Shay, the spectacular golden dragon, alighted in a wooded valley an hour after dawn. The dragonrider Dani along with the five Davidson children, were clinging to her back still shivering from their hasty flight in the frigid heights above the clouds. After their escape from the Hall of the Mountain Kings, pursued by the deadly spectres of the past, the dragon arrived just in time as the Great Gray God, mortal foe of the Kings, attacked. Vast destructive forces both of nature and magic were released and as the High Citadel crumbled into tons of rubble at the God’s feet, Shay soared far above the carnage in a desperate effort to save her children.
At last they were on the ground again at the promised place of safety, but where were they?
“I know this is difficult my children, but you can rest soon. Dani, help them onto the ground.”
The teenage girl slipped off the dragon’s neck with practiced ease, ignoring the chill in her bones and her profound fatigue, and reached up for Zooey. The kindergartner slid into the older girl’s arms and let herself be lowered to the ground. Mandy, the oldest of the Davidson’s, managed to get down on her own and Zooey ran over and clutched onto one of her legs, resting her head on her side.
Nine-year-old Taylor was next and while Dani was helping his twin sister Paris down, the boy grabbed his seven-year-old brother Jake and helped him off of the dragon.
“Where are we, Shay?” The Davidsons clustered around Dani.
“An entrance, my child.”
They all turned to see a rock outcropping, trees and bushes growing all around it and even on top. There was what seemed to be a natural opening with crude steps leading down.
“Yes. Have no fear, it is a safe place.”
Even Dani was getting tired of sleeping in caves and part of her wondered why they couldn’t ride Shay through the air all the way back to Vovin. Then again, as she felt her legs wobble beneath her, she doubted that any of them could have been able to stay on the dragon’s back for that long.
“What’s inside, Shay?” Zooey looked up at the dragon remembering the last time she’d walked in a cave. That had led to the Hall of the Kings and being possessed by the spirits of the long-dead Royal Guard. They would have been taken over permanently if not for Dani.
“Inside are steps leading down and then a tunnel. Walk into the tunnel. There will have adequate light. On the other side is a place of safety and wonder. I had to leave you before to arrange for your sojourn here. Now I must leave you again.”
“Where are you going, Shay?”
“The way ahead is dangerous, my child. You will be safe here for a little while, but you cannot stay. There are many challenges left to face and you will begin to face them here.”
Dani didn’t like it when the dragon became enigmatic. It meant she knew things she couldn’t or wouldn’t tell them that affected the rest of their journey.
The dragon progressed several large steps backward preparing once again to take wing. “Take care of them, Dani. They depend on you. On the other side of the tunnel, you will learn more and just as importantly, you will find food, drink, and rest. Take care, my children.”
Shay’s large wings began to beat rapidly causing gusts of wind to blow against them. Dani looked up as the dragon began to ascend. Shay told her to take care of the children but who was going to take care of her?
The six of them looked up as the dragon soared skyward and to the west. When she was a thin streak of gold in the brilliant blue sky above, Dani got everyone’s attention. “Shay said we can rest once we get to the other side of the tunnel. I know we’re all tired, but we need to start now.”
She turned and walked to the entrance. Reluctantly, Mandy and Zooey fell in line behind her and then Jake and Paris followed. Taylor found he once again had Dani’s spear in his hand as well as her knife in its scabbard on his thigh and so took the rear position. Only the two oldest girls had to duck as they walked inside the stone opening.
As they moved down the rock steps, they still weren’t sure if they’d been carved by hands or water. At the bottom where they presumed the tunnel began, there was a faint glow that began to become brighter. Some sort of lichen was growing on the walls and giving off a light. There was enough of it to illuminate their travel through the tunnel.
Mandy thought that Dad probably wouldn’t have been able to stand up straight here, but the ceiling was high enough for all of the kids. It was a little warmer in the tunnel than outside, but except for Dani, they were all still wearing the robes of the Elite Royal Guards of the Kings which were designed more for ceremony and status than for practicality. The ruck packs containing the rest of their gear including their traveling clothes, were still secure on their backs for when they’d need them again.
Everyone was so tired by now that all they could do was put one foot in front of the other over and over so they could get where they were going. Mandy picked up Zooey who nearly fell asleep in her sister’s arms the minute she was off her feet.
It could have been minutes or hours, even Dani wasn’t sure, but then they heard a voice ahead. “They’ve arrived just as the dragon said. Prepare the way.”
The tunnel opened up in front of them but all the pilgrims could see was a blinding light with figures moving inside of it. Dani was the first to collapse and then one by one, the rest followed. Mandy was the last, sinking to her knees while still holding onto Zooey. Then everything went from light to black.
For a moment, Mandy thought she was back in her own bed and that the adventures in Gerliliam’s Forest, the Tundra, and in the Dark Hills was all a dream. Her eyes fluttered open and she looked up at the ceiling. She was warm and comfortable. The sheets were smooth and the blankets soft and plush. Then she realized the room was too big to be hers.
She sat up and found she was dressed in a light pullover, not the robes of the Royal Guard nor her usual attire. She turned her head at the sound of a small mewing to her left and saw Zooey snuggled up in a bed similar to her own. There was a window on the wall between them with thick alabaster curtains covering it. Although there were lanterns hanging from mounts on different portions of the room’s walls, the window was the only source of light.
Mandy swung her legs out of her covers and over the side of the bed. The floor was covered with cushy rugs and she allowed her toes to squeeze the fabric. Softly, she walked over to her sister. The little girl’s slow steady breathing testified to her being sound asleep. Mandy gently brushed her honey blond hair away from her face. Zooey murmured but continued to slumber.
The teenager looked around the room. One window and one door on the opposite wall. What appeared to be dressers, one with a mirror, small tables, cushioned chairs, it all looked like something you’d find in a castle or a museum. At the thought of the word “castle,” she winced remembering their trials in the Hall of the Kings and how they nearly didn’t make it out alive.
She walked in front of the mirror and looked at her reflection. Mandy couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a shower or a bath. Her hair was tangled and matted. Dirt smudged her face and hands. She ran her tongue around the inside of her mouth tasting sour morning breath multiplied by days if not weeks of neglect.
She jumped at the sound of a series of light knocks on the door.
“Come in.” Her voice sounded timid in spite of all she had been through or perhaps because of it.
The door opened and a girl no older than Mandy walked in. Then as she entered the light, she saw the girl was something else entirely.
“Excuse me. I hope you’ve had a good rest. My name is Altha. I was wondering if you and your sister were ready for refreshments or perhaps to bathe.”
Mandy looked at her apparent host. She was Mandy’s height but must have been older than her, maybe a lot older. She was dressed in a gown of pale blue and white and her long hair, extending down to her back, was whiter still. Her eyes were blue, like pictures she had seen of sapphires and her lips were painted a much lighter shade. She was beautiful but not like an actress or a model. Her face was long and angular making her seem almost alien, not quite like a person. Her fingers were a little too long and very slender. Mandy looked down and could see the girl’s bare feet extending just beyond her dress’ hemline revealing very long toes.
“Shay told my Mistress that we and this place would seem strange to you. Please don’t be afraid. We’re your friends and we want to help you.”
Mandy blushed. She’d been staring at the woman, if that’s what she was.
“I’m sorry. What was your name? I’m still kind of sleepy.”
“That’s quite alright. My name is Altha and you are in Direhaven, our home. My Mistress who governs here has said you are all our guests and are to be shown every courtesy. We understand you are curious about us. We rarely receive visitors and I’m sure we are equally curious about you.”
“Are you an elf?”
Both Mandy and Altha turned to face Zooey who was now sitting up in bed.
“We have been called that among other things by the people of your realm. If it pleases you, then I am an elf.”
“Wow!” The sleepiness left her eyes and the child looked and then grinned. Hopping out of bed, she walked up to the otherworldly woman. “My name is Zooey. Pleased to meet you.” She extended her hand.
Altha looked a little uncomfortable as if she didn’t know how to respond.
“Just grab my hand and we’ll shake, like this.” Zooey took the elf’s right hand and clasped onto it with hers, and then they shook.
“Oh, I see. A greeting.” Altha shook hands and then bowed. My name is Altha and this is Direhaven, a shelter for you in your travels.”
“Cool. I’d love to see more and meet some of the other elves.”
Seeing that Zooey was in a state similar to her own, Mandy interrupted. “You said something about a bath. We’ve been traveling in the Dark Hills for a long time and no doubt we could use one.”
“I completely understand. If you two will follow me, I’ll take you to the communal bath. My sister Saige has most likely already escorted Paris and your friend Dani there so you can join them.”
“Communal?” Mandy was suddenly aware that she was only wearing what amounted to a glorified t-shirt and if her brothers or other boys were there…
“You can bathe in the pool reserved for our female guests, you and your sisters. Your brothers are to be taken to a different chamber. Afterwards, you will come back to your rooms to dress and then you and your family are invited to break your fast with my Mistress and some of her court.”
Mandy heaved a sigh of relief. “Okay. Which way?”
Mandy took Zooey’s hand and they walked behind Altha as she left the room and took a left down the hall.
While their bedroom seemed all cloth and stone with some metal and glass decorations, the ceiling, walls, and floor of the hallway were all of that plus twisting designs in different earth tones. Mandy looked closer and saw they weren’t designs but what looked like growing vines and roots infused in the stone. As they walked further, the stone receded and the plants expanded as if forming a synergy between the organic and the stone.
Mandy lost her way in all of the lefts and rights and hoped Altha would be around after the bath to show them the way back. She looked at Zooey who was curiously peering at everything and probably didn’t care at all if she got lost.
Then they arrived at the end of a hall and the elven woman opened double doors. Inside was a circular room with a doorway at the opposite end and in the middle, the floor was dominated by a circular pool of water.
“Mandy. Zooey. You’re here.” Paris saw her sisters and called out with a smile.
Dani was sitting next to her on a bench under the water at the pool’s edge.
“Come on in. You’re going to love it.” Dani waved her arm at them revealing that she wasn’t wearing a bathing suit.
“I’ll go for some fresh towels. Your privacy is assured.” Altha turned and left, closing the door behind her.
Zooey quickly tossed off her shirt and sat on the pool’s edge next to Paris. Then she slid down until she was sitting on the bench.
“The water’s warm, Mandy. Come on in.”
Mandy walked to the water’s edge and sat, putting her legs into the pool. The water was warm and seemed relaxing. She looked left and right and then suddenly pulled off her shirt and submerged herself. Coming up for air, she found the pool let her stand up so that her head and neck broke the surface.
“It’s just girls here, Mandy. I’m not embarrassed if you’re not.” Dani smiled knowingly and then went underwater, pushing off the side with her feet and streaking to the other side. Then she came up, turned, and shot back to where she’d been before.
Mandy felt a little silly being embarrassed. They had all been through such hardships and even almost died, and yet she was still bothered about not having any clothes on, even in front of her sisters and Dani.
When she had to go to Junior High and found out she’d be showering with the other girls in her gym class, Mom told her it was perfectly natural at her age to be embarrassed about taking her clothes off. She tried to comfort Mandy by saying all of the other girls probably felt the same way.
It didn’t seem to help. She always got undressed as quickly as she could, took the fastest shower possible, avoided eye contact with the others at all costs, and then dried and dressed. She thought some of the other girls looked as uncomfortable as she felt but some of the others didn’t seem to mind at all, which Mandy didn’t understand.
The sound of splashing pulled the teen out of her daydreams and she saw the other three laughing, and playing, and dunking each other under the water.
“Come on. Don’t be such a kill joy.” Even Paris was getting into the act and she was even more shy than Mandy. Her sister splashed water in her face.
“Oh yeah?” Mandy splashed back and in a few moments, if you could notice, all you would see were four girls in carefree play in a pool, having fun, but in their case, it was the first time they’d really laughed like children in weeks.
This was the proudest day of Azzorh’s life. If only Pater and Mater had lived to see it. He was being inducted into the Elite Royal Guard and in position second only to the Captain. This would have been a fine prize for one of the regulars of the Royal Guard of the Kings, but Azzorh was being promoted up from the ranks of the foot soldiers, an unheard of elevation. His extreme valor against the Sarsarian invasion from the south is what won him this honor.
His troop’s Captain was led to believe that they had routed a band of barbarians and ordered his men to pursue and finish them off. It seemed an easy victory but as it turned out to be all too easy.
It had been a ruse. Once they were lured into the canyon pass, two units of Sarsarian’s charged from behind, emerging from hidden arroyos, while those ahead turned and, with reinforcements, charged back at them. Trapped between two fronts, all they could do was to fight and die. Scores of the King’s men were cut down but they did not go down easily as they took an equal if not greater number of the enemy with them.
Azzorh never saw the Captain nor his four Lieutenants fall, but fall they did, vanished amid the carnage in a wild and bloody melee, arms hacked off here, legs lopped off there, more screaming than the young footman had ever heard in his life. As the gods would have it, there was a small rise, some six to eight feet tall and as long and wide as their barracks floor where the remaining troops were being pressed.
He, being the senior Subadar left alive and with all of body parts intact, clamored up the side along with six subordinates to get the lay of the battle. They were still outnumbered two to one but the odds were far better for them now than when the battle began.
They had black powder, a mix of charcoal, sulphur, and other substances provided by the Apothecarians for the purpose of creating flash and smoke distractions, but it would not be useful for that purpose now. Giving rapid orders, Azzorh set fifteen men brave and true to work on what he called the “tabletop” while the rest, with him in the forefront, defended their last stand.
The combat wore well into the afternoon and fatigue on both sides resulted in fatal mistakes, but they were trained soldiers, proud defenders of the Mountain Kings, while the Sarsarians were but undisciplined barbarians who depended on their numbers and animal savagery to win their conflicts. Keep in mind, they had won many victories and sent legions of civilized infantrymen screaming from the field of battle in terror, but the King’s soldiers were made of sterner stuff. Even if defeated, they would die like men, not run like dogs.
An hour before sunset, they were ready. Bags of the powder tied shut with long ropes made of horses reins, binding rope, anything long and flexible were assembled, a fuse protruding from each one.
“Now, firemen! Ignite and throw!”
The number of barbarians was fully half what they had been this morning, and Azzorh’s forces were cut by a quarter but if night fell without resolution, the King’s soldiers were surely doomed.
The first volleys were away. The contents of the bags had been littered with rocks, broken blades, anything to make a projectile. The first of them exploded in the middle of the horde to the West and while the flash and sound startled the savages, their ranks being shredded like meat in a grinder horrified even their monstrous sensibilities. It took three more such detonations each with the same result (though several of the King’s soldiers were also injured at two were killed) before they turned and ran.
“After them men. Give no quarter!” Azzorh had seen far too many comrades brutally slain to allow any of their murderers to escape. Some few did, but only enough to carry back the tale of their defeat by the lords of smoke and flame. After that, He and his surviving troops rejoined the battalion carrying the secret of their victory so that others could use the same tactics and ultimately win the war.
Azzorh was escorted into the Hall of the Mountain Kings and awarded medals of valor and courage by the Captain himself. The Kings applauded his martial acumen and welcomed him to the Elites. Skilled with the spear and sword, he would make a fine addition to their ranks.
Taylor woke up in a sweat. It was a dream, a terrible dream. There was blood everywhere, he was covered in it. He remembered swinging his sword. He chopped into a man’s neck so hard that his head…
“Stop it. It was just a dream.” He was sitting up in bed now. Wait. Whose bed was it and why was Jake in one just like it?
Later, the two boys were in a bath though they didn’t know it was a duplicate to the one that Dani and his sisters were washing and playing in.
“Why so gloomy, Taylor? I could relax in here for a week.” Jake leaned his head back against the tile and let himself sink up to his chin in the warm water.
He should be relaxing and enjoying himself as well, but he couldn’t get the dream out of his head. That’s because he knew it wasn’t a dream. It was a memory. He had been possessed by the spirit of that guy Azzorh. They all had been possessed by the ghosts of members of the King’s Elite Guard, except as far as he knew, he was the only one to remember anything about the thing that was inside of him. It was out now, wasn’t it?
“Excuse me, Taylor and Jake.”
The guy who looked a little like Glorfindel from the Lord of the Rings movie had come back and with the towels he had talked about. He also had different t-shirts for them to wear.
“You may dry off at any time. Then I will escort you back to your rooms where you may change for the meal.”
“Thanks, Mr…” Jake was terrible at names and Taylor hadn’t really been paying attention.
“You may call me Edyn. I will set these down on the bench next to the wall and wait outside the doors.”
“Thank you, Edyn.” Taylor felt tense just looking at him but he had no idea why. Ever since he woke up, everything had been peaceful and nothing bad had happened.
As the elf or whatever he was turned to go, Taylor pushed himself out of the pool and headed toward the towels.
“What’s your hurry? Edwin said he’d wait outside.”
“His name is Edyn and we shouldn’t keep him too long. Besides, I want to see what’s happened to everyone else.”
“Do you think they’re in trouble?”
“No, but I don’t like not knowing where they are. Now come on.”
As Jake reluctantly hoisted himself out of the bath, Taylor finished drying off and pulled on his fresh t-shirt. It was long enough to drop down to his knees and pretty warm even though it looked thin. He was just glad his sisters couldn’t see him dressed like this.
Altha led the girls into the dining hall through one set of doors and Edyn did the same with Taylor and Jake in a second set to the right. They ran to each other and hugged. Dani stood back and Taylor felt especially embarrassed. Even though they were a family, everything that had happened to them since they came to this crazy place made them feel a lot closer.
Dani cleared her throat to get everyone’s attention. Mandy and the other children looked up to see Altha and Edyn smiling slightly. Then they looked toward the other end of the room. A long table with a white tablecloth, candles, and with more fancy food and silverware than they’d ever seen even at Grandma Esther’s house for Thanksgiving was set on it. On the left and right sides, were eight elves, four to a side, all dressed in robes and jewels of different colors and designs. At the head of the table stood what looked like a Queen, a Queen of the Elves, with a golden crown on her head, a necklace of what Mandy thought must be diamonds around her neck. All of the elves had long hair, some white, some light yellow, one, a man to the left of the Queen had hair as black as a raven’s wing.
Except for the necklaces and rings and twinkling hair ties and bands, all of the children were dressed in just the same way. Zooey giggled at the realization she was wearing real elf clothes but Mandy hushed her. Everything was silk and satin with a touch of leather and silver. It was then Taylor remembered he hadn’t seen the spear and knife he had with him when they entered the tunnel. He hoped that didn’t mean anything bad.
Then the six children saw everyone was looking at them.
“Please be welcome,” said the Queen. I am Janellize, and it is my privilege to serve my people here in the city of Direhaven.”
Mandy opened her mouth but Dani stepped forward and bowed. “On behalf of myself Dani of Vovin and the Davidson family, we humbly accept your hospitality and thank you for your compassion and graciousness.”
The eldest Davidson closed her mouth and was glad Dani had spoken first. She could never have said anything like what had passed across the dragonrider’s lips.
Altha and Edyn guided the six of them forward and showed each of them their seats. Only then did the eight elven nobles and finally Janellize sit and begin to eat.
Jake started to pick what looked like a chicken leg up with his hands when Paris kicked his shin under the table and then nodded toward the elves. It took a second for him to figure out he was supposed to watch how the elves ate and then eat like them.
Zooey avoided the quail and anything else that looked like it was made from an animal and only put fruit, vegetables, and nuts on her plate. Being children and in a strange land with unfamiliar customs and manners, they did their best and Dani imagined that their hosts would be forgiving of them under the circumstances.
They ate in silence even though Zooey was dying to ask a bunch of questions. Paris too wanted to know more. This was the first time since Gerliliam’s tree that she found herself in anything that looked like a fairy tale. Were they really elves and did that mean the legends of elves she’d read about back home were all true? Maybe they just looked like elves or maybe they were in disguise and they only appeared this way to make them feel better.
When everyone was finished, Janellize stood and her nobles followed her example. “Now that the evening meal is concluded, I would ask that my nobles and the Davidson party please accompany me to the library. We have much to discuss.”
All this while, Altha and Edyn had been standing at the side of the room, and when what looked like waiters and waitresses came out with more food, they directed them where to put it. They stayed in the dining room after Janellize turned and walked toward the door behind her and the nobles followed. None of the nobles introduced themselves and even Dani was getting nervous about who everyone was, what kind of place they were in, and why Shay had told them to come here.
The door in back of the dining room led to an enormous corridor two or three stories tall. To the left were floor to ceiling arched windows. Sunlight was streaming in and through the glare, they could see what looked like a vast city made of an equal mix of forests and buildings of white stone and glass, like a real fairy tale city. There was a water fall at the far end but the mist rising from the bottom made it impossible to tell where it fell into.
Evening meal. They’d been asleep most of the day and now the sun was setting again. At the same time yesterday, they were all about to walk into a trap. Now many miles away from the demolished Hall of the Kings, they were all walking into something else but would it be any better?
They approached a set of double doors as tall as the windows. Two elves with what Dani would later tell them were halberds, bowed and then opened the doors wide.
Janellize entered first and her nobles, who walked in side-by-side in two columns behind her, just as they had sat at dinner, followed behind. Dani led the other children into the room while arguing with herself about whether or not it was the right thing to do. Shay said to come here. She trusted Shay, but the dragon was after all a dragon and thus mysterious and not always very human.
The room was bigger than Mandy’s school auditorium and still as tall as the windows and doors. More of the same windows were to the left, but all of the other walls, floor to ceiling were lined with bookshelves, hundreds and hundreds of bookshelves containing thousands and even tens of thousands of books, all connected through an elaborate network of ladders, catwalks, spiral staircases, and platforms the went up and down like elevators.
Gerliliam would have been green with envy if his scales weren’t already somewhat green naturally.
Janellize took a seat toward the far end of the room and there were seats for the nobles arranged just as they were at the dinner table. Other chairs were available for the six visitors and the Mistress, as Altha had called her, waved her hand silently bidding them to be seated.
A number of small tables were near the chairs, each with lanterns and as the sun approached the horizon, servants entered to light them. The ceiling also begin to illuminate as darkness approached and Dani thought they also used the glowing lichen here in the city as well as in the tunnel.
Then the servants left, the doors were closed, and they were alone with each other.
“As you may know, the arrangements for your stay here in Direhaven were made between the great golden dragon Shay and my chief nobel Wynjeon.” She moved her hand in the direction of the ebony-haired elven man to her right and he nodded toward the children.
“This, I admit, was a difficult arrangement since we rarely accept guests and have not always been on kind terms with the dragon folk, their arrival in the realm being somewhat of a surprise and not a particularly welcome one.”
All of the children were surprised to hear what Janellize was saying having thought Shay was friends with these people, but Dani and Taylor were actually alarmed, both of them in their own way, suspecting that this safe haven wasn’t all that it seemed to be.
“However, having the situation explained to us and now better understanding the nature of the dragon folk’s exile to this realm as well as their accumulation of children from your own domain, we are somewhat more at ease regarding your visit or rather we were until we discovered that one of you bears a dark secret, one that not only could threaten Direhaven, but your own Vovin as well. The question is, what shall we do about this secret and its carrier?”
It had to be him. It had to be. Taylor stood up. “Excuse me, but I guess you’re talking about me.”
“We are aware of your conflict Taylor but no. You may be seated.” He felt his face get hot and saw Mandy glaring at him like he’d just done the rudest thing in the world. He sat and looked down gritting his teeth.
“You carry something with you that endangers our city, our people, your quest, and even your own existence.” Janellize was looking straight at Dani. “Danijel, you may rise.”
I wrote this for the Thursday photo prompt – Ahead #writephoto hosted at Sue Vincent’s Daily Echo. Every Thursday Sue posts one of her photos to be used as a prompt for authors to craft a poem, short story, or other creative work.
I’ve been using Sue’s photos each week to continue the saga of the Davidson children who have been mysteriously sent to a strange land populated by dragons, trolls, strange gods, and now even elves (or so they seem to be). This is the latest chapter in their epic tale as they make their way to the dragon’s home of Vovin or rather their home in exile.
We have discovered the hidden memories of young Taylor as he continues to experience the life of a long dead elite guardian of the Mountain Kings but now we see that the dragonrider may also present a secret and even a danger. We’ll find out more about that (hopefully) next week.
In the meantime, here’s a partial list of what I’ve written about the Davidson childrens’ adventures with Dani and Shay so far:
I’ll flesh it out as time allows.
Let me know what you think of this story and the very uncertain future of the five Davidson kids. Thanks.
The next chapter is Trial at Sakhr.