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Dog and Dragon: Chapter Nine
Last updated: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 21:47 EDT
“Yesterday, all you wanted was to go west,” said Fionn as Díleas danced around him, barking. Darting off southward, and then running back to see if Fionn was following. Doing everything but to bite the dragon’s heels to get him to follow. “You’d have been well served if I’d had have left you there for the plump lady to pamper, forced to sit on a satin cushion, and be fed sweetmeats for saving her precious boy. It wasn’t easy getting you out of there, but the last thing we need is a young knight traveling with us as well. He’s probably trying to track us, and we’re a lot harder to follow moving down the roadway than fighting our way through the forest.”
Díleas was paying no attention to his eloquence, so Fionn gave up and followed. He wasn’t prepared for the sheepdog to turn around and give him a lick on the nose.
He also was not prepared for another trilith, some three hundred yards into the forest. A low, squat one, barely five cubits from the forest floor to the balancing stone, and covered in enough moss and fern to blend into the woods.
“Now just how did you know that was there? And I’ll warrant it leads to elsewhere,” said Fionn.
It did. They came out in a long grassy dale, with the hills rising all around them. Fionn smelled the air. And then turned his back on the dog and went to have a long hard look at the trilith which wasn’t there. He walked back up the track past where they had stepped into this place. It did not take him back to the forests of Brocéliande.
“A one-way gate. And another I did not know existed. Either things have changed in the wider planes while I’ve been trapped, or I knew very much less than I thought I did.” Fionn used his vision to peer into the currents of energy around the spot, ignoring the dog and his “come on” bark. There was very little sign of the vast flow of magic and other energies that such a displacement should cause. Someone or something very skilled had set up this gate.
Fionn preferred to be the one who knew more than others, to being the one who was still trying to understand. Why had the dog come this way? How did it know where the gate was?
And did it really, somehow, as he hoped desperately, know where his Scrap of humanity was? He missed her fiercely.
Up the slope some white-grey shapes ran away. “Sheep. Yes, Díleas, I am coming. I don’t entirely like it, but I am coming. And you should be a very happy sheepdog as there seem to be a lot of sheep, rather than wolves, afancs and giants not to mention the mother of knights here. Lead on. Here I think the appearance of being human will lead to less problems.”
It felt like Albar or Carmarthen. Which was illogical. Ys and Cantre’r Gwaelod abutted Brocéliande. But as the trilith gated way had proved, there were places and things that he had known nothing of, linking places, obviously by some sort of different mechanism. Well, Groblek could be anywhere
They walked on. Díleas seemed determined that only one direction would do, taking them cross-country and through a muddy stream, over several dry-stone walls and into some conflict with a shepherd and his dogs on the steep hill-path they were following. “What are you doing in this pasture?” yelled the shepherd standing astride the path next to some large boulders. “Here, Strop, Cam. See them off, boys.”
Two black-and-white sheepdogs, remarkably like scruffier versions of Díleas, hurtled towards them, barking, dividing at the last minute, to flank them, and then suddenly getting the smell of dragon.
They weren’t stupid dogs. They were a lot brighter than the shepherd, Fionn decided. Brighter than Díleas, who was regarding the two suddenly halted dogs with a display of fur, a curled lip exposing his teeth and a deep burring growl. “We’re just passing through, fellow. Call off your dogs, and we’ll be on our way.”
“Not over my master’s land you’re not! Strop, Cam, gettim.”
The dogs advanced. Not in a hurry.
“Díleas. Put your head between my legs,” said Fionn quietly.
The sheepdog did, and Fionn whistled. He’d found dogs — and animals who heard higher frequencies — did not like that whistle. People didn’t even hear it.
The dogs did. So did the sheep on the hillside and quite a lot of mice and a fox. They all wanted to leave.
The shepherd did quite a lot of yelling and then some whistling. And a fair amount of swearing. “He lacks originality, Díleas,” said Fionn, addressing himself to the sheepdog. “And you’re a young dog. I don’t think you should be listening like that,” because Díleas plainly was listening, head cocked to one side, tongue a little out. Looking at his expression, Fionn was fairly sure Díleas was laughing in doggy fashion. “Now, shepherd, we’re tracking someone we’ve lost. Will you get out of our way, or shall I repay the favor by letting Díleas bite you? Or I could toss you down this hill? I’ve no real desire to fight, but I’m in a hurry.”
One of the sheepdogs had returned to behind its master, nearly crawling on its belly, tail between its legs. The other was staying a lot further off. “What have you done to my dogs?” said the shepherd, backing up himself. “I can’t let you walk over here. My lord said I was to keep people off. They’re stealing his game, he said.”
“Don’t be dafter than you have to be,” said Fionn, his sympathy, as usual, with whoever was stealing the odd pheasant. “Firstly, you can see I’m not stalking or hunting anything, and secondly, I’m not going to tell him I met you if I happen to run across him. And who else will tell him? I’m just passing through.”
“But but there is now’t up there. Just devil’s leap.”
“Then maybe I’m the devil, going there.”
The shepherd looked at him, wide-eyed, and then jumped down the rocks on the edge of the path and ran away as fast as his legs could carry him, followed by his dogs.
“Come on, Díleas. Barking at him is just rude,” said Fionn. “I think we’ve started a new legend, which is enough chaos for one day. And it should make poaching up here a bit easier too. I do like doing public service, especially when it involves a mischief. And something tells me you’re taking me to this ‘devil’s leap.’”
Indeed he was.
It was well-named, if you were human. A great plate of cap-rock had been eroded into a narrow tongue, while the softer underlying rock had been eaten away. It hung above the wrinkled valleys of the lowlands a thousand feet below.
To a dragon, of course, it looked like it could be prime real estate, especially if there was a cave somewhere close. The difference was that dragons had wings, and dogs and humans were a little short of those.
And that fool dog was simply walking towards the drop. It did seem to be giving him pause well, he was slowing down. “Wait. Díleas, this is a better task for a dragon than a human. And better too for a dog to have a dragon for company. I really need to rig you some kind of harness. Aha! I have it. The coil of traveler rope. Let’s tie it to you, because my talons might have a bad effect on a fast falling dog.”
So they stopped, high above the world, where along a distant roadway a cart toiled. Fionn could detect a minor perturbation in the energy flow here, but he would never have found it without getting so close. Whoever had built these Ways between worlds had been adept at hiding them from planomancers, also from others here, if reaching them involved walking over a cliff.
The dog got a long harness, which, Fionn could tell by his pawing at it and sniffing, was less popular than the red boots had been. “I haven’t got you on a lead. You’ve got me on one,” said Fionn taking the end in a dragon talon, and wrapping it around his leg. “So lead.”
And Díleas did. One cautious foot at a time stepping out into the air. And then, he leapt into space. Fionn followed. Either the dog knew more or could sense more than a planomancer, or it was just a really crazy dog.
They did fall.
But not far enough for Fionn to unfurl his great wings. Actually he had to do a frantic roll in the air so as not to land on the dog. And the turf they landed on was springy and covered in thick moss. There were trees — gnarled, huge, ancient trees — overhanging the dell. The air was sleepy, warm, and full of the gentle background sounds of bees.
Fionn was attuned to the use of energies and magics. He knew this for what it was. He turned to Díleas, who had flopped down, panting. “Come, dog. Don’t even think of lying down. Think of rats, or rabbits, or better still, busy beavers. Or you’ll end up like that.” He pointed to a green-white curved dome, lying in the shade. It might have been a rock, except for the eye sockets. Díleas got up and walked with leaden feet, still with the rope leash on, too tired to even protest that indignity. There were other bones here in the forest. A rotten femur nearly tripped him. Fionn could feel the lethargy affecting him too. Dragons were not as much affected by the magic of other species, not even the magic of the tree-people. How many desperate humans had walked to the devil’s leap to jump and found themselves here? Spared to become plant food. They walked towards another long-dead human, with shreds of faded clothing and a rusted sword and hauberk. Fionn picked up the sword in his dragon talons. The dog was swaying on its feet. “That’s enough,” he said. “Stop this now or there will be trouble.”
The dog sat down. Yawned. And Fionn threw the sword as if it were a knife, to peg in the nearest tree. The branches swung lower over them. “Dragon fire is next,” said Fionn grimly, hauling Díleas to his feet by the leash. “Onwards.”
The sleepiness lifted as they moved on. Fionn searched out the patterns of the working. It was a deep and old enchantment, that the trees had merely enhanced. But it had been intended as place of rest, not a final resting place. A place to comfort and allow the wounded in heart and spirit who fell into this place to recover.
Kindly meant. Not predatory.
The sprite-trees who had moved in had found it a good way of obtaining fresh nitrates. That irritated Fionn. Well, the tree-people irritated him quite easily. The First had created vegetative intelligence, but wood had shaped it. Fionn wondered if he should burn the place. But there was real beauty all around, so he settled for collecting together a small mound of skulls that could be seen from the entrance, and scratching a little symbol on each. The sleep spell did not work on insect life, but merely on vertebrates. And now it would still be a wonderful place to sleep if not for the mosquitos that would infest it henceforth, and make it impossible. Fionn chuckled quietly to himself as they walked on. He saw Díleas stop and scratch furiously and attempt to bite at the base of his tail.
He looked anything but asleep. “Ah. Fleas too. They are an irritation, but at least you can get rid of them with a bath, Díleas. Those blackhearted old trees there wanted all of your blood, not just a few drops.”
Díleas scratched and wrinkled his nose at Fionn. “You’ll live through a bath. You would not live through that place. Let’s move on.”
A half a mile further and they merely had the fleas and not the tiredness. Fionn knew that that was a good bargain, even if the trees would not have thought so.
Díleas rolled and rubbed his back, and Fionn kept a lookout for fleabane plants. Dragon hide was hard for a flea to get through, but these ones were hungry and determined. It was a pity they didn’t eat Sprite. A little later Fionn and Díleas came on a stand of silver birch — with a sprite. There was something familiar about them. It was Lyr. All the tree-sprites on Tasmarin had been Lyr, part of the one tree that was Lyr.
The beautiful tree-woman bowed. “Fionn. We bear fruit.”
“Ah. So he is still fertile, is he?” Plainly the sprites who had been trapped in Tasmarin were either leaving there or merely spreading back to other sprite places. His Scrap had given them back their male sapling, and brought the long-dead stick back to life. Male sprites had no intelligence, but plenty of sprite-pollen.
There was a joyousness in the “Yes.”
“Good. He is growing well?” asked Fionn, out of politeness. They made bad enemies, the sprites. The sisterhoods — and there were various forms, each associated with its own tree type, and some were more talkative and friendly than others, although all of them poorly understood animal life, and did not tolerate it very well. Lyr had been one of the worst until his little Scrap had given them what they needed.
The sprite nodded her gracious head. They were beautiful. Humans, and alvar, found them almost irresistibly so. Dragons, and it appeared dogs, could take them or leave them. “The human chose well. The soil there is rich.”
“I think she made it like that for him,” said Fionn. “She had powers over earth, and she’s, well, kind by nature. It’s not something you sprites understand, but it is something humans possess from time to time.”
“We had not understood humans. We need to cultivate more such. Where is she who gave us back our mate?”
“We’re looking for her ourselves. She is no longer on Tasmarin.”
“Lyr has not seen her. She has not been near living wood since the day the towers became bridges and some of us could return to sprite lands.”
That was worrying. The sprites weren’t everywhere of course. But they did have ties to forests, and all trees communicated. Mostly they did not say anything very interesting, except to other trees.
“Well. The dog is getting impatient, Lyr. It seems to know where it is going, and I am hoping it is to her. But if you find her well, a bit of dragon gratitude would be good for the trees.”
“If we find her, you will be told. We understand your role too in saving our beloved. We have learned the value of that.”
“The tree-women learn gratitude and wisdom,” said Fionn. “Well, you’ll have mine, if you help me find her and keep her safe.”
“Word will go out.”
Fionn and Díleas walked on. And on. As far as Fionn could establish, the dog walked as straight as it was possible to walk in the forest. That night they slept in a pile of dry leaves under the trees. It was warm enough for sheepdogs and dragons, anyway. Both of them would have preferred a comfortable bed, and a meal that consisted of something other than the remains of the food from Sir Bertran’s feast. There was no other animal life, and Fionn had not seen any fruit. Like Díleas he thought fruit was all very well for herbivores and omnivores. Not for dragons, unless it was a slice of melon wrapped in salty ham.
Drink was supplied by a stream. Díleas eyed it very suspiciously, and looked at Fionn a couple of times, before coming to drink thirstily. He was a very intelligent dog, to have learned the danger of afancs (and other water creatures he hadn’t met) but he seemed to prefer walking in the stream and drinking downstream of himself. Perhaps he liked the flavor of the mud. Fionn wondered if they would be reduced to eating that before they got out of this Sylvan world.
The next day was more of the same. Fionn found flows of unbalanced energy to put right. There was a newness about them. He wondered if they’d come about as a result of Tasmarin rejoining the great ring. That had to have had an effect. Magic would grow a little stronger in places. Much had been tied up just in keeping Tasmarin isolated. That magic would flow now.
It should change a great many dynamics. It might well even change the way magical forces worked.
Most mages performed their arts by rote. They’d find this interesting, thought Fionn with a nasty laugh, imagining the consequences. Undoubtably, what he’d just done was going to make their lives difficult.
It was a full hungry day and a night later, that they came to what Díleas had plainly been aiming for. As a way out of a Sylvan world, it was appropriate.
It was a row of trees well, it had been a noble double column of lance-straight firs, standing in what could only be a planted line to the top of a round hillock. A mound, Fionn guessed. An ancient one, that trees had long since covered. Díleas walked up, until he got to the last pair of trees which were different. They had been the same, but now they were just blackened stumps. That would put off the sprites, Fionn thought. They feared fire. Didn’t even like its old sign. Just as the people of Brocéliande would superstitiously avoid triliths
There was a pattern here.
Mysteries like this teased Fionn. He’d get to the bottom of it, just as he’d eventually work out how the dog knew where they were.
The other mystery was that, having got there, Díleas just sat down. He’d been eager to go through the gates to other places before. But now he was just sitting. Looking intently ahead. In a way that was worrying. The Sylvan worlds were slow-time worlds, not as much as the alvar ones, but still, a month might pass in human worlds while a day slipped by in the tranquil Sylvan forest.
Fionn tried walking past him. Díleas growled at him. A real growl. A “don’t do that even if you are a dragon” growl. So Fionn sat down, and waited. He stared into the energy patterns around him. Most of the time he confined his vision to the ordinary spectra and a few others. Otherwise it simply became too much for his brain to process. Now he looked deep, trying to learn more. Trying to learn how to find these gates to other planes. They were magical workings, and yet and yet showed little sign of their presence. The trees were centuries old at least. Had this been here when he’d soared over this forest looking for things to put right? The planes he patrolled were huge. He went to areas where the balance was disturbed. They often seemed to be the same places. That too was unsurprising.
Díleas suddenly got up, turned and barked at Fionn, and walked forward. The dog vanished from view as he stepped past a certain point. And there was quite a vortex of energy between the trees, right now. It hadn’t been present, earlier.
And was not surprised to find that they were elsewhere. And, pleasingly enough, in an elsewhere where he might find food for the two of them. That was undoubtably peat smoke on the air. Of course hearth fires had their own down sides, but it was better than hunting worms and bugs in Sylvan.
The problems the First had with the bauble of energy that hung from the dog’s neck were twofold. For a start it gave a limited view of the world that the dog experienced. It was not impossible to track the dog and dragon by their energies, but it was harder. It had been many eons since the First had exerted themselves, and the time dilations and contractions were confusing and very rapid. Logically they lived where time passed slowly. Very, very slowly. Some of the movements of the tiny gobbets of energy seemed absolutely microscopic, to the First.
But this was better than the Sylvan worlds. Annvn was a slower world, and they could move plenty of pawns here. They were easier to move than trees.
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