Tickling the dragons tai.., p.1
Tickling the Dragon's Tail, p.1Thomas Lombard / Fantasy / Science Fiction
Tickling the Dragon’s Tail
of Nevin Reasoner
Copyright (c) 2014 Thomas Lombard
Ebook formatting by Jesse Gordon
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1: Failed Ruse
Chapter 2: Dwarf
Chapter 3: Clarion call
Chapter 4: Trolls
Chapter 5: Surprises
Chapter 6: Anson’s decision
Chapter 7: A bond grows
Chapter 8: Battle
Chapter 9: Prisoner
Chapter 10: Plans to make
Chapter 11: Rescue
Chapter 12: Canby
Chapter 13: Acquaintance
Chapter 14: Swiggum
Chapter 15: Glorhumm
Chapter 16: Water
Chapter 17: The Device
Chapter 18: Survivors
Chapter 19: First Minister
Chapter 20: Meire
Chapter 21: Retribution
Chapter 22: Academy
Nevin’s memory was clear about the sequence of events that placed him in the kingdom of Antrim, but not about the so-called magic spell delivering him there. This was especially troubling, given his strong commitment to scientific inquiry. Until recently, he was a Lecturer at Hempstead College in Ohio but lost his job because he failed to complete a graduate degree. He was put off by the narrow, pedantic requirements of a single degree program, preferring instead to study freely in a variety of sciences that matched his curiosities. After an emotional final class tribute by current and former students, he trudged to his office to pack up his things where he met a peculiar small man recovering from a physical assault. Anson, dressed in an old-time tunic and breeches, claimed he was a “mage” from a place apparently without modern technology that Nevin could not find on any map.
Nevin assumed that Anson suffers from an elaborate delusion and tries to help the poor fellow, but the police were skeptical that a four-foot tall possible mental patient used arcane means to escape enemy soldiers after suffering a spear wound. Anson tries to convince Nevin of his origin by demonstrating minor spells, but that pales before the little man’s amazement at Nevin’s personal library and the magic of television and other modern technology. Concluding that Nevin must be some kind of highly adept mage, or sage at least, Anson pleads for Nevin’s help to end the devastation, anarchy and persecution caused by war between the kingdoms of Antrim and Gilsum.
While in the college library, Anson comes across pictures of the devastation of Hiroshima in WWII and decides to use these pictures to convince the warring kings to cease fighting. They are unexpectedly confronted by Bartram, also a mage who escaped persecution in Antrim a few years earlier and recognizes Anson. Now faced with two undersized men claiming to be spellcasters, Nevin refuses to believe that magery exists beyond sleight-of-hand, superstition, or some rational explanation—until he is shamed for his scientific chauvinism. Bartram proves himself with a more convincing demonstration of spellcasting, plus he offers a plausible theory why there are deliverance sites between Antrim and Hempstead. He also reveals that he assisted another man, a Hempstead chemistry professor named John Stryker, a man of dubious character, to make the deliverance to Antrim. This revelation explains Anson’s recent experience with mustard gas, a fouling of the air he previously thought was due to high magery. Bartram declines to return to Antrim and face life-threatening persecution again, but he helps the pair conduct their deliverance to a small hut locally called the “library” outside the village of Huxley in Antrim.
Nevin tries to sort out a scientific explanation for the spellwork he witnesses and even helps conduct while in Antrim. He sees nothing absurd like talking animals or shape-shifting, and no items are created out of nothing, so science must offer explanations if he can only figure it out. The mage and the “sage” eventually team up with Orris, an Antrim soldier, to seek an audience with the Antrim king. They resort to magery and scientific acumen to supplement their courage as they set out to pacify the warring kingdoms. Along the way, Nevin finds himself in uncomfortable situations because of his relative large size compared with indigenous folks, sometimes calling for unaccustomed physical altercations.
After arriving in the King’s city of Sartell in Antrim, the troupe’s efforts to petition King Lucan are rebuffed. The King’s Chancellor is suspicious of their motives and in full view of the Court orders them confined. King Lucan secretly observed the action and interrupts, allowing the three men to state their case. The King seems moved by their appeal, but denies his support and grants them a night’s stay in the castle. Nevin is visited later by a high-born woman, Corissa, a Captain’s widow, who takes him on a tour of the castle and grounds. Icy in demeanor but willing to answer his deluge of questions, Corissa misunderstands Nevin’s intentions and leaves him abruptly.
On the day they were told to depart, the three men are asked to meet with the King’s physician ostensibly to treat Nevin’s minor injuries from a bar fight. It turns out to be a secret meeting with King Lucan and Corissa, where the King agrees with their assessment of the dire circumstances facing both warring kingdoms. For political reasons he cannot publicly affirm his own wish for peace, but he wants to secretly support their plan to meet with King Meire of Gilsum. He shocks the men by requiring that Corissa join them. Since she was Gilsum-born and is Lucan’s confidante, she has knowledge they will need for their mission to succeed. He also secretly entrusts Corissa with an heirloom token that may help them prevail.
The alliance of four secretly leaves on horseback at sunrise. Each has conflicting emotions over their prospects for success, but Nevin is particularly disconcerted over his pleasure at Corrisa’s company and belief that she is the King’s consort.
The four riders took the Public Road to the west toward Gilsum and rode until noon. There was no conversation among them, as each but Nevin wore a serious face over the uncertainty ahead of them. Nevin was perplexed, rather than somber like the others. He was peeved over his inability to explain some of the magic-like experiences he had observed since arriving in this land, especially their so-called spell of deliverance from the Hempstead college library to a small hut outside the village of Huxley in Antrim. He gave up the idea that he was in some kind of dream-like state or psychotic delusion. There was too much perceptual awareness with incontrovertible details to deny his place-to-place deliverance with his new friend, a self-described mage named Anson. He tried to convince himself that he should ease up and enjoy this experience more. Science may be indomitable, but it does not have to be a forbidding master. What comes next could help explain things.
The makeshift tunic and breeches they provided Nevin were comfortable, but his undersized saddle was far from it. Unaccustomed to horseback riding as he was, Nevin’s cumulative soreness was so distracting he forced his attention on observing the countryside. Outside of the surroundings of a few small hamlets, all oriented to farming, the landscape evolved into uninhabited prairie with endless fields of grasses, much of it already waist high—at least for the locals who tended toward smaller stature than Nevin. The trees in this region were mostly limited to the banks of streams, and they were the typical riparian varieties like willows, alders and birch. He saw nothing odd about the biomes he observed.
For their first rest, the troupe chose a site next to a slow-moving brook, a site evidently used by many travelers over the years. Some benches had been fashioned out of tree trunks and conveniently set around a fire ring of blackened stones. There appeared to be fresh ashes but no signs of any people.
Orris tethered the horses then took one at a time to drink from the stream. Anson assumed responsibility to prepare a light but cold meal from their supply of cold meat, cheese and an herbal drink. Corissa and Nevin sat down to ease their stiffness from the long ride. There was little conversation until all four had all gathered around the fire ring, absent a fire as Orris insisted. Corissa brought up their need to appear as common travelers, expressing some concern that it might be difficult because of Nevin’s size. Nevin was a little offended by the remark, but a pursed look from Corissa indicated she meant advisement, not insult.
“I’ve thought of a ruse which should work,” she said. “We can present ourselves as a delegation from the Farmers’ Grange in Sartell to collect information on the lack of progress of the year’s first planting. Nevin should be treated simply as an overlarge, dull-witted drudge. We should keep him in clothes befitting that character.”
“Seriously? I’m a drudge now?”
After appeasing Nevin’s feelings, all thought this was a good plan and discussed details to make their story believable. Orris was particularly adept at fabricating the story, a skill that Anson claimed he had developed from years of exaggerating his own exploits. It was agreed that Orris would speak for the group should they need to propagate this ruse, but Nevin thought he saw some unspoken hesitation from Corissa. From her take-charge attitude and relationship with the King, she probably thought she should be their spokesperson. After a short time, they were on their way again with Corissa in the lead.
Corissa had recommended the Public Road as the safest route, plus it offered the best prospects for comfort since most villages and towns would probably have at least one inn or some kind of roadhouse. Comfort would be their reward for this logic, as it soon rained a light drizzle.
After the first sign of rain, the riders stopped at a hamlet named Warren where they called at a modest sized dwelling marked by a dilapidated sign that it boarded travelers. Two sleeping rooms and dinner were available, but the proprietress eyed Corissa with curiosity. Apparently she was unused to women travelers wearing fine leather and woolen riding gear, particularly pants, but she was even more leery of Nevin. Corissa assured her that “the tall lout” was harmless, saying that he had some troll blood in his lineage that accounted for his size and dim wit. As Corissa paid ahead for the food and lodging with silver coin, Orris pulled her aside to caution her.
“It is not prudent to display a purse full of coin, My Lady,” he whispered. “It would be better to appear we have very little among us and are hard-pressed to pay for a night’s lodging.”
“I don’t think there is anything to fear, Orris. We are four in good health and you are visibly armed. It is unlikely that anyone would be serious about challenging us.”
“I am leery, My Lady. But, you are the King’s…uh…agent. I mean, we will do as you say.” Orris briefly looked to the others to press his advice, but he thought better of challenging Corissa.
The proprietress served supper consisting of thin soup, bland tubers and boiled lamb. It was not inspiring fare, but it gave them a chance to go over their plans. They agreed that Corissa would take one room, Nevin and Anson would share the other. Orris thought it best if he slept in the stable where he could keep an eye on their horses. Before leaving, Nevin changed the bandage on the soldier’s arm and pronounced his recent wound to be in excellent condition after a treatment of penicillin-laden mold.
Nevin retired to the welcome sight of a straw-filled mattress. Even though his bed was much too short, he slept soundly until Anson gently shook him awake the next morning.
Anson and Corissa had not been as fortunate as Nevin in getting to their rooms. As representatives from the Farmers’ Grange, they were drawn into a lengthy conversation with some locals, which involved mostly listening to the proprietress’s sister and brother-in-law. This couple farmed an area adjacent to the roadhouse and had an endless list of complaints for Anson and Corissa to take back the Farmers’ Grange. Corissa deftly perpetuated their ruse, but Anson had chosen to say nothing rather than lie. After Corissa finally succeeded in excusing themselves to retire for the night, she exchanged a smile with Anson for their mutual tolerance of the boorish couple and success in preserving their secret.
* * *
After a breakfast made light because only half the food was palatable, they mounted their horses and made for the road now pocked with puddles. With Warren behind them, heading west, the topography of the land started to change. It became hillier with patches of trees and small woods dotting the landscape to the south and west; a dark line took shape on the horizon to the north.
Despite the sloppiness of the road, by mid-afternoon Orris claimed they had covered at least four leagues. Nevin mused over the origin of the league as a unit of distance, supposedly how far a person could walk on foot in an hour. They stopped for a rest and a meal at another wayfarer’s site, this one with a large fire ring and several half-rotted tree trunks for seating. Each tended to duties on his or her own without the need for orders. Nevin gathered firewood, Orris and Anson took care of the horses, and Corissa walked toward the surrounding grove. In the miserable dampness, Orris was willing to risk a fire for a hot herbal drink.
After several minutes, the men gathered around the fire ring in joint effort to get damp wood to burn. Nevin was first to express concern that Corissa had not returned. “Do you think Corissa is all right? She’s been gone a long time.”
“Aye, I don’t like her being gone from our sight,” said Orris. “But she is not a woman who needs a man nearby to feel protected.”
Anson was suddenly distracted by the nervous snorting among the tethered horses. “Let’s wait a bit; perhaps she just seeks privacy. I will tend to the horses. They may sense a wolf or bear about.”
When Anson approached the horses, all four of the animals turned their heads toward him and nickered. The other men kept working on the fire. A minute later, they heard a dull thump followed by a muffled groan. Orris jumped to his feet to get his sword, but was halted by a voice to their left.
“Stand easy, Gents, and no one will be hurt…any further, that is.”
Out of the trees appeared a man, armed with a long, narrow-bladed sword in one hand and a club in the other. Three men accompanied him, two armed with cocked crossbows and the other holding Corissa with one arm crooked around her neck and his free hand pointing a dagger at her throat. Corissa did not appear injured, but her eyes were wide with emotion. Nevin chafed at the sight of Corissa in danger, but stood frozen with indecision.
“Let’s take it easy, Gents. None of us wants this fine lady to bleed on her pretty clothes, do we?” The man’s voice had an intimation of malice, accented by a leering smile. He wasted no time in declaring their intent. “Make no move while we search you and your packs for the lovely coin of the realm you bear. We plan to relieve you of the burden—to make your travels easier, of course,” said the leader barking a laugh. He shouted orders to his cohorts, “Kretch! Check their packs and their person for coin or anything of value. Delk! If any one of ‘em makes a threatening move, cut the woman’s throat.”
Advancing toward the men, the leader asked, “Which one of you would be most disturbed if Delk’s dagger should slip?” Nevin’s glaring expression answered the man’s question. “Ah, the big one. It makes sense. If I could bully the others, I would have the women to myself as well, Big Man. But, then, I am a generous soul and I would share such pretty bounty with my comrades. Would you like to share this bounty, lads?” Delk gave a guttural laugh as he let a hand slip down from Corissa’s neck.
Orris and Nevin remained frozen. Both men had enough presence of mind not to make a move that would result in harm to Corissa. Nevin seethed with indecision. Part of him wanted to vent his fury, and part of him hoped that Anson would return and do something. Maybe the mage could disable the intruders somehow with a spell, if that were possible. The plausibility of this wish tended to confuse him further, on top of the unbridled emotion that was an awkward experience for him.
Kretch ransacked the parcels and checked their clothing for whatever coin or other things he thought of value. He notified his leader when he had checked everything, then took a position where he re-aimed his crossbow to guard over Nevin.
The leader took a step forward, surveying Nevin in a mocking manner, walking slowly around him and tauntingly patting him on the buttocks with the sword. “Now what should we do with the likes of you, Lord Oak Tree, and your companions? Perhaps we could take your horses and some of these fine clothes in your packs, though yours would not fit any man I know. And the woman—we should take the woman as well—although we will keep her fine clothes on her for now.”
Nevin flinched at the threat to Corissa and took a step toward the arrogant ruffian, his anger at the boiling point. Orris reached out to stop him, the veteran soldier realizing the time was not right for such a move.
Delk perked up at the suggestion that would take Corissa with them. He sharply pulled back on her hair to lift her head and leered into her face menacingly.
Nevin kept his eyes riveted on Delk, not noticing that the leader had walked around behind him and raised his sword with an eye to the tall man’s neck. Orris saw the man’s intent and was about to leap when four horses charged from the trees. Each horse ran at a brigand and rousted him, the leader being knocked to the ground as he was about to swing his sword at Nevin. Only a quick recovery kept the interlopers from serious injury as the snorting, agitated horses reared and kicked.
Corissa ran to Nevin’s side as Delk released his clutch to avoid the horse that threatened him.
Nevin threw his arms around her, instinctively shielding her from harm by horse or man. The leader lay sprawled next to them, dazed by the unexpected attack from the horses. The horse that had knocked him down, the large steed ridden by Nevin, pawed the ground and whinnied as if daring the man to fight back. The horses continue to threaten and rear over the brigands until all of them fled into the surrounding cover.
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