Answering the Call

 

Jeffrey Blanchard

 

"I am not being paranoid," Egbert said to the empty room. "One does not become king of Celidon by being unobservant and careless. Actually," he corrected himself, "one does not remain king of Celidon by being unobservant and careless."

Egbert had ruled his half of the island continent of Dummonia for better than twenty-five years. He knew the difference between idle talk and a serious threat. This time he faced the real thing.

Fyren. The king's younger brother. Ever jealous of his elder's birthright. Ever dissatisfied with his own role as second heir to the throne. Always scheming. Always plotting. Egbert knew his brother was the driving force behind the latest series of odd events. The king just didn't know quite where Fyren fit into the big picture. And he had a feeling this was big.

He was not being paranoid.

"Well, little brother," the king said to his reflection, "you're nothing if not persistent."

Egbert scanned himself meticulously in the mirror. He was aging, and not too well at that. Most of his once black hair was gone. What remained was a dull, lifeless gray. His eyes were droopy. His face was deeply creased. His royal robes hung loose. That, however, was with purpose: the too-large clothing effectively hid the still-solid physique that lay below his neckline. Overall, King Egbert looked like a much older, much weaker man than he was.

"Perfect," he told his reflection.

The king stepped out of his private chambers onto a balcony that overlooked a vast courtyard in the center of Fenice, the capital of Celidon and the largest city on Dummonia. A massive cheer greeted Egbert from what represented at least three quarters of the city's population. Raising his arms for silence, King Egbert addressed his people:

"I regret to inform you, good citizens of Celidon, that something dreadful is about to disrupt our peaceful lives. My trusted advisors, including Prince Fyren, have brought to my attention an unbelievable set of circumstances transpiring in Gwyr at this very moment. Our neighbors, our island-mates, our allies in the Great Dragon War two hundred years ago, have become our enemies."

Egbert paused as the crowd's murmurings erupted into shouts for action. After giving the mob a chance to vent some of its outrage, the king raised his arms and continued:

"As we speak, Gwyran forces are being organized for an invasion of Celidon. They desire nothing less than to rule all of Dummonia."

Egbert was again cut off by angry shouts. He realized he would have to make his speech short if he wanted to avoid a riot.

"However," Egbert yelled to be heard. The crowd quieted, eager to hear their king's solution to the crisis. "Prince Fyren, having been in secret contact with a high ranking Gwyran military official, says the invasion has been delayed. This same official has started a rebellion against the Gwyran monarchy's insane notion of defeating Celidon. In short, Gwyr is marred in civil strife that may escalate into civil war. Prince Fyren is convinced the rebels will lose their bid, but their efforts have given us time to launch our own counter-attack.

"The preparations have been made in secret to avoid leaking word to the Gwyran. Those preparations are done. At dawn tomorrow, Celidon forces will cross the border into Gwyr. Dummonia will indeed be one nation; it will be Celidon!"

The clamor that erupted from the crowd was deafening. Egbert watched his people's reaction only momentarily; he would never understand the lust for blood-letting. He withdrew to his private chamber and closed the massive wooden doors, shutting out some of the noise.

"Your play, Fyren," he said to his reflection.

* * *

Banan stumbled, and were it not for his stout walking stick, would have fallen. Egbert's revelation was exactly what Banan had been waiting so many years to hear, and now he was on the verge of being trampled by the frenzied mob.

Getting old had its disadvantages, and Banan was easily the oldest resident of Fenice. Stoop-shouldered and hunch-backed, Banan was only a shade of the man he once was. In the mass of confusion following Egbert's call to arms, the decrepit body was about to be crushed like so many eggshells.

"Banan! Give me your arm you old fool!"

"Who?" the crippled ancient replied, trying his best to straighten up enough to see who dared address him as old.

"Not now. You can swing that stick of yours at me as soon as we get away from this crowd."

Banan allowed himself to be led, roughly, through the revelers and out of the castle courtyard. Once he caught his breath he started in on his rescuer:

"That was nice of you to drag me through the city streets like some common ruffian. I would have suffered fewer bruises if I'd faced the mob with my stick."

"You're welcome, neighbor," said a man twenty years Banan's junior, which put him well into his retirement years. List was much more robust than his older friend, however, a point the younger never failed to flaunt. "Were you trying to get yourself killed back there, or did you just get lost again?"

"Very amusing. If you must know, I still have a keen interest in the politics of both Celidon and Gwyr. Did I ever tell you that I was actually born in Gwyr?"

"Only about fifty times. So what did you think?"

"About what?"

"About the king's little announcement, what else?"

"Do you really want to know what I thought?"

List sighed audibly and looked skyward. "Of course I want to know. Why else would I have asked?"

"Don't ask me; I've never understood the younger generation. As for Egbert's plan for a united Dummonia, I think it's long overdue. I just wish our fool king would stop relying so much on his brother for advice."

"Fyren? He's harmless."

"You think so? Well I don't. He spends entirely too much time lurking in the shadows, spying. You'd be advised to watch your back when that one's around. I know I do."

"What would the Prince of Celidon want with you, Banan? You have some skeletons in that root cellar of yours?"

Banan shot List a look that almost made the younger man shiver. Almost. "My skeletons are my business," Banan said. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do."

List watched his neighbor hobble off in the direction of their homes. He had spent a good part of the last century watching the old timer. He knew why Banan was so interested in the politics of Dummonia, and it had nothing to do with being born in Gwyr. But he also had preparations to make, and the moment Banan was out of sight, List hurried off in the opposite direction.

* * *

As soon as Banan got inside his small house, he threw his walking stick into a dusty corner and made for the shallow root cellar dug into the back of his kitchen. Finding the loose stone in the dimly lit cellar was not a problem -- he had touched that spot daily for well over a hundred years. However, in all those trips to the cellar, he had never removed the stone nor the prize that it hid.

But this trip to the cellar would be different. This was the day he would make history.

The old man knew he should wait a little longer -- make certain the civil war in Gwyr and the invasion by Celidon were well under way -- but he had waited so long already. His impatience easily won its battle against prudence.

Like a child with a Harvest Day gift, Banan grabbed the special stone and threw it from its spot in the wall, not looking to see where it landed. He roughly thrust his hand into the crevice left by the missing stone, and when his fingers touched the object of their search, his face lit up with joy. The old man carefully brought forth from the hole a small black bag. The bag was no more than an arm's length long and an arm's width wide. Clutching his precious treasure to his breast, Banan made his way out of the cellar, not bothering to close the trap door behind him.

Setting the bag on a plain wooden table -- one of only four pieces of furniture adorning the stooped man's home (he also had a pair of mismatched chairs and a straw mattress) -- Banan closed his eyes and breathed deeply. While never completely abandoning hope, he had nonetheless resigned himself to the fact that the day the bag could be opened might never come. Now that it had, he couldn't imagine why he hesitated. He knew he should wait, at least until tomorrow, just to be sure Egbert made good on his plan of invasion. But the key to a new and better life was sitting on his table. He couldn't wait.

Banan forced his trembling, arthritic fingers to undo the bag's drawstring. That done, he withdrew his most valued possession and held it reverently before him. In his hands the old man cradled a roughly carved wooden flute.

No fancy images were etched into the instrument's wood. Three finger holes randomly dotted its surface. At first glance the flute more closely resembled a hollow tree branch than a musical instrument. Yet Banan stroked the splintery wood like a mother smoothing her newborn's still-wet hair. A single tear cascaded down Banan's weathered cheek and dropped to the dirt floor before the man shook himself out of his reverie. He quickly secreted the flute in an inner pocket of his coat and made his way outside.

The sounds of boisterous cheering assaulted him from all directions. The idiots would be yelling well into the night, Banan knew, but not out of celebration.

Stepping from his front path onto the street, Banan jerked his head to the left, the worn out vertebra of his neck popping audibly. He saw nothing. Just a little jumpy, he thought. Understandable considering what he carried in his coat. Reassuringly touching the pocket that held the flute, Banan made his way to the city's temple.

Banan arrived at Fenice's primary place of worship without incident. Although he couldn't shake the feeling that he was being watched, he failed to uncover any direct evidence that he was under surveillance. As he had assumed, the temple grounds were abandoned. Everybody was too busy celebrating and preparing for the glories of war. Nobody would think of praying until the bloody bodies started returning for burial. Banan only hoped the rest of his clan would be able to find such an advantageous place to transform.

Without further delay, Banan withdrew the flute and gently raised it to his cracked lips. His mouth was as dry as sand, but he didn't notice. His fingers in place, Banan drew a breath that rattled in his lungs and almost caused him to cough. He suppressed the urge and released his air into the flute. What the old man produced were three ugly-sounding, non-harmonic notes. They were enough.

As he felt his crooked spine start to straighten and elongate, Banan knew the magic was successful. He dropped the flute to the dusty ground. In every city on Dummonia an ancient man or woman was feeling what he felt -- the long-awaited transformation.

Banan closed his eyes and let the magic work. His legs and arms started to stretch. His fingers and toes sprouted claws. His neck grew at a rapid pace. His jaws expanded and filled with rows of dagger-sharp teeth. The base of his spine wriggled from his body to become a whip-like tail. The old man was so enraptured with the pleasure of again becoming a dragon that he at first failed to hear the footsteps approaching him. When he did he felt something new -- fear.

Humans did not posses the weapons nor the magical skills necessary to actually kill a dragon under normal circumstances. They could, however, do serious harm, especially when outnumbering the great beasts by fifty or more to one. That is precisely what happened two hundred years previous during what had come to be called the Great Dragon War.

The dragon army thought Gwyr, the smaller of the two nations on Dummonia, would be an easy target for conquest. Then, with a base of operations firmly established on the island continent, Celidon would fall with little trouble. The invasion of Gwyr started out as planned, but something unexpected happened -- Celidon came to its neighbor's aid. Together, the two nations repelled the dragon attack.

Beaten but not destroyed, the dragons fled to plan their revenge. Magically taking on human form, the creatures separated -- each to a different city or village -- to wait for a time when disharmony reigned on the island. The waiting was long and tedious. The struggles of the Great Dragon War had cemented the friendship between the two island nations.

So Banan waited for chaos to return to the island's human inhabitants. He knew that when it did, he, the Dragon King, would play his special flute. The magic that held the dragons in human guise would be disrupted. The dragons would be able to strike quickly from within. The already stressed humans would never be able to unite in time.

The only drawback of the plan was the transformation itself. While the dragons were literally unkillable in either human or dragon form, they were vulnerable during the change.

His eyes flying open, Banan saw his worst nightmare come to life. Fyren stalked him with a crossbow, loaded and ready.

"Well, old man -- or should I say old dragon? -- it's time the Great Dragon War was finally finished. What my ancestors couldn't accomplish -- your total annihilation -- I will."

Banan's body continued to change. He found speech nearly impossible through his mutating throat, but he did manage to croak, "How?"

"How did I know? Your old friend." The prince gestured to the shadows of a large statue outside the temple. There Banan saw List, and for a second, List allowed Banan to see what he really was. "Old List was very helpful," Fyren continued, failing to see List's true nature. "He supplied me with the identities of all the dragons and told me how to kill you. He even dreamt up this civil war and invasion nonsense. You really should be more careful about who you pick as friends, dragon."

Seeing List nod, Fyren raised his crossbow and let fly his quarrel, which sailed true and pierced the dragon's heart. The Dragon King died quietly.

* * *

Fyren stood back, admiring his work. He knew a similar scene was being played in every city on Dummonia. He had personally selected every archer. All were experts. When the populace discovered that he, Fyren, had permanently rid the land of dragons, he would certainly be crowned emperor of the entire island continent.

The elated prince turned to thank his partner, List, and dropped his crossbow in astonishment. The old man was gone. Where he had stood was a writhing black nightmare. Before his eyes another transformation was taking place, this one much more horrible than the first. The remnants of List's body were being consumed by a shadow, but a shadow with a hideous form. Paralyzed with fear, Fyren could only watch as the demon took shape.

Just when it appeared the monstrosity could grow no larger, the twang of a crossbow releasing sang in the air. The demon exploded with an ear-piercing scream that would forever haunt the prince's dreams. Standing behind the spot the demon had just vacated was Egbert, holding an empty crossbow.

"Well done, little brother. By killing the dragons you managed to release the spell binding the only creature more powerful than they were. I've been waiting for the opportunity to destroy the Demon Lord ever since he took up residence on Dummonia. But tell me, how did you expect to kill the shadow beast with your crossbow lying in the dirt?"

King Egbert turned, straightened his slightly-too-large robes, and started making his way back to the royal palace. He had another speech to prepare.

 

 

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"Answering the Call" Copyright © 2004 Jeffrey Blanchard. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

 

This page last updated 01-29-04.

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