"YOU HAVE FAILED. You have made the mistake."
The dragon roared. His flame leapt high into the air, setting the trees around him alight with dancing shadows. Orange light glittered off of a thousand droplets for a second. But then it was gone, smothered by the dark sky. Rain drops sizzled off his human skin as it burned, threatening to rip open and reveal his true dragon body. He fell to the ground, his mind roiling within his head. The dark father was cruel.
He did no wrong! He would have the realm. The realm was his already. Barely suppressing his flame he stood tall, turning a contempt full pair of eyes to the forest around him.
No crickets chirped, no crickets dared raise their tiny voice while a dragon was present. The entire sphere of his vision was silent, as quiet as a cave, except for the rain falling on the trees.
And the dragon breathed, trailing puffs of smoke from his nostrils. His lungs rasped with every breath and his whole body shuddered.
But he smiled. His lips curled back revealing vile fangs that did not belong in a human body.
The dark father did not know everything. Time was all he needed, and he had plenty of time.
The dragon ripped out of the human body as he tore into the air, beating the wind with his wings. The trees sank beneath him quickly as he rose to the sky.
CLIPSEOLAR SAT UP. The dark tendrils of the night wrapped around him. A swirl of emotions churned in his stomach. The boy’s heart beat in his chest like it wanted to get out of a cage and his hands shook slightly. He pressed them deep into the folds of his blanket to make them stop.
Inside the shadows, lurking right on the edges of his vision, he felt a strange presence that made him recoil and gag. He searched the room, barely wanting to find anything. But no matter how hard he looked, he could not see what it was.
The moon shone bright outside, but she only spilled some of her silken rays in through the window and onto the crude dirt floor of the small hut. Long, dark shadows encroached upon the silvery light from the deepest corners of the room. The boy’s heart pounded even faster than it already was as he looked into the strange cavities. He wanted to cry out, even though he was not sure why. But he couldn’t. He was in the room that he shared with his brothers, and, somewhere where he couldn’t see them, in the dark corners, they were still asleep.
He held his lips shut tight to keep any noises from escaping. His fear pushed his heart still faster. Summoning his courage, he sat up on the edge of his bed, and, gripped by an unexplained force, he got down from his bed and inched his way around the shadows. His brothers breathed heavily on his right and on his left.
Best not to wake them, Clip, or the whole house will be up all night trying to fix the problem. He told himself to be quiet as he carefully placed every footfall, but he ignored the real problem.
If he had been accustomed to faeries and their ways Clip would have heard his name being spoken on the wind and would have known to try to go back to sleep immediately without further exposing himself. He was not, however, at all accustomed to faeries. He only heard the howl of a nearby breeze. Still, his heart continued to lurch at the words he could not understand and his mind would not rest.
Opening the door, he quietly slipped out onto the stoop. The wind immediately grabbed at him, playing through his hair and stroking his cheeks. He walked towards the well at the other end of the yard. The wind laughed at him as it stroked its fingers through his hair, pushing him and pulling him along. Despite its games, he eventually made it to the well in one piece.
He dropped the bucket down into the water and pulled it back up again. The water was sweet on his tongue as it slid down his throat.
Eventually the wind slowly became bored with him—such is the way of some faeries. It died down to a small breeze, off to chase a little bat.
In the wake of the wind’s touch, Clip felt tired again. He leaned up against the well wall, looking east through half closed eyes. The sounds of the forest carried to him, sitting there halfway between the house and the woods. He was not yet ready to go back in.
In all the stories he had heard, the woods were supposed to have strange magical powers, and were inhabited by creatures that had strange magical powers. But no one could say with such certainty.
Such is the way of Goldstone wood, so full of mystery that hardly no one ever tried solving, he thought. His grandmother told him so once. She said, “Nothing good comes from the Wood.” And everyone knew the fount of wisdom his grandmother was. That was all he ever knew of the place aside from the childhood tales he had picked up here and there, spun by a merchants hand, or snuck behind the back of his mother.
Whether or not he believed the stories he hadn’t decided. But it would not be because of something his grandmother said. The shadows passing back and forth beneath the trees were enough to keep him from getting too curious. Goldstone wood had no paths as far as he could tell, and he wasn’t going to make any.
Even as he thought this, somewhere deep in the depths of the ancient trees a wood thrush sang, its song trickling forth like a bubbly stream. The silvery music floated up to the moon on wispy wings. The sudden noise made him realize how close to sleep he was and how close to waking up with dew all over his head in the morning.
He shook himself and stood up straight. The woods may be mysterious in the day, but they were twice as menacing at night, he was supposed to be asleep anyway. Turning, he headed back towards the house.
He took two steps before he fell on his face and covered his head, trying to stop up his ears. The wind roared. The sound pierced the sky and rattled him to his bones. But the wind wasn’t paying attention to him. A large, black bird had just flown into the clearing and the wind was fleeing from before it. The trees all around bent and swayed to the breaking point under its retreat.
All Clip saw was the bird’s eyes.
Under the tall grass he crouched, trembling, and watched as the bird landed on the roof of the house. The bird was huge, it stood about a foot tall on the roof of the house, but, after his initial shock, Clip decided it couldn’t be dangerous. He berated himself for being so cowardice. The wind was just acting up and this bird just needed a place to get out of it for a moment.
And for some reason, a part of him desperately wished he was right.
When the wind stopped he carefully stood back up and dusted himself off. The bird looked down on him from its perch on the roof as he approached the house. He felt its eyes boring into his head. Sitting as it was, it appeared much larger than Clip had first thought. Its dark feathers seemed to suck in all of the moonlight around it making it blend into the night as if the whole black sky was a part of it.
It was a little strange, Clip thought, for the wind to blow like that. He studied the bird for a moment. He had never seen a bird like that anywhere before. That was a little strange too, he guessed. He knew enough about birds, though, to know he didn’t know all the birds in the area. The bird was obviously nocturnal as far as Clip could tell. It had huge talons, gripping the thatch roof, probably for snatching unsuspecting morsels to eat.
By all accounts it was a bird of prey, dangerous, but only for those smaller than it.
Still, Clip tried his best to be unsuspecting as he approached the house. The bird was not fooled and flew right down beside him. Clip all but screamed, thinking its talons, smaller than him or not, would make quick work of his face. But the bird only landed beside him, digging into the ground instead of his face with its talons.
The eyes of the bird, as bright as fire, as hungry as a flame, caught his and stared at him. The world around the two seemed to stop in a second and at the same time spin through all the years, wildly crashing through the ages in a smear. Clip wanted to look away but he could not, could not pull his will from that of the bird’s, could not scream his agony, could not—
“I promise,” he heard himself say, his voice choking as if on thick poison, any battle of wills forgotten. The bird was gone instantly, leaving barely a memory, save for a burning pair of eyes. Clip found himself looking at the empty air. He blinked. The world suddenly seemed darker, smaller.
A quietness like a hole hung in the Woods as Clip walked back inside.
WHEN CLIP STUMBLED into the kitchen the next morning his four brothers were already up, gathered around the small table eating eggs, the poor man’s way to breakfast. Clip stood, as still as a statue, blinking his eyes against the daylight, before he sat himself. Austeuo grinned at him when he did sit. “Don’t worry, dad’s already left to hook up the cows.”
Gritting his teeth, Clip scooted his chair up to the table. He had completely forgotten that they were taking some of the cows to market today. If Clip could get his hands on Austeuo, his fingers would probably fit nicely around his neck. But he had to console himself by digging his fork into the eggs piled on his plate instead.
“You could have gone to help him yourself, no one was keeping you here," he said through his clenched teeth. It really made no sense for Austeuo to try to go and help harness the cows; he was too small. Even for a seven year old he wasn’t very big.
Clip had to try something though.
Austeuo grinned again, only wider. “Oh, but I knew you were supposed to go. Besides, I didn’t need to go; Mom went with him.” He shrugged and looked down at his plate.
All of his brothers stopped eating. A solitary fork clanked, dropped from the hand that held it. “Mom went with him?” Jacib asked.
Clip only stared at Austeuo. They all knew that their mother worked harder than any of them, especially Austeuo, his pranks and laziness taking up most of his day. But that Austeuo had the gall, among other things, to let their mother go out and do the work that should have fallen to him, or to anyone else but her, really made Clip want to punch him.
“Why did you let her go!” Clip exploded.
Austeuo looked at Clip through wide eyes.
“You could have at least waken me up. Or gotten Jacib,” Clip said.
“You could have waken yourself up.” Austeuo crossed his tiny arms and stuck out his chin. Clip hung his head.
But he had an excuse. “I didn’t sleep well last night,” he said simply. “There was a storm blowing all night. Didn’t you hear it?” He didn’t mean to ask a question. He was so grouchy that he would have taken silence for an answer. Anything else would prolong the conversation and he may have to admit his fault for not waking up early.
On the other side of the table Jacib spoke up. “I didn’t hear the storm, but I didn’t sleep well. I kept on having bad dreams.”
Grasping onto what Jacib had said, Clip spoke up. If he could get his brothers to talk about anything else he would be fine. At least they wouldn’t be talking about him. He could forget about the cows and carry on with his day.
“Were you being chased by giant snakes?”
Mentioning snakes was one of the best ways Clip knew to get a response from Jacib.
He took a bite of his breakfast and tried to look coolly at his brother, waiting for the response.
“No!” Jacib waved his fork in the air. But before he could defend himself Austeuo jumped in. He started laughing and jeering with his small hands.
Clip’s two youngest brothers, sitting all the way at the opposite end of the table, tried joining in on the fun too.
Clip grimaced a little. The plan had worked. All he needed to do now was finish eating and quietly slip out. But his brothers may have been taking the teasing too far.
Of all four of his brothers, Jacib was the easiest for Clip to get along with. To see him in the relentless, merciless grasp of Austeuo pained him. But no, Jacib would be fine. Everyone knew he was afraid of snakes and they would get bored soon.
With that thought in mind, Clip piled the rest of his eggs into his mouth. He had to be out of the room when his brothers finished arguing.
Grabbing his fork and his plate he stood to leave. He looked one last time at Jacib and his tormentors, then strode out through the rickety door into the yard.
With the sun beating down on his back he felt better about himself. Of course Jacib would be fine, he thought to himself. For one thing, Jacib knew being afraid of snakes was an illogical fear.
Clip kicked at the grass. He was also going to apologize to Jacib, later.
Sitting down by the well he picked up the scrubber and began scouring his plate. He would apologize to Jacib, he told himself again, later.
But later never came.
The dragon flew through the woods, deeper and deeper, past landmarks only one of his kind could sense. Indeed, he followed the path of his dark father, one of the many paths woven intricately into the forest. The trees sank away from him, falling league after league. He smiled, if only to himself. The Wood feared his kind, the weak thing.
He had to swerve to avoid crashing into a rock that seemed to appear from nowhere.
Fire rose in his throat as he righted himself. He chuckled hoarsely under his breath.
But although weak, the Wood is best not to be underestimated, he reminded himself.
The wood was just as filled with the paths of those unkind to his kind, like the merry folk of Rudiobus or—and here the dragon shuddered mid flight—that infuriating hound, as it was with the paths of his father. He slowed down, reigning in his headlong rush. As he did his senses caught something, the scent of what he was looking for.
The scent of a small faerie gate.
He halted and found himself before a little pond. A low wall, covered all over with young growth, surrounded the pond, flowering in a tiny, solitary shaft of sunlight. He turned the structure over in his scrutinizing eyes. It was indeed what he was looking for, the gate to the realm he was to conquer.
Not very impressive, if he were to say so himself. Certainly nothing like Cozamaloti falls. But he wasn’t going to complain about minor details involving proving bravery or courage. Why was a dragon to need courage?
He walked up to the wall. It was definitely a faerie gate. This close he could strongly sense it. He looked down into the waters at the trees reflected above him; but he was not in the reflection. It could have been the angle he was at though. There was no arch or entrance in the wall and the only way in seemed to be taking the plunge.
Something sparkling off to his left caught the dragon’s eye.
He took a second look in the pond and sure enough he saw what he searched for. His mouth twisted into a pleased grimace. In the reflection the little rock wall did have an arch. A tiny little thing, it hardly looked sturdy enough to last the ages. But it fell right across the middle of the pond. He blinked and it was gone, too late though, he had already seen it.
He turned into his human form. It was smaller and provided a better way to access the gate. Apparently he would have to get into the water, Cozamaloti or not, and, aside from being smaller, the human flesh would bear the water better than his dragon scales.
He walked up to the edge. The pond rippled as his face, so close, finally reflected there.
His teeth flashed cruelly under the surface of the water as he said simply: “I promise”
It was funny, the things that would open a faerie gate. If the promise of a mortal opened this one though, so be it. The dragon sucked in his breath, ready for whatever would happen when he passed through into the realm beyond.
He stepped off into the gate.
The sun beat down on the canopy of foliage above Clip’s head. All of the trees were in full bloom and offered their green clad limbs up to the sky to shade travelers who happened to be passing by on the road beneath them, of which there were few. The road cut through the forest as best it could. Across the old path countless potholes littered the dust.
In the middle of the forest, looking up at the young woods, Clip rode down the road on the back of the little donkey cart that his dad used to take any cows that they might want to sell to town. A string of cattle followed behind him, loosely tied to the side of the wagon, their coats shining under the mottled sunlight. Jacib sat beside him but every few minutes he was having to get down onto the dusty path to kick the rim of the rear wheel back into place.
The forest they were slowly passing by was at the peak of flowering. A few bees and butterflies flew from flower to flower in the tree tops, gathering nectar in the heat.
Jacib hopped down, as springy as a lark, and ran around to the wheel that was beginning to fall off again. As the cart rolled along he gave the wheel the best kicks he had, his small frame shaking with the effort. The wheel went precariously back into place and held for a moment.
"We're almost there." Clip dried his shirt sleeve on his pant leg as he called out to Jacib.
Stopping, Jacib shaded his face and looked down the road. He grinned. As quick as he could, he jumped back in the wagon. Clip grabbed his hand and pulled him up. That he could get so excited to sell cows amazed Clip. The hot, stinky creatures were pungent enough to make Clip wrinkle his nose even upwind from them on the cart. Maybe a runny nose wasn't so bad after all.
Jacib scooted back and laid in the bed of the cart. Smiling up at the sun he sucked in a deep breath of air. Clip almost gagged. He thought he heard his dad chuckle in the seat up front, but he could not tell for sure.
As the wagon rolled along, the trees gave way to thick patches of grass. Rocks that had ripped through the earth long ages ago rested by the roadside as the landscape slowly rose up a large hill. Whipping about, the breath of the ocean caught their faces, salty and clear and bringing with it all the promises of an infinite horizon. Castle Oriana was right around the next bend, sitting atop the large hill, overlooking the sea like a stalwart sentry protecting and delivering those promises.
The telltale signs were obvious even to people who had never been to the castle. The road became more traveled, boot and wagon tracks packed down the soft sand into a hard surface, like the rocks that formed the foundation of the hill itself.
And the noise. The loud vying for attention of the merchants and shoppers echoing off the crashing waves of the sea port. The village Sondhold could be heard before it could be seen if someone listened hard enough.
But being heard couldn't compare with actually seeing it. As the cart passed under the huge gates to the city Jacib almost squealed. Spinning around he jumped up, his head twisting, desperate to see all of the foreign sights that were so new to him. Flags and signs hung everywhere, dancing in the breeze, hanging from the battlements up on the castle, and creaking over the doorways and tents and stalls. The flags waved, as if to him! His head whirled on his shoulders.
Clip shrugged, he had seen all of this before.
The wagon pulled through the streets. People moved out of the road to make a path for the cart. Their dad guided the cows through the city, bright vendors and shops passing by slowly with merchants huddled tightly against the structures to get out of the way of the cows.
But not too close, and they flooded back behind the cart as if they could push it along faster.
Nearly halfway through the city their father turned on the bench up front and shouted back at them, “Come take Gray and Gleir.” Clip barely made out what his dad had said amid the jostling crowd, but he understood what he was wanting. They were getting to the thick of the market place by now. The people on the road could no longer move away from the cart because the streets were so crowded and their dad wanted to go ahead on foot to the stalls.
Well, if Jacib was so eager to be here, Clip would let him drive the donkeys through this.
Jacib climbed up to the front of the cart and took the reins. Their dad stepped down into the street. People flowed past him on the crowded cobbles, trying to get to the main square.
“Take the cows to the market. Clipseolar knows where to set them up.” This last part he added looking directly at Clip.
Clip decided he had better be up front to help Jacib find the way. He averted his eyes from the eyes of his father as he climbed to the front bench after Jacib.
Their dad looked up at them. "It will take you a while to get to the stalls. I'm going to go ahead and get the haggling out of the way with the owner. Maybe I'll see if I can get a buyer too." He patted the wagon by Jacib's leg.
The patrons to the market rattled about them, and their dad melted into the mass headed for the square up ahead. Jacib slapped the reins hard on the donkey’s backsides, following at a much slower pace.
The road twisted before them. Their dad disappeared within a moment and Clip had to point the way out to Jacib as they passed every turn. They were coming up to a crossing when a trumpet sounded and made them both jump. Jacib quickly picked up the reins where he had dropped them.
"Make way for the royal family!" A voice cried down the street from them.
Jacib grinned and turned to Clip, fully recovered from his fright. "The royal family!" He cried almost in echo to the man clearing the street. He stopped the cart short of the road in front of them.
The first of the party trotted in on a huge horse. "That's the king," Clip told his brother.
"Fidel." Jacib stared wide eyed at the man, at the royalty. He wore a standard fancy robe of a slightly finer quality than that of some of the nobles that surrounded him and he rode one of the finest mounts Jacib had ever seen.
The king waved, being followed by a small, lanky boy, probably the prince Felix, riding his own horse. The boy looked shockingly uncomfortable in his gaudy… whatever it was. He kept on pulling at the huge collar around his neck and making what he probably thought were discrete glares at any of the shops he passed by that sold clothing wares “in the highest fashion”. Clip and Jacib both groaned for the poor prince and they secretly hid smirks at his misfortune.
Last of all princess Una rode by. Clip saw her for a second then he dropped his eyes, any long suffering of the prince forgotten. She was beautiful. Her hair was honey colored, unlike his mom or any of his brothers. It danced about her fair face and fell on her shoulders. And she smiled, lighting up her expression and revealing white teeth.
Jacib squinted at her. "She looks good, Clip.”
Clip almost blushed. No, not blush, but he did grimace. He felt his ears tingle and he was certain they must be turning red. He could hardly believe Jacib would be so brash.
Jacib ignored his brother and looked again at Una. Clip sank back in his seat as the remaining of the royal party, a few dignitaries and such, passed by. To the rest of the world he looked as if he was asleep, maybe a watchful eye would think his ears were a little sunburnt, but no one looked that closely. When the party was gone around the corner and the street returned to its regular state Jacib set the cart in motion again.
"She's got to be the best horse rider I've ever seen, that was a girl, Clip."
Clip startled up and even the most watchful of eyes would have thought he had just waken from a deep slumber. A good horse rider? A good… Clip crossed his arms and looked over at his younger brother, turning him over in his mind’s eye.
He shook his head but added to Jacib’s idea, not wanting to sound like he had any different ideas himself. “She rides it like real horseman…” no, he thought back, “woman,” he decided eventually.
Jacib bounced and the whole cart trembled, throwing Clip against the wheel. “Dad says there is no profit in horse farming, but I’m going to do it one day.” He chewed his lip for a second before continuing. “I’ll have some cows too, I guess.”
Clip just ignored him as best he could while trying not to fall into the busy street. He slumped farther down into the seat and closed his eyes. The sun was getting lower, casting longer and longer shadows over the narrow streets. The parade had taken more time out of their trip than the day had left for them. The cart rolled along without picking up any more speed.
“Hey, Clip?” Clip opened an eye to look at Jacib. He was staring down the road and his forehead bore signs of worry. Clip sat upright and looked down the road too, but all he saw was more people. Jacib tore his gaze away from the distance and started looking around at the side streets.
“Have we passed a turn, or are we still in the right place?”
“Oh,” Clip looked back down the street ahead of them. For a second he didn’t recognize anything. Some of the merchants were beginning to close shop, and some were just opening up. His eyes were drawn to a sizable crowd of patrons gathered in front of a familiar looking tavern. The sign above the door was unreadable at this distance, but he thought he recognized the shape of it.
“Turn right there,” he pointed to a side road two streets down from the tavern. Jacib followed the direction. But behind the corner the street ended. Jacib spun in circles looking around the alley, trying to find a side street, but there was none. He turned to Clip.
Clip shrugged and thought back over the route they had taken. Somewhere, they must have made one wrong move. He sighed, whenever it was, he had probably been too busy to notice, and now he had no idea where they were.
THE COWS SOLD at a fair price.
The deal was made by the time Clip and Jacib finally got to the stalls. The buyer complained the whole time during the trade about bad service. Their father silently took the tongue lashing, bearing in mind that the gentleman intended to never conduct business with him again.
He kept his silence the whole trip home too. He only spoke once, as they passed the fence along the road leading to their house and he saw a portion of it had fallen over. The remaining cows were out of that pasture for the season, but their dad set them to the task of repairing it before they were moved in.
The next morning found Clip struggling beneath the three finely cut small logs that he carried. His feet walked as sure as ever across the grassy field, catching in tufts of wheat and almost sending him into a fit of falling. Jacib looked to him, a bundle of rope in his hands, his eyes full of wonder, as if he could lighten Clip's mood by his own disposition! Clip almost snorted but caught himself at the last moment.
Jacib turned and didn't seem to notice as he pranced along. "One of these days I'm going to ride horses as good as princess Una." He ducked under the fence and dropped the rope he had been carrying on the other side.
Clip dropped his load of logs. He hated Una. Jacib wouldn't let the subject drop, bringing it up with any chance he got. He untied the bag around his waist. Already Una rode horses through his head all day, smiling with seemingly no provocation.
He tossed down his knife and went to work on the fence. A section between two posts had fallen, probably during the wind storm a couple of nights ago. He lifted one of the carefully crafted logs he had brought in place of the gap in the structure.
"Jacib, tie that one down," he called to his brother. Without much hesitation Jacib quit talking and scampered over beginning to tie the log to the post.
Clip stood back. Una dance before his eyes, that stupid smile playing on her lips. He stopped and picked up a second log, hefting it on his shoulder. She needed to get out of his head and Jacib needed to stop bringing her back. He set the next log on the post.
"Jacib, you go ahead back to the house."
Jacib looked at him, open mouthed. "We're not even close to being done, Clip."
Clip shoved the log in place and turned on his brother. "I don't need you to help me."
He coughed and played with his hair. He softened his voice and said: "I can put up this fence. You can go ahead and play."
Jacib backed away. He looked at the broken fence. All of the tools laid on the ground.
His expression flitted from confusion to Clip's face. Clip arched his eyebrows and Jacib finally started walking off. He called over his shoulder, "Call me if you need me. I'm going to go play with Austeuo."
Clip went back to work. He smelled his own sweat, gathering beneath his arms and dripping down his shirt. The sun beat mercilessly on his head. He hefted the last log onto the two posts. It was going to take a while to tie. Jacib always did the tying and he was much faster at it than Clip.
But tie it he must.
His fingers fumbled with the rope as he tried to bind it around the post. He licked his lips and yanked the knot he had tied. It gave way and he fell hard on his back, knocking the wind out of him.
He silently wished his fingers the worst of luck in all of their future undertakings and got up. He dusted off his pants and glared at the fence. First princess Una wouldn't leave him alone and now the fence didn't behave either. Forget that he had never taken the time to learn to tie properly. Was Una the princess of wood as well as the land? Making fences fall down if she wanted to cause someone trouble.
He took the knife and cut another, longer piece of rope.
The dragon smiled down on the little realm. He had found it easy enough to conquer, being inhabited by beings so lost to their surroundings that they had bent to his will easily. All he had really needed was to get into the realm, and the boy had given him no problems when it came to that.
The monkey like creatures that lived in the sparse forests of the realm when he first arrived made for great slaves. The dragon had to but walk into their demise and they immediately followed his every order. The land, however, was a feisty beast to tame. He held his grip on it for the moment, but only loosely. He needed time to let his poison sink in and corrupt the very foundation of the demise before he could return to the dark father with any glad tidings.
But he smiled. All he needed was time.
Below him, in the courtyard of his new castle, the little creatures were already finishing the last touches on the… what was it they were doing? The dragon leaned over the balcony rail and peered at the strange structure the sorry little wretches were so intent on fussing over.
It was a solid chunk of…something, he could not tell what. As he watched them they polished off the crude block with several fine cloths, sometimes using two of their hands and sometimes using three, balancing themselves with the other. After a moment he got bored. It mattered little what it was. They had the walls all finished, and were fine craftsmen if nothing else. The dragon took to the air and flew across his new demise. It was small, but everything about it seemed miniature so it all fit together well enough. And its smallness made it fortifiable.
It also helped that he was big, made that much bigger compared with tiny things.
He flew higher and higher, reaching the farthest reaches of the realm before he circled back. He opened his jaws and spit fire. All the inhabitants trembled when the roar fell like thunder on their ears. The foundation of the demise shook to the core but it held grimly to itself.
The dragon raced through the low lying clouds. He would rule the entire realm soon enough. It would be his, earned by the effort he had put into it, and then no one could take it without first killing him. He’d like to see them try. He landed on the tallest tower in the whole castle and smiled down on his little realm again.
All the little monkeys had left the castle to shelter in the woods at his roar. The entire courtyard was empty and desolate save for whatever it was the creatures had been working on. The dragon glided down to a lower perch to have a look at it. He saw no discarded rags so they must have finished whatever it was and put away their tools before he scared them off. When he saw what they had made he smiled wickedly. Flames burst forth from his chest and he leapt back into the air. The inhabitants of the land sunk deeper beneath the forest canopy and hid there, shaking. The dragon flamed and circled higher and hotter above them.
And in the courtyard, on a small pedestal, a polished statue of the dragon watched over it all.
Water splashed off Clip's hands. Cool tricklets rolled off blades of grass at his feet. However much the water sparked, though, his face was downturned. Sweat mingled with a amp presence on the brink of his nose, dropping in drips.
Jacib walked up behind him, coming from the house. So the time was here, the remaining three of Clip's brothers would come through the door soon enough. Begrudgingly he sidled over to give Jacib a spot at the well, which he took.
Stepping back Clip buried his face in his shirt. The cool moisture absorbed through to his hands. He dried his palms on his sleeves before looking up at Jacib. Clip opened his mouth but said nothing before he was unable to speak. With a yodel Austeuo marched into the yard.
Forgetting any notion he was about to say to Jacib, Clip spun around and faced his brother.
"Dad's home!" Austeuo shouted. Clip froze for a heartbeat. The wind stirred past his face and weaved through the tops of the trees. He should ask his dad for help. He should go to him right now and tell him that it was too dark to finish the fence. But it was good enough to last the night, he thought, shrugging his shoulders.
The trees waved and swayed to a stop. Austeuo looked directly at Clip. "And he's mad at you," he snickered.
Clip straightened his shirt and once again opened his mouth to speak. The words made it to the edge of his tongue before they rolled back and fell down his throat. Just then his father stepped out of the house. He wore the second most pained expression Clip ever experienced in his childhood. He looked around for a moment before settling on Clip and Jacib. Clip's insides withered and whirled about in his throat. He felt Jacib looking back and forth between him and his dad, probably wondering why his dad was upset.
Clip's words hung in his throat and he swallowed hard to get them to go down. He took a step backwards then quickly sprung into action. He finished drying his hands on his shirt and walked towards the house as if he was casually going in for supper. He knew one thing. He had done right. The fence was set up properly, if not finished. He came home when the sun started to set. And he only did those things because he knew the cows weren't even going to be in that field for another season.
Clip's dad grabbed his arm at the door, and despite all his reassurances, Clip almost fell to pieces right then. Wiping his weary face with his other hand his father said, "Wait for a second while I wash up." His dad let go and Clip followed him over to the well. Jacib stood beside them and still looked confused, but he was catching on quickly, going through the same thoughts Clip had.
Clip stood on his uncomfortable feet wishing Jacib would say something. His best options were for Jacib to say something first, his dad to spill the beans, or him to do something stupid, in that order.
No one did anything yet, however. Austeuo ran inside the little house and peeked through the window at the stiff trio. Jacib rocked slightly back and forth like he wanted to sit down but didn't. He dared not sit, he thought. The head of the house just scrubbed his powerful forearms. Without a word he worked the dirt from a hard day's toil out of his fingers.
Clip stood, curling and uncurling his toes inside his shoes. He licked his lips. What did his eternally slow father want? He licked his lips again. The same sun that made the trees green baked any remaining moisture away from his rapidly drying skin.
Father stood up and spun around to face his two boys, wiping his hands dry on a small part of his shirt that was still clean. "Out by the barn," he said, his voice slightly husky and drawing out the middle of every word "the cattle broke out of their pens. The best I can tell is one of the cows clean out charged the gate and busted through."
It must have been quite a sight to see happen. For any number of reasons a cow might get spooked and try to fly the coop. They could dance and prance in big circles, completely terrified of their own shadow at that point.
But to actually see a cow, driven mad by some unknown assailant, bust through the gate was a new level of fear.
The fear struck Clip to the heart. He shuddered all the way to the ground before he knew why. What could have done that? The giant bird he had seen a few nights before clawed its way back to the forefront of his mind. He could picture the bird, yellow eyes gleaming, ripping into the poor cows locked up in their pen. He tried to push the thought away.
No. The bird, big as it was, was too small to try eating a whole cow. The bird was a bird, after all! The yellow eyes stared at him from deep within their soul, two black coals floating in sulphur. They told him differently. He shook his head, trying to let his golden hair bat away the evil image.
"Whatever the reason," his father was saying, "the cows got out into the main pasture."
Jacib gave a small groan. Whether it was because he thought they would have to round up them cows tomorrow and put them back in their pens or because he realized the fence must not have been up, Clip could not tell. The image of the bird wrapped around his head making his thoughts move like mud climbing up a mountain.
He heard his father getting on to Jacib. He pressed his mind to think. Jacib didn't do anything wrong. He struggled to remember what had happened. And then he did.
Her stupid face. Jacib probably still wouldn't have got the job done before dark. He was too busy fantasizing about horses and talking his head off to work. The man of the house turned to him. He focused and felt his knees go weak and almost give out on him. For a second he wished he was lost in thought again. He could barely look at his dad, but the moment of truth had arrived.
"Clipseolar, several of the cows got out by the woods where you and your brother weren't done repairing the fence. I caught a couple of them and put them up in the barn for the time being. The rest will have to be hunted down and caught tomorrow.”
Clip stared across the yard at the still woods after his father and everyone else had gone to bed. Since the night he had seen the black bird—was it only two nights ago?—the wind had hardly blown at all. The woods moaned and groaned but not from the wind. Clip could hardly tell of what though.
Shaking himself he got up and began pacing. That bird must have been faerie. The thought sprang to his mind before he could stop it, yet it made sense. What else could make the wind blow like that? Then make it stop for days? His head throbbed with every step, and the horrible, vicious yellow eyes clawed at his brain.
He sat back down hard on the stoop. What else? He rubbed his sore head. There was nothing else. There were no faeries to begin with, he told himself. They were the tales of merchants who needed something to draw in customers.
But the eyes burned.
“No!” He beat the thought of the bird back into its place, deep within the recesses of his mind, never to be disturbed again. He should not worry about it.
But if it was a faerie, if he had…
No! He would not think of this. He had plenty to worry about with the cows escaping.
He leaned up against the hard wall of the house and sunk into himself, all his thoughts chasing each other around in his head. The wall at his back felt solid. He pressed into it, trying to draw comfort from thin air.
He sat until he lost track of how long he had been sitting there. He finally lifted his head.
The moon was low, the trees opposite him still hid it from the world. Without much of a thought he stood in the lengthening shadows. His mind was numb from strain. He put his hand out to steady himself on the doorframe and his arm almost collapsed beneath his weight.
“Dragon’s teeth, Clip,” he barely whispered under his breath. He steadied himself on his own two feet and added: “Even if it was a faerie, it will be fine.”
When he opened the door darkness greeted him. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the interior of the hut. The dim light of the moon cast his shadow huge and ugly on the back wall as he stepped inside.
Austeuo and Jacib were asleep, side by side, on the cot in the corner. Clemens sprawled against the wall, as he always slept, his feet on Aubin’s back. If both of those boys didn’t grow up to have back issues Clip would be amazed. The door to his parent’s room was closed. Whether they slept or not he could not tell.
A faint wind crept past Clip, tossing the hair of everyone in the room and catching the breath as it exited their mouths. He turned. The shadow on the wall mimicked his every step in its own solitary world as he moved to the cot beside his brothers.
His head fell to the pillow. The last thought on his troubled, sleepless mind, the burning yellow eyes of a snake about to eat him.
He is running. The air pumping in and out of his lungs, burning his throat. The sky is black, the worst kind of black. Not a star or a moon does anything to light his steps.
A giant creature with a tongue the color of a setting sun chases him. Though he turns in his flight to peer behind him he cannot see his pursuer stalking from shadow to shadow. So he focuses his thoughts, his feet, his breathing all on out running his eminent doom.
He flies over rocks, stumbling and tripping but never loosing a pace until he comes to a cave mouth. The smell of burning fire pours over him and floods his senses. For a second he hesitates. The beast draws nearer behind him and he squeezes his eyes shut before plunging into the cavern.
The smoke he had smelled when he first came to the cave mouth overwhelms him. Without knowing why, he knows he cannot turn around and leave. He spins in the dark but behind him, like everywhere else, is black. Somehow he senses that the beast is no longer behind him, but beside him. He tries to move but cannot. His body is completely paralyzed.
The creature laughs in his ear. “This is a surprise, now isn’t it?” His eyes widen desperately, searching the darkness, but he cannot find the speaker. Still, his sense tell him that something large is beside him, a presence darker than the cave itself.
“I send for your realm, and here you are instead.” The voice echoes and re-echos down the cavern. “Have you come for my kiss?”
He does not answer. Before he can something tugs at him, brutally pulling him off his feet, sending him flying through the air. Whatever the creature is, it shrieks. Claws extend from the darkness trying to grab for him. He opens his mouth in a scream before everything rushes past him and he loses his voice.
Clip cracked open his eyes. His breath rasped down his throat, pulling like a thorn bush into his lungs. The light of the early morning stabbed between his mind and eyes.
What had he just been thinking? He groaned but no clear thoughts came to him. Fire and smoke. Claws reaching out to grab him. He doubled over and retched, but nothing came out of his lips.
He pressed his hands to his head. What a cruel, cruel world. The wind stirred outside and the sun peeked between the trees, falling on him, and burning his eyes. He groaned again and licked his lips. They were cold and dead feeling.
He was sitting like that when someone screamed. A moment later, just on the edge of his conscience, someone picked him up. He was fussed over and placed gently in his bed.
His mom looked down on him and she was so terrified that Clip wanted to get up and run away from the terror that must surely be in the room. He strained but he couldn’t move his hands that had become so cold.
Another moment later—or maybe it was a century and a half, his agony burned so—the fussing went silent. He barely turned his head and saw his mother talking to Clemens. In his fading vision he saw her mouth move but couldn’t hear anything she must have been saying.
Then his vision faded completely.
The next time he woke it must have been hours later. Someone said something about dragons. He struggled to sit up. Pain shot like a thorn through his entire body. Outside of his window his dad was using foul language to describe something. Clip painfully leaned closer. His vision almost disappeared and he feared he might pass out again. However, he barely didn’t.
“Jacib went around the back,” his voice was hoarse, as it might be from the strain of yelling too much, “into Goldstone Wood.” The words rang in his head and rattled him to his bones.
Silence followed, but not the silence of delirium. Clip could feel his dad’s head fall. In the silence the sound without a sound shook Clip to pieces, carrying the pieces broken and torn, away with it. Not Goldstone Wood. He cried and his tears fell away too, leaving nothing but sleep.
Sleep for a moment.
Sleep for a day.
All was quiet. All was dark. The candle by the door once again was not burning. Clip probed his memory. Fog, as thick as cobwebs, partially lifted from his mind and for a second he remembered.
He remembered the bird. He remembered the dragon.
“What are you thinking, Clip?” He was surprised at his now outburst of apparent fever induced delirium. Dragons were a myth. But even as he doubted he could not shake the yellow eyes that burned in the back of his head, dropping the fog, as thick as ever, as dark as the shadows, as still as the air, back over his senses.
Well then, what had happened? He would not be beat out easily. He pressed through the fog to a place where his father sat outside his window. His mother wept, her hands on her face, in the illusion. And Clip remembered Jacib was gone. He was gone into Goldstone Wood, a place of myths itself.
“No, Clip,” he told himself, “you’re delusional from fever. Father was talking about something else and you got confused.” Barely hoping for what he would see, he looked over to the cot where Jacib would be asleep if he was still there.
The cot was empty.
His breathing came in gasps and the room swam and swirled before him. He gathered himself in his arms and blinked away the tears that sprang involuntarily to his eyes. “But Austeuo,” he tried telling himself, “was gone too.” He looked back at the bed, dropping tears on his knees and on his bed. Neither Austeuo or Jacib were on the other cots. And Austeuo certainly wouldn’t go into Goldstone Wood.
Clip started rocking himself to sleep and almost didn’t hear it when the cow began screaming. The agonizing, baleful noise tore through the night sky, killing any thought of security, and ripped out and tore to shreds his heart. But it couldn’t out run the evil snarls that chased it.
Clip thought he knew what made it. He tried his hardest to put sleep, or delirium, between the horrible cries and himself. But he could not. Finally the screams stopped. Even the echoes died away. He raised his head; the battle was over. Resigned to his fate he got to his feet. No one else was about, straining his ears he could not hear anyone running to see what the matter was. Expecting to see another human soul in this horrible nightmare was omething he had given up on.
He walked over to his window, his feet like mud, his legs like water.
And he looked out.
The cow was dead, mauled beyond recognition. Above it stood the dragon. Its fangs dripped, gleaming back the fire in its eyes while its throat swallowed the moonlight, pouring out foul poison. Clip’s own throat constricted, only taking air in sharp inhales. The dragon looked at him with the yellow eyes of the bird. The yellow eyes of the creature that preferred the night, the one who was a bird of prey.
Clip struggled for air, gasping it in at too slow a rate. But his vision stayed with him. The dragon smiled. If an expression of joy could ever be found on a dragon’s lips this was it. Its gruesome teeth spread out to cover more and more of its face in a hideous display of unsatisfiable hunger.
Clip almost fell down, probably never to rise again. It was a dragon. He knew, he probably always knew, it was a dragon. He drew himself to the fullest height his little frame possessed. The enemy of all the worlds—if dragons were real, faeries and their demises must be too—was out his window, preying on his father’s animals.
He gritted his own teeth, in a much less powerful way, and clenched the window seal.
Fear flooded his mind for a second, a brief moment when the Clip of five minutes ago would have cowered away, before survival instinct kicked in and he yelled.
His voice left his mouth quicker than he would have expected…if he had the chance to expect anything at all. His mind was working very slowly, responding half-heartedly to stimulus of the outside world because of the dragon poison. But his little cry, his accusation of such a great evil, shot through the dark and left him with more inside than he first felt.
The dragon staggered back, spewing more fumes high above his head, its claws tearing away at the soft earth beneath its feet. Thick air descended from its mouth, pooling in the yard, before it beat its wings and leapt to the trees on the edge of the clearing, leaving the cow. It crashed and plowed through the forest, cracking whole trees in two, then it disappeared out of sight.
Clip sunk to his knees. How could a dragon be here? Dragons were mythical beasts only remembered because of the tales of grandmothers. And they could never show up without the world knowing. He heard a flutter of wings and for a second thought the dragon was come back. He choked and turned his head to the window.
A little wood thrush had just landed on the frame. It looked at him from behind the shadows, but otherwise ignored him as it threw up its voice to the freshly stilled air.
Clip took his legs up in his arms. He suddenly knew what had happened, despite the dragon poison coursing in his head. The dragon had disguised itself as a bird, a big black bird, all those nights ago, and for some reason was stealing their cows, probably to eat.
And now it was in Goldstone Wood.
Along with Jacib.
Clip rocked back and forth and absent-mindedly studied the little wood thrush. His encounter with the dragon was slowly leaving his mind, fading into the obscurity of delusional fever. But he did remember that his brother was gone, probably captured by the dragon. And he remembered the other bird, the one with the eyes as bright as fire, as hungry as a flame, who was the dragon. Strangely though, he was not afraid of the bird in front of him, though he might should have been.
Its talons were for gripping branches, small and elegant so it could trickle forth from its speckled belly music in the treetops. He could not see the bird’s eyes, though he imagined them to be full; full of happiness, full of joy, full of everything his brother took into Goldstone Wood.
Clip walked over to his bed, tripping and falling over himself. He laid down and cried; cried himself to sleep to get away from himself if possible. And he did sleep. After a while the wood thrush stopped singing and flew over to the little boy in his bed.
Landing on his head, the little bird guarded his dreams for the rest of the night.
MORNING CAME too soon. Everyone else was still asleep. Austeuo was back in his cot, presumably he had returned some time during the night. Jacib was still gone.
Clip tested himself by sitting up. After he found he could use his body he stood all the way. Some of the dragon poison still lingered in his body and he felt weak. His limbs were exhausted and felt like they were burning from the inside out. The room faded in and out of focus, but he forced his eyes to hold it before him, the bed where Clemens and Austeuo were flopped, the covers Austeuo laid on top of, and the doorway leading outside.
He heard a flutter of wings and spun around to face the small wood thrush sitting on his pillow, still in the room from the night before. The wood thrush flapped its wings and flew to the window, bouncing back and forth there as if it wanted something from Clip. Clip hardly noticed though as his eyes were drawn past the little bird to the yard outside and all the broken trees therein.
He prepared himself quickly, slipping into his shoes, out the door, and across the clearing. The sun was hardly up, probably about an hour away. The clearing was made nearly double in its size by the ugly scar the dragon had left the night before. A thick cloud hung over the whole area. If it had been high in the sky, the sun still would have been missed.
The field was desolate of life except for the boy and the little bird, who followed behind him. The cow was still strewn out on the lawn as it had been left. No one must have returned for it. If the sun did not come out it wouldn’t have been missed by many, so vacant of life was the clearing.
Clip choked amidst the dark fumes and lost his footing in the thick morning mist. He fell to the ground. He didn’t even know what he was doing out headed for the Wood. Did he plan on killing the dragon? His mind swam inside his head once again unable to form coherent thoughts.
Suddenly the world darkened. It may have been just him, but Clip missed the sun desperately. He thought he spun in the darkness, trying to get a better look at his surroundings, but it may have been his mind reeling. Colors flashed before his eyes. Brilliant streaks of red, yellow, green, and white twirled around him.
He saw images in the air. A horde of tiny dragons flew about him, circling as buzzards would circle a dead carcass. He scrambled about on his weak limbs, growing weaker by the heavy, jarring placements of his hands and knees. Desperately looking around he saw a limb, broken by the large dragon’s hasty flight the night before, with sharp splinters on one end. He pressed his way towards the stick hoping to fend off his assailants if he could.
But he could not.
His legs gave out. His arms fell beneath his face. The putrid air flooded into his lungs and suffocated him to the point of extinction. But the world still spun about him, picking up pace, flinging evil images, depictions of nameless horrors, about him and he found no such relief.
The wood thrush landed mere inches away from his face. As he tried to shoo it away Clip’s hand landed in a deep pool of the dead cow’s blood. Thick black goo ran down his wrist and stained the sleeve of his only shirt. He wiped off as much of the blood as he could into the dirt, but it stayed.
He once more pulled his limbs under himself and got to his knees. His vision blurred without any help from delirium as his gaze settled on the pool of blood in front of where he knelt.
A ghostly pair of empty irises stared back at him from the reflection. The mouth below the depressed eyes twisted, frozen in a horrid sepulcher for the tongue. Clip startled back and hid his face from himself, tears falling down his arm.
His father flashed through his head, wearing the expression he had worn when he first came into the yard to tell his two sons that they had let all the cows escape. Clip saw his own face there, dark as blood, but it was more pained than his father’s ever was. And it showed something ugly, something it could not hide.
It was deceived. Deceived by the lies it told to itself. Lies of innocence and of pride.
It was broken. Broken by its own hands.
The dragons whirled faster about in their deadly dance. Clip saw countless images flash in their midst, going by quickly so that he could not retain anything he had seen once it disappeared. The little wood thrush came back up to him again and hopped in the line of his vision.
“You did this,” it spoke the accusing phrase, but it almost sounded like a plea. Clip curled up in a tight ball at the bird’s feet. Did it have to be true? He spoke to the dragon those many nights ago when it was disguised as the black bird. But what did that matter? Dragons would hunt anywhere they wanted to. Who was he to stop them?
“You did this.”
An illusion flew in front of his face. It was clearer than any of the other ones before it, a scene full of ruined ashes. A great dragon stood in front of a charred gate, and in front of him stood a girl. He was talking to the girl as if she were his own, but the girl faded into nothing and
Clip saw the yet unfulfilled desire deep in the great dragon’s soul before the entire image faded away.
Clip thought he recognized the girl, though he knew he had never seen her like that. He dug for the answer and found it: the girl talking to the dragon was princess Una.
She was a friend of dragons!
“You did this,” the wood thrush sang again, gently.
She had sent the dragon to him in the first place! She did this!
“You did this.”
He didn’t! Clip doubled over and cried, holding his sides with dirty hands. “Then no one did this.” But no, he could not believe that. Dragons were evil, but he had let this happen. For the first time since he had spoken it, he remembered his promise to the black bird. The promise he had made on the first night he saw the black bird: “I promise protection.”
Protection, cooperation, shelter.
To take the creature in as his own.
It was his fear that had led Clip to make such a promise, his own need and desire. And it was wrong.
“You did this.”
Clip tried to keep tears from falling all over himself but they came anyway. He wiped his face with his hand and looked at the thrush.
He fell over and lost himself to crying. Hot tears burned on his face even more dreadfully than the dragon poison had burned. He coughed and choked as putrid smoke poured out from deep within his chest. Time seemed to stop for him while the rest of the world spun on forever and ever, leaving him behind to die.
But he felt strong arms come around him. He looked up and saw a prince holding him; he could be no other than the most royal of royalty. The wood thrush was in His eyes, singing a beautiful song. Clip heard the song and his heart rose at the sound. The prince lifted him and Clip let Him. He sat upright in the morning air. All the smoke was gone, as well as the images of the dragons.
“Yes, you brought this dragon here, but do you know what you have done against me?”
The Prince spoke. Clip looked into His eyes and he did know. He knew everything. He saw a young boy hidden in those eyes and he saw a man older than the generations of the stars themselves, both ready to forgive a great evil.
“Yes,” his lips trembled but he forced the words out.
“And will you follow me?”
“Yes,” he did not need to force the words out this time. They spilled off of his tongue in a torrent. “Beyond my days, my master.”
So it was that Clipseolar, a mortal, was knighted as a knight of the Farthest Shore by the Lumil Eliasul.
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