“Will you please hurry up?” Ardenai commanded, no less urgently than he’d spoken to his mount, and the narrow yellow eyes of the old doctor above him grew narrower yet. “Well, you’re about the slowest thing on this planet, Pythos!”
“Sstop it!” the creature hissed, and his long tongue darted in annoyance. “Go to ssleep as thee was insstructed to do.” He rattled his scales as if shaking Ardenai off his back. “Thee dares to sspeak to me in ssuch a manner? I am appalled.”
“Me too.” Ardenai drawled. He closed his eyes for a few moments.
“It is odd, you know,” he continued, opening his eyes again to stare at the ceiling of the cave, and trying not to wince away from Pythos. “Knowing my parents are not my parents. Knowing that I am not who I thought I was. Odd, and disturbing, somehow. More so than I thought it would be, perhaps because I did not know it would happen to me, SPECIFICALLY.” Raising his voice made his head pound harder, and he subsided, growling under his breath.
“Poor thing. Poor pathetic hatchling. Sstop thy jaw hingesss, and try to hold very sstill.” For a few moments there was silence.
“No thoughts apparent?”
“None. The anger wass a perfect damping field. Thee came acrosss as very tantalissing prey. I commend thee. Will thee PLEASSSE hold sstill?”
“I’m trying. I’m just so … agitated, somehow ….”
“Worn out, iss the term thee sseekss. Yet, like the fool thou art, thee refussseess thiss time to ssleep. Why iss that?””
“I’d be better sssssserved thinking right now, don’t you agree?” Ardenai hissed. He winced sharply with pain, and before he could prevent it, a flare of delicate frond-like fingers came down across his temples.
“Ssince thee asskss, I do not,” Pythos murmured, and the new leader of Equus knew nothing until the dragon physician wakened him.
“Dragonhorse, thou art finisshed,” he announced, and the Equi ratcheted himself into a sitting position, rubbing fitfully at his temples and grunting softly with pain and stiffness.
“You willful old lizard, I told you I needed that time to think.”
Pythos ignored him. “Sslowly,” he advised, handing him a reflector. “Thee hass been through a great deal very ssuddenly.”
Ardenai made a slight nod of agreement. He began to examine the total effect of his transformation, but his eyes went to the sides of his head, and riveted themselves there. “My ears,” he squeaked. “Precious Equus, they’re … gone! My beautiful ears are gone!” These were smaller, and more contained, their flutes and intricate chambers no longer in evidence. “Where are my ears? And I don’t mean these pathetic things. How am I supposed to hear with no external ear bones?”
“They are ssafe, Firstlord. I sshall place them back upon thy ssweet head when the time iss right.”
“Ah … what am I supposed to be, exactly?” he asked, finding his octave.
What passed as a shrug for one with no shoulders, curled up Pythos’ spine and exited with a bob of the flat, hairless head. “A mongrel – Fifth Alliancce, I sshould think. Or an Equi off-world crosss. Ssmile for me.”
Ardenai glared up at him, then dropped his eyes and stared back into the glass. “I look too much like … my eyes are brown. No, they’re nearly black. I have black eyes. Funny, colors look the same as they did when I had green eyes.”
“And thee callss thysself a teacher,” Pythos scoffed. “It hidess thy ophidian pupils. Ssmile.”
“Why, did you do something perverse to my teeth? I will not tolerate Phyllan teeth.” He was quick to peel his lips back, and the old dragon studied Ardenai while Ardenai examined his teeth, which now had a single set of canines. Nothing approaching Phyllan fangs.
“It sseems rather an unpleassant thing to do, expossing the teeth in ssuch a manner. The physsical ssenssation is mosst unpleassant.”
“How would you know?” the Equi asked with some amusement.
“I … practicssed once. I can do it if I choosse. Ssee?” He let out a hissy chuckle and winked at the Firstlord.
“Pythos, you’re a constrictor. You have no teeth. How can you expose what you do not have?”
“Neither here nor there,” the serpent said peevishly. “Thee wass a consstrictor thysself, not sso long ago, my High Equi friend.”
“DNA from Equus Legatum, DNA from Reticulatus Draconis. No wonder I’m having an identity crisis,” Ardenai muttered. He blinked hard a couple of times to focus, then looked at his bare arms and huffed with annoyance.
“Why doesst thee choose not to ssmile for me, thy oldesst and dearesst companion?”
“Maybe I’m just not in a smiling mood right now,” Ardenai retorted. “Why do I have snake tattoos over my armbands instead of simple skin grafts? Joining an Amberian wrestling team wasn’t part of the plan, or was it? I’ve forgotten now.”
“Doesst thee like them?”
“Like?” He studied the beautiful and elaborate serpents which coiled sinuously about his arms from shoulders to wrists.
“Yess, like. Doesst thee find them pleassing, my hatchling? They are Achernarean chain tattoos of ancient dessign – before the changing time – before we Achernareanss … modified oursselvess away from ssuch large bodiess and huge appetitess. Before we sstopped sscorching villagess and devouring maidenss to become ssvelte sseven footers like the one who stands humbly before thee, Oh wisest of the Wise. ”
The humor was lost on Ardenai. “I find them … obvious,” he replied, petulantly unwilling to pay a compliment. “At this juncture I have no desire to be too obvious.”
“I can assure thee,” the physician drawled, somewhat wounded, “They are far less obviouss than golden arm-bandss. Thee has tattooss, becausse ssimple sskin graftss would sshow an outline. Thine armss are sstill painfully sswollen. The ssnakes hide that fact, as will the disscretion of long ssleevess for a while. Too, the dye medium carriess medication which will, with luck, prevent infection and ease the sswelling, lesst thine armss rot and fall off, which would alsso be ssomewhat obviouss.”
Ardenai drew up his knees, rested his elbows on them, and let his head fall heavily into his palms. “Do you realize that we haven’t said more than two sentences in the last two years that didn’t contain the words, ‘with luck’?”
“The chief component of luck iss clear thinking, Hatchling. Thee cannot think clearly when thou art reeling with exhausstion.”
Ardenai raised his head and glared again at the old dragon. “You knew, didn’t you? But of course you did, you scaly wretch. You delivered me from the womb of my dam. You knew this was coming, and you could have told me it was going to fall in a heap on my shoulders. All that time we spent figuring out how we were going to convince this mysterious Firstlord that our wild notions had some credence, and you went right along with it … bobbing and hissing like a big green teapot! I could have kept my mouth shut, you know. I’m capable of that, but no … not you. All this planning, and speculation, and creeping around …”
“Excssellent mental exerccisse in any casse,” the doctor said with an unmistakable air of smug assurance.
“Oh, fine. Anyway, what’s done is done, but long will it be before I oil thy scales and feed thee tree-toads again, Physician Pythos. What must I do to keep my hair … this color …” he pulled a lock of it over his forehead to study. “What color is this, exactly, and it feels … curly?” Suddenly, he was feeling his head and groaning with despair. “Precious Equus, my hair’s gone at the shoulders! Give me that reflector back. Do I want to know what else you cut off? Eladeus save me, I’m ruined! I am completely ruined.”
“I had conssidered an Amberian roach for thee – with snake tattooss along each sside of thy ssweet little sskull, down thy neck, acrosss thy sshoulderss, THEN down thine armss.” The old serpent shrugged. “But I would have had to dye thy sskin, too.”
He paused, studied the man in front of him, and resisted the urge to chuckle. Ardenai was definitely pouting, but he was also shocked and exhausted, pain rippling along his jaw. Laughter would have been unfair. “Thou art vain, not ruined. It iss wavy, and the color iss Sstag’s Belly Brown, according to the insstallation program. I chosse it myself. Conssiderably lighter than thine own. Doesst thee like it? Thee will alsso be able to grow a beard, which sshould add to the novelty of thiss adventure of ourss.” This time, he didn’t pause for a response. “Thee needss do nothing. Thiss iss dye for the moment, but that which colorss and waves thy hair iss a cosmechip, like ccertain citified ladiess usse on Decliviss, and Terren, and ssuch placcess. It will begin to function in jusst a few dayss. Thee needs not conccern thysself with it. Nor,” he added, flicking his long tongue affectionately at the Equi, “with that which easses the worsst of thy pain. Over the next few dayss it will sseek itss own level in thy ssystem and thee will become more comfortable with it. It will help thee relax and sseem more … carefree.”
“Ah, hallucinogenic drugs. Yes. Just what I needed to make the experience complete. Thank you. And my royal blue blood? What color is my blood these days?”
“Blue,” the old dragon replied flatly, his tone indicating the probability of an earlier argument on this particular subject. “Billionss of beingss in this galaxy have blue blood of one sshade or another. Thou art no better hidden with than without it.”
“As you wish,” Ardenai mumbled into his palms. “It will do me no good to argue. I must change my clothes and be gone from this place the second my captain arrives. And where is that one?”
He would have rubbed at the sides of his head as reflex, but the physician’s hand stayed him. “Don’t touch thosse earss yet. Thee told her to sstay and lissten, Ardi. Sshe cannot be in two placcess at oncce, and thee cannot leave until sshe fetchess thee. Take thy clothess and go to the poolss. I will be in momentarily to give thee a bath. Thee sstinkss of ssweat and blood and ssemen.”
“I can take my own kraaling bath!” he snapped. “I’m no baby.” He looked startled with himself, drew a quick breath, and softened his glare to look at the old physician. “And, on top of everything else, why am I so … grouchy? I feel like there’s a Gaknar, trying to get out of my head.”
“Did they give thee ssomething to drink before the mating, a decoction of ssomething dark and sslightly bitterssweet?”
“You know they did.”
“And did they tell thee what purpose it sserved?”
“Ah’krill said it would move motile sperm from my primaries to my ancillary testes without me having to go through several initial ejaculations. That way I could just …” he made a quick motion.
“Ssettle the matter?” the doctor chuckled.
“So to speak,” he smiled. “I know it worked. I only had to ejaculate once, and I think all of the motile sperm were female, which helped at that juncture. The Eloi seemed pleased.”
“The potion sservess that purposse, and sservess it well, but it alsso aroussess thee. Thou art probably sstill aroussed and do not realize it. It will … take a while to wear off,” he said, and Ardenai wondered why he looked away at that point, as though he were concealing something.
It was probably his imagination. He was so tired, and despite the medication his arms burned like fire and ached from his fingertips to his pounding temples. The scorch of his own flesh still hung in his nostrils, and it turned his stomach just a little. He had to admit it. He was scared half to death and shocked half out of his mind, and he was taking it out on someone who had loved him and protected him and been his friend since the day he was born. “You’re right,” he said abruptly, smiling at the old doctor, “I could use some help with my bath.” He took his clothing and disappeared toward the sound of the thermal pools in the back of the cave, the physician toddling alongside on his short, crooked legs.
Ardenai returned sometime later in the nondescript clothing of a drifter: riding boots, good but well used, the ones he wore when he worked in the horse barns with his sire. Brown wool trousers, long sleeved grey tunic, and an old jacket. To quiet the physician he choked down some fruit, then stretched out again on the table Pythos had used to operate, closed his eyes, and was instantly asleep.
A few minutes later he sat bolt upright and exclaimed, “I have my mother’s shopping list! I told my sister … who apparently isn’t really my sister … I’d be home for dinner! And where am I? I’m sitting in a cave somewhere with my ears in a jar, talking to a sea dragon who thinks this is all wildly amusing. I’ve decided I’m not going to do this. My sister’s waiting for me and my supper is getting cold. I have horses to feed and children to teach. I’m going home now. Goodbye.” Again he stopped himself, and sighed, and sagged with exhaustion. “And where in the Affined Worlds of Equus is the Captain of my Horse Guard?”
“Sshe is doing as thee assked, but thee … iss not doing as sshe assked.”
“Oh, here it comes again,” Ardenai grimaced. “Be a good boy, Ardi. Follow the plan, Ardi.”
“Good advicce. Equi are thou in thy head, but thee musst be prepared to be anything or anyone which will ssave thee, or thee will never get home for ssupper.”
Ardenai’s bit off a reply and his head came up suddenly, tilted in that gesture of listening. “I hate to silence thee, O’ most cheerful companion, but Io is here, riding Eubie.”
Io swung to the ground, patted her mount, and gave the reins to a young cavalry officer who had remained discreetly in the shadows. “Thank you, Tarpan,” she said, swept off the black cape, and nodded graciously toward Ardenai. “Dragonhorse,” she smiled. “Assuming you are he.”
The surprise she felt at seeing him registered on her delicate features, and Ardenai said, “As you can see, Sir Pent and I have been busy these last hours.”
“And in that time you rested, I hope,” she said softly. “Are you … in much pain?”
“More than I care to be,” he smiled. “But it will pass. Come, sit. What have you?”
“A name,” she said as they walked, “not one to surprise you, but rather to confirm our suspicions.”
“At the apex, yes. And there are others. But mostly, I think … Sarkhan.”
“And how true will the ballad prove to be do you suppose?” Ardenai murmured. “Is it legend, is it history, and will it repeat itself? Those are the questions.”
Io plopped with a sigh onto the bench beside Ardenai, and gave a slight, all-over shake. “Four Firstlords back. ‘The time of calamity,’ is what the history books say. In the ballad, is there a word – a name, I think – that sounds like … muddy, or naughty … or something close? There is, isn’t there? Why won’t it come to me? I must need sleep.” She leaned forward and began to work off her riding boots.
Ardenai just shook his aching head. “I knew you weren’t paying attention in Music History, Ah’riodin. Too busy horsing around with Tarpan and Salerno, just like in creppia nonage. I think the word you’re after is Mahdi.”
She pointed at him with the toe of the boot she held in her hand. “That’s it, and don’t be mean to me. I’m tired, too.”
“Sorry, Fledermaus.” He closed his eyes and sang,
“Mahdi was the god of fire,
For Mahdi made they sacred quest …” Io picked it up with him, singing harmony.
‘Down the timeless stars they swept
Pledging honor, finding death.”
“Seven beats, eight beats, seven beats, seven beats. Hard beat, soft beat, hard beat, soft beat, hard beat, soft beat, hard beat,” she chanted, clapping her hands quietly together. “See, I was listening.” She smiled, though her tone bore a hint of defensiveness. “At least I know the chorus.”
“Which would be impressive if it had a chorus, which it does not. It has no repetition at all, which makes it very unusual as ballads go.” He paused, and drew a quick breath. “Who is going to teach the children these things? This term is nearly over, there are crops to plant, foals being born every day ….” His eyes glistened for a moment, then he drew another, slower breath and steadied himself. “So, did you hear someone use this name, Mahdi?”
“Sarkhan. Just after you left. Brace yourself, Ardi. He was talking to our favorite senator from Anguine II.”
“Konik?” Ardenai gasped. “I’ve loved him, played polo with him for years! I’ve never known a more honorable man. Wisdom Giver, please … not Nik.”
She nodded and gave his forearm a gentle squeeze. “Sorry, Beloved. Sarkhan said, ‘You check Ardenai’s suite, Legate Konik. I must report this to Mahdi,’ or something very close to that. But I don’t suppose even Sarkhan is crazed enough to think he’s talking to The Creator.”
“True,” Ardenai mused, fighting the urge to rub his left arm. “It’s probably a title for his superior.”
“I’m … not sure he actually has one,” Io said grudgingly. “He was chortling about being Firstlord soon.”
“Ugh,” Ardenai grunted. “I always knew he was crazy. Which makes me wonder what else about this is just craziness and nothing more. He has a superior somewhere. No one attempting a usurpation would leave that man in charge. They may be mollifying him, but they’re not going to put him in power. I cannot believe Nik is listening to him or following his orders, either.” No longer able to resist the urge, he let his right hand close gingerly around his left bicep, barked sharply in pain, and released it.
“I’m getting Pythos!” Io exclaimed and sprang up from the bench.
“No,” Ardenai said, forcing himself to straighten up again. “I’m fine. And you … have done very well indeed, Captain. I am … so sorry to hear that Konik is involved. I have always enjoyed his company and counsel, and I have never known a man who was more in love with his wife. But Sarkhan … when I think of all the times we’ve debated over the years, I’m sure he’s delighted with the prospect of killing me. Can I get you something to drink? How goes it at the Great House?” He rose as he spoke, not waiting for an answer, and reached for the juice pitcher on the table. He poured her a drink, handing it to her as he sat back down, patting the spot beside him. She resumed her seat, though her eyes were filled with worry.
“Thank you. Very confusing, as we had hoped. Ah’krill has dismissed the Council for a half-season, as is customary to prepare for whatever ‘change’ you might be springing on them,” her hand fluttered momentarily near his upper arm, “That time when The Dragonhorse would rest at Mountain hold after his ordeal.” She sighed, glanced up into his disconcertingly unfamiliar eyes, and continued. “Some ambassadors, and some senators from the affined worlds, and probably most of the council members who do not live here will return home, and as those shuttles leave, so will we. I have something appropriately nondescript waiting.” “What was … Ah’krill’s reaction?”
“She affirmed your control, but not your decision, as you expected she would. By that action I believe she will be safe from Sarkhan and the Telenir.”
“I really don’t like having to do things this way, you know. I very much disliked giving our people the initial impression that I am an irrational and impulsive man.”
“We need to protect as many people as we can, Dragonhorse.” She turned on the bench to face him, and after a few moments of study she gave her head a doubtful shake. “You look different, but not different enough. Sarkhan will have you in his jaws in short order, and then Equus.”
“Your confidence overwhelms me, Captain. Thank you,” Ardenai replied, obviously amused.
“You are a scholar, not a warrior, Beloved. Your life is of … great personal concern to me.”
“Ah’riodin, if my life were of great personal concern to you, you would never have cut your hair off while you were supposed to be taking a nap,” Ardenai muttered. He stood up to pace, and she followed, laughing softly in the echoing cavern. Ardenai turned to face her in the dim light, catching her by one slim shoulder. “Not amusing.” He reached behind her neck, unfastened her hair clasp and allowed her hair to spill down her back. “You nearly got me killed,” he said quietly, a hand on each side of her neck to spread her hair as he spoke. “Taking chances, making mistakes, being caught in error by those whom we care for and who care for us is one thing. They forgive our mistakes and allow us to go on living. Making mistakes, being caught, by those who hate us, is quite another matter. This bounty of sensually gratifying stuff, grew back. My hair will grow, and darken again and be as it was. But if we are caught, we will die. Period.”
She ducked under his arm and led him a few paces away to a rooted stone in the cave floor which raised her more closely to eye level. She stepped up, and put both her hands on his chest, leaning against him as she did so, and speaking intimately. “There is also no going back, Dragonhorse. Already they hunt you. The confusion will wear off, the paths will narrow. They will realize that all true Equi turn to their horses, and their wide open spaces when choosing a place to fight one on one … to the death.”
“Which is precisely what they’re supposed to think, is it not?”
“It is. But … knowing they are supposed to find you, and will find you … frightens me. You are a man of great courage and ingenuity, but a statesman, and a teacher, not a warrior.”
“You underestimate my allies, Fledermaus,” Ardenai murmured, and as he spoke he shifted his hands from her hair to her cheeks, and the outline of her jawbone, which he caressed – filling his nostrils with the scent of her. She leaned into him, dropped her head to a comfortable spot just under his chin, and sighed.
He closed his eyes, and slowly dipped his head until his lips and his teeth were resting against the side of her neck. She caught her breath, and his head jerked up again. “We are wasting time, my friend,” he said abruptly, dropping his hands back to her shoulders. “Let us find Pythos, discuss again our plan of action, and be on our respective ways. We must move with great alacrity if we are to remove this confrontation from our planet and our people.”
“Agreed,” the captain nodded, and walked ahead of Ardenai into the deepening gloom of the cavern, calling for Tarpan to join them.
Check back next week for the next chapter in this exciting serial from the Dragonhorse Rising universe. To learn more about Dragonhorse Rising and the world of the Equi, go to: http://www.dragonhorserising.com . You can also follow them on the Dragonhorse Rising Facebook page.