‘I thank you, my Lords, for passing this law. It doth please me, mightily.’
‘It does not please me, Your Grace,’ said the Earl of Whitchester. ‘Though I must needs bow to the majority opinion. I think it will lead to licentiousness and the degradation of the state of Holy Matrimony.’
‘We have heard your opinion sufficiently enough, My Lord,’ said Queen Elizabeth. ‘The law has been passed, and We will give it Our approval in spite of your opinion. Please to keep your opinion to yourself henceforth.’
‘Your Grace,’ said the Earl, with a humble bow and lowered visage.
‘We have no wish to encourage licentiousness in Our Realms, and if such licentiousness should dare to occur, We will protest most heartily, and urge Our subjects to repent forthwith. However, We have no wish to interfere with that which goes on between any two of Our subjects in their privy chambers , and so We most heartily do approve this law. From henceforth, the act of sodomy is no longer considered to be a crime in Our Realms. We shall sign the bill into law as soon as the papers are brought before Us. Thank you, My Lords, and Good Day…. Good Even, rather. It is late, and We are tired.’
We art especially tired of calling ourselves We, thought Elizabeth. We would like to retire to our privy chamber and think of ourselves as One. She rose to her feet. The House of Lords rose also. They bowed. She stepped down from her dais. Sir Clark, her new Bodyguard and Champion, bowed to her, then stepped in front of her, protectively. They left the Chamber, and headed for the Royal Coach.
‘Well, Sir Clark?’ asked the Queen of England.
‘Your Grace?’ Sir Clark turned, and bowed. ‘What does my Queen require?’
‘Your Queen requires your opinion, Sir Clark. Are you pleased with Our new law?’
‘I am very pleased, Your Grace. It will make my life much more pleasant.’
‘And safer,’ the Queen pointed out.
‘Indeed, Your Grace. And I thank you most humbly for your efforts on my behalf.’
‘Are you jesting with us, Sir Clark?’
‘No! Not at all, Your Grace.’
‘Ah, but your jest would not be without substance, for we must admit to having selfish motives in our efforts on your behalf, for so many of our most loyal and useful courtiers and servants are like unto you, lovers of men. We have often feared that some enemy of ours would attempt to harm us by charging one of these servants with the crime of sodomy. And from now on, our fear is without foundation.’
‘Your Grace,’ said Sir Clark, with another bow.
The Royal Coach drew up, and a servant lowered the steps. Sir Clark went ahead of the Queen, and searched within the coach for any threat to Her Grace, but all was well. He stepped back, and helped her enter the vehicle. He joined her inside, and the coach sped away, on toward Whitehall.
Queen Elizabeth leaned back against her carriage seat for a moment, closed her eyes and sighed. But she did this only for a moment, then recovered and laughed. ‘I am very pleased that is over,’ she declared. ‘I was most heartily sick of the speeches of the Earl of Whitchester.’
‘And so, Your Grace, was I,’ said Sir Clark. He smiled. When they were in private, the Queen dropped her formality, and became a woman, and a friend.
‘I can imagine that you were,’ said Elizabeth. ‘Now we are free to move on to other things. One of our spies is returning from the Low Countries very soon. Possibly tonight. He must have access to me as soon as he appears, no matter the hour.’
‘Yes, Your Grace. I will alert you at once.’
‘Then, on the morrow, I am expecting a delegation -- from the Dragon Lords. Aha! That got your attention.’
‘I knew nothing of this,’ said Sir Clark.
‘Of course not. I warrant few do. This was a most secret matter, until the delegation was given Our approval.’
‘Might I ask the reason for the delegation?’
‘In part, and outwardly, it is to promote the interests of a certain Dragon Lord who doth wish to claim the lands in Our Realm he hath inherited from his mother. The other part, and secretly, it is in hopes of creating an alliance between our peoples.’
‘That… that might be useful, Your Grace.’
‘Indeed it might, if all goes well. Do you know anything of this Prince Alexander? He is the head of the delegation, and the heir to the lands.’
‘Prince Alexander?’ Sir Clark spoke slowly, and thoughtfully, to show his Queen that he made no hasty judgements. ‘He is the only son and heir of King Lionel, the ruler of the Dragon Lords. Father and son are not… not particularly on friendly terms, but not openly hostile, either. Your Grace, what lands are claimed by the Prince?’
‘The Island of Skye, in the Hebrides. His mother hailed from there. She was mortal, and so the Prince is only half Dragon, but a powerful Lord nonetheless.’
‘He sounds interesting,’ said Sir Clark.
The Queen smiled. It was a most intriguing and mysterious smile.
Even on so short a drive as from the House of Lords to Whitehall, the multitudes cheered the passing of their Queen’s carriage. They bowed and curtsied. They threw flowers before the carriage horses, and called upon God to preserve Her Gracious Majesty.
‘We should have taken a barge down the Thames,’ said the Queen, but she smiled and waved at the people. Clark knew she loved the crowds, and lived upon their love, as if it were meat and drink to her. Years ago, at her Coronation, she had married the English People and their wedding ring bound her yet.
The ring bound her people to their love, as well. Elizabeth was the most gracious and gentle ruler in all the world, and though some barbarous and ungrateful wretches ventured to plot against her, and put a Catholic upon the throne, most of the country would die in her defence.
The carriage drew up before the doors of Whitehall, and servants ran to help the Queen out and to accompany her inside. Sir Clark followed close on her heels, until she was safely within her own apartments.
Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, waited in the Queen’s anteroom. He had seemingly been waiting for some time, and had grown impatient.
‘Bess!’ he exclaimed. ‘I had fallen into the depths of despair.’
The Queen gave him a chiding look, but her eyes were full of love, nonetheless. For a moment, the years fell away, and they were not Queen and unsuitable suitor, but simply a man and a woman who had loved each other long and long.
Then Leicester’s eyes lit upon Clark, and he frowned. ‘Insolent puppy,’ he muttered under his breath, but the Queen had good ears, and heard him.
‘Do not be so foolish, Rob. I was in the House of Lords, listening to boring speeches against my very own bill, and trying to keep my temper, not engaging in licentious dalliance with Sir Clark, a man young enough to be my son, at least. This is to not speak of the fact that he belongs to an order of knights which abjures women.’
‘I never did believe that you would behave so, my Bess,’ said the Earl. ‘It is not that which offends me in Sir Clark’s presence here. It is that he has usurped my place at your side.’
‘No one has usurped your place, Robert. No one ever has, and no one ever shall. Merely, I need you for more important matters than guarding my person.’
‘There is no more important matter.’
‘Verily, there is. There is great danger in that the Spanish king has plans to invade England. This I know. I need you to guard against this, for I trust you more than anyone. You are wise. Sir Clark is young and hearty, and he belongs to an order that abjures women, as I have already said. Thus he is safe.’
‘Oh, Your Grace,’ said Clark. ‘If I may be permitted to speak, we among the ancient and honourable Order of Templars do truly not abjure women.’
‘Do you not, truly, Sir Clark?’ The Queen’s eyes were dancing, and Clark saw that she welcomed the chance to tease her beloved Robert Dudley.
‘Verily, my Queen, we do not abjure women, merely do we prefer men, for the most part. Some of us do, however, love women and even marry. And Your Grace is so beautiful that any man of my order would be enchanted enough to throw himself at your feet, and declare that he had suffered a sea change.’
‘Ah, you have a silver tongue,’ said Elizabeth.
‘An oily tongue, rather,’ said the Earl of Leicester.
Clark bowed. ‘Do you wish me to leave Your Grace and the gracious Earl alone?’ he asked.
‘Yes!’ said Robert Dudley.
‘No!’ said the Queen. ‘Tell me more, I pray thee. Tell me more about this sea change.’
It was some time later that Clark managed to make his escape to his own chambers. His servant was waiting, with a hot bath and fresh clothes. The servant had long ago stopped arguing against his master’s odd proclivities for bathing. Clark had finally told him that he had made a vow to God to bathe often as a form of repentance for his sins. His servant had, of course, been fairly curious about those sins, but Clark had refused to elaborate.
Clark bathed, changed his clothes, had dinner, and attended an evening of dancing at the Queen’s side. The Queen danced with Robert Dudley, and divers other men. She even condescended to dance once with him. When at the last she declared the evening over, she retired to her private apartments with the final admonition to wake her as soon as her spy appeared, and Clark promised once more to do so.
Clark stayed awake for some hours, keeping an ear and an eye out for his Queen‘s expected secret agent. The morning dawned. The agent was conspicuous by his absence.
The Queen was angered that her spy had not arrived on time. She seemed at first inclined to blame Sir Clark for this oversight, but when Clark apologized humbly for his fault, her mind altered course, like the wind.
‘’Tis not thy fault,’ she averred. ‘Mayhap his passage was delayed. Or he mistook the day. Or he lies in a bawdy house, drunk and debauched.’ The Queen’s grim expression promised dire punishment if that was the case. ‘He will be here tomorrow, or the next day,’ she went on. ‘Unless he be dead, of course.’
‘Your Grace, I am certain he is not dead.’
‘How can you be so? Have your powers advanced to the point where now you can know what is happening many hundreds of miles hence? Will you be foretelling the future next?’
Clark blanched a little at the mention of his powers, but no one was close about. He shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I do not know, merely have I hope.’
‘Ah yes. Hope. I have hope, too, but I do not count on it. Matters do not always turn out as we hope, even when all seems to be going well. However, we shall put all this from our minds for now. The delegation from the Dragon Lords will be arriving soon, and I wish to be there.’
‘Your Grace! You are not intending to… That would not be safe, Your Grace.’
‘I will be the judge of that,’ said Queen Elizabeth, in her haughtiest manner. ‘I wish to see the dragons land. I wish to see them close up, in the flesh, and not merely hear reports of their appearance, and so forth. The dragons will be landing in Southwark.’
‘Sir Clark! Permit me to finish my sentences, or you will be spending the next few weeks in the Tower.’
‘Your pardon, my Queen,’ said Sir Clark.
‘Granted,’ said Queen Elizabeth, with heavy irony. ‘As I was informing you, the dragons will be landing in Southwark, in the field where they hold the Lady Fair. You will be there to protect me. Also others of my guard, and some of my Ladies in Waiting. I am sure I shall be safe. The Dragon Lords are not my enemies, and they are here on a sensitive mission. I am sure this Prince Alexander means me no harm.’
‘I am certain of that also, Your Grace,’ said Sir Clark, though he felt no such certainty.
‘We will greet the Dragons Lords with a fine display of our wealth and power. We will impress them with our majesty.’
‘Yes, Your Grace.’
‘You will be all that is gracious and hospitable, as doth befit a knight of the Templars.’
‘Yes, Your Grace.’
‘Now, go and change your clothing into something more befitting my court. Trunk hose, not breeches, I do believe is called for.’
Clark sighed a little, but he smiled and bowed his way out of the Queen’s chamber, and went to change into his most elaborate and uncomfortable trunk hose.
The field in Southwark was set up as if for a fair. Pavilions, decorated with flags and banners. Tables laden with foodstuffs -- breads, cheeses, cakes and great barrels of ale. The Queen dismounted from her palfrey, and looked about with obvious pleasure.
She herself was dressed in one of her most glorious ball gowns, as if this were an evening party for her lords and ladies. She wore also one of her sparkling diadems. Clark looked around and saw that one of her thrones had been moved into the field and set up before a pavilion made of cloth of gold.
‘What do you think?’ asked the Queen. ‘Think you this will impress the Dragon Lords?’
‘I… I am rendered speechless, Your Grace, so I am most certain it will have the same effect on this Prince Alexander.’
‘Think you so, indeed? I think you are a lying knave, and will soon be ensconced in the Tower, but let us proceed. Lead me to my throne, please.’
The Queen sat upon her throne. Sir Clark sat on the grass at her feet, heedless of his most loathed trunk hose. Perhaps grass stains would render them unwearable, he hoped. The Queen’s Ladies in Waiting brought her delicacies from the food tables. Great ladies -- countesses, marchionesses and duchesses -- knelt before her to offer her bread and cheese.
A little time passed. Then one of her servants hailed the company. ‘The dragons have been sighted!’ he cried. ‘Look to the north.’
They all looked, and there, upon the bright blue sky, were great wings. The wings of dragons.
The Queen smiled, her eyes bright and excited, like a small girl at her birthday feast. ‘Now, Sir Clark, I shall see dragons on the wing. Dragons in the flesh, not only by repute.’
And there were indeed dragons, thought Clark. Three of them, in a V formation, and the dragon in the centre was white., while those two dragons flying at its sides were red.
The white dragon broke off the formation as it soared over the field. It turned, separated from the others, and began to plane in for a landing. The horses, waiting at the side of the field, screamed in panic, and broke from their hobbles in terror. Several of them stampeded and headed for the Queen’s pavilion.
‘Hold those horses!’ called Clark, to the grooms. ‘Get them under control.’ He stood before the Queen’s throne to protect her, as the grooms scrambled to catch the terrified horses.
The Queen herself had not turned a hair. She was watching the white dragon land, not a few yards away from her throne. ‘We must have these people as our allies!’ she breathed.
The white dragon landed. It snaked its head about, looking at the crowd, and hissed. Several among the crowd backed up, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. But the dragon’s rider had the beast under control.
He was tall, dressed in black breeches and doublet, and a tall black beaver hat. Clark wondered how it stayed on his head as he rode upon the winds. But, as he swept it from his head, Clark forgot all such considerations. The man was quite bald, and his head gleamed in the sunlight.
‘Your most Gracious Majesty,’ he said, in a deep, smoky voice, as he bowed. ‘I am Prince Alexander, by your leave.’
‘You have my leave,’ said the Queen.
‘Do my companions have your leave to land?’
‘They do, but ask them to stand further off,’ said the Queen.
The Prince called out to his friends, in a loud voice. Clark did not understand the language. The two red dragons landed, and their riders dismounted. One of them helped a passenger to dismount, as well.
‘We picked up a subject of your Majesty’s,’ said the Prince. ‘He was in a ship, bound for your shores, which was suffering harassment by pirates.’
‘Pirates!’ the Queen exclaimed.
‘Verily,’ said the Prince. ‘We chased the pirates off, but this man begged us to fly him home. He says he fears capture by his enemies.’
‘Indeed,’ said the Queen. ‘Tell him to approach.’
The passenger approached, bowing and scraping the entire time.
‘A mean, scuttling little creature, is it not?’ asked the Earl of Whitchester, from among the throng. ‘By his looks I believe him to be a Hebrew. Those of his race are all potential traitors, and should be watched carefully.’
‘I shall watch carefully,’ said Queen Elizabeth. ‘You may be sure of it.’ She turned a bright eye upon the Earl. ‘In the meantime, he is one of my subjects, and thus welcome.’
The passenger bowed once more time, and then knelt before the throne. ‘Your most Gracious Majesty,’ he said. ‘I am so grateful to these men for their timely rescue. I know not what I should have done, had those terrible pirates captured me. ‘ The man clutched an old, battered knapsack, as if it held the crown jewels.
‘You are welcome here in our kingdom,’ said the Queen. She drew a small ring from her finger, and gave it to Sir Clark. ‘Present this ring to our loyal subject,’ she said. ‘As a small recompense for his sufferings.’
Some of the courtiers among those present muttered complaints at the Queen showing such partiality to a Hebrew, but the Queen ignored them. Clark gave the ring to the man, and he scuttled away, clutching his knapsack.
Sir Clark turned back to the Queen. She met his eyes with a meaning glance., and held out her hand. Clark bowed over her hand, and murmured, ‘I told you all would be well.’
‘Indeed you did,’ she replied, very softly. She smiled, and well she might, for her spy had returned safely.
The Queen was overflowing with curiosity about the dragons. She wanted to know everything about them, and she wanted to know it immediately. Clark followed at her heels, as she walked with Prince Alexander, asking question after question. She was very pleased to learn that the dragons ate fish, not the flesh of men and women. They could fend for themselves, the Prince assured her, and would not disturb the British fishing fleets, but would feed further out to sea.
The Prince moved with a grace that spoke of years of training in fencing. Clark was a good fighter, as all Templars were expected to be, but this man would be deadly in a duel. There was something in his eyes that spoke of danger, too.
‘Does your dragon have a name, Your Highness?’ the Queen enquired.
‘Of course, Your Majesty. She is called….’ and the Prince gave a name Sir Clark could not begin to decipher. ‘That is in Dragon language, of course,’ he went on. ‘In the language of the Dragon Lords, that would be Magnhildr, which means ‘Strength in Battle’.’
‘Magen…magenhilder.’ The Queen seemed a bit upset at not quite being able to pronounce the name properly. But then she had an idea. ‘That sounds like Melissande,’ she said. ‘Which means much the same thing. Do you think your dragon would mind if I called her Melissande? I should not like to offend such a magnificent creature.’
Prince Alexander turned to the dragon, and spoke in that liquid, sibilant language. The dragon spoke back.
‘It… she speaks!’ exclaimed Sir Clark. Then he blushed as both the Queen and the Prince turned to him with identical expressions of disdain.
‘Of course she speaks,’ said the Prince. ‘Dragons are intelligent.’ His look and his tone seemed to suggest that the dragon was intelligent whereas Clark himself was not.
‘I know that,’ Clark assured him. ‘Simply, I didn’t expect to hear her speak.’
‘Amazing, is it not?’ the Prince said to the Queen.
‘It is indeed,’ she replied. ‘I am constantly amazed when I hear him speak.’
‘Well, Magnhildr tells me she will be quite happy for you to call her Melissande.’
The two aristocrats walked on, discussing dragon physiology and diet, while Clark contented himself with plotting how to arrange to spend the next few weeks in the Tower. He could have his servant there, he thought, and get plenty of rest. He could read a lot and write letters to his family and to his mentors in the Templar order. He could wear breeches all the time, and no trunk hose. But he must offend the Queen just enough for that, and not enough to lose his head.
‘Magnhildr is white because she is a Queen,’ the Prince was telling the Queen. ‘The red dragons are males. They aren’t her mates, to be precise, for she is not accepting mates right now, but they are her courtiers.’
‘Ah! She is very wise,’ said Queen Elizabeth. ‘Keep the men dancing attendance, Melissande. Do not commit yourself to anything rash.’
The great white dragon nodded her head, solemnly.
It was some time before the Queen could be persuaded to return to Whitehall. But at last she ran out of questions about dragons, and they all took the royal barge back across the Thames to London Town. The Queen insisted that the Prince and his attendants must be her guests.
‘We have many matters to discuss,’ she pointed out. ‘This will be far more convenient for us both.’ She pointed down the river. ‘There is the Tower, you see, where Sir Clark will be spending some time soon, if he doesn’t make an effort to be more cheerful.’
‘You mock me, Your Grace,’ said Sir Clark. ‘But that is your right. I am your humble servant.’
‘Yes, you are,’ said the Queen. ‘Attend to me. The Prince is to be our guest. You are commanded to give him the royal treatment. Show him our City of London. All the famous sights. London Bridge, for example.’
‘Yes, Your Grace.’ Clark forced a smile.
The Queen tapped her fan, impatiently. ‘Reveal to me some measure of enthusiasm,’ she said.
‘I… I am supposed to be your bodyguard,’ Clark said, desperately.
‘I can do without you for a day or two,’ said the Queen. ‘And it is my wish to do so.’
‘Your wish is my command,’ said Clark.
The Queen’s spy was waiting for her in the antechamber. He had cast off his appearance of fear and trembling, and taken on his professional manner of secret agent.
‘I am pleased at your safe return,’ said the Queen. ‘What news have you for me?’
‘Much news, little of it good, Your Majesty.’
‘I wish to hear your news, nevertheless.’
‘Spain is indeed preparing to invade our realm. They are building a fleet, a great fleet of great ships. Mayhap the greatest war fleet ever built. They believe themselves to be invincible, and foresee a great victory.’
‘We shall see about that,’ said the Queen. ‘I am outraged that they should even dream to invade my realm, which was given into my care by the hands of God himself. Before God, I vow that I shall stand myself before the might of the Spanish fleet, and die with my soldiers before I allow such a thing to happen.’ She strode about the antechamber for a moment, clearly distressed, but then she calmed and turned to her agent again. ‘You have done good work,’ she said. ‘Tell me more. Tell me all. But… You, Sir Clark. I have commanded you to see to Prince Alexander. Please obey my orders forthwith.’
Clark bowed out of the chamber, and went to find the Prince, whom he wished at the Devil.
Through bribery, bullying or an act of magic, Prince Alexander had acquired a tub filled with hot water and was now soaking in it. One of his squires was pouring a jug of hot water over his head. The prince groaned and sighed and sank back under the water. His feet poked out the end of the tub.
Perhaps the Prince wasn’t a complete waste of his time after all, thought Sir Clark. At the least they seemed to share a love of bathing.
Prince Alexander sat up again, and seemed to notice Clark still waiting there. He looked a bit surprised, though he had been the one to ask him to wait.
‘Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘The Queen’s Bodyguard. Why are you here, again? Not that you are a bother, for a surety. I am merely curious. Hand me that towel, if you please.’
Clark nearly reached to hand it to the man, but managed to stop himself in time, and indeed, it had not been Clark the prince had been addressing, but rather his squire.
The prince rose from the bath, wrapping the towel around his naked body. He stepped onto the mat one of his squires had placed on the floor. ‘I will dress myself,’ he told his squires. ‘I don’t need your assistance. But I do wish you both to bathe in the tub before the water grows cold…. No, no. I will hear no complaints. I have no wish to smell dragon all night long. So do as I command. You, Sir Clark, please follow me, and explain the purpose of your visit.’
Clark followed the prince into the next room. Clothes had been laid out for the prince’s use. Breeches, doublet and a long cloak. Not all black this time, but a deep purple. Only the cloak was black.
‘Her Majesty wished for me to show you the sights of London,’ said Clark. ‘You remember, as we came across on the barge, she suggested such a course?’
‘I did not expect the tour so early,’ said the prince. ‘Does her Majesty wish to be rid of me before we’ve had a chance to discuss my business.’
‘I know nothing of that,’ said Clark. ‘But I believe she merely is concerned that you are properly entertained.’
‘Ah, and she thinks you are the one to do that? Yet you look not pleased at the prospect.’
‘I am a Knight of the Templars, not a nursemaid.’
‘A Templar, are you?’
Clark did not hide his Templar status from the world, for it was no matter for shame, yet he rarely informed anyone of it upon first making their acquaintance. Now he awaited the usual questions: If you are a Templar, why do not you wear the costume? Where is your partner? And other questions not so fit for polite society.
Prince Alexander asked none of the usual questions, polite or otherwise. Merely, he looked Clark up and down, then dropped his towel to the floor, and stood perfectly still and naked.
Perfectly naked was the term. The prince was clothed in his skin as if in a sleek, pale pelt. His skin seemed to have captured the art of moonlight, and used it to glow like a subtle jewel. So perfect was his skin, that his penis seemed shocking in its darkness against such a canvas. Clark realized he was staring, and he averted his eyes politely and went to stand in the window to look out upon the garden and its calm, banal greenery.
The prince chuckled behind him. ‘I thought the Templars were a little more interested in male nudity than that,’ he said. ‘Am I so ugly am not worth viewing?’
‘Not at all,’ Clark managed to say. ‘You are a guest of my Queen, just come among us. Do you think that I would offer to molest you on your first day here?’
‘No, and I am happy that you have met my best expectations.’
Clark could hear sounds of dressing, of grooming, and was relieved that the other man’s troublesome nakedness was being decently covered once more.
‘You can turn around now,’ the prince confirmed. ‘How are we to conduct this ordered tour?’
Clark turned around. ‘We might go to see London Bridge, as the Queen suggested.’
‘What is to be seen there?’ asked the prince.
‘There are shops, for a start. The crowds of people are entertaining in themselves. But then, of course, there are severed heads and other body parts festooned upon the railings. Criminals, for the most part. Not too many traitors these days.’
‘Severed heads? Why should I want to see severed heads?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Cark. ‘But people often do. I don’t care for them, myself.’
‘That is a relief, for I should hate to spoil your pleasure. What else is there to do in London?’
‘We could go back across the Thames to Southwark, and visit the Bear Garden. This is Thursday, so they have bear baiting.’
‘Dogs and bears tearing each other to pieces? I think not.’
‘Fair enough. Then there are the Winchester Geese. The Bishop of Winchester owns a brothel, and….’
‘Cease this drivel, I beg of you,’ said the prince. He strode over to Clark and pulled his head down to join their mouths in a savage kiss. ‘You know you don’t want to visit a brothel. No more than do I.’
Clark put the prince away gently. ‘No,’ he said. ‘But my Queen is expecting us to venture out to explore the City in some fashion, not to stay here and engage in licentious behaviour. I warrant you she would not be pleased if we followed your suggestions.’
‘Would she not?’ the prince’s tone suggested he cared not. ‘But I suppose that you are right. I have no interest in watching animals devour each other, though. Are there no more intellectual diversions to be had?’
‘To be sure,’ said Clark. ‘I will introduce you to a friend of mine. His name is John Dee.’
Sir Clark decided to change out of his trunk hose and into breeches before venturing out upon the streets of London. Prince Alexander insisted on accompanying him to his rooms.
‘I must tell you,’ Sir Clark told him. ‘You have very little about you that is normal for those of princely status. ‘
‘What do you mean?’ asked the prince, with suddenly assumed haughtiness.
‘ I mean that many princely persons I have met would have ordered me about like a dog….’
‘You are a knight of the Templars,’ Prince Alexander pointed out.
‘Many are the princes who do not care,’ Clark told him. ‘But beyond that… here you are in my private rooms. As you see, they are humble compared to your own apartments.’
‘I find in them sufficient comfort.’
‘And you are prepared to walk about in London, accompanied only by my humble self.’
‘You are the Queen’s Bodyguard,’ the prince pointed out. ‘I am certain you can protect me. Besides, I need little protecting. No one here knows my face, nor do they have reason to hold a grudge against me.’
‘Be not so certain,’ said Clark. ‘You represent a foreign power of which little is known. You were seen walking with the Queen for some time, in private conversation. You ride upon the back of a dragon, and some still consider dragons to be evil. There are many factions in this court, so be careful.’
‘To which faction do you belong?’
‘None,’ said Clark. ‘The Templars preserve a cold and logical neutrality.’
‘I believe it not. No one is completely neutral.’
‘I agree,’ said Clark. ‘But I adhere to the principle on neutrality -- at least in principle. And I keep my personal opinions to myself, as much as possible. I am on the side of Justice, and in this realm, the Queen represents Justice. In the meantime, I am ready to venture out on a walk now, if you are.’
‘Never more ready,’ said the prince.
They walked out, side by side. Clark had changed into dark blue doublet and breeches. His cloak was black, lined with red. His blue doublet was slashed with cloth of gold.
‘’Londoners walk about the City, for the most part,’ Clark told the prince as they left the gates of Whitehall. ‘They ride seldom, and only when necessary. There is the Tower, a vast complex, holding far more than a prison for those awaiting execution. There is a menagerie, for one thing.’
‘Ah, so that is where your Queen keeps threatening to send you. To the menagerie.’
‘No, to the prison, but I take not her threats seriously. It is a joke between us. ‘
‘I am surprised that you have a sense of humour about so serious a matter as beheading.’
Sir Clark took the matter seriously, but not for the usual reasons. Any headman who tried to remove his head, would be vastly surprised, he thought. ‘The Queen is just,’ he said, merely. ‘She is always loathe to condemn anyone to death. Do you know that she kept her cousin, the Queen of Scotland, alive for years though the woman was constantly conspiring to invade England and take the throne? At last she was forced to order Mary’s execution, and I know that she grieved after. Still grieves, in fact.’
‘My mother came from Scotland,’ the prince observed.
Sir Clark took his arm and steered him into an alleyway. ‘Forgive me for so accosting your person,’ he said. ‘But if you harbour any allegiances to the Scottish Monarchy….’
‘Not at all,’ said Alexander, shrugging off Clark’s arm with a graceful gesture. ‘The Queen knows my lands lie within the borders of the Hebrides.’
‘Yes, and she is hoping you might help to contend against the current Scottish disaffection. The son of Mary is an infant. The country is run by a committee. But some day this King James will reach his majority. ‘ Sir Clark lowered his voice to barely a whisper, after checking carefully that no one was within earshot. ‘This King James is also the current heir to the throne of England,’ he said.
‘Surely everyone is aware of that,’ the prince remarked.
‘We are all aware,’ said Clark. ‘But it is something of a form of treason to speak of such things. To suggest that the Queen might not live forever…. Simply, do not speak of it in public.’
The Prince of the Dragon Lords met his eyes boldly. ‘No one lives forever,’ he said, softly. ‘But I will not speak of this common and obvious truth.’
Sir Clark nodded. ‘Good,’ he said. He looked around the alleyway. ‘Ah! This is a fortunate shortcut. My friend’s house is over there. Let us proceed.’
The house of Doctor John Dee had once been rich and strange, but now seemed to have fallen into a certain disrepair. Its master was in his study, bent over a book, but looking rather forlorn. He brightened when his servant announced the arrival of guests, however.
‘Your Highness,’ said the Doctor. ‘This is an unlooked for honour. I have been hearing so much about your spectacular appearance this day, and you come to see me so soon. Is this your doing, my dear friend?’
‘Aye, it is,’ said Sir Clark. ‘The Queen wished for me to show the prince about the City, and your house was on the way, so I suggested we pay you a visit. And here. I have brought you a present.’ Sir Clark handed him a parcel he had been carrying under his arm this whole time.
‘Ah! One of my books,’ the Doctor exclaimed. ‘You have found another. ‘ He opened the canvas packet and revealed the volume, which he caressed lovingly. ‘There! One of my bookplates,’ he said. ‘It is indeed my book. How do you do this, my lad? Never mind. I am eternally grateful. For some years I was away from this realm,’ he told the prince. ‘And when I returned, I discovered that much of my library had disappeared. Wandered off on its own. But Sir Clark has been so kind as to track some of these volumes down for me, and return them to my ownership.’
‘That is very kind, indeed,’ said the prince. ‘But, you must have had an amazing library, if this be the residual.’ The prince looked about the library with joy and appreciation.
‘This? Oh, Your Highness, this is but a fraction. Most of my books are still at my country home. At one time, I owned almost every book published. You must visit me in the country and see.’
‘I will indeed. ‘ The prince walked about the great room, touching a book here and there.
‘You might borrow one, if you wish,’ said the doctor. ‘Any friend of Sir Clark may be trusted, I am sure.’
‘You can, indeed, honour me with your trust,’ said Alexander. ‘But for now, it would be best to leave the books here where they are safe. I will most likely be leaving for my lands in Hibernia, soon, if the Queen honours me with her trust, and assigns them to me.’
‘You are possessed of lands in Scotland?’
‘They were my mother’s lands, but not entailed upon the male line,’ the prince explained. ‘She passed the lands to me upon her death, and I am here to ask Queen Elizabeth to support my claim. She has a deal of authority in Scotland, that I know. If she does support my claim, I doubt the Scottish Parliament will contend with it.’
‘You are doubtless right in your assumptions,’ said the doctor. He was watching the prince walk about the room restlessly. ‘Your mother was of the Scottish race? I would be interested in casting your horoscope,’ he added.
‘I am not sure I would wish to know my future,’ said the prince. ‘I dread to think that my future actions are somehow destined and not under my control. And so I must respectfully decline.’
‘As you wish,’ said the doctor, though he looked most disappointed.
Sir Clark chatted with Doctor Dee, but all the while he kept his eye upon the prince. Alexander picked up several books and brought them to the table to sit beside the other men while he read.
‘I see you have some volumes by Giordano Bruno,’ he observed. ‘And the author has signed the flyleaf.’
‘I met him several times on his last visit to England,’ said the doctor. ‘He most graciously signed those books. His genius is undoubted.’
‘Yes,’ said Alexander. ‘He is far in advance of our times when it comes to science. I have not read these particular books, and would love to do so.’
‘I would be honoured to lend them to you.’
‘Perhaps when I next visit London,’ said the prince. ‘But I hear Bruno has returned to these shores. Perchance I might make his acquaintance myself?’
‘He narrowly escaped being arrested for heresy in Italy,’ said Sir Clark. ‘The Pope is out for his head -- or, rather, to burn him at the stake. When the Queen heard this, she immediately invited him to return to England, and he just made his escape in time.’
‘Fortunate for him. Fortunate for the world. He has the most interesting and unique ideas about the nature of the of the cosmos. I should love to learn more about them.’
‘I have conversed with the man, and his ideas are most intriguing,’ said Doctor Dee. ‘I was a bit disappointed in that he showed no interest in conversing with the angels. I have tried for many years to persuade the angels to give me insight into the divine realm and the nature of the cosmos, but to no avail.’
The prince looked up from his book, his face alight with avid interest. ‘I, too, have wanted to speak with angels,’ he said. ‘Once I thought I saw one, long ago. Mayhap I truly did, but the meeting came to nothing. I think not that the angels wish to share their knowledge of the cosmos with us. Or, perchance their language is incomprehensible to us mere mortals.’
‘But… but angels, Your Highness. They are messengers, are they not? Messengers from God.’
‘Yes. They are. But mayhap God sends them on missions which He has authorized, and outside of that, the angels may not share their knowledge.’
‘I keep hoping to persuade one to share some small tatters of knowledge with me, but my attempts always turn to darkness and sorrow. Perhaps you are right, Your Highness, and mortal men are not intended to know the mysteries of the Spheres.’
‘Perhaps. Or perhaps we might learn the mysteries in other ways. I have plans to build a telescope, a larger telescope than any yet built. When it is finished, you will be welcome to view the heavens through its lens.’
‘That… that would be most gracious of you, Your Highness. I would be greatly honoured.’
‘Might I use your telescope too, Your Highness?’ asked Sir Clark.
The prince turned to look at him. His expression was bland, but there was a suspicious glint in his eye. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘You are most welcome.’
Sir Clark felt tempted to toss a book at him, which would have been a serious breach of manners, but at that moment, the doctor’s servant came to announce more visitors.
‘Please show them in,’ the doctor ordered.
The servant vanished, and returned a moment later. ‘Master Marlowe. Master Shakespeare. And Friar… your pardon, I mean Master… your pardon, I mean Signor Giordano Bruno,’ he announced.
‘Thank you, Roberts. That will be all. Welcome, my friends, welcome. I am honoured to receive so many guests on one day. Have you all heard I’m to be arrested on the morrow, and wish to say your farewells now?’
‘Indeed, no,’ said Giordano Bruno. ‘If you were to shortly be arrested, we should all flee in the opposite direction forthwith. So did all my friends in Italy. Those that did not betray me, I mean.’
‘Betrayal is a hard thing,’ Prince Alexander observed. ‘Especially from a friend.’
‘And who art thou?’ asked Bruno.
‘Prince Alexander,’ said Doctor Dee. ‘Allow me to present Master Shakespeare, Master Marlowe, and Master Bruno.’
‘I am honoured to make your acquaintance,’ said the prince. ‘Indeed, we were just speaking of you, Master Bruno, and you appear, forthwith.’
‘Like the Devil, is it?’
‘Ah. That is not for me to judge, sir. You may admit to it, if it pleases you, though I would not counsel such a course of action.’
‘Your Highness,’ said Bruno, with a bow. ‘What brings you to this fair shore? Are you also fleeing the Inquisition?’
The prince laughed, quite heartily and without any sign of anger. ‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘I am here to confer with the Queen about my lands in Scotland. What of you?’
‘For myself, I am fleeing the Inquisition,’ Bruno confessed. ‘They liked not my opinions on religion, nor my opinions on politics, nor my opinions on science, which left not much else they did like. Indeed, I believe they liked not me at all. But Queen Elizabeth declared that an enemy of her enemy was her friend, and invited me back to England and so here I am.’
‘And welcome indeed,’ said the prince. ‘We were, as I said, just now discussing your writings. I have read some of your books, and am intrigued by your theories.’
‘Thank you, Your Highness,’ said Bruno, with a bow.
‘My young friends here, Marlowe and Shakespeare, have begun to write plays,’ said Doctor Dee. ‘I think they both have a grand future in store for them.’
‘Plays?’ asked the prince, with a lifted brow. ‘I have seen a few performances of plays, but the players seemed not to understand half the words they spoke, and mangled the other half most grievously.’
Marlowe and Shakespeare laughed. ‘They sound like a rag-tag troop,’ said Marlowe. ‘And not at all well-trained. Our troop of actors knows its business, and would be booed off the stage accompanied by rotten vegetables if they didn’t speak their lines clearly.’
‘You must see a good performance of at least one play before you leave London,’ Sir Clark ventured to comment.
‘And I shall do so,’ said the prince. ‘Which plays do you recommend?’
‘I have been working on a play about Edward the Second,’ said Marlowe. ‘It is unfinished, but our troop helps me to work on dialogue and so on, by performing the scenes as I write them. It is all good practice. We will be doing this tomorrow afternoon.’
‘The prince would not wish to see such a travesty, Kit,’ said William Shakespeare.
‘I will be the judge of that,’ said Prince Alexander. ‘And what you speak of sounds fascinating, I vow. What say you, Sir Clark?’
‘I have seen the actors perform such unfinished works, and it is most interesting.’
‘Then I must do so, too,’ said the prince.
‘But you should view a finished play, in performance, as well,’ said Sir Clark.
‘I have a new play,’ Shakespeare suggested. ‘It is called Love’s Labours Lost. We will be performing it tomorrow night.’
‘Then I must see it,’ the prince declared. ‘Since Sir Clark urges such an action with so much force. But, in the meantime, Master Bruno… my friends and I here have been discussing your theories about the cosmos. I have not had the honour of reading your latest works. It would please me vastly if you would enlighten me thus. If you have the time, of course.’
Giordano Bruno was only too willing. The others sat back with patient expressions on their faces, Clark noticed. But the prince leaned forward eagerly, and listened to every word.
‘Our world,’ said Bruno. ‘It is not the centre of the cosmos. The earth travels around the Sun, thus….’ Here the man picked up a paperweight that lay upon the table. He made it revolve about his fist, in illustration.
‘I am with you, so far,’ said the prince.
‘There are other planets too, in our solar system,’ Bruno went on. ‘Some of them are closer to the Sun. Others farther away. But our system is not the only system. All the stars out there in the universe, they are suns, like unto our own. They all have planets that revolve around them, like our own. Indeed, the universe is the same, everywhere. The entire universe is made of earth, air, fire and water. Matter is made of tiny elements I call atoms.’
‘Aha!’ said the prince. ‘Please go on. I find all this most intriguing, and it makes so much sense to me.’
Giordano Bruno beamed. He bowed to the prince, and went on with his lecture, for some time. Marlowe and Shakespeare seemed interested, to be sure, but the prince was not lying when he said he found the topic fascinating. Soon, he was asking questions and not long after, began making his own suggestions.
‘Sir Clark! What thought you of Bruno’s theories?’
‘I… I am just a poor, simple knight, Your Highness,’ Sir Clark replied.
‘Ah! You are a lying knave, is what you are,’ said the prince. They were walking back to Whitehall, in the late afternoon. The prince tipped his cap to a lady walking by. ‘Madam!’ he said. The lady blushed and smiled. ‘You should be ashamed,’ he went on to Sir Clark after the lady had passed them by some distance. ‘I like not those who lie to me.’
‘I am not lying,’ Clark objected. ‘I am but a poor, simple knight.’
‘Poor? Mayhap. Simple? I think not so. I think there is more to you than meets the eye. When Bruno was speaking, you kept a bland expression, like someone listening to those conversing in a language they barely understand. But you understood his words, did you not?’
‘I have read some of his works,’ Clark admitted. ‘I have listened to Doctor Dee conversing with his friends. That is all. But, in the Court, it is dangerous for someone like myself to appear too far above his station. I am supposed to be the Queen’s Bodyguard, and a simple knight, as I say. If I look too ambitious, too curious, someone will plot to take me down. The Queen knows there is more to me than how I do appear, but if the Court plots against me, it puts her in a difficult position.’
‘Fair enough,’ said the prince. ‘I will not betray you. But, I pray you, lie not to me. I am not of your Court, and belong to no faction. I wish only honesty from you, if you journey with me.’
Clark was about to ask the prince what he meant by those words, but they had reached the gates of Whitehall, and at the entrance they met a friend of his, returning from a shopping trip.
He bowed. Prince Alexander lifted his hat, and bowed politely. Lady Chloe curtsied to the prince deeply, and to Sir Clark with less depth. All this was quite correct according to Court manners. Lady Chloe’s eyes were dancing with amusement, however.
‘I see you have some books,’ she said. ‘Are they for me?’
‘Why yes,’ said Clark. ‘After I have read them.’
‘Selfish brute. I have been shopping, and have all the latest gossip. Give me the books now, and you shall hear all I know.’
‘You may have one book now, but I want to know everything.’ He picked out a book and handed it to the lady. ‘I will see you later, and expect to hear all the gossip,’ he said.
Lady Chloe laughed merrily. She curtsied to the men once more, and ran inside the gates. ‘The Queen is waiting,’ she called. ‘I must run.’
‘What was all that about?’ asked the prince.
‘Why, nothing,’ said Clark. ‘Lady Chloe likes to read.’
‘But she doesn’t want it known that she likes to read serious books by Giordano Bruno?’
‘Yes. Indeed such knowledge would quite ruin her reputation.’
‘I will keep her secret,’ said the prince. ‘But by my troth you people live dangerous lives.’
‘Aye, that we do,’ Sir Clark agreed. ‘But we struggle on, nonetheless.’
The Queen kept Sir Clark by her side through dinner, and on into the evening. She insisted on his escort to her private apartments, and then on consulting him on various matters that needed not his advice. Sir Clark began to suspect that his liege lady was trying to keep Prince Alexander and himself apart for some reason of her own.
It was late when he made his escape. Far too late to pay a visit to the prince’s apartments. Clark was not one to sneak about the halls after dark, in search of illicit trysts. He had not been raised to engage in such behaviour, and the Court of Queen Elizabeth was not the place to do so lightly.
It was a quiet evening, the sort of evening that Clark would have enjoyed sitting quietly by the fireside with a book -- until this evening. On this evening, he was tormented with memories of a kiss, and of stormy grey eyes penetrating his own. Of pale, silken skin glowing in the soft afternoon light.
He moved about his room restlessly, wondering if it would be so very unwise to at least knock upon the man’s door. But no. He was not an ordinary man. No one simply knocked upon the door of a crown prince at this hour, as though he were some sort of male doxy.
Clark blew out his candles, and opened his chamber windows. It was firmly believed that night air was dangerous, but he had learned long ago that such beliefs were superstition only. He leaned out the casement, enjoying the feel of the cool night air on his heated brow. Then, far off in the distance he saw something white flying toward the City. Great white wings upon the night breeze. The white dragon!
It flew over the Thames and straight for Whitehall. Clark wondered what was about to happen. Would the dragon land upon the roof, or the street below? But no. It swerved and flew along the side of the building, as close as could be without actually touching the stones. Something lithe and dark leapt from a window, and landed upon its back. The Prince of the Dragon Lords!
The dragon gave a harsh cry. The prince answered. Together they flew off, heading west toward the sea.
The Queen summoned Sir Clark to her chambers early the next morning. When he arrived, he saw that Prince Alexander was already there.
Clark studied the man carefully, but could see no sign in his calm, impassive face, of his wild nocturnal ride aback a dragon. And what sort of sign had he expected? Signs of rapacious bloodletting? Of conspiracy with other Dragon Lords to invade England? It hardly made sense for the prince to carry on a conspiracy thus. Perchance Clark had not been the only witness to the prince’s flight from Whitehall.
Clark had briefly considered following the prince last night, but had discarded the idea. His warrant ran to safeguarding the person of the Queen, and not to spying upon her guests. The Queen had indeed asked him to show the prince about the City, and had never mentioned keeping an eye upon him after hours. The prince was no suspected spy, but an honoured guest and supplicant. Clark had sighed, closed his curtains, and gone to bed, letting the prince fly off into the unknown night.
Prince Alexander returned Sir Clark’s regard with clear grey eyes. After a long moment, he let his eyelids fall half-shut suggestively, and smiled.
‘Sir Clark!’ said the Queen, sharply. ‘Attend upon me.’
‘Your Grace. I am here.’ He moved to stand by her side.
‘That is good. Now, Prince Alexander, we would have you know that we have every intention of fulfilling your request about your mother’s lands. After the events of last year, with my cousin’s plot to kill us and take over our throne, the Scottish Parliament would scarcely dare to deny us in this. However, we would fain speak to you on another, m ore private matter, in another, more private chamber, where we would not be overheard. Sir Clark! Escort us to our Privy Chamber.’
Clark bowed. He opened a side door in the Queen’s antechamber, and led the Queen and the Prince down a dark, private hallway, to a small, secret door. This he unlocked and opened to reveal a large, windowless chamber. In the centre of the room was a large circular table. Clark checked the room, making a show of looking under the table and the chairs that surrounded it. He tapped upon the walls here and there. At the same time, he made liberal use of his secret vision that showed him the interiors of things that others could not see.
‘It is safe to enter, Your Grace,’ he said at last. ‘No one has been in here since the last time you held a meeting.’
‘Thank you, Sir Clark,’ said the Queen. ‘And thanks be to God. Please, Prince Alexander, enter and be not afeared. My intent is only to ask you a few questions, and I wish to be assured, and I wish you to be assured, that the answers will remain between you and I and Sir Clark. Sir Clark is privy to all my secrets, since he must guard my person against my enemies. He has never revealed one of those secrets.’
‘And I never will, Your Grace,’ said Clark.
‘What is it you wish to know?’ asked the prince.
‘There are many tales abounding of how the Dragon Lords came to be,’ said the Queen. ‘Some say you use the Black Arts. I am always suspicious of such tales. My favourite philosopher, Doctor Dee, has been accused of practicing such arts. The Templars also, have they not, Sir Clark?’
‘Yes, Your Grace. At one time, the King of Spain was threatening to destroy us with accusations of evil witchcraft and sodomy. The first was not true. As for the second… one of my order called upon him and pointed out that he was being hypocritical since he was a sodomite himself. Though first the king was inclined to argue the point, they came to an understanding, and the king withdrew his charges. He decided to support my order, instead.’
‘Ah. That is a very enlightening story. Honesty is usually best, do you not agree, Prince?’
‘I do,’ said the prince. He closed his eyes, and seemed to withdraw into a dark and secret place within himself, thought Clark. After a long moment of silence, the prince of the Dragon Lords spoke.
‘This happened some centuries ago,’ he said. ‘It was the dead of winter, as it only can be in my native land. There, it becomes so dark in winter that the sun barely appears above the horizon for months at a time. Then the lights appeared in the sky. Great burning globes of light. And it rained upon the earth, fire from heaven.’
‘Fire!’ said the Queen.
‘The sky burned and it fell from heaven. That is the story I was told in my infancy. The fire killed many people and those who survived were changed forever. So were the animals who lived in the forests and in the sea. There were small lizards who lived in caves. They changed. They grew and grew until they became dragons. My people -- those who did not die -- they grew stronger, and lived longer lives.’
‘And it was the Fire that changed them, that gave them long life?’
‘That -- the Fire -- and the rocks. The green rocks that fell with the Fire. The rocks stayed with us, after the Fire went out. The dragons guard the rocks in their caves.’
‘I see,’ said the Queen. ‘So, it is not just the Fire that gives your people immortality?’
‘No, Your Grace,’ said the prince. ‘But truly we are not immortal, merely very long lived. We would seem immortal to others, I suppose. But we do, eventually die.’
‘And so,’ said the Queen. ‘Might others share this long life with the Dragon Lords?’
‘Someone like yourself, you mean?’ asked the prince. ‘Someone might, but it would be very dangerous. The rocks sometimes grant long life. Other times, they give insanity. Those who touch them sometimes become monsters, and rend their friends to pieces with their teeth and claws. You would not want that, would you?’
‘No,’ said the Queen. She sighed, and looked down. ‘But you have escaped this fate, have you not?’
‘I was fortunate, but others were not, and I have seen the results with my own eyes. My baby brother died when exposed to the rocks, and then my mother…. She sickened and died also, trying to strengthen herself to bear another child. The Dragon Lords… we often marry outside the line to keep safe from the effects of incest. But our mates seldom live as long as do mortals in other lands. My mother died when I was in my tenth year.’
‘I am sorry for your pain,’ said the Queen. ‘My mother died when I was three. I barely remember her, but I love her, nonetheless.’ She forbore to mention that her mother had died because the king, her husband, had removed her head. ‘I would not wish to become a monster, and tear my friends with my teeth, but I had hoped to live a longer life to protect my land. I can feel a storm gathering, one that may destroy what peace I have created here. But I do see your point. I have no desire to make things worse, instead of better.’
The prince sat still with closed eyes, thinking. ‘Give me leave to study the matter,’ he said. ‘I have long thought the way my people handle the rocks to be dangerous, and that there must be some way to make them safer. Allow me to experiment, and find a better solution. If I find a way to lengthen life without turning humans into monsters, you will be the first to know. Do we have an agreement, Your Grace?’
‘We do,’ said the Queen. ‘Your lands in Scotland are yours, regardless. I wish you the joy of them, though they are wild and remote in the extreme.’
‘They cannot be more remote or wild than those lands in which I was born,’ said Prince Alexander.
‘Be not so sure of that,’ said Cark.
It was not long after the noon meal, and Clark was walking through Town with Prince Alexander, on their way to watch the rehearsal of Christopher Marlowe’s play. The Prince was very quiet, Clark noticed. On their journey yesterday, he had made constant comments about the City and the people of London, sharing his impressions. This day, though he tipped his hat to all the ladies passing by, and though he stopped to drop some coins into the hand of a beggar on the street corner, he kept his impressions to himself.
‘Did my Queen’s questions worry you?’ asked Clark. ‘I do assure you she had no ill intentions.’
‘No,’ said the prince. ’I have no worries.’ His face was carved in stone.
Sir Clark smiled. ‘And do I assure you that I spy not for the Queen. I had no ill intentions in asking my question. Merely, I wanted to reassure you. The Queen values your friendship, and therefore so do I.’
‘You value my friendship because it is useful to the Queen, is that it?’
‘Well, yes,’ said Clark, pretending to be dense. ‘My Queen values your friendship, so it is prudent that I do so, as well.’
‘I see. Well, an association with me might be useful to you, outside of my relationship with the Queen. I have my own talents and resources, I’ll have you know.’
‘Truly? And what might those talents and resources be?’
Prince Alexander chuckled, his whole face lightening and his stormy grey eyes glowing softly once more. He was about to turn to Clark, perhaps to share some news about his talents and resources, when an uproar ahead on the road distracted them both.
‘That sounds like a pending riot,’ the prince observed, and Clark agreed. They hurried on, and came upon some men sparring off in front of a tavern. One of them, Clark noted, was their companion of yesterday, Christopher Marlowe. He was standing shoulder to shoulder with a pretty, slender youth, who still could wield a strong right hook, by the looks of things.
‘Filthy sodomite!’ one of their opponents snarled.
‘I am not filthy,’ Marlowe protested. ‘I bathed not last week, which is better than you can claim, I warrant you.’
‘Your pretty catamite stinks of perfume,’ the other man countered.
‘Perfume smells better than pig shit, which is what you stink of.’
Prince Alexander clapped loudly, mockingly. ‘Gentlemen, gentlemen, what very entertaining dialogue. Is this some new play you are writing, Mister Marlowe?’
Kit Marlowe turned to the prince with a wide grin. ‘No,’ he said. ‘If I were writing this play I would give myself better speeches.’
His erstwhile opponent scoffed. ‘More of your sodomite friends, Marlowe?’ he asked.
‘Why yes,’ said the prince. ‘And what is that to you?’
‘I hate all stinking sodomites and Jews and Moors. They should all burn in Hell for eternity. These new laws our worthless government has passed. -- ‘Twill destroy the country, I warrant. Jews and Moors walking around in the City as if they were as good as Christians. Sodomites walking arm in arm, and no one can arrest them now. God will destroy us all, I fear.’
‘Then you should go home,’ said Sir Clark. ‘And hide under your bed, and perchance God won’t notice you.’
‘You! You be the Queen’s bodyguard, are you not? A Templar! What use would the Queen’s body be to you?’
The crowd around the man fell silent. Then one of his friends stepped up and took his arm. ‘You are drunk, Simon,’ he said. ‘To speak so of the Queen. You should do as this man said, and go home, before you get yourself into more trouble.’
‘I am not drunk. Not too drunk to know filthy sodomites when I see them.’
‘Yes, yes,’ said his friend. ‘You have told this already, and so we know it. Time to go home now.’ The man dragged his friend away, complaining all the while.
‘We were on the way to watch your rehearsal,’ Sir Clark commented. ‘We thought not to see so much.’
‘Some people are not content to be bit players on the stage of the world,’ said Kit Marlowe. ‘They think to script everyone else’s role to suit themselves.’
Clark was a little bored. More than a little, if the truth be told. But he declined to tell the truth, and kept an interested expression on his face. It was good practice, he told himself, for the diplomacy he must often use at Court. As the Queen’s bodyguard he frequently to sit through boring meetings, and listen to old friends of the Queen ramble on about the Good Old Days. This was not quite so boring as that.
The Players were running through the same scene for the tenth time. Kit Marlowe kept making small changes in wording, or cutting a scene and then putting it back in. Prince Alexander seemed fascinated, studying the scene as it played out, first one way, then another. He appeared to be making mental notes of how a change in word or pacing affected the impact of the play as a whole. Clark could appreciate the value of the exercise, but still it bored him.
He began to watch one of the younger players. Kit Marlowe’s friend, Louis. He was very pretty and slender, almost girlish… no, quite a bit girlish, in fact. That made sense, for he was playing a female role in this play, that of King Edward’s wife, Isabella.
“For now my lord the king regardes me not,
But dotes upon the love of Gaveston.
He claps his cheekes and hanges about his neck,
Smiles in his face, and whispers in his eares,
And when I come, he frownes, as who should say,
Go whether whither thou wilt seeing I have Gaveston.”
The lad was far better than most in such a role, thought Clark. And then something arrested him, and made him look closer, and something tripped an inner alarm and set off his special vision, and then he was blushing and looking away, for the lad was no lad at all.
‘You stare at my friend?’ asked Kit Marlowe from his corner near Sir Clark’s seat.
‘Ah, I beg your pardon, Master Marlowe. I meant no harm. Merely, I appreciate the lad’s skill in acting.’
‘That is well, if true, for I harbour a deep affection for the lad, and would not see him made a target for every man who fancies him.’
‘Not at all, I assure you,’ said Sir Clark. ‘I have no designs upon his virtue.’
‘Hmph!’ said Marlowe, shortly, but he returned to making notes upon his copy of the script.
Ill tempered wretch, thought Clark. He could no longer pretend to watch the play, for now that he knew Louis was… Eloise, perchance?… his eye was drawn to her constantly, like a lodestone to the North Pole. He wondered if Marlowe knew. But nay, he must know, and that was the reason for his protectiveness. Her role as his friend was a cover for her true gender, and a protection against the attentions of other men.
Clark wondered what she was up to. Women did not act upon the stage, not in such public venues as the Bear Garden. For a woman to act upon any public stage at all, was to declare that she was a whore. Was she merely an adventuress, or did she have some darker purpose in mind? It was none of his business, of course, and he had no intentions of betraying her secret, but he couldn’t help being curious.
To hide his continuing curiosity, he began to watch Prince Alexander instead. The man’s face, when it wasn’t frozen in its normal polite, cold format, was expressively eloquent, he discovered. Upon the stage, King Edward was declaiming,
“…Ere my sweete Gaveston shall part from me,
This Ile shall fleete upon the Ocean,
And wander to the unfrequented Inde.”
The prince’s face wore an expression of mournful yearning, as if he longed to hear such words spoken on his behalf, perchance. Or did he himself wish to have a love to defend in such terms?
The traitorous Mortimer asked,
“Why should you love him, whome the world hates so?
And Edward replied,
“Because he loves me more then all the world:
Ah none but rude and savage minded men,
Would seeke the ruine of my Gaveston,
You that be noble borne should pitie him.”
Prince Alexander nodded to himself. Then something made him turn his head, and his eyes met Clark’s. Clark bowed. The prince nodded back, and turned back to the stage, but not before Clark saw a slight strange smile grace his lips.
It was interesting to watch William Shakespeare’s play ’Love’s Labour’s Lost’, after viewing the rehearsal for the work by Christopher Marlowe. Shakespeare had much more facility with language, thought Sir Clark. His grasp of plotting was stronger, mayhap. And yet the characters had less depth and the story itself was far less gripping. Between them, Marlowe and Shakespeare would make a great playwright. The happiest outcome, though, would be for them to learn from each other, and this seemed to be the case. After the play, they all retired to a tavern to talk and argue. Prince Alexander praised Shakespeare’s use of words, as did everyone else at the table.
‘Language is a game to you, is it not?’ he asked. ‘You love to play with them.’
‘Aye, that I do,’ said the playwright. ‘Do you disapprove?’
‘Not at all. I enjoyed watching the match.’
‘I think your friend does not,’ Shakespeare noted. ‘I thought I spied a disapproving glance, once or twice.’
‘I believe in saying what I mean, and meaning what I say,’ Sir Clark replied. ‘I try to do so, at least.’
‘Ah, but how often does anyone say exactly what they mean?’ Prince Alexander wondered. ‘Words are tricky in and of themselves, and they twist and turn on the journey from our hearts and minds to the edge of our lips. And the trial is not over even then, for often I’ve noted when my words hit the air, they burn in the harsh light of day, or become murky in the deep of the night. And my hearers sometimes mishear, or they misunderstand and take my words to heart in ways I did not intend. And so, my words often hurt my listeners without my intent.’
‘Aye,’ said Sir Clark. ‘And sometimes, though I wish to tell all the truth that is in my heart, I cannot. I am forced to tell untruths by circumstance beyond my control.’
‘And so you see, words become game pieces on a chess board, though we wish it not,’ said William Shakespeare.
Prince Alexander continued the conversation on their way back to Whitehall. ‘What thought you of the play’s ending?’ he asked.
‘Did the play end?’ asked Sir Clark, in turn. ‘I was surprised that the lovers all parted at the end. That is not usual.’
‘The ladies wished for the gentlemen to prove their love. Think you not that was wise? For to commit oneself to love, purely on speculation… that is attractive, to me. I long to take a chance and give myself wholly to love. And yet when I think of it, with my mind, rather than feel it with my heart, I know then how unwise such a course of action truly is. And so am I torn in two, always.’
‘The best thing, in such a case, is to have a love that satisfies both parts of you,’ said Clark. ‘A lover who both draws you by your heart, yet also satisfies your mind, and proves that such a love is wise.’
‘Could there be such a lover for me?’ asked the prince.
‘I know not,’ said Clark. ‘But I would try to be such a lover.’
‘Would you? And why should you attempt such a drastic course?’
They had reached the gates of Whitehall. Sir Clark gave the password to the night porter and they entered safely. He drew the prince down a side route, rather than through the ordinary public doors. They soon found themselves in a small courtyard, with gardens and a tiny maze. At the centre of the maze was a fountain, surrounded by rose bushes. The scent of roses filled the air.
The Moon above was a great glowing orb that caught the eye and drew it like a lodestone.
‘I wonder if there are beings that live upon the Moon?’ the prince wondered. ‘Mayhap they are like angels, and are this very moment looking down upon us. I wonder what they think of us, here in this garden.’
Sir Clark did not inform the prince that the Moon was a dead, gray rock that circled the Earth because it could not escape its fate, for such a tale held no romance, and this evening was not a time for the destruction of romantic dreams.
‘If they are looking down upon us out of curiosity, let us give them something to look upon,’ he said. He drew the prince into his arms, and bent his head to touch his lips with his own. It was a gentle kiss, unlike their first fierce embrace. But after a moment, Clark let his tongue venture inside the prince’s mouth to search out a companion of its own.
They were both fully clothed, of course, and current fashion, with its tightly buttoned doublets and high necked ruffs and stuffed codpieces did not allow of much skin contact or friction. Clark tried his best, pulling the prince as close as he could, rocking their bodies together, entwining their legs, trying to work his hands under his doublet and down his breeches. It was a game, he thought, as difficult as a word game, if not as perilous.
The prince gasped and pulled back just a little. He looked up at Clark, his eyes bright with laughter. Clearly he was about to suggest they go somewhere more private where they could remove some of their abominable clothing…
And then they heard a cough behind them, coming from the entrance to the maze.
The prince jumped back, feeling for his sword, but Clark caught his arm. ‘No need,’ he said. ‘It is only Lady Chloe. She is no enemy.’
‘Indeed not, gentlemen,’ said the lady, with a curtsey. She looked a little flushed, even in the dim light of the Moon, and her eyes were bright and avid. ‘I am so sorry for interrupting your private conversation,’ she said. ‘But the Queen requests your presence, on a matter of some urgency. I saw you enter the maze, and thought I had better come after you myself, rather than send someone else.’
‘Very wise,’ said the prince. ‘And I thank you.’ He did not look very happy about the interruption, however.
The Queen was in a high state of excitement. Still she wore her great imperial costume, though it was late evening. Her eyes glittered, her light red hair seemed to spark from some inner fire, and her pale skin glowed.
‘There you are!’ she exclaimed. ‘Where have you been? Nevermind, never mind. You are here now. Follow me!’
Clark and Lex exchanged one panicked glance, then followed her down the hall to her Privy Chamber, as commanded. The Queen opened the door herself, too impatient to wait for Sir Clark. The instant she had shut the door, she almost pounced upon Prince Alexander.
‘How did you come to lose your hair?’ she asked.
‘Your… Your Grace, it was when I was a young child, and exposed to the Green Rocks in the dragon caves.’
‘So, you were born with hair, like most people?’
‘To be sure, Your Grace.’
‘What colour was your hair?’
‘Red, Your Grace.’
‘Red? Dark red, or red like unto my own?’
‘Light red, like your own, Your Grace.’
‘And your gracious mother? Her hair was red too, was it not? I know that, from this picture of your mother. Is this not her very likeness?’ The Queen drew a miniature from her reticule, and handed it to the prince.
The prince stared at the picture for a long time, his eyes filling with tears that yet did not fall. ‘Aye,’ he said at last. ‘That is my mother.’
‘You speak truth,’ the Queen declared. ‘That is your mother. That is also my sister. Lillian was her name. Oh, she was born on the wrong side of the blanket, but she is my half sister, nonetheless, and closer to the throne than that proven, convicted and executed, traitorous Queen of the Scots Mary Tudor. I wondered why your father married such an apparent nobody as Lillian McLeod from the Isle of Skye. I had the matter looked into and my spies have discovered the truth. My father fathered her in the last few years of his life before such a feat became more difficult. At that time, he had several heirs -- my brother, Edward, my sister, Mary, and myself. Also, he still had hopes for yet another legitimate son. And so he hid this daughter away in Scotland, marrying her mother to a local Laird. Few even knew that the king had sired yet another daughter on a serving maid.’
‘She would never have been in the line to the throne, Your Grace,’ said the prince.
‘She might have, if all else had failed,’ said the Queen. ‘At one time, my father the King had planned to legitimize a natural born son of his. Henry, born to a Lady in Waiting of the Queen at that time. He made this son the Duke of Richmond. But then the lad died, just before the King was about to name him his heir. A natural born daughter would have been more difficult to convince the people to accept, but life is uncertain. My brother died a few years after taking the throne, and then died my sister, Mary. I am his last legitimate offspring, and have had no children of my own. When I die -- and I shall die, being mortal, unless you can find a safe use for those Green Rocks of yours -- when I die, the throne will go to the son of my cousin. The son of an executed traitor.’
‘The child is surely innocent of treason, Your Grace.’
‘Ah, yes. Innocent enough of any traitorous actions, though born in sin, as are we all. And for all that, the boy might grow into a fine man, as men go, and captain my great nation well enough.’ The Queen paced up and down the room, clearly thinking how to broach some important matter. ‘I have not decided to declare my sister Lillian legitimate,’ she said. ‘Yet. I have not decided to name you my heir. Yet.’
‘Your Grace! Your Grace. I have no wish….’
‘Of course not. How should you? You have only now learned that you are, in some way, in line to my throne. You were not yet born -- nay! Not yet conceived -- when your father the King of the Dragon Lords chose your mother as his bride. Had I considered you guilty of such a plot to take over my throne, I would have had you killed, be thou assured of that.’
‘I am part of no plot,’ said the prince.
‘I believe you,’ the Queen told him. ‘And indeed, your arrival and this bit of news is most pleasing to me. I call you nephew. You are young and strong and intelligent and far more preferable to us as our heir than that puling infant currently holding the position. Do we make ourselves clear?’
‘Indeed, Your Grace,’ said the prince.
‘Good. Now, as our personal choice as heir, though not yet official, we have a task for you. We have sent papers to the Scottish Parliament, legitimizing your claim to your mother’s lands in Skye. However, it is always best to present such people with a fait accompli. Thus, I require and request that you do take hold of your lands forthwith, and stake a personal claim upon them. Reside there, for a time. Show your colours, and prove your ability to rule. Cast out any other false claimants and win the respect of the people. Does such a task meet with your approval?’
‘It does, Your Grace.’
‘Now, Sir Clark. I charge you with a similar task. To accompany Prince Alexander, my preferred heir, to his ancestral lands in Skye, and to give him your protection and your support, as you have given them to me.’
‘Your Grace! I cannot abandon you, thus.’
‘You can, and you shall, by my command. Do you refuse a direct order from your Sovereign?’
‘No! Indeed no, Your Grace. But….’
‘There are no buts, Sir Clark. Obey my commands, or reside in the Tower, forthwith, and I do not jest.’
Sir Clark bowed, and then fell to his knees to kiss the Queen’s hand. ‘I do obey you, Your Grace,’ he said. ‘But I fear to leave you thus unguarded.’
‘Fear not,’ said the Queen. ‘I will take pains to be safe, for my country is under threat from the Spaniard, and we abide in peril. But this is important to me. I have given you a great charge, which shows how truly I trust you. Do not think I send you from me lightly. Well do I know how great your protection is. Do not fail me in this.’
‘I will not, Your Grace,’ said the knight.
The prince was silent as they walked back to their own rooms. Clark reached out to touch his shoulder, but Alexander drew back in reproof. ‘I don’t think we should continue our early conversation here and now,’ he said.
‘No. Of course not,’ said Sir Clark, and he turned to leave for his own apartments.
‘Clark!’ said the prince.
Clark turned. Alexander was standing in the doorway to his own chamber, looking lost and sad as Clark had not yet seen him. ‘I don’t want you to leave yet. Please. Come in for a moment.’
‘If you wish,’ said Clark.
‘I wish,’ the prince replied. His squires were playing some kind of board game in the antechamber. ‘Leave us,’ said the prince. ‘I need not your service for the moment.’ The squires nodded, and left quickly. The prince paced up and down much as the Queen had done earlier. ‘What do you think the truth of the matter might be?’ he asked, at last.
‘The truth? You think not the Queen told the truth?’
‘Of course she told the truth, as she understood it. She is a most noble and gracious lady, and would not lie about such a thing. And besides, what would it profit her to lie? It might profit someone else, however.’
‘Don’t you think the Queen would have seen the evidence, and judged the truth of it?’
‘Yes. And I trust her judgement. It is just that I would like to see the evidence for myself. I could not interrogate the Queen on such a matter at such a time, of course, seeming to suggest she lied or had been tricked. One must be careful with sovereign rulers. I learned that long ago. Later I might be able to ask to see the evidence out of curiosity.’
‘You might,’ Clark agreed.
‘But Clark. These are dangerous waters, don’t you see that? It puts me in a most dangerous position. I am used to that, I must confess. But it puts you in a dangerous position, as well. If someone should accuse me of treason, you would be tarred with the same brush.’
‘I’m not afraid of that.’
‘Well, you should be.’
‘The Queen trusts me, absolutely. She teases me with threats of the Tower, but she is not serious. She trusts me.’
‘Aye, the Queen. But what of the others? What of her ministers and counsellors? What of this Scottish Parliament. I doubt the Queen wrote them saying, “I am sending you a rival to your King. Give him a hearty welcome!” But word might get out. A rumour here. A rumour there. How much real power does she possess in Scotland, after all.’
‘The King of Scotland is a mere babe, and the committee that runs the country is like all committees -- divided amongst themselves. Elizabeth does not rule Scotland, but her word is often law there, since the death of Mary. James, the babe, is Elizabeth’s only legitimate heir.’
‘Until my arrival, yes. I want not your Queen’s throne, but what matters that, in the eyes of anyone likely to see me as a danger? When I came here, t’was only to claim my lands bequeathed me by my mother, and only for that reason -- they were my mother’s lands. Now…. I know little of Scotland, for Mother rarely spoke of her life there. She forgot most of it. T’was the effect of the Rocks, you see. They stole much of her memory.’
‘I am sorry,’ said Clark. ‘Scotland is a beautiful land. But a wild one and a poor one. Some centuries ago, the Scots lived by raiding. The cry would go up, ‘The Scots be across t’border!’, and everyone would run up to the local castles seeking sanctuary.’ He smiled, reminiscently. Prince Alexander looked at him, curiously. ‘Tales are still told of those days,’ Clark explained.
‘Very well,’ said the prince. ‘Is the land so wild now?’
‘Not quite so wild,’ said Clark. ‘But mostly because the constant wars with England wore the Scots out. Soon, they will recover and be a thorn in our side once more.’
‘Wonderful! But it is my inheritance, and mayhap I can make some use of it. In the meantime, I need to think.’
‘Yes,’ said Clark. He came to take the prince into his arms once more. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘This is not the time for dalliance. I only wish for you to be assured. I am yours. Yours to use, and yours to trust. I am my Lady Queen’s obedient servant, but I am going with you to your wild, beautiful land not only out of obedience and duty, but out of love.’ He bent and kissed the prince, drew his hands down the strong, vibrant body once, and then turned quickly and left, lest he be tempted to stay.
His own rooms were quiet, dark and lonely. He was the one to pace up and down, now. What would he do if future events forced him to choose between Elizabeth and Alexander? Such a thing should not happen, but the world was a violent and uncertain place, and things that should not happen, often did happen.
Out in the courtyard, he heard a wild cry -- the cry of a dragon! He ran to the window in time to see Alexander leap from his own window to the back of his white dragon. The prince raised his face to the moonlit sky, and cried out once more. The cry had words in it -- words Clark wished he understood and could answer. Dragon and prince rode off together, into the night.
Sir Clark went to his wardrobe and opened the door. He drew out a large wooden chest , and opened it. From the chest he drew something wrapped in a silken scarf. The moonlight from the open casement shone upon a large round crystal. This moonlight roused the crystal to light of its own.
Clark set the crystal globe on a table, and sat before it. As the globe gathered the moonlight unto itself, it glowed more and more brightly. At last, Clark spoke. ‘Father,’ he said. ‘Are you awake? I need your counsel.’
It was late in the evening, and very dark and quiet. Prince Alexander had not yet returned from his wild flight. Sir Clark leaned out his casement window, watching the courtyard below. He waited, watching, until a cloud covered the moon, turning the courtyard almost completely dark. Then he soared from the window, up into the night sky. He was wearing black doublet and breeches, and a long black cloak. His face was covered with a black mask.
He sped through the night, silent and dark as an owl, until he saw below him the fields of his home. The manor house was shut up and silent, but high in one round tower, a light still shone, as always. Silently he landed on the wide sill, and pushed open the ancient glass window. His room, kept for him as always, waiting for his arrival.
He jumped down from the sill, and let the feeling of being home and safe fill his soul. Then he shrugged off his cloak and pulled off his mask. He lit the logs waiting in the fireplace, and poured himself a small glass of wine.
‘Clark? Is that you?’
Sir Clark turned and grinned at his sister, standing in the doorway. ‘Who else would I be?’ he asked.
Martha Kent laughed. ‘I am sorry. T’was a foolish question, I grant you. But you have not graced us with your presence for so long. What is the occasion?’
‘Father said I should pay you a visit,’ Sir Clark informed her.
‘Are you… is it getting close to the time when you must… die?’ asked Martha.
‘I know not,’ Clark admitted. ‘It may well come to pass, though not yet. The situation is difficult, and I know not how much time I have left. Father thought I should warn you.’
‘I consider myself warned,’ said Martha. ‘But come below stairs, and have a meal with us.’
‘It is late,’ said Clark.
‘Not too late,’ said Martha. ‘The servants are abed. It is only Jonathan and I who are awake. Come. Have a meal with us once more, since your life is now uncertain.’
‘As you wish,’ said Clark. He followed his sister down the stairs to the parlour, where Jonathan waited, sitting before the fire with a glass of wine and a book.
Jonathan rose to his feet as Martha and Clark entered. ‘Look, Husband,’ said Martha. ‘Here is our dear brother, returned to us.’ Jonathan and Clark exchanged bows, and then a friendly embrace.
‘Don’t make it sound as if I’d been lost at sea,’ said Clark. ‘It has only been a year since I visited you.’
‘Aye, but our affections grow with your absence,’ said Jonathan. He drew another chair up before the fire, and poured glasses of wine for Martha and Clark. ‘To what great event do we owe this honour?’
‘The Queen is sending me to visit the Scots,’ said Clark. ‘And you both know that situation is volatile. I might find myself betwixt the Devil and the deep, blue sea.’
‘And so you might find that your hand is forced, and your death might shortly follow?’
‘Aye,’ said Clark. He hated any circumstances which forced him to pretended death, but at times this was all that had stood between him and charges of witchcraft. Charges which would have drawn down opprobrium upon his family and the Templars. His family here at Kent Manor, and the Templars, were his life. It was his family and the Templars who, at different times, had sheltered him, and protected his secret origins, as they understood them. Sir Clark, in his turn, protected his family, and the Templars. Lately, he had added the Queen to his list of charges, and now, mayhap, Prince Alexander.
‘If I must needs die, and t’would not be by my choice, I do assure you, follow the usual plan. In a few years, a son will be born to Martha, and raised here, then sent to the Templars for fostering. He will be named Clark, after his poor, deceased uncle.’
‘We understand,’ said Jonathan.
‘While I am dead, do not forget our family motto. The secret one, I mean. Nothing in excess. No great shows of wealth or ambition to attract attention and envy and charges of treason and witchcraft. Draw up the moats and let no one in who is not a proven friend.’ Sir Clark spoke of purely metaphorical moats at this time, but once they had been genuine moats and the Kent family had stood against force after force which came against them. Then had they been among the Barons, but now they pretended to be a less powerful and wealthy side of the family, and were merely among the Esquires. This suited Clark better.
‘How is young Martha?’ he asked.
‘She is well. Very well. She grows and learns, and is curious.’ Thus spoke the proud father.
‘Good,’ said Clark. ‘In time, you should begin to look for a suitable husband.’
‘We will,’ said Martha. ‘A younger son. One who will be grateful for all we can give him.’
‘One who will love his wife, as do I,’ said Jonathan, with firmness.
‘I will leave all that to you,’ said Clark. ‘But do not hesitate to consult with Father, if you have any difficulties.’
‘And what of you?’ asked Martha. ‘Are you still alone in the world?’
‘I am not alone. I have you,’ Clark protested.
‘Aye. But you know of what I speak. What of love?’
‘Love? Perchance I have found love, again. But it is too early, too new a love to speak of yet. I will say something of that on my next visit, which will be soon, I promise. Once I am settled in Scotland, I will come here again. The next few months will be full of difficulties, and I will need your love and support.’
‘That you have,’ said Martha. ‘Always.’
Sir Clark wondered if the prince ever slept. He had seen him fly back to Whitehall just before the dawn, and now, a mere hour later, there he was, in the midst of packing up his bags for the trip to Skye.
‘I have some information about the land to which we are journeying,’ Clark told him. ‘The Queen has been gathering stories and reports from her spies and so on, ever since your arrival here was first mooted. She thought you might appreciate the chance to be informed about your inheritance.’
‘I thank you,’ said the prince. ‘And the Queen, as well. You are both most helpful and informative.’
‘I have maps,’ Clark went on. He spread them out on a table before the window. ‘Here are the British Isles, of course. We are here, in London. Scotland is far to the North. It would take weeks to journey there by wagon. Days on horseback. A few hours, one would suppose, by dragon wing.’
‘Your supposition is correct,’ said Prince Alexander. ‘If we leave after the noon meal, we should be there before dinner. However, I know not what sort of reception to expect. What will be our living arrangements? Shall we be forced to camp out upon the hillsides? It is not that I fear such a prospect. I have spent many hours living rough out upon the tundra in my own native lands. I merely wish to know what we should expect. Perhaps we should take a considerable amount of supplies with us, as if we were on a campaign?’
‘That might be wise,’ said Clark. ‘The native people might not welcome us with open arms. There is a castle. Here, near the village of Langford. As reports have it, it is in a certain amount of disrepair, but the damage is superficial, not foundational. It might be repaired and made comfortable enough in short order, if we had the wherewithal.’
‘What of the village of Langford?’
‘There is a manor house, which is where your mother grew up, I hear. It is now occupied by someone who claims to be the Laird, though said claim is somewhat specious. He has a wife and daughter, both of them reputed to be witches, though they have managed to avoid leaving enough evidence which can be used against them. The wife is named Alinor, the daughter, Alana.’
‘This manor should belong to me,’ the prince pointed out. ‘But one would imagine that if I were to claim it, and evict the current tenants, I would be declaimed as an evil, cruel overlord.’
‘I would imagine so,’ Clark agreed.
‘Thus we must make shift to occupy the castle, or to live upon the hillsides like sheep.’
‘Or to rent a lodging,’ Clark suggested, earning himself a disgusted look from the prince.
‘Rent? A lodging? The Crown Prince of the Dragon Lords, come to claim his maternal inheritance, living in a rented lodging? No. Not a chance, I assure you. I would prefer the shabby castle, or a tent out in the heather. We shall pack tents. I will send my squires to purchase them. Also, blankets, cooking utensils and food.’
‘Do you know how to cook?’ asked Sir Clark.
‘No,’ said Prince Alexander. ‘Do you?’
The squires were sent out in due order, and returned with an impressive amount of supplies. Sir Clark packed his own bags. A change of clothes. A couple of books, including the Bible. And, of course, the box with the crystal ball.
‘Would you wish to journey with me?’ he asked his servant. ‘Or would you rather stay here in London?’
‘Me? Journey to the Hebrides?’ His servants face grew pale at the suggestion.
‘Nay,’ said Sir Clark. ‘Methinks you would be safer here. I don’t know how long I shall be away. You may wait here against my safe return, if you wish. Or, to be sure, you may find yourself other employment. Choose for yourself.’
‘I will remain in your service, for now,’ his servant said. ‘If you do not return, I will need to find another position.’
‘You are free to do so,’ said Sir Clark. He handed the servant several crowns. ‘Here is some pay in advance. Don’t spend it all at once, and leave yourself destitute.’
‘I will not,’ said the servant, with a bow. ‘God keep you safe.’
‘I pray He will,’ said Sir Clark, and went to join the prince and his servants on the barge across the Thames.
When the prince and his entourage first arrived in England, few had known about that arrival, and so the crowd had been small, composed almost entirely of members of the Court. Today a huge crowd had gathered in the meadow. Clark wondered aloud at this change.
‘There was a hanging this morn,’ someone answered him. He turned to face his informant. It was one of the Queen’s young courtiers, Robert Devereux, stepson of her favourite, the Earl of Leicester. ‘After the hanging, we had an announcement that the famous dragons could be seen in these fields, if anyone was in need of further entertainment. I did not see you there, at the hanging, Sir Clark. But you never attend such public events. ‘Tis a pity. They are very educational. Most face their fate with fortitude, as today. Some beg and plead, and then squeal. Again, like today. The boy showed less courage than the woman.’
‘Boy?’ asked the prince. ‘They hanged a boy?’
‘A boy of fourteen, yes, Milord,’ Devereux responded. ‘But save your pity for someone more worthy, I humbly pray you. This boy raped his sister, a mere child of five.’
‘Ah! Then indeed he only got what he deserved. Less than he deserved, I should say.’
‘I do agree, Milord.’
‘And what of the woman who ‘twas hanged with him?’
‘A doxy, caught stealing.’
‘Perhaps she was desperate?’
‘Perhaps,’ said Devereux, now sounding bored. ‘But if we let every desperate person steal, where will we be? She could have sold her body, if she needed money. She had done it before, after all.’
The prince looked sad at this story, but turned away without another word.
‘Too bad you are leaving us so soon, though,’ Devereux went on. ‘Next week there will be more florid entertainment. They are burning that woman, Alicia Grey. The woman who murdered her husband. You showed some interest in her, did you not, Sir Clark?’
‘Not an interest in her, particularly, as a woman,’ said Clark. He felt a pang of remorse that since the trial he had put her plight out of his mind. But there was nothing he could do about it, for she had been justly found guilty, and would be justly executed. ‘I… I feel sorry for her. All her neighbours agree that her husband beat her, frequently.’
‘Yes.’ Now even Devereux looked sad. ‘He was a brute, and ‘tis a shame, but he was within his rights. He did not injure her too severely, so she was not in fear of her life. Even had she been, a woman killing her husband commits treason, and must suffer the death of a traitor. ‘Twas not High Treason, so she will simply be burned, rather than hanged, drawn and quartered... But I see the Queen beckon me. If you will excuse me, Milord, Sir Clark.’ The young courtier bowed, and sauntered off toward the Queen and her party.
‘The young are ever heartless,’ Prince Alexander noted. ‘Some day, he might find more sympathy in his heart for those condemned to die.’
‘Aye,’ said Clark. ‘Why do you feel such sympathy?’
‘I have looked death in the face, and found it can be merciful. But also, remorseless. Pain and suffering teaches us little of any value, I find, unless we use it as a spyglass to look into our own hearts. I fear your friend does not so.’
‘Oh, he is not my friend, though I bear him no ill will. He is loyal to the Queen, I believe, but also has much pride in his own person. Too much, in my opinion, if my opinion holds any weight.’
‘It does,’ said the prince, with a suddenly sweet smile. It was a smile that Sir Clark had not seen on the prince’s face before, and the smile melted Clark’s heart. Before he had the chance to speak of the miracle that had just taken place, a sudden cry went up from the crowd, announcing the arrival of the dragons.
‘We must be off as soon as possible,’ said the prince. ‘Or we shall be here all day, showing the dragons to the crowd.’ The prince turned, though, and grasped Clark’s arm. ‘I fear you are still upset about the condemned woman, though. Is there nothing to be done?’
‘I tried to bribe the executioner, to strangle her before setting flame to the pyre, but he was not amenable to the bribe I was able to offer. He told me the crowd loves to hear the screams of burning people, and what am I to a happy crowd? If this were in earlier, simpler times, I might fight for her as a Champion. But, you see, as a Templar and as the Queen’s Bodyguard, I am sworn to uphold the law. How might I subvert that? My situation makes me feel helpless, at times, when I witness suffering, and cannot help the afflicted.’
The prince smiled at him. Not the remarkably sweet smile of a moment earlier, but a gentle smile. ‘Let me think on that,’ he said. ‘I am not so constrained as are you. Perhaps I can offer the executioner a bribe he cannot refuse. So, take heart, and let us journey to Scotland, and my inheritance.’
‘I am your obedient servant,’ said Sir Clark.
‘Are you, indeed?’ asked the prince. And now his smile held a tinge of licentiousness.
Prince Alexander vaulted onto his dragon’s back. Sir Clark could have easily joined him thus, but he considered that it would look suspicious if a man who had never ridden aback a dragon, could mount one without aid. He waited.
The prince spoke to his great white dragon in that language whose qualities Clark still could not quite define. It was like the rustling of leaves in a spring breeze, he thought. It was like the babbling of a brook. It was like the fall of snow on a vast meadow. But truly, it was like nothing he had ever heard before. And yet, every time he heard this music, he wished to hear it more, and to understand it.
Magnhildr turned her vast head, and studied Clark, who was waiting patiently at her side. Then, she seemed to acquiesce to something, and lowered her great body to the ground. Prince Alexander reached down, and offered Clark his hand. Clark grasped it, and was hauled up to sit behind the prince in his saddle.
‘There are loops, you see,’ said the prince. ‘Fasten them around your legs, thus, and thus. Hold onto this loop, but do not tug on it. That might confuse her.’
Magnhildr snorted, quite inelegantly, and in a way that suggested she would not pay the least attention to anything Sir Clark might do while upon her back, no matter how annoying and idiotic. That was encouraging, thought Clark, and began to relax.
The dragon unfurled her wide wings. She ran a few steps, and then leapt into the air. The crowd below them gasped in awe and delight. Magnhildr and her courtiers made several circuits of the fair grounds, as if putting on a show for the spectators, and then, with the white dragon in the lead, and the two red male dragons flanking her, they turned and headed north.
Clark had flown under his own power many a time. He had ridden horses, in carts and chariots, sailed upon the seas in many diverse vessels. Yet no experience compared to this. They seemed almost to sail upon the breast of the wind. Magnhildr created her own bubble of space, from which the world seemed to pass her by, rather than passing through the world. Clark wondered if he were making sense, as he attempted to describe his experience.
They seemed to be scarcely moving, and yet the ground below had so swiftly passed by, that now they were looking down upon the rich fields of Kent, rather than the crowded streets of London Town.
‘I investigated your provenance,’ the prince told him. ‘You are of Kent, are you not?’
‘Yes, I am so,’ said Clark, cautiously. It always distressed him a little, when anyone looked into his family background. But the prince was justified, after all.
‘I wished to know something of the man I am taking into my home, at the behest of the Queen. You know much of my family, and I knew nothing of yours.’
‘Of course,’ said Sir Clark. ‘The Duke of Kent is a distant relative. A very distant relative. We have almost nothing to do with him. Our own property is middling. A manor house, some good farmlands. We raise horses, among other things. Good horses, I might add.’
‘I noticed that your sister Martha had inherited the property, and that you have no real claim on it. Is that usual?’
‘It is not in the usual way, here in England, but it is tradition in my family. The property is entailed in the female line. The eldest daughter inherits. The sons are granted a small portion of money and a place in the world -- usually among the Templars.’
‘And they are pleased with this arrangement?’
‘Not one has ever complained that I heard of,’ said Clark. ‘I assure you that I did not. I am happy for my sister to run the estate, whilst I go adventuring. Here am I, riding upon a dragon. I would much rather be here, than at home, worrying about crops and foals and the state of the weather.’
‘Ah,’ said the prince. ‘You are a Knight Errant, and were born so, and ever shall be so, is that it?’
‘That is it, indeed,’ said Sir Clark.
But now they had passed over Kent, and were heading for the moors, in the north of England. Scotland was just across the border, and Clark wondered what their welcome would be, invaders of a sort, from a often hostile land.
‘Are you certain this is the proper place?’
The prince asked his question, seemingly, of the surrounding air. Sir Clark decided to interpret it as addressed to him. He consulted his map. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘There is the moor we flew over, and the hills, and this…. This is the cove. The strange rocks, jutting out into the sea, as if for a place for dragons to stand guard upon.’
The two red dragons were indeed standing guard upon the jutting rocks, staring out to sea. The white dragon considered them for a moment, then nodded, approvingly.
‘And there is the name,’ Clark went on. ‘Langford Castle.’
The white dragon snorted, in concert with the prince. ‘Langford Castle? My mother told me t’was always called Dragonwych. Dragon Cove. Legend is, there was a dragon there, once long ago, when they were still mostly legend in your part of the world. It is an imposing place, is it not? Certainly large enough to house a dragon or two, though mostly they prefer to live outside, or in caves. But those parapets -- small dragon might well patrol up there, keeping an eye on her domain. Magnhildr is too magnificent for such a duty, of course.’
‘I agree,’ Sir Clark agreed. ‘It does seem to be in good repair,’ he continued. ‘Which makes it odd that no one is in residence. One would think that some ambitious local lord would attempt to claim it, and defend his claim by his personal presence.’
‘One would think,’ said Prince Alexander, thoughtfully. He looked around. ‘It is a goodly place, and capable of being defended against attack. Views of the sea and the surrounding fields. I imagine there are natural wells within the castle compound. With a good store of food, the inhabitants could last out a siege, if the attackers did not utilize far-ranging canon. Mayhap the ambitious local lords are not ambitious enough. Or, they may be afraid.’
‘Afraid of what?’
‘My mother married a Dragon Lord. This was her home, and as her son, I have inherited it. They might venture to encroach upon my lands, field by field, believing I will not notice, but to invade my home… that might frighten them. As it should.’
‘That seems reasonable,’ said Sir Clark. ‘But, shall we venture to invade, now, and see what we might see?’
The castle was beautiful, thought Clark. It nestled in a hollow atop a hill -- probably the remains of a moat. The stone glowed oddly, with a hint of red in the stone, rather than the usual dull grey. Clark noticed that Alexander gazed upon the walls with a thoughtful expression. He gazed for a long, silent moment, then looked up at his dragon, as if to ask permission. Magnhildr nodded, gravely, then bent her head to nudge her companion’s shoulder. She rumbled something in her own language, and the prince nodded, at last.
‘Let us take possession of our new home,’ he said to Clark. ‘As you are my champion and bodyguard, though I need no such protection, you should lead the way.’
Clark bowed. ‘As you wish, my Lord,’ he said. And they proceeded across the meadow, and up the slope to the Castle.
Up close, it still appeared to be in perfect condition. Clark ventured to use his special vision, but without much success, which was odd. He could view the foundations beneath the soil well enough, but could not seem to penetrate within the walls themselves. Usually he could see through anything, except for lead. Were the walls made of lead, or was there a spell laid upon them? Magic could and did affect him, he had learned over the years.
In earlier, wilder days, this castle would have stood against many a siege. Clark could see the remaining traces of three outer rings of stone walls that had once stood between the castle and any invading hordes. Once there would have been great cauldrons of boiling oil to pour upon the hapless heads of said invading hordes. But all such defences were of no use against modern weaponry, and so had been dismantled. These days, the best defence lay in political alliances, and Prince Alexander possessed them.
The walked up the path together, and reached the great front door. ‘I wonder if it’s locked?’ asked Clark. He tried the latch, but it wouldn’t open. He could force it, of course, but that might damage the door, and the door did not belong to him.
The prince caught at his hand, gently. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, and Clark expected him to produce a key. Instead, he rested his hand against the stone wall, and began to murmur in dragon language. Somewhere in his speech, Clark thought he caught the names Alexander and Lillian, though he could not be sure. But the spell seemed to work upon the Castle, for the door opened. It opened slowly, groaning and creaking, but it opened.
It opened upon a vast hall. At the far end was an enormous hearth. This would have been the place where, back in those earlier and wilder days, the Lord of the Castle and his knights would have eaten and slept. Sometimes their horses would have shared the space with them.
To one side of the room, a great stairway led up to the Solar, where the Lady of the Castle and her servants lived in more sheltered circumstances.
The Castle was dusty. Leaves littered the ground. Mice and rats and snakes had left their droppings among the leaves. But, beyond these minor faults, the Castle was in perfect condition. ‘We could sweep out this litter,’ Clark suggested. ‘Wash the floors, and sweeten them with reeds and herbs. Chase out the vermin. And then I don’t see why we can’t move in tonight. If my Lord wishes, of course.’
‘Your Lord wishes,’ said Prince Alexander. ‘This is my home. I felt it welcome me in. And thou art welcome, too.’
Clark stepped aside, to allow Prince Alexander to cross the threshold first. Then he followed him, two steps behind, keeping an eye on the deep shadows in the great hall. The late afternoon sun was shining through the high lancet windows, which had been left unshuttered. This was the explanation for the drifts of leaves, it seemed, but at least the castle was not stuffy and airless.
Something scuttled across the floor -- a rat! Prince Alexander never twitched. He strode on toward the huge hearth that stretched across the far end of the hall. It was so large that he could stand upright in it, and even Clark only had to bend his head slightly.
‘We could roast a whole ox in this,’ the prince commented.
‘Your ancestors likely did so every night,’ was Clark’s reply.
‘We shall not be so greedy.’
Again something went slithering across the floor, to hide in the shadows. ‘We must do something about the vermin,’ said Clark. ‘I find no pleasure in rats sharing my living quarters.’
‘They shall be dealt with, in due time. Let us explore the upper levels.’
‘The Solar? Let me go ahead of you, if you please.’
‘If you wish,’ said the prince. ‘Though I doubt a monster is hiding there. Surely it would have announced its presence by now.’
‘Would it have? Not all monsters erupt from their dens at the least sign of trouble, breathing fire and brimstone. Some smile lazily, waiting for their victims to enter their dens to be eaten at leisure.’
‘A much pleasanter form of monster, indeed,’ observed the prince. ‘Let us pay this monster a visit, and show that not only are we on to his tricks, but that we have some tricks of our own.’
The Solar, above stairs, was mercifully free of monsters. Sunlight blazed through its great windows, which looked out upon the loch. Those windows had also let in a considerable amount of dead leaves and rain and mist. Mushrooms appeared to be growing in at least one corner. A few sticks of furniture had been chewed upon by hungry mice. Remnants of draperies lay moldering upon the floor.
However, in the Bower, a great bed, made of wood as hard as iron, had survived the depredations of time. Its hangings had fallen to pieces, and the cushions were a mouldy mess, but the bedstead itself stood firm. ‘Al in all, this is a lot better than I had expected,’ said Alexander. ‘We need brooms. Hot water.’
‘And a rat catcher,’ said Clark, as yet another of the creatures rustled in the dead leaves.
‘That will not be a problem,’ Alexander replied. He stepped up to one of the wide, low windows, and sat upon the ledge. He began to sing, in dragon language, timing his song to the rhythmical roar of the sea.
Clark had heard him sing before, to his dragon, in the night. But this was bright sunlight, and still he felt a shiver make its way down his spine. This was sorcery, of a kind. Almost a feminine kind of sorcery.
After a time that Clark could not begin to calculate, Alexander ceased his song. He stepped down from the window ledge, looking a little pale and tired, but otherwise calm. ‘We should make those brooms,’ he said. ‘I saw some willow trees to the west of the castle. And we should explore the lower regions of this abode. There should be cauldrons in the kitchen. We need hot water. Lots of hot water.’
Clark followed the prince back down the stairs, in search of cauldrons and willow branches. He was watching out for rats, but something much larger had found its way into the keep. A wildcat looked up at them and hissed. Alexander said something to her in dragon language, and she backed off, her bristling back returning to normal, her eyes growing calm, almost tame. The prince said something else, and she ran up the staircase with a snarl.
‘In pursuit of rats,’ the prince explained.
‘You can talk to animals?’ asked Clark.
‘I am a Dragon Lord. I speak the languages of many animals. Not all, though. The hearts and minds of rats elude me.’
They swept out the main rooms of the castle, with their improvised brooms. The two squires -- their names were Mark and John, Clark finally learned -- cleaned the Great Hall. The prince and Clark worked on the Solar and the Bower. The wildcat kept pouncing on rats and mice, until she was fat and sated, and then prowled back down the stairs and vanished into the growing mist.
‘She has a den nearby,’ Alexander informed Clark. ‘And she has four little kittens. I told her she can make the castle her hunting ground, and I will protect her and the kits. She has agreed to this bargain.’
‘Why would she not?’
‘She fears humans. I told her we’re not exactly human.’
‘Ah!’ said Clark, feeling a chill of apprehension, but he smiled. The prince likely meant himself and his squires, for they were Dragon Lords, and immortal.
They poured buckets of sea water over the freshly swept floors, and after that was mopped up and the floors were clean enough to suit Alexander, they laid down carpets of rushes gathered from a nearby marsh. ‘We need proper carpets,’ the prince observed. ‘But this will do for now.’
They found a huge cauldron in the depths of the kitchen, and filled it with sea water. There was a hook in the great hearth that held it just over the fire of driftwood and fallen branches that one of the squires had gathered and set alight. Soon there would be hot water for bathing.
In the meanwhile, the other squire had gone fishing, and brought back fresh fish. Clark found turnips in the overgrown castle garden, and apples on a tree in the orchard. They roasted all this right in the fire, and ate it with bread and cheese from their own provisions. They recovered the bottles of ale they had stored in the chilly waters of the little stream that ran down to the ocean, and sat around the fire drinking after dinner.
‘This is good ale,’ Clark commented.
‘I beg to correct you,’ Alexander responded. ‘This is good bottled ale.’
‘Ah! You are one of those stiff-necked people who only like ale from the keg.’
‘I am a traditionalist. I drink bottled ale, if there is no other choice, but I prefer my ale without bubbles.’
‘I like bubbles,’ said Clark.
The two squires chose sides. Mark voted in favour of bubbles, and John against. In the end, they called the argument a draw, because any ale was better than no ale at all.
The prince and his squires took turns bathing in the cauldron, but Clark went for a swim in the sea, instead. He told the others he preferred cold water, but that was not the real reason. To be truthful, he would have to admit that he preferred not to see Prince Alexander naked once more -- or rather, that he wished too much to see him naked.
The evening mist had come on apace, and the castle was shrouded in it. Off to the west, Clark could just see the setting sun, on the edge of the horizon. The prince and his squires were asleep, or close to it. Clark hunted out his travelling bags, and found the crystal globe. He climbed up the side of the west tower, to a window that opened upon the sea. He slipped in to the tiny tower room, which had probably been designed as a lookout -- perhaps for raiders in the days of the Vikings. He quickly blew the dust and other litter out the window, to the rocks below. There was an old, rickety table that would serve him for now, until he could find something better, he thought.
He set the crystal on the table, and watched as the moonlight touched it and began to glow.
‘Father? Are you awake?’
‘I am always awake, my son.’
‘No, not always. There have been times you have not answered my call.’
‘That was not because I slept, but because I knew you must make your own choices.’
‘As you will, Father,’ said Clark.
‘But tonight I will answer your questions as best I can. What is your need?’
‘Father… I think I am in love.’
The next morning, they broke their fast with bread and ale. Clark found himself staring at Prince Alexander so hard that his special vision started up all on its own, and he could see right down to the other man’s skeleton. The prince caught him staring, and stared back just as hard, until Clark dropped his eyes, murmured an excuse, and made his escape.
His Father had been of no help the night before. He had told Clark that it was his decision to make, whether or not to make romantic overtures to the prince. From what details Clark had given him, his Father said, it seemed that the prince would not reject his advances, and so there seemed to be no impediment to their relationship. ‘You must follow your heart,’ Father had said.
‘But you are always telling me to think with my head, and to control my emotions,’ Clark had protested.
‘That is true, and wise counsel,’ Father said.
‘Now you are telling me to follow my emotions.’
‘No. To follow your heart. They are not the same thing.’
Clark stared out at the calm sea, lit by the fires of the dawn. He was being unfair to Father, he knew. How could Father tell him what was in Alexander’s heart when he had never met the man. Father could not illuminate Clark’s heart for him. Only Clark could do that.
Did he truly love Alexander? He knew his feelings were not simple lust, and only lust, though lust was there, to be sure. What did he truly know about the man, himself? He was certain there was no evil in the prince, and much that was good and kind. He had immediately repudiated the offer of a visit to the Bear Garden, when most of the world would approve such entertainment. Such scruples were rare. He had shared Clark’s horror at the coming execution of a woman who had killed her husband in self-defence. Most men would have gone to her killing with a light heart, and enjoyed the spectacle.
Why did Clark feel doubts about the wisdom of his growing attachment? Did the fault lie in the prince, or in Clark? Or was it, perhaps, in the world itself? The world would be not kind to their love, if it should come to be.
Yet this was all still speculative, Clark told himself. The prince had shown a certain attraction to Clark’s person, but that did not mean he intended to pursue a lasting connection of any kind. Clark looked around at the grounds near the Castle, seeking some useful employment to take his mind off his troubles. There was an herb garden, choked with weeds. An orchard of trees that needed pruning. Rose gardens that were a nest of thorns and little else. And… what was that? And old, old door, that seemed to lead into the side of a small hill.
Curiosity led Clark to the door. Curiosity persuaded him to open the door.
‘What is that?’ asked Alexander, who had appeared behind him, from out of nowhere, and now stared over his shoulder. ‘Wait! I do know what this is. It is an icehouse. And a very well built one, indeed.’
‘The ice is well-preserved, that is certain,’ Clark agreed.
The prince brushed past him, and Clark followed him into the cold cave. ‘My mother told me that my grandfather was interested in the preservation of food. This is quite amazing. Look how he created channels so that the melted ice might drain away, thus keeping the chamber dry. Moisture is the enemy of stored food. Dry cold. Dry heat. These are necessary.’
Clark was looking around the chamber in the icehouse. ‘Look!’ he said. ‘You have kegs of ale. That should make you happy.’
‘And wine,’ the prince noted. ‘That makes me even happier. But there are stores of dry food -- fruit, vegetables and fish. Enough for a long siege. But I wonder how long they have been here, and how good they are to eat.’
‘They seem dry,’ Clark replied. ‘I see no signs of mould growing on this fish,’ he went on, lifting the lid on a barrel of dried fish.’
‘I have no idea of how to cook dried fish, do you?’
‘My mother spends some time pounding it with a mallet before boiling it,’ said Clark.
‘And how does it taste after this treatment?’
‘Terrible,’ Clark admitted. ‘But it is food, and if one were starving….’
‘If I were starving,’ the prince avowed. ‘I would hunt down my Steward, and kill and eat him, before I would devour dried fish. What is in this further chamber? Aha! ‘Tis cold in here, methinks. Vicious cold. Here they stored some food which is frozen as if ‘twere January. There are blocks of ice that still are solid, as if they broke off from an iceberg, and floated here. And what is this? More dried fish? Not likely.’ The prince lifted the lid from a long, dark container, about the size and shape of a coffin. ‘Is this how they bury people, here in Scotland?’
‘Not that I have ever heard,’ Clark replied. ‘But the Scots are strange, I grant you that.’
‘Very strange indeed,’ the prince answered. ‘For, look you! They have buried a woman in a coffin filled with ice. Who does that? I have heard of people who leave their dead on a bier for the birds of the air to eat, and then crush the bones to powder. But this? Look, she is preserved as though in life. Yet is she old, too old to be a Sleeping Beauty, as in the fairy tales.’
The woman was indeed old, yet was she still beautiful. Her long hair was white as snow, and so was her skin. She was dressed in a long black gown. Around her neck was a chain of pearls. Clark bent over the sad, frozen figure, and then straightened suddenly. ‘My Lord!’ he exclaimed. ‘This woman is not dead.’
The prince took charge on the instant, calling to Mark and John, ordering them to begin heating water in the great cauldron. Clark stood back, letting Alexander order the entire enterprise. It was his home, his icehouse, his frozen woman, after all. In all likelihood, the frozen woman was an ancestor of his, and thus the prince’s responsibility. It was only some time later that Clark realized that the prince had immediately taken his word for it that the woman was still alive.
‘We must warm her, slowly,’ Alexander was saying. ‘In my land, it sometimes happens that people fall into the snow death. They get colder and colder, fall asleep, and never awake again. But sometimes it is possible to wake them, if it is done carefully. Slowly. First we should move her out of this chamber, since it is the coldest one. The outer chamber is a bit warmer. She should begin to thaw out, and then we might move her outside, and thus into the castle.’
Clark nodded. ‘I agree, my Lord,’ he said.
‘And you, as well, Sir Clark,’ said the prince. ‘You should begin to thaw out, by first calling me by my name. I mislike this use of titles between us. We have kissed, and you have seen me naked. Whence came all this formality?’
Mark and john had found a table, and carried it in to the outer chamber of the icehouse. Alexander and Clark lay the frozen woman upon it and covered her with a blanket. ‘We will wait a little time, and see if she begins to warm,’ said the prince. ‘But, please to answer my question about the ice between us.’
‘Truly it is not ice, nor is it of my choosing,’ said Clark. ‘My Queen commanded me to serve and protect you. I did not wish to give the appearance of taking advantage by assuming an intimacy between us, as if I were your equal. In the eyes of the world, I am far beneath you in status.’
‘You are my equal,’ said the prince. ‘I have named you my equal, for I have seen you as my equal. What the world sees, and thus thinks of your status is no concern of mine. It should be no concern of yours, either.’
‘As you wish, my Lord,’ said Sir Clark. But he smiled. The prince caught the smile, and smiled back.
‘Ah!’ he said. ‘You are thinking that it is easy enough for me to say. And you are right. It is easy enough for me to sweep conventions aside, and name you my equal. For you to do so, is a more tricky enterprise.’
‘I care little for status or conventions, either, my Lord,’ Clark replied. ‘But I have learned over time that if I do not pay lip service to such conventions, I will be looked upon as a rebel, and a possible evil doer. I will be watched and suspected….’
‘Yes, yes. Let us pay lip service to convention, by all means.’ The prince leaned forward, and pressed his lips against Clark’s. It was a gentle kiss, at first, but soon turned less gentle. Soon he was touching his tongue to Clark’s and exploring the inner chamber of Clark’s mouth with abandon. At first Clark co-operated with the kiss, but after a moment he pulled back, reluctantly, and reminded the prince where they were.
‘We are still in the icehouse,’ he said. ‘We have company.’
‘I’m not cold,’ said the prince, pressing kisses upon Clark’s throat and running his hands through Clark’s hair. ‘Our company is frozen solid and unaware of our activity.’
‘If we keep this up, soon the entire icehouse will be melting. Our company will be awaking.’ But Clark found himself co-operating by kisses of his own.
‘That is the idea,’ said the prince. ‘But, I acquiesce. When first we enjoy the pleasures of love, we should be in a more suitable environment, with a bed or a couch to lie upon.’
‘Yes,’ said Clark. ‘Or in a meadow, with long grass, and a stream flowing by.’
‘And biting insects and curious crows flying over head. And wild boar rooting in the undergrowth. And… and other forms of wildlife.’
‘You have some forms of wildlife in your castle, still, my Lord,’ Clark pointed out. ‘I heard some of them rustling about over head last night…. Buy wait,’ he bent over the frozen woman, and checked her heartbeat. ‘She is growing warmer,’ he announced. ‘Should we move her inside, do you think?’
Alexander bent and pressed his own ear upon the woman’s chest. ‘Her heart is beating!’ he said. ‘Slow, but steady. I think we could risk moving her indoors. We must be very careful.’ He lifted the woman into his arms, and carried her himself. Clark carried the table into the Great Hall, the prince following him. ‘Put the table some distance from the fire,’ said Alexander. Clark did so, and the prince put his burden down upon it once more. ‘And now let us find something we can use as a bath. We will put her in cool water first, then add warm water over time, until….’
The woman moved. Her hand came up, and grasped Prince Alexander’s arm. ‘I don’t think that will be necessary,’ she said. ‘I bathed before I went to bed. I am sure I am still quite clean.’
They helped her to sit up, the once-frozen, now thawed-out woman. They piled blankets on her, and got her a drink of water. She drank the water, making a face and saying she wished it were ale, but that they were probably right and she should be careful at first.
‘Do you know your name?’ the prince asked.
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘Do you know yours?’ She lifted her head, and seemed to stare up at him through her sightless eyes.
‘I am Prince Alexander, a Luthor, and a Dragon Lord.’
‘A respectable enough lineage on your father’s side, but what know you of your mother’s side?’
‘She was Lillian MacLeod, and this was her home, which she has left to me. I suppose you are related to me, in some fashion.’
‘Indeed,’ said the woman. ‘I am Cassandra MacLeod, and….’
‘My Great Aunt!’
‘Indeed. Do not interrupt me, youngling.’
‘I crave your pardon,’ said the prince. ‘I was surprised, not expecting to find a relation of mine frozen like a haunch of beef in an icehouse.’
‘Ha! You have the tart tongue of a true MacLeod, even if you are one of these high-flying Dragon Lords. Tell me, Laddie, what do you here? Is it that you wish to conquer this land, and rule with an iron fist?’
‘No. Why should I thus? I need not to conquer, for these are my lands by right.’
‘Through your mother’s line only.’
‘Ah, yes. Mother’s line. I know that some might question my inheritance because of that. My answer is this: if you question my right to rule, then you must agree that Prince James will have no right to rule England some day. Or indeed, Scotland, for that matter, for he inherits both realms through a woman.’
‘Good answer,’ said Cassandra. ‘So, you intend to establish yourself here as unquestionable ruler? What is your retinue? This Clark Kent only?’
‘No. I have my two squires with me. And our dragons, of course.’
‘Not enough,’ said Cassandra. ‘Not nearly enough. If you wish to establish a residence, you need a few women, otherwise, you have the appearance of a barracks, and people will assume you are preparing for war.’
‘Yes, women. You are familiar with the species?’
‘Of course, but why….’
‘You are not listening. Because women make you a household. Otherwise, you are a barracks.’
‘Well, you are a woman, are you not?’
‘Last time I looked, I was. But I am old, and blind. I see into the Otherworld, not this world. I warn, when people do not wish to hear warnings. I will frighten your neighbours, more than reassure them. No, Laddie. You need a wife, or….’
‘I do not wish to marry,’ said the prince. ‘Not yet, at least.’
‘…Or a mistress. Someone who is not an obvious whore. A housekeeper. Some maid servants. Signs that you are setting up a genuine household. Otherwise….’
Cassandra MacLeod appeared to gaze off into that Otherworld she mentioned. ‘Your neighbours. They have noticed you. You have alarmed them, and they are preparing for possible war.’
‘War?’ Prince Alexander lifted his head, and seemed to gaze off into an Otherworld of his own. ‘I do not wish for war,’ he said. ‘But if it comes, I will be prepared to fight.’
‘We have the dragons,’ Sir Clark pointed out. ‘But there are only three of them, and four of us. Could we fight off an army?’
‘The dragons… The dragons do not like to fight, whatever anyone thinks,’ said the prince. ‘I would spare them that, if I could. Perhaps we should try to establish a respectable household as Cassandra suggests.’
‘I have a sister,’ said Clark. ‘She is old enough, perhaps, to give the appearance of a housekeeper. But she is only the one. Where shall we find more, on such short notice?’
‘I have an idea, about that,’ said the prince. ‘But let us ask your sister her opinion, first.’
Clark pointed out to Cassandra that all Templar knights learnt a little basic cooking, so he would venture to make her some broth. He promised to drink it himself before serving it to her. Finally, she agreed to trust him.
He found dried meat and vegetables in the icehouse, and tasted them. His body analyzed the ingredients quickly and told him they were safe. He drew fresh water from the well, and heated it, then added in the meat and vegetables, which he had sliced very fine. Soon, the scent of cooking broth permeated the castle hall.
When Cassandra was sitting wrapped in a pile of blankets and sipping at the broth, Prince Alexander began to ask a few pertinent questions.
‘It was after your noble mother left, when she married with the Dragon Lord,’ Cassandra answered. ‘Then there began the rumours. Rumours that she had used dark magics to lure a husband -- as though she needed such arts, lovely Lady as she was. But the MacLeods have always had dealings with the Otherworld.’
‘The Fairy Flag,’ said the prince.
‘Yes. She told you of that, of course. The Fairy Flag and the Elven Folk, who will fight for us at need. But some began to say that she had gone too far.’
‘The Langfords,’ said Cassandra. ‘And ain’t that a joke, because they’re dark witches if ever there were such things. But they used Lillian’s marriage against her and us. Gradually they wore us down. Your Grandfather died, leaving your mother as his heir, since he had no son, and the land was not entailed. If your mother had shown up to stake her claim… well, who knows what might have happened? But she did not so.’
‘She was ill,’ said Alexander. ‘Already dying.’
‘Aye, but her absence worked against her. I was here, holding the lands in her name. They called me witch, sorceress, evil. I cared not, but I began to fear I might die, and there would be no one as a witness to what happened. And so I laid myself under a spell. I laid myself down in that coffin, in the icehouse, and went to sleep.’
‘Madness,’ said Alexander.
‘Madness runs in the family,’ said Cassandra. ‘But here am I, still alive, if a little weak. Who knows what may have happened had things gone on as they were headed. No one knew what became of me, simply that I disappeared. There were rumours, I am sure.’ Cassandra stared off into space and time with her sightless eyes. ‘I was aware of some things that happened around me, so I knew of your coming, and began to call to you. But I know too that they tried, did the Langfords, to invade this castle, without success.’
‘Of course without success,’ said the prince.
‘Because of the dragon blood!’
‘Dragon blood?’ asked Sir Clark.
‘Oh! Have I spoken when I should not?’ asked Cassandra. ‘Have I revealed a secret that should not be revealed?’
‘No, indeed,’ said the prince. ‘It is no matter, since Sir Clark is of the Templars, and sworn to my service by the Queen herself. He would not dare to betray me, lest he break all his sacred vows.’
‘I would not betray you,’ said Sir Clark. ‘Vows or no vows.’
‘That is well. But what Cassandra means is….’
‘There was a dragon here, long ago. She lived here and died here, and her blood poured out upon the castle walls, and upon the fields here about, and guards it still. That was why your father came here to choose a wife. He hoped that her exposure to the dragon blood would make her strong enough to bear him an heir, and so it did.’
‘Yes,’ said the prince. ‘She was like a brood mare, in my father‘s estimation.’
‘So have women been treated for many thousand, thousand years,’ was Cassandra’s comment.
‘I need not agree with such a sentiment, even so,’ the prince responded. ‘If ever I marry, it will be for love, not for power or riches. Those I may garner for myself.’
‘Noble sentiments, indeed,’ Cassandra commented. ‘And what if you love where you may not marry?’
‘Because of laws, and rules? Laws made by humans? They are for humans, and not for dragon kind.’
‘So you are of true dragon kind, and no longer human? Your mother was human.’
‘Aye, she was that, and she was treated like a brood mare. No, I am of dragon kind, and I will fight to the death in support of my claim.’
‘Let us hope it comes not to that eventuality,’ said Cassandra MacLeod.
The prince strode up and down the hall for a while, then came back to the fire. He sat at Cassandra’s feet, and addressed her quite solemnly.
‘When first I came here,’ he said. ‘It was in my mind simply to claim my mother’s lands because they now belong to me. It was a matter of ownership, of not wanting to give up something that was mine. I’d heard little of Scotland and the Scots. Mother told me a few stories when I was a boy, before my brother died and she sickened. She told me legends of the MacLeods and the Fairy Folk. I heard other things of Scotland out in the wide world, when on my travels. The Scots were great warriors, I heard, but a bit stupid beside. Nevertheless, I honoured my mother’s heritage, and wished to take my share of it. But it did not enter my mind to do more than this. I thought to put a Steward in place here, and to visit once in a while, and meantime, to find a more civilized country in which to live my life. But now?
‘Now! They dare! They dare, these Langford’s, to dishonour my noble mother’s memory. To accuse her of evil witchcraft. To force my relatives to fake their deaths to escape their machinations. They dare to attempt to storm my castle, to steal my lands. They think these lands belong to them? I will teach them otherwise.
‘Mark. John. Go a-hunting, if you please. Hunt for deer or such, not boar as yet. Wait until we have hunting dogs before you go after such dangerous game. Wear my colours. Tell all you meet that these lands belong to Prince Alexander, Dragon Lord, and of the noble lineage of MacLeod. Warn them off my lands, if they be a-hunting, for that is now poaching, unless they ask permission of me, in person. Such leave will I grant all who recognize my claim. Any others will I hang. Go!
‘Sir Clark. You and I will work a little more to make this castle welcoming. Then will we venture to ask your sister if she will join us here as housekeeper for a time. I will not have her forced to agree, however.’
Clark laughed. ‘No one forces my sister to do anything she does not want to do,’ he replied.
‘She sounds like a woman after my own heart,’ said the prince.
‘Mine also,’ said Cassandra. ‘If she be strong-minded, so will I admire her, though we may argue at times. But, if it be in your mind to add to the comfort of these halls, I can tell you that before I entered my coffin, I hid things away in the great storerooms on the upper stories. Hangings, rugs, curtains and so on. They should still be in useable condition, if the rats have not chewed through the doors. But I think that they have done not so.’
As Cassandra predicted, so it proved. There were indeed hangings for the walls, rugs for the floors, and curtains for the windows, untouched by tooth of rat or mouse. A certain mustiness hung about them, but a few days in the fresh air should fix that. Clark and Lex spread it all out upon the grass by the entrance to the castle, as Cassandra directed, saying that the sunlight and the grass would add a wondrous fragrance to the material.
It was now late afternoon. The squires returned with a freshly killed deer for dinner, and soon the castle smelt of roasting venison. Sir Clark broached a keg of ale, and all was well for some time, as they ate and drank.
Then Clark asked the question that had been nagging at his mind. ‘I thought dragons were immortal, or nearly so,’ he said. ‘How came the dragon of this castle to die?’
‘She killed herself,’ said the prince. ‘She killed herself to give immortality to the castle and the lands. The castle was under siege and everyone was starving. She had helped to fight off the invaders, but was injured in her final fight. She knew she was weakened, and would not survive another battle, and so she stood upon the battlements, and tore open her own breast, and let the blood flow over the castle walls and out, out upon the lands, in a great stream. I felt the presence of that blood as we came near upon it. It called to me, and I answered, and then Magnhildr told me the story -- which my mother had never ventured to tell. Mayhap she thought it too dark a story for a child to hear.’
‘It is a dark story indeed,’ said Clark. ‘But her sacrifice was beautiful, and one that any Templar knight would admire. This Templar admires it, at the least.’
‘I am happy you approve,’ said the prince. ‘But let us think of happier things. Tomorrow, let us visit your family, and ask your sister to join us. And then, as I say, I have another thought. It is in my mind to liberate your friend, Alicia Grey, from her prison and sentence of death. What think you?’
On the surface, the prince seemed calm of mind after their discussion and laying of plans. Under it all, though, Clark sensed a certain tension. He looked at the prince’s face -- serene, with a marmoreal calm --- and thought that if he touched it, that face would shatter.
Clark thought of getting Alexander alone, and continuing their tender lovemaking, but his actions might have unplanned consequences. Heretofore, they had shared only kisses and a few caresses. If they’d already become intimate lovers, with an understanding of each other’s bodies and desires, they could have shared a quick roll in the hay, and the prince would achieve an easy release of his tensions. But, a first coupling came bound with so many pitfalls and so many chances for misunderstandings, thought Clark. Even if one had been intimate with many people before, each new lover was unexplored territory. The next day held many dangers, when they began their mission to rescue Alicia Grey. It were best not to shatter that calm, even if it were mostly assumed. Even an assumed calm was better than nothing.
No, it were best to stay apart this night. But Clark determined to consummate their relationship before the next night was over, lest the world continue its plans to interfere with their lives and loves.
The sun rose. Clark found the prince, looking as if he had not slept at all, but still calm. He was standing in the window of one of the castle towers, gazing out to sea. Clark stood close and supportive, but did not touch him.
‘What are you looking at?’ he asked.
‘I have been watching the waves,’ the prince replied. ‘They keep rolling in, on and on, as they have done for many, many years. Thousands of years, perhaps. They keep pounding at the shore, as if to reduce it to rubble. How much chance have they to succeed?’
‘Do you believe the waves to have intelligence? Do you believe they make plans to reduce the cliffs to rubble?’
‘Mayhap not. Not the individual waves on their own. But the world -- mayhap the world has plans, even if they be not plans we understand or approve of. Otherwise, the world is mindless and thoughtless and mechanical. I would rather it had intelligence and plans that I might study and attempt to understand.’
Clark wondered if Lex had been awake all night, contemplating and attempting to understand the motives of the world as an entity. If so, he wondered if perchance it would have been better to have that roll in the hay after all. Now it was too late.
‘But, as I stood here watching the sun rise, I noted something interesting. Something I wish to explore later, when we have survived the coming night, and have leisure to make more dangerous plans.’
‘And what is that?’ asked Clark.
‘See, below us. Watch the line of the coast, the way the waves roll in. The harbour was once much larger than it is now. It could be larger once again, do you agree?’
Clark looked down, using his special vision, and was surprised to note that the prince was right. Though he should not have been so surprised, he thought. He was not the only being in this world who could see deeper than the surface.
‘I do, indeed, agree,’ Clark replied. ‘I think the harbour has filled with silt, which could be dredged up.’
‘And if this were done, we might invite trading ships to come here. Trading ships which would bring goods from other countries and take away goods we offer for sale. What does this area produce?’
‘Wool, I am sure,’ said Clark.
‘Wool is a useful commodity.’
‘Again, useful. That is a beginning, but we need to work on it. We need more trading goods.’
‘Let us first set up your household,’ said Clark. ‘Then dredge the harbour. Then produce more trading goods.’
‘You are right,’ said the prince. ‘It is my habit to try to work on everything at once. But I need plans, always. I must always have something to work on, lest I feel useless.’
The prince looked suddenly bereft, as though he had confessed some evil deed he should have kept to himself. Clark smiled at him, with reassurance. ‘That is a laudable aim,’ he said. ‘But let us pay our visit to my family, and ask my sister if she will help us in our plans.’
The prince nodded, looking calm once more, and they descended the tower stairs, out to the courtyard, to mount the great white dragon.
Clark’s family were all accustomed to his powers from birth. Thus, he had never seen looks of awe directed upon him, such as they bestowed upon Prince Alexander’s dragon. Clark and the prince slid off the dragon’s back, and Clark introduced his friend. His family all bowed or curtsied, but kept their eyes upon Magnhildr, who took such worship as her due.
They all went indoors, to Martha’s lovely parlour. A maidservant brought ale and cakes. Clark told his family something of his doings since his last official visit. Prince Alexander told them stories of his own life, carefully edited for public consumption.
Then Clark introduced the reason for their visit. ‘So, you see, we need a housekeeper to make the place look respectable,’ he said.
Martha did not appear to be as enthusiastic as Clark had hoped. ‘But my dear brother, I should love to help you, but I do not see…it is so far, and this time of year is a dangerous time to leave the farm… and your plans sound so dangerous, as well. To come up against witchcraft….’
Then the younger Martha spoke up. ‘Mother. Father. Uncle Clark. I will go. I would love to go.’
‘But, my dear, you are needed here.’
‘No, no I’m not, and listen Mother. I know my duty. I know what I am destined for, and I don’t have any intentions of fighting against it. I will accept my destiny some day. But I want to see something of the world, first.’
‘It is just a tiny village in Scotland,’ Clark pointed out.
‘Oh, Uncle Clark! A castle in Scotland. Dragons! I will ride on a dragon. I will help a prince to set up his home, and it sounds like he needs help. It will all be new, and important. I love this farm, I love you, Mother and Father. But I want to try something new.’
‘I don’t know, Daughter,’ said Jonathan Kent. ‘I don’t know if I trust the Dragon Lords. With all respect, Prince Alexander, you come here with your money and your fancy dragons, and want to lure my child away.’
‘No, indeed, Sir,’ the prince protested. ‘Sir Clark had hoped his sister might be able to help, and I am quite willing to pay for any help you are willing to give.’
‘We do not need your money, Your Highness! And this mission you have taken upon yourself, to rescue a murderess from prison -- it angers and worries me.’
‘Jonathan!’ said Martha. ‘There is no need to be rude. The prince has been honest about his plans, and quite polite and respectful.’
‘Polite and respectful he might be, and yet he means to introduce a murderess to our daughter.’
‘Father, please listen to my suggestion. I am sure Uncle Clark can protect me. I am a woman now, nearly sixteen, not a child. You married Mother when she was but fifteen. And I believe Uncle Clark when he says the woman was abused by her husband.’
‘Did that give her the right to kill him?’ asked Jonathan.
‘The right? No, sir,’ said the younger Martha. ‘But perchance she had no choice. Would you beat Mother?’
‘Never!’ said Jonathan, who was beginning to look uncertain. ‘Perhaps she was pushed too far, but still….’
The prince looked worried as the argument raged on. After a time, Clark drew him out into the hallway, and thence to the garden. ‘Let them talk,’ he said. ‘My sister and my niece will wear him down.’
‘Truly I did not mean to insult your family by my offer of payment,’ the prince said. ‘Merely, I did not wish them to suffer any loss by giving me their time.’
‘Of course,’ said Clark. ‘And when my brother-in-law is over his surprise, he will realize the truth of that. I wager my niece will soon be packing up her things. When she gets an idea in her head, it is hard to remove that idea. I don’t know why I didn’t think of her at first. My sister is a wonderful woman, and a talented housekeeper, but she is somewhat lacking in adventure and curiosity.’
‘Your niece is a bit young….’
‘Do not tell her that, I beg you,’ said Clark. ‘Since she turned fifteen, she insists that she is a grown woman, and expects to be treated as such. Ah! Here she comes. And she looks triumphant. What did I tell you?’
Clark found Martha and Jonathan still in the parlour. Jonathan had his arms around Martha, and her eyes were full of tears. ‘I am so sorry,’ said Clark. ‘I never meant to cause you any pain. This family is all the world to me, and has been so for many, many years.’
Martha wiped her eyes, and smiled. ‘It is hard to see your children grow up and fly away,’ she said. ‘I have heard other mothers say this, all my life, but never expected to say so myself. Mayhap this is all for the best.’
‘I will take care of her, never fear,’ said Clark.
‘I don’t fear,’ said Martha. ‘I believe in you.’
‘Yes,’ said Clark. He wondered, at times, if his arrangement with the Kents had been all for the best, on their side. Surely he protected them, and cared for them, but he also expected much of them. He wondered what the lives of other people were like. Did others have the same sense of safety, but also of obligation, in regards to one person, for generation after generation? He did not feel he could voice his concerns to the Kents on this matter. And indeed, he most likely was worrying without cause. There were people who had such arrangements with royal families, with whom they shared the ups and downs of Fate. He did not feel he could voice his concerns with the Kents, however, for that might make them feel that he regretted their relationship for reasons of his own.
Perhaps it was all for the best that young Martha was going to leave the Kent lands and have adventures in the greater world. One could not say that the earlier generations of Kents had led sheltered lives, precisely, for pain and suffering and death had still come upon them. But still, Clark had always been there with advice and timely rescue, and they had never truly had to test themselves, on their own, against adversity.
‘Martha is intelligent and strong. She’s young, yes, but she has great spirit. She will do well, and come home to you, a true woman.’
Young Martha was in the kitchen, organizing the packing of supplies. ‘I don’t trust everything in that icehouse,’ she pointed out. ‘And besides, how are we to make bread without a starter?’
‘I know not,’ said Clark. ‘I have never made bread.’
Martha opened a clay pot. It was filled with something pale and lumpy and smelly. ‘This is the mother dough,’ she said. ‘I am taking half, and adding more flour and water to the original.’ She broke off half the lump of dough, and kneaded flour and water into the mixture in the clay pot. Then she put her own dough into its own pot, and did the same. ‘Now I have my own mother dough,’ she said. ‘When we get to the castle, I will start making bread, and we’ll have our own fresh bread in a few days. Until then, we have this.’ She pointed to a pile of bread, wrapped in a white cloth.
‘Do we need all this?’ asked Clark.
‘Let me see,’ said Martha, counting off on her fingers. ‘There is the prince. You, my dear Uncle. The prince’s two squires. Lady Cassandra. The two servants I am taking with me -- oh, yes! Do you suppose I intended to do all the work myself? -- and when we rescue Alicia Grey, that will make nine people to feed, including myself.’
Clark allowed that they probably needed all that bread, after all.
‘I am taking two rounds of cheese, and some pots of herbs to start my own garden. You say you have kegs of ale and frozen meats and such in the icehouse. Good enough…but, we need honey. Mary, fill a goodly-sized pot with honey, if you please.’
Clark made his escape, thinking to himself that this truly was for the best, by giving his young niece scope for her talents in organization. Perhaps they should have brought more dragons to carry all the weight, he thought.
They were, however, able to fit all of Martha’s supplies on the back of the white dragon. Indeed, the dragon seemed amused by the entire process, and kept making comments and suggestions to the prince in dragon language.
‘Dragons do not carry such loads as a matter of course,’ the prince informed him. ‘They are not beasts of burden, after all. But they are quite capable of carrying entire households on their backs.’
‘I am relieved to hear it,’ said Clark. ‘My niece seems to be organizing an entire household to take with her.’
The prince smiled. ‘Your niece is a woman of substance and virtue,’ he said.
Martha came out the door into the courtyard at that moment, servants trailing after her, carrying travelling bags filled with clothes. Jonathan and the elder Martha stood in the doorway, looking more than a bit shocked still. Jonathan also looked disapproving once more. ‘I still do not think you should wear those breeches, Daughter. Not off the safety of our lands.’
‘But I am going to be riding on a dragon, Father,’ she replied. ‘These breeches are much safer and more appropriate than long skirts would be.’ She turned to the prince and to Clark. ‘I hope I have not packed too much,’ she said, with little real apology in her voice. She looked up at the white dragon, who looked back down at her, with greatly amused eyes.
‘Magnhildr says that she will manage to carry everything, if she flies very slowly,’ Prince Alexander replied, in a solemn voice. ‘She hopes you have everything you need, and will not have to turn back to pick up something you have forgotten.’
‘No, indeed,’ said Martha. ‘This will do until we are able to go shopping in the nearest market, or order supplies from London. You did say there is a harbour, where ships might drop anchor. And we need horses and dogs, and….’
Prince Alexander managed to get all the packed bags loaded on the dragon. Martha and her servants climbed aboard, the two servants with less alacrity than Martha displayed. Clark and the prince joined them, they waved their final farewells and were off.
All of Young Martha’s life had been spent in the Kent household, except for a few visits abroad, and to London Town, and a short stint as companion to an aged aunt. It was understandable that she would wish to break free like this, thought Clark. She had never seemed unhappy in her life, but still it was likely that she had harboured hopes and dreams that went beyond her destiny as the future lady of the Kent manor.
Sir Clark had taken her flying before -- from infancy, to be truthful -- so she was not in the least afraid of heights. Now she gazed down at the scenery passing beneath them with avidity, when she wasn’t gazing ahead with a wild hope.
‘Have we crossed the border into Scotland yet?’ she called out to whomsoever might know the answer.
‘Not yet,’ Clark called back. ‘But soon.’
Then were they flying over the short stretch of sea that separated the mainland from the Isle of Skye. Martha let out a rather unladylike whoop as they sighted the shores of that island, then quickly looked around to be sure no one had heard.
They flew up the coast of Skye, past a few scattered villages, on toward the castle. ‘Tis a rather bleak land, is it not,’ said Clark, hoping Martha had harboured no dreams of wealth and luxury as part of her future life -- but no. She had always been a practical person, and one who wished to use her talents to the fullest. ‘There!’ he added. ‘Look below. That is the village of Langford, which should be part of Prince Alexander’s domain.’
‘It is a rather poor and dispirited place,’ said the prince. ‘One can see that, even from our position. It is my hope to remedy that, as soon as I get settled here.’
And then they were swooping in low, letting the populace of Langford village seem them clearly. It was a challenge, thought Clark, but a challenge wrapped in domesticity. A dragon, carrying women and luggage and food, not men at arms, and weapons. It was a challenge, and an announcement, but not a threat -- or Clark hoped the villagers would see it thus. He heard gasps and cries of awe from below, but no real fear, so he held onto his hopes.
Martha herself was silent as the castle came into view. She stared, her eyes wide, as she climbed down from the dragon’s back. Clark feared she might be disappointed, but when she finally commented, it was to say, ‘It looks just like my dreams.’
‘Dreams?’ asked Clark. Most people had dreams, of course, but Martha had always seemed so eminently practical, and not the one to dream about castles in Scotland. Besides, this one was not the most romantic of castles.
‘Dreams,’ Martha repeated. ‘I have had dreams of this place for many years. A place of blood. Blood of violence, but also of renewal.’
‘Ah, you speak of nightmares,’ Prince Alexander pointed out. ‘I have dreamt of blood falling from the heavens, onto fields of yellow flowers. I hope never to see such a thing in my waking life.’
‘The both of you make me shudder,’ said Clark.
‘And you a Knight of the Templars,’ said the prince. ‘You must have seen enough blood in your waking life to inure you to the sight. And the smell, as well.’
‘Indeed, and yet I do not enjoy either experience. But let us within, and tell me, Mistress Kent, what think you of our housework?’
Martha stepped indoors, and looked around considering her answer. At last she said, ‘It is well enough,’ which seemed high praise, though the words, ‘For men!’ hovered unspoken in the air above her head.
Cassandra was standing by the fireplace, leaning upon a cane. When Martha caught sight of her, she immediately curtsied. “Lady Cassandra,’ she said. ‘I give you greeting. I am Martha Kent.’
‘Sir Clark’s sister… But no! Not his sister,’ Cassandra replied.
‘I am his niece,’ said Martha. ‘Mother was unable to come, but I was willing. I hope you will be pleased with my work.’
‘I heard you come inside,’ said Cassandra. ‘But I heard no swish of skirts. Are you wearing breeches, girl?’
‘Only to ride,’ said Martha. ‘I thought that would be safer.’
‘Sensible girl. We should get on well. Tell me, what think you of this plan to rescue Alicia Grey this even?’
‘This even? So soon? I know little of the plan, though I approve it in principle. But… this even.’
‘Even so,’ Prince Alexander commented. ‘She is condemned to death very shortly, and I think it not safe to wait for another night, since she has so few of them left to her.’
‘And how exactly do you intend to rescue her?’ Cassandra asked. ‘You were vague about the details.’
‘And will remain so,’ said the prince. ‘I have my methods, which I wish to keep secret.’
Martha turned to the prince and curtsied. ‘If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion, my lord,’ she said. ‘I would suggest that you ask my uncle along as a companion, for he is brave and resourceful and would be a great help to you in adversity.’
‘I will consider your suggestion,’ said the prince. ‘If I might trust you to keep my secrets, Sir Clark?’
‘Until death,’ said the knight.
It was nearly dinner time, and Clark went to find the prince to warn him. He found Alexander in his favourite tower, overlooking the harbour. He seemed to be studying the motions of the waves as if he’d never seen them before. But he noticed Clark’s arrival right away. ‘How is your niece progressing in her mission?’ he asked.
‘Cooking dinner. Setting up a dinner table with raw lumber she found somewhere. Washing linens. Starting fresh bread -- which won’t be ready to eat until next month some time, as I understand it. Putting beds together with sheepskins and mattress ticking. This is just the beginning, I am informed.’
‘I am happy she’s not working too hard.’
‘Yes, Sir Knight?’
‘There is no need to reveal your secrets to me, if you would rather not. Take your squires with you this even, as we planned earlier. That might be the better choice.’
The prince seemed to consider this seriously for a moment. Then he said, ‘If we are to be friends, it isn’t fair to keep secrets from you that might affect your life. We are in this together, are we not? Your reputation, safety, and possibly your life, might depend on me and my behaviour. The same with that of your niece. My secrets… they are dangerous, for few know everything about the powers of the Dragon Lords. Few fear us now, for we have kept our secrets well hidden for many years. But once upon a time… have you heard the legends, that now are thought to be tales to frighten children?’
‘I have,’ said Clark.
The prince looked him full in the face, his grey eyes stormy. ‘The legends are not mere tales,’ he affirmed. ‘They are true, though not the whole truth. If you were to see me revealed, in my true form, you might think me a monster.’
Sir Clark smiled. ‘And are you a monster?’ he asked. ‘You seem a tame one, if so.’
‘Do not mock me.’
‘I do not mock,’ said Sir Clark. ‘Perchance you would seem a monster to ordinary mortals, but I am not one of those. I do not fear monsters, for I have fought them often, and won the contest.’
‘Have you? Have you indeed? I will take your word for that, but do not call me tame.’
‘Your pardon, I meant no insult. I thought you did not wish to be seen as a monster.’
‘And I do not,’ said the prince. ‘But no man wishes to be seen as tame, like some lady’s lap dog.’
Sir Clark smiled again. ‘Some might,’ he said. ‘Indeed have I known a few who were that very thing. But I an not one of those, either.’
‘And what are you, Sir Clark? This man who is no mere mortal, though I avow he is no Dragon Lord either? What are you, this man who fights monsters, and accuses a Dragon Lord of being tame? No, no. Cease arguing with me, and account for yourself.’
‘You wish to know my secrets, without revealing your own?’
‘No,’ said the prince. ‘I will reveal my secrets to you, tonight, before we rescue Alicia Gray. That I swear to you, and I do not break my word. You need not reveal all your secrets to me, now or later, but I beg you to explain your strange statements, for they trouble me.’
‘I am no Dragon Lord,’ said Clark. ‘But I am not mortal either, and I fear not the Dragon Lords, for I have no need to fear. See?’ The knight bent down, and picked up a piece of broken masonry. He squeezed it in his hand for a moment, and then poured out a handful of sand upon the floor.
The prince bent down in his turn, and touched the sand. ‘It is hot,’ he said. He took a step back, looking at Clark with eyes as hot as coals. ‘You. You have such strength in your hands?’
‘I do,’ said Clark. ‘But I have more than strength. I can do much more.’
‘No! Tell me not. It is too much. Too much for tonight, I mean. Turn not away. Look at me.’
‘I did not wish to frighten you,’ said Clark.
‘Frighten? I am not afraid. I want to know everything about you, but there is no time.’ The prince seized Clark by the folds of his doublet, and pulled him close. ‘No real time for this either,’ he continued, and pressed his lips against Clark’s ‘I want to know everything there is to know. Why did you not come to my bed last night?’
‘I wanted to,’ said Clark. ‘But you did not ask.’
‘I cannot ask,’ said the prince. ‘For my station is too far above yours. Don’t misunderstand me. I am not speaking about our relative values as human beings, but about the superficial and artificial concepts of human status. I cannot ask, for it might look as if I commanded.’
‘You think too much,’ said Clark, pulling him close for another kiss. ‘I want to come to your bed. Shall I do so tonight?’
‘Let me think on that,’ said the prince. He pushed Clark down on the window ledge, and straddled his lap. He kissed him again, thrusting his tongue into Clark’s mouth, once, twice, three times, watching Clark’s face. Then he drew Clark’s tongue into his own mouth and sucked it, gently. ‘Yes?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ said Clark. ‘You may do those things, and anything else you wish.’
The prince sighed. ‘Tonight,’ he said. His face looked calm now, and not at all as if it might shatter at the least touch.
They descended the stairs to the Great Hall. Martha had covered the rough boards of their dining table with a linen cloth, and set it with dishes and a huge bowl of apples fresh picked from the orchard. She was bustling about, chivvying the maids, stirring the pot of soup.
‘Lady Martha!’ said the prince. ‘You are amazing.’
‘I have no such title, my lord,’ she replied. But she smiled and blushed a little.
‘Perhaps you have no such formal title,’ said the prince. ‘But you are indeed a lady in truth, and I praise you. Now, we need more chairs, for there are eight of us. We must all sit down to dinner as a family, for that is what we are. We all have our roles and our places, but we rise and fall together, as a family, and though I intend to sit at the head of the table, and rule this household, I will treat you all as kin, that I vow. Let us go in search of more chairs, Sir Clark.’
‘Indeed, my lord, I fear there are no more chairs,’ said Martha.
‘Then we will find some logs, and fashion rough seats from them, but you all will sit at this table before I will be seated myself.’
Clark and Alexander did find some rough logs, and set them before the table. The two squires, at a glance from the prince, elected to use these improvised seats, and leave the last two chairs for the serving maids.
Martha had cooked a wonderful venison stew, and roasted vegetables in the fire. They had that, and the bread she had brought with her. Also, she had baked an apple tart, somehow, though Clark would have thought such a thing impossible. Clearly his niece was a very talented housekeeper.
The others all agreed, Prince Alexander especially. ‘I will contribute to your dowry,’ he said. ‘I will investigate any potential husband you look upon with favour, and if he comes up to my standards -- which are very high -- I will add my approval to that of your parents and your uncle. And I will make it clear to him that he is a very fortunate man and must treat you with respect, lest he earn my undying enmity.’
Martha blushed. Clark laughed. ‘You will scare off any potential suitors, my lord,’ he said.
‘Only if they are cowards, and thus unworthy of her,’ said the prince.
‘I will have no man as a husband unless my family approve, of course,’ said Martha. ‘But I would wish to like him myself, for himself.’
‘A wise way to look at it, my child,’ said Cassandra. ‘If he is a man your family cannot like, it will cause you many problems in life. But, if you cannot bear to think of living with him for the rest of your life, that is no recipe for happiness either.’
‘What of love?’ asked the prince. ‘Is not that important, as well.’
‘Indeed, but love -- I suppose you speak of romantic love -- is not everything, for it cannot stand up to the test of time. Sometimes liking and respect are all that might keep a married couple in unity and understanding.’
‘Might not the memories of romance and pleasure help when life is difficult and times are hard?’
Cassandra smiled. ‘They might indeed,’ she said.
Dinner was over, and the maids cleared away the dishes and the remains of the meal. The prince took the squires aside and spoke to them in their language, which Clark still could not understand. The squires seemed unhappy at his words, but when Alexander drew himself up, and spoke commandingly, his eyes flashing, they backed down, bowed and left the room, following the maids. They didn’t return.
‘I wish to speak to you, Sir Clark, and to you Martha, and to you, Aunt Cassandra. I have something to tell you, and to show you, in private. What I have to reveal to you is a secret, and an important one, which you must promise to keep.’
‘Of course, my lord,’ said Clark, and the others agreed.
Alexander went up the stairs to his chosen tower room. When he came back down he had changed into his riding clothes, and was wrapped in a long black cloak. In his hands he carried a chalice of gold. ‘Wait here,’ he said. ‘Sit by the fire. I will return in a moment.’
He went outside, to where the dragons waited, and spoke to Magnhildr. In a moment, he did indeed return, carrying the gold chalice carefully. He set it down by the fire, and Clark could see it was full of a red liquid, that looked like wine.
‘This is the blood of a dragon,’ said the prince. ‘My dragon, Magnhildr. She is a queen dragon, and a mother. Her blood carries the power to create and to change and to guard. It was the blood of dragons like my Magnhildr that helped to create the Dragon Lords, and to give us our power. We only reveal that power to those of our own families, but now you are all part of my family, since we sat at one table and ate together. But now, I must swear you to that secrecy. Are any of you afraid to bear the burden I wish to lay upon you? No? Then take this cup, and drink just one sip of the blood. It will not change you, not one mere sip. You will not become Dragon Lords, or change as I do, for just one sip. But you will be indeed blood of my blood, and blood of the blood of Magnhildr. Sir Clark?’
Clark took up the golden chalice, and dared to take one sip of the blood. It tasted strange in his mouth -- salty and sweet at once -- with a depth that Clark had searched for in the greatest wines of France but had never found. It made his own blood sing. He handed the cup to Cassandra, who took her sip, and shuddered, but made not a sound. Then it was Martha’s turn, and she took the cup with her usual courage.
‘It tastes… it tastes like blood,’ she said. ‘But no…like wine. Oh! I cannot describe it, so I pass the cup to you, Prince Alexander. Are you going to drink, too?’
‘Indeed,’ said the prince. ‘But now I must warn you, for I am a Dragon Lord, and the taste of this blood will change me. I will become one with the dragon, and this is the great secret that you must swear never to reveal.’
‘I swear!’ said Martha.
‘I swear,’ said Cassandra.
‘I do swear, on my oath as a Templar, to never reveal any of your secrets, my lord,’ said Sir Clark.
‘It is enough,’ said the prince, and he took up the chalice, and downed the entire contents in one swallow.
He took a step back, and his eyes grew very dark. His hands stretched out and his fingers turned to claws. His skin turned to silvery scales, and then, as he swept back the cloak to show that he wore no doublet under it, from his shoulders there sprouted wings.
Martha got to her feet, and approached the Dragon Prince, her face alight with awe. For a moment Clark felt a twinge of jealousy, but that was silly and he knew it. He himself had never been strange and wondrous to Martha -- any of the Marthas -- for they had grown up knowing always of his powers. No, he should not feel jealousy but happiness, for he was not the only strange being in this world with powers.
Far off on the edge of consciousness there had been growing for some moments a humming, like a great hive of bees. Clark tuned up his special powers of hearing, but that did not seem to help. No, this was not a sound that struck upon his ear drums, but upon his inner mind.
Martha stood right in front of the Dragon Prince, quite unafraid. She touched his face -- and Clark could feel the silky scales under his own fingers. The scales were warm and soft and rough at the same time -- yes! Like silk they were -- living silk. The humming grew louder. He could hear… hear the prince’s voice in his mind. A deep voice, smoky and warm, humming, thrumming under his skin, under his fingers, that were Martha’s fingers. The prince’s skin was silk, his voice was silk. The humming still grew louder, and under it all was the prince’s voice….
‘It will pass,’ said the prince. ‘Not leave you entirely, but become natural to you. You hear our thoughts, our words and the images in our minds, that is all. You are one with the dragon blood now. You are one of us.’
Martha stepped back. ‘It is fading,’ she said, and her voice was deep with sorrow.
‘Do not mourn,’ said the prince, and now his voice had returned to its normal timbre, and Clark could hear it with his ears and not with his inner mind. ‘The music will never leave you, merely fade, and that is good, for you do not want to hear all our thoughts all the day and night. Do you?’
‘No,’ said Martha, and she laughed and cried a little. ‘I would not wish that. But the music was beautiful.’
‘It is there, still. It will always be there when you need it. You are one with the dragon blood, and share our music.’
Cassandra was silent, bent over as if in pain.
‘Aunt Cassandra? Are you well? Did the dragon blood hurt you? It should not have done so, for it has never done so before this.’
‘No,’ said Cassandra softly. But she looked up and her face was wet with tears. ‘This was not the first time I have tasted the dragon blood. Years ago, when first I began to lose my vision, the Healer of this castle gave me a potion. It was mixed with some of the ground up mortar from the castle walls. The mortar was mixed with dragon blood -- the blood that poured over the walls from the heart of the dragon. It was hoped the blood would cure my blindness, but like all such cures, there was a twist. I lost my earthly vision, and gained a vision of another sort. I cannot see what is around me, but I see into the future instead.’
‘Yes,’ said the prince. ‘And now I have renewed the potion, with the blood of Magnhildr. You carry the blood of two dragons, now. One dead in a great sacrifice, and one living. Your powers to see the future are growing apace.’
‘They are,’ said Cassandra. She grasped the prince’s hand. ‘Do not trust thy father,’ she said. ‘Never trust him.’
‘I do not so,’ said the prince.
‘Ah, but you long to do so,’ said Cassandra. ‘You long for his love, but that is not for you. He loves power, and only power. Once he may have been capable of other sorts of love, but no longer. He longs to make the Dragon Lords a great power in the world.’
‘That is not possible,’ said the prince. ‘We have power, but our power is dependent on our dragon’s blood, which is given as a sacrifice out of love. We cannot use it to gain worldly power. It does not work that way.’
Cassandra gazed off into the future. ‘Your father wishes to make it work that way,’ she said.
‘How can he…’ the prince began, and then he stopped and stared and his eyes grew even darker. They were slitted, Clark saw, like the eyes of reptiles. He hissed, like a snake, and his claws reached out as if to stop some great evil. ‘Ah! I know how he could. My father has often spoken of breeding dragons with special powers and characteristics. But it has always seemed impossible, for dragons are not animals that might be put up to stud. They are not like horses or cattle. They love, and they breed where they will. But if he were to find some way… but how could he find a way?’
‘Evil always finds a way,’ said Cassandra.
Martha began to question them about their plans to rescue Alicia Grey. Since their plans were, for the most part, the prince’s plans, Clark let him do the answering. The plans were, in essence, short and brutal, and Martha’s response seemed to suggest that she agreed with Clark’s assessment, but he could see no other recourse, as the prince said himself.
‘No amount of bribery would convince any turnkey to release such a condemned murderess into my custody,’ said Alexander. ‘Not at this juncture, for the populace of London is looking forward to their entertainment. Mistress Grey is no mere anonymous petty thief, but a notorious villainess in their eyes. Any turnkey who allowed her to escape would likely be burned in her place, I believe.’
‘Aye, my lord, but….’
‘But what, Mistress Kent? Think you that she is housed in a common courtyard, into which I could easily sneak in and as easily sneak her out? No, the only answer to our dilemma is the one we have found. We will break in, as I described, and carry her off, and any who see us will think us demons. They will likely be greatly afraid, and we will be able to fly off without any following.’
‘But what of Alicia Grey? What of her fear? What if she prefers not to escape with you?’
‘You think she might prefer to burn to death at the stake?’
‘She might. My lord, hear me out. If she thinks you are demons, come to carry her to Hell, she might prefer to burn in this world, and pay for her sins, and still have the chance to go to Heaven to be with God. I know that I would prefer that option.’
‘Would you indeed?’
‘I would prefer the pain of burning here in this world, for it is temporary, whereas the pain of Hell is eternal.’
Eternal, thought Sir Clark. Eternal as his life seemed to be. It was fortunate that his was not a life of pain. Sometimes there was pain, but there was much joy too. Joy and pain, loneliness, but then there was his family, the Kents. And now the possible companionship of the Dragon Prince. He let Martha and the prince argue out the whys and wherefores of their rescue plan, and sent his new mysterious senses free to wander.
Long ago had he journeyed here, as a child. He had been found by the Kents, a family of yeomen, with a good holding in the county of Kent. They had adopted him, hidden his strange ship, and kept his secrets. When he was old enough to understand, they told him the story of his arrival.
‘We prayed for a child,’ Jonathan Kent had told him. ‘We had prayed for many years. We had just been to the church to pray once more, and were riding home….’
‘And you fell from the sky, in a basket. A sort of basket,’ said Martha Kent. ‘You came to us like Moses.’
‘And that is why we did not fear,’ said Jonathan.
The Kents were rather well educated for yeomen, and not superstitious. They believed that evil demons could not harm a good soul, as long as that person had faith in God. ‘Your body may be harmed by evil,’ said Jonathan. ‘But not your soul. You must defeat evil in yourself, before you can fight it in others. Do not look outward into the world and see evil everywhere to fear. Look into your own heart, see what evil might be there, and defeat it first. Then you may go out into the world as a crusading knight, in all safety.’
As time passed, and Clark’s special powers became more and more apparent, the Kents insisted that he had been blessed by God. They knew that the rest of the world might look on the matter differently, and so they made plans to protect Clark’s future. Thus the arrangement with the Templars, and, as time went on, the plans to preserve the continuity of the Kent family.
Through it all, the voice of Father, in the crystal ball, was a constant. So many things that Father said made little sense at first. He spoke of other worlds, in the Heavens. Worlds like this earth, and yet unlike. He urged Clark to stretch his powers, to fly far above the earth, and to travel among the stars, but Clark feared such attempts. Father scorned his fear as superstition, but the fear remained. Even when philosophers began to speak of the existence of those very worlds, and Clark accepted that existence, the fear of exploring those other worlds never quite left him.
Now, emboldened by the dragon blood, Clark sent his hearing out, into the depths of the Cosmos….
‘Sir Clark… Clark!’
It was that tone of alarm in Prince Alexander’s voice that brought him back to Earth.
‘I am well,’ Clark replied. ‘Merely was I thinking.’
‘Thinking? Yes, but sometimes the dragon music can lure people into another world inside their own minds, and they do not return. Or if they return they are forever changed and cannot live among men. That is why it is well that the music fades,’ he added, with a grave look at Martha.
Clark looked into the prince’s slitted reptilian eyes. He saw, not a monster, but a man. A strange man, but a man -- a person -- like any other. He turned to Martha. ‘Niece, lend us your cross, if you please.’
‘My…my cross? Oh, of course, Uncle. Of course.’
‘Why her cross?’ asked the prince.
‘A demon would not wear a cross. Could not indeed wear one, for it would burn its flesh. And so….’
Prince Alexander put the chain around his neck, and the cross nestled on his chest without burning the pale dragon scales. ‘And so, if Mistress Grey fears that I will carry her to Hell, mayhap this cross will calm her fears?’
‘It is to be hoped, yes,’ said Sir Clark. ‘So, are we ready to fly?’
‘I am ready,’ said the prince. ‘Let us be off.’
Sir Clark wrapped his cloak around himself, and tucked a strip of black cloth to use as a mask when they reached London. He put out of his mind, for now, the curiosity that had woken within him when his questing mind had encountered another such mind, far out in the Cosmos. A mind that claimed it had been searching, searching for many years for him… and that they were kin.
They stepped out into the courtyard before the Castle, to mount Magnhildr for the ride to London. But then the great white dragon lifted her head to the skies and gave a loud bugle. The prince muttered something in his own language. Sir Clark realized he could understand it now, a little. The prince had said something about women, and…
The skies were suddenly full of dragons, of all colours and sizes, and the riders upon their backs were not Dragon Lords, but women.
‘Dragon Ladies?’ asked Clark, with a smile.
‘Do not let them hear you use such a term in reference to them,’ said the prince. ‘For they eschew the concept of the lady, as being subordinate and weak. Though many ladies I have known who were as tough as any lord you might name.’
Two of the dragons landed in the courtyard beside Magnhildr. They advanced toward her, and she raised her wings as if in self defence, but then the other dragons bowed their heads and she lowered her wings and stretched out her neck in welcome. One of the riders jumped off her dragon’s back, and nodded her head across the courtyard in Prince Alexander’s direction.
‘The dragons are her daughters,’ the prince explained to Sir Clark. ‘Diana! Welcome. To what great event do I owe the pleasure of your visit?’
‘We heard the songs of new members of Dragon Kin,’ said Diana. ‘And we have traced them here to you. You have shared dragon blood with mortals.’
‘With Magnhildr’s permission,’ said the prince. ‘It is her blood to share with whom she wills. Nor is such sharing forbidden.’
‘Not forbidden, no, yet not always is it recommended. And we have found out what you have planned for tonight. A raid upon a prison to kidnap a woman prisoner for your own use.’
‘We are about to rescue her from certain and terrible death!’ the prince objected. ‘What is there to complain about in that?’
‘Nothing much, on the surface,’ Diana allowed. ‘But what is your interest in her?’
‘I admire women who kill their tormentors. That is why I have always admired you.’ The prince turned to Clark. ‘Diana is my sister,’ he explained.
‘Half sister,’ Diana added.
‘My sister through my father. Her mother is Queen of the Amazons, and Father hoped to have a son with her, but Diana is only a woman, of course, and so not worthy to lead the Dragon Lords.’
‘I care little enough about that,’ said Diana. ‘What are your plans for this woman you hope to rescue?’
‘We will bring her here, where she will repay us by helping out in my castle for a time, but will live quite safely and unmolested, I do assure you. I will create a new identity for her, and then she may do with her life what she pleases, in all freedom.’
‘Why not give her to us, where she might live free among the Amazons?’
‘If she wishes to do so after I need her aid no longer, that is her choice, but she is mortal, and her life among the Dragon Kin would be short. Perhaps she would prefer another fate, and a longer life.’
Diana bowed her head in agreement. ‘We will offer her that choice, though,’ she added. ‘And we will help you to rescue her.’
‘Do I need your help?’
‘You may, for even the best-laid plans might fail.’
‘Then I accept your help. But let us be off, for it is full dark even now, and the flight to London will take time.’
Diana turned and leapt back up onto her dragon’s back. She called out to her escort, and flew up to meet them. Magnhildr lowered her body so that the prince and Clark might climb aboard, and they flew off toward London, the escort of Amazons following in their wake.
It was dark by the time they reached London Town. The dragons hovered over the city, just above the cloud cover, hidden and secret. Magnhildr flew close to Diana’s dragon so that the prince could confer with his sister.
‘Now, remember, please don’t interfere with my plans, unless they go all awry, and a disaster is in the making. I’d prefer if the populace does not develop a new fear of dragons, for it is my intention to live among these people and to be accepted as one of them.’
‘That is a forlorn hope, I fear,’ said Diana.
‘Mayhap it is, but I mean to try.’
‘Well, it is your life. But if they threaten you with death, that I will not allow, for you are kin.’
‘Fair enough,’ said the prince. ‘But try to keep the dragons themselves above the clouds, and unseen. ‘
‘Are you going down there alone?’ asked Diana.
‘As the Devil himself, yes.’
‘Not so,’ said Clark. ‘I am coming with you.’
‘How are you to do that? For I could carry you down, but not carry both you and Alicia back up.’
‘No need,’ said Clark. ‘For I can fly, too.’
‘What! You might have mentioned that before.’
‘I like to keep secrets,’ said Clark. ‘But now I must reveal them.’ He leapt off the back of Magnhildr, and hovered in the air.
‘You can fly without wings,’ said the prince, with awe in his voice. Clark had rarely heard that tone of awe, and it pleased him.
‘I do not like to do so, before others, in daylight,’ he confessed. ‘For so many might think I had made a pact with the Devil. The real Devil, I mean.’
‘Why do people think that such powers can only be evil,’ the prince wondered. ‘But, before we fly down. Magnhildr, does the cloud cover now go deep enough?’
All this time, the dragons had been beating their wings downward, and breathing out heavy fumes of their own. The streets of London were now shrouded in fog, that looked ordinary enough to the naked eye, but was, in fact, a soporific. All those denizens of the City who were not already abed and asleep, would soon be heading there -- or even falling asleep on their feet and falling to the pavement.
Magnhildr nodded her great head, and rumbled something that Clark could now half comprehend. Yes, she said. The City below was safe for them to invade and conquer.
The prince leapt from her back, and unfurled his wings, and he started down, down toward the sleeping, fog-shrouded City, Clark following on his heels, watching the streets below with great care, using his special vision to keep watch for anyone who might still be awake and watchful.
The great stone walls of the prison loomed before them. No one seemed to be up and about and guarding the doors, but one must still be careful. There may be others about with special powers, thought Clark. They landed in the courtyard before the prison doors, and no one challenged them. Clark could hear no sound within -- not even that of a scurrying rat or mouse.
The prince had insisted on trying to open the doors himself, without force. ‘I do not want people to be terrified that there is some great power about that can break down doors,’ he said. ‘One prisoner disappearing, without much explanation beyond the possible sighting of the Devil… that may cause some fright. But the doors to a prison burst open? I can foresee a panic over that. I want not to cause panic.’ He walked up slowly to the prison doors, and laid his hand upon the latch. ‘Sometimes I can persuade a door that it belongs to me, and should obey me,’ he said, softly. After a moment, he added, ‘But not this door. Not this time. This door is too devoted to its cause and the cause of its masters.’ He sighed. ‘Mayhap a smaller side door?’
‘Wait,’ said Clark. ‘Look up at the barred windows. I could bend two of the bars back, and when we were inside I could bend them back in place. No one would know we had entered that way.’
‘That is an excellent plan,’ the prince agreed.
They flew up to a window ledge on the second level. Clark bent back the bars. The window itself was latched, but the latch yielded to the prince’s persuasion, and they slipped inside with ease.
The room seemed to be the office of the prison governor. A great desk occupied the centre of the room, with a large wooden chair before it, and smaller chairs off to the side. On the rug before the fire lay a great behemoth of a man, fast asleep.
‘We should move quickly,’ said Clark. “Lest he wake of a sudden.’
‘Yes, but hold!’ said the prince. He went to the side of the sleeping man, and turned him over, carefully. Then he bent, and breathed down, into the man’s mouth. ‘More dragon breath,’ he said softly. ‘Sleep, sleep, sleep. Sleep until the morn, and heed no nightly noised. We are spirits of the night, and such as you cannot contend against us.’
The halls were deserted, with the exception of a few sleeping rats. The prince kicked one out of the way, as they entered the first cell. ‘See you the prisoner we seek?’ he asked Clark.
‘No,’ Clark admitted. This search could take some time, unless he used his special vision. ‘Hold!’ he said, as the prince had said earlier. Slowly he turned his vision on cell after cell. Some were filled with many prisoners. Others held only one, as the richer folk could pay for large cells to themselves, better food and drink, and luxuries such as books. It was in one of the last that he found Alicia Grey -- though she was not alone. ‘Come,’ said Clark, leading Prince Alexander up the staircase to the third level.
‘You are full of surprises,’ said the prince.
Alicia lay sprawled upon the floor of her cell. Her dress was ripped open, and torn down off her shoulders, and the skirts hiked up past her hips in an unseemly display. Her face was bruised, and bloody, and covered with drying tears.. Across her body lay a man, of a sort. One fleshy hand was gripping a breast, the other was between her thighs. The scene had every appearance of an act of rape, interrupted by the fog of dragon breath. Clark bent down and pulled the man off the woman, and turned him over, looking down in disgust at his open breeches. The man’s face was covered in scratches, lending further evidence, if such was needed, that they had interrupted a rape.
‘How disgusting,’ said the prince, echoing Sir Clark’s own thoughts. ‘The act of love is so beautiful, but such men as these must turn it ugly, for they are not capable of love.’ He looked down at Alicia, and shook his head. ‘I still say we should just carry her off like this,’ he added. ‘How could it be wrong to abduct her from such a guardian as him? ‘Twould be quieter, and safer.’ But then he shrugged. ‘I have already agreed to your request, so why do I continue to argue?’ He bent down, and pressed his mouth to Alicia’s, drawing her breath into himself. ‘Awake!’ he said. ‘Awake and heed my words.’
The woman opened her eyes. She drew breath and moaned. She looked up at the prince and opened her mouth to scream. The prince covered her mouth with his hand, and said, ‘Silence, and hear me.’ He used a voice of command such as Sir Clark had never heard before in all his long years. His grey eyes flashed, ready to challenge any attempt at mutiny. ‘We are not demons, come for your soul,’ he continued. ‘We are not even filth such as that,’ he pointed to the would-be rapist at his feet. ‘We are not here to continue the rape upon your person. We are here to offer you a new life. You have two choices before you. Stay here and be subject to such outrages upon your body, until they come to drag you face down upon a hurdle, tie you to a stake, and burn you alive. Or come with us, and we will treat you with dignity and respect, and let you choose a new name, and create a new life. Which is it to be?’
Alicia looked up, her eyes wide. ‘You wear a cross,’ she said. ‘No demon could wear a cross. But you have the appearance of a demon,’ she whispered.
‘The outward appearance only,’ said the prince. ‘It is a disguise.’
‘Why? Why should you go to such trouble to rescue such as I?’
‘We linger too long here,’ the prince answered. ‘You must trust me now, if you are going to trust me ever. I will explain all in due course. But we must be off, before your guards wake up. Will you come with me?’
Alicia began to get to her feet, The prince bent down to offer her a hand. As she moved, she disturbed the body of the man on the floor, and he stirred awake as well.
The guard struggled to his feet, shouting something about demons, and began to call for help. The prince whirled upon him, one of his wings spinning out, the edge sharp as any sword. The man’s head fell from his shoulders, and blood spouted out, all over the room, spattering them all with red. Silence descended once more upon the prison. Clark listened, but could hear no answering sound.
‘We should go,’ he said. ‘We should go now, while all is safe.’
Clark reached toward the Lady Alicia, meaning to pick her up and carry her, but she pushed his hands away. 'I can run,' she said.
'I believe that you can run,' said Clark. 'But we must truly fly, for running will not be enough to achieve our escape.'
'There are stairs this way, leading to the roof. If you can fly, then you must be demons, but now I care not.' And she smiled.
Clark argued no further, for speed was important, but quiet even more so.
'We are not demons, but we can fly,' said Alexander.
They ran for the stairs, climbing quickly and lightly, the lady leading the way. Clark noted she had long limbs, well muscled. As they stepped out upon the roof, they could see that the fog was clearing. Though most people at this hour were abed and asleep, still there was the watch, and someone among that body might already be stirring and looking about.
'And now?' asked Alicia. She still was smiling brightly, and Clark thought she believed herself to be dreaming, for who would not? How many condemned prisoners dreamt of fantastic rescue, and how many truly ever were so saved?
'And now we fly,' said Alexander. 'But now we must needs carry you. Would you prefer me to do so, or my companion knight?'
'Ah. I choose you,' said the lady. 'For now that I see you in moonlight, you look not like a demon, but more like a dragon. I saw the dragons fly past my cell window t'other day, and thought I that t'would be so wonderful to fly far, far away from this place.'
'Your wish is granted,' said the prince. He caught her in his arms, and they all flew off the roof on the prison. Below them, from the ground, Clark could hear an alarmed cry -- something about a great bird. And then the sound of scoffing laughter.
They flew up, above the clouds, where the dragons still waited.
'Dragons!' breathed the Lady Alicia. 'This is the most wonderful dream. Might I go on dreaming until the fire dies out and I burn no more?'
Clark started to say this was not a dream, but the prince told her, 'Go on dreaming, as you please, for we have a long flight home ahead of us.'
'You are covered in blood,' Diana of the Amazons pointed out. 'Human blood.'
'The blood of a rapist besides,' said the prince. 'One of the guards, I assume.'
'Yes,' said the Lady Alicia, as if t'were no great matter, now that she was flying above the clouds, aback a dragon. 'He came to my cell many a night, telling me that if he got me pregnant, they would not burn me until after the babe was born. What mercy was there in that? Still they would burn me, to leave my babe all unmothered. My family would not care for my child, fathered by such as he.' She spoke as if this were a story she had heard long ago. 'I tried to fight him off, but could never win. He was the stronger.'
'You need not fear that now,' said the prince. He settled her in the saddle behind him, and the dragons turned and flew back across the island toward Scotland. 'You need not travel with us,' he told Diana. But Magnhildr said something to him, and he changed his mind.
'Magnhildr misses her family at times,' he said.
'You could come to visit us more often,' Diana replied. 'Instead of flying off to that mysterious arctic fastness of yours. What have you there, anyway?'
'Ha! T'would not be a mysterious fastness long, if I spoke of it to all and sundry.'
On this journey, Clark did not ride upon Magnhildr's back, but flew freely, spinning and twisting away and then back to join the others. He had never flown like this, since he first discovered flight as a boy, and even then he had only displayed his talents to the Kents, his adoptive parents who had died so long ago. Now he felt a great joy and release, that almost approached the ecstasy of lovemaking.
There was faint light in the eastern sky, when the dragons arrived home in Skye. The Lady Alicia was still awake, still watching with wide, wondering eyes as they landed in the courtyard before the Castle.
'This is a long, strange dream,' she said.
'No dream,' said Alexander.
'It truly is a castle.'
'In Scotland, yes. And I am offering you a home here. A safe home, where you will not be assaulted, or harmed in any way. Stay with me for a time, and when I no longer require your presence, you may stay or leave, as you will, and with my blessing, either way. You will not lose by our agreement, for I always fulfil the terms of my contracts.'
He helped her down off the back of his dragon, and she swayed a little as her feet touched the ground, but then she drew herself up to her full height, and looked the prince in the eye.
His wings were contracting, back into his body. His face no longer looked so fierce and dragon-like. 'What is it you want of me?' she asked.
'I need a woman to play the role of my mistress. Not my wife, let me make that clear. We must not claim to be husband and wife, for in Scotland, that would mean we truly were married. You must claim to be my mistress only. You are a lady, are you not?'
'Yes,' said Alicia Grey. 'But I am a murderer also. I killed my husband. Know you not this?'
'I do,' said the prince. 'But I wish not to be your husband, so your past history does not concern me. We will give you a new name, create a new identity for you. Play that role, and I will reward you well. Are we in agreement?'
'Of course,' said Lady Alicia, though Clark thought she spoke as one still dreaming.
Diana, the Amazon, stepped up before the lady in her turn. 'When your contract with my brother is up,' she said. 'If you wish you may search us out, and live among the Amazons for a time. We will teach you much.' She turned to the prince, and embraced him. 'Fare thee well,' she said. 'And be not so much a stranger in the future.' Then she turned to Sir Clark. 'You interest me,' she said. 'I would learn more of your powers, when you have the time to show me.'
Before Clark could answer, she had leapt aboard her dragon, and the Amazons flew off, into the early morning sky.
When the Lady Alicia was in the hands of Martha and Cassandra and their maids, being bathed and fed and cared for, Sir Clark led Prince Alexander to his tower room. 'You have shown me your secrets,' he said. 'Now I must needs show you mine.'
'Have you not done so, even yet?' asked the prince.
'Nay, not all, for their are some secrets I wished only to share with you. There are things I have never shared with anyone, for never did I find a companion I thought would be wise enough to understand them, and strong enough to bear them, until I met you. We did well together tonight, did we not?'
'I thought so. Truly there is no one else I would ever wish to fight by my side.'
'I hoped for more than that, if you are willing. But first, I must show you my heritage, since you have shown me yours.' Clark opened the cupboard and brought out the box that housed the crystal ball. 'This came to me from my father. My true father, not my adoptive father. My last name is not Kent, but El.'
'El? That sounds Moorish,' said the prince.
'It does somewhat,' said Clark. 'Though I am not Moorish, but from another world altogether.'
'How can that be?' Alexander learnt forward eagerly, not at all afraid or suspicious. 'There are truly other worlds out there in the Cosmos? I have often dreamt of hearing that such is true. To see evidence of the truth before me....'
'It is true,' said Clark. 'I wish I could tell you more about my world, but Father tells me so little. Always he says it's not the right time.'
'Father? Your father is alive? But then why were you adopted by the Kents?'
'My father is not alive, but his spirit abides in this box. See?' Clark opened the box, and drew out the crystal ball. 'He speaks to me through the crystal, somehow. I know not how, but have stopped asking him to explain. It is a custom of my people, he tells me.'
The prince stared at the crystal with awe. 'It is another of the crystals,' he said. 'Perhaps it is the last one, that I have been searching for so long. And it comes from your world.'
The prince reached out to touch the crystal ball, and at the same moment, Clark reached out in warning, or to stop him, or to protect him, he knew not what. But their hands met, over the crystal, and it lit up, without the touch of moonlight, and the voice of Father boomed out, louder than it had ever done before.
'Welcome!' said Father. 'You have made a wise choice, my son, Kal-El. Now the time is right, and the Fortress may soon be built. Welcome, Guardian of the Crystals!'
'You! You have more of the crystals in your possession? How can that be, for they come from my world, and I thought no one else knew of their existence.'
'T'is a very long tale,' said Alexander. 'It goes back to the First Dragons. The Dragon Queen learned somehow of the crystals and their importance. From some mystical source she learned that a Hero would find the crystals and save the world, and that this would happen far off in the distant future. The dragons passed the tale on, from daughter to daughter, and sometimes to their human friends. Many tried to find the crystals, to fulfil the prophecy, but none ever did.'
'Until you,' said Clark.
'Until I found some of them,' Alexander admitted. 'Magnhildr told me of the prophecy, and we set out to search for them, for always have I loved tales of adventure, and always have I wanted to do great things, like the heroes of old.'
Clark nodded. Men who were fated to be heroes always had dreams of greatness. It was the dreams that spurred them on, and the wish to be as the heroes of old.
'When I found a crystal, I brought it home and tried to fit them together, like pieces of a puzzle. One day, the pieces fit and the crystals merged, into one large crystal and a Voice spoke to me. It told me to take the crystal far into the Arctic wastelands, and toss it high into the air. I did so, and when the crystal fell to the ice, it grew, into a great ice Fortress. The Voice invited me inside, and told me many things. The Voice spoke of history and science and art and music -- much that I had always longed to learn, but never had the chance, for my father wished me only to be educated in the arts of War. It also told me of the missing crystal, and that when I found that, I would have my heart's desire.'
'And what is your heart's desire, My Lord?' Clark whispered.
'Love, of course,' said the prince. 'Of what use is it to do great things, if one has not love?' Prince Alexander spoke simply, as if the answer to Clark's question were obvious.
'This is the final piece of the puzzle,' said Clark. 'You can have it, if you wish. Join the pieces together, and have your heart's desire.'
'The crystal is yours, and it comes from your world,' said Alexander. 'To take it and fulfil the prophecy for myself would not be honourable.'
'Then we must go together, and place the crystal in your Fortress together, and see the fulfilment of the prophecy together.'
The prince bowed his head. 'I think that is what the Fortress wishes, also,' he said. 'If you wish, we could go tonight. I have not been there for several days, and it troubles me to be too long away. Always do I fear that some day I will go, and the Fortress will be gone.'
Clark had a sudden memory. 'That was where you flew off to,' he said. 'I saw you leap unto Magnhildr's back, when we were in London Town. Twice it happened, that I saw with my own eyes.'
'Yes,' said Alexander. 'I went to seek the advice of the Fortress, on some matters that troubled me. The request of the Queen for eternal life, for example. The Fortress suggested a solution, which I am not sure the Queen will approve. But enough of that for now. Shall we journey thence tonight, and build the finished Fortress and seek our heart's desire? For I am sure that if the Fortress gives me my desire, it will fulfil yours as well.'
The prince held out his hand, and Sir Clark took it in his own. 'I will journey with you anywhere you choose,' he said. 'But first you must hear my confession.'
'What am I? Your Father Confessor?'
'In a way, for there is no one else to whom I would dare to confess this sin. My Father told me of the crystals, and that when they were found, I would gain the knowledge to be a true hero, but that the road would be hard, and dangerous, both to myself and to those I loved. I must now confess I feared this knowledge, for Father spoke of many worlds outside our own. He told me there were other beings from these worlds, with dangerous powers. I do not fear these beings, and I would not fear to fight them to protect our world, but I know humans would see them as demons, and mayhap they would see me the same way. I fear being hated and despised and attacked as a demon. I fear my family -- the Kents -- being hunted down and burnt at the stake. And so did I hold off on searching for the crystals, out of cowardice. I have always hid most of my powers from humans. Even my family knows not all of them. I used them in secret sometimes, to save lives, but mostly I hid, out of fear. That is my confession.' Sir Clark bowed his head in humility, and awaited the prince's judgement.
'Perhaps it was a wise fear that held you back,' said the prince. 'Fear and caution are not always cowardice. I knew nothing of the frightening nature of the promised knowledge, but only of the joy of learning and the promise I might be a hero.'
'Yes, but you revealed yourself to me, and risked my superstitious reaction. I might have turned from you in fear and loathing.'
'But you did not so,' said the prince. 'For you are not ruled by superstition, as is most of the world. I sensed that of you, from the moment we met.'
'Superstition rules this world,' said Father. 'It has not always been so, and there is hope that logic and science will prevail yet again. Kal-El, you and your new-found friend, Prince Alexander, could be a deciding factor in this. I approve of you, and I approve of your love. Love is strong and can overcome fear and even hate. This is the right time, for the building of the Fortress. If you had tried too hard to build it in the past, it may have led to disaster, so do not mourn the past overmuch, but look to that better future.'
Sir Clark bent and put the crystal back in its protective box. 'Then let us visit your Fortress,' he told the prince. 'And let us join forces, in truth. I will trust in you both, and fear no more.'
The Castle was dark and silent. All within it were now abed and asleep, except for them. The dragons slept also, but Magnhildr woke upon the instant when Alexander touched her flank. ‘I have slept enough,’ she said, and Sir Clark both heard her words and understood. ‘I need little rest,’ she added for his benefit. ‘An hour or two is enough, as long as I can rest upon the earth and close my eyes.’
It had been a long time since Clark had flown so far and so fast. He gloried in the use of his powers, as he had earlier in the night. Not having to hide, or pretend, not having to hold back, was wonderful. But once they were out over the North Sea, the prince called him back to his side. ‘How fast can you fly?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Sir Clark admitted. ‘I haven’t tested myself in years. Much faster than I have revealed tonight.’
‘Climb upon Magnhildr’s back,’ said Alexander. ‘That is best – that we journey together. The night is passing. You must wish to be back home in the morning, lest your sister be concerned.’
Clark saw little to argue with there, and so he climbed aboard the dragon, to sit behind the prince. ‘Hold on!’ said Alexander. And then something incredible happened.
It was as if space and time did fold upon itself. One moment they were flying calmly over the North Sea, and the next they were circling over the barren icelands of the far north. Even the stars were different, thought Sir Clark.
‘We have journeyed many hundreds of miles in an instant,’ said the prince.
‘How? How did you do that?’ Sir Clark was astonished and awed.
‘The dragons know, but I know not. We only do it when there are no witnesses and we are far from human habitation. They tell me that the sound is terrifying, like a great explosion in space.... There, Sir Clark. Look there.’
Clark looked where the prince pointed, and by the faint light of the moon he could see it. A great tower of ice, rising from a plain of ice, into a sky as grey and cold as ice. Something in this icy vision called to Clark, spoke to his heart, and something in his heart answered.
Magnhildr circled the Fortress slowly, letting Clark see every detail from above, then she landed on the cold ground before what looked like an entrance. Alexander slid from her back easily. ‘Let us go within,’ he said.
Now the moment was upon him, thought Clark. His destiny awaited. His whole future might lie within that castle of ice. The entire knowledge of who and what his people were. A bond of love with someone who could understand who and what he was, and be able to handle that knowledge without fear. All of that was within his reach, if he stepped down from the dragon’s back, and entered the Fortress.
His boots crunched upon the ice, and the sound was electrifying in the cold arctic air. He drew the crystal from within his cloak and tapped it lightly and it rang, like a tuning fork, and then the entire Fortress rang in sympathy, like a great pipe organ – the King of instruments, as Mozart said.
Alexander led him inside, and it was a vast chamber indeed. Sir Clark had lived in many grand castles and palaces over his long life – as well as not a few pathetic hovels – but nothing compared with this. He walked down the great hall of ice, Alexander beside him, and his heart kept singing, ‘I am home, I have found a home’.
A great booming voice welcomed him. ‘My son. My son Kal-El. You have come home at last, and with you, the last piece of the puzzle. And with you, the Guardian of the Crystals. All is one, and one is all. Welcome.’
In the centre of the hall, a table waited, made of the same cold crystal as the rest of the Fortress. Clark put his own crystal upon this. The entire Fortress lit up, and expanded. More crystals appeared, bank upon bank of crystals. ‘All the knowledge of the universe awaits you,’ said Father’s Voice. ‘Choose a crystal, and learn.’
‘I will,’ said Sir Clark. ‘But first, I have some unfinished business with the Guardian. May we have some privacy?’
‘Of course, my son.’ And the lights throughout the Fortress dimmed.
‘How very accommodating of him,’ said Prince Alexander. ‘What is this unfinished business?’
Sir Clark looked up at him and smiled. ‘I have waited long and long for this moment,’ he said. ‘We are alone, far from any other human habitation, and we cannot be interrupted. This is our unfinished business.’ He drew the prince’s face to his, and kissed his mouth, and then pulled his body into a close embrace. ‘We are here, alone,’ Clark told him again, in a whisper. ‘Forgive me this trespass.’