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Dog and Dragon: Chapter One
Last updated: Saturday, February 11, 2012 22:14 EST
Back to the sunset bound of Lyonesse –
A land of old upheaven from the abyss
By fire, to sink into the abyss again;
Where fragments of forgotten peoples dwelt,
And the long mountains ended in a coast
Of ever-shifting sand, and far away
The phantom circle of a moaning sea.
- Idylls of the King, Tennyson
“Who are you?” hissed the lithe, dark-eyed man with the drawn sword.
Meb blinked at him. Her transition from the green forests of Arcady to this dark, stone-flagged hall, had been instantaneous. The stone walls were hung with displays of arms and the horns of stags. Otherwise there was not much to separate it from a cave or prison, with not as much as an arrow slit in the walls — let alone a window — to be seen in the stone embrasures.
In Tasmarin from whence she had come, she had known just who she was: Scrap, apprentice to the black dragon that destroyed of the worlds. You could call her anything else, but that was who she had been. Now
“Cat got your tongue, wench?” he said quietly. “Well, no matter, I’ll have to kill you anyway.”
He swung the sword at her in a vicious arc.
Moments ago, before she’d made the choice that swept her magically from Tasmarin, from the green forest of Arcady, she’d thought she might be better off dead rather than leaving them behind. Leaving him behind.
Now she discovered that her body didn’t want to die just yet. She threw herself backwards, not caring where she landed, as long as it was out of reach of the sword.
She screamed. And then swore as the blade shaved across her arm to thud into the kist she had fallen over. She kicked out, hard, catching her attacker in the midriff, knocking the breath out of him in an explosive gasp. Trying to find breath, he still pulled weakly at the sword now a good two-finger-widths deep into the polished timber of the kist. Meb wasn’t going to wait.
But it looked as if she wasn’t going to run very far either. Her scream, and possibly the swearing, had called others and they burst in, flinging the great iron studded doors open. Men-at-arms with bright swords and scale armor rushed in.
As she turned to run the other way, her passage there was blocked by a sleepy-looking man — also with a sword, emerging from the only other doorway.
There wasn’t a window to be seen.
She wanted one, badly.
And then she saw one, just in the embrasure to her left. She just plainly hadn’t spotted it before.
She ran to it, and realized it wasn’t going to help much. In the moonlight she could see that it opened onto a hundred feet of jagged cliff, to an angry sea, frothing around sharp rock teeth far below.
Some of the soldiers surrounded the man she’d kicked. They’d blocked her escape too, but you couldn’t really call it surrounding her. Not unless that included “getting as far from her as possible, while not leaving the other prisoner, or the room.”
The man who had looked so sleepy moments before didn’t anymore. His sword was up, ready, his eyes wide as they darted from the window to her, seemingly unsure which was more shocking.
“Who are you?” he asked.
There was something weaselly about him that made her very wary about answering, in case her words were twisted against her.
And why did they all want to know something she wasn’t too sure of herself?
There was a narrow bridge across the void. Along it walked a black and white sheepdog, followed by a black dragon. The dog never looked back at the dragon, just forward, his questing written into every line of his body, from the mobile pointed ears, to the feathered tail.
The bridge itself was narrow — made of vast, interlocking blocks of adamantine — or at least that is the way it looked. Reality might be somewhat different, at least to the eyes of a planomancer. Such eyes would see deeper than the ordinary spectra of light, and could see patterns energy. Fionn, the black dragon, saw it all as the weave of magics that made the bridge between the planes of existence. He knew the bridge was fragile and fraught with danger. That did not stop him walking along it, any more than it stopped Díleas the sheepdog.
The bridge was barely two cubits wide and had no rail. Far, far below seethed the tumult of primal chaos. The only way the dog could go was straight ahead. He kept looking left though.
That was where he wanted to go. Sometimes he would raise his nose and sniff.
Fionn knew there was nothing to smell out here. The air that surrounded the bridge was drawn and melded by the magics of it, from the raw chaos. It was new air, and Fionn knew that it did not exist a few paces behind them, or a few paces ahead.
He was still sure Díleas was following the faint trail of something. A something which even a very clever dog could best understand as scent even if there was nothing to smell.
At least he hoped that was the case.
Hoped with ever fiber of his very ancient being.
Fionn had long since given up on caring too much. He was not immortal, as far as he knew. He could certainly be killed. But compared to others, even of his own kind, the black dragon was long-lived. Time passed, and so did friends. His work was never done, fixing the balance, keeping the planes stable. He moved on.
He’d been hated. He’d been worshiped, though it irritated him. He’d been laughed at and reviled. He’d been feared.
He’d even been loved.
He had never loved before, though.
The black and white sheepdog was more experienced at love than the dragon, and he was a young dog still, maybe eight months old. Barely more than a pup. But Díleas — whose name was “faithful” in an old tongue, long forgotten by most men — would go to the ends of the world for her, and beyond, as they were now. His mistress was his all and he would search for her until he died, or he found her.
Fionn knew that he’d do the same. His Scrap, his inept apprentice, had been plucked from them by magic. Her own magic and her own choice, made freely for them, and for Tasmarin, the place of dragons. Fionn knew, however, that it had cost her dearly. For him, left here without her, it was a worthless sacrifice.
So now, somewhere, back in some place that she’d been torn from as a babe, they had to find her again.
Fionn had no idea where that might be. A place of magics, where human magery ran strong in the blood, that much he could be sure of. But there were many such places in the interlinking chain of worlds, and they themselves were large and complex places.
It was a good thing that Díleas seemed to have some idea where to go, because Fionn didn’t know where to even start, except by trying everywhere. He would do that, if need be. He had time. He would never give up.
The only problem was that she was human and very mortal. And, if he had to be truthful with himself, she was able to attract disaster toward herself, just by being there.
Fionn had never known love. He’d never really known worry either. Pain, and the avoidance of it, yes, fear, yes, but now he was afraid for her. Worried.
The end of the bridge was now visible, if wreathed in smoke or mist.
Fionn wondered if it would be guarded, or if the bridge was too new. The transit points often had their watchers, or barriers.
As the other side of the void came closer, Fionn realized this place would not need such things.
Most travelers would turn around and go back just as quickly as they could.
Gylve was a place of fire and black glass.
Fionn had been there before, and wouldn’t have minded if he’d never had to go there again. A planomancer needed to visit such places and straighten things out. Last time, it had glowed in the dark, and he’d had to do some serious adjustment. He was pleased to see that the radiation levels at least had dropped. Still, you could see fire dancing across the sky as the methane jets caught.
On the silver collar on Díleas’s neck hung a bauble. A little part of the primal fire, enclosed in what merely appeared to be crystal. It should keep the dog safe from demons and from actually freezing. It wouldn’t keep his feet safe on the broken volcanic glass in the place they were coming to; only dragon hide would do for that.
Fortunately, he had some with him, available without the discomfort of slicing it off himself. He could have done that. Dragons were tough even if they really didn’t like making holes in themselves any more than the next creature. But every now and again a dragon died or was killed. If a dragon was sharp about it, they could get a piece of hide before the humans did. Honestly, thought Fionn, for a species that was afraid of dragons, humans had a habit of sticking their necks out.
It was one of the things that he liked about them.
The bridge was beginning to widen to open onto the jet-black clinkers of one of the fire-worlds. Fionn stopped.
“Díleas, come here!”
The dog did turn and look at him, with a “what do you think you’re wasting time at?” look. And then began to pace forward.
“This muck will cut your feet to ribbons. And then you won’t be able to walk to her.” Fionn had to smile wryly at himself. Talking to the dog. Just like his Scrap of humanity had.
The dog turned around and came back to him. Lifted a foot.
Fionn’s eye’s widened. He’d have to do some serious reevaluation. And yes, now he could see that the dog was substantially magically enhanced. Curse the dvergar and their tricksy magics. He was supposed to be the practical joker, not them. His Scrap had wanted Díleas to understand her. And she wore a very powerful piece of enchanted jewelry, which bound the magics of earth, stone, wood, fire and worked metals to her will.
Not surprising really that her power worked on sheepdogs. They were clever and loyal anyway, or so he’d been told.
“It won’t be elegant,” he said, “but then there won’t be other dogs out here to see you. He took the section of dragon leather from his pouch and rent it into four pieces, and then made a neat row of talon punctures around the edge, before transforming his own shape. Human form was one of those he knew best, and it allowed him to wield a needle well. It was of course partly a matter of appearances, and a useful disguise. He was far too heavy and too strong for a human — but hands were easier to sew with than clawed talons. A piece of thong threaded through the holes and Díleas had four baggy boots.
Díleas looked critically at the things on his feet. Sniffed them.
“Dragon hide,” said Fionn. “I wouldn’t show them to any dragons you happen to meet, but otherwise they’ll do. And really, scarlet boots match the bauble on your collar.”
Díleas cocked an ear at him. Fionn wasn’t ready to bet the dog didn’t grasp sarcasm, so he merely said, “Well, let’s go. The only thing we’re likely to meet are demondim, and they like red anyway.”
They didn’t like dragons, but were suitably afraid of them, so that was the form Fionn assumed, as the two of them walked into the badlands. It reeked of sulphur and burning, and Fionn knew the ground could collapse under their feet, dropping them down hundreds of cubits to white-hot ashpits. Vast coal measures had been pierced by ferocious vulcanism, and deep down, somewhere, it burned still. Fionn blinked his eyes to allow himself to see other spectra, patterns of energy, that might allow him to spot such instability before it killed Díleas. But the dog seemed aware and moved with a slow caution that he hadn’t showed up on the bridge.
It was, as befitted a fire-creature world, hot and waterless. Fionn noticed that Díleas was panting. He’d have to learn to carry water for the dog, or to somehow carry the dog while he flew, because there were worse places than this, in the vast ring of planes that Fionn had once maintained the stability of. He was a planomancer, made by the First for this task, and there was plenty of work waiting for him.
Right now, it could wait. All he did was to make a few preliminary marks with his talon and tail.
And simply because he’d said to Díleas that they would see nothing here but demondim, right now he could hear noises that were very unlike those beloved of the creatures of fire. A jangle of bells, and, clearly, a bark. And human voices.
Díleas, panting, could hear them too. Dogs could hear more keenly than humans, but not dragons.
Fionn changed his form again, becoming human in appearance. A dragon would almost certainly be an unwelcome sight. He could, and possibly should, leave the demons to their nasty games. But he had some sympathy for humans these days. She’d taught him that. He would help, simply for her sake. They moved towards the voices and sounds.
The caravan of carts was moving, slowly, along a causeway of blue-black hexagonal blocks. Probably the safest place around here, reflected Fionn, although you had to consider just what had flattened the top of the columnar dolerite dyke into a narrow straight road across the ash fields and lava lands. Bells tinkled from every horse’s harness strap. Whoever they were, they were not ignorant of demondim and their dislikes, or quite the helpless lost travelers Fionn had expected. The fire creatures liked to mislead and torment those. But whoever had made those bells knew a thing or two about the demondim. They’d been made either to very precise mathematical formulae, or been shaved very carefully into making an octave.
“Go on, Díleas. We might as well see just who they are and what they’re up to and cadge you a drink, panting dog,” said Fionn, prodding him with a toe.
Díleas dropped his head and looked warily not at the advancing carts but at the trail in front of them. He gave a soft growl. So Fionn looked closer. It was a well concealed little trap, the clinker plates hiding the thing’s lair. The Silago wasn’t a particularly intelligent predator, but it didn’t need to be. All it did was to make a bit of a trail and lie in wait. Eventually something — if there was anything — would choose the easiest trail and walk into its maw, just as he nearly had. Half-rock, half-animal, it didn’t need to eat more than once every few years anyway. Fionn found a piece of glassy rock and tossed it at the clinker plates. They collapsed inwards and a segmented creature with long snapping jaws reared out, lashing about, looking for prey.
Fionn stepped back, Díleas had already neatly moved up against his side. And then the tossing Silago head sprouted an arrow shaft. And a second. Fionn paused, wondering if he should take refuge behind a rock spike. Any bow that could push an arrow hard enough to penetrate a Silago might even get an arrow into him.
The dark-skinned, white-haired man on the lead cart — with his recurved composite bow in hand, arrow on the string, and perky-eared dog growling from the seat beside him — was smiling though. A suspicious smile, but better than fear or anger, while he held that bow. And there were plainly others, because of that second arrow. “You ain’t one of the Beng,” he said, “because they don’t like dogs and they don’t walk on the ground. And they don’t like our bells or garlic. The question is who or what are you, stranger?”
Finn touched his hat. “Finn. I’m a gleeman. A traveling singer and jester. I juggle a bit too.”
The man didn’t put the bow down. “Not many inns or villages around here. Where are you from, gleeman? Abalach? Annvn? Carmarthen? Vanaheim? The Blessed Isles or Lyonesse?”
Fionn was an expert on tone. Lyonesse was probably not a good place to be from. He’d been there. He’d been everywhere, once upon a time.
In front of him the Silago still thrashed about. “None of those, recently,” he said cheerfully. “A place called Tasmarin. Back there.”
“Didn’t know there were any Ways over there,” said the traveler.
“It’s rather new, and I don’t think it’s going to see much traffic, judging by this charming countryside,” said Fionn waving at the ash lands. “And anyway, Tasmarin is quite full of dragons. They’re not overly friendly.” The Silago was threshing rather more weakly now. Fionn could simply have jumped over it, but not if he wished them to believe he was human. He slowly, calmly, reached into his pouch, took out three balls and began to juggle one handed. He’d found it very good for distraction and misleading before. And those little balls were made of osmium, both a lot harder and heavier than observers might guess. Fionn could throw them fast enough to knock an armored knight out of the saddle. “To tell the truth I am a little lost. And my dog could use a drink.”
The cartman smiled again. “I think we could probably sell you some water. And the road should see you to Annvn, if you stick to it. You’ll have to wait until the Beng-child is dead, though. They usually put themselves in the middle of the only safe path. It’s surprising you got this far.” His tone said that alone was reason for not putting aside his bow, just yet.
Fionn shrugged, not stopping his juggling. It was good for hypnosis too. “The dog is good at finding safe ways.”
“I like his footwear,” said the cartman.
“Worn by all the best dogs in the capitals of many great lands. It also keeps his feet from being cut up. Purely as a secondary thing, you understand,” said Fionn. He pointed to the Silago. “It’s dying, whatever it is.” There was no point in admitting to knowing too much.
“Give it a little more time, gleeman. Even half-dead, the Beng-child will have your arm off, and might scratch the dog’s boots. When it’s dead we’ll have the jaws off it. They’ll fetch a good price where we’re headed.”
Fionn nodded patiently, which was more than Díleas was showing signs of. “Where did you say you are bound for?”
“Annvn. Well, if it’s there. You never know these days.”
Fionn raised an eyebrow. “And where else might it be?” He was a planomancer. There was a logical consistency to where the various planes of existence interlocked. It was not variable. The multidimensionality and subplanes of it all meant it was more complex than a mere three-dimensional ring would be. It was possible that points of departure and arrival could be geographically close. But until Tasmarin had opened up a way to multiple planes, one link point did not lead you elsewhere. Had Tasmarin changed it all?
“Last time we took the giant’s road we found ourselves in Lyonesse. If that happens we’ll head back,” he said, putting the bow aside, and getting down from the cart. He pulled a long metal stake and a hammer from the cart. Looked for a crack, found one and hammered it in. “How far to this Tasmarin place?” he said casually, in an I-am-not-fishing-for-information tone.
Fionn was amused, and used to human ways. “Not far. I could tell you in some detail in exchange for a drink for my dog.”
“Ah, you’re a sharp one,” said the cartman, grinning. “Worth a trading venture?”
“Probably,” said Fionn. “What are you selling?”
“Things which are exotic in one place and cheap in another. Peacock feathers and pepper, bottles of mermaids’ tears, amber, narwhal ivory, and carved walrus tusks this trip.”
“I’d say pepper would sell.” It was a game, and Fionn played it well.
“Ah. One of those places,” said the traveler. “Magic, and the creatures of it are more common than pepper. Hey, Nikos, Dravko. The Beng-child is ready for you to butcher the jaws out of. You might as well come across, stranger.”
Fionn could see things they could not. The Silago was not dead. He patted Díleas. “The dog thinks it is faking, mister. And he’s a sharp dog.” He caught all the juggling balls in one hand, and picked up another rock and flung it at the open jaws, which snapped closed viciously and sent splinters of rock flying.
The white-haired man looked very thoughtful indeed. “Sharp dog he is. And earned himself a drink, I’d say, gleeman. Maybe worth asking you about the way across to this place.”
“I made marks.” He had. With a talon. They were not intended as trail markers but they could work as that without undoing his purpose. Energies needed to flow, and the travelers could be vehicles for that. Travelers tended to be a cunning lot though. Over the years he’d known and journeyed with a fair number of these sort of folk, too many to believe them to be easily fooled or used without them knowing.
“Ah. It’s a sharp master too. A wonder you don’t cut yourself, gleeman. Nikos, come and give the Beng-creature a good poke with that black iron spear of yours.”
Someone knew — or had known — a great deal about demondim and the few creatures that survived just what they had made of their worlds, thought Fionn, looking at the spear in the next swarthy man’s grasp.
It wasn’t iron-edged and had a fair weight of magework about it. Antimony might not be the ideal metal for edging anything, but it was deadly toxic to the silicate sulphur of the Silago.
Soon Fionn and Díleas were able to pass the two traveler men cutting at the dead Silago. The dog on the seat of the lead cart growled and bristled. “Hear now, Mitzi. That’s no way to greet a dog with smart red boots,” said the lead cartman. Díleas was studiously ignoring her. The cart driver got down, and tapped some water out of a small keg into a bowl. Held it out to Fionn. “Here, gleeman. Best if your dog drinks a little way from Mitzi. It’s her bowl.”
Fionn gave a little bow. “Thank you, goodman. This place was hotter than we expected. Dustier too.”
“Ah well, you’ve a fair distance to travel in it. Best to be prepared. My name is Arvan, gleeman. I only look like a good man.”
“Call me Finn. Most do,” said Fionn, taking the water and setting it on the ground. He noticed the watchfulness of the lead cart driver. The watchfulness of the dogs on the seats of the other eleven carts. The fact that they had at least two other men hidden in them, and they weren’t watching him or Díleas. The water smelled all right, wasn’t bespelled Díleas sniffed it too, and then drank with a great deal of tongue splashing. He had needed that. Well, he was wearing a good thick coat of black and white fur.
“And now, Finn, if you’d tell me a bit about this Tasmarin place, I could offer you a mug of beer,” said Arvan. Fionn knew the name was a small part of the traveler’s true name, which suggested that the travelers knew of the importance of those too. Well, they did accumulate knowledge or fail to survive.
“It’s an hour’s walk from here. See the double smoking peak? Bear just left of that. You’ll find this symbol scratched on the rock here and there.” Fionn scratched it with his toe in the dust. “There is a narrow white bridge that you will have to cross. Not much room for a cart on it. And the dragons on the other side are fond of gold, so I’d take care to appear poor.”
“Oh, we are,” said Arvan, tapping Fionn a small flagon of beer. It was good beer.
“They can smell gold at twenty paces,” said Fionn, who could smell theirs, above the beer. It was under the front end of the cart. Probably a hidden panel or something.
“Ah. There haven’t been many around for a while. People wondered where they’d got to. Some of us wanted to know.”
“There, that’s where,” said Fionn.
The jaw cutters had finished their work by now, and they carried them back to the causeway and roped them onto the back of the cart, still dripping black ichor. The little caravan set off again, Fionn and Díleas walking alongside the lead cart. It was, it appeared by Díleas’s behavior, the direction they needed to go.
A mile or so later the causeway was interrupted by what might have been called a river, if rivers boiled, and did not run with anything anyone could have called water, although scalding water diluted it. It ran through a fresh fracture in the dolerite, and the steam reeked of brimstone and the almond smell of cyanides. Arvan scratched his head. “That’s a new one.”
Fionn tried to work out the least obtrusive way of changing the situation. Energy and fire magic abounded here. There was even an ancient water pattern. The place had been verdant once. A tweak here and there But it would all take time, and by the way that fool-of-a-very-clever sheepdog was pacing back and forth and bunching his muscles, he would try jumping soon.
The beautiful crone-enchantress, the queen of Shadow Hall, stared vengefully at her seeing-basin. Dun Tagoll — dark stone towers silhouetted against the moonlit sea — seemed to stare back at her. He’d protected it as well as he was able, and she could see no further into the castle on the cliff top. She had stared at it, the same way, for over fifty years now. Eventually, she would win. A few hours earlier she’d felt a surge of magical energy, and wondered if he’d finally died. But no, the tower still resisted her vision — it would not if he was dead, she was sure. So, the fight must continue. She was busy mustering her forces, yet again. She worked with her unwitting allies’ fears, and she had the Cauldron of Gwalar. It brewed and bubbled now. Soon she would cast pieces of yet another dead hero in the seethe of it. They had to be boiled apart, or at least finely diced, before she could reassemble them and reanimate them. And then dispatch them to whichever of the nineteen worlds Lyonesse would try to leech off this time.
She stared at the image in the seeing-basin. The tallest tower and its highest window. There was a light there. He would be working away, creating falsehoods and illusions. Working on his simulacra and devices. Bah. Machinery. She had been fascinated by it once, the cogs and springs and the mechanisms for harnessing the tides themselves. The smell of oil, and magic
He was not a summonser, but one who worked inanimate things and the laws of contagion and sympathy. She used that, but drew on higher powers too. The powers of life and death. She learned as much of his craft as she could, of course. In those days Dun Tagoll had been the place to learn and to practice magecraft. He’d stopped that. He didn’t like competition.
To think she’d loved him once. Trusted him with their secret. Sworn eternal faith to each other and their secret. Dreamed that some day She spat into seeing-basin, shattering the image.
Death would take him one day.
And it could not be a day too soon for her.
In the meanwhile she had to finish the warrior in her cauldron. And then get onto making more muryans. Shadow Hall would have to walk again, to follow Lyonesse, to raise war and chaos and foes against it. She followed Lyonesse’s progression across myriad leagues and subplanes in her palace of shadows.
Her hall moved. It did so on tiny ant feet. Many, many ant feet.
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