A new volume of fantasy adventure and tales of swords & sorcery.
REALMS CONTENTS A Quarterly Journal of Fantasy Fiction SPRING 2010 LACHRYMAE DRACONIS by K. A. Laity ............................................................................. 3 Dragons can be a bit contrary, but they do come in handy at times. THE INSTINCTS OF A BEAST by Bryan D. Fagan ............................................................ 11 For a born predator, instinct can be a hard thing to ignore. THE BONE HARP by Cort Ellyn .............................................................................................. 22 An act of jealousy is usually followed by the punishment of guilt. THE NIGHT ROSE OF THE MOUNTAIN by John Buentello and Lawrence Buentello 27 A test of will between an old healer and a duty-bound knight. THE PIECE AT THE FULCRUM by Jeff Young .................................................................. 36 Apparently too much gold can be hazardous to the King's health. TALIESSA'S WISH by Michael Meyerhofer ............................................................................. 44 Freedom is a precious thing, but at what cost to others? THE OLWEN OF THE WYNNE by Rose Blackthorn .......................................................... 70 On a cold winter night, even Vikings can become a bit melancholy. NEWBORN by Michelle Scott ...................................................................................................... 81 Twelve years in a dungeon, and now they ask her to preserve the royal bloodline. THE PANORAMA OF FAILURE by Jeffrey Aaron Miller .................................................. 90 If you lead your people down the wrong path, honor demands you share their fate. THE SUMMONING by John P. Buentello ................................................................................ 95 Facing a life without the power of magic, a warrior finds her true strength. IDOL MISCHIEF by Debbie Ledesma ...................................................................................... 100 Take this job and give it to someone who deserves the misery. Front Cover by M. D. Jackson, illustrating a scene from "Instincts of the Beast" This publication copyright 2010 by Black Matrix Publishing LLC and individually copyrighted by artists and individuals who have contributed to this issue. All stories in this magazine are fiction. Names, characters and places are products of the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance of the characters to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Realms is published quarterly by Black Matrix Publishing LLC, 1252 Redwood Ave. #52, Grants Pass, OR 97527. Our Web site: www.blackmatrixpub.com Other magazines available from Black Matrix: Encounters Magazine, Night Chills and Outer Reaches. Welcome to the second issue of Realms. We continue to work on finding new ways to get our writer's work in front of as many readers as possible. You may be reading this because you checked this issue out of the library, or you purchased a printed copy from our Web site or dozens of other online booksellers, or you got a good deal on one of our low-priced PDF editions. However you found your way here, we hope you enjoy the large selection of fantasy fiction we've gathered for this issue. Dragons, wizards, warriors, even some Vikings... all these and more live inside these pages. We still have room for a few more libraries in our free subscription program, so if you would like to see us on the shelf, send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will contact your local librarian about stocking all of our regular titles. Enjoy, and we will see you in the Summer with our next issue. Guy Kenyon Editor/Black Matrix Publishing LLC Kim Kenyon Publisher/Black Matrix Publishing LLC Lachrymae Draconis by K. A. Laity Dragons can be a bit contrary, but they do come in handy at times. ___________________________________________________________ “You blinked.” The dragon’s brow furrowed and her nostrils flared with menace. Colburga dodged to her left towards the cave wall just in time to miss a half-hearted flash of flame. “Rules are rules,” she said, laughing and slapping at her sleeve which had begun smoking slightly. “I’m bored. I’m tired of being in here,” the dragon rattled out her long sinuous throat, raking the words over her internal embers to give them the full weight of crankiness. Colburga sighed. “You know it’s too early to go out. Give it a couple of hours and dusk will be here.” “It’s not just that—I’m not even that hungry.” She stretched the top of her neck, releasing a series of popping cracks. “I’m sick of this life, sick of being merchandise, sick of being little more than a cow.” Twin plumes of smoke puffed out of her nostrils and drifted gently toward the top of the cave. “I want to be wild! I want to wander this middengeard—” “—to boldly strike fear in the hearts of warriors, to face the storm of blades, and to die horribly and alone and get hung in somebody’s mead hall for a nice decoration that never gets dusted off, and soon nobody remembers who killed you or what you were.” Colburga drew in a breath and softened her tone. “We’ve been over this a hundred hundred times. We’ve got a good thing here. No one bothers us and we have enough to eat. You don’t know what it’s like to starve, to be alone.” The dragon rolled her golden eyes. “Oh yes, it’s time for the heroic ode! Where’s my harp? Let me pull the strings and sing the tale of Colburga the orphan, abandoned and alone, her beloved mother dead, no one to watch out for her—” “All right, all right!” Colburga felt her own temper rising now, particularly at the mention of her mother, but she hadn’t survived all that by flying off the handle when provoked. Nothing creates patience like poverty. She still woke occasionally at night shivering with imagined cold, flinching from grasping hands and unseen dangers—but those days were behind her. Colburga had become a successful chapwoman, selling her wares on market day in the nearby villages or even to the local monastery. The abbot prized her hardy rosemary, but most folk saved their best chicken 5 or a hearty flitch of bacon for a small vial of precious dragon’s tears. Pity they were fakes. Nice bottles though. She would have thought more people knew that dragon’s cannot cry. The dragon in question, however, was now slipping into a very good sulk. It was no good telling her again that she was small for her breed, Colburga thought, that one good Wiglaf-type could slay her with a single slash of his heirloom blade. She was lonely (human company being no substitute for dragon-kind, as Colburga well knew). She was bored. There was a lot of that going around this cave, though. Life on the fringes of society was hard. Colburga herself sometimes stood outside the abbey and wondered if joining the smiling novices might not be a bad idea—good meals, a nice place to sleep, pretty songs to sing, and, well, a place to belong. She had heard that the abbey people were supposed to give up things like money and sex, but her observations had proved otherwise. Yet something kept her from going up to the gates to do anything except deliver her herbs and tinctures; even so, she took every opportunity to peek at the men and women who sang with such joy and seemed to leap across the gardens in the spring. But she had more immediate concerns now. “Let’s blow some glass,” she cajoled the grumpy dragon. “Might as well do something useful, eh?” The dragon snorted. “Something profitable, you mean.” Colburga colored slightly. She had only meant to distract the creature from her mood, not worry about money, but she had an ingrained habit of working to keep the wolf at bay. “Have you got a better idea?” Just then the bell down the path rang. Praise Nerthus, Colburga thought, then amended her words as Abbot Ælfric had taught, praise the All-father, although she could not help thinking that a man alone would not be much of a creator. “We have company. Let’s try not to lose a sale,” she said with as much of a flattering tone as she could manage at that moment. The dragon’s comment had hit at the heart of her worries, and although Colburga mentally counted up the coins laid by in the casket hidden under the dragon’s bed as she always did when the bell rang, she chastised herself for her anxiety. The money was accumulating well. For what, she did not know yet, but someday she would. At present, though, it gave her great comfort to know what jangled safely under the dragon’s rump. Colburga pushed open the wooden door that kept the cave snug and dry. The fire-hardened wood, greased with sheep fat, swung open silently and easily. It was convenient having your own forge, ready any time in an instant and without wood. The young woman straightened without even thinking of it as she strode down the path, throwing on the mantle of sorceress as quickly as she removed it within the cave. She stepped through the stone archway at the end of the path, formed long ago by falling rock, and felt the thrill of anticipation. What herbs or magic would the desperate folks need today? No one came up to the cave unless they were really desperate. If there was no pressing need, they would see her on market days and make their purchases. No, this was likely to be a more serious illness and desperation meant good money. She was somewhat disappointed to see a small child sitting on the bench by the bell, her short legs dangling with a methodic rhythm. It was no good. A child meant either a time waster or a charity case. Colburga had to draw the line there—the only charity she supported was herself. There just wasn’t room in life for a soft heart, as she too well knew. She could feel the frown drawing the corners of her mouth south as she walked toward the bench. “No time wasters,” Colburga grumbled to herself but loud enough, she hoped, for the child to hear. It was a girl of maybe six or seven, eight if she was small for her age, reddish blonde hair trapped in two long plaits down her back. She hopped off the bench and turned to meet the healer. Colburga leaned back in surprise as she met two of the bluest eyes she had ever seen. She’d seen all kinds of blue eyes from stormy grey-blue to pale winter sky blue, but never this kind of shiny blue bird-egg color. “Hello,” the girl said looking up gravely at Colburga’s close scrutiny. “Hello, little girl. What brings you up to see me?” Colburga said back, forgetting for a moment her promise to be curt. “I need your help,” the child continued, bringing the sorceress back to business. ‘Well, tell me what it is. I haven’t all day, and I don’t do anything for promises of later payment. What is it?” “Father Wulfraed says we need dragon’s blood. I’ve come to fetch it.” Colburga had a thought that the child was going to simply hold out her hand and expect it to be filled. Dragon’s blood! Who in all Kent would suggest such a 6 thing? There were few who knew of the herb, fewer yet who knew what it was for. Or could they really have thought she had the real thing? “Father Wulfraed?” “Father Wulfraed from the abbey,” the little one continued, as if all the wide world knew his name. Colburga did not, though she had often had commerce with most of the abbey folk and knew a good many by name. This was all getting off on the wrong foot, threatening to run down a useless path that would make neither of them any money. “Why does the monk say you need dragon’s blood?” The grave little face became even more solemn. “Mummy’s dying, and Father Wulfraed said that only dragon’s blood would save her. Please, do you have some?” Colburga’s eyes narrowed. It could be a lucky guess, or it could be a trick. The herb with that name came from the far east and was unbelievably expensive. She had seen some once in the abbey. Why would a monk or friar suggest coming to her? Her herb selections were great, and the concoctions well-made (if only she said so), but they had their own dragon’s blood and didn’t go for foolishness like dragon’s tears themselves. “Are you sure it wasn’t dragon’s tears he requested, child?” The girl shook her head decidedly. “No, dragon’s blood. Father Wulfraed said they had an herb called dragon’s blood in the botanica, but what we need is real dragon’s blood. And everyone knows you have a dragon.” Everyone hopes, you mean, Colburga thought to herself, otherwise they’re all rooked. Chance would be a fine thing—there wasn’t one real tear in the bunch. But the bottles are very nice, she reminded herself, each one a unique dragon-forged handicraft. People got something nice for their money, which was more than she could say for the creature’s blood. One drop of that and a person would burn from the inside. “Dragon’s blood is very expensive,” she told the girl, trying to ignore the imploring look and the neatly mended tunic with its tiny, even stitches. “Dragon’s don’t like to give up their blood, for one thing, and no one wants to do the blood letting, for another. Would you walk up to a dragon and say, ‘Here dragon, I’d like to have some of your blood, please?’ Do you know what a dragon would do?” The girl shook her head and the braids flapped on her shoulders. “Set you on fire,” Colburga said, nodding sagely. “That’s why it’s so expensive. Kings have come here,” she added, warming to the story-telling now. “Queens, too, with pots of money and lots of cows. Begging me to sell them some dragon blood. You know what I told them?” The girl shook her head again, too dazzled by the yarn to realize where this was leading. 'I told them ‘go away, get out of here.’ It’s just not worth my while to burn myself like a forgotten loaf just to get a few drops of dragon’s blood.” Colburga folded her arms. “What could you pay, that the finest of nobles could not, eh?” To her surprise, the girl smiled. “Me!” “What?” “Me,” the girl continued. “I will bond myself to you as your slave. You can send me to get the dragon’s blood, Father Wulfraed said so.” Colburga realized she must make quite a picture then with her mouth flung open like a toad’s. “Father Wulfraed said…?” Again an eager nod. “He said you could teach me and I could fetch dragon’s blood for you and be so very helpful and Mummy would live and everything would be well.” The little face glowed now, the eggblue eyes so bright a passing magpie might seek them for treasures. Colburga stared at them for as long as she could. “Wait here,” was all she said in the end, before turning to pad back up to the cave. The dragon had not moved. “What was that all about,” the creature said crossly, if a little sleepily. “You were out there for so long.” “I need to go to the village,” Colburga said by way of answer, grabbing her large basket of herbs, and checking to be sure there was a good amount of maythe in the bottom. “There’s something weird going on.” “Weird how?” the dragon asked as she yawned and lay her scaly head upon a blanket, stretching her wings before refolding them to her satisfaction. “A child was sent up here to fetch some dragon’s blood,” Colburga said, tossing some dried nettles into the basket as well. The dragon blinked in surprise, but her heavy lids soon fell and she was asleep before Colburga made it out the entrance again. She threw her wool cloak over her shoulder for the walk down. The child still waited expectantly. “Are we going to get the dragon’s blood now?” “No,” Colburga said, taking her hand, “We’re going to see your mother.” T he woman was definitely ill. Her skin was pale and yellow, cold and clammy to the touch. She was so deeply asleep—or feverish, Colburga thought grimly—that she paid no attention to the healer’s hands probing her flesh, touching this pulse point or 7 that, peeking at the whites of her eyes. The girl followed her every movement eagerly, but did not interrupt with a lot of questions. An amazingly wellraised child, Colburga could not help thinking it a compliment to the woman who lay prone before her, as much good as that would do her. “How long has your mother been ill?” Colburga asked the child as she continued to knead the hand of the woman. “A few days,” the child answered, looking thoughtful, “Since the Saint’s day.” “Are you sure?” If so, this was bad indeed. The girl nodded. “We were walking back from the church and Mummy began to feel weak. We had to stop at Elene’s to rest and she had so much food she made sure we had some to take with us but when we got home Mummy lay down and she has been up very little since then. I even brought her a bucket and she has hardly used it.” The child held it up for Colburga’s inspection. If I needed anything else to tell me, here it is, Colburga thought, staring at the bucket’s tar-black contents. Poison; there was no doubt about it. But how? “What’s you name, child?” she asked to give herself time to think. “Hild.” She smiled up at Colburga, confident that an adult would be able to set things right, especially a sorceress. “Hild, did your mother eat anything unusual at the Saint’s day mass?” The child furrowed her little brows to consider the question carefully. Her solemnity was so droll, Colburga had to hide a smile. “We had some bread before we went to hear the stories.” “But nothing else?” “No.” She sounded quite certain. “Mummy spoke with Father Wulfraed aside as she always used to do with Father Edmund before.” “You mean for confession?” Colburga asked. Hild nodded. “But she didn’t stop to talk with anyone else, because Mummy said we needed to go home, so we came straight away.” Puzzling. Such a poison would have to been taken only a short time before illness set in. Perhaps one of the other women had been envious and slipped her something the child did not see. Looking around their tiny home, it was hard to believe anyone could envy their lot, but it took very little to provoke it sometimes. Although she now lay pale and drawn, Hild’s mother was certainly a very pretty woman who might catch a husband’s eye and a wife’s wrath. Of course the important thing was to turn the tide of poison, if it could still be done. The yellowness of her eye and the purple of her nail were not good signs, yet Colburga could but try. She had her reputation to live up to anyway. Her success may be attributed to the exquisite bottles of dragon’s tears, but it was her skill as a healer that kept her reputation intact. “Have you some wood for the fire?” It appeared that the kitchen hearth had lain cold for days. What had the child been eating? Hild ran over to the corner, picked up a few sticks of kindling and handed them over dutifully. Colburga frowned. These bits would not begin to get the water warm, but they didn’t have time to go search for wood now. She reached over to fish through her basket to find a couple of sceatta. “Take these coins to one of your neighbors and ask them to give you some wood.” Hild ran off at once. Colburga busied herself selecting herbs while her eyes kept straying over to the prone body of Hild’s mother. Someone had poisoned this woman. Someone had poisoned this woman, who by all appearances had nothing. That is the strange thing, Colburga thought. Kings were poisoned, bishops, queens, reeves even—but poor mothers with a little child and no husband to protect them? It seemed absurd. Hild was back within a quarter hour, arms laden with a hasty assemblage of sticks and a single log that threatened to topple her tiny frame. “They wanted to know where I got pennies and I told them the dragon lady!” In no time the fire roared and the cauldron began to warm. Colburga showed Hild the order in which to add the herbs to the pot. “I know Father Wulfraed would not like this, but before you add each one, remember to say ‘Praise Nerthus’ by way of thanks.” What the good father didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. “I’m going to go to the abbey to get some wine and honey,” she told the child. “We’ll need them for the healing. Keep an eye on the pot and don’t let it come to a full boil. Can you shift it off the fire if you need to?” Hild nodded vigorously, and Colburga left her watching the pot with intense gravity. Poor kid, Colburga thought as she quickened her pace toward the abbey. Well, no doubt the monks would give her a good home if things continued as they were. The walk to the abbey seemed far too long tonight. Brother Oswald was at the gate with his jolly grin, but his mood darkened as he quickly grasped the gravity of her request and trotted off to find Abbott Ælfric. “He’s probably in the scriptorium, catching the last of the day’s light,” he assured her. She sat on the visitor’s bench to watch the other monks pass to and fro. It seemed to be between the regular hours of prayer, those regular intervals when the bells would 8 ring out across the meadows, sometimes even—when the wind was right—up to the entrance of the cave. Colburga was impatient, so it seemed much longer than it was until the Abbott arrived, trailed by another monk with a large missal and some scraps of parchment held before him. The Abbott greeted her warmly and introduced his compatriot. “This is Father Wulfraed, lately returned to us from Canterbury. I sent Oswald to fetch some wine and honey, but do you have enough horehound?” She nodded to the Abbott and had barely taken in the other monk when he finally looked up from his responsibilities. When he did, her heart leapt up in her throat. His eyes. That blue, shiny blue, impossible blue, bird-egg blue that Hild had—it was there, too. His perfunctory smile of welcome did not reach the eyes. The look that gave the child a breathless innocence, here took on the coldness of a predator. “Recently returned?” she finally croaked, her throat still too full of her fluttering heart. He was the one who recommended dragon’s blood to the child. Perhaps it was not an idle suggestion. The abbot clapped a companionable hand on the monk’s shoulder before he answered her. “This was before you came here, Colburga—maybe five years ago, yes, Wulf?” “Seven,” he answered with a smile as toothy and sharp as his namesake. “I hated to leave such a welcoming home.” Colburga felt a chill move through her. Was she only imagining it? But he must have overheard what she had come for and known she was attempting to turn the poison. If it were he who— but how could she prove such a thing? Brother Oswald returned just then with a brisk step, a bottle of wine and a pot of fresh honey, handing them over with haste and a blessing. “Is there anything else you need?” the abbot asked with a frown, as if he were sure he had forgotten something. Father Wulfraed’s frown spoke of plans foiled—or did it? Colburga cursed her sudden certainty. Eyes, that’s all she had, eyes. Blue, blue eyes like she had never seen—but now she had seen them twice in one day. She said, “I have everything I need now. I’ll do what I can, the rest is out of my hands. The All-father will save her if she is worthy,” she added, knowing the words would placate the monk. The abbot smiled, but he was not fooled. “Your skill comes from His will, too. Let us hope that is part of His plan as well. We will hold you both in our prayers tonight. God speed!” Colburga was still shaking as she hurried back along the path to the village, muttering to herself under her breath. It was simply unthinkable! Not that the monks were perfectly adherent to their order. Ælfric himself was fond of saying there would be no need for reformers if there were not those who needed to be reformed. But murder? Even if you did not have to answer to the All-father, there were the people of the village who would not accept such treachery regardless of the clothes the maledictor wore. To risk so much simply to cover a moment of passion—the very idea was terrible. It spoke of one whose coldness of heart would shame any dragon. If he were willing to poison the mother, what would he do to the child? “Where have you been?” The words hissed crossly from the darkness behind a pair of trees made Colburga nearly jump out of her skin. “Don’t do that!” she rasped, grateful that alarm had only made her clutch the precious bottle closer. “Why aren’t you in the cave?” The dragon sighed and flapped her wings. “I needed to get some flying in. I can’t stay stuffed inside that cramped space all the time.” Colburga looked furtively around. “It’s not safe. Anyone could come along this path.” The dragon snorted and a small wisp of smoke curled out of her left nostril. “Dragons need to fly.” “Dragons sleep for centuries without moving an inch. The dragon Wiglaf killed had slept for four hundred years they said. The one he killed, you know. As in dead?” The dragon only blinked lazily. “I’m not sleepy. Where have you been?” “I’m trying to save someone who’s been poisoned, so I need to get back to that hut right away,” Colburga answered, turning her steps again toward the far end of the village. “Why?” The dragon had apparently decided to follow her. “This is stupid!” Colburga said, stopping once more. “You need to hide.” “Why are you helping that child?” “I don’t know. It just seemed—I don’t know.” “You’re going to lose money on this.” “Shut up! You’re going to lose your life if someone decides to be a warrior hero.” The dragon’s laugh, as usual, sounded more like a cough. “In this village? I think I hardly need tremble. Who’s going to attack me? Eldulf the cartwright? Cuthwin the miller?” “Wulfraed the monk,” Colburga snapped walking again and more quickly. “I think he might be the 9 poisoner.” “A monk, really? Does your abbot friend know?” Apparently the dragon was going to follow her all the way to Hild’s doorstep. “No, no—I can’t just accuse someone because they have the right color eyes.” Colburga explained the events of the day in hushed tones, finishing her tale just before they arrived at the hut. “Now, stay out here and don’t make a sound.” “As if I would. Dragons are known for their stealthy ways.” “Why is it you always wake me up in the middle of the night crashing around the cave?” Colburga hissed before slipping in through the door. Hild looked up from the fire which she had tended carefully, but her smile was wan. “Can we give her the remedy now?” Colburga glanced at the concoction in the pot then looked over at the woman who still lay there, pale, breathing shallowly. A touch of her forehead revealed an even colder surface, below which a fire raged. Not a good sign, not at all. “Yes, take the pot off the heat altogether. Have you got a bowl for mixing?” Hild scampered across the room to a collection of wooden bowls perched in a little nook in the wall. She brought the lot to Colburga who sat herself on the floor in front of the fire. In its flickering light, she dipped a smaller bowl into the pot and poured its contents into a slightly bigger one. The spoon from the cooking pot was large, but it would work well enough to mix in the wine and honey. Hild watched all the sorceress’ actions with rapt attention, her little hands at the ready for any new tasks. Well, we shall see, Colburga thought. “Do you have some scraps of cloth for winding?” Hild thought for a moment, then went over to the bed where her mother lay, reaching beneath the ticking until she pulled out some odd swaths of cloth, saved for patches no doubt. “Will these do?” There was little choice in the matter, so Colburga nodded. She closed her eyes, reviewed the list of ingredients, then took a pinch of ash and dirt from the hearth and added it to the mixture, muttering under her breath, “Hale be you, Nerthus, mother of men. Ever may you grow in the arms of the gods, filled with food and useful for folk.” The child looked at her curiously, eager hope dancing in those blue eyes. Colburga smiled and said, “Blessings of the All-father on this mixture, may it bring your mother to health once more.” “Amen,” said Hild with all the gravity the abbot would have wished on his priests. She had Hild hold the bowl while she used the spoon awkwardly to get some of the mixture into the woman’s mouth, hoping it would not choke her. Hild’s mother swallowed if only as a sleeper would. The cloth soaked up the rest of the concoction in the bowl, and Colburga wound it around the woman’s feet as well as laying some across her belly in the hopes that it would draw the poison more quickly. But the waxy flesh suggested that the poison had spread throughout her body, and Colburga feared her ministrations would all be for naught. A noise outside made Hild turn her head suddenly. That stupid dragon! Just what she needed right now. “Father!” Hild said, running to the door where Wulfraed stood framed by the black night, the meager light from the fire casting flickering shadows over his carnivorous face. “Have you come to see Mummy? She’s very ill, but the dragon lady has given her remedies that will cure her.” If the night sky was black, the look Wulfraed gave Colburga made it seem like midday in contrast. “I have come to administer extreme unction, for I am certain she will not last the night.” “You mean to make sure she does not,” Colburga said, her tone surprisingly matter-of-fact even as she felt her heart leap up again. Hild looked uncertainly from one to the other. Colburga continued, “It is not wrong, is it, for the child to call you ‘father’?” Wulfraed smiled, but there was no warmth in his countenance. “The eyes,” Colburga continued. “She’s got your eyes.” “That legacy she has indeed. But no one will know it.” He walked into the room with boldness, scooped up the child and grinned at Colburga. “You will not harm this child!” Her tone was more confident than her body. Scrappy though she was, Colburga could not match his strength. The child looked uncertainly between the two of them again, confused by the mix of tones and expressions. “I need not harm her once she is alone,” Wulfraed continued. “But I cannot have her mother laying claims before the abbot.” “How did you do it, anyway?” The wolfish grin grew bright. “Communion wafer. At least I knew she would die cleansed of her sins.” “The All-father will curse you,” Colburga said, hoping to reach his hidden heart. “The All-father knows that I do what I do in his name, to protect his church. He had great plans for me, I know. And a child and a wife have no part in those plans. I will be an abbot soon. I have the ear of the archbishop in Canterbury. My path is certain.” Colburga heard a snuffling noise outside the hut 10 and it filled her with sudden inspiration. “Never presume to know the will of the gods.” He barked with laughter. “You do not even understand the true way. You speak of idols and useless devils—the All-father rules the world he made and rewards those who follow his lead.” Colburga felt emboldened at his cocksure boasting. “There is ancient power that you forget. The earth is older than your All-father and its forces are beyond your tiny understanding.” “I think your potions have gone to your head, cunning woman. None but fools believe in elves and sprites.” “I’m talking about dragons,” Colburga said with a cool contempt she almost fancied she believed. Please, dragon, don’t have gone back to the cave, she thought, crossing her fingers. Now Wulfraed laughed with real humor. “Don’t be ridiculous! Everyone knows what a fake you are. Dragon’s tears! Did you know there’s no such thing as dragon’s tears, little girl? This woman has poisoned your mother. Dragon’s blood is a poison!” Hild looked terrified, but Colburga was at least relieved to see that the child did not immediately know which of them to fear more. Colburga stepped over to the door and flung it open. “I will call up my dragon to drag the truth out of you,” she shouted half in and half out of the door. Where was that dragon? “It was you who poisoned Hild’s mother! You who hoped to hide your crime, your shame and your obligations.” “Who will believe that? It is all very well to say you have a dragon, but I have the church and connections and, unlike you, respectability and authority. And however much the abbot may be interested in your quaint potions and herbal remedies, I don’t think—” Whatever he was going to say next was cut off when the dragon poked her head down from the roof and through the door to let out a large belch of fire brightening but not burning up the entire hut. Hild shrieked, squirmed from Wulfraed’s arms , and crouched next to her mother on the straw bed. Thank the gods, Colburga thought with truly heartfelt gratitude. The monk’s expression had turned from smug arrogance to befuddled fear, his world expanding so quickly it seemed to clear all thoughts from his heart completely, like a footprint in the dirt obliterated by a strong wind. The dragon hopped down from the roof and thrust herself through the door as far as its small frame allowed, puffing smoke across the room. Colburga was upset by Hild’s terrified crying, but she had to do this right. “You stand accused, Wulfraed. Confess or burn!” He stared at her, eyes wide. “What?” “Confess or burn!” You poisoned this woman, yes?” The dragon let a small flame flicker across the space between them. “Yes!” he yelped. Good boy! “You did it to hide your fornication with this woman, from which this child was born, did you not?” “Yes,” he nearly screamed it when another burst of fire belched from the dragon’s mouth. “You will leave at once, confess your sins to the abbot, and leave your order.” “No…” A whisper this time. Bad idea; the dragon lifted her head slightly and almost seemed to smile as she aimed a stream of fire squarely at the hem of his garment. The flames licked the weave, and the smell of burning wool filled the smoky confines of the hut. “Yes, yes!” he shrieked at last, slapping ineffectually at the burning habit. The dragon withdrew to leave him room to flee out the door. And flee he did, his leatherbound feet smacking the floor as he ran. The dragon could not resist letting go one last blast of fire at his retreat, so the two of them watched him speed away with hands wildly waving to put out the conflagration in his hair. Colburga grinned at the dragon. “Thanks.” “That was fun,” the dragon responded, yawning. “We should do this more often.” “I don’t think so,” Colburga laughed. “We’ll be run out of town in no time.” The sudden silence seemed welcome for a moment, but then Colburga turned. Hild was still crouched by her mother’s head, but the woman no longer seemed to be breathing. The healer ran over to take the woman’s hand, laying her head upon her breast. If there was still a heartbeat it was too faint to hear. “If there’s anything to the dragon tears legend, now would be a good time to find out,” she said to the dragon, who merely stared at her. “Dragons don’t have tears, I’ve told you a hundred hundred times.” Hild hiccoughed through her own tears. “Is my Mummy dead?” She seemed so ready for the truth it hurt Colburga. Too late, too late, she had been too late. “There is something else,” the dragon said, as if she had been turning the matter over in her mind as she stretched the kinks out of her neck. “What?” Colburga answered, staring down at the still form of the woman. “Well, I can’t come in there, so you have to bring 11 her over here.” Colburga looked up. “What?” “Just bring her and hurry,” the dragon said with her usual impatience. Colburga hesitated for a second, then reached to grab the woman under her arms and began to pull her off the bed. “No, no no!” Hild slammed her with tiny fists. “She won’t burn her.” Colburga tried to convince the child and move at the same time. “We’re going to help. We got rid of the bad man, right?” But the child continued to wail and strike at her as she dragged the woman within reach of the dragon. “What will you do?” Colburga asked the creature nervously. The dragon ignored her and put her nose down to the woman’s face. Hild was not quite courageous enough to attack the dragon, but instead stared in horror as the smoky breath poured forth from her slightly open mouth. Colburga began to understand. She lifted the woman’s head higher and opened her mouth. With the other hand, she pressed on the woman’s chest, hoping it might help encourage her breathing. For a few moments nothing happened—but suddenly, with a cough, the woman began to draw breath on her own. “Mummy!” Hild shrieked and then wrapped her arms around the woman, who stirred slightly, opened her eyes, and murmured the child’s name. I hope she doesn’t turn around and see the dragon, Colburga thought to herself, but the woman almost immediately sank back into unconsciousness. “Let’s get her back to bed,” she whispered to Hild. The child dutifully helped as well as her tiny arms could, then lay her head upon her mother’s chest and promptly fell asleep. “You didn’t make a penny here,” the dragon said as they turned their steps back toward the cave. “Maybe not,” Colburga said with a smile the night hid, “But I have a great idea for a new line of remedies. What do you think? Dragon’s breath in a bottle. We can make twice as much from it as from the dragon tears!” The dragon looked sideways at her. “Sounds like more work for me.” Colburga grinned. “Maybe you should fly home.” The dragon stopped in her tracks. “What’s this? You, you of all people, think I should fly?” “Well, it’s better than having you lumber along like this making so much noise.” The dragon blew a puff of smoke in her face, then turned and leapt into the air. Her flight was a winged shape across the stars, like a shadow snuffing and relighting the lights. Colburga smiled to herself. The world was full of magic, if you knew where to look. ____________________________________________ K. A. Laity has published numerous stories including "Sun Thief" in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress XXI, published by DAW Books, and the novel Pelzmantel: A Medieval Tale, published by Spilled Candy Books, which was nominated for the Aesop Prize of the Children's Folklore Section of the American Folklore Society and for the International Reading Association Children's Book Award. Check out the latest from Black Matrix. Take a look at digital samples of all of our releases - and you can order direct from the site. Search and find other online stores that carry our publications. www.blackmatrixpub.com Read our blog at blackmatrixpublishingllc.blogspot.com 12