Tarragon: Key KeeperKarlie Lucas / Fantasy / Actions & Adventure
A breeze seemed to swirl around inside the enclosure. It swept the dust particles upwards in a spiral, much like powdered snow when stirred by a quick passage of air. Except that shapes began to form inside the column of swirling sand.
Anwen moved forward in eagerness, not sure what was going on, or how the sand managed to stay within the confines of the circle. But it was what was happening inside the swirl of dust that caught her attention.
Small clouds of sand began to form striking images. They reminded her of the puppets from the festival, some long and lean, with others shorter and stockier. Most had wings protruding from joints just below sinuous necks, or further down long spiny backs. One figure reared its head and spouted a swirl of gold-colored dust that undulated like flames.
Also by Karlie Lucas
THE UNKNOWN ELF
Tarragon: Key Keeper
© 2016 Karlie Lucas
Cover Design by Karlie Lucas
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, or by any means, without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief passages embodied in critical reviews and articles.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination, or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Paper back ISBN-13: 978-0997048100
Library of Congress Control Number: 2016901932
Carrollton, Texas USA
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
To all who love a good dragon tale.
ANWEN STARED OUT THE DIRTY window of the Volkswagen bus as it climbed the longest stretch yet. So far the scenery didn't leave much to the imagination. Especially not when she compared it to the descriptions from her great grandmother’s diary. Yet again, she had to tell herself to slow down and remember they’d only just left the valley below.
She'd arrived in Blaucii via the Express only the day before. The city had been nice, full of the latest conveniences. And the hotel she'd stayed at had been more than welcoming.
The place she was going to now was pretty much guaranteed to have a less modern take on life. She wasn’t excited about that. Already, she missed the warm beds and the restaurants. Not to mention the transportation hub in the major parts of the city. She was sure they wouldn't have that in the village.
The low scrub hills blurred together as she thought about the previous stretch of her journey, the most enjoyable so far. The bullet train from Tawny Falls had held every modern convenience. It also had the most comfortable arrangements Anwen had ever experienced. She’d felt a little sad to bid the roomy Express goodbye. But she'd exchanged it for the less than ideal confines of the much older vehicle she now rode in. She tried to convince herself it would all be worth it in the end.
Anwen shifted her weight to one side, trying to find a more comfortable position on the depleted cushioning. With a sigh, she gave up on the attempt and pulled out the diary, now much dog-eared and worn from constant reading. It wasn't hard to find the precise passage she wanted.
"I look forward to the time when we will see the Village of Lindwurm once more, and the mountains of the Drakonii Range. Therein sits the ancient city of Tarragon, home of the Keepers. Though I have never seen it with my own eyes, I can picture it as if I had just been there. The mountains rise majestically all around. The sapphire blue waters of Lake Wyvern shimmer across the way, keeping sentinel over the Sacred Island.
We Porters were once the Keepers of this place, living in a city of stone, the likes of which no one has seen in so many years. It is there that I hope, one day, to return, as we are destined to do. One day."
Closing her eyes, Anwen shut the book. Her thumb traced the outline of the dragon pressed into the leather front of the book. The dragon's wings spread majestically above its turned head. Its tail wrapped around itself at the bottom, almost making a figure eight. She opened her eyes to mentally trace the pattern.
Noticing a subtle change in scenery, she looked out the window once more. Unable to place the exact difference, she pulled out the map she’d purchased down in the valley and set it in her lap. She tried to follow the thin line representing the road but wasn’t sure where to start. She hadn't paid too much attention to their progress.
A pale-skinned arm reached across the map and pointed at a bend in the line, causing Anwen to look up in surprise. It took her a moment to register that the young man who'd been sitting by her the whole time had finally moved. He'd sat as silent as a stone the entire ride. Asleep. Or so she'd thought. But his finger now pointed out their exact location on the marked paper, making her wonder.
“I believe we’re about here,” he said in a warm tone.
Anwen looked down at the location he’d pointed to and nodded, trying not to appear as flustered as she felt. “I think you’re right.”
She looked up again to thank him, but paused as her hazel eyes met his brilliant blue ones. She noted his light brown hair and clear complexion. After realizing she was being rude, she shook her head, a faint blush forming across her cheeks. “Sorry. I didn't mean to stare.”
He smiled. “It’s all right. I get that reaction a lot, especially from people who don’t know me.” He held out his hand, gratified when she took it. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Tyler Durand. And you are?”
Trying not to blush even more, Anwen shook his smooth-skinned hand. Without thinking, she responded with her real name. “Anwen, Anwen Porter.” Her fingers slid from his with a sort of reluctance, breaking contact. “Do you come this way often?” She winced at her own question.
Tyler laughed in amusement. “You might say something along those lines is true. What about yourself? Do you," he paused, "come this way often?” His eyes sparkled in the sunlight as the bus crested one of the many lower lying hills of the Drakonii Range.
Anwen shook her head, her auburn hair falling to conceal her embarrassment. She looked up at, not his eyes, but his mouth. Looking into his eyes was dangerous. It made her stomach feel funny. “No, it’s my first time. I guess you could say I’m trying to connect with my roots.”
“Ah.” Tyler nodded. “Yes, trees must establish firm roots if they are to grow. Visiting such roots only tends to strengthen them. Especially if one is willing to overcome the adversities of finding those roots, difficult as that task may be.”
Anwen blinked in confusion and clutched at the diary. “Do you always talk in riddles?”
Tyler glanced out the window for a brief moment before looking into her eyes. “Only to those who intrigue me.”
“Oh.” Her heart beat like a jackhammer. It played a staccato so loud the driver could probably hear it, even though they sat all the way in the back of the dilapidated bus.
Tyler shifted so he could look at her with greater ease. He crossed his arms over his chest as he surveyed the fair-skinned girl in front of him. “You’re definitely not from around this region,” he explained. “I would know. But you have a familiar feeling of ‘belonging’ to you that I like. Few tourists have that.”
Anwen decided to fold the map up and put it back in her bag, trying to ignore the attention she was getting from this complete stranger. “I’ll bet you say that to all the girls who visit.”
He tilted his head back in thought, a far away look in his eyes. “To be honest, no. You’re the first I’ve met in a long time who’s felt like that.” He trailed off, looking troubled. Or maybe it was more thoughtful.
Anwen pursed her lips and slid the diary next to the map in her bag. “Well then, I guess that’s not a bad thing, is it?”
Arms still crossed, Tyler leaned back against the seat. “No. But if I were you, I’d catch a nap while you still can. You might not get another chance before reaching the village. After all, tonight is a festival night.” With that, he closed his eyes. His chest rose and fell with a hypnotic rhythm. The seat creaked a bit as the bus continued to climb the winding mountain road.
Anwen wasn’t sure if he really was asleep or just faking, but decided to take his advice. She didn’t know what kind of festival he meant, nor did she care. Even with the niceties of the bullet train, it had been hard to sleep. The simple truth was it wasn't her bed. Not that the cushioned back seat was any better, but it would do. Holding her bag close, she closed her eyes and let herself drift with the passing clouds overhead.
The small bus stopped with a jerk and Anwen almost fell out of her seat. There were no seatbelts, not even for the driver. She braced her feet as she clutched at her bag, the leather buckling under her tense fingers. She looked around, disoriented and unsure of where she was. After a moment, she relaxed as she recognized the faded paisley pattern of the seat covers in front of her.
“Good morning, sleepy head,” Tyler smiled. “That was quite some nap you had there. I almost wondered if I’d have to wake you. Wouldn't want you to miss what’s around the next bend.”
Anwen blinked the sleep from her eyes and tried to peer through the cloudy front windows. They needed to wash the glass, she thought for the umpteenth time. “What’s up ahead,” she asked, taking the bait.
Tyler let out a bemused chuckle. “Only our final destination, the Village of Lindwurm. We’re almost there.” He pointed towards the slight rise ahead of them where the road bent to the left and went behind a projection of rock. “The driver had to let the ol’ beast have a moment. That last climb was a steep one.”
Anwen looked behind them, out the much clearer rear window, and almost gasped in amazement at the view below. “We came up that?”
The road snaked back down the way they’d come. It became lost in the various twists and turns as it followed the natural contours of the mountain range. Just below their current location, the road bent steeply. It reminded her of a roller coaster’s first downhill descent. She swallowed hard.
Tyler was laughing at her now. “You’d be surprised what this ol’ beast can do." He patted the interior wall like it was a favored pet. “Believe me when I say she’s seen much worse."
Releasing the death grip on her bag, Anwen shook her head. “You make it sound like you own this heap of junk.”
“Hey now!” Tyler gave her an admonishing look. “Ol’ Bess and I've known each other for years. She just needs a rest after such a steep climb.”
At that moment, the front door opened and the driver got back in his seat. He had grease and oil staining his hands despite the cloth he used to try and wipe the excess off with.
“See? Now she’s had a drink, we’ll be back on our way.” Tyler flashed an affectionate smile.
The driver put the vehicle in gear and it chugged ahead once more. They headed towards the last turn in the road at a pace that felt almost snail-like. Anwen couldn’t help but lean forward. She couldn't wait to see the fabled Village, the only real settlement inside this part of the mountains.
Tyler grinned as the bus rounded the bend, revealing the first few houses of the fairy tale village.
Most of the houses were brick and stone. They had brightly colored roofs with wooden planks used as tiles. Vines grew up the sides of most of the structures, with lattice-worked shutters and flower boxes.
Anwen held her breath as they drove down what had to be the busiest section of town. They passed dozens and dozens of quaint little shops and buildings. Some were made from wooden slabs. Others were made out of more traditional brick and stone, but with bright colored panels and facades. The picket fences between each building were a nice touch, she thought, wondering if she'd somehow gone back in time. If it weren't for the other cars on the road, she might have thought they'd been transported to a different era.
“Up ahead is City Hall,” Tyler said, pointing out the brick building. “The festivities will start there, then move down to the Quad, which is that grassy area behind the Hall. They usually start with a speech from the mayor or elected guest. See, they've already started setting up the picnic tables and chairs. That's the part worth going to, not the speech.”
Anwen nodded. She noted several booths had also been set up, along with long lines of tables waiting for food to be placed on them. “Must be some celebration,” she commented as they passed the field.
Tyler nodded. “It's the first full moon of the summer season, which is a big deal to the locals. They call it the Dragon Moon. So this is for the Festival of the Dragon Moon, or the Dragon Moon Festival, whichever you prefer.”
She nodded, mentally rolling her eyes. “Because these are the Drakonii Mountains and Drakonii means dragon, right?”
He smiled. “That's right. It's an ancient name for the creatures of fable. And there's a long history associated with the lore, which started right here in this village over a thousand years ago. So, you could say it's almost like celebrating the name day of these mountains and this village. Legend has it that it was in this mountain range that the first dragon came forth into the mortal world.”
Anwen tried not to laugh. He looked so serious, almost like he was telling a ghost story, eyes intense, body almost rigid. “The first dragon?” she asked, not sure if she gave in to this tale. Dragons lived in fantasy stories, not in real life.
Tyler shrugged. “That's how the legend goes, or so they say. As for myself, the only dragons I've seen are these mountains and the boats they'll float down the river later on tonight.”
The bus pulled up alongside a decorated curb, the engine idling. “Last stop!” the driver called as he got out and opened the side door. He began unloading the baggage, which had taken up the middle section. He took out boxes of supplies, along with one large suitcase, which belonged to Anwen.
Struggling to pull the handle out from the top of her case, Anwen noticed Tyler didn’t seem to have any bags of his own. He just had the jeans and t-shirt on his back. “Don’t tell me you live here.”
Tyler hoisted a box up onto one shoulder but turned at her question. “Just think of me as the delivery boy and you’d have it just about right. After all, the supplies have to get up here somehow, don't they?”
He gave her a roguish grin and carried the box off towards a small store. “Hotel’s that way, by the by.” He paused to point across the street at a two-story brick building with blue-latticed windows.
Before Anwen could thank him for the directions, he was gone. The driver, having finished unloading the cargo, gave a wave from the front seat, and drove off in a cloud of exhaust. Heaving a sigh, she readjusted her leather carryall and grabbed the stubborn handle of her suitcase.
Looking both ways before crossing the street, she noted an absence of cars and took the offhand chance to cross. Reaching the other side, she admired the manicured lawn of the building she would call home base for the next week or so.
With a lot more effort than she wanted to admit, Anwen managed to lug her baggage up the stone stairs leading to the front door. A gargoyle leered at her from around a large window in the entrance, its arms making the frame around the glass. She was tempted to stick her tongue out at the little face, but didn't.
Anwen took a quick step back as she came face to face with the ugly brass guardian, then laughed at herself and pushed the door open. She had to pull her suitcase over the small bump between the stone outside and the wood flooring inside. A small bell jingled over the doorway as she entered.
“Welcome!” A well-proportioned woman with graying dark hair appeared almost out of nowhere. “Let me help you with that.”
Before Anwen could protest, the older woman had the bag inside and set it next to a wooden counter.
“Name’s Millard,” the woman offered. She moved quickly to the other side of the counter as she introduced herself. “Madame Millard. Do you have a reservation or are you just dropping by for a quick visit?”
Anwen had to take a moment to process what had just happened. Either she was still tired, or Madame Millard was faster than she'd expected. “Uh, reservation,” she managed, “under Anna Post.”
Her mother insisted she use a pseudonym while inside the village, though she hadn’t exactly been given a reason. All she knew was that the family of Porter was not allowed inside the area, though she hoped to find out why.
Madame Millard flipped through a thick reservation book that looked around fifty years old. From her vantage, Anwen saw that most of the pages were bare. “Post. Post. Ah. Here we are.” The proprietress turned the book to face her guest and pointed to a blank line next to the reservation. “Sign here, please.”
Anwen took up a feathered pen from the metal cup next to the call bell and scribbled a signature. It was one she’d practiced on the train. She just hoped telling Tyler her real name earlier wasn't a mistake.
How could she have known he was a local? If he really was one. He might just be a delivery boy who knew the area. It was all very confusing and she decided not to think about it for a while.
The elderly woman turned the book back around and scrutinized the scribble for a moment. “Looks like all is in order, and, if records tell truth, you already paid your share at the time of booking.”
Anwen smiled half-heartedly at this, as Madame Millard glanced back at her for a moment. The money had been sent ahead, via wireless transfer, as had been requested. She didn’t have a charge card of any kind, nor would she have used one if she had.
Finally satisfied that all was as it should be, the large woman took down one of several keys on the wall behind her. “We’ll put you in number three,” she announced. “It’s up the stairs and to the right. Best I show you and carry up this luggage for you. A scrawny thing like you can't lift it, I'm sure."
Anwen was about to protest that she wasn’t scrawny. Skinny, yes, but not scrawny. But the hotel manager had already grabbed the bag like it was a small sack of potatoes. She hauled it up the stairs without so much as a hesitation or sign of exertion.
Anwen followed after her, the smaller bag smacking against her back as she hurried up the stairs. She arrived at the top just in time to see the older woman open a door and take the suitcase inside.
Madame Millard put the case on the bed with a mighty heave that seemed to take as little effort as throwing a pillow. “There, now. It's a nice quiet room, with a nice view out yonder window. Looks out on the river.”
She moved to the curtains and pushed them aside. “Dragon boats’ll float down there later tonight, all full of light for the full moon. Lucky time to come visit, during the Dragon Festival.”
Anwen tried to smile in appreciation but it somehow fell flat. “Thanks. I hear it’s really something.” All she wanted, though, was to unpack and look things over. But the landlady wasn’t ready to leave.
“Meals are included and are downstairs in the room off the front lobby. Serve up regular between eight and ten in the morning, noon to two, and five to seven at night. Miss them and you’re fending for yourself. No marking up anything inside the rooms, minus the paper provided for notes. And no stealing any of the articles in your room either. They’ve all been cataloged and you’ll be charged extra if any turn up missing at the end of your stay.”
Anwen’s bag fell from her shoulder with a soft thud as it hit the bed; right next to her other luggage. “Okay,” she nodded.
Why this lady thought it important to tell a seventeen-year-old girl that was beyond her. Especially one who had done a bit of traveling before. Not that the landlady knew that, but still. It felt like the proprietress was harping when she just wanted her to leave.
Madame Millard gave another look around the room, nodded in satisfaction, and moved to the door. “We hope you enjoy your stay at the Dridi Inn and the Village of Lindwurm.” With that, she left the room, closing the door behind her.
Anwen heaved a sigh of relief. For whatever reason, that woman reminded her a lot of a great aunt. An aunt who definitely had strong feelings about her great niece. Feelings that were far from favorable. At least she was free of the woman. For now.
Taking a moment to make sure the door was locked, Anwen began unpacking her belongings. She put clothes into the small dresser. If it had been a real hotel, a television, or something similar, would have sat on top of it. Instead, there was a lace doily and an old-fashioned water basin and pitcher.
A nightstand with an antique looking lamp and alarm clock sat next to the double bed. Near the window stood a chair, along with a desk that had stationary laid out on top. The walls were painted a light peach color.
Definitely not the typical accommodations she was used to, but she supposed that was part of the charm. Chances were good nothing would be like what she expected. At least there was a private bathroom next to the closet reserved for hanging garments.
The suitcase now empty, Anwen moved it to the small closet and stuffed it in. She wouldn’t need it until time to pack up again. Sitting on the flowered bedspread, she pulled her leather carryall towards her. She took out the map and diary, setting them aside.
Hidden at the bottom of her bag was a small wooden box wrapped in satin. She took it out with a sense of reverence and unwrapped it with care, feeling the soft grain of the polished wood. The grain was almost purple in color. Whether its coloring came from the actual wood or some stain used on it, she wasn’t sure, but it gave it an almost exotic look.
Anwen easily moved the metal catch and opened the box, revealing soft velvet inside. As promised, on a cushion of that same fabric sat the pendant her mother had handed down to her from her father. Not even her great grandmother had known how old it was, though it had been mentioned in detail on several pages of the diary.
Gently, Anwen lifted the piece of jewelry by the solid silver chain. The dragon dangling from it caught the light from the window. The figure had to be made from some kind of pewter, or so her mother had guessed. It had the same tarnished-silver look as the chain.
The formed metal featured the dragon’s scales in such miraculous detail. Even the undersides of the limbs, holding the strange crystal hanging from their claws, were detailed. The dragon’s wings were spread, the chain connecting to small hoops at their elbow-like joints.
The crystal the dragon held was unlike any she’d seen before. It was a deep cobalt blue. The coloring cast the lighter pewter in stark contrast. In all, the pendant was about three inches in length. The dragon’s head sat lower than the wings, with a tail that twined around the crystal at the base of the body. The wings spanned maybe two inches in width from the base.
Anwen's mother had given her strict instructions to never let another soul see this pendant, again not explaining her reasons. Perhaps she was afraid someone would try to steal it, as unique as it was, with an obvious weight of age to it. Or, maybe, it had something to do with the stories she’d been told as a child. This exact pendant represented the kingdom her family once, long ago, had helped safeguard. Either way, Anwen had promised not to let it out of her sight.
Standing to face the mirror behind the water pitcher, Anwen put the pendant’s chain around her neck. She felt the little dragon settle down a good couple of inches below her collarbone. It wouldn't hurt for her to wear it, especially if she wore it under her clothes. And it seemed fitting.
Tonight was a celebration of the Dragon Moon, after all. With dragon boats and everything, if Tyler’s word could be trusted. The other necklace she wore would help disguise the chain. It held her father's wedding ring, an heirloom she’d kept close since her father's death. It was always out of sight, close to her heart.
Several sharp taps sounded on the door, making her jump as she moved to stuff the diary and wooden box in the closet. She took a moment to make sure the pendant wasn't showing before walking over to the door. With her luck, it Madame Millard had come back to lecture off another set of rules to follow. The idea made her groan, but at least she'd already hidden away anything she didn't want others to see.
With a heavy sigh, she unlocked the door and turned the ornate knob. The hinge squeaked just a bit as the door swung open. "Madame Millard, surely anything else can wait until later," Anwen began. She stopped when she saw Tyler standing there, instead of the anticipated landlord. Her mouth dropped open and she blushed.
“Hey there,” Tyler smiled at her, a small bouquet of wild flowers in one hand. “Thought you might enjoy some of the local fair. It's not as impressive as having the lovely Madame gracing your door, I admit, but I hope it'll do.” He held out the flowers, waiting for her to take them.
Anwen blinked a few times before reaching out and accepting his little gift. She opened and closed her mouth a few times before finally blurting, “How did you find me?”
Tyler chuckled. “Hard not to. I did point out the accommodations, as you may recall. I was a little surprised to discover you’d used an alias to make your reservation. Unless Anna Post is your real name.” He gave her an inquiring lift of his brows.
“Um, no. Sorry.” Flustered, Anwen moved back into the room and took a seat on the bed, setting the flowers down next to her. Tyler followed, closing the door behind him. She ran a hand through her hair.
“My name really is Anwen but I’d rather no one knew that. You see, I’m not exactly supposed to let others know who I am, so please don’t tell anyone.” Her eyes pleaded with his, hoping he wouldn’t ask why.
Tyler gave a nonchalant shrug of his shoulders. “I suppose I can keep it a secret. On one condition.” He held up a finger to emphasize his point.
Anwen closed her eyes with a groan. Why did everything have to come with a condition, she wondered. “What is it?”
He gave her a secretive smile. “Nothing as horrible as you’re thinking, I'm sure,” Tyler assured. “My condition is this: attend the Dragon Moon Festival with me this evening and I won’t tell a soul in the village who you really are.”
Anwen opened her eyes one at a time and stared at him. “You want me to go to the festival with you? Like on a date?”
Tyler shrugged as he moved to lean against the chest of drawers. “If you prefer to call it that, I suppose we can consider it such.”
“I have a strict rule about dating guys I don’t know,” she retorted with a shake of her head.
Looking smug, Tyler crossed his arms. “I have a feeling we’ll be getting to know each other a bit more before you leave.”
Anwen bit the inside of her lip. She wondered if he meant they’d get to know each other more because it was a small community, or if he had other plans in mind. “That’s not likely to happen.”
Pushing away from the dresser, Tyler moved closer to the bed, bending to meet her at eye level. She was several good inches shorter than he was. “Oh, but it is. You see, you signed up for a guided tour to the old ruins, right? Well, I’m your guide.”
Her eyes went wide. “Wait. You're my what? No way!”
Tyler smiled with a knowing look. “Yes way. I’m one of the few people here who know how to get there these days. Most of the older villagers keep clear of them. It's because of some superstitious nonsense. They’re even less likely to go during the season of the Dragon Moon. But there are a few brave souls, like yourself, who wish to venture there. And so, I come along as the handy guide. That and it's sort of a tradition for the younger folk.”
Anwen had to laugh. There was just something about him that put her at ease, like he was some kind of balm for a hurt she hadn’t even realized she had. “Well then, guess I can’t say no, can I?”
Tyler shrugged. “You could, but then I’d tell everyone your real name, and we both know you don’t want that.”
Anwen stood and closed the small gap between them. “Well, if I’m going out with you to this festival, I’m going to need to clean up and change. So, if you don’t mind,” she put her hands on his shoulders, turning him towards the door, “you need to get out so I can.”
Tyler let her push him out of the room, showing only token resistance to tease her further. With the door closed between them, he looked down in amusement, hearing the lock click behind him.
Deciding she wouldn’t like him to wait outside the room, he went down to the lobby. Sitting on the small couch provided, he picked up a magazine from the selection in the sitting area and pretended to read.