‘Here, you dropped it.’ Robert handed the dragonblade back to Jane. She grabbed the sword, scrambled to her feet, and stumbled across the ravine to a wedge of shade. She needed to get away from this man, away from his poisonous words.
Jester had warned her about such people, artful folk, men and women, skilled in torment through wordplay. They were like worms that crawled into your ears, worms whispering half-truths that could beguile Kings and Emperors alike.
‘My apologies,’ Robert crossed back to the mouth of the cave and sat in the opening. ‘This must be hard for you, I know.’
‘Keep your distance!’ She remained standing, her back against the rock wall as a wave of nausea threatened her stomach.
‘I intend to. In fact, I will sit right here where I can take shelter from your dragon’s flame when he returns. Which he will, very soon.’
‘Stop it, stop this babbling!’ Jane began to pace in a small circle, stamping her feet and taking deep breaths. What was wrong with her, what had happened? She could feel the heat of her breakfast churning in her stomach. What had this man done to her?
‘You poisoned me.’
‘I’m sorry for your distress, but this is all your doing, not mine.’
‘The three sisters, you paid them.’
‘Who might they be?’ Robert sat with legs crossed, his hands folded in his lap. ’Please sit down in the shade, Jane, pacing round like that is just adding to your distress. I need you to sit quietly, there’s more I have to tell you. I think your distress comes from a conflict in you. Your body knows a truth that your head refuses to acknowledge.’
‘I will separate YOUR head from its body if you keep talking!’
‘Very amusing. I think there is a battle going on inside you, Jane. That is why your dragon will be here shortly. He will be sharing your confusion and the wretched feeling it stirs in your stomach.’
‘Who ARE you?’ Jane couldn’t hold back the nausea any longer. She bent forward and wretched a steaming mix of bread, cheese and apple juice.
‘Your dragon won’t ask any questions. He will take your sickness as my fault and burn me where I sit.’
‘Not without my command,’ even as she said it, Jane knew the man was right. Dragon was coming. She closed her eyes. She could feel his confusion, his rage, his fear for her. How could this man know that before she did?
‘Wrong, Jane, he will vent his fire and anger without asking your leave. Listen very carefully, for both our sakes. I have knowledge that you need. Let me prove it to you. Let me tell you how to unlock your sword.’
‘This?’ My dragonblade? Too late. I solved that riddle many years past.’ The sword had a complex handle that housed a set of mechanical spindles. Holes in the outer layer of the handle revealed runes beneath, layers of runes on overlapping metal sheathes that could be turned to line the runes up in hundreds of sequences.
‘I doubt that.’
‘Doubt all you want.’ Years ago, Jane and Dragon has lined three particular runes up on three separate layers. The end of the handle had opened like the lid of a metal bottle revealing a carved metal spindle on a long thread of twine. When spun around above her head it sand a high-pitched note that dragon could hear for miles.
‘You are mistaken on two accounts. Firstly, that sword is not a dragonblade, and secondly, it is not the summoner from the handle that I am offering to unlock for you.’
‘Not a dragonblade?’ Jane stared at her sword.
‘No, dragonblades do exist. One does, at least, and I will show it to you before this day has ended. If I consider you worthy.’
‘Enough! I will not listen to more of this.’
‘Then the test is over before it has even begun. And I have wasted my time and a great deal of effort; or you could line up the dragon runes for death, love, and life. Line them up on each of the three layers in the handle,’ he paused and looked up as a shadow swept across the ravine. ‘Time to choose, Jane.’ Robert jumped up and threw himself backwards into the cave just as Dragon roared a thick wave of flame toward him.
Jane stared, she wanted to scream for Dragon to stop, but the effort bent her double, no words came, just more hot bile, as if she was breathing fire herself.
Dragon turned, swept back across the ravine, and landed on the ridge opposite the cave mouth. He bent forward, stretching his neck and far as he could, and roared a fireball that washed directly into the dark throat of the cave.
‘Come NOW!’ Dragon glared down at Jane. He’d brought a rope, and dropped one end to the floor below.
Moments later, exhausted and confused, Jane collapsed on the ground beside him. Neither spoke. They just sat together and stared at the blackened entrance of the cave on the far wall.
Jester hurried after Gunther. The young knight had pushed him aside as he’d raced from the guardroom. Jester caught up with him in stables and took his elbow.
‘What shall we do?’ he said. Gunther brushed him away, but Jester stood firm. ‘Please Gunther. Can we hope that Sir Theodore has gone to confront Haroldus? Shall we go after him?’
‘We?’ Gunther stopped, spun round, and stuck a finger into Jester’s ribs. ‘Do you even have a horse?’
‘Or permission to leave the castle and your duties?’
‘Then there is no ‘we’ in this adventure, my dear clown. Go back to your stilts and lute and leave this to me.’ Gunther brushed a fly from his cheek and glanced down at the cobbled floor of the stables. ‘Look at this! Horse gong everywhere. This is not like Rake, the dung is barely out of a horse’s backside before Rake is carting it off to his precious compost heap.’
‘He is a little distracted this morning. Haroldus set Pepper a riddle, and Rake means to solve it.’
‘Haroldus again. The man is playing with us all. Why did none of us see this. Has he beguiled the entire castle?’
‘Not Prince Cuthbert. The prince instructed Sir Theodore to keep the man out of the castle grounds, ah…’ Jester held up a finger.
‘Sticking your finger in the air is not thinking.’
‘We inform the Prince. We tell him that Haroldus has deceived us. He has not left on his adventures but has set anchor just around the point on some secret business. His little majesty will instruct us to go and find out what that secret business is!’
‘And he might command us to take him with us. No, Jester, it would be a circus.’ Gunther, set off across the stables to the arrival yard and main gate. Jester hurried to keep up.
‘He might indeed, but do you have a better plan?’
‘Yes, the seed of one, at least. I am off duty until my evening patrol. So until then, I am at the beck and call of my father.’ They strode out through the gates and across the drawbridge.
‘How is that a plan?’
‘I shall tell my father that a cargo vessel has run aground at Sweetwater Bay. He will instruct me to ride there and offer my services, for a salvage fee, to bring their cargo safely back to town.’
‘Yes, good. I readily concede that is a better plan.’
Gunther and Jester rounded the great statue, and made for the village square. The area was normally a hive of activity with stalls and traders, a bustling marketplace that rarely slept. Except now, in the midday heat of a blistering summer day that had driven both traders and customers inside.
One building dominated the square, the house of the Merchant, Gunther’s father. It was an imposing two story building that spoke of hard work, not wealth. Like everything else in Gunther’s life, the house was a tribute to his father’s greatest skill, his mastery of deception.
Gunther was halfway across the square when he realized Jester was still tagging along at his heels.
‘Why are you still here? This is my plan and my father.’
‘We are not scoring points, here.’ Jester took his hat off and wiped a line of sweat that was running into his eyes. ‘This is not about us. This is about Jane.’
‘I know that!’ Gunther grabbed the corner of Jester’s hat and tore it from his hand. ‘Now, stop your prattling and listen. Haroldus is up to something, yes?’
‘Yes. Can I have my hat back?’
‘No. Sir Theodore has ridden off to confront him. Alone! Why?’
‘They were old friends they have a long and rather colourful history as comrades in arms.’
‘Exactly. We have both sat through the stories often enough. I think our noble Sir Theodore realizes he has made a terrible mistake in trusting Haroldus. The moment he saw that report on the wall he rode out to put this to rights. But the man is too old to take this on alone, and you Jester, are too small. So take your silly hat and go back to the castle.’ Gunther jammed the hat back on Jester’s head and patted it down.
‘I can’t. I would spend the day pacing back and forth like a nervous donkey’
‘It’s what you do best! I will find your precious Jane and bring her safely home. She means as much to me as she does to you.’
‘As much?’ Jester wasn’t sure how to respond. His own affection for Jane was a poorly kept secret the whole court was aware of. He knew Gunther and Jane had a complicated regard for each other, and constantly worried about the true nature of it. Yet the two young men had never spoken of it before. The topic sat like a brooding discomfort over the both of them.
‘Yes, Jester. Jane means a great deal to me.’
‘You mean, as a colleague in arms, correct? As a fellow member of the Royal Guard?’
‘Grow up Jester.’
‘You are wasting your affections there, Gunther, trust me.’
‘And I am wasting my time talking to a clown who can’t see the world for what it is, so please go back to the castle and…’ Gunther stopped mid-sentence and ducked behind a covered stall. He pointed down the slope to the causeway bridge. ‘Look there!’
Sir Theodore was riding up to the castle. With Haroldus. Jester crouched down beside Gunther. Then they rolled onto their stomachs and observed the approach through the gap beneath the wheels of the stall.
‘What do we do?’ From this distance, Jester couldn’t tell if Haroldus was riding free, or strapped to his horse like a prisoner.
‘We wait and watch.’
‘Right, is this what it’s like on patrol?’
‘No, on patrol we don’t prattle to each other.’
‘Understood. But your remark about Jane, a moment ago. What did you mean, exactly? What are your intentions?’
‘My intentions? Really Jester, my intentions never factor into my life. Do you think my father would approve of a romance between his only son and a girl of the court who has ambitions above her station?’
‘No, exactly. So put your fluttering little heart at ease, Jester, my father has grander plans for me. Much grander.’
‘Grander. I can’t imagine …wait! You mean Princess Lavinia! That is absurd.’
‘I know. So tell my father that. It will never happen, and I would rather leap off the battlements, but father’s ambition pays no regard to inconvenient matters of fact or convention.’
‘But he knows you are romancing Lady Rose. He supports you openly, he approves.’
‘Of course he approves. He arranged it with the girl’s father. Lady Rose is promised to young Prince Juan of Granadilla when they are both of age. I will be theatrically heartbroken and demand to meet Juan in personal combat. The young prince has no combat skills and is half my age. My father will negotiate a settlement, a large payment from Granadilla.’
‘I am rarely lost for words, Gunther, but this…’
‘My father plays a long game, Jester, a very long, very complex and very dangerous game, and I am just one pawn on his board.’
‘But Princess Lavinia! Her parents would never submit to it.’
‘Do not underestimate my father’s leverage. Gossip has it that our beloved King is in debt up to his eyebrow with tolerant cousins to the north. He is not. His debts are all to my father.’
Jester said nothing, his head was spinning from the audacity of the Merchant’s plans. He stared at the approach of the two riders. Dust and heat had mixed to obscure a clear picture on the men, it swirled about them like a fog that clung to the legs of their horses.
Then, as they drew close and turned into the castle gates, the dust settled and the status of Haroldus became clear. The man was tightly bound.
The entrance to the cave was now in full sunlight. Neither Jane, nor Dragon had moved. They had sat in silence, watching the sunlight stretch down like a slow-moving tideline over the blackened far wall.
It was Dragon who broke their silence.
‘What did he do to you?’
‘Nothing, perhaps.’ Jane closed her eyes and tried to remember the moment she had collapsed.
‘Nothing!’ Dragon snorted. ‘I felt it too, remember. Everything went black.’
‘I know,’ Jane reached out and stroked the soft ridge of scales between his claws. She had propped herself up and was using his front paws like the back of a chair. She knew Dragon was as confused as she was about this. He was angry too. He joked about everything; everything and anything to do with shortlives was fair game to his brand of mockery. Jane knew it was Dragon’s way of avoiding any conversation that might grow uncomfortable. But not now, not here. Since arriving back in a furious temper and roaring fire at the cave, he had sat beside her in a dark brooding silence.
‘Is it possible we did this to ourselves?’
‘Yes, Jane, I always make myself vomit up an entirely good meal of turnips just to make you do the same.’
‘That sounds more like my Dragon.’ Jane continued to scratch his paw. It seemed to comfort them both. ‘I felt like this once before, back when we first met. I challenged my mother, do you remember, I challenged her directly for the first time when I asked the King to let me train as a Knight of the King’s Guard.’
‘You told me.’
Jane closed her eyes and tried to remember the moment. She had returned triumphant to her room, the King had granted her wish and she had thrown herself onto her bed and cried with a heady mix of relief and happiness. Then her mother had arrived. The poor woman had said nothing, instead she had sat down on the bed beside Jane, taken her hand, and stared around the room like a confused child. In that moment, Jane’s happiness had curdled in her stomach like sour milk. She had sat up to console her mother, but a dizziness had overtaken her. She had reached for her wash bowl and wretched.
‘Mother said I had swooned. I became ridiculously cross with her. The only swooning I knew about was in tales of romance where foolish girls become lovesick. I spoke to Jester about it. He agreed with mother!’
‘I was so angry with him. Then Jester told me it happened to everyone, to boys and men too, when some great realization sweeps over them, some memory that has been boxed up inside, a memory best left alone for fear that unpacking it will be too hurtful.’
‘So you did this, you made us both feel like we want to tear the wings of the world and hurt everyone in it.’
‘Is that what you felt?’
‘No.’ He paused. ‘Maybe.’
‘I think I’ve made a terrible mistake. Robert could have killed me when I fell over.’
‘When you swooned. Ow!’ Jane jabbed him with her elbow.
‘Never use that word again. I fell over and blacked out and the next thing I remember was Robert standing over me. If he wanted me dead, he could have killed me right then. Instead he helped me sit up, handed my sword back and went to sit by the mouth of the cave.’
‘Lucky for him.’
‘No, not lucky. Field tactics. He said you would be back very soon to kill him. He wanted to be at the entrance so he could dive inside to safety.’
‘I blew a fireball right in there. He will be a little bit toasty.’
‘I have to go down there and help him.’
‘What! No!’ Dragon pulled his front paw away from Jane’s back and stood up. ‘Trust no-one, Jane. Your words, not mine. We trust no one till they can prove themselves.’
‘Prove themselves. Yes. Well Dragon, this man may have done that.’ Jane reached over her shoulder and drew the dragonblade from its scabbard. ‘He told me there was a secret hidden in this sword. He gave me the sequence of runes for unlocking it.’ She placed it on the ground in front of them, and felt her heart starting to race.
‘What’s happening?’ Dragon stood up and backed away. ‘Why do I feel like this?’
‘This! My blood is in my ears, Jane. Do we want to know? I mean, what if this is the start of finding out …everything?’
‘Mother said the same thing, that night when she came to sit on my bed. Do you really want this, Jane? You will be opening a door you can never close. Do you understand this? I said I did. What did I know. Theodore presses me with the same questions, everyday he tests my resolve to be on this journey. Our journey, Dragon.’
‘I want it to stop!’
‘Our journey, our adventures?’
‘No! This scary pounding pain feeling. Make it stop.’
‘I don’t think it will, not until we turn that handle and see what’s hidden.
‘So do it, Jane. Do it now.’