The morning was magnificient in such a strange land. This new team watched a glorious sun rise steadily over the hillside. Songbirds chattered and sang. There was none of the noisy terror left from the night before. Tagoreous announced that they would have time to change clothes and eat, but they had a dragon ride coming up. He said it would be best if Bezel were put safely back in the attic for the time. AnnLeigh was overly upset about this prisoner Bezel was to become again. Tag said that it would be no problem...that Bezel knew it was for his own safety while they were gone. AnnLeigh had a hard time reconciling herself to this. Tag told her that Bezel needed some training before he took rides with them. AnnLeigh quietly thought this over for a time, and then finally said that she understood. Tagoreous always seemed to be right in what he told her. She needed to learn to totally trust him. It was just so difficult in dealing with knowing he was a dragon. And he seemed to know everything. She smiled. It was wonderful to have such an intelligent friend, even if he was a dragon. At that moment, Bezel flew out of the cave. Tag did not stop him. Tag looked around at AnnLeigh and told her, "You can't put a leash on a dragon, my lady." "And as dragonets, they are braver than their abilities, so he will be safer here for now." AnnLeigh strpde over and looked out the cave entrance, and there was Bezel, high in the air, zipping back and forth on powerful little wings, grabbing bugs from the overhead mast and popping them in his mouth. "I am sorry," Tagoreous snickered, "Oh dear, I asked him not to drag a mouse in and eat it in front of you." AnnLeigh gagged, "Would he like for me to cook something for him, Tag?" She was still having trouble with this dragon-buffet she had just witnessed Bezel enjoying. "No, my lady, we are hatched pretty self-sufficient." "I would like to see that," she smiled. "Hopefully you will, my lady!....Hopefully you will!"
For once, Tagoreous seemed to be wrong about something. Bezel did NOT want to go back in the attic. Bezel flapped his wings, grabbed for rungs on the ladder, hissed and growled...then let out a little shriek that was heartbreaking (well, it was heartbreaking if you love dragons). What AnnLeigh did not realize was that he never once tried to bite or scratch. He had a number of opportunities to fly away as she lost her grip on him numerous times. She began to understand that he was only protesting that he was only protesting. She sat down with him for a long time and soothingly talked to him. Explaining what little she knew on why he had to go back to the attic. She added that they would be back soon. He seemed to understand every word; laid one little claw on AnnLeigh's arm, then turned and flew to the attic. Not another sound was made by him once she pulled the heavy boards across the attic entrance. Well, there was one, a pitiful little dragonet sigh, which she matched, too.
Hodge had been so handy. He kept her supplied in plenty of fresh water for cleaning and bathing. He would make a separate trip to fill a large crock with delicious tasting water from a spring. She had never remembered water as tasting good where she had lived in the city. Hodge seemed to volunteer and enjoy many of these tasks. So things were quicker and easier to do each day. First, she went to ask Tagoreous what she should wear for this trip. He told her to take a cape so that she might not get chilled. It was still a mystery to her where they were headed when Tag took them to the air. The first part of the trip was very fast. AnnLeigh had noticed that he was careful when he took to the skys. She came to realize that he did not want to spark a dragon hunt where they were living. Except for this morning where the sun had shined so brightly, there had always seemed to be a cloudy haze over this strange land. This must be the reason Tag flew so high here. On other flights, he had pointed out the lakes and interesting places below them. She realized she had so much to learn here.
Tagoreous started to fly lower. Ahead, AnnLeigh could see a great castle, complete with a moat. There was a mirror of a lake that Tag flew a little distance from as he started to descend. A closer look as they approached let her see the great number of swans on the lake. They set up a panic alarm on seeing Tag even at that distance. You could see people moving about on the castle grounds, but Tag had already made a dive for the screen of the nearby trees. This place was like a park. Everywhere she looked there were blooming flowers, bushes, or trees. Then Tag flew low through a pasture and set the deer there to running. He seemed to be circling the whole place, but broke off and headed for a small mountain ridge. Shortly, AnnLeigh found herself looking at a hidden cave. Trailing ivy vine grew everywhere here. Everything seemed to be overgrown. This was far different from the castle grounds. Tag parted some of it and gingerly entered a cave much like the one back at the cottage. He seemed to want to rest and think about something, so AnnLeigh and the boy thought it best to do the same. A couple of hours had gone by and the sound of a horse with armor on could be heard outside. Tag turned his head sideways and glared out the entrance with one burning eye. What he saw seemed to satisfy him, and he parted the vine carefully and stepped out into the narrow deer trail. The young prince, you could see he was royalty from his dress, took several steps back. His slower horse just realized what he was staring at and went into a panic. The young prince seemed to be a good horseman, and had the animal under control very quickly. Tag never moved. The young prince turned to the dragon and said in an amazed, almost whisper, "The Legends are true!" "I am Tagoreous," Tag intoned almost regally. AnnLeigh realized now that this must be some formal meeting from the courtesy and this young man's trappings. "I had, we all had, hoped you would somehow return to us one day, Tagoreous." Tagoreous broke in and reminded the prince that there would be someone following him shortly...tracking him. Privacy is something royalty never have much of anywhere. AnnLeigh thought of the world she had been living in and the lack of privacy there, too. Sadly, this young prince seemed to want to say much more. AnnLeigh wondered how they could know about each other. She hoped to find that and much more out soon. "I have people with me who do not need to be in additional danger," Tagoreous explained. "I need your help in seeing that they stay safe, please, my lord." It seemed to be a demand, in the form of a polite request, that Tagoreous intended to have honored, and AnnLeigh made note of it.
Even with this young prince, AnnLeigh noticed that Tagoreous did not call them out and start to introduce them then. The prince turned his still frightened horse around, mounted, and then headed away from the cave, in the direction of the castle. Tagoreous took to the air and came back a short time later when he seemed to be satisfied. It saddened AnnLeigh to think about how few people you could trust.
Tag told them it would be time to leave shortly. It was close to dusk. AnnLeigh wondered at the distance they had flown that day. Tagoreous seemed to turn another direction as he headed away from the cave. He seemed to be circling the castle, but AnnLeigh was not sure. She used to have a good sense of direction, but this dragon-flying was confusing. In only a few minutes, Tagoreous came down in what looked like an orchard near a small farm house. The little house reminded AnnLeigh of the cottage. An antique figure stepped outside the door and walked directly toward Tagoreous. "You are Tagoreous," he boomed, "or am I about to become toast for my foolish bravery here?" Tagoreous actually laughed so hard that he almost unseated his riders. That was when this ancient character with silver lion's mane and beard got to see the charges on Tag's back. "And you are what's is left of the great wizard Warley," Tag was still chuckling. "A stronger, more condensed version, Tagoreous," Warley seemed to brag. Warley and Tag both seemed to warm to this humor. "I mean thee no harm, Warley," Tagoreous quickly added. "You are only looking for Maldalorios, are you not?" Warley questioned. "And my beloved Felicious," Tag dropped his head in sadness and could say no more.
Warley, on seeing the riders, invited them to come in for some tea. Tag laid down and silently seemed to be telling them that they should go. They followed the wizard into the quaint little home. Warley never slowed up with his banter as he puttered around his tea. AnnLeigh was fascinated with all the little things he had sitting around. Warley was a perfect host, but it was hard to imagine him as a great wizard. He had much more energy than he looked to possess. His clothes were tattered and patched everywhere. And the house was in perfect order...maybe it was because he had no familiar dragonet sweeping around the rooms, pulling things off the walls right now, or did he? AnnLeigh did not care to leave Tag for long, and soon walked back to check on him. He was gone!
At first she started to sneak back to the house, afraid something might be in the area to make Tag leave like that. By the time she got to the door, she was mad that he may have tired of her and Hodge and tossed the two of them away. She fretted over Bezel for a second. When she looked up, she saw that Warley was standing there in the light of the doorway waiting for her. "Tag has asked me to teach you some things, dear lady," he announced. "You will be safer here while I do," Warley was not to be argued with in any case. The boy always seemed to manage no matter what happened. AnnLeigh made a note to try and learn that skill.
Warley brought in a sleeping mat for each of his guests. AnnLeigh thought of the futons she had seen at home. The little magician started to drag several screens from a corner to gave each of his guests some privacy in this tiny house. Hodge was quick to lend a hand. AnnLeigh was happy to see that the boy was always eager to please. She had never once regretted asking him to join her and Tag. She was learning that she needed to pay closer attention to some things he seemed to instinctively know.
Warley wished his guests sweet dreams and told them that they would be starting early the next morning. AnnLeigh had a question on the tip of her tongue to ask him, but he disappeared in an instant. Actually, disappeared!
Tagoreous and Warley visited long into the night in the clearing near the back of the orchard. The name Maldalorios was heard many times during this intense conversation. Warley lead the exchange by letting Tagoreous know that the existence of all of them had become something Maldalorios was plotting to finally extinguish. The little magician had come far from the reaches of Maldalorios to this kingdom with a kind king. The king was now feeble, and his sons were trying to see who would take the throne. Warley liked the young prince, Quafinius, but wondered at his chances at securing and controlling the kingdom. The two older sons were lacking in anything that might make them worthy to rule, but had support from Maldalorios.
Quafinius had many close calls on his life and health the past couple of years. Warley was anxious about the young prince. Warley was careful in helping young Quafinius so that he did not draw too much attention to himself with Maldalorios. He told Tagoreous that none of the former wizards were a match against this powerful mage. It would take an entire council to deal with this power-hungry wizard...and they were all afraid of trying to even meet to discuss Maldalorios. There had never been fear like this in the wizard community before. Tagoreous felt more determined than ever. Warley feared and admired this determination. He knew this would be the beginning of the end for all of them...or, just maybe, they could succeed with this great dragon. Warley was willing.
AnnLeigh awoke in fear. Warley and Hodge were kneeling over her, whispering. As the room came into focus, she tried to listen to what they were saying to each other. Hodge had just said the name ConEgore that Warley has breathed a second before. Both the young man and the great little wizard seemed to shrink in horror at the mention of the name...like they had called some great evil down on themselves just by saying it. Both looked at her and motioned to her for silence. AnnLeigh watched as Hodge quietly made his way to the center of the room, where he moved an old braided rug to reveal boards that had holes just large enough for fingers to enter. She watched as Warley went to one board and seemed to push into the hole and the board popped up like on a spring. Warley and Hodge started removing boards until there was a stairway revealed under them. The little wizard quietly lifted a lantern and handed it to Hodge. Hodge quickly reached for it and took his other hand and pulled AnnLeigh from her sleeping mat. The serious look on his face made her stifle her surprise just then, and of her asking questions.
Hodge descended the staircase only as fast as AnnLeigh could follow. At the bottom, he took stock of something, then moved off in a direction AnnLeigh could not figure in this warren of tunnels. She noticed that the light from above was dimming as Warley seemed to be replacing boards. She worried for him and wondered at putting all her trust in only a boy at this point. Hodge seemed to know something as he moved on at a determined speed. A few minutes later she let him know that she could follow him closely without him having to hold her hand. He partially unwound the braided leather he used for a belt, and handed the end to AnnLeigh. He still wanted to feel a tether to her as they silently worked their way along the passway he had chosen. With this, they moved even more quickly.
Warley spied out his cottage door at the immense dark dragon. This dragon seemed to be sucking on what was left of a large stag's hind leg. This dragon, ConEgore slowly, intently, worked its way around the yard...smelling, then smiling. A wicked smile, Warley was afraid. Warley had seen ConEgore before, but only as a much younger dragon, taking instructions from his new owner. Maldalorios thought of himself as being so great by that time that he did not seem to mind a dragon like ConEgore being so obstreperous (okay, so every book should have one new word to learn). ConEgore seemed to be the only challenge that Maldalorios had at the time. Warley could see that ConEgore was sniffing AnnLeigh's long cold path. For once, Warley was truly grateful for his confusing smells in an herb garden right outside his cottage door. ConEgore kept passing the house as he sniffed, but did not seem to notice AnnLeigh's smell there. The knowledge did not make Warley feel any better knowing that ConEgore would only get a reprimand from Maldalorios if he did anything to the little wizard. Out of sight, out of mind he hoped.
The day was beautiful and the skys were clear. Maybe this creature was just bored and looking for something to do. Warley entertained that thought only briefly; he knew better. Maldalorios had taken too much notice of this nice little kingdom at his far reaches. Neither Warley, or ConEgore had a clue that this evil dragon was just before being relentlessly engaged.
A great fireball seemed to fall from the sky...right on top of ConEgore. At least, that is what it seemed to be for the first few seconds. Then Warley realized that Tagoreous had just engaged ConEgore. Warley had not realized that Tagoreous was as large a dragon as he had become. So many centuries of remembering him as young dragon. Warley had not thought of him as large enough to take on a dragon so immense as ConEgore...then Warley realized that much of ConEgore's size was from laziness and dining on anything that struck his fancy. Warley used the opportunity Tagoreous provided in surprise so he could get out of the cottage. ConEgore could have incinerated it and Warley at anytime. From a short distance now, Warley watched the two dragons battle. The ground shook, but strangely there was not a single vocal sound coming from either dragon as they tangled all over the yard.
Warley knew this was the beginning of the end. He knew the stakes here. He had spent years building escape tunnels under him to take him out to a great cavern system that he hoped Hodge and AnnLeigh were safely moving through now. He had prepared for everything here, except seeing the actual end start right in his sight. He had figured he would get word one day that there had been a great commotion that Maldalorios has quashed once again. This battle raging before him was just not on his agenda. He stared in horror and fascination. Slovenly as he had been for a dragon, ConEgore waged a terrible, often practiced rage at Tagoreous. Tagoreous showed pure intent on his part. He was not going to leave Maldaloriuos with an evil creature to do his bidding anymore. Tagoreous was also aware of ConEgore's ability. He knew of many good dragons ConEgore had reduced to memories. Tagoreous thought of his beloved Felicious and dealt ConEgore a blow from which this evil could not return. Warley watched as Tagoreous then reduced the dark mass to charcoal. As Warley watched, a glittering uncut jewel finally laid in the clearing in front of Tagoreous.
Weary, Tagoreous began to repair the area all around him. Warley understood what was necessary. Maldalorios should not know this place to be the final exit for his evil dragon. Tagoreous knew everyone would suffer here. He and Warley worked in silence for hours without a mention of Hodge or AnnLeigh. Warley seemed to use a magical hand in the surrounding landscape. With that, Tagoreous bid him a farewell and left. Warley briefly entertained the thoughts of what might be next, but decided to go in and remove evidence of his recent visitors before he ate that day. He would ponder this new set of circumstances on a full stomach that had a few less butterflies later.
Hodge pulled AnnLeigh into a great chamber from the tunnel they had been following. Light filled the chamber. There was the sound of water cascading over a waterfall.......
Hodge had AnnLeigh sit near the waterfall and rest as he prowled the great chamber. Except for the tunnel that he and AnnLeigh has just come from, the cavern was full of exits that could only be explored by getting on hands and knees. He would crawl a short distance in each tunnel to find that most became even smaller and then impassable. He tried to remember all that Warley had told him, but nothing seemed to apply here. Had he somehow taken a wrong turn at some point early in their flight into the tunnels. After much consideration, he did not believe that he had. He returned to AnnLeigh and told her of his intent to scale the rungs he had spotted that led up out of the cavern. He assured her that he would be careful and started the climb.
The climb out of the cavern was not as difficult as it had looked. He reached the top and stepped easily out into the daylight. Hodge decided to make a quick return for AnnLeigh, and keep moving as Warley had warned them to do. Hodge was good at taking directions, so he did not linger with or without supervision. AnnLeigh was looking forward to being out of the confines of the tunnels. She had still not learned the safety of not being exposed, but she would. Both Hodge and AnnLeigh enjoyed the freedom of the open air. AnnLeigh looked behind her and noticed what might be the monastery on a ridge a great distance away. Closer, on another ridge, was what looked to be the castle and fortifications Tagoreous has flown them around before leaving them in Warley's care. She did not have a clue where the little cottage with Bezel might be. Hodge told her that the town, where they had been to the fair, was in one of the valleys, but he was not sure which one from here. The land was forbidding looking in front of them. It became more flat, but less lush, almost parched. She pondered what Hodge might suggest next.
AnnLeigh had been smelling something familiar, and finally registered the sound of waves far below her. She stood and let her eyes adjust to the sunshine on the water. Hodge told her he did not know this water. He had been few places in his young life, and this was one of them he had definitely not witnessed before. AnnLeigh let a smile spread across her face for a brief time so that Hodge noticed and wondered. On the water was a tattered sailboat. At first, AnnLeigh stared, then she let out a moan. "Hodge!"...."oh, Hodge!"...."Hodge, it is my beloved's boat!"
This time Hodge could barely keep pace with her as she worked her way off the great ridge toward the sailboat. He tried to slow her, reminding her of the many dangers that could be lurking nearby. She seemed to deny Hodge's existence at that point as she plunged on toward the boat. Just as they hit the beach, they were surrounded by the remnants of a tattered crew. "Where is he?" she pleaded. "Please tell me where he is!" Hodge saw that none of them seemed to know her, but she seemed to know the captain and the boat. The crew realized it was only a distraught woman and a young boy that had some off the hill to them. They relaxed their guard. One found his tongue. "Our captain has been captured by an evil wizard. One of our crew went to see what he could about our captain, and supplies to get us out of here. He returned the first time to tell us of this evil wizard, then we have seen no more of him, either, poor lady." AnnLeigh's mind flooded with thoughts of Tagoreous at that statement. She knew she needed this great dragon. Her heart strained at thinking about her beloved in captivity to Maldalorios. She impulsively reached for the necklace that had once been around her neck, and wondered at more than she could ever possibly understand right now.
The crew tried making AnnLeigh understand that the sun was rapidly dropping, that they needed the safety of the boat. She was so determined to get answers that she kept asking questions until they refused to answer any more unless she got on the boat with them. A distand roar from the parched land and a nearby bird-like scream finally made her listen to their requests. When they were safely aboard the boat, one of the crew showed her to a front bunk and told her she might rest there. "Never fear, dear lady" he told her, "we cannot possibly leave and take you away in this tattered boat." She felt somewhat relieved. The thought had crossed her mind. They had no sooner gotten on the boat than the sounds from the woods near the beach increased. She was glad they had pressed her into coming aboard...even somewhat sorry the boat could not sail away from the commotion of the night sounds.
She decided to lie down briefly, and was soon fast asleep. This was the reason she missed all that was told to Hodge for the next several hours. Hodge was grateful she was resting peacefully as he listened to the terror these men faced each night. He watched as each man took a vigilant stand watching the shore and everything around the boat. He grieved for AnnLeigh as they began to tell of their great fondness and respect for their missing captain. He began to realize that these men were from a time much like AnnLeigh's. What were they all doing in Hodge's world? Somehow he knew Tagoreous would have the answer. Where was Tagoreous?
The crew told Hodge and AnnLeigh that it would be safe to go ashore in daylight to search for food and get fresh water. There seemed to be footprints and disturbances on the sand where she and Hodge had remembered seeing nothing the day before. The beach must have been very much alive the night before. She ventured asking about the parched land beyond them. The men talked about this ground that was too hot to even walk on. AnnLeigh remembered her compost pile from a class project many years earlier. No wonder nothing seemed to grow that direction. Then she learned that this was the direction her captain had been dragged away by some strange beast. One of his devoted crewmen had fashioned boots he was able to stand this hot ground in. He took off after his captain. Many days later he returned along the coast, but could not talk anyone into following him into this hell of a land. He left again, following the coast, but never returned. After all these crewmen had seen and heard all these months, they did not care to venture a guess as to what happened to their missing members.
AnnLeigh retired early to the front bunk. She moved quietly around the area, imagining her beloved still there. Suddenly she had a notion. She called the crew to her. Not used to being summoned anymore, they raced to her. She asked for the log, the journal of the boat, her captain's accounting for what might have gone on with this boat since she had seen him last. Each of the crew looked at the other in puzzlement. AnnLeigh feared there would be no log at this. The crew only shook their heads and muttered in unison, "of course!" They had not thought of the log in all these months. One of the crew stepped forward and pulled a lever that let a small desktop drop from the nearby wall. Inside, neatly on a shelf, was the log, and other paperwork of the captain's. AnnLeigh asked the crew for privacy. She felt unwilling to share what little she had of her beloved at that time. She received no argument from the crew. They seemed honored to have her here. She took the log to the bed and curled around it. Hours later. she emerged from the cabin. She had given thanks to her beloved for his careful detailing of the men who now took care of her. She knew them as strong men now instead of the worn-out, frightened crew they had become. Her beloved had named each man and his abilities and finest traits that had him pick them for his sailing crew.
Then his log began in earnest. He described the day of casting off for a new adventure in this new boat. This had been her last time of seeing him. She had said he seemed to drop off the face of the earth in a short time...he had...almost. He described a beautiful sail, then a great unexpected storm that tossed them about without mercy. He found himself and the crew lucky to be alive the next day. The sky looked so very strange...a haze that never seemed to let up. Nothing looked familiar, even in the fish they dragged aboard to prepare for their dinners. The boat needed repairs, so everyone was glad to see land in the distance. Such a hazy, strange looking land, but land, nonetheless. There was a party to greet them as the arrived ashore. Captain was invited, in no uncertain terms, to come and meet the great wizard of the land. Captain smiled at the mention of "wizard" but did not argue. He asked his sailing partner and first mate to take care of the boat, and that was the last he had been seen. The crew now tried to recall the name of the wizard. Mal, they said, something bad, they muttered. Maldalorios, Hodge ground his teeth at the thought. Yes, they all replied....Maldalorios.