Elflands part 2: City Of Elves

Pen opened his eyes and moved slightly to get a better look at the ground a thousand feet below. He closed his eyes tight again, and gripped the rope as he wriggled to slide back into the tiny hollow behind Stormfront's wing shoulder. Ned the innkeeper had tied the rope had been tied in place that morning to give the wizard something to hold during take-off, and Pen found it reassuringly secure during the high altitude flight. They'd launched at daybreak and had been flying in full daylight for a few hours, but what warmth the sun shed was whisked away by the icy wind. Pen was chilled.
    The dragon paused to glide for a moment and looked back at the wizard. "You're pulling the rope again!" she called.
    "Sorry" shouted Pen, but the wind whipped his voice away. He released the rope and tried to cling to the scales beneath his body. Little Aurani scrambled over from her position near the left wing, and stretched out beside the wizard.
    "Don't be scared."
    "I'm not!" he said through chattering teeth.
    "Mum won't let you fall."
    Pen smiled at her. "I know. I just don't like heights." He looked forward, then gasped. "Fronnie! Land NOW!" he shouted.
    Stormfront heeled over immediately and dived without even pausing to question the wizard's urgent shout. They descended rapidly in a tight spiral with Mavrik close behind. In two minutes they were hovering ten feet above open ground. The dragon held her wings steady and they dropped the last few feet, her powerful legs absorbing the shock as they landed. Pen groaned and released the rope, slid to the ground and lay on the dew-soaked grass. Aurani jumped down and ran to the prone man, a look of concern on her face.
    Pen reached up and patted her on the snout. "I'll be right in a minute," he whispered. "That last drop gets me."
    The little dragon smiled at her friend. "That bit makes me laugh because my stomach feels funny," she said.
    "My stomach feels funny, too," said Pen. He sat up and blew on his hands, then jumped to his feet as the damp began to soak through his clothes.
    "I'm afraid there's no better way to land," said Stormfront as Mavrik landed beside them. Kehvarl and Ilyrin scrambled down as soon as their father had settled.
    "I know. I'll have to get used to it." The wizard saw the look on Mavrik's face. "Sorry about ordering you to land like that, but you see those hills?" He pointed to a tree-covered ridge less than a quarter of a mile away. The dragons turned and nodded. "That's the western edge of the Elflands. If we flew over there uninvited we'd be a target for every archer in the district."
    "We'd better walk over and find someone to invite us, then," said Mavrik. "Take your time." With that he trotted off into the surrounding woodlands.
    Kehvarl wrinkled his snout. "Walk?" he exclaimed. "Can we fly?"
    "Only if we want to be filled with arrows," said Pen. The three young ones stared at him, their eyes growing wide. "We'll walk because it's safe."
    "But is it safe?" wondered Stormfront.
    "It's safer than flying," said Pen. "Around here there's no place you can truly call 'safe.'"
    Stormfront sighed and nodded. "Well, then. We'd better start walking."
Alac reigned in his horse and listened. He could hear the sounds of a sizeable creature moving with great stealth through the boarder woodlands. It was doing a fair enough job of sneaking, but it could not escape his keen hearing. He judged the beast was huge, and there could be only one creature that large: a dragon.
    The elf stood in the stirrups and peered through the trees. A shadow moved. Not a shadow, a black dragon! A cunning one, at that. It must have known it would be seen if it flew, so it was sneaking into the Elflands on the ground.
    He urged his war-horse forward. The animal moved silently between the trees, hoof-falls muffled by the soft grasses, and picked a line to pass behind the dragon. They turned to follow the beast through the woods, pausing when it paused, hiding in shadows as it looked around. His green and brown Hunter's clothes and the horse' frilled riding tack blended into the forest.
    This one is cautious, thought Alac. Not like the last one. That one was a young male, all inexperience and stomach. He killed so many cattle and sheep before they could drive him away they called him Herd-killer. This new dragon was different. Stealthy, clever.
    He followed it into a glade and stopped. The dragon reached the centre of the clearing and paused, its nose raised as it smelled the air. Alac drew his sword. The beast spun and stared at him, a look of shock and surprise on its face.
    "Oh!" gasped Mavrik. "I don't suppose-"
    Alac charged. Mavrik leapt out of the way as the elf slashed at him. The sword caught the end of his tail.
    The opponents watched each other warily from opposite sides of the clearing, the elf on his warhorse with his weapon drawn, the dragon hunched over and clutching the tip of his tail to his chest. As they glared at each other Mavrik's family and the wizard pushed their way into the clearing. The elf moved so he could watch all the strangers.
    "I see you brought your horde," said Alac.
    Ilyrin looked up at Pen. "Are we a horde?" he whispered loudly. The wizard shook his head.
    "Why did you attack?" asked Mavrik.
    "That was only a warning. You are not wanted here," said Alac.
    "That hurt!"
    There was a long silence as the enemies glared at each other.
    "I don't like him," said Aurani suddenly.
    Alac barked a short, humourless laugh. "And I don't care what a stupid little dragon thinks-erk." A pair of large, scaly hands clamped around his shoulders and dragged him into the air. The horse gave a squeal of fright and ran into the trees.
    Mavrik held the struggling elf an inch away from the end of his snout. "I don't mind that you attack me without provocation, or that you cut me with a sword," he hissed. "But I DO mind when you insult children." His eyes narrowed. "My daughter. What sort of Knight are you?" He put Alac on the ground and turned away to show his contempt, trusting that the elf's code of honour would not permit a backstab. Even so, his shoulder blades and spine tingled.
    Alac retrieved his sword from where it had fallen and stood silently, staring at the scaled back before him. He knew in his heart that the dragon was right; no matter what grievances he had with the beast, he shouldn't have turned his anger on the young one. Behind him, someone sniffed.
    Stormfront watched Mavrik and the elf. His words had angered her to the point of striking. If Mavrik had not grabbed the man first, she would have struck him down in a second. Now Aurani sat with head bowed before her. She rubbed her daughter's back and the little one sobbed once.
    Alac turned suddenly and walked toward them with sword in hand. Mavrik followed him and sat beside his mate. Stormfront unsheathed her talons and prepared to attack but a hand touched her arm. She looked down at the wizard who shook his head slightly. She let her talons slip back into the ends of her fingers but she did not relax.
    The elf gazed down at the three young dragons. The males stood either side of their sister and glared at the tall man, but the little yellow female's eyes were wide and wet, and full of hurt. Her stare stabbed into his heart. She stood proud but the look on her face reminded Alac of his own daughter when he was unjustly harsh to her.
    In one swift movement he went down on one knee before Aurani and placed his sword on the ground before her. Mavrik and Stormfront looked at each other in surprise, then turned to the wizard. Pen did not move.
    "You father is right," said Alac softly. "My grievances should not be taken out on one as young as you. I have shamed myself. Please forgive my words, and I will pledge my services to you for the duration of your journey though the Elflands."
    Aurani shuffled back nervously and glanced up at Pen. The wizard's mouth twitched in a faint smile as he bent down to her ear. "If you accept the elf's apology, take his sword," he whispered.
    Aurani stared at the bright blade on the grass. It was four feet long and had no decoration apart from a short row of Elvish runes and a tree etched onto the surface. This was not a showpiece. She shuddered as she wondered how much blood had stained the sharp edges.
    "I don't want the sword," said Aurani, pushing the weapon back to Alac. "But I do want to be your friend. I don't like fighting."
    "Neither do I," said Alac as he sheathed his sword. "But sometimes we must defend our homes. I am Alamathric, Forrester of the King. My friends call me Alac."
    "I am Aurani. These are my brothers, Ilyrin and Kehvarl." She looked up. "And my mum, Stormfront, and Mavrik my dad. And our friend Pen."
    "Don't tell him our names!" hissed Kehvarl.
    Pen smiled slightly. "Hullo Alac. It's been a few years.
    "It has been quite a few years, Mithdae."
    Kehvarl glared at the Elf. "Have you ever fought a dragon?"
    "Several," said Alac. "No killing, though. We only wanted to drive them away. The last one especially. He was more destructive than all the others."
    "What was his name?" asked Stormfront. Her opinion of the Elf had risen greatly. Now she had to watch the children in case they started treating Alac as a servant. She would not have that.
    "I don't know," replied Alac. "We simply called him the Herd-killer." He saw Pen and Stormfront turn to look at Mavrik, who sat back and wrung his hands nervously.
    "No, it couldn't be Mavrik!" exclaimed Alac. "That other dragon had baggy grey skin."
    "Well, actually it was me," muttered Mavrik. "And I wasn't baggy!" he added sharply. Stormfront looked at him until he hung his head. "I'm sorry," he said meekly. "I was young and stupid, and hungry."
    "I suspect that is not why you are here now, with a wizard," said Alac.
    "No," said Pen. "What do you know of a wizard named 'Kraca'?" Alac scowled but said nothing. Pen nodded. "More than you like, I see."
    "I heard The Crow was poisoning the King's counsel in Parlenleth High City," replied Alac. "Or he was when I was there last. I said I did not like the man, and was sent to patrol the boarder wilds." He saw Pen and Mavrik exchange a glance. "You are pursuing this wizard?"
    "I don't suppose you've seen some gems that glow with a green light, by any chance?" asked Pen. "They have an unwholesome feeling about them"
    Alac stared at the wizard silently for long minutes. "No," he said eventually. "I think I'd better take you to Parlenleth. It's a two-day walk from here. You can stay at my house tonight, and we'll be there tomorrow evening."
    "I don't like walking," grumbled Ilyrin.
    "Do you have cow meat at your place?" asked Kehvarl excitedly.
    Alac laughed. "I see you inherited more than just back stripes from your father."

The group wandered through quiet woods. Alac rode his horse while Mavrik and Stormfront walked on either side. Pen lay on his back between Mavrik's wings and felt the sun drive away the chill of the early morning flight. He listened to Stormfront question the elf about Mavrik's last visit, while Mavrik did his best to defend himself. The three young dragons ran between the trees, occasionally climbing onto their father's back to rest.
    About mid-morning they came across a wide road. Alac said it would take them to his hometown.
    "Can we stop for a rest?" asked Stormfront. "I'ml hot."
    "We'll cross a river just a mile down the road," said Alac. "You can rest there, or have a swim."
    Pen sat up suddenly. "How do you feel, Fronnie?"
    "Tired and thirsty," replied Stormfront.
    The wizard climbed to the ground and went to Stormfront. He placed a hand on the dragon's neck. The scales were hot. "Mav? How do you feel?"
    Mavrik turned his head and blinked at the wizard. "Hmm? Oh! Yes, the same. Tired and thirsty."
    "What's wrong, Pen?" wondered Stormfront.
    "You're both overheating," said Pen. "We'd better get to that river quickly. You need to soak in there for an hour or so."
    "That sounds nice," sighed Stormfront.
    Twenty minutes later they came to a wide stone bridge that spanned the deep, slow flowing river. They scrambled down the bank. Mavrik and Stormfront fell into the water with a great splash. Pen and Alac sat in the shade under an arch and watched the dragons sink into the cool flow. Pen leapt to his feet when Stormfront sank completely from sight, but he relaxed when the tip of her snout poked above the surface and she blew a great gust of air from her nostrils.
    Mavrik sank into the cool water and relaxed his wings, letting them drift in the current so the cool waves washed around their thin membranes. He reached forward and cupped his hand under Stormfront's chin to hold her head above the surface. She opened her eyes and smiled at him, but she did nothing to lift more than her snout above the surface. "How much further to your town?" he called to Alac.
    "Another three hours at the rate we are going," replied the elf. "We can wait until it's cooler before we set off."
    Mavrik nodded and sank into the water.
    "That's a good idea," said Pen quietly. "Those two are in a bad way. We're lucky the heat didn't get too bad. They'll need a good hour to cool off."
    "I thought dragons were resistant to heat," said Alac.
    Pen nodded. "From the outside, they are. But this is coming from within and walking all this distance is making it worse. They usually fly everywhere." He sighed and lay back in the cool grass. "And I could do with some time in the shade, too." The young dragons gathered around his head and stared down.
    "We're hungry," said Kehvarl.
    "You're always hungry."
    "No, we're really hungry," added Ilyrin.
    "Yes, you're that too." Pen closed his eyes but small hands grabbed his shoulder and shook him. "Someone's going to get turned into a lizard." The shaking stopped.
    Alac laughed as he stood. "I'll see what I can hunt up," he said, shouldering his bow.
    Half an hour later the youngsters were munching a pair of rabbits each. Mavrik and Stormfront rested their heads on the bank and discussed their journey.
    "Are you sure we can't fly?" asked Stormfront.
    "Not today," said Alac. "If you launch now you'll never get more than a few leagues. The messengers will go out tonight so tomorrow will be different. My people will be aware of you."
    Stormfront sighed and sank deeper in the river.

Golden light from the late afternoon sun softened the colours of the countryside. Bird song and the occasional insect call mingled with the faint sounds of a town drifting over the tall stone wall. The travelers waited a dozen paces from the gate and watched as their guide spoke to the gatekeeper.
    Mavrik looked at the sun over his shoulder, and sighed. "I wonder what's taking so long?" The long walk left him tired and foot-sore and desperately wishing this ground journey was at an end.
    "Patience, Mav," said Pen. "They have to gather the council to meet us in the square."
    Pen shrugged. "It's how they greet strangers." As he spoke, the two elves at the gate looked inside, then Alac turned and trotted over to them.
    "They're ready to see you," said the elf. "Pen, you and the young ones enter first, then Stormfront, then Mavrik and me."
    Pen frowned. "That's an odd order. Shouldn't you lead us in?"
    "I want the people to see you and the youngsters first, and then their mother," said Alac. "They will react better, especially when they see the cute little dragons."
    "I'm not cute," grumbled Kehvarl.
    "Of course not, dear," said Stormfront kindly.
    "But we have to pretend, don't we?" asked Ilyrin.
    Alac smirked. "I'm afraid so." He nodded at Pen, and the little group walked through the gates.
    Aurani looked around as she followed Pen down the main street. White houses roofed with thick, golden thatch lined the road, set back a little so a narrow strip of green grass and flowers ran between the walls and the road.
    The street emptied into a wide square surrounded by tall timber buildings. The largest had three rows of windows below the peaked shingle roof. Set in the middle was a set of double wooden doors, huge and stained black with age. Standing on the road and barring their entry to the Town Square stood a group on Elves. Aurani saw one wore a fine gold chain, but apart from that he was clothed as the others, in greens and browns. Alac came forward to stand with Pen, and the travelers halted and waited. Kehvarl tweaked her tail, making her jump.
    After many minutes of silence the one with the gold chain stepped forward. "Greetings Greyshade, Wizard of the North West towns."
    "Greetings Morinar Strongbow, Representative of the High King," replied Pen.
    "You and Alac bring unusual companions with you," said Morinar.
    "I travel with them as a friend," said Pen quietly. "I do not bring them."
    Morinar frowned slightly but showed no other emotion. "What business causes Dragons to travel in our land?"
    Aurani tried to concentrate on the speeches but she grew bored. Kehvarl kept distracting her by tweaking the end of her tail.
    Stormfront bent down. "Go and sit in the shade by that yellow bush, Rani," she whispered, pointing to a tall shrub festooned with yellow flowers.
    The young dragon settled in the shade and examined the bush. She saw it was really a pair of shrubby trees, growing hard against the white-washed wall of a house. The golden blooms were a cascade of small flowers, each a tiny fluffy burst of yellow. She pulled a branch down to smell the perfume.
    "Psst!" The hiss was soft but sudden. Aurani jerked her hand back in alarm. "Don't be frightened," whispered someone.
    Aurani bent low to peer below the branches, and was surprised to see a smiling face. "Hullo."
    "Hello!" whispered the girl. She motioned at Aurani to join her behind the tree. "My name is Merrymathric," said the elf-maid as Aurani curled up between the wall and the trunks. "My friends call me Merry."
    "I am Aurani, but everyone calls me Rani." She looked around the enclosed space. They were in a tiny clearing formed by two trees and the garden wall. The hollow was lit from above with reflected light from the setting sun, making it a tiny world of soft light and blurred shadows.
    "I saw your brother tweaking your tail. They can be pests," said Merry.
    "Yes!" hissed Aurani with feeling. "Kevie is worse when he's bored. Illy is almost as bad." Merry reached out and stroked Aurani's arm. A familiar tingle ran down her spine. "You're a magic user!"
    "Of course," said Merry absently. "I'm an elf! And you're going to have golden scales," she added with a sigh.
    "Dad says we won't know until I shed when I'm big."
    "I can show you."
    With that the young elf whistled softly like a bird.
    The flowers before Aurani parted and a tiny golden face peered out at her. She gaped at the little dragon. "Who are you?" she gasped.
    "I call her Wattle," said Merry. "She looks like these flowers." There was a brief flutter of tiny wings and the little dragon was perched on Merry's right shoulder. The newcomer was twelve inches long from snout to tail-tip; a golden dragon in miniature.
    "She says her name is Eoz," said Aurani, "but she likes being called Wattle."
    "Who says?"
    "She does," said Aurani, pointing at the tiny dragon.
    Merry turned to stare at Wattle. "But they can't talk!"
    "Yes they can. It's real high and whistley, but I can understand it."
    Merry's eyes grew wide as the tiny head turned to her and bobbed up and down. "You really can talk?" More bobbing. "And no one knows you can?" The head moved from side to side. Merry beamed at her little friend and ran a finger along a wing. "I won't tell anyone. I promise."
    Aurani reached out to stroke the tiny back but Eoz snapped at her. "Hey! That's not nice!" After a moment's silence she added, "and you're rude."
    "Eoz is one of the few golden dragons."
    "There's more?" wondered Aurani.
    "Lots more," replied Merry. "They're mostly blue and green, but sometimes they have gold babies. They look like you," she added, "except they're tiny."
    The noise of a window opening came from directly above their heads. A woman leaned out and looked down at them. A look of surprise appeared for a moment when she saw Aurani, but then she smiled. Eoz fluttered to the windowsill and settled there. "Merry, tell your father the stables are clean and have new straw. Our large guests can sleep there. Our smaller guests can sleep near the fire if they wish."
    "Yes mum!" said Merry. The pair scrambled under the shrubs and ran over to the gathering where they waited for the adults to stop talking. Eoz followed and settled onto Merry's shoulder.
    "Tomorrow you will have a clear flight to the King's Land," said Morinar. "Will you travel with them, Alac?" He waited for Alac's nod before continuing. "Good. And tonight you have the hospitality of our little town."
    Aurani touched her mother's arm. "Can Merry come too?"
    Stormfront turned and smiled at the pair. "I'm afraid there won't be room for…uh-" She stopped and stared silently at the tiny dragon on the Elf-maid's shoulder. Eoz was already staring wide-eyed at the huge brown dragon.
    Mavrik heard his mate stuttering and turned to see what was wrong. He, too, froze on the spot. Eoz crept around Merry's neck to hide under her long hair.
    Morinar and Alac looked at each other, and then Morinar gave a quizzical nod at Merry. Alac shrugged. "What's wrong with my daughter?" he asked.
    "N-nothing," stammered Mavrik. "But there's a tiny dragon…"
    "The town-dragon?" wondered Alac, looking at the little snout poking through Merry's hair. "What's wrong with her?"
    Pen laughed suddenly. "I'm afraid Mavrik and Stormfront have just come face-to-face with a childhood story." The wizard went to Merry's side and held his hand near her shoulder. Eoz came slowly into the open grasped the wizard's index finger. "I see you have adopted my friend's family, Wattle."
    "I-I thought the town dragons were just stories! My mum told me about them when I was young," stammered Mavrik. He blinked at Pen. "Y-You know this dragon?"
    "I know many of the town dragons."
    "There's more?"
    "Many more! They're everywhere in the Elflands."
    "There's only one like Wattle," said Alac and gave the tiny golden head an affectionate rub. "I hope you meet the other residents of our house. Is the stable ready?"
    Merry nodded. "Mum says Aurani can sleep inside if she wants. And her brothers."
    "Is there food?" asked Ilyrin. He and Kehvarl were rubbing nipped fingers and glaring at Eoz.
    "We will be having a feast to honour our guests," said Morinar.
    Kehvarl's eyes lit up. "Feast?"
Pen drifted up from the depths of sleep. As he rose to wakefulness the headache reminded of the ale quaffed last night. His stomach indicated he'd eaten too much as well. He rubbed his face with both hands and sighed, "Oh boy. Too much feast." Something moved on the bed near his feet. Pen froze, opened his fingers a fraction, and peered at the intruder through the slits. There were a number of tiny blue forms curled up at the end of the bed.
    The whir of wings sounded briefly on the pillow beside the wizard's head. He turned and stared at the little green dragon, who stared back. "Good morning."
    The little dragon nodded at him then flew from the room. Pen sat up and gazed at the dragons sleeping around his legs. There were fourteen of them curled up in little hollows they'd made in the thick blanket. Their scales were all shades of blue, from the colour of the sky to a dark blue of evening. They raised their heads and blinked at him. "Good morning to you, as well."
    "'Morning, Pen."
    The wizard stared in confusion at the dragons for a moment before registering that the voice came from the door. He turned and saw the mistress of the house standing there, holding a tray with two ceramic mugs. The green dragon zoomed into the room and landed in Pen's lap. "Piath! I hope you're not too annoyed with us."
    Piamathrith smirked. "You and Alac were very happy last night. Merry and the young dragons were most amused by your songs."
    "Songs?" groaned Pen. "I can't sing!"
    "I know. And the pair of you were not-singing very loudly." She handed one of the mugs to her guest. "This will settle your stomach." Pen took the offered mug and drained it, then pulled a face. Piath passed him the second mug. "This is water to wash away the taste."
    "What was that stuff?"
    "A small spoonful of kaolin in water, that's all," said Piath. "Stop complaining, Healer. You know that clay is good for you." She took the cup and left the room.
    "Piath's upset with me," he whispered to the green dragon. She nodded her head. "I'm afraid you'll have to work extra hard today to keep the vermin out. If she sees a mouse she'll be annoyed with you, too." The dragon nodded again, but something about her caught Pen's attention. "There aren't any mice here, are there?" he asked. The dragon shook her head. Pen smiled when he recognized the radiated innocence. Mavrik's children did the same when they knew they were in trouble. The dragons around his feet roused and joined their friend. "You've driven them all away?" Fourteen heads nodded, but one of the blue dragons hung his head and stared at the folds of the blanket he was twisting in his hands. Pen felt their innocence. "You don't feed them and keep them safe from the elves?" he whispered.
    The group exchanged worried looks, then gazed at the wizard and shook their heads. The radiated innocence was almost overwhelming. Pen reached out and stroked the little sky-blue male who now sat staring at the wall. "You don't like lying, do you?" The dragon shook his head and sighed. The wizard turned the others and saw their concerned looks. "Your secret is safe with me but if I can discover it then the elves will, if they haven't already." The group departed in a whirring flurry, leaving behind the depressed dragon. An idea began to form in Pen's mind. "How would you like to come with me over the mountains to my home? I need someone to care for it while I am on my journeys." The little dragon looked up and smiled. "Good. But right now, my little cerulean friend, I need some privacy." The dragon nodded and departed.
    Fifteen minutes later Pen walked into the kitchen, stretching and yawning. "I'd forgotten how strong your beer is," he groaned as he sat at the table. Piath laughed as she placed a mug of tea in front of him. He looked over at the fire and saw the three young dragons sitting with Merry before the hearth. The young elf munched a slice of toast but the others each held a large piece of raw, red meat, which they chewed silently. He turned away quickly and gazed out the window until he realized the row of town dragons on the sill were also eating raw meat. With another groan he hung his head. Sitting beside the mug of tea was the little blue dragon, a large cube of meat clutched in his hands. "Oh, not you too!"
    "I think every dragon in town is in our courtyard," said Piath, gazing through the window. "Stormfront and Mavrik can't be getting much to eat."
    "They'll have enough," said Pen. He glanced up as Merry and Aurani appeared at his side, and thanked Merry as she handed over a slice of toast. "Do you know my little friend's name?" he asked Aurani.
    "He says his name is Captain Midnight," said Aurani. Eoz lost her grip on Merry's shoulder and fell onto the table, where she rolled from side to side. "Eoz is laughing a lot and says his name is really Zif," she added.
    Piath ran her finger down Zif's back. "I wish we could talk to them," she sighed. "So you're off to live with the wizard?" Zif nodded enthusiastically. "And what about your family?'
    "Family?" wondered Pen. Zif turned and stared at him with wide eyes and Pen wagged his finger. "That won't work on me. I know when you're doing that innocent thing. Besides," he added as he reached into the pocket of his coat and removed a dark blue female and a tiny baby, "I wondered if these two were coming with us." The female curled up tight in his palm and looked worried as she clutched the tiny form. Pen placed her on the table.
    "I wish I could go to High City," muttered Merry.
    "I wish I could stay," whispered Ilyrin. "Meetings are boring." Aurani and Kehvarl nodded.
    Piath stared at the four youngsters. "You can stay here if your parents-" She stopped at the four disappeared into the courtyard, shouting happily.
    Pen chuckled. "I hope you realize what you've done," he laughed.
    "They can help Merry with her chores."
    Their laugh was cut short by Mavrik's urgent shout. "PEN!"
    The wizard was on his feet in an instant and running for the door. He charged into the courtyard and almost tripped over Aurani. The others were all staring at her. "What's wrong?" he asked but they did not answer. He bent to examine the young dragon. She was tense and staring at nothing. "Rani?"
    Aurani blinked and looked at him. "I have to go," she whispered.
    "Piath said you can stay," said Pen
    "There's danger."
    "All the more reason to stay!" said Stormfront.
    "It's not dangerous for us," said Aurani. Her eyes became unfocused once more. "The wrong flowers," she whispered.
    Piath squatted beside Pen and cupped a hand under Aurani's chin. "What wrong with her?" she asked quietly.
    The other dragons crowded around them. "What is it Pen?' asked Mavrik.
    Pen held up a hand to quiet them. "I don't know. Something is at work here," he muttered.
    "Those flowers were wrong," said Kehvarl suddenly. Everyone stared at him. "The ones she ate, I mean. The foxy things."
    "The foxgloves?"
    Aurani sighed and relaxed. Stormfront scooped her up in a hug.
    "There's nothing wrong with foxgloves," said Piath with a frown. "The King's garden is full of them."
    "These aren't foxgloves," said Mavrik. "If they're in the King's garden we'll be lucky to find anyone alive," he added.
    "We should leave as soon as Alac returns from the hunt," said Pen. He turned and saw Merry standing in the door, her eyes wide with worry. "Merry! I need you to look after Zif and his family until we return. And see if you can find him something warm to travel in." Merry nodded and disappeared inside.
    Piath looked from Mavrik to Pen, searching their faces for an answer. "What's wrong with these flowers?"
    "I fear this wizard you call Crow might be poisoning more than the King's counsel."

    People looked up as the pair of dragons passed overhead. Many shuddered and war veterans clutched at their bows instinctively. Some nocked an arrow and took aim at the silhouettes, the words of the messengers the only thing that stopped them firing.
    "I can't believe we're letting a dragon in, let alone two!" grumbled one archer.
    "The King says they have free passage," said his companion. The pair scowled as their traditional enemies flew away. Their keen eyesight picked out the two figures hunched astride the spine of the black one.
    They watched as the dragons banked to circle the city, and broke into a run to meet the intruders.
    Alac clutched at Mavrik's back and closed his eyes. He felt the dragon straighten out, then gasped as they stalled and dropped. The feeling of falling was replaced an instant later by a crushing weight as the dragons powerful legs bent to soak up the impact with the ground.
    "Why didn't we ride?" groaned the elf.
    "We did," said Pen.
    "I meant horses!"
    "We did a day's riding in under an hour." The wizard turned and climbed from Mavrik. Alac joined him a few seconds later. They stood on a wide stone-paved road that ran between flowerbeds and green lawns.
    "Are you alright?" asked Mavrik as he watched a small crowd gather. Stormfront passed overhead, unwilling to land while the people threatened them.
    "I'm fine," said Alac. "That last drop before we landed was a bit of a shock. No offence, but I'd rather ride a horse."
    "I wish you had, too," muttered Mavrik in his own tongue.
    Pen hit his friend lightly with his staff, then put his cold hands in his pockets. He was startled when his right hand touched a small, scaled body. Glancing down he saw a tiny golden face looking up at him. "What-? Eoz! What are you doing?"
    "She says Merry asked her to look after Kev, Illy and Rani," said Mavrik absently. He looked up and called to his mate and watched as Stormfront prepare to land. "I don't know how such a small dragon could do much," he added as his mate landed beside them.
    "She could give a nasty nip," said Pen. He snatched his hand from the pocket and shook it violently. "Ow! Do that again and you can walk home," he hissed. He put his hands pack in the pocket and felt the little dragon begin purring as she warmed against his fingers.
    The three young dragons tumbled from their mother's back and gathered around Mavrik's feet. "How do we meet the king?" he asked.
    "We wait," said Alac. "He knew we were coming. I'm sure he knows we're here."
    "The flowers are near," whispered Aurani.
    "I know," muttered Pen. "I can feel them." Alac shuddered suddenly and the wizard nodded. "You can feel it too?"
    "I don't-" began Alac, but Stormfront interrupted him.
    "Armed people are coming!" she said quickly. "Mav! They have lances!" As she spoke the crowd parted to let a small group of knights through.
    "We can handle pointed sticks," said Kehvarl. Mavrik gave him a quick smile but said nothing.
    They watched the knights march toward them in perfect step, lances held high and pennants flying. Sunlight flashed and glinted on silver mail and steel tips.
    "These are the King's household guard," said Alac quietly. "Stand still."
    The column crashed to a halt before them. One knight stepped forward and saluted Mavrik.
    "The King of the South Land Elves sends his greetings and welcomes you and your companions to our city," said the knight loudly. "I am Commander Rohamathric, My patrol has been sent to escort you directly to the King's dwellings. He has somewhat urgent to discuss with you," he added in a lower voice. "He is also arranging food and accommodation for all." He glanced down and whispered: "Please don't touch my codpiece."
    Mavrik reached out and grasped Illyrin's probing finger. "We thank you, Commander," he said as he pulled his son away from the knight. "We too have an urgent matter to discuss."
    The commander bowed, said "Follow me," and marched away. They followed and the patrol fell into step behind.
    The road crossed a small river then turned to the left and took them around a high green bank with a heavy wooden palisade along the summit. Soon another bank rose between the road and the river and they were walking through a green canyon. Mavrik looked up and saw wooden palisades lined the top of both walls. An attacking enemy would come under heavy fire from all sides. He dropped his gaze and sighed.
    "What's wrong?" asked Pen.
    "All this walking."
    "Not long now. Look up."
    The dragon lifted his head and saw a stout wooden bridge running from wall to wall across their path. Below the bridge, in a recess in the right-hand bank, he could see a pair of heavy iron-sheathed gates standing open. On the other side of the short tunnel was another pair of gates, which opened into a wide green field lined with the garrison's buildings and stables. The fortified embankment surrounded an area Mavrik guessed to be ten acres. The road continued on the other side of the field leading straight to a long stone building. The Elvish commander halted and the gates slammed shut behind them.
    Alac stepped forward and embraced the armoured figure. "Rohic!" he shouted. "It is great to see you again! But why such a small patrol?"
    "I am so glad to see you, brother!" said Rohic. "And especially glad to see you, Pen Mithdae. We have a great need for healers here."
    Alac held his brother away and examined him. "You do not look so well. Are you ill?"
    "Where are your own healers?" asked Pen
    "They are as ill as everyone," said Rohic. "The city has been struck down by a malaise." As he spoke one of their guards sank to his knees with a moan. Rohic dismissed the patrol and watched as they lifted their ill friend and carried him to a nearby building. He sighed and shook his head. "We are already too ill to even defend ourselves. I fear soon we will start dying."
    "When did this start?" asked Alac.
    "Not long after your outburst against the King's new counsellor," said Rohic. "You're lucky you took Merry and Piath away from here."
    Stormfront leaned over until her cheek touched Mavrik's. "We should help these people, Mav" she whispered in their own tongue.
    "I know," he replied. "Do you think your Talent is up to it?"
    "I'll cope." She raised her voice and said, "We can help if you wish it."
    "They can indeed," said Pen seeing Rohic's frown. "This family are the greatest healers the Dragons have."
    "The wizard's right," said Alac. "Our companions are Mavrik and Stormfront and their young ones."
    Rohic stepped forward and bowed. "It is indeed a happy accident that brings you amongst us," he said. "Your abilities are well know to all. In fact, I suggested we send for you but-" He paused and scowled. "But old hatreds were stirred, and you were named as Herd Killer."
    Mavrik closed his eyes and hung his head. "I was the Herd Killer," he mumbled.
    "I know," said Rohic lightly. "That was a long time ago and we were all once young and inexperienced." He reached down and grasped Ilyrin's probing finger. "The King is waiting for us." With that he tuned and led them across the parade ground and toward the stone building.
    "What's that for?" asked Ilyrin, trotting to keep up with the Elf. Rohic paused long enough to whisper something in Ilyrin's ear before striding on. The young dragon froze and did not follow. The others walked around him but he did not move. Pen stopped and waited. After a moment he looked up at the wizard, his face full of horror. "I touched the… his…"
    Pen laughed and rubbed the youngster's head. "You only touched the armour, Illy. There's nothing wrong with that. Come, you're going to make the King wait."
    Mavrik bit back his laughter as he listened to the wizard and Illy, but as a representative of the dragons he felt he should keep his composure. Every muscle ached from this unaccustomed exercise and he felt like lying on the ground. He could feel Stormfront was also having problems with all this walking. Something else could be felt: something wrong. They had passed through the garrison buildings and were in a small vegetable garden. Bees buzzed around their hives and plants but he could see nothing like the flowers that had poisoned Aurani.
    Alac dropped back to walk with Pen. "There is a different feel about this place," he whispered, looking around.
    "Yes," said Pen quietly. "I can't put my finger on it. Something feels-"
    "Wrong," interrupted Mavrik. "Like the flowers that poisoned Aurani."
    "Exactly!" said Pen. "It's not as foul or virulent."
    "No, but it is there nonetheless."
    They continued in silence along the street between the whitewashed garrison buildings until they came to the palace. They waited silently in the three-sided courtyard. Mavrik examined the building. It was low and sprawling, built of pale stone and roofed with wooden shingles. A pair of wings ran from the main building to form the courtyard, in which chairs and table had been set in one sunny corner. He could see the roofs of more wings behind the main building. He brought his gaze down and examined the pair of oak doors in the main entrance. They were black with age. At that moment they opened and a page stepped forward.
    "Lord Anorion, High King of the southern Elflands," he called. "And Queen Ifgennith, and Princes Parmap and Tarrac of the Royal House."
    A small group of three men and a women emerged and walked forward slowly. They were dressed in fine linen dyed the colours of the forest. One of the men also wore a dark blue cape and had a gold band around his dark hair. Mavrik suspected he was the King, and guessed from the way he leaned on one of his retainers that the man was very ill. Rohic and Alac stepped forward.
    "Sire! May I help you?" asked Rohic.
    "Yes, thank you, Commander," said the King softly. "Give my friend Pamap here a rest for he is almost as ill as I. Ah Alac! I see your look of shock."
    "S-Sire," stammered Alac. "I heard rumours, but I never realized-"
    The king waved him to silence. "I should have listened to you. Come, Introduce your companions." As Alac named the dragons Mavrik got the impression they were already known to the king. Anorion bowed to Stormfront. "I was saddened to hear of your father," he said. "He was a great dragon."
    "Thank you," whispered Stormfront.
    Mavrik put his arm around her shoulder and the King looked at him. "So you are the great raider my people fear?" asked Anorion.
    "I don't do that any more," said Mavrik.
    "I also had to give up my youthful games when I got married," said Anorion. Mavrik saw the Lady frown. "Commander, is my wife looking at me?"
    Rohic glanced over his shoulder. "I'm afraid so, Sire."
    "Oh dear," sighed Anorion. Pen laughed aloud and the King gave him a sharp look. "As disrespectful as ever, wizard."
    "I am indeed, your Majesty."
    The King nodded. "I take it your arrival in the Elflands is more than a courtesy visit." He looked at the visitors' faces and nodded again. "I thought as much. We will sit in the sun and discuss our problems." He turned and led them to the table in the southwest corner. The dragons settled on the ground while the Elves took places either side of the King. Pen sat at the end of the table.
    Kehvarl curled up on front of his father, flicked idly at a stone then yawned. The Queen watched him.
     "Anorion, I fear our discussion will bore the young ones," she said. "Is there anyone we can spare to show them the palace grounds?"
    Alac stood immediately. "I will, since I am already sworn into the service of Aurani." Everyone looked at him in surprise.
    "Are you indeed?" said the king. "Then you best do as she asks. Meet us here at noon for luncheon." Alac bowed and left them, the three young dragons bounding alongside and a small golden dragon swooping over their heads. Anorion smiled as they departed then turned to his guests. "What urgent errand brings you to the Elflands?'
    "A wizard has been on a campaign of killing all the Healers of my people, as well as any that might show magic talents," began Mavrik, and went on to tell the Elves about the deaths of his parents, Hero, other dragons and the capture of Mach. The King listened intently. Finally he spoke of the death of Thunder. Stormfront hung her head.
    Anorion frowned and Ifgennith shook her head. "I did not think Thunder had any talents," said the Queen.
    "Someone is creating Sorcerers Stones," said Pen abruptly. "He was killed by an arrow tipped a shard of from one. Whoever fired it may have thought he was Mavrik." He stared into Stormfront's eyes. "The attack on Dragon Keep was no petty bicker. They knew an attack would bring Mavrik to defend that castle and into the open where he could be killed."
    "Is this true?" asked one of the princes.
    "It is, Pamap. I questioned some of the knights after the battle but they could not tell me where the order came from."
    Stormfront turned to Mavrik. "Did you know of this?" she asked. Mavrik nodded. "I wish you'd told me!"
    "We thought it was best you didn't know," said Mavrik. "Paveway and Mach were told so they'd be on the lookout. But we were still caught off guard by the attack on Aurani."
    "This is exceedingly bad," said Prince Tarrac, who had remained silent until now. "But it does not explain why you come here looking for a wizard."
    "We have a name," said Mavrik.

    The young dragons ran through the garden, laughing as they played amongst the topiary hedges. Alac followed, intervening only when a plant looked in danger of being crushed. Eoz perched on his shoulder and purred, occasionally flying off to aid Aurani but returning to her position. The day was warm and peaceful, yet something was amiss. He stopped and closed his eyes, trying to get a feel of the problem but he could not identify the source of the cold feeling in the pit of his stomach. Apart from the noise of the young visitors and the hum of an occasional bee, there was nothing to hear. He sat on a bench.
    "I don't know, Eoz," he muttered to the little dragon. "What is it? What's wrong here?" The dragon sighed and shrugged her shoulders. Alac lifted her from his shoulder and held her in the crook of his left arm, his right hand idly stroking the soft belly as he gazed around at the late-spring morning: the high, blue sky, the yellow daisies in the soft turf, the warm sun. "Birds," he said suddenly. "I don't hear any birds." He examined the sky but could see no hawks or eagles. "It's so quiet." Eoz jumped to her feet and looked alarmed. "I don't hear the dragons!" gasped Alac. "Find them!"
    He watched Eoz fly straight up and circle for a moment before zooming off. He ran after her, dodging around the hedges and islands of flowers, and all the time the feeling of dread grew. The pair dashed around the end of a hedge and stopped short.
    Aurani and Ilyrin were sitting quietly, staring at a brick wall. Kehvarl appeared to be examining it closely. "Get back Kev. I don't think you should climb it," said Ilyrin. The trio looked up as the elf walked over.
    "We found it, Alac," said Aurani, pointing at the wall.
    Alac nodded but said nothing. The wall was well built of red brick and mortar and mostly obscured by vines and the hedges. He reached out to touch it but a feeling of revulsion swept over him, as though he were reaching into a septic pit full of carcasses. He snatched his hand back. "Move away, Kev," he said as he shuddered and stepped back.
    They stared in silence at the wall. Eoz was the first to move, stirring on her shoulder perch to look down at Aurani.
    "Eoz says we need the wizard."
    "I agree," muttered Alac.

    "Simply calling himself by an Elvish pseudonym does not mean he is in our lands," said the King. He watched Pen pacing in front of the table.
    "Pen told us we would be unlikely to find the one called Kraca here," said Mavrik.
    Anorion held up a hand to stop the dragon. "Not as unlikely as you think. There is a wizard here who calls himself Kraca. We know not his real name."
    Pen stopped pacing and stared at the king. Mavrik and Stormfront gaped. "What?" they chorused.
    "Alac mentioned him a little, but would not say much" said Pen. "I did not press him for there seemed to be-"
    "The commander of the Western Frontier openly defied me in court and said many slanderous things," interrupted the king with a frown. "I would not have that before my throne!" he shouted, then slumped back into the chair, white faced and sweating. The others jumped to their feet in concern but he waved them away. "I am fine! I missed my morning tonic, that is all."
    Ifgennith turned to a page and asked the boy to fetch a healer. "They will be here soon, Anno."
    "Hush, Genni," whispered Anorion. "Not here."
    "A pox on ceremony! You're ill," said the Queen. She looked up as a tall elf robed in sliver came striding from the palace, a silver goblet held carefully in one hand. "Here comes the our Healer, now."
    Pen pulled the two princes aside. "My lords, I would dearly love to meet this wizard," he said quietly.
    "He was sent for when we heard you'd arrived," said Pamap. "Maybe the messenger couldn't find him."
    "As splendid as our palace is, it is not so large that you can hide for long," said Tarrac.
    "Do you think-" Pen stopped and his eyes grew wide. Without warning he lunged at the king and grasped the goblet. "NO!" Everyone stared at him in shocked silence. He looked at the liquid and winced. "What is this?" he asked as he held it up to the dragons. They sniffed at the cup and winced.
    "Ugh. It's foul!" exclaimed Mavrik.
    "I wouldn't expect a dragon to appreciate my tonics," said the healer in a wounded voice.
    "What is it?" asked Pen again as he poured the drink onto the ground.
    "Medicinal herbs in hot water," said the healer. "They are rather bitter so I sweetened it with a little honey."
    "What do you fear, Pen?" asked Anorion. "Poison?"
    "Poison!" exploded the healer. "Sire! I hope you don't think I would-" He fell silent at the king's gesture, but his face still showed outrage.
    "Quiet, Saxa. You need not fear I would ever doubt your wisdom."
    "It's all around us," muttered Pen. He held the empty goblet and turned it absently. "It's here but I cannot see it."
    A shout and the sound of running feet on gravel distracted them. Everyone turned to see Alac and the young dragons running towards them. They skidded to a halt and the young ones began shouting excitedly until Stormfront quieted them.
    "There is something foul in the walled yard," said Alac quickly.
    "Which walled yard?" asked Prince Tarrac.
    "It's a new wall in the midst of the topiary garden."
    "That is merely fencing in Kraca's yard and herb garden," said the healer. "It was built to contain some of his wilder magics."
    "Where is my counsellor now, Saxa?" asked Anorion.
    "I have not seen him since word came that the dragons had crossed the boarder."
    "That does not surprise me, given what we've heard," muttered Prince Parmap.
    "My thoughts also," said the king. "Rohamathric, search the city for Kraca." The commander jumped to his feet, saluted, and ran off to the barracks.
    Pen and Mavrik stared at each other. "A garden," said the dragon eventually.
    Pen spun and pointed at Alac. "Take me there immediately!" he ordered. Eoz leapt from the elf's shoulder and streaked off with the wizard close on her tail. Everyone stared at the man's sudden burst of speed. Mavrik and Stormfront gave chase with long, bounding strides and the young ones followed as fast as they could. Alac and Prince Tarrac gave chase.
    Saxa and the Queen helped the King to his feet. "Follow them, Saxa. Use your skills in observation and tell me what happens," he said. "Pamap and I can support each other."
    Mavrik leapt over hedges and gardens in his pursuit of Pen and tried to ignore the sounds of snapping branches. One particularly high leap brought the top of a redbrick wall into view briefly, and then he was over the last hedge. Before him now was a small hut butting onto the enclosed yard, and Pen, who was sitting on a bench beside the open door with his eyes closed and Eoz curled in his lap.
    The wizard did not move as Mavrik thudded into the grass. "He's gone."
    "Yes. They're looking for him."
    "No," sighed Pen. "He's taken his things and the fire is cold. He must have left last night."
    "The messengers," muttered Mavrik.
    "I think so, too." Pen opened his eyes as Alac ran through the gap in the hedge, followed by Tarrac, Stormfront and the young dragons. "I think he left as soon as he heard we were on our way." Tarrac stormed into the hut, then emerged looking troubled. Pen looked up at the tall elf. "Do you feel it?"
    Tarrac frowned at the wizard for a moment before turning to stare into the dark interior. "There's something wrong here," he said slowly. "Something- something in that garden."
    "Is there any way to see what's in there?" asked Anorion. He and Pamap stood at the end of the hedge, supporting each other. Saxa stood behind them, wringing his hands. "I do not like having part of my garden locked away from me."
    "There's a door in the hut but he's put a protection on it," said Pen. "I can't remove it."
    "Can we go over the wall?" asked Tarrac.
    Eoz leapt from Pen's lap and whirred up high. The wizard jumped to his feet in alarm. "No! Wait!" he shouted.
    They watched the little dragon fly to the top of the wall. She seemed to hit an invisible wall and dropped like a stone for a moment before recovering and fluttering unsteadily to the ground. Her wings drooped limply as she gagged and retched.
    Alac went to pick her up but she pushed his hand away. "Will she be all right?" he asked as he stroked between her quivering wings.
    "Yes," said Mavrik absently as he studied the wall. "It's only a reaction to what's up there." He shifted his weight and rose on his legs, using his tail as a balance. As his eyes drew level with the wall top a wave of nausea swept over him. He gagged and dropped back with a gasp of disgust. "Ugh!"
    "All right then. We can't go over," said Tarrac.
    Pen ran his hands along the wall beside the hut, feeling for something. "We will have to force our way through." After a moment he stopped, turned to Mavrik and pointed at the wall. "Here."
    Mavrik extended his talons. "Everyone stand away." He waited until they were clear then slashed at the wall where the wizard had indicated. Brick and mortar dust surrounded him. After half a dozen slashes a large segment of wall collapsed. Mavrik jumped away as the rubble tumbled down. They waited for the dust to settle.
    As it thinned and the garden became visible Aurani gasped aloud and ran to the gap. "It's them! It's the plants!" she cried. Kehvarl and Ilyrin followed her into the garden with Pen and the elves close behind. Mavrik widened the hole so he and Stormfront could enter.
    Saxa knelt and examined the plants. He reached out to pick a flower but hesitated before pulling his hand back. "They look like foxgloves, but they're not," he said. "They have a foul feeling to them. Did the young dragon truly eat one?"
    "These are different," said Pen as he knelt beside the healer. "They don't feel as evil as the others."
    "Even so, I would not handle them."
    "Don't touch the flowers, Illy," said Stormfront softly.
    Ilyrin was crouching near a plant to examine a flower. "These ones don't kill the bees," he said suddenly.
    Kehvarl pulled a face. "I bet their honey is bad," he said.
    "Bad?" muttered Saxa to himself. "The honey would be lethal." He looked up and saw the wizard staring at him. "The honey!" They jumped to their feet and looked to the far end of the garden where a hive stood against the wall.
    "If bees came over the wall for this nectar, the whole city's honey supply could tainted," whispered Pen.
    "Wizard, we use honey in all our cooking."
    "And mead."
    "And mead," agreed the healer. "This must be the source of the malaise."
    "And the King's tonic," said Pen. Saxa went pale and stared at him with wide eyes before running to the king. Pen watched him have an animated discussion with Anorion, Pamap and Rohic, who had just returned from his search. The commander waved to him and came over.
    "We tracked Kraca to the docks," said Rohic. "The guards are searching-"
    A deafening explosion rolled in from the north. They turned and saw a black cloud billowing into the air, red fire at its heart.
    "That came from the docks," said Pamap.
    "Indeed," said the King. "Commander, see to your men. They will need your guidance."
    Pen turned to Mavrik. "Take me there!"
    The dragon crouched so the wizard could scramble onto his back, then launched. He skimmed low over the gardens and cleared the encircling battlements with inches to spare. Shouts from the surprised guards faded rapidly behind as they headed over the city toward the column of smoke. Fires could be seen burning amongst the ruined buildings.
    Mavrik turned his head. "Look through the smoke," he called. "There is a boat."
    Pen squinted against the gale of their flight. "Could be fishermen," he shouted.
    "It's sailing directly into the wind!"
    "In that case, follow it!" They shot over the docklands. Pen looked down and saw the ruined buildings, the shattered docks, and the burning boats. The epicentre of the blast was a well defined circle clear of wreckage. They passed through the smoke. "Smell that?"
    "Yes!" shouted Mavrik. "Magic!" He flapped harder to follow the boat.
    Pen peered at the vessel. It appeared to be a small fishing boat, but it was crashing through the waves faster than any trading cutter and yet it had no sails set. Mavrik was right: it was sailing against the wind. The dragon turned to circle around the boat. Pen could see a man standing at the helm. The figure raised one arm and pointed at them. The wizard felt a sudden magical build-up.
    "DIVE!" he shouted.
    Mavrik dived. A brilliant white bolt flashed through the air above them. Pen sat back and lifted his arms into the air. A second bolt darted out. Pen threw up a protection at that instant. The bolt splashed around them harmlessly.
    "Wind!" shouted Mavrik in a panic. "The wind!"
    Pen turned away from the boat. "What wind?"
    "YES!" yelled Mavrik, flapping franticly. They dropped into the sea with a mighty splash. He surfaced a few seconds later and looked around. The wizard was nowhere to be seen. Mavrik ducked his head under the water and saw a dark shape floating a few yards away. He reached out and felt his fingers touch cloth.

    Another coughing fit wracked Pen, leaving him weak and gasping. He was keeling between Mavrik's wings as the dragon swam slowly to the shore. "I'm sorry," he said at last. "It was a reflex action. That bolt would have incinerated us."
    "You'll have to teach me that protection," said Mavrik. "It stopped everything. Funny thing about flying-"
    "If I had a little time I could have stopped the bolt and still let your wind through," said Pen. "But we didn't have that time."
    "I know," said Mavrik. He swam in silence for a while. "I don't know what we could have done if we'd caught him," he said at last.
    Pen patted his friend on the back. "Yeah," said the wizard. He looked at the approaching shore and saw the elves gathering there around Stormfront. "It will take more than just us to deal with that wizard."
    "It seems your wizard had a lucky escape," said Rohic.
    "He was lucky?" wondered Pen. "I think you have that backward.
    "I would kill him on the spot now, having heard our healer's news." Rohic spat on the ground. "But he's gone and we'll not catch him now. We are well rid of him. I fear your search for this wizard named Kraca is at an end."
    "Your concern now must be to destroy all your honey and mead stocks," said Mavrik.
    Stormfront hung her head. "We have wasted our time."
    "You helped drive him across the sea," said Rohic. "That is not a waste."
    Pen patted Stormfront on the neck. "Burn that garden and pull down the walls."
    Stormfront nodded and smiled. "It will be my pleasure to do so."
Clouds tinged pink by the afternoon sun drifted overhead. The air smelt of approaching rain and salt, but for now all was still. Mavrik stretched out on his back on the sand by the shore and gazed up at the sky, taking this moment of quiet to consider the task ahead. Before they'd left the King he had taken a quick flight around the Elves' High City, which showed him that all the people in the area were affected by the malaise caused by tainted honey. There were months of healing work ahead of them. He sighed deeply.
    "Bit of an anticlimax," said Pen. Mavrik turned his head to look at the wizard. His friend was leaning back against a rock, eyes closed and hands behind his head. A tiny gold dragon lay curled in his lap, watching the young dragons play. The wizard had removed his boots and thrust his feet deep into the sand.
    "I suppose so," said Mavrik. He watched his children play in the sand and chase each other through the waves. "No one died or had to kill anyone, and the end result was the same. We're rid of this evil and the Southlands are safe. I'm glad it ended like this."
    Pen laughed a short, sharp bark that echoed across the beach. "Mavrik, my friend, this story is far from finished."

copyright Den Whitton 2000
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