Authors: Shirley Rousseau Murphy
Tags: #adventure, #animals, #fantasy, #young adult, #dragons
In late afternoon the two white otters grew
restless. Hanni fidgeted, and Thakkur began a nervous pacing.
The otters and bards had gathered again in
the valley, but soon Thakkur was moving back and forth among them;
then he and Hanni roved out along the marsh alone, tilting their
heads as if they scented something alarming. When they turned to
look at the gathered crowd, everyone was watching them.
The two otters left the valley, climbed the
black cliff, and stood on its ridge, sharply white against the
afternoon sky. The bards and otters rose and followed them, toward
the sacred cave.
I will miss our picnics in the caves of
Nison-Serth and the joy in the children’s faces when they explored
there. The sacred caves are the only places left that hold the
magic of ancient times. The otters have such a cave, and it is
utterly secret. Only bard knowledge tells me. I hope they take
great sustenance in it, great joy
The crashing sea echoed across the sacred
cave and flung its spray at the door. The walls of the cave,
shimmering with sea light, were covered with animal pictures that
shifted and changed in the dancing reflections—mosaics wrought from
tiny shells by ancient generations.
“It’s beautiful,” Camery whispered. Kiri and
Marshy were silent, looking. Colewolf reached to touch a shell
picture of running unicorns—the unicorns that had been driven from
Tirror by the dark into other worlds. Perhaps they waited
somewhere, for a time when they could return, to bring their
healing powers to all men and to the other speaking animals.
The otters sat down on the floor, crowding
together before the raised dais in a tangle of brown bodies. The
bards sat on a stone bench against the wall, close together and
hushed. The sacred clamshell stood alone on a stone pedestal at the
back of the dais, gleaming in the sea shimmer. A white mosaic
dragon reared on the wall behind it, wings spread. The chattering
otters became still as Thakkur and Hanni mounted the dais. Hanni,
only half Thakkur’s height, stretched up as tall as he could,
straight and rigid beside Thakkur. The cave was still.
The shell was perfectly curved, like a great
and beautifully made bowl. Its inside was the color of a pale
sunset, and it was deeply scalloped around its curved top. As
Thakkur lifted his paws to it, its blushing surface began to turn
smoky. Thakkur’s whiskers were straight and still, his thick white
tail laid out rigid behind him. Hanni stood exactly the same. As
Thakkur muttered softly, shadows began to move across the shell and
to gather into an image.
A castle of blood-red stone shone out.
Winged jackals paced the top of its high wall, their heads down,
their thin lips pulled back to show jagged teeth. Dark soldiers
walked in the courtyard. The vision changed to a dim room lit by
two greasy torches. Quazelzeg was there, his pale eyes watching the
child slaves who knelt before him blank faced. He jerked a
dark-haired girl from the line. Her eyes shone with hatred, then
were shuttered. When he slapped her, she fell sprawling. When a
red-haired boy reached for her, Quazelzeg knocked him to his
Suddenly a light shone deep in the shell,
touching the two children as if a hand had reached into the room
and thrown sunlight in their faces. The light condensed down into a
shape, touching the boy’s freckled cheek, the girl’s dark eyes with
its fleeting image—a three- clawed footprint.
The vision faded.
For a long time, no one moved or spoke. In
every mind the mark of the dragonbard blazed, searing away all
thought save its wonderful—and terrible—meanings. There were two
more bards on Tirror. But they were held as slaves by the dark.
Thakkur and Hanni left the cave without
speaking. The bards and otters followed.
Outside, the dragons had come close to the
island, rocking on the sea, their eyes blazing as they crowded
against the cliff, for their minds, too, were filled with the
vision. They stared north toward Aquervell, fierce with the need to
avenge the child bards and to rescue them. Nightraider roared, “We
will go at once!” and stretched his wings impatiently.
“At once,” thundered Starpounder.
“Attack at once,” roared Windcaller.
The dragonlings echoed them.
Teb stared at them, scowling. “No! We’re not
going to storm Aquervell in a great show of flashing wings and
tempers. Quazelzeg would kill those two children in a second.”
“Nonsense!” Starpounder bellowed. “We will
release them before he can touch them.”
But they all knew that wasn’t possible.
Teb stroked Starpounder’s nose. “I think
that Quazelzeg does not mean to kill them. He means to use those
children. He will torture them, terrify them, in order to train
their minds. But he won’t kill them— unless we force him to.”
“What do you plan?” said Nightraider.
“We must be stealthy, and we must plan
carefully,” Teb said. “I think Quazelzeg wanted Iceflower because
he has the child bards—I think he meant to train the children and
the young dragon together.”
“Fool—he is a fool,” Starpounder shouted.
“But I think that you are right, Tebriel.”
“Quazelzeg could never train a dragon!”
“Never,” the dragons agreed, hissing
Seastrider nudged quietly at Teb. “You mean
to go alone, Tebriel—just the two of us.”
He nodded, reaching to stroke her. “We will
slip into Aquervell at night.”
“No!” Kiri and Camery said together.
Teb’s look silenced them. “Seastrider and I
will go. She will stay hidden. I will get into the palace and get
the children out—one shadow slipping in and quickly gone.”
“And quickly dead,” Camery said.
He ignored her. “The rest of you will be
here to fight Sivich when he brings the dark forces down on
Nightpool. This time, Sivich’s attack will be powerful. This time,
he will attack Ebis as well. All of you will be needed.”
“You won’t go alone to Aquervell,” Camery
said. The set of her face was as stubborn as Teb’s. “Nightraider
and I are going with you.”
“No,” Kiri said. “The palace at Auric
belongs to you and Teb. It is right that one of you be here to
fight for it. Besides, the folk of the resistance know you, trust
you. I will go with Teb.”
Teb said, “No one is going with me.” He saw
Thakkur’s scowl and ignored it.
Camery said, “You will endanger the children
if you go alone. So you will endanger us all. If you were killed,
who would get the children out?”
“Camery is right,” Thakkur said. “Do not let
your terrible hatred of the dark lead you astray, Tebriel. Do not
underestimate Quazelzeg and what he is capable of—do not let your
pride lead you.” The white otter touched Teb’s hand. “We are
in this. You are not a bard alone anymore. Let the love
of your friends strengthen and help you.”
Teb looked at Thakkur and was torn between
rebellion and respect for the white Seer’s wisdom.
“Do you remember the prophesy I once gave
“I remember.” Thakkur’s prediction spoke
sharply in his mind:
I see a street in Sharden’s city narrow and
mean. There is danger there and it reeks of pain. Take care,
Tebriel, when you journey into Sharden.
“You are not invulnerable,” Thakkur said.
“You must not do this alone.”
He felt perfectly capable of doing it alone,
of getting the children out secretly and quickly. But he had never
turned away from Thakkur’s wisdom.
“Do not let pride rule you, Tebriel.”
Teb sighed. “I will take one bard.
Colewolf—Colewolf’s silent speech is strongest. That talent will be
needed, with the power of the dark so close.”
Thakkur eased his rigid stance and touched
his worry stones. Colewolf nodded at Teb’s selection.
“No!” Kiri said. “Papa—you are a stronger
fighter. You are needed here. You know more about battle tactics
than I. I am smaller; I can get into small places.”
Teb was silent. He knew very well how clever
Kiri was at moving in the shadows of palace passages, at losing
herself in attics and niches. But he did not like to take her into
danger. He felt a strange and unsettling need to protect her.
“I want to go with you.” She touched his
face. “All the war against the dark is born of danger. You can’t
protect someone. I want to be with you.”
He took her hand and looked up at Colewolf.
There is no way one can skirt danger, Tebriel,
either here or in Aquervell.
Teb clenched his jaw, very torn. “Kiri—Kiri
and I will leave at dusk.”
Thakkur said, ‘The otters will prepare dried
fish and roots for your packs.”
Camery put her arm around him. “Will you
draw me a map of Windthorst? I haven’t seen it much from the sky,
only from horseback—and that so many years ago.”
They got a piece of charcoal from the fire
and crowded into Thakkur’s cave, where the stone floor was smooth
and pale. Thakkur and Charkky and Mikk were very interested in the
map Teb drew. Marshy curled up on Thakkur’s sleeping shelf,
absorbing the strategies of war. Hanni had disappeared.
“The mountains curve in deeper here,” Teb
said, tracing along the center of the continent. “There is a
village here, and the river starts here.”
“We can station mounted troops along the
ridge,” Camery said. “In clefts at the foot of the mountains, and
along the river.” She smiled. “Seven dragons breathing fire should
send Sivich’s army careening into Ebis’s lines like rabbits into a
Colewolf nodded, his gray eyes alight. He
was going to enjoy this operation.
“While we’re routing Sivich’s armies,”
Camery said, “rebel troops can come up from our coastal villages to
clean out Auric Palace and secure it.” She looked at Charkky and
Mikk. “Would you two be willing to ride one of the dragonlings, to
rally those troops? From the sky you can follow all the action. You
have worked with the coastal folk, and you know the lay of the
The two otters gawked, their whiskers stiff
with excitement. “Hah,” Charkky shouted, “we’ll do that! Oh, yes,
we will. We’ll ride a dragon!”
“I’ll get busy on a harness,” Kiri said,
nearly laughing at the otters’ excitement.
Mikk twitched his whiskers at her. “We’ll
help. We sew very well—Tebriel taught us.”
No one noticed Marshy’s look of annoyance.
No one had included him in any plans.
“Are there still winged jackals in the
palace?” Camery asked.
Thakkur smiled. “Not anymore. There were,
until the wolves went with Charkky and Mikk to clean them out. They
fed their bodies to the sharks.”
Marshy left Thakkur’s cave before the bards
were finished. No one noticed him leave. No one had asked him to
help. No one asked what
could do to help, or what he
wanted to do. He limped along the top of the cliff, scowling out at
the sea. He could see the dragons far away, circling over the
water, diving for fish.
They hadn’t asked because they meant to
leave him and Iceflower behind, in Nightpool. He kicked at the
black stone path. They thought he was too small and Iceflower still
too weak. Well, they were wrong. Iceflower was all well now, with
Mitta’s potions. And he was a bard, as much as they. He had powers,
too. He headed for the meeting cave, filled with anger at the older
bards’ unfairness, wanting only to be alone.
He didn’t see Hanni at first, curled up in a
little white ball before the mosaic of the white dragon. When he
did see the little otter, he went to sit on the dais, beside Hanni.
The otter looked up at him, yawning.
Hanni felt worn out after the vision. He had
wanted Thakkur to snuggle him close again and make a bed for him in
his own cave, but the old otter had been so busy with the bards,
with the terrible business of the captive children. Hanni had come
back to the sacred cave and curled up on the dais near the sacred
clamshell, watching the play of sea light across the walls.
The two youngsters looked at each other.
“They don’t want me to help them,” Marshy
said. “They think I’m too little.” He stared at Hanni. “I
help. They will need me.”
“How?” said Hanni sleepily.
“I am the only bard small enough to pass for
a slave child. They haven’t thought of that.”
Hanni touched Marshy’s cheek with a soft
pass as a slave,” Marshy
said. “I could get them out.” He stared at Hanni. “They think I’m
too young and too little, and that is the very thing that makes me
Hanni looked hard at Marshy, his dark eyes
shining. Marshy looked back, sullen and angry. Hanni rose and
approached the sacred shell.
The small white otter reared up before the
shell and began to mutter in a soft, chittering voice. Soon the
surface of the shell grew dark. Dull lights moved deep within,
became streaks, then shafts of sunlight falling between cage bars,
to touch the faces of children sleeping on a bare stone floor.
Dirty, thin children, chained to the bars by their ankles.
When Hanni began to whisper, darkness
tumbled across the clamshell. The next scene was from the sky,
looking down upon the red-walled palace. They could see the slave
cages in the shadowed corner of the courtyard. Yellow-clad soldiers
appeared, driving the slaves out behind lashing whips. Marshy saw
the dark, pleading eyes of the girl slave looking up in fear,
almost as though she knew they were watching.
Suddenly the little otter turned from the
clamshell and hunkered down on his belly, his nose tucked under his
foreleg, his eyes squeezed shut, and he was shivering. Marshy stood
staring, terrified for him.
Thakkur found Marshy on the dais, kneeling
over a limp puff of white fur. The old white otter pushed Marshy
aside and scooped Hanni up. He stood looking from Marshy to the