don’t know he’s dead, Pom. You were there at the time, and his dagger was in Skardroft’s collection. But it would make it more real to me if I could see where it happened. Would you come with me and show me?’
Pom nodded, though he did not want to go back to the Black Swan where Quintern had made his last stand. It was a dark episode in his past; literally dark, somehow; when he thought about it, which he did as little as possible, it seemed to have happened in some twilight region, though in fact the sun had been brilliant that day. But of course he would go with Farren. If it had been his father, he would have felt the same.
‘I’ll have to ask Tor, though I’m sure she won’t mind.’
‘We’d only be away one night. I’d like to go tomorrow, and get it over with. If we set out early, we should get there late afternoon, and be back here the same time the next day. I thought we could stay at the same inn you and Gwenderith were at.’
‘Couldn’t we stay with the Hundred Knights?’
‘They’re having the whole building refurbished. The soldiers left it in a mess. We can go there another time, if you like. Besides, I want to see where you stayed. Have you got a horse?’
‘Tor lets me use one of her horses, Carrots. She usually rides Whisper these days, the one Skardroft gave her.’
Farren frowned and shook his long fair hair back just the way Quintern used to. ‘I still can’t get used to the idea that Tor’s Skardroft’s granddaughter. I suppose she saw another side to him…though it’s difficult to believe he had a good side.’
Skardroft had hunted down the Knights one by one. He’d had Farren’s father killed, and Farren was glad Skardroft was now dead himself as he deserved.
The landlady at the Unicorn and Maiden recognised Pom.
‘Hallo, it’s Pomfret, isn’t it? How’s the beautiful young lady who was with you last time? She’s not with you today?’
‘Er, no. She’s fine.’
Clearly the landlady was unaware that she’d had a Princess under her roof; Gwenderith had stayed there in disguise, before her father got his throne back. Pom decided not to embark on explanations. It was too complicated.
When Farren asked if the rooms at the top of the inn were available, she was pleased to be able to say they were. They dumped their bags before going out. Farren had Gwenderith’s old room with the sloping ceilings, and looked around, trying to visualise her there, with the little dog Muffin in her arms, seeing the view from the window as he did now. It was still early evening, so they left to walk the short distance to the Black Swan, both thinking they would feel better once the visit was behind them.
Pom knew the way, but found himself walking slower the closer they got. He really did not want to go back there. Farren was pale and sombre, and not saying much. They turned into the alleyway and saw the decrepit Black Swan, its stained and crumbling stonework with buddleia growing out of it, its cracked grimy windows and peeling paint unchanged. Pom glanced at Farren. This miserable inn was the place where his father had spent his final days before the soldiers came for him.
The huge mangy dog chained to the wall was still there, and leaped towards them barking and snarling until brought up short by his collar. They skirted round him and went inside. No one was about, so Pom, heavy-hearted, led Farren up the stairs to the room Quintern had occupied and died in. It was as Pom remembered it; spacious, dusty and bare, the sun streaming in through the large streaked window. There was the table Quintern and he had played cards at. Then Pom noticed the big dark stains on the floorboards. He turned and ran down the stairs, out of the inn, and sat against the wall, feeling sick. The dog made another hopeless, frenzied attempt to get at him, and Pom saw his neck was rubbed into great raw patches by his collar. Pom put his face in his hands and cried. Farren joined him and put a hand on his shoulder.
‘I’m sorry, Pom, I shouldn’t have brought you. Let’s go and find somewhere nice to eat.’
Hours after the inn was quiet, with everyone asleep, Pom woke up. Something was preying on his mind. He lay thinking for a few minutes, then got up and pulled on his clothes. Stepping carefully down the stairs, trying not to make them creak, he went into the kitchen. He hunted in cupboards in the dark till he found what he needed. The big bolt on the inn door grated as he lifted it, letting himself out on to the pavement, then he walked through the dark silent streets back to the Black Swan.
By night it looked just the same as when he had first seen it with Quintern, gloomy and ominous. No light showed in the windows, and the only sound was the scratch of rats. The dog was asleep, as he had been that night before. Pom went up to him and got out a piece of the beef he had taken from the kitchen and placed it under his nose, then he stroked his head gently. The dog’s head went up; he saw Pom at the same moment he got the smell of the meat. The meat had priority. While he was wolfing it down as if it was the first food he’d seen in a week, Pom undid the stiff buckle on his collar and stood back. The dog finished and eyed Pom uncertainly. He growled.
‘Come on, Snap, there’s a good dog,’ Pom murmured encouragingly, choosing the name on the spur of the moment. He held out his hand with the last of the meat, ‘you come with me, you don’t want to stay here…’
The dog stopped growling. He hesitated, barked, then looked at Pom. His tail wagged a little, so Pom went up to him and let him take the food from his hand. The dog bolted it then paused, bright eyes on Pom.
‘Come on, let’s go, good boy,’ said Pom, turning to go back to the Unicorn and Maiden. The dog would follow him or run; either way, he would be better off. Or, of course, he could chase after him and take a chunk out of his leg, but Pom was counting on him not doing that. The dog stood still till Pom was about to disappear round the corner then, his decision made, ran after him and fell into step beside him, his matted fur stiff with dirt brushing Pom's legs.
They got back up to the attic room undetected. The dog did not bark at all, which was something Pom had been worried about. He got into bed, and the dog, after sniffing around the tiny room, curled up on his feet, a considerable weight, thin though he was. I’ll give him a bath tomorrow, thought Pom. Even with the window open, Snap’s smell was a bit overpowering. Contented, dog and boy slept.
Early the next morning, when the landlady of the Unicorn and Maiden went into Corfe’s room on the ground floor, where she had put him so she could keep an eye on him, he was sitting up in bed propped against the wall. His eyes opened and he looked at her. She put her hand to her heart; he had given her quite a turn, suddenly wide awake after weeks in and out of a coma, as pale as a ghost and staring unsmiling at her.
‘How are you feeling? I was beginning to think you’d never properly wake up. Let me get you something, now what do you fancy? Some food, something to drink?’
‘Water. Then food.’
The landlady had been tending Corfe for more than two weeks, washing him, moving him from one side to the other, making sure he was warm enough, cautiously trying to get fluids into him, choosing moments when he was semi-conscious so it would not go down the wrong way and choke him. When she first found him, she had told the authorities, but no one had come to claim him. She had worried about him, wondered who he was, pitied him for the terrible assault he had suffered in her inn that had left him in this state.
Now he was awake she wasn’t sure that she liked him. It was his eyes…and he seemed short on manners, though perhaps, after what he had been through, this was understandable. The scars on his head were still visible through his cropped hair. She straightened his pillow.
A name came into Corfe’s mind. His emaciated hand shot out and grasped the woman’s wrist. His voice was low and hoarse.
‘I want a message sent to Skardroft.’
‘You’re hurting me, let go.’ After a moment Corfe released her. ‘Skardroft’s dead, weeks ago. When Barlanik’s army took Tarragon. King Urquin’s in charge now.’
She waited, but Corfe said nothing. She went to get him something to eat and drink. A deep, guttural barking started up; it sounded loud enough to be in the building, but it couldn’t be.
Snap’s new civility only extended to Pom. As far as Snap was concerned, Pom was the sole righteous human in a world populated by shady characters. When Farren appeared in the doorway answering Pom’s knock Snap decided he was probably suspect, and had better be seen off. Farren watched bemused as Pom hung on to the huge wild-eyed beast baying for his blood.
‘No! Stop. Stop.’ Pom’s voice was firm. Snap looked at him, stopped barking, and Pom let go. Snap’s eyes went to Farren. Maybe Farren was not entirely villainous, still…Pom might be making a serious error of judgment…
He sat, his hind quarters only just on the floor, ready to pounce.
‘Good boy. Now stay.’
Snap sat panting, showing a long pink tongue and enormous teeth, watching Farren attentively just in case. Pom patted him to reward his current composure.
‘Pom, tell me that’s not the brute from outside the Black Swan.’
‘I couldn’t leave him there, look at the sores round his neck.’
‘So you’ve stolen their dog?’
Pom looked mulish. Quintern would have understood. ‘They weren’t treating him right. I don’t feel guilty, either. People like that shouldn’t have a dog.’
‘I think you should take him straight back to his rightful owner.’
‘Well I’m not going to.’
‘Forgetting the ethical side of it for the moment, he’s savage. How are you going to get him home?’
‘That’s not a problem, he follows me wherever I go. He’s very clever.’ Pom’s pride in his new pet was evident. ‘He’ll be all right once he’s had a wash and some proper food. He’s just a bit nervous.’
‘Nervous? He’ll have somebody’s throat out.’
‘He only wants some proper training and he’ll be fine. He’s quite young, look at his teeth. I’ve always wanted a dog, mum wouldn’t let me have one, but Tor won’t mind.’
‘Does it have to be this dog? I could get you a pure-bred one…’
‘I like this dog.’
Snap scratched himself vigorously with a hind leg.
‘He’s covered in fleas.’
‘Yes, poor thing, the sooner I get rid of them the better. The landlady said I could borrow her wash tub. I took some meat from the larder last night for him, and she was really nice about it just now when I told her, she wouldn’t let me pay for it.’
Farren started to laugh. ‘Has she seen the dog yet? You’ll only get half of him in the tub at a time anyway.’
Corfe had finished the tasteless broth the landlady had prepared for him, and now she was pestering him with solicitous questions which he ignored. Somewhere nearby a dog was barking and whining; he could hear water splashing and something banging. It was intolerable. His head felt as though it might burst.
‘Make them stop that racket.’
‘It’s just one of the guests washing his dog.’ The landlady was not too happy about it herself, but Farren and Pom would be going that day so it was not worth making a fuss.
‘I’m sorry, I can’t; I said the boy could use my wash tub in the yard, and that’s what he’s doing. I don’t expect he’ll be long.’ She left with the dishes.
A red wave of anger rushed through Corfe, taking him over. He wanted to hold the stupid landlady’s face down in her insipid broth, throttle the dog, smash its owner’s head against the wall. Getting out of bed, he waited until the room stopped swimming, then walked carefully towards the courtyard, holding on to the wall. He leaned in the shadow of the doorway. A boy was soaping a big wet dog, which was fidgeting and barking from time to time. The boy was talking to the dog. There was something familiar about him, even with his back turned. He had met him before. And a phrase came to him…where are the Knights, boy? Corfe could not place him, but he was getting feelings of frustration, surprise, unexpected defeat, dismay and failure. His anger subsided as his scarred mind strained to recall what had happened.
Pom was doing a comprehensive job of cleaning Snap, even without the dog’s full cooperation. He was talking to divert him.
‘You’re going to be such a handsome animal, Snap, you won’t know yourself. It’ll all be worth it, you’ll see; no more nasty fleas, no matted fur, and you’ll smell much nicer. There, that’s finished between your claws.’
Pom turned to get a bucket to rinse him, and Corfe shrank against the wall. He
made his way back to his room and into bed, feeling ill. He had got to find out about his past, put together the random fragments jostling in his head, decide on a course of action. He felt wrecked.
He needed to remember who had done this to him.