Chapter 3: Strange Company
A day and a half after leaving the army, Michael had come upon a little village, nestled in a sparse wood with good vineyards and fields all around. There was no inn as such there, but homely landowner had put him up for a night, recognizing him as the prince. The next day he came upon another town, called Gabora Minor; apparently if there was a Gabora Major it was long lost in the hearty oak woods of the country upland from the village.
There he rested in a raucous inn called the Mottled Wyrm, which had comfortable beds. It seemed that in Gabora Minor nobody recognized him as a prince of Atalland, for nobody gave him any deference. Being raised a prince and then spending his youth and young adulthood in the military as an officer, this behavior was strange to him. People did not step out of his way when he went on a walk, nor did they make any offer of service without him asking first. The local stable-keeper, in fact, told him to come back later, as he was too busy to fuss over yet another horse.
Michael decided to stay there an extra day, finding the strange behavior slightly refreshing. He also enjoyed (as he admitted to the bartender, who did not seem to care) that nobody recognized him. He felt detached from the army and the shame of his dressing down by his father. His life felt empty too, for he had filled it with the life of military officership, but the emptiness was likewise refreshing.
He found himself, therefore, doing something he had never before permitted himself to do, which was wasting an afternoon sitting on a mound of turf beneath a tree, reading a book of fiction and folktales. As he turned the dirty pages (the book was borrowed from the innkeeper, a jolly old woman who collected fiction) he found himself feeling strangely happy.
“Oh, that’s a fun one.”
Michael squinted and looked up to see a dark-haired woman standing nearby wearing a simple dress, holding the reigns of a large warhorse.
“Yes,” Michael said, shutting the book for a moment. “I seldom read fiction. My father always said it was a waste of time and rot for the mind.”
“It’s not fiction.”
“It’s about dragons and faeries.”
“Which are both real.” Sharona sighed and smiled. “I especially like the stories with the dragon Garamesh. Oh, and don’t gentlemen usually stand for a lady?”
“What?” Michael said. He stood up hastily and brushed the grass of his trousers. “Yes, the… dragon.” Michael coughed. “Do you require assistance?”
“No. I just hadn’t expected to see you sitting under a tree reading.”
Michael stepped forward and suddenly recognized the face. “Sharona, isn’t it?”
“It is I. In the flesh,” she said airily, her face unreadable.
“I didn’t recognize you without your armor on. What are you doing here? You should be attached to the mage corps, not be on leave.”
“I was sacked.”
“I was sacked,” she said loudly.
Michael shook his head. “You lost your commission, you mean?”
“Yes, that’s what they told me. I was losing my commission,” Sharona said. “Now, we were talking about dragons…”
“I recommended you for a commendation. What happened?”
“I don’t know… Someone or other came and told me I was released from duty, handed me a sack of silver, and told me to go home. So that is what I am doing.”
“You seem rather ambivalent about your situation.”
Sharona shrugged. “I think I already did what I was meant to do. Which is-”
“Wait,” Michael said, looking at the horse behind her. “What are you doing with that horse?”
“Rabble-rouser? Yes, I did rename him. I’m riding him. Well, not currently, obviously, but within a larger frame of time I am riding him as a means of transport.”
“I mean, you own that destrier?”
“Can you really own a horse?” Sharona said, raising her eyebrows.
“Yes, you can,” Michael said. “What I mean is, did you bring that horse with you when you were admitted to the corps?”
“No, he was given to me.”
Michael shook his head. “No. That horse belongs to the Artalland army. It was assigned to you for your use as a soldier. You stole that horse.”
“Can it really be stealing if you can’t own a horse?”
Michael blinked slowly. “Yes, Sharona.” He sighed. “Don’t worry, I’ll smooth it out somehow when I get back to Calasora.”
“Oh, that would be appreciated.”
“Consider it payment for what you did in the battle. All the same, you really ought not let that horse be seen around any cavalry officers.”
“I don’t expect to see many. Now, we were talking about dragons.”
“You know,” Michael said. “I ought to get going. I have some errands to attend to.” He turned to walk away, and gritted his teeth as he paused. “Should I gather that you are traveling alone?”
Michael grumbled softly. “Where are you headed? I’ll escort you there. You ought not travel alone on the road.”
“Why? You’re alone.”
“I’m a man and trained soldier. I’m in no danger from passing highwaymen.”
“Neither am I. I can crack men’s femur bones, remember?”
“Are you carrying chicken bones?”
“No, but I have other tools.”
“Well, if you want an escort I am at your service, such as it is. Where are you headed?”
She looked away for a long moment and frowned, as if thinking or, as Michael thought, listening to an inaudible voice.
“Colasora,” she said.
“Fortuitous,” Michael said flatly.
The sun was hot as they let the horses take their own paces along the dusty road. Sharona wore a piece of cloth over her head loosely as a covering. For lack of a travelling hat, Michael wore his helm with his visor up, but no padding beneath. He debated in his mind whether it made things better or worse.
“So,” Sharona said. “We never finished our conversation about dragons.”
“What was there to finish? Dragons aren’t real.”
“You really ought to travel more.”
“Well, have you seen one?”
“I have, as a matter of fact. Well, sort of. I’ve seen a few drakes. Those are small dragons, very beast-like. They can’t really talk. Not like the true dragons, like Tathanon, or Iodemus, or Garamesh.”
“And where exactly have you seen a drake?”
“In the Dobo Wold, of course.”
“You’ve been there?”
“I am from there.”
“What the hell are you doing in Artalland?”
“I am riding a horse beside a prince.”
“What prompted you to cross the Divine Spires and come to Artilland, then?”
“I had a dream.”
“We all have dreams.”
“In it, a dragon told me I needed to come here to discover who I am.”
Michael smiled at her. “You don’t know who you are? I thought you were Sharona.”
“Well, I admit I thought I knew who I was. I’m not an orphan, if you were wondering.”
“I wasn’t, but that’s good. Orphans are terrible tragedy.”
“What an odd thing to say,” Sharona said, frowning.
“So… What made you want to join the mage corps, once you arrived in Artalland?”
“Well, I lit a lamp with magic, and someone saw me and asked if I was an officer in the mage corps. So I found the Calasora legion and signed up. I thought maybe that was what mages do in your country.”
“The few we can find we try to press into service, it’s true,” Michael said. “I hear the gifts are thinning out as time goes on, though.”
“That’s because this world is slowly dying.”
Michael laughed. “Is that all?”
“Oh no, that’s not all, but that is why magic is seen less in people. The fay is drying up. The eternal dream is giving way to the mundane, not the magical.”
Michael was silent for a moment. “What happens when it dries up?”
“The world dies. Or it will be dead by that time.”
“What happens to us?”
“We’ll be dead by then, I’m sure. It’ll take a long time to dry up totally, methinks.”
“I mean, what will happen to people when the world dies.”
“Nothing,” Sharona said, with a shrug. “The world will be dead, not the people. It will be mundane and unchanging.”
“I changes now?”
“Yes, in subtle ways. In the past the world was constantly being reformed by the twists in the Eternal Dream.” Sharona looked over her shoulder at nothing in particular. “I’ve been there, you know. The Fay Lands.”
“Yes. The people in my village seem to think it made me crazy.”
Michael was about to say, They’re right, but thought better of it. “Let’s pause here a moment. There’s some people up the way.”
“How do you know?”
Michael pointed over the trees. “A bit of smoke. We’re close to Landera, but not too close. Could be a bandit or two.”
Michael reached down and retrieved his crossbow. He set about loading it.
“You don’t have to worry about that, your highness.”
“Better safe than sorry.”
“I mean don’t worry, I’ll protect you.”
“I need no protection.”
“Then why have the crossbow and the sword?”
They saw across the road a broken wagon, and Michael put out a hand to still Sharona.
“Aha!” He whispered. “It is a bandit.”
“Looks like a broken wagon.”
“It’s an old scam. You pause and get off your horse to help the poor merchant with his broken wagon, and they jump on your horse and rob you.”
“Oh,” Sharona said, raising an eyebrow. “Wonder why they don’t just shook us with arrows.”
“Because bandits are usually rubbish when it comes to actual fighting. I thought you said you’d traveled.”
Michael took out his crossbow and led them up the road. He paused when an old, dirty man stepped out into the road from the wagon, waiving. Michael shouldered his crossbow and took aim, not at the old man, but at a shadow in the trees above him.
With a snap the bolt flew and struck something. A man screamed and fell from the tree down into the road.
“Flee now, and I will count the execution of one of you as sufficient,” Michael called. He put the crank back on his crossbow and began spanning it. The old man was frozen in the road with fright. The other men hidden in the bushes were not, and they leapt out, well away from where they had set their trap.
A few bolts flew past them as the men from the bushes rushed forward with swords and clubs. Michael calmly loaded his crossbow as they ran. Before he could pop a bolt in, he looked up at a terrible noise.
The bandits were rolling on the ground crying in pain. Michael looked at Sharona, who was glassy-eyed and mumbling incoherently. Her horse was moving anxiously. The old man in front of the wagon went running into the brush.
“Let’s go!” Michael said.
Sharona shook her head, looked at Michael with bright eyes, then followed him down the path as he galloped among and over the bandits, who were crying and writhing on the ground.
A half mile or so up the road, they slowed.
“I told you I would protect you,” Sharona said.
“I have to say, that was impressive, whatever you did.”
“I made them feel like swarms of bees were stinging them. It’s very painful, but they were trying to rob us, yes?”
“Yes they clearly were. I’ll notify the sheriff in Landera so he can clear them out.”
“What about the one you shot?”
“He’s a criminal.”
“So am I, you said.”
Michael chuckled softly. “Not the best comparison.”
This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening.