This is part of a collaborative story, and any rights are still held by the authors, as recorded in these footnotes. This arrangement was compiled by me using the pen name of Anableps, and is intended for those who wish to extend the story at the www.sir-toby.com website.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The Exploration of the Dragon's Caves. 3
Chapter 2: The Enclosed Valley. 9
Chapter 3: The Battle of the Dragon's Pond. 29
Chapter 4: Next to a Battle Lost .... 43
Chapter 5: A Journey over Peak and Plain
Families and Tribes. 79
Lord Fred remembered it as if it were yesterday... His Quest.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> That damned map. Why did it have to be so confusing?
The King stood before the people and spoke:
"And so we send our most heroic warrior, Lord Fred, to vanquish the most terrible dragon of the Southern Caves. For years, the dragon has tormented our people. He has burned our fields, taken our children, and been an all around mean dragon.
"Lord Fred, take this map. Use it to locate the entrance to the dragon's lair at the Southern Caves. May God be with you on your quest."
Fred looked at the map again. "This is where it should be", he muttered to himself.
Fred looked up from the map viewing the two entrances again. The map did not say anything about two entrances.
Fred could not just sit there forever. He had to choose. His logic, such as it was, was this: a right-handed person always leans toward the right.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Since he was right-handed, he headed toward the cave on his right.
A warm breeze blew from deeper in the cave. Strangely, it did not get darker as Fred advanced inside the cave.
After he had walked some way into the cave, Fred came to a fork. He saw a trail of water in one direction, but that light on that trail faded it went further into the caves. On the other path, it seemed to be getting even brighter still.
Fred turned toward the light. It certainly was an attractive option.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Strange creatures lived near water. It would be best to save any fighting for the dragon himself. He followed the light, and soon turned past a corner and found the source of the light. He saw an old man chanting, and reading something out of a book. Floating just in front of the man is the source of light, too brilliant to look at.
The old man had not noticed Fred. Fred thought that the possibility of the man asking the man for assistance, but he chose to sneak past him, and avoid any potential conflict. Fred continued on his way and found himself in a strange room. In it, were four chests: one blue, one green, one red, and one gold.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Fred opened the gold chest, half-expecting to find a chest full of gold coins, and he was surprised to find that it was empty.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> More accurately, it had a hole in the bottom that led to darkness.
"A secret passage?" mutters Fred. He tried to move the gold chest, but it would not budge. Fred had anticipated darkness, and had a flint and a small candle. He used it, and found a ladder that led down into the darkness.
Lord Fred's curiosity got the better of him.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> He decided to climb down to see what he could find. The ladder went a long way down. Fred eventually came to a landing on a long, dimly lit corridor, although the ladder continued further down. Down one end of the corridor Fred heard what he thought were voices. Down the other end, he heard the sound of metal hitting rock. Fred continued to climb down the ladder, until he reached bottom. [Many floating lights shone. They were like the one near the old man, but dimmer. They were still bright enough so that Fred could put away his candle and flint.] The ladder appeared to end in some kind of Wine Cellar.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> He examined the labels. The Dragon had quite a collection!
Suddenly, the ladder was pulled from up from above, and a trap door slammed shut! Evil laughter came from up above, and the room began rumbling.
Looking about quickly, Fred noticed exits to the north and south. He did not seem in any immediate danger. Fred pulled a bottle of wine, poured himself a glass, and sat down to drink it. An evil-looking elf walked in and began "What are you doing with my wine?"<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The elf waited for an answer but Fred simply remained silent. The lights suddenly dimmed and the rumbling noises stopped. Fred knew that all elves were scared of the dark, and so he quietly crawled away from the elf. Fred noticed yet another corridor on his right, but continued to walk straight ahead, into the darkness, ignoring the elf's increasingly more vociferous demands that he return the bottle of wine.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Soon Fred was out of hearing range of the elf, and now he removed a flint and a candle from his backpack. The illumination afforded by the flame when lit was meagre, but that was better than nothing, and it allowed the intrepid knight to increase his pace somewhat.
Until now, Fred had been fortunate in that the tunnel down which he was walking had proven to be consistent in height, width and direction; now however the tunnel appeared to veer sharply to the right and down.
The new direction, however, was to be a literal turn for the worse. He soon found the ground beneath his feet becoming damp and slippery, while the air is both colder and fouler than before. Before long, he found himself wading through ice-cold water up to his thighs, while the quality of the air is now so poor the candle is spluttering and looked as though it might be extinguished at any moment. Fred soon felt cold, tired and out of breath. He was annoyed and disappointed to find what appeared to be a dead end. [Fred persisted, hoping to find some way forward, and then his nose showed him the way.] He found a secret passage that smelled faintly like Amantadillo, the most fatal pellet poison known to man.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The passage was low, very dark and the walls were dripping with mould.
Fred placed his candle in the bottle of wine that he had been carrying.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> He stooped headfirst into the passage, and crawled in on his hands and knees. He trapped the neck of the bottle under his right hand, and carefully dragged it as he advanced. A dim circle of light lit the right wall. He continued for twenty yards. The passage broadened. It was now tall enough for Fred to raise himself from the ground, and walk with stooped shoulders into a hollow in the cave.
The floor was damp. He walked slowly toward a wall. Someone had painted something there! Fred examined it with his light, and finds that it is a portrait.
Fred was puzzled.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Why would anybody go to the trouble of painting what was a very accomplished and very large picture in such an inaccessible and - were it not for Fred's light - dark location, where it was highly unlikely that anyone would ever see it? He guessed that the painting had not been there long, or the prevailing dampness would surely have led to some fading of its colours.
The subject matter of the painting was equally surprising. It was a full-length and seemingly life-size portrayal of a tall and athletic, yet very beautiful, young woman. She had long red hair and green eyes. She was totally naked, and was painted as if chained to the wall by her wrists. Above the picture, a brass plate had been screwed to the wall. It bore the legend: "Princess Astra of Aqualaria".
Fred had heard of Princess Astra, though he had never met her. News had come from Aqualaria that she had set out on a similar quest to his own, that was, to slay the dragon, some months before. But she had never returned to her people and the dragon's raids had continued unabated, so it seemed that she must have perished. What denizen of the caves could have painted her, and why?
Fred could not find any further clues as to why the painting was here, in a dank hollow beneath the ground.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Fred decided to continue further, to see if this part of the caves might be on the fringes of the dragon's lair. He carefully inched forward, with his fingertips of his right hand on the wall, and now holding his improvised lamp with his left hand. What he could see of the wall was a greyish rock with no markings.
His left foot stuck something, and he heard the sound of metal scraping on rock. Fred stooped down, and felt damp leather. He lowered the light so that he could see the object. He was touching part of a scabbard for a sabre. The scabbard might have belonged to the Princess, as Aqualaria was famous for its mounted cavalry.
Fred moved the light to see if there was still a sabre in the scabbard.
It was.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> He withdrew it so that he could examine its blade. Both the weapon's hilt and the scabbard were completely devoid of any ornamentation, but they were clearly of very high quality, as was the blade itself. Sabre and scabbard had clearly belonged to a serious swordsman (or swordswoman), rather than to some wealthy noble who liked to pose as a fighter. The damp conditions had caused the first tiny spots of rust to begin to appear on the blade. The scabbard and its contents must have been abandoned at least a week or two ago, possibly considerably longer. That was consistent with when the princess had vanished.
But why would the owner have discarded the scabbard and sword? They were valuable items. More importantly, surely no one in their right mind would abandon their weapon when they were in such a dangerous place as this. Had whoever it was been delusional or under some enchantment? Or had they been acting under duress? The scabbard had a leather loop, and Fred was able to attach it to the back of his belt, and carry it on his back.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Fred carefully crept forward. The scent of the Amantadillo  was gone now. The height from the cave floor to the ceiling had not changed, but Fred noticed that both were starting to incline upward. In the flickering light, Fred saw an animal on the ground. It did not move. After hesitating, he moved forward, stooped, and looked.
It was another elf. This one was barefoot and naked down to his belly. He wore dirty cotton trousers with a pattern of brown and white vertical stripes. A pretty, clean, bluish-purple cloth circumscribed his belly. The material looked expensive - the dye certainly was, at least in Allaria. Goods like this were typically reserved for the nobility.
Fred wondered where the elf had come by his cummerbund.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> It did not seem to go with his grubby trousers or with his lack of a shirt or jerkin. It was of too high a quality and too clean.
Perhaps this elf would be more amenable than the one he had encountered earlier, he reflected. He might be able to get some useful information from him, so he bent down and gently took hold of the elf's shoulder.
The elf woke at once. Understandably startled, he leapt to his feet, and turned as if to flee.
"Don't be afraid," Fred said. "I mean you no harm."
The elf appeared to relax a little. "Why did you wake me up?" he asked rather petulantly.
"I thought that you might be able to help me. I'm here to kill the dragon, but I've become rather lost."
The elf looked alarmed. "I don't know anything about the dragon."
Fred was sure that the elf was lying. But he still had several more questions that he wanted to ask. He would try those before deciding whether he needed to resort to threats.
"A Princess Astra came to these caves a few months back, to try to slay the dragon. She never returned. I don't suppose that you know what happened to her?"
The elf shook his head vigorously. "No, definitely not. Never met her."
"I found this sword." He drew it, and the elf took a step back as though Fred might suddenly decide to run him through. "I was wondering if it might have been hers."
"There's a picture of her on the wall just back there, so she must have come here."
"Is that who it is? I can't read human writing, so the name plate meant nothing to me. Why isn't she wearing any clothes in the picture?"
"I was hoping that you might be able to tell me... That sash that you're wearing. How did you come by it?"
The elf stammered, and then said, "I found it, just like you found that sabre." The elf then said, "Wanna trade?"<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
That the elf had stammered before answering made Fred fairly sure that he was lying.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> However, he had really come by the sash; he had not simply found it lying discarded somewhere.
"No, I don't want to trade," Fred said. "Though I can see that the cloth is of excellent quality, even so the sabre is clearly far more valuable. There is one more question that I would like to ask you, however. What are you doing in these caves? I thought that elves were people of the forests, and I understood that they are afraid of the dark. But you are not the first elf that I have met down here. I encountered another in what was clearly a wine cellar. He claimed that the wine was his, but that seemed unlikely. I suspect that he was looking after the wine for the dragon. And if he was working for the dragon, then perhaps you are too."
The elf paled, and might have fled. But Fred still had the sabre in his hand from showing it to him, and before he could turn the point was at his throat. "Now perhaps you will answer my questions truthfully," the knight said. The elf nodded his head very gently.
Fred asked, "Now where did you get that cloth?"<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
The elf replied, "Sir, I was telling you the truth. I found it within these caves. It may seem to be impossible, but things get left here."
"Some men come in, looking for the dragon, and they lose things. Sometimes other elves from the outside bring things in. And sometimes, it is said, that skilled elves can snag things from the dragon so that he does not notice."
Fred responded with another question. "Who painted that picture on the wall over there? And why paint it in such a dark and lonely place?"
"Ah," said the elf.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> "Quite a story that. Know ye that not all who come here are knights, neither do they all come for the Dragon.
Once the Princess of Aqualaria came here, seeking as so many others before her, to slay the Dragon. But he tricked her, stole all that she had with or on her, and chained her to the wall as the picture shows.
When the Princess did not return and no one heard from her, the King sent, of all people, a Master Painter to look for her. Strangely enough, this turned out to be just the right choice.
When the Painter found her, the Princess told him that the Dragon never comes here, but kept an eye on her through a scrying crystal. Being an expert on images, the Painter realized that the crystal only showed a flat still image, indistinguishable from a painting. So he spent two weeks painting a picture on the wall so that the Dragon would not realize the Princess had been rescued."
"A likely story!" Fred snorted. "The Dragon did not check on his captive for two whole weeks? They could just have escaped without bothering with the painting!"
"Quite the contrary, he checked - as he still does - twice a day. That is what makes the Painter a true Master."
Fred blinked at the elf. "You mean he - "
"Yes, Sir Knight. He painted the wall behind the Princess before he freed her."
At first Fred was inclined to dismiss the elf's story as being far too implausible to be true.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> But it occurred to him that if the elf had wanted to lie, he could surely have come up with something rather more convincing. For the time being, he would give him the benefit of the doubt.
So he asked, "So what happened to the Princess and the painter? Why have they not returned to the Kingdom?"
"For the same reason that I am still here myself, reduced to scavenging for a living and trying to avoid the dragon's notice. The dragon has arranged for magic wards to be placed on all the exits from the caverns, so that no one but himself can leave. That's why no-one who comes here is ever heard of again. And since no-one ever returns from the caves, nobody outside knows about the wards."
"So none of us can ever get out?"
"Maybe someone can learn enough magic to be able to counter the wards. It's also been suggested that destroying the dragon might also destroy his wards, but nobody knows for sure. Sooner or later, after none of the knights sent to kill the dragon have returned, maybe some ruler will be bright enough to send a magic user instead."
"Are some of the knights sent before me still alive?"
"Yes, a few."
Fred shook his head.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> "It is not possible for a man to survive in these caves. There is no food. No sun."
The elf replied, "I have. There is a path to the outside. Those of us who live past the first day or two find it. There is lots of grass, brush, and a few small bushes. There are enough deer, large birds, and berry vines out there so that armed men can stay alive."
"But if I could get outside it should be possible to find a way back to the place where I came in?"
"You can try, sir. But nobody has done it yet. The land lies in a deep valley, with huge mountains that let nothing in or out. Not even a drop of water can flow past these mountains."
Fred said, "Show me this path to the outside. And do not try any tricks."
The elf looked aggrieved, but Fred rather suspected that it was an act.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> "Of course not, Sir... Sir...?"
"The name is Fred. And you are...?"
As the elf led him through a succession of passages, Fred said, "So presumably the dragon is not aware of the exit to the valley, if he has not put a ward on it?"
"If a number of us could find it, then I'm sure that he must know of it. I suspect that he is sure that it is impossible for anyone to escape that way, unless of course they had the wings of a dragon, and that he therefore lets his prisoners have the opportunity to feed themselves."
Legolam led Fred on for about twenty minutes, before they turned a sharp corner and Fred saw brightness just ahead. They emerged into late afternoon sunshine. The unaccustomed glare temporarily blinded Fred, and he almost had to shut his eyes before they adjusted.
Once Fred could see properly once more, he looked around him. They had emerged on a gentle hill-slope, not far from the foot of the valley. As Legolam had told him, the floor of the valley was mostly grassland, with a small lake in the centre. High mountains ringed the valley, but it was large enough that its centre would get plenty of sun except perhaps in mid winter. Fred estimated that it was almost circular in shape and about three or four miles in diameter. The surrounding mountains were wooded on their lower flanks, but gradually turned into steep rock above that, with snow in turn higher still. It was so unusual not to see a comparatively low pass at any point, that Fred wondered whether the valley could have been produced by incredibly powerful magic rather than being a natural phenomenon.
Fred saw two people coming out of the trees in the distance.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> They waved to him, beckoning him to come to them. The man had a short beard and full white moustache. He was stout, bronzed, and toned. He was dressed in a vermillion linen tunic and breeches, with leather cavalry boots. The woman was fairer than the man was, and she wore her silver hair in a ponytail. She was dressed in a simple yellow cotton dress circumscribed with a thick hemp rope around the waist. From this rope hung a number of pouches. They were both armed, he with a broadsword and she with a longbow.
Fred looked at Legolam, and asked, "Who are they?"
Legolam answered, "Anselm and Hildegard."
Legolam then bolted back toward the caves.
Anselm and Hildegard were close enough by now to see the startled expression on Fred's face resulting from Legolam's unexpected departure.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> "Don't mind Legolam," Hildegard said. "He's not quite right in the head."
"I'd already noticed that he seemed a little strange," Fred replied. "Before he fled he told me your names. I am pleased to meet you, my lady Hildegard, sir Anselm. I am Lord Fred of Suffex in Allaria. I came to the caves in order to slay the dragon. I'm a little surprised to find a lady here - other than Princess Astra, that is, whom I learnt about from Legolam."
"What exactly did he tell you about her, and indeed about the situation here?" Anselm enquired. "He is not always to be relied upon."
Fred summarised what he had been told. When he had finished, Anselm said, "He told the truth." Anselm pointed toward the trees, and said, "Fred, we should get under cover.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> When the dragon finds that the princess is missing, he will be very angry. We do not want to be out in the open when he returns."
Hildegard led the way. Fred and Anselm talked as they trotted toward a coppice. "Are the trees that much safer? Does the dragon have any servants?"
Anselm replied dryly, "Not as many as he did at one time. But he still has a few who will eat the crumbs that fall from his table. And the trees will hide us from his sight if he is flying above us, which is what he is likely to do if he starts searching here."
"Do you know where the princess is?"
"Yes. We found her with the painter, just as we found you. Taking her in is a risk, but we have to take it to be true to ourselves. They are safe for now."
What do you mean by 'taking her in'?" Fred wanted to know. <![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
"We have what amounts to a small community of people who were trapped in the caves but managed to elude the dragon," Hildegard said. "The caverns are so extensive that even the dragon can't keep everywhere under constant surveillance, so there are a dozen or so of us who have managed to avoid discovery. Princess Astra is different. She is unique in being, as far as we know, the only person ever to have been the dragon's prisoner and then to have escaped. Of course, most of those whom he captured didn't survive for long enough to have any chance of getting away. I argued for taking Astra in, since it seemed to me that the dragon's search for her once he realised that she was gone would put us at risk whether we took her in or not. Not everyone agreed."
"I was one of those who felt that we were putting ourselves at increased risk, but I felt that we had a moral duty to help her anyway," Anselm said. "If we didn't take her in and the dragon found her before finding us, then he would have ceased searching and we would have been safe. But the majority were swayed by the moral argument and voted to take her in, along with the painter."
"I don't understand this talk about eluding the dragon," Fred said. "Surely as dragon slayers you wouldn't want to elude him, but would confront him to slay or be slain or perhaps made his prisoner."
Hildegard smiled. "Do I look like a dragon slayer to you? No, none of the dragon slayers who have come to the caves are members of our little band, save for Astra and now perhaps you. As you point out, most of those heroes are dead. I'm afraid that we are adventurers who had a less noble motive for coming here. Inspired by the tales of the dragon's hoard, we hoped to steal a little of it without his noticing. Some of us even succeeded in doing so, only to find ourselves trapped in the caves."
Fred asked if he might meet the Princess.
Anselm shook his head and replied, "Not yet, my friend.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> As I have told you, some are not above making a deal with the dragon. Understood?"
"Do you think Legolam is going to betray us?"
Anselm replied, "Do not worry about him. Just keep moving."
Hildegard stooped down and crawled into a small gap in the underbrush. As the two men approached the gap, Anselm said, "You go first."
Fred expected to be scratched by thorns, but as he advanced, he found that a secret trail had been blazed, and he could go forward without distractions. He could not see far, and was barely able to keep up with the yellow dress of Hildegard ahead. After twenty minutes of wending his way through, Fred noticed that the underbrush started to thin out, and he was able to stand up. He was now in a grove of aspen and birch trees.
Fred could now see what might be a place of refuge. It seemed a little smaller than he had thought. He thought, "Surely this isn't it?" It was the entry leading underground.
"Not back into the dragon's caves!?" Fred said.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
"No, it's just a couple of interconnected caves that are completely separate from the main system," Anselm said. "It might seem paradoxical, but it is actually the best place to hide from the dragon. His vision is said to be very keen and his hearing very acute, but he cannot see or hear through solid rock. And even if he should spot the entrance through the trees, which is unlikely, and suspect that someone might be hiding inside, the entrance is too small for him to go inside and check."
The three went through the entrance into the outer of the two caves. Enough light filtered in to make artificial illumination unnecessary. The outer cave was empty.
The outer cave had been altered from its natural state.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The floor was smooth, and tiled over with small rocks into a simple pattern of chevrons alternating in black and white. Fred noticed two shafts of light from the sides of the main entrance, and recognized them immediately as arrow loops to guard the cave. Fred was not sure whether arrows would be effective against the dragon, but they would be against smaller animals. Some work had gone into the planning of this refuge.
Hildegard whistled a tune that sounded like the call of a blackbird. After a little period of silence, she whistled it again. Fred heard footsteps echoing from the interior. From the cave came a man of about thirty years, with a full black beard and moustache. Anselm said, "Thomas of Alkamore, we have a new man that has entered the caves, hoping to rid us of the dragon -- Lord Fred of Allaria."
Thomas walked toward Fred, and the men shook hands. Thomas asked, "What part of Allaria do you come from, Lord Fred?"
"The Duchy of Suffex. I am the heir apparent to the title of duke, but that does not count for much here. I hope that I can be of service to you."
Thomas replied, "Thank you. We need to support each other, and any man - or woman - of merit has a place here. You appear, Lord Fred, not to stand on your rank. That is admirable, and should help you. We are in a delicate position, where we will restrict your movements, and may give you orders. I would be your guide and overseer you until we have established your trustworthiness. It is nothing personal. If you are who we think you are, you will become part of us, and our swords will support each other. If, on the other hand, you cannot accept these conditions, then we will take you elsewhere, and you can do what you will. If you come back to this place, we would consider that hostile, but apart from that, we would leave you to fulfil your destiny."
As a noble and knight of Allaria, Fred was not used to having his good faith doubted, but he bit back the angry retort that first came to his mind.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anselm, Hildegard and Thomas did not appear to be Allarians, so their caution regarding him was, he supposed, understandable. That Anselm and Hildegard had shown him this refuge must indicate that they had at least some degree of trust in him. That some things were being kept from him for the time being seemed to imply that they must have another, even more secret refuge, where presumably Princess Astra was currently. At any rate, he could not think of anything else that they might need to keep secret.
After some twenty seconds of consideration, Fred said: "I accept your conditions."
Thomas, who from what had transpired Fred took to be the leader of the group, said: "Good. I am pleased that you took your time to make up your mind. It suggests that you are not given to making rash decisions, and rashness is something that we cannot afford."
Fred said, "What plans do you have to attack the dragon?"<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Thomas replied, "Nothing definite yet. It has been a while since an attempt was made. We know what does not work. Its armour seems to be resistant to edged weapons. The dragon has plenty of time to crush the would-be hero before swords can do much. In theory, a missile of some sort might work, but such a missile would have to either have more heft or more speed that we can give our arrows. One knight tried to kill the dragon while he was sleeping, but that did not work either. The dragon detected his presence."
Fred offered an alternative, "What about a coordinated attack?"
Thomas said, "I saw one of those myself my first year here. A band from my home kingdom, as a matter of fact. Eight pikemen and eight longbowmen. Good idea to keep the dragon at a pike's length, but his ability to fly takes away that advantage. I could not warn them in time, and they were wiped out. Mounted cavalry would not do much, either."
"So are you just giving up?"
"We have a couple of ideas that we are working on. But an attack is something we will only get one chance at, so we need to make sure that it stands a good chance of success."
"Are there any warriors amongst you?"
"We have all gained some skill, but none of us besides the princess and me had much formal training."
"Were you a knight?"
"Engineer. I advised my prince on how to build castles and military engines. I was on my way back from Jaxinarta on business when servants of the dragon on the outside kidnapped me and held me hostage. Fortunately, I was able to escape, but I had to bad luck to hide in the caves, and could not find my way back out. Fred, you have to understand that some knights come in with a good reputation, but they turn bad here. It is a sad fact of human nature. The problems that we have had to deal with most start from some of the would-be heroes who come here to seek a trophy. When they find that they cannot slay the dragon, they despair."
"Like those elves I met? Legolam and the other one that pestered me for the bottle of wine seemed to be seedier than I would expect elves to be."
"It could be that the elves that came into the caves were of not of the best stock in the first place. But, yes, they are not impressive. They will rob you blind if they think they can get away with it. But the elves are generally harmless. The biggest problem here used to come from a marauding band of former knights that were loosely allied with the dragon. Some of those who have been here longer than I have remember those days."
Fred replied, "But those marauding bands are no longer a problem? Anslem told me that 'there were not as many servants of the dragon as there used to be.'"
"The dragon is recruiting new forces from some of the rabble outside. The dragon evidently decided recently that the attrition of his men at arms and other servants had reached the point that it was time for him to recruit some new ones.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> I might add that much of that attrition was due to the dragon himself, for he has a short and uncertain temper and anyone he perceives as failing him does not last long."
"How do you know that he is recruiting?" Fred asked. "You can't get out into the outside world to gain intelligence, and I assume that the dragon does not consult you on his plans."
Thomas chuckled. "No, but some of our spies have spotted groups of men moving deeper into the caves whose faces are suntanned. That means that they could only have entered the caves recently. The dragon's long-term servants are almost all pale, not having access to the outside. Yes, some occasionally may go out on missions for him, but not enough of them and not frequently enough to alter the overall impression of paleness."
"If the dragon is building up his forces, won't that make killing him even more difficult? That is an argument against delay."
"I suppose it is. But as I told you, of our people only the princess and I could be considered warriors by any stretch of the imagination. Most of the others were adventurers. They have good survival skills of course, or they would not have lasted long in the caves, but they are neither eager nor appropriately trained to take on the dragon head-on. And as I told you, those who tried to do so in the past perished, even those who were skilled in combat."
"Well, the number of your warriors has now increased by fifty per cent, from two to three. As soon as you have assured yourself of my good faith, I think that we ought to have a council of war with the princess to discuss ways in which the dragon might be overthrown. Having been his prisoner, she may have had the chance to find out some weakness that the rest of us don't know about. I was told that it is hoped that if he can be killed, his wards preventing anyone leaving the caves might lapse, which ought to be a big incentive to make the attempt."
Thomas replied, "We are thinking along the same lines.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> I think that the day after tomorrow will be soon enough to have a meeting. You will see the princess then, but I hope that you will meet her rescuer tonight. We have some time between now and supper. We are working on building a wagon. With your strong arms, you can be of great help."
Thomas led Fred and Anselm out of the cave and into the forest. Fred could not detect trail markings, but there was always just enough space where a man could pass easily, although a dragon could not. "I will not be able to find my way back unless Thomas guides me," he thought. Suddenly a shaft of light dropped from the sky, and the three men approached a clearing. On the far side, in the shadows, was a low, flat wooden platform resting on three axles. The wheels were half the height of a man, built of a thick wood, with rims reinforced by iron hoops that the men scavenged from somewhere.
"My goodness," said Fred, as Anselm moved a wooden chest out from under the platform. "Are you trying to transport a cottage from one end of the valley to the other? And how do you intend on pulling this?"
Thomas smiled tightly and replied, "No, we are not trying to transport a cottage. But you have noticed that it is solidly built. It needs to be. But it is not finished. While we are working on it, I will inform you of its purpose."
As Anselm opens the chest, Fred sees a variety of carpenter's tools. None of them were unusual. The chest contained a selection of chisels, hammers, planes, saws, drills, screwdrivers and the like, as well as nails and screws.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Fred wondered whether the items had been stolen from a workshop used by the dragon's servants, as he doubted whether the community that he had joined would have been able to make them themselves.
"I can't see any tools here that would need my 'strong arms' to use," he remarked. "And in any case, I have no experience of carpentry. That was not something that an Allarian noble needed to learn."
Thomas grinned. "That is not what we need you for. As you observed, the cart is very sturdy. That is because it will have to transport something heavy. Your task will be to help us lift that item into place. Then it will need to be securely fastened to the cart. We don't want it falling off while it is being moved. It will also be better if it cannot shift about when it is being used, as that would reduce its accuracy."
"Accuracy? Are you talking about some sort of weapon? But if it is going to be so heavy, surely even on a cart you could never get it through the tunnels to a point where it could be used against the dragon."
It amused Thomas to tantalise Fred for a little longer. He grabbed a loop of rope from the tool chest, and hung it over his left shoulder.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> He motioned with an open palm toward the forest. Fred followed him.
Thomas said, "I am not going to tell you exactly what I have in mind." Then he smiled, and said, "Who knows? You might have a better idea than what I have. But to answer your question - Yes. What we are building will be used against the dragon. What makes you think that we would go into the caves?"
"You do not have a choice. You know that the dragon has his hoard there. If you are to mount an attack, you have to find a spot where you know where he will be."
"Or lure him into a place of our own choosing."
"How are you going to get him outside without getting yourselves killed? And what good would it do? You are giving him the advantage of being able to take off when he is attacked."
Thomas replied, "The dragon can find his way here. He fancies the pond, but does not venture much beyond it. There is little that he would want in the scrub or mountains."
"And how would you lure him to the chosen field of battle?" Thomas said nothing. Fred said, "Princess Astra, right?"
Thomas looked at him and nodded as they approached a fallen tree.
"Fred, you get under the far end and lift when I say 'Go.' I will do the same from my end. Then I will move forward until we are near the clearing."
Thomas bound some of the loose branches from the top end of the tree with his rope, and when he was finished, he bent down, facing Fred and said, "Go!" He and Fred lifted the trunk to shoulder height, and Thomas walked backward toward the clearing, carrying his end of the trunk.
Fred was close enough so that he could talk to Thomas without raising his voice. "So how did you get the princess to act as bait? She just got out!"
Thomas replied, "She knows that she is living on borrowed time. The dragon will be looking for her. Rather than hunkering down, she wishes to attack and settle this."
"I understand. I am of the same mind."
"So what do you think my plan is?"
Fred thought. "You were an engineer before you came here. We are carrying a log, and are working on a wheeled wooden platform. You have carpenter's tools. Normally something of this size suggests a palisade wall, but that is defensive."
Thomas said, "Go on."
"This could be the beam for some sort of catapult. You have plenty of rocks. A lucky shot might wound the dragon enough so that I could finish him off. And it would give the attacker some distance from the dragon at first. The problem is that even if we could get the dragon to stay still, catapults are not precision weapons. And with the first shot, the catapult's position would be exposed. Besides that, the princess is as likely to be crushed by a rock as the dragon. I don't like that idea."
"So, how would you overcome those problems?"
"I suppose that if you could make the swinging beam go fast enough, that you could use smaller rocks. They might spread over a wider area. The princess would surely be hit, too - unless she was close enough to the dragon, and she is able to use the dragon as a wall protecting her. Very risky. And with smaller rocks, each will have less of an impact. You would need them to go very fast. And if you don't get the dragon with the first shot, you are still in trouble. You would never be able to hit him again before reloading."
"And if you could choose a field of battle using a catapult, say?"
"You would need flat ground. And a clear view of the dragon."
"You are talking about a massive catapult. You need the flat ground to move it there. And if you have trees blocking the way, you cannot aim your shot. If that is what you have in mind, I just do not see this as being practical."
Thomas replied, "Do you have a good grip on the log?"
"Good. We are just about back. So where did you learn about catapults? Have you ever been in battle?"
"No, sir. I have attended some war games during a tournament, and had one demonstrated to me. We have not had any actual wars in Allaria recently. The dragon attacks are bad enough."
"Unpredictable, aren't they? That is one thing about this dragon. He relies on surprise and terror as much as his armour and fire. So when it comes time to face the dragon, what makes you sure that you will not run?"
"I will not. I do not think that I could look you or the princess in the eye if I did."
"That is a noble thought. So you don't like the catapult plan? We have eight people available, in addition to you and the princess. How would you distribute them?"
"How many swordsmen do you have? I saw Anselm carrying a sword."
"I can use a sword. Astra lost her sabre ..."
"I think I have it. I will show you once we put this log down."
"If you have it, she will be glad to get it back. I would say that you are looking at four swordsmen that I would trust out of our band."
"So the rest of them use bows and arrows?"
"Yes. It is more practical for hunting here."
"Are bows and arrows your personal preference?"
The trees thinned out, and Fred could see Anselm working on joining two pieces of wood. After this conversation, Fred looked at the platform again. It could be used to transport a catapult. But if that is what this was, it appeared as if it were going to be more complex and larger than what Fred had seen at the tournament.
Thomas said, "Fred, let us place this on the platform. I am going to walk to the far side of it, and when I say 'Lower,' gently lower the spar."
As Fred approached the platform, he stopped and held the log. Thomas worked his way around the platform, and finally stood opposite Fred. He said, "Lower," and they set the log down.
"Now, as far as my favourite weapon, it depends on who I am going against. If it were you, I would say a crossbow from about thirty yards should do it. I could strike you before you could use your sword."
"We are going to be going against the dragon. What do you have?"
"Well, I have a number of weapons left over from would-be heroes. Guaranteed for the life of the wielder, as they say. I am going to choose to use something like the catapults that you were talking about. But you were off on how to deploy it - or them."
"Them?" Fred said.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> "You are thinking of having more than one? I would have thought that, with the limited people and resources that you have available, even one would be a major undertaking."
"You might be surprised to learn that we have already built two catapults and carts, which of course are well hidden. This will be the third. We plan to have them firing at the dragon from different directions. And we are going to get them as high up the walls of the valley as we can manage, to ensure a clear line of sight and to increase the damage that a hit will cause."
"Given their weight, you are going to need a great deal of effort to pull them even a short distance up the slope. And though height will make the projectiles more effective, I'm still not convinced that - even if you could get a direct hit - you would do much damage to the dragon. The princess is another matter, though. With rocks raining down from more than one direction, there would be no cover for her. You would probably be signing her death warrant."
"We have thought of that. We plan to dig a small but deep pit, and to cover it with rushes so that it is not obvious to the dragon. The princess is going to dive into the pit at the last moment. Unless a projectile should make a direct hit on the pit, which would be very unlucky given the angle at which they will be descending, she will be protected."
"It still sounds very risky."
"She is willing to take the risk. She knows that - as I said earlier - she is living on borrowed time. If the dragon should capture her again, she would either be killed or imprisoned so securely that there would be no possibility of another escape. So she feels that she has nothing to lose, as she would sooner die than spend the rest of her life in thrall to the wyrm."
"But can your projectiles really kill the dragon?"
"They don't have kill him, but merely to disable him sufficiently for long enough that we can finish him off with swords or crossbows at close range. Yes, it is a desperate plan and could well fail, but we agreed that it was worth trying."
"Who is this 'we'? The whole of your community?"
"Not quite. There were one or two that we did not tell, for fear that they would betray us to the dragon out of self-preservation. For if our attempt should fail, the dragon will have this valley thoroughly searched, and it will be the end for all of us."
Fred said, "I will certainly cooperate, but I have grave misgivings<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>. It would seem that we are overly reliant on the catapults. We do not have enough men to follow through even if the catapults wound the dragon."
Thomas and Fred headed back to the forest. The conversation was spirited, but friendly. Thomas said, "Every infantry commander says that he does not have enough men."
Fred countered, "And every artilleryman is convinced that artillery alone can do most of the job."
"Touche. But the advantage that I have is that I have actually seen this plan in action."
"Did it work?"
"No, but it should have."
"Then why are you trying a plan that did not work?"
"It was used against us our side in the battle of Signal Hill, and we had some advantages that the dragon did not have. And the opposing commander blundered in carrying it out. I was a young soldier then, and this was the first time that I was in the open field. We had more men, but the terrain favoured the defenders. The target was an open town protected by a ridge. Their flanks were well defended, but there were a number of low passes on the ridge, and the ridge was thinly manned. The idea was that if we could break through, we could pour across their lines and take the town."
"And they were using catapults to try to stop you?"
"Yes. The line of the ridge was the shape of a shallow crescent, with the centre bending away from the front line. So they could move their catapults to focus on any given point, and thus prevent a quick massing of the troops required to overwhelm the line."
"Why did they fail?"
"Our Ancient, FitzHugh, noticed that the catapults were too high up the ridge. He pointed this out to a comrade of mine, Gerald of Trescent. FitzHugh noticed..."
"Whoa. Gerald of Trescent. Slender man, blue eyes, crossed cuts on his right side?"
"The same, but he did not have those wounds then. I remember that he came from Allaria originally. He had some trouble with his lord. How was he doing?"
"The House of Molenari can be difficult to deal with - no disgrace to him that he could not see eye-to-eye. He took up service with my father, and now farms a manor in fief to him in the west of Suffex. Barley, hops, wheat. You see the common theme."
"Naturally. Allarian beer has a reputation."
"You may be the first outside of Allaria to say that."
"No offence, but I have heard it compared to pig swill."
"Better or worse?"
Thomas laughed. "About the same. I see that you are not taking offence."
Fred smiled and said, "It is definitely an acquired taste. I think that something happens in the malting. I remember listening to some of Gerald's tales of the Eastern Wars at the fellowship table. He said some amazing things. And I remember him talking about the Ancient FitzHugh. We don't have a title like ancient in our army, but I know roughly what you are talking about. Sort of in between a sergeant and lieutenant."
"Very roughly, which is how he might respond if you compared him to either."
"I have heard some stories from Gerald. I think in some of them he was pulling my leg. He told me that the Ancient FitzHugh would go into battle wearing nothing but sandals, a shield, a sword, and a loincloth."
"Not as a rule, but I was actually there when it happened. FitzHugh had his own way of looking at things. It was his belief that armour reduced a soldier's mobility and reaction. He once told me that if a soldier could learn to fight with two swords, and went into battle otherwise naked, he would be invulnerable. He would have had the entire army go into battle naked except for sandals, swords, and small shields if he had his way. I nodded my head and thought that he was spouting off like a kettle, but he actually stripped down to a loincloth and sandals and charged into the enemy during the next skirmish."
"Did he get hurt?"
"He did not get touched. The men of the opposing army were like I was, eyes and mouths wide open and shaking their heads. Before he could get close, the opponents broke and started to run away. I cannot say that I could truly blame them. We managed to drive them back. Our captain told FitzHugh that if he did that again, he would be cashiered, but I do not think any of us who were there will forget it."
"So FitzHugh was mad?"
"I think that he was a genius. Was he strange in some ways? Certainly. But he was also original, and had insights that many trained men did not have. As I was telling you, at Signal Hill, he told us that their catapults were too high up. There was a blind spot hidden by a promontory where we were out of view of the catapults, and a massed force would be more difficult to hit. We managed to capture a couple of their positions and take the catapults out of play."
"Interesting. And how are you going to use the lessons from this battle to defeat the dragon?"
"There is a place here called the Double Hill. It looks like two overlapping hills. There is a notch between the two. About one hundred yards up is a level terrace. The path of the terrace forms a nearly perfect half-circle, while the centre of the circle is in the gently sloping ground below.
"So here is the plan. The two catapults that we have are at the ends of the half-circle, opposite each other. The pit is just a few yards inside the centre of that circle. The third catapult, if we can set it up, is at the midpoint of the half-circle, at right angles to the first two."
Lord Fred nodded and looked thoughtful. Thomas continued, "The princess will lure the dragon into the dip of the Double Hill. Once she gets into range of the catapults, and falls into the pit, the dragon should hesitate. The catapult in the middle will fire, if we can complete it in time. At that point, if we miss, the dragon is likely to move toward the catapult. The two working the catapult will probably fire early. This will be their first time in battle, and it is only natural to do that. That is fine - if the shot falls in front of the dragon, he will probably slow down and set up to attack the first catapult. If he does that, he will have his broad side to the other two catapults if he moves forward to attack the first catapult, and having his broad side exposed gives us the best possible target. He will not be able to get in the air fast enough, I believe. I think that the chances are good that we can wound him with a second or third shot. Once he is down, warriors hidden in the brush such as yourself will deliver the coup d grace."
Fred said, "That is what I am concerned about. I just see you, me, the princess, and maybe the one other person that you said as being reliable. And the princess will be in a pit. Three people seems to be too weak for a follow-up attack. And I am assuming you and Anselm will be part of that party, and not directing the artillery, a role which I would be expecting you to play."
"But you came into the caves alone. What was your plan?"
"To surprise the dragon when he was returning from plunder. But I apparently underestimated his craft and strength."
"You are not the first to do that. We of course need to make best use of our numbers, but I think that the catapulters will be the best use of our unseasoned men. One fact may reassure you. We will not be blind when the dragon appears in the valley. We have practiced with the first two catapults, and know about where the shot will fall. At least within a few yards. We have planted, literally, a couple of markers that will allow us to know when the dragon is within range. He should not be able to see what they are, but we know what to look for."
"How about the range? If they are way up on the hill, won't you be some distance away?"
"The rope is the key. Hildegard can weave the material in such a way that when it untwists, it gives the catapult beam extra speed, and the missile will be deadlier. Some of the rope that she has woven will be used a ladder allowing the princess to climb out and take part in the battle after the dragon has been grounded. We need every warrior we can get, as you have observed."
"I still do not see how you can choose your ground, and your time. What if the dragon discovers that the princess is missing early?"
"Then we only have two catapults, and we will use our original plan. It is more critical to hit him the first time. At least his broad side will be exposed. If he is still alive after the first salvo, the catapults are on opposite ends of the dip. So he will not be able to attack both and it may confuse him for a minute or so. If both catapults miss, the dragon may do any number of things. If I were he, I would flee and circle around and hit one of the catapults, hoping to get out of the range of the other one. If we cannot lure him toward the pit, we are at a disadvantage, as our catapults are not very mobile, and we have not practiced aiming at locations other than the prepared one."
They came to a spot in the forest where another large log lay on the ground. Fred asked, "One thing that I still do not understand. How will you be able to get the dragon to find Princess Astra, without him capturing or killing her? And how will you be able to get your forces to the field of battle on such short notice?"
Thomas replied, "I have a plan for that, too. We obviously need the dragon to come upon Princess Astra at a time of our own choosing, if we are to have a chance.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> My plan is that one of us will pretend to be a traitor, and will leave a message for the dragon somewhere in the caves where it will be sure to be quickly discovered - perhaps at the spot where the princess was imprisoned. That message will tell him precisely where and when he can find the princess. So he will come looking for her at a time of our choosing."
"But what if he sends his men to capture her, rather than coming himself? Or what if he flies over the valley rather than lands, and blasts her with fire from the air?"
"I think that he is more likely to want to recapture her than to kill her. After all, he presumably did not kill her when he captured her originally because he recognised that she could be valuable to him. She is just as valuable now. At the very least, I am sure that he would want to question her before killing her, to find out how she was able to escape."
"That answers one of my questions, but not the other."
"The message will say that the princess would easily spot a group of men coming into the valley and would have time to flee and hide, but that the dragon could fly in and give her no time to react. I suspect that he would have wanted to come himself in any case, as he would view her escape as a personal affront."
They carried off the log, which required enough exertion to preclude further talk. The conversation died as Fred bore the burden of the log.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> He had mixed feelings. Thomas had put some thought into this plan, and Fred knew that his chances were better casting his lot with this band than he would by going alone. But one could count on the enemy to do something unexpected. If the dragon did not do as Thomas had planned, the advantage of the trap would be greatly reduced. And Fred would likely be facing an angry and alerted dragon.
"So be it!" he thought. If the plan worked, he would likely be the slayer of the dragon and the rescuer of a princess. The fame for his deed would spread far beyond Allaria. When the opportunity presented itself at the council of war, he wanted to talk about what he should do if various things went wrong, but the plan was as sound as any he could imagine.
When Fred reached the edge of the clearing, he noticed that Anselm had built something like a large box with a pair of crank handles on either side of it. This was likely to be the part of the device that provided the power the machine.
Anselm confirmed this, noting that they built this engine so that when one of the men moved the lever from the left to the right, a ratchet holding the axle around which the rope was spun would be released, and the arm would spin about it and fling the payload forward.
Thomas had grabbed an axe from beneath the platform. "We have a busy day ahead of us, Fred. How good are you with an axe?"
"Don't we have enough wood?"
"We have plenty, but we need to move this platform to Double Hill. We are not going to be able to levitate it out of here. We need to clear a path to the main trail."
Fred was discouraged. If he had known the distance to his destination, he could have measured his progress, and assured himself that there would be an end to the task. However, he did not know this area as the others did. Anselm whistled a couple of times. As Fred had hoped, someone responded and they received some help. Within a half hour, three men had joined them. They now had two axes and four sharp swords clearing the brush and chopping down saplings as needed. Two of the men would, from time to time, move the wheeled platform further down the new trail. Shadows lengthened, and the sun slipped below the peaks of the great bowl. Fred wanted to rest, but with the white-haired Anselm chopping the underbrush with the long sword of a fallen knight, and Thomas determined to get to the trail, Fred kept chopping, stopping only for a little drink of water from a glazed jug that one of the men had placed on the platform.
"This is the place," Thomas announced. The cross trail was not well- marked, but it would allow for passage of the platform and the catapult parts. Anselm said, "I could use a drink. How about you, Fred?"
Fred nodded his head.
From a little shelf that Fred had not noticed, Anselm brought out a wineskin made from deer hide. Fred brought the spout to his lips and drank it. The wine had a musky smell, but was otherwise good. There were smiles from some of the men as Fred drank their wine."
Anselm said, "You are a true Allarian. You did not flinch after drinking our own home brew, which has not been aged, and is made from the local scuppernongs."
Fred replied, "It is good after a hard day's work. Are we to leave the catapult in the open?"
Thomas replied, "No, but Anselm will take care of it. We must now meet the famous painter that was the cause of all this." And so, Thomas introduces Fred to one of the men who was hacking at the underbrush. On being introduced to the painter, Fred tried to push to the back of his mind the worry that the trails that had had to be cut to move the catapults might give the game away to the dragon.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> When he flew in intent on recapturing the princess, how obvious would they be from the air?
The painter was easily the shortest and frailest of the men who had been clearing the trail, and Fred thought that it had been good of him to volunteer to help with such an arduous task.
"Fred, let me introduce Simon, the court painter from Aqualaria," Thomas said.
"Simon, this is Lord Fred of Allaria, who came to the caves with the intention of slaying the dragon."
"Welcome, Lord Fred," Simon replied. "A noble ambition, which perhaps between us we can fulfil."
"Thank you for your welcome. I sincerely hope that we can kill the beast. I saw your painting of the princess. It was very impressive. I would imagine that having to paint it must have been rather embarrassing, though."
"I did find it rather awkward. I had painted naked women before, and I had painted royalty before, but of course never the two together. But it helped that the princess did not seem embarrassed by it, and she soon managed to put me at my ease. Would you like to meet her?"
"I had intended that Fred should not meet her until the day after tomorrow, when she, Fred and I would discuss our tactics," Thomas said. He added, "I still think that will be soon enough."
"You still do not trust me?" said Fred.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Thomas replied, "Oh, it is not so much that. My gut says that you are what you say you are. But the princess is going to be occupied tomorrow."
Simon broke in, "I am not familiar with the customs of your land, Sir. In our land, if a sabre lady, which would be your equivalent of a knight, is about to face her first battle, or the first battle of a war, she purifies herself. Ideally, she will be alone all day tomorrow, without seeing another woman, man, or horse."
Thomas said, "It is not too surprising. In our land, the soldiers are gathered the night before a battle in a solemn ceremony. I might adapt parts of that ceremony once our desired date to fight the dragon is set."
Fred replied, "We all must prepare in our own way. In Allaria, the time when a knight is sent to his first battle is a time of celebration. Exactly one week ago I was enjoying a Battle Banquet. I have, as it were, gotten some of my reward in advance. So if I go back without taking part in slaying the dragon, I would lose face. So with that decided, Thomas, I have a question to ask. When we hacked the trail today, did we risk giving the dragon a clue as to what our intentions are?"
Fred noticed Simon smiling, and Thomas said, "That might notice something from the air, but I trust the insight of our painter here to misdirect the dragon."
"I do not understand, Thomas."
The painter opened his eyes wider, and he appeared to Fred be asking Thomas permission to do something, but who was too shy to speak up. Thomas nodded his head slightly, and said, "Simon, if you would be so kind as to explain to the future Lord of Suffex what you have been doing. He may have a professional interest."
Simon then gazed at Fred, and explained, "My Lord ..."
"Just call me an unadorned Fred, for I have proven nothing in battle. I hope that in a few days you can add 'the Dragonslayer.'"
Thomas broke into a wide grin, and Simon continued, "Well, uh, Fred, there is a certain useful art that I have a talent for, related to my talents in painting. Thomas and I have planned so that we cut in such a way where the trail will not be obvious from the air, and where there are some alternate paths." Simon then went into some detail as to how his ground camouflage would work to confuse the dragon as to the exact location of the trail.
Fred nodded, and finally said, "I had not noticed what you were doing - I thought that you were just helping blazing the trail, Simon. You have done a good deal of planning. There is still a chance that the dragon will notice the changes in the forests, but it appears that you have cut the risks as much as possible." As he finished this statement, Thomas climbed up part of a rock wall by climbing up some flat slabs that jutted out of it face, and behind a scraggly tree that hid the mouth of another small cave system. Fred and Simon followed.
Thomas lit a dim lamp. This cavern system rose to a large chamber that could hold a dozen men comfortably. He said, "Anselm and the rest should be along later. The moon is waxing, and they should have enough light to make it back here. I would recommend getting as much sleep as you can. There is a lot to do over the next few days."
But nobody felt like sleeping.
Anselm hailed Thomas from outside the caves with news. "The dragon has been seen!"
"Where?" Thomas wanted to know.
"He flew from over the western rim of the valley, and then descended and landed in the lake. It seems that he must have fancied an evening bath."
"That's a relief. I was afraid that he might have already discovered that the princess was missing and have decided to search the valley."
"Maybe your stratagem for luring him to the valley will prove to have been unnecessary," Fred said. "Are any of your catapults ready to fire? The full moon should be enough for your men to see him against the background of the surface of the lake, but it might be dark enough for him not to realise what was going on very quickly. If you could manage to stun him, then he might drown. Best of all, there would be no need to put the princess at risk."
"We have two of the three already set up, as I told you."
"We would need to get some of our men up to their locations to operate them. Also they would need to be turned to fire in a new direction. But if the dragon will only keep bathing for the half hour or so that we would need, then it could work."
Thomas then said, "I, though, think that we should stick with our original plan, and lure the dragon to the spot that we have chosen. It is the surest plan."<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Fred replied, "I do not agree. With all due deference, we have surprise now - the dragon is not even aware that we are plotting against him. He will be wary once he finds out that the princess has escaped."
Thomas answered, "I do think that we can agree on one thing. The princess needs to be summoned immediately. Simon, will you undertake this?"
"Yes, sir!" he replied, as he left the caves and scampered off.
Fred replied, "What do you have in mind?"
Thomas said, "A quick council of war. If we attack the dragon now, we will need at least four of us to attack the dragon. Any less, and it is a fool's errand."
Fred asked, "Who will be on the council?"
Thomas replied, "Me, Anselm, the Princess, Simon, and yourself."
Fred nodded. "We are losing time. How long before Astra can get here?"
"Not long. Provided that the dragon does not see Simon."
"Good. Who makes the final decision?"
"Each of us says his or her peace, and each of us has one vote. I will go along with whatever is decided."
Fred was surprised. Thomas was giving the majority of votes to those who did not know him that well. Fred thought that he might be able to sway the princess and the painter. Fred had fresh respect for Thomas. Thomas was either so sure of his position that he did not fear being outvoted - or had enough doubt that he did not mind that possibility. As he would be waiting for some length of time, he asked Thomas, respectfully, as to why he did not invite others from his group into the council.
Thomas replied, "They would have nothing to contribute to the decision. Each of us five have special experiences that bear on this decision. You are knight of Allaria, and I will need you to manage any ground attack. Astra knows the ways of the Aqualarian cavalry, and their lore. Simon's eyes are a special gift. He can account for the factor of the dragon's flight better than any of us. In that way, he thinks like the dragon. I need him. Anselm has some knowledge of dragon kind in general that nobody else here has. And I think my qualifications speak for themselves."
replied, "That is a very wise way of looking at things. I, too, will stand with whatever
decision the council makes, and will put my heart into that plan." Fred thought, "And
if we pull this off, I would recommend that the King of Allaria pay well to have Thomas
in his service, if only to ensure that a man like him is not hired by the Hespaniards,
or other rivals of the
Quicker than Fred had thought possible, Anselm announced that Simon and Astra were on their way back.
"Thank you, Anselm," Thomas said.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> "While we are waiting for them, could you ask George to get his teams up to the catapults in readiness, and when they get there to realign the weapons to point at where the dragon is bathing in the lake. That way, if we do decide to go ahead this evening rather than wait, the delay will be minimised. Once we've decided, I'll send runners to let them know."
Anselm left to give George his instructions. He then rejoined Thomas and Fred, and only a few minutes afterwards Simon and the princess arrived.
Astra was wearing man's attire: breeches, a shirt, boots and a broad-brimmed hat. The breeches and shirt did not seem to fit her very well. Fred supposed that she had had to manage with whatever the group could pilfer for her to wear. He hoped that the boots fit better, as he knew how uncomfortable poorly fitting footwear could be. He was puzzled by the hat for a moment, before realising that it was probably intended as a protection against sunburn. She had spent a considerable period underground, which would make her vulnerable, and as a redhead she might well be especially susceptible. Of course the sun had set by now, but she evidently hadn't bothered to remove the hat.
"Simon has told me what this is about," Astra told Thomas. She turned to Fred. "And Simon has also told me about you, Lord Fred. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"The pleasure is all mine, Princess. But please just call me 'Fred'."
"Gladly, if you will call me 'Astra'. My royal lineage is of no relevance here."
"Except that it was why the dragon took you hostage and will want you back," Thomas pointed out. "Now let's get down to business. This is a hastily convened war council. The dragon has decided to take a bath in the lake, and we need to decide whether to mount an attack to take advantage of this. We need to decide quickly, as we don't know how long it will be before the dragon leaves. We have two of the three catapults ready and, though the dragon's location is less than ideal, there are a number of potential advantages to attacking now, which Fred will put forward."
Fred did so, and then they debated the matter for ten minutes or so, before Thomas said: "I think we have discussed this as fully as we have time for. I will now ask you each to vote for or against attacking now. If the majority vote against, we will stick to our original plan."
Thomas was the only one to vote against Fred's plan.
After the vote, Thomas said, "I will go along with the wishes of all gathered.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> I have quite forgotten what Anselm observed - that in testing the near catapult, we did wind the rope as tight as it would go and hurled a rock into the lake - and it is just by that rock that the dragon is bathing on. If we did this once, we can do it again. But I have a couple of concerns. We are relying on the strike of the catapult to crack the dragon's armour, and expose his inside to the sword. I think that may work. But if a follow-up strike on foot is needed, the grounds will make it hard to follow up the fall of shot without being seen. We have a waxing moon tonight. That is good for us in getting down the lake quickly - but there is too much of a clearing between the nearest cover and the dragon himself. I do not see a way of getting close without the dragon seeing us."
"What is your second concern?" asked Fred.
"Simon's belief that the bathing will render the dragon especially vulnerable is based on hearsay. Nobody has ever proven that. If you are basing your decision on that evidence, I would be very wary of doing so."
Astra replied, "I, for one am not counting on the water to give us any special advantage. As for a follow up strike on the dragon, here is my opinion. Until the catapults start firing, the dragon is unlikely to be very alert.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> We can enter the lake on the far side, where there is some cover almost to the water's edge. Then we swim across to the dragon. Once we are in the water we will be hard to see, as only our heads will be showing, especially since the water will have been stirred up by the fall of shot."
"But though the lake is not that big, swimming across could take longer than we can afford," Thomas objected. "It would be too dangerous to cross the lake until the catapults have ceased firing, and unless the dragon is badly hurt or stunned he may have enough time to take off before we can get to him."
Astra shrugged. "It's a risk - a big risk. But whatever plan we adopt our chances of success will not be very high. They are rather better with this plan than with our original idea, in my opinion."
"If the dragon is dazed and confused by the attack, then even if he does see us he may not react quickly enough," Anselm said. "Luckily we are all wearing dark clothes, and if we use mud to darken our faces we shouldn't be that easy to see. Simply sprinting across the clear ground to the edge of the lake could be good enough."
"Maybe we could provide some distraction to get the dragon looking in the wrong direction at the crucial moment?" Fred suggested. "Light a fire at the other end of the lake, maybe?"
"Supposing I was the distraction?" Astra suggested. "He doesn't yet know that I've escaped, so if I appeared at the side of the lake, shouting and waving my arms, that should get his attention. I could strip off so that I would be easier for him to see."
They soon decided to use Anselm's suggestion without any added distraction.
Thomas then said, "Then I propose Fred take the place of honour, on the right.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Astra will take the second place, and Anselm will take the left. Simon and I will tarry about 10 yards and strike where there is an opening."
"What signal shall will be given to the catapulters so that they will fire at the right time?" asked Simon.
said, "George has already fixed that. It will be the single call of the Hespaniard
Nuthatch on an attack. There will be a double call if the dragon leaves and the attack
is not to be made. The call is a series of squeaks that the catapulters will pick
up in the din of woodland noises, but should not attract the attention of the dragon.
And the Hespaniard Nuthatch has never been seen in this valley. In fact, it never
leaves its native pine forests of
Thomas said, "Excellent. Let us go."
Fred said, "One more thing." He handed the scabbard and sabre to Astra. "I have been trying to relieve myself of this burden for a while now. Do you recognize this?"
"My sabre! I thought that the beast had laid it on his hoard. Many thanks, Fred."
Fred bowed. Thomas said, "Remember, stay about ten yards away until the stone falls. Then charge."
Great Hurricane of the fourteenth year of the reign of King Suliman was the proximate
cause of the collapse of the Golden Lighthouse of Corona, one of the acknowledged
wonders of the world. Fred, Thomas, and Astra did not know about the lighthouse, nor
would they have cared much in the current circumstances. The storm also felled ten
thousand pines in the great parks of
And then, even though it was day, the nuthatch, sated and exhausted, roosted in the underbrush.
The bird awakened that evening, just after the sun went down. The world was paradise. The weather was mild, the winds were gentle, the beetles were plentiful, and he could not see any threats, such as hawks or cats. The great lizard in the pond and the little tribe of monkeys scurrying down a trail below were not problems - he was far too small to serve even as their appetizer. Besides, he could fly away if there was a threat.
There was one thing that prevented this from being nuthatch heaven. And that was the presence of a second nuthatch. Hope sprang eternal. He flittered up the tree unnoticed, until he was almost at the top of the trunk. His tail was pointed to the sky, and his bill to ground, as is the way of the nuthatches. The gibbous moon shone brightly, almost as a second day. The nuthatch was ready to burst into his squeaky little song, and let the entire valley know he was there. The attackers were ready. Anselm gave the signal. Just as the charge started, the lonely nuthatch answered the call, signalling to the catapulters not to go on.
Though Simon was one of their "war council", Fred had not expected him to be one of their attacking party, as he was a painter rather than a warrior.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Evidently Simon had managed to persuade Thomas that he should take part, however. He, like Thomas, Anselm and Fred, had chosen a weapon from the small stash that the group had been able to put together. Astra had her sabre.
A nearby rivulet that ran down to the lake provided them with black mud that they liberally smeared over their faces and hands to make themselves harder to see. Then they walked to the edge of the open area bordering the lake, where they all removed their boots, as there was no sense getting them full of water. (Astra had already removed her hat.) Then they went down onto their hands and knees and crawled until they were about a hundred yards from the edge of the water. They could see the dragon wallowing about ten yards offshore, where the water was about five feet deep.
At that point Thomas held up his hand, indicating to Anselm that he should give the signal. The idea was that if they began their charge the moment that Anselm gave the signal to the catapult crews, they should be about ten yards from the water's edge by the time the boulders fell. This seemed about the right compromise between the two risks of being hit by a rock themselves and of giving the dragon too much warning.
Anselm gave the bird call, and the raiders scrambled to their feet and charged. But almost immediately there was a second bird call! The five did not even notice, for it came from some way off and in any case their attention was fixed on the dragon.
But as they neared the water's edge, it became obvious that no projectiles were crashing into the lake. Had the catapult crews encountered some problem? If so, were they about to fire belatedly and send boulders crashing down on the attackers' heads?
But they were committed now. They all felt that it was too late to pull out.
By great good fortune, the dragon happened to be looking in a different direction. But he heard them once they reached the lake and started splashing through the water towards him, and his head snaked round.
Charging the dragon through the water was not a plan that most adventurers would have pursued.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> However, Anselm's belief that the water made the dragon vulnerable gave the attackers some hope. They did surprise the dragon. The beast had rested the long line of his body parallel the shore. So Fred, Astra, and Thomas were able to charge him from his right side, rather than head first. Fred was closest to the head, Astra to his belly, and Thomas toward his tail. Anselm and Simon were some distance away. There were ten yards of water to cover before they could close to attack.
The dragon turned his long, slinky head around quickly, and gazed right at Lord Fred. Fred was wading in water that was now waist-deep and getting deeper. The dragon opened his mouth, baring his teeth. Fred flinched! He brought up his forearm to his head, bracing himself ineffectively for the flume of flame that was the dragon's weapon of terror. But there was no flame. For a second, Fred thought that something had stopped the dragon. But in the next second, he sniffed the foulest stink that he had ever smelled. It was as if a hen house had not been cleaned, and hundreds of eggs had rotted. Fred coughed, and retched helplessly as he clutched his sword and pointed its tip into the mud, and leaned on its pommel, in the hope that he could rally. But it was no good. He needed clean air!
He turned toward his left. He saw Astra swimming toward the tail of the dragon, with her sabre encumbering her progress. Thomas, a little farther off, had tied a cloth around his mouth, but was actually closing on the tail end of the dragon. Fred saw the powerful tail start to whip around. A glint of Thomas's broad sword broke the surface of the pond. If Thomas were to be swept aside, he would have one clear strike at the back end of the dragon.
The Fred forced himself to turn his head back before plunging into the water to escape the foulness of that dragon's breath.
And then Anselm's report of the vulnerability of the dragon in water was bourne out.
It seemed that the dampness of the air over the lake might be preventing the dragon from igniting its breath, but Fred had no time to think about that.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Even unignited, the breath was an effective weapon, vomit-inducing and possibly even toxic. And of course there were also the beast's talons and fangs to worry about. At least where Fred was he did not need to worry about the lashing tail for the moment. Against that, he was much more at risk from the foul breath than his companions were, since they were nearer to the wyrm's rear.
Fred thought that if he could judge correctly when next to surface, he might be able to come up under the creature's neck. That would keep him out of the worst of its breath and give him the chance to use his sword against what might be a relatively vulnerable area, the underside of the neck.
Not sure in the dim light how many adversaries it faced and unable to breathe fire, the dragon felt uneasy. It decided that discretion might be the better part of valour. It would fly away, and return in the morning with a force of its militia to root out the humans that evidently infested the valley. But before taking to the air, it would have to wade ashore, as it knew that the drag of the water would make taking off from the surface of the lake impossible.
There had been a man between itself and the shore. It had breathed at him, and now he wasn't visible. Perhaps he had fainted or perhaps he had moved off to one side. The dragon wasn't going to waste time looking for him. It had also caught a glimpse of two more figures approaching its rear. It thrashed its tail about to discourage them, as it turned and headed towards the shore. I t spotted two more humans then -Anselm and Simon - but judged that they did not pose an immediate threat.
Fred had plunged into the water, but he had not taken a deep breath beforehand as the air was foul.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> He feebly groped his way through the water. He saw the dragon stand solid and still as a rock for a few seconds. Then suddenly he shifted his weight to his left, and silt stirred up, clouding the water. Fred pushed his feet off the lake floor and floated up, with his sword in his right hand. He broke the surface of the water, and with his left hand, he cupped his hand over his mouth and nose before he began breathing.
The rotten egg stench remained, but it was milder than it had been before Fred submerged. He turned around. The dragon was busy with something on Fred's left. The dragon's head plunged into the water. His body was turning about a point, as if he had caught a paw in a crevice on the lake floor. Fred looked in front of the dragon, hoping to find Astra and Thomas.
The dragon's moon-shadow fell across the area where Fred had thought that Astra and Thomas might be, making it hard for him to see anything.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Then the dragon's head emerged from the water. It had something trapped in its jaws. Fred realised with horror that it must be either Thomas or Astra, but it was impossible to tell which. Whoever it was had lost their sword. Their head, shoulders and arms stuck out of the beast's maw on the left and their legs to mid-thigh protruded on the right. Their arms and legs were thrashing about, but to no avail; whoever it was, was held fast.
The dragon had only to clamp its jaws firmly shut and its unfortunate victim would be bitten into three pieces. But it evidently did not choose to do that, holding the figure firmly but relatively gently, as a cat might do with a mouse that it was bringing as an offering to its master. Perhaps it wanted to take whoever it was as a prisoner, to question them about who was behind the attack. Of course, there was also an implicit threat that if anyone tried to attack it it would make a swift end of their comrade.
If the dragon had caught a paw in a crevice then it must have succeeded in freeing it, as it commenced to move forward towards the shore, the figure still trapped in its mouth.
Fred tried to wade back to shore as fast as he could.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The poor soul in the dragon's mouth was as good as lost. Fred hoped to cut off the dragon's escape, and reach the dragon before the dragon could reach land. The water soaked his clothes, and he moved ponderously. Even if he could reach the dragon, what could he do? But given a choice between 'doing something' and taking time to think and wait, Fred chose action.
As he advanced toward the dragon, Fred could see Anselm on the shore. A thought flashed through Fred's mind. What in the world is he doing?
Fred was astonished.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> As far as he knew, Simon was a painter rather than a wizard. Had the others been hiding the truth about Simon from him? If Simon was truly a wizard, why should Anselm betray him? And if Simon was not, why should Anselm say that he was? If it was to cause a distraction, it seemed a very dangerous ruse. Finally, why should Anselm imply that the dragon had been looking for a wizard?
Anselm had succeeded in getting the dragon's attention wuth his remarkable claim. The wyrm stopped, and then looked first at Anselm and then at Simon.
Then it dropped the figure in its mouth and made for Simon as quickly as it could.
He was pointing to Simon, and said, "He is the one you are looking for! He is the wizard!"
Anselm's declaration was as mystifying as the Ancient FitzHugh's battle dress.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The dragon opened his jaws, and Thomas dropped into the shallow water. The dragon dashed for the shore, and alligator- like, moved through the water with surprising speed. Fred could not intercept him. The dragon stayed out of the reach of Fred's sword as he emerged from the water.
Fred heard Simon say, "Indeed, I am a wizard. And I have heard that you have been looking for one. I have come to see what I can do for you."
Fred did not know what was going on.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Was Simon, with Anselm's co- operation, indulging in a desperate bluff to buy them some time? Or was he telling the truth? Fred decided that for the time being it did not matter. With the dragon's attention firmly fixed on Simon, perhaps he could sneak up on it from behind, pass between or around its hind legs, and have a chance of attacking the - hopefully comparatively unprotected - underbelly.
Unfortunately if he tried to run towards the dragon, the splashing he would make might alert it to his presence, so he had to move forward more slowly than he would like. As well as the risk that he might be heard, Simon or Anselm would almost certainly see him when he emerged from the water if not before. If they were traitors, they would probably betray him to the dragon. But he could not let that deter him.
Meanwhile the dragon, its mouth now empty, was able to speak. In a deep, rumbling voice it said, "If you are looking to help me, then why did at least three of your colleagues attempt to attack me just now?"
Anselm said, with remarkable composure, "We had to attack in order to get your attention.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> After all, if one of the half-drunk elves or riff-raff looking for treasure comes here, a mighty and powerful force of nature such as yourself would not pay attention. The attack is a token of respect."
"What a load of baloney!" the dragon rumbled. Fred was now close enough for a sword stoke to the midsection. By now, he saw that Astra had emerged, and was looking to swing at his neck. Then Fred heard a voice inside his head, as if the dragon were trying to talk to the attackers through some sort of silent speech. "The old man entertains me, though. Pray continue, after the two villeins break their poor weapons against me."
Fred thrust his sword into the dragon's flesh, and pain ran down his arm. It felt like he had jammed his sword against a rock wall, and the pommel of the sword now hung loosely from his hand. The dragon turned around and blew into the air, launching another cloud of noxious gas that forced Astra and Fred to dive into the water for protection.
By the time Fred was able to emerge, the dragon had ambled onto shore, and curled into a circle, with his head resting on his tail, and faced Simon and Anselm. He could hear the voice inside his head, "Yes, indeed I have always wanted that. But why should I believe that you have the power to grant that? After all, if you are both so powerful, why do you not impress me with a sign?"
Anselm explained, "What we can give you is extraordinary, but very special. It took Simon a lifetime to gain this power, and it had to be done in secret. If it were found out, he would be hanged for high treason in Aqualaria. Our abilities in other branches of the arcane arts would not be impressive to someone like you, but I think that you will agree that what do have is impressive enough."
"I am going to need to see some proof of this power."
Simon replied, "Very well."
"If you would be so good as to pluck Princess Astra from the water and set her on that rock pedestal yonder, I will demonstrate."
Astra was too close to have any chance of escape.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The dragon wheeled round, took a couple of giant paces to the water's edge, shot out its long neck and grabbed her in its jaws. Then it turned and covered twenty yards or so to where a strange rock formation emerged from the sand. It was about nine feet high and had a roughly circular flat top about seven feet across. It gently placed Astra on top of this.
Astra could have jumped off the pedestal without being likely to come to much harm, but she evidently recognised that doing so would be futile. Instead, she said, "You rat, Simon! Why did you rescue me, only to betray me to the dragon?"
"As I said, I needed to get his attention, and that was the best way of doing it."
Fred supposed that Simon might be putting on an act, an act that Astra might be in on as well, but it did not seem very likely. Astra would have to be a very good actress to look as convincingly enraged as she did.
"Get on with it", the dragon said, evidently speaking to Simon. In response, Simon stretched out his arm, pointing at Astra. From the angle from which Fred was viewing, he could not tell whether Simon had anything in his hand or not. The effect was immediate and startling. Astra turned to stone.
The dragon slithered to the pedestal as Fred stood waist deep in water, and watched.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The dragon raised a forepaw, and touched the stone princess. He then bellowed, "Very good." Then Fred heard the voice in his head, "She is indeed still alive. I feel the warmth from the stone. She is indeed a steingeweser. But to be truly useful, I would need the second spell. The one that will allow her to move, and that will make her life depend on my will."
Anselm said, "We have shown good faith. What will you give us in return?"
"Your lives," the dragon roared.
Anselm replied, "Please do not waste time. We know what you want. We can give you what you want now. It would be a shame to wait hundreds of years because you do not wish to pay a trifling price."
"A service. The throne of Aqualaria for Simon. And the ageless charm for me."
The dragon said, "That is not a trifle. I will pledge to go to war with you against Aqualaria. But I will need the second spell beforehand in order to do so. And I will claim ten thousand gold and one dozen servants from the booty as additional payment."
"Done!" said Simon. "And you will convey the knowledge of the ageless charm to Anselm as part of the reckoning after the conquest."
"Agreed. Now give me the second spell."
Simon said, "Anselm, I have taught you this spell. I do not wish to further betray my former mistress and sovereign. You are a foreigner - you do it."
Anselm approached the dragon. Fred was rooted to the spot. Thomas was blacked out twenty yards from Astra and the dragon, breathing in shallow breaths but otherwise still. What could he do? It appeared that Anselm and Simon had been subverted, and were secret traitors. What were those who were manning the catapults thinking? Were they also part of this treachery?
Anselm took a vial of yellow powder from a place on his jacket that Fred had not noticed, and mixed it with some earth and water to make a whitish mud. The dragon's eyes widened. He consented to let Anselm rub the mud around his muzzle. After Anselm had finished, the dragon said, using his audiable voice, "You may proceed."
Anselm then took a couple of rocks from the pond, and started chanting something in a magical cant that Fred could not understand. The dragon seemed pleased. Anselm finished the chant. His hands were shaking. The dragon communicated silently, "Strike the rocks together! You know that is what you have to do." Simon approached Anselm with a frown, as if something were going wrong. Anselm struck the two rocks against each other.
Fred saw a white glare where Anselm and the dragon had been, and saw Simon running toward that glare. A ghastly ball of yellow-orange expanded. Fred saw a corona of fire around Simon as he was appeared to be trying to pick something up. Fred then plunged into the water to escape the oncoming fireball.
Fred stayed under water for as long as he dared. When he broke the surface, the fireball was gone. Fred approached the shore. The dragon lay on the ground, blasted and lifeless. Thomas was frozen in stone, as if he were asleep. Anselm's body was the mottled red and gray of granite, as if he were frozen trying to escape the fire. Simon was shouting in agony as his clothes were burning, and he was running for relief to the lake.
Fred shouted, "Simon! What happened?"
Simon screamed, "Have mercy! Pain! Curse that dragon! Arrr!" And Simon plunged into the water.
Did Simon betray him, only to have his treachery literally backfire? Or had he and Anselm done all this as part of a pre-meditated or improvised scheme, risking their lives in order to use the fire inside the dragon to destroy it? The fact that three of the company were now stone and appeared to be in one piece seemed to be evidence against treachery. But why go through the charade of an attack if creating the fireball were the original intent?
Of the five warriors in the attacking party, three were now stone, and one had been scorched by the firewall. Only Fred was whole. Simon's injuries were mortal, and he died soon after plunging into the water.
Fred picked up Simon from where he lay in the shallow water and carried him back to the shore.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Little remained of his clothes, and Fred could see that he had suffered terrible burns over most of his body. Though Fred was as gentle as possible, the skin peeled away where he had been touched. He seemed to be unconscious.
As Fred laid him down on the sand, his eyes flickered open. "I'm sorry," he whispered, almost too faint for Fred to hear. Then his face froze into total immobility, and Fred knew that he was dead.
Fred wished to bury him, but as he lacked any tool to do so that had to wait. With Simon's death, it seemed to Fred unlikely that he would ever learn what had been going on.
Unless the other members of the group, manning the catapults, had been in on the plot? That might explain why they had not fired. But that made no sense, he realised. Why would they go to all the trouble of building and moving the catapults if they had known that they were not going to be used? If he himself had been the only one (apart from Astra) not in on the plot, it would have been far simpler for them to have killed or restrained him rather than go through with such a charade. Perhaps Anselm or Simon had given a second bird call which he had failed to hear, to get them to abort the attack?
The others must have seen the fireball, he realised, so no doubt they would make their way down to the beach to find out what had happened. Meanwhile, what could he do? He could not reach Astra, up on her pedestal. If she was still in some sense alive, he hoped that she was securely balanced. If she toppled and fell to the sand, the impact might be enough to shatter her. What had the dragon called her? A steingeweser. That was it. The word meant nothing to him.
Was it possible for her condition to be reversed, if he could find a sufficiently powerful mage? The dragon had mentioned a spell that would allow her to move, but the implication was that she would remain stone, so that - though arguably better than nothing - would be far less than ideal. And he had not liked the bit about "will make her life depend on my will". The princess deserved far better than to become some sort of golem slave. The mage that he found would need to be trustworthy as well as powerful.
Could Thomas and Anselm still be "alive", in the same sense that Astra was? He recalled that the test that the dragon had used had been whether the stone was warm to the touch. He checked on Thomas first, who must have been unfortunate enough to emerge from the water just before the fireball. He had been too far away to suffer a direct hit from the flame, but for some reason had been petrified like Astra. On touching him, Fred found that he was warm.
Then he checked Anselm, who seemed to have suffered the "double whammy" of being both burnt and petrified. Fred touched him, and yelped as he hastily withdrew his hand. The rock was not just warm but hot to the touch, no doubt the result of the fireball. It seemed unlikely that Anselm could be in any sense alive.
The only consolation for Fred was that at least the dragon was dead. How he and the others could escape to the outside, and perhaps fetch a wizard to help Astra and Thomas, was far from clear, however. The dragon had had substantial forces in the caves, and these were likely to remain a threat for some time to come.
The catapult parties reached the beach. Fred explained what has happened, and tools are fetched to bury Simon.
The chalky light from the moon drained his spirit, as it shone on the grisly, gray aftermath of the battle.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Fred faced the lake so that he could turn his back on what he had lost. The dragon was dead. When the sun rose, its brilliant light would allow him to see the world as it really was. His mission was complete, and if he had not slain the dragon himself, he had done nothing shameful. He and his kindred would live without fear that the dragon would swoop in and destroy their homes and crops. But in this land of moonlight, he felt unsatisfied. A good man, Thomas, had seen his plans fail. The Princess lived just long enough to believe herself betrayed by a trusted subject. An old man who should have been wise, and an young artist who should have been noble, had dabbled with a couple of potent spells, and appeared to have made a deal with the dragon. Or had they?
Fred heard a rustling sound up the trail, and turned around and looked back. He saw the silhouettes men that cast a shadow against the mountain. The lead man said, "Has anyone survived?"
Fred turned around, and said, weakly, "George, is that you?" He recognized George as one of those who worked to blaze the trail earlier in the day.
"Yes, Lord Fred. We heard the two nuthatch calls, and held our fire. What were Anselm and Simon doing? And did anyone escape the fireball?"
Fred showed the catapulters the statues of Anselm, Thomas, and Astra, and the body of Simon, while telling him what he saw up close. "So where are we going to bury him?"
George said, "By the statue of Thomas is probably the easiest place. It will mark the spot. The ground is soft here, and it is as good a place to have his soul rest as any. It will get him away from the animals."
Fred asked, "Did you know that he and Anselm were wizards?"
"Anselm? I don't believe it."
"I saw what I saw."
"Maybe Simon taught Anselm something when he got here. The two were fast friends, and would sometime work together away from everyone else. That is the only thing that makes sense.
One of the men said, "I brought some rags and a couple of pots. One has wine, and one has some food. I did this to help if anyone broke some bones or had a wound. It does not look like it will help."
Another said, "I brought a couple of spades, in case we had to bury the dead. Let us put them to use."
These two men buried Simon. Nobody in this group knew him well. They said a few words of thanks for his spell that killed the dragon, and said some things about his courage. The Simon that these men were talking about did not quite match the Simon that Fred saw before the fireball exploded, but he held his peace. The two men shovelled dirt and rocks into the pit. George touched the statue, and to his surprise it felt warm.
"Yes, George, that was part of a spell. The dragon spoke of something called a steingeweser. I have never heard of it. Do you know what that is?"
One of the men said, "Yes, I have heard stories. Stone men. They can move as gracefully as men, but they are as heavy as stone. They are supposed to live far to the south."
"Were these stone men produced by magic?" Fred asked.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
"Since there is supposed to be a whole race of them, it seems unlikely," the man, whose name was Edwin, said.
"Perhaps the dragon had heard of these steingeweser and recognised Simon's spell as producing a similar effect?" George suggested.
"Yes," Fred replied, "except that Thomas and the princess are - though still alive if what I heard is to be believed - seemingly either frozen or unconscious. The second spell - that the dragon said would allow the princess to move, but that would make her life depend on his will - was the one that went wrong and produced the fireball as well as petrifying Thomas.
"We clearly cannot move the statues - they would be far too heavy. So we need to find a mage and bring him here, so that he can reverse the petrifaction spell or - failing that - at least restore the victims' mobility."
"Bringing a mage here is much easier said than done," one of the men remarked.
"I realise that," Fred replied. "The dragon's servants aren't going to disappear from the caves. Not in the short term, anyway."
"We might not need to bring a mage here," Edwin said. "There is a bit more to the legend. The steingeweser are supposed to freeze at sunset and then come alive again at sunrise."
"Simon and the dragon clearly did not expect that to happen with Princess Astra," Fred pointed out. "Otherwise they wouldn't have needed the second spell."
"True. They may have believed that the petrifaction spell produced an effect that was rather different from the 'natural' stone men. Or perhaps they simply weren't aware of that part of the legend. Well, in a few hours time we will know one way or the other."
Fred quickly fell into a heavy, dreamless sleep.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
At dawn he was jostled awake by Edwin. He sat up, and felt aches in his muscles. Edwin pointed to the pedestal.
Despite his desire to get more sleep, Fred stood up, and said, "Princess?"
The stone princess was moving! Not clumsily as he had expected, but the movements were as agile as that of any normal human. But Astra was still a shade of pinkish white, as marble. Her eyes were like, and indeed may have been, sapphires, pools of brilliant blue set in ivory. She brought a hand over her eyes to block out the rising sun, and then looked as if she had tried to speak - but no words came out. She made a motion with her finger over a flat palm, as if she were writing.
The men looked around. There was no paper, wax tablet, or other way of writing things. Edwin started to walk toward some underbrush. Then there was another stirring. Thomas was slowly rising. Thomas moved like a tired and sore man. One of the men, Marius, went to assist him.
Fred approached the pedestal with some of the other men. The problem was, how was he to get Astra down? She was going to jump. The men backed away, and she landed on her feet.
Astra started to gesture. She pointed to her eyes, and ears, and nodded her head. She could see, and could hear. She pointed to her nose and then brushed one hand across the other arm, and shook her head. She could not smell, and could not feel pressure. She then shrugged her shoulders, and touched her fingertip to her tongue, and nodded her head. So she could taste as well. Then she pointed to the pond. The men got out of her way.
She walked to the shore, kneeled down, and cupped her hands for some water. She drank one handful, and then another. Thomas was now standing up and walking gimpily toward the statue of Anselm. Edwin emerged from the underbrush with a section of a broken branch with a pointed end. He ran toward the shore, and said, "Princess, do you wish to write something in the sand? I have a stick that might help."
She still knelt, but took the branch from Edwin's hand. In the sand, she wrote, "I am alive. What happened?"
Fred spoke for the group. "Simon and the dragon are dead. After you had been turned to stone, Simon and Anselm were bargaining with the dragon. They were offering the dragon a spell to control your will, and allow you to move, in exchange for other magic and help in setting Simon up as a king in Aqualaria. The dragon agreed, and Anselm started to cast a spell. But something went wrong. There was a great fireball, and the dragon was ripped apart, as you can see. I ducked into the water, and emerged. Simon was still there, on fire, looking for something. He ran toward the water, said that he was sorry, and then died."
George replied, "It was strange. He did stay in that fire longer than I would have. I remember that, even though I was a long way off. It was almost as if he were talking to Thomas, and then to Anselm. I thought that he was ignoring the fire."
Edwin said, "Anselm was not a wizard. That is the one thing that does not make sense."
Another man spoke up. "I wonder if Simon had stayed in the fire to cast a spell on Thomas and Anselm to protect them."
Fred replied, "Maybe. But why would he not protect himself first? And why would he not cast the second spell himself, instead of letting Anslem do it?"
Astra turned toward George, and asked held out her arms in front of her, as if cradling something. George could not quite understand. Astra made a motion pointing to him, and then a motion across one outstretched arm.
"Do you want me to lie down in your arms?"
Astra smiled and nodded.
George did exactly that. Astra lifted him up with no more difficulty than if she were lifting a bolt of fine silk. She gently knelt down and placed him back on the ground.
George said, "You are warm, Your Grace. Your skin is fair, like marble, but it gives way a little. It is like rock in some ways, but not in others. And your strength is amazing."
Then Marius said, "Hey! Come here."
Fred had been comparing Astra with Thomas.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Though both were steingeweser, they seemed very different. Astra moved easily and gracefully, and seemed - a strange thing to say of a living statue, but nevertheless true - full of vitality. Thomas, in contrast, seemed stiff and tired. Could that be because his petrifaction had been accidental rather than planned, or was it just that he was older than Astra?
He thought that the princess seemed to be taking her strange transformation remarkably calmly. Her clothing had been transformed along with the rest of her, but it did not seem to be stone exactly, as it seemed to retain a certain degree of flexibility.
He had been surprised to see that she apparently still needed to drink. Did that mean that she would need to eat as well? If so, would it be ordinary food, or rock or sand? Did she still need to breathe? If so, then deep water might prove a barrier to her if a boat was not available, as she was clearly too heavy to float or swim.
It occurred to him that, with two stone people to lead the way, their party might be able to leave the valley and escape through the caves without needing to worry about opposition from the dragon's forces. But then he had a worrying thought. If steingeweser froze at sunset, then might not the darkness of the caves have the same effect, even if they had torches? If the dragon knew about that, then it might explain why he wanted the casting of the second spell, which perhaps would have prevented it.
His musing was interrupted by Marius saying, "Hey! Come here." The man went on, "This may be what Simon was looking for."
Marius was holding up a small cylindrical object that, judging by its colour was probably made of copper. It was slightly misshapen, as if the heat of the fireball had caused it to deform slightly.
"Could it be a magic wand?" Fred asked. "From my position, I was unable to see if Simon had anything in his hand when he cast the first spell. The fireball might have made him drop it. But I don't understand why Anselm did not have a wand when he tried to cast the second spell. Instead he used some powder and a couple of rocks."
"Whether it's a magic wand or not, it doesn't help us," George said. "We have no idea of how to use it. Even if we did, it might no longer be safe to use. You can see that it's suffered from the heat of the fireball."
Fred said: "George, you said that it looked like Simon was talking to Thomas. It might help if Thomas could tell us what Simon said to him. Of course, if he was already petrified then he may have been unable to hear,"
Thomas could not speak either.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> He swept his right hand from his left shoulder down to his hip. Marius said, "I think Thomas is hurt. It is like he cracked a rib or something."
Fred answered, "Could be. The dragon had him in his jaws. If we were hurt, it would have been when the dragon dropped him into the pond."
George said, "I wish the steingeweser could speak. I would like to know what the painter told Thomas."
There was some chatter as Fred and the artillerymen debated what to do now, and the group gathered around Thomas. Suddenly, Marius declared, "Thomas has spoken to me!"
The artillerymen were sceptical, as they had heard nothing.
Marius then said, "Well, he did not talk. But I just had a vision running through my mind, and I know that Thomas put it there. Don't ask me how. There was no sound, so I do not know what Simon said. But it was almost as if Thomas was letting me see through his eyes. Am I right, Thomas?"
Thomas nodded his head.
Fred turned to Astra and said, "You cannot speak, but you can make your thoughts known?"
Astra shrugged her shoulders.
Fred replied, "Close, but not quite."
Astra nodded, and then pointed to her ears and shook her head.
"You can somehow put a picture in mind, but you cannot use words."
Astra shook her head rapidly.
Fred turned to Marius, and said, "What did you see?"
"Thomas was looking up from the ground. There was a bright flash, and Simon was silhouetted against it. His clothes were smoking, and just starting to catch fire. Simon stood over him for a fraction of time - just long enough to take a breath. And then he turned to Anselm. Anselm was on fire, and struggling to stand against the force of the blast. And then Simon crouched down. I could see the copper cylinder. Anselm froze in place. Then when Thomas looked again, Simon did not have the cylinder. He was looking for it, gave up, and ran toward the pond. And then Thomas turned his head toward the sand to shield himself from the blast."
Fred replied, "And I can tell you what happened from there."
Then Fred closed his eyes. He did not know how, but Astra was trying to plant a picture in his mind. He concentrated, and could see the rim of the basin. For some reason, Astra's attention was on a layer of pinkish-white rock that was about half way up. Then the vision took him further up, to the rim itself.
Fred then announced, "I think Astra is talking to me in the same way Thomas talked to Marius. There is a layer of pink rock that she wants to go to. And I think that she might be suggesting that the best way for her to leave the basin is to scale the peaks."
George replied, "Impossible! Those peaks are impossible to pass." Fred imagined walking on a trail ascending up the rim. He felt the gravel gently moving under his boots, but could not hear it crunch. Was Astra suggesting a path through the peaks?
Fred replied, "Quiet, please. I think she is trying to tell me something else."
"You think that you know a route out of the valley by going over the mountains?"<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Fred asked. He was surprised. If that was the case, then why hadn't Astra mentioned it before? Everyone had seemed to take it for granted that there was no escape from the valley.
In response, Astra returned to showing him a long-range view of the rim. Then it seemed to enlarge, as if coming closer, with more and more detail becoming visible.
"Your long-range vision is better now than human sight?" Fred realised. "You have been able to spot a way out that none of us could see?"
"But even if we could escape that way, could you?" Fred asked. "Footholds that we could use might be useless for you, as they could crumble beneath your weight. And a fall of a short distance might only bruise us, but it might cause you to fracture."
Fred replied, "But the trail that I saw certainly looked like I could walk on it easily."<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Astra drew a picture of a peak and wrote down two words at the top: Strong wind.
George said, "But, Your Grace, wouldn't you shatter like an earthen pot if you fell?"
The corners of Astra's mouth turned up into a smile. She seemed to be as expressive as a normal man or woman. Was she more like clay than marble? But she seemed solid enough when she easily lifted an artilleryman. Astra shook her head.
Fred then said, "Your Highness, if you are willing to take the risk and go alone as a steingeweser and bring help, that would be most welcome. But might you need to bring back a wizard to get through the dragon's charms?"
Edwin said, "Don't the magic end when the dragon dies?"
Fred then asked about something else. "It appears that Thomas may be hurt. Is healthy enough to go with you?"
Astra approached Thomas, and appeared to examine him. Fred could not tell if some form of the talking through pictures was being used, although he would not have been surprised. He was wondering how to hold the group together if both Astra and Thomas were gone. Thomas had been able to impose some form of discipline on them when they were hiding from the dragon, but now that the dragon was dead, would they all desert and look for their share of the loot? And if they did that, would those that treated with dragon be able to murder them, one by one? After thinking these thoughts for a time, another picture formed in Fred's mind.
Fred daydreamed about a woman who fell off a horse, and broke some bones. Perhaps this Astra trying to tell him that Thomas cannot move far without pain, and is obliged to stay here.
"Are you saying that Thomas cannot move easily without pain and so will have to remain here?" Fred asked. <![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Fred was rather relieved by that. It seemed to him that Astra could carry out her mission to fetch help just as well unaccompanied. Perhaps better, in fact, if Thomas was not very fit and would have slowed her down. And Thomas remaining behind would mean that the group would continue to have the benefit of his leadership, assuming that he could manage to communicate as well as Astra had. From what Fred had seen, all the others respected him. Fred knew that he himself had arrived too recently to be readily accepted as a replacement leader had Thomas departed with Astra, and he doubted that any of the others had any leadership potential.
Astra pointed at the mountain wall and then at herself. Fred guessed that she intended to convey that she saw no reason to delay and proposed to start on her journey.
Astra set off.
One might have thought that the change from the body of a human to that of a steingeweser would have driven Astra mad.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> She could hear, but not speak. Astra did not think of it as much of a problem. She was starting to think like a steingeweser. She did not fear for the future. She somehow knew that when the sun set, she would go to sleep, but she could stand up anywhere and continue when the sun came up again. The animals that she feared as a woman - bears, wolves, and panthers - could not harm her. And what did she have to fear from men? She took a sharp-edge rock from the ground, and pressed it against her palm. There was no pain. What appeared to be skin yielded a bit, but she could not break it. She looked she was a rock - and may have been as heavy as a rock - but the comparison was not completely right.
She trampled up the mountain trail. There would be water as she got higher. She knew that she needed that. She would need a little bit of sand of satisfy a craving that she would also find up there. She would know it when she saw it.
The trail went into the shadow of the high walls of a ravine, and she noticed a glassy sheen on a rock. Ice. The wind would pose no problem, but the ice would be tricky. It would not be impossible though. With her strength, she could chip out footholds as needed, or in an emergency slide down sections of mountain over icy patches. As a human it would be reckless, but somehow she did not feel afraid to do so. The main thing that she was concerned about were sharp drops, but she felt those could easily be avoided. The temperature had dropped, but she did not feel cold. She stooped down and put her fingers on the patch of ice. It was cool, but it was the delightful coolness of a summer breeze, and not the bone-chilling coldness of a winter snowstorm. Astra thought that her body might have a greater tolerance for cold than that of a human.
Astra started to feel drowsy and had trouble concentrating. The she looked up, she remembered that she was in a deep shadow. Fortunately, she could see the sun, and had not fallen asleep. She stood up, walked out of the shadow, and easily shook off the drowsiness. That was odd. There were shadows in the forests earlier in the trail, and she had not even noticed.
Astra continued to climb. Dark grey clouds started to gather. She instinctively thought, "Lightning might not be good for me."
Find cover of some sort, keeping in mind the effect of shadows.
The weather could change quickly in this mountainous region.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> As the dark thunderclouds gathered and the first heavy drops of rain began to fall (it had evidently become significantly warmer in the last half hour or so, so that rain fell rather than snow), the light level dropped significantly. It was now very nearly as gloomy everywhere as it had been in deep shadow just a short time ago, and Astra felt very drowsy. She tried to force herself to remain alert and to keep moving. She wanted to find cover before the lightning which she could see in the distance arrived. Whilst she did not know what being struck would do to her, she was unwilling to put the experiment to the test.
With the clouds now hiding the sun, it was hard to keep track of direction, which would be important in determining where the sun's rays could penetrate once the clouds moved away. However before long Astra saw an indentation - it wasn't really deep enough to be called a cave - in the rocky wall to her right, which she thought faced east. If so, then tomorrow morning the rays of the rising sun should penetrate it. And it should protect her from the lightning, as she would have rock directly above her. (By now, the rain was torrential and mixed with hail, but that bothered her not at all.)
A flash of lightning was followed by a thunderclap only ten seconds later. The heart of the storm was very close now. The thunder was so loud and had such a large low frequency component that she felt it as a vibration through her body as well as heard it. So she made such speed into the indentation as her currently sluggish body would allow. As it became even darker, she swiftly fell asleep.
Astra lifted her neck and stared.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The sun stood in the east, while overhead wispy cirrus clouds had replaced yesterday's black sky. Astra looked out of the alcove. The ice was now slick and treacherous from the rain. The wind was steady but not strong, as she judged when she felt it blowing gently against her the back of her arms.
She stared ahead. There was a short stretch that would be difficult to walk, but then the trail sank down the sides of the giant bowl. A day ago she would have said that it was impossible to cross. She picked up an stone with several edges, and squatted down. She dashed the stone against a block of ice, and it cracked beautifully. It was amazingly easy! (She could even hear the crack. But sound to the mind of a steingeweser was as scent was to a man. Scent is tangible to a man, but his discernment of his nose is much less than that of dog. Such is sound for a steingeweser.)
Astra nodded, brushed away the chips of ice, and then continued up the path. She steadily crushed and cleared a path toward a rise in the trail, and then looked down on an ice-coated scree. A quarter mile out the ice diminished to where it was little more than mortar between the rocks of the scree slope.
There was little snow, and she judged that there would be little danger of an avalanche, even though she was heavy. The ice did not seem cold, and she doubted her body would suffer from extended contact with it. If she could find a flat surface, then perhaps she could slide down the ice and perhaps even down the exposed rocks. There were dangers. She could lose control and speed down the cliff and hurt herself. She felt indestructible, and knew that her body could take more wear than that of a man. But there had to be limits. Still, navigating the grade of the slope, while it was steep, was not as obviously foolhardy as something like jumping off a cliff.
Astra chose to slide down the slope of ice.
Sliding down the icy slope would not be difficult.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Indeed, it would be all too easy, as Astra knew that she would pick up tremendous speed when descending at even quite a modest angle, so that stopping safely might be problematic. The main risk would probably be that of stopping too suddenly, if she was not able to avoid a sizeable boulder. In the event of such a collision, she was not sure whether she or the boulder would come off worse. She also did not know how much ability, if any, her body had to heal itself once damaged. However, she could not see an alternative way of getting down.
She decided that it would be best to slide down on her back, feet first. If she did hit something, she would sooner put her legs at risk rather than her head. It would also make it easier for her to see where she was going.
It occurred to her that she might be able to control her speed by using her fingers as brakes. She could try to dig them into the ice, more deeply when she wanted to slow down and wholly or partially retracting them if she wanted to speed up. She thought that her fingers would be better than using her improvised ice-axe for the purpose, as that would only cut the ice at one point as opposed to ten and so would slow her much less. Using the stone would also tend to throw her off course by slowing her down asymmetrically. There was a risk that her fingers might suffer some damage, but better them than some more significant part of her body.
Astra pushed off and slid down the slope.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> She started to veer off to the left, then right, and then left again. There were subtle swells in the sheet of ice that she saw only as she got near them. Then she stopped suddenly, as her rear end hit the point of a rock poking out of the ice sheet.
She continued in this fashion, sliding twenty or thirty yards until she fell into a local trough or skidded into a hidden rock. Fortunately, for her, the rocks had been worn by erosion, and she was not cut. But if a steingeweser could become bruised and sore, the back of her legs and rear end surely would be by the time she reached the part of the slope where the ice ended. On the longest stretch, she managed to go nearly a minute without stopping, and thought that this way of moving was great fun, until she hit a spot that had been exposed to more sunlight than the rest, and was therefore rocky. She managed to slow down enough so that the rocky patch did not harm her.
She had reached the end of the ice sheet. She had manoeuvred herself to a flat, gravelly part of the slope, where she could stand up. She examined her dress and shoes. The dress had held up remarkably well, with a few small holes in the "fabric" that had been gouged out by rocks, in addition to some threadbare spots from flaking, but no tears. Her shoes showed fresh signs of wear on the heels, but they were still intact as well.
She walked forward, and discovered that she was on a gravel ledge hundreds of yards above its base. She hoped that the gravel was part of a trail leading down. She looked out into the distance. To the left, there was a stream in a canyon. In the middle, there was a large, rocky hill. To the right, there appeared to be a meadow of grass, with a few dwarf aspens.
Astra decided to follow the ledge to the right, in hopes that a trail would lead to the gentle slope of the meadow.
so much rock and ice, walking through a meadow would make a pleasant change.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Astra
had briefly considered trying to follow the stream instead, in the hope that it might
bring her to a village. But this was still wild country, high in the foothills of
the Shreken mountain range, as well as not being far from the
Even when she did so, it was possible that the locals - who in this remote region were likely to be superstitious and ill educated - would be too terrified of her for her to be able to communicate with them. They might even mistake her for a troll. But eventually she should reach more civilised parts where she could make herself known to a member of the nobility or - failing that - a magistrate or priest. That would be the first step in getting a message to the Aqualarian court, so that a sizeable force could be sent to clear out the dragon's mercenaries and rescue her friends. She was in no doubt that such a force would be sent; apart from more noble motives there must be a lot of loot that could be recovered. There should be a wizard sent with the party too, in case any residual magic of the dragon's needed to be disarmed. 
She followed the ledge to the right, and was glad to find it gradually descending. She had to watch her step, to ensure that her feet did not slip out from under her on the gravel, some of which was quite loose. It was not too long, however, before she had grass beneath her feet.
The meadow occupied a valley that descended fairly gently from north-east to south-west. In the latter direction, she had a view across the lowlands, made blue and indistinct by distance. Once she had reached the end of the valley, she would need to turn left, as her present heading would lead her into the western border area of Aqualaria, far from the capital, Themyscira, which lay to the southeast of her current position.
It was pleasant walking down the valley through the meadow on a sunny morning. She could not tell if it was a warm morning or a chilly one; her body was not very sensitive to changes in temperature. She caught a few distant glimpses of mountain goats, which fled at her approach; they were no doubt responsible for the grass being quite short.
As she went on, the aspens gradually became larger and more numerous. She avoided their shade, not wanting to risk being made sluggish.
When she had gone a mile or so, and had descended perhaps a couple of hundred feet, she encountered a stream. It flowed down from one side of the valley and then continued down its centre. She took a drink from it. She still seemed to need water occasionally, though not as much or as frequently as when she had been human. There was some sand in the bed of the stream, and seeing it she suddenly felt hungry. Some instinct must be telling her that this was what she needed to eat. She scooped up a handful and ate it. Not surprisingly, it felt gritty in her mouth, but not unpleasant. She swallowed it and then had a second handful. She wondered how her digestive system worked. Since her transformation, she had not excreted anything, whether solid or liquid.
She carried on down the valley for another hour or so. The going was easy, and she had covered another three miles or so. At one point she had spotted a large bear amongst the trees. She had felt nervous for a moment, before remembering that it could not harm her. It saw her, but took no notice of her. She guessed that she did not smell like prey; in fact she probably had no scent at all. Or maybe she was just too big to be regarded as potential prey.
The stream had grown substantially larger by now. She knew that her backside, though she could not see it, must be rather grubby from her earlier sliding. Even her front, where she could see, had acquired a little dirt. So she decided to bathe. No doubt the water, which probably mostly derived from the snow cover higher up, would be icy cold, but she knew that she would hardly notice that.
She bathes and then carries on.
Astra walked down the bank, across the mud, and into the stream.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> She sat down hard. What happened to the water? She was heavier than she remembered, and the water offered little more resistance than air when he sank in it. This part of the stream was not deep. She sat with the back of her legs stretched out against the bottom of the stream, but the surface of the stream did not quite cover the top of her thighs.
She washed her feet, and found that her boots were no longer tightly bound to her. She reached for the top, and was able to peel one of the boots off her feet as if it were a short woollen stocking. She looked at the "boot," and then soaked it in the stream. Next she then gently wrung it out by twisting it, and then set it aside on the bank.
She then took a bit of mud from the streambed and rubbed it on her feet. It felt very good. She then continued to rub it on her leg, and it felt good, too. She then removed the other "boot" and rubbed some of the fine mud on her legs.
She walked out onto the bank and fumbled around with her boots. She was trying to figure out what material was used. She first thought of it was white leather, but no animal had a skin like that. She raised a boot to her eyes, and saw a fine and regular grain. It reminded her of a very fine type of concrete, but concrete was solid after setting. This boot could be twisted and molded.
Or could it? She placed her hand in again, but found it was harder to move. Astra dunked the boots in the water, and let them soak. She washed the mud from her legs, although she felt an urge to lay on the bank for a while. After washing the mud off, she noticed there was a gloss on her legs where the mud had been. She thought that something in the mud had been left behind, and her "skin" was using it to heal and renew itself.
Astra pulled one of the boots out of the water, and found that it was again pliable. She carefully slipped her feet into the boots and unrolled them until they covered as much calf as they had before.
Astra looked at the "cloth" of a "sleeve" of her dress. It was also a pinkish white, like her boots or her skin, but the texture was different. The material itself appeared to be a mineral with a pearly sheen. On closer inspection, it appeared to be a very finely woven fabric of some sort. The slide down the mountain had done put a few small holes in it and frayed some of the weave. Frayed was the wrong description. "Flaked" was more accurate. Thin greyish tubes of material could be seen flaking off the threads in places. The dress seemed to be of one piece. She wondered if she could peel it off as she had the boots. She did feel the urge to rub some more of the mud on the rest of her before proceeding. The dress broke along its planes of cleavage, so to speak. She had swatches of an interesting fabric, but not a functional dress.
Astra wondered if the material had split where the seams had been before it was transformed, but she could not be sure.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> She tried using the largest piece to make a wrap-around skirt. It was just about big enough for that. But it proved impossible to knot the two ends together. The fabric was too shiny and slippery, and not quite pliable enough. Those properties meant she could not even fashion a loincloth out of it. Her attempts kept on coming apart and finishing around her ankles. Eventually she shrugged and gave up. She did not need clothing for warmth or protection from the elements, and Aqualarians did not have as strong a taboo against nudity as most other peoples of the region did.
Feeling strongly that the mud from the bed of the stream had restorative properties, Astra smeared it over as much of her body as she could reach. There was an area of her back that she could not get at, so she lay down in the stream and squirmed in order to cover that area as well as she could. After waiting a short time for the mud to do its stuff, she scraped it off. It came away quite readily. Where she could not reach, she removed the residue by rubbing herself on the grass growing beside the stream.
She wondered whether there was much point in continuing to wear the boots. Her feet were probably as durable as the footwear, and she might have a better grip without them. But she decided to keep them on for now. For one thing, it might help to convince people that she was not a troll, as it was well known that trolls were too primitive to wear any clothing or footwear. (Of course, there should not really be any confusion. Astra had never seen a troll, but she understood that they were supposed to be squat and very heavily built. And they were only mobile during the hours of darkness, the complete opposite of herself.)
Then she went on her way. As she went further down the valley, it gradually broadened out. Other small streams joined the main one, which therefore gradually grew in size to become a substantial river. She hoped that when she eventually left the valley and reached the plains - which would probably be some time tomorrow - the river would not cut across the direction in which she wanted to go. One of the few drawbacks of her new form was that she was clearly much too heavy to be able to swim. She could try walking across, but in the centre of the river the water would be well over her head. The water was sufficiently clear that lack of light would not be a problem, but she was unsure whether she still needed air or for how long she could hold her breath. She was not aware of breathing, but that did not mean that she was not doing so.
She had made sure that she was on the left bank of the river before it became too deep. That way she would be on the correct side if it continued in a southerly or westerly direction after leaving the valley. She would only have a problem if it turned onto an easterly course.
Astra continued to follow the river.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> She did not see any human beings on the way, but the land was not lifeless. There were plenty of smaller animals such as squirrels and field mice. The largest animal that she saw was a fox trotting out of the underbrush. There was likely no human settlement due to the dragon that lived nearby until two days ago.
It is difficult to describe Astra's thoughts. She knew that she needed to get to her home, and plead for aid for those she had left behind. But while she did retain memories of who she had been before she had become a steingeweser, the way that she thought about them had changed. She was thinking less and less using words. She was now thinking far more visually. There seemed to be certain senses that she could not define as well, but knew. For lack of a better word, the steingeweser had an intuition about certain things that could not be put into words.
One example was the path the she was taking to getting home. Although Astra had not come this way to get to the mountains, she knew this was the right path back. She did not question it. She also knew that when she saw a certain field of rye grass, that she would know exactly where she was, and could make it back home. This would have surprised her two days ago, as she would have concluded that one stretch of grass looked just like another.
Thoughts that would have worried her a few days ago did not even concern her now. She was not intuitively concerned about how her people would react to her new form. The steingeweser had not been seen in Themyscira, but they had been described in fantastic tales, so the concept would not have been unknown to Aqualaria. Furthermore, Aqualarian public art did not shy away from an accurate representation of the human form, and she would look much like the statues in the Sacred Grove, except that she would not be painted as they were.
Astra did have at least three concerns, two of the body, and one of the mind. The heaviest person that she could remember in Aqualaria was Pinguis the Cook, who weighed sixteen stone, which seemed an especially appropriate measure, given her current condition. There was no way that she could tell how heavy she really was, but she imagined that it could up to four or five times as much. Some of the flimsier platforms and bridges might not bear her weight. She certainly could not float in water as a normal person would.
The second concern was that she did not know what her body needed to survive. Certainly water was good for it, as well as mud. She did not feel hungry or thirsty. And light seemed to be needed. But what might she be overlooking?
The third concern, of which she was quite aware, was that she had the mind of a human trapped in the body of a steingeweser. It was not a displeasing body, with its durability and strength. She could also see things in a way that she had never seen before. But these enhanced senses, as well as diminished senses such as speech and smell, were disorienting. As the sun started to loom on the western horizon, she picked up a stick, and instinctively walked up a little hill. (If the river rose suddenly, then she did not want to risk waking up with water over her head.) She sat down cross-legged, and then used her stick to write in the sand.
Astra. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. Thomas. Fred. Dragon dead. She did this, writing the words that matched the pictures in her mind as a sort of discipline so that she would remember the language that the steingewesers apparently did not need, but that she most certainly would.
The last thing Astra remembered was staring toward the darkness of the east, and watching the first star come out.
The first thing Astra saw as she woke up was a completely overcast sky, with no hint of the sun. She had no idea of what time it could be, but she suspected that the heavy overcast had considerably delayed the point at which it became bright enough for her to awaken, but she could not tell by how long.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> She had hoped that the weather would improve, as she felt rather sluggish - both physically and mentally - and she attributed this to the dullness of the day.
Before moving on, she drank from the river and had another mud bath, after which she felt a little refreshed, though still not as alert as she had been yesterday. She also repeated the exercise of writing some words in the sand. It felt if anything a little more alien and difficult than it had done yesterday. She hoped that was a result of her torpor rather than a sign of a continuing deterioration in her ability to use words.
Then she resumed following the river down the valley. Fortunately, she was not nearly as dependent on the direction of the sun for navigation now as when she had been human. In any case, it was clear that there was no sensible alternative to heading down the valley until she eventually emerged from it.
Before long it began to drizzle, and this soon intensified into steady moderate rain. That did not bother her at all. What did bother her was that the light did not noticeably improve. The sun's rising higher in the sky was evidently being counteracted by the thickening of the grey sheet of cloud above her. When she looked back, she could see that it now shrouded not only the mountains but also the peaks of the higher foothills.
Astra had hoped to leave the valley behind her at some point during the day and emerge onto the plain that covered most of the region between the mountains and the capital, but if the weather did not get any better she was afraid that her hours awake might be too curtailed for that. Though she was not trying to meet any particular timetable in getting help for the others, she naturally wished to do so as quickly as possible.
The afternoon was a long twilight, and it seemed to Astra to be a short day of five or six hours. She wandered wearily away from the river. She eventually gave up walking, stretched across the ground, and fell asleep.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
Dawn broke the next day. The sky resembled the inside of an oyster's shell, with lustrous, wispy clouds that let plenty of sunlight through. Astra rose, and walked along a low rise of ground that was parallel to the river. She was refreshed by the light, and made good progress. A normal woman would have found the way tangled with scrub and rock, and therefore tedious, but as a steingeweser, there really were no obstacles of note. The rise also gave her a slightly better view of the valley. As her sense of hearing was not keen, although she was not deaf, she would have to rely on her vision and intuition to avoid being surprised.
And it turned out that soon she saw the first sign of humanity that she had met since taking leave of the dragon's park in the Shreken. Off in the distance, her keen sight discovered a man and a dog herding livestock.
The man, dog and livestock - a flock of sheep - were the better part of a mile further down the valley, where several fields had been fenced off next to the river, where the soil was most fertile.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Astra wondered whether she should make herself known to the man or instead should attempt to pass by unnoticed.
Even if he wasn't frightened by her appearance, would making contact with him achieve anything? It was unlikely that he could get in touch with the Aqualarian authorities for her any more quickly than she could do for herself. Also communicating with him might be difficult. It was likely that a shepherd would be illiterate, and there were some things that it might be tricky to convey through pictures alone. For example, if she gave him a vision of a town, would he understand that she wanted to know where the nearest town was?
Could she manage to pass by without being detected, though? Would not the dog scent her? "You're made of a material similar to stone", she reminded herself. It's unlikely that you have an odour, and certainly not of anything that a sheepdog would recognise as being a living creature."
Astra's having a clear view of the man means that he also had a clear view of her, should he look in her direction. He did. His vision was not as keen as hers, but he saw that there was some object visible against the skyline that is new.
The shepherd waved to her, and he let his dog mind the sheep.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> He started out for the high ground where Astra was standing. She decided neither to avoid him nor to approach him. She stood her ground, and just let the shepherd come forward. She looked like a statue. If she stood still, she might not scare the shepherd.
Somewhat later that morning, the shepherd finally finished navigating the broken and rocky ground that led to her. Astra had not thought about the fact that there should be a trail of broken vines and boot prints in the muddy spots on the ground behind her. However, for some reason the shepherd did not notice this, and approached her cautiously. He then started to talk to her. Some shepherds had been known to talk to their sheep, as they spent many hours with no human company. And sheep were not that much more intelligent than rocks.
The shepherd was now close up to her, and he said, "You are a beauty."
He looked up and down at her, and said, "It is a pity that you cannot speak. I wonder where you came from. You look like one of the mighty women on horseback from the south. But that is some ways away."
He now got close, and looked into her eyes.
"Those are pretty blue jewels in your eyes, Miss. Maybe you once lived in a palace, a long time ago. You could be the last part of it left. Or maybe you looked over a tomb, and you are the image of the young lady buried in it." The shepherd stroked the stubble of his chin with is thumb and index finger. "But you look like you were crafted just a few days ago! And you are way out here - where you have no business being! A right good mystery this is. Well, honey, you are safe with me. I will not steal your eyes to get a new coat. It would be a sin."
The shepherd was now staring into her face. He then raised his hand to her cheek and touched it gently, as he would have done if she were flesh and blood, and then pulled it back suddenly.
"Good heavens! You are as warm as any regular girl." Astra still stayed perfectly still.
Having decided to pretend to be a statue, Astra remained perfectly still.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> "I suppose the sun must have warmed you," the shepherd rationalised after a moment, to her relief.
He went on: "You are so very beautiful that I can understand why the sculptor wanted to depict you in the nude." Astra might have blushed at the compliment, had she had any blood-carrying capillaries beneath her skin with which to do so.
"The workmanship is remarkable. Even the slightest detail seems to have been faithfully reproduced. Whoever commissioned the work must have been very pleased."
Taking a few steps backwards, he surveyed her from head to foot, and for the first time noticed her boots. "How strange! Why sculpt you nude but then portray you wearing boots? Did they perhaps have some religious significance? Or were you intended as a very imaginative advertisement for a cobbler?" Eventually the shepherd turned to go.
The shepherd then concluded, "The one that watches over kings and beggars alike has given me a gift, and I thank him for it. You have enlivened the day. Whatever brought you here is something that I will never find out, though. It is just too much of a mystery for me. I have left Lucy out there for long enough. She will keep the sheep in line, but I need to get back."<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
The shepherd turned and headed down toward the flock, looking back once. Astra decided to give him some time to get back, and then she would follow the river. She did not think that the shepherd would do her any harm, but she felt the need to be alone for a time.
As she followed the river, she discovered a bridge in the distance, with two people fishing off it.
Astra left the shepherd and his flock behind, giving them a wide berth and hoping that he would not have looked up in her direction and seen her moving.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> She did not want to frighten him.
As she went on, the valley broadened and the ridges on either side became gradually lower. Thus, she could not really say exactly when she reached the plains.
She continued to follow the river, as it was still heading in the right direction. She saw no further sign of people. Presumably, the shepherd must have had a farm, or at least a hut, but evidently in a different direction from the one that she had taken.
A couple of hours before sunset (she estimated), the river did something she had been worried about,  and turned through almost ninety degrees, so that it now headed east instead of south. Unless it changed its course again before too long, she would need to cross it if she was to reach the populous part of Aqualaria. The river by now was far too deep to be forded, and of course, she could not swim.
Then in the distance, she saw a bridge. However, this did not solve her problem. For one thing, at this range she could not tell if it was made of stone - in which case it would probably bear her weight - or of wood (more likely in this remote region) - when it probably would not. Even worse, there were two people fishing from it. Retracing her steps to a point where she could safely ford the river would involve many hours delay.
She decided to approach and make herself known to the men (she assumed that they were men, though at this range she could not be sure of their gender). Perhaps they would help her, and in any case, they could hardly harm her.
Astra saw more detail as she approached the bridge.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> A single stone arch spanned the river. Vines and ivy had covered the sides of the abutments. Such a bridge in Aqualaria would have had the abutments cleared so that integrity would remain sound. The space under the arch was free of debris and the stones appeared to be holding in place, though, so Astra was not worried about crossing the bridge. There were walls on the top of the bridge that rose to the height of a grown man's waist. Nocks about a thumb wide and a foot deep were incised into the wall. At one time these may have been part of a fortification, but Astra could see that the nocks were now being used to prop up fishing poles.
Astra looked at the two men. They appeared to be father and son. The father was a deep tan. His short hair was almost entirely grey, with just a few sandy streaks. The younger man was fairer, with blond hair and sporting a moustache, although he had no beard. Both men were bare from the waist up. Both were staring over the wall and down into the water, looking at spots on the surface where their lines ended.
The fishermen now appeared to be oblivious to world beyond the surface of the water. Perhaps, if she were stealthy enough, she could pass the fishermen to the other side of the river? She expected a young man not to notice the form of a beautiful woman from the corner of his eye? The boy looked up and nudged the older man as Astra stepped on the abutment.
Astra thought that she had a good chance of crossing the bridge unnoticed.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The men were fishing from the downstream side of the bridge, so had their backs to her, and they seemed very intent on their lines. The position of the sun was such that her shadow as she crossed would not fall within their field of view to alert them. And if she put her feet down very slowly as she walked, she thought that she could avoid making any noise.
In spite of her careful reasoning, her conclusion proved to be wrong. She had no sooner stepped onto the bridge in fact, than the young man either detected motion in the corner of his eye or became aware of her through some sixth sense. Or perhaps he saw her reflection in the water. At any event, he turned his head and looked up.
A look of astonishment crossed his face and he froze for a moment. Then he nudged the older man, who in turn looked up and saw her.
Mute and unable on the spur of the moment to think of an appropriate vision to project, Astra smiled in an attempt to show that she meant them no harm.
The men flee, running off the bridge at the end away from Astra, abandoning their fishing rods in the process.
Both men dropped their fishing rods, and backed away toward the far side of the bridge.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The younger man was four steps closer to Astra than the older man was. Astra placed a hand on the top of the bridge's wall that was closest to her, and blinked. She did not give a reassuring gesture, perhaps because even something as harmless as a wave of the hand might be seen as threatening.
The old man stopped, and closed his eyes. He took slow and shallow breaths. Then he declared, "I do not know what she is, but she is uncanny. She is giving me a vision."
The young man looked forward at Astra, who stayed still. "A vision?"
"Like she has come to give us a message. I saw a vision that you and I had both caught large golden fish."
The young man said, "What do you think it means?"
Now, Astra had not intended the golden fish to have any special meaning. She merely wanted to ease their fear by giving them a vision of what she thought of as a successful catch. The only live fish she had ever seen were the large, shiny, golden pet fish in a large pond on the palace grounds, and she thought that most fish looked like that. The fisherman, used to plainer fish such as bass, seized on that and gave the vision a meaning that Astra had not intended.
"The two golden fish mean that there is a treasure hoard near the bridge."
Astra reflected that that had not gone as well as she had hoped.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> She had seemed to manage much better with Fred and her other companions back in the secret valley. But then she had had much more common ground with them. Probably most of them were more intelligent than these two men as well. She had also been able to write messaages in the dirt, but here on the bridge there was no dirt to write in. These men might well be illiterate in any case. Still, at least the vision that she had transmitted had persuaded the men not to flee.
While she was thinking, the younger man - greatly daring - approached her, until his nerve gave out and he stopped about four paces away. "Will you show us where the treasure is?" he asked. Astra pointed vaguely to the land on her side of the bridge.
There were some people that could not be reasoned with, especially when words could not be used conveniently.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> So Astra pointed out the land along the river bank, on her side of the bridge, and then crossed. The men backed away and gave her a respectful distance. She then continued on, hoping to avoid populated areas.
Astra did take a look back a few minutes later. The two men had crossed the bridge, had grabbed their fishing poles, and were scratching in the dirt looking for some sign of the treasure. Eventually they would tire of this and perhaps look for shovels. She might have to cross this bridge again with some cavalry in the future. Would these men still be digging around when that time came?
Astra then continued. She thought that she was getting closer to home. Within a day at the latest, she thought that she should stumble across one of the neighbouring tribes of Aqualaria, if not the Matriarchy itself.
As she continued, she found that ahead was a great plain with little more than tall grass, and she could see for miles in all directions.
The river continued to curve away, but Astra was on the correct side of it now. She pushed onwards, leaving it behind her.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Ahead, as she had expected from her knowledge of the region, was a great grassy plain. The lack of trees or any other obstacles, combined with her excellent eyesight, meant that she could see for miles in every direction. However there was nothing to be seen apart from the grass and the occasional herd of antelope.
As she proceeded, the sun became veiled behind cloud. It was not thick enough to cause her to become lethargic, but it meant that the sun could no longer be used to help with navigation. A human without a compass would have struggled to keep to a constant direction over the all but featureless terrain, so she was glad that she now seemed to have some sixth sense to enable her to hold to her desired course. 
She first saw something different from the prevailing monotony ahead of her when it was probably still more than five miles distant. Even her keen eyesight could not determine just what it was at such a range, but before long it was close enough for her to determine that it was a troop of men (or possibly women) on horseback, heading in her direction.
Astra looked at the number, and guessed that this was one of the tribes of the Dunchovians.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> The Dunchovians were hunters that pitched a camp in the winter, followed herds of antelope in the summer, and hunted. Relations between Aqualaria and the Dunchovians were generally good. The Dunchovians, despite a rough life spent on the move, had a reputation as being a gentle and hospitable people. As was usual in Ryngaerder culture, the women rode with the men, and knew how to shoot from horseback as well. These tribes knew which rivers marked the boundary of Aqualaria and gave the powerful Matriarchy a healthy respect. Dunchovian leather was highly prized throughout the Ryngaerd and even in lands beyond.
There was one mystery. Astra could not see any large herds of antelope. What was this tribe seeking?
Astra decided to try to get the attention of the tribe.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> If she could communicate with them, perhaps they would be willing to send a rider with a message to Aqualaria. That would be much quicker than if she had to cover the whole distance on foot.
At present, they seemed to be heading almost straight for her, though she thought that was probably no more than chance, as she doubted that they could have seen her yet. Her vision was very good now, and also it would be much easier to see a group of riders than one person on foot. She walked steadily towards them, hoping that they would not substantially change their course before they could see her, as if they did she might be unable to intercept them.
Some five minutes later she knew that they had seen her, as they started to fan out. They obviously wanted to find out who she was and what her business might be in their land, and did not want her to give them the slip. They would probably finish by completely surrounding her. At this point they probably thought that they were dealing with a human being; at such a distance they wouldn't be able to see that she was made of stone.
In another ten minutes, Astra was at the centre of a narrowing circle of about twenty riders. They could see what she was now, and she in turn could see the expressions on their faces: surprise on some, tension on others, outright fear on a few.
Writing a message was not possible; the grassy plain was unsuitable for that. So her initial communication would have to be telepathic. She was not sure that she could broadcast to a number of people simultaneously, so she focussed on the one that - from his slightly grander attire - she took to be their leader.
First she tried to project an image of herself as she had been when human, dressed in the style that was currently fashionable at the Aqualarian court. Even if the man had never seen a painting of her, she hoped that he would recognise the style of dress. Then she attempted to show herself as she was now. She had seen her reflection in the river, so had a good idea of how her head looked as well as her body. She made sure that in both cases she held exactly the same pose. Surely the man should get the message: that she was an Aqualarian noblewoman who had been transformed into the being that he now saw standing before him.
The leader appeared to get the gist of the message, though he at first seemed taken back by the images flooding his mind.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> He quickly dismounted his Xethymian stallion - a breed of horse for which the Dunchovians were famous. Selectively bred over the centuries and fiercely guarded, they were the pride of the nomads.
He was a stout, bold looking man with piercing brown eyes. Garbed in his simple attire, the brown robes and scarf typical of the plains people, he looked not much different than the rest of his clan, except for the elaborate headdress which clearly marked him as a person of some import. He signalled something to the others and they seemed to visibly relax, if only slightly. None of the others dismounted.
He approached Astra tentatively, studying her with keen interest. Aqualarian? he ventured.
Astra smiled and gave him a simple nod.
The man returned the friendly gesture, though it was clear he was still sizing her up, uncertain if she was friend or foe. He turned to one of the mounted women, and called her by her name, Viani.
With amazing agility, the woman leapt from her horse and affixed herself beside the leader. She pulled back her cowl, and Astra was amazed to see long white hair spilling over her shoulders, interwoven with beads and feathers. This was not the typical style of the plains women, and so Astra assumed (rightly) that she must be a healer or magus of some sort.
Astra focused her thoughts on the leader again, this time projecting a vivid image of Themyscira, the greatest city south of the Shreken and well known for its cunning stonework. She conjured up the image of Maia, the great Queen of the Aqualarian nation. And of childbirth. And then of herself as a youth, proud and strong. And then of herself as she was now.
The leaders eyes widened in apparent recognition. This process of mental projection was becoming easier! Either that or this man was brighter than the other bumpkins she had thus far encountered. He whispered something to Viani, the elderly woman with the beautiful white hair. Viani, in turn, shook her head and shrugged, obviously clueless as to who or what Astra was.
The chief said, "I saw a vision just now. I saw her as a girl, and then a young woman, and then some sort of change took place, Viani.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> She is from a big fancy place with many horses and houses. Aqualaria, maybe? You have been there."
Viani said, "Radagaisic, let me try." Radagaisic stepped back. Viani motioned to a group of four horsemen. Two fell in formation to her right and two to her left. She then approached Astra.
"The form of a beautiful young woman is a very pursuasive one for young men - and even older ones. A devious one would use such a form to get men to believe what they would not, or to do things that they would not. If you are who you say you are, let us join hands, and I will see if you are indeed truthful."
Astra looked at the horses. With the rider, they probably weighed nearly as much as she did. They might hurt her if they charged, although she thought that whatever stone she was made from would win out over flesh. She walked forward in measured steps, and held out her right hand, as if to shake hands with Viani. The riders stared at Astra. Viani walked slowly as well, with a blank stare on her face. Astra caught just a hint of Viani trying to swallow, and the muscles of her throat tightened.
Astra smiled wanly, her pale form matching her feelings as she tried to win the woman's trust. She did not know how to do this. She would try to tell her story, as honestly as could. Viani grasped her wrist as if feeling for her pulse, and raised her eyebrows. She regained her composure, though, and then said, "Do you have a name?"
Viani closed her eyes and bowed her head, and Astra mirrored this. Could Viani even read? She remembered, that during the winter solstice, there was a formal celebration, and as a princess, she had a chair reserved for her. In the upper slat of the chair on which she sat was a mosaic with her name on it. Astra saw five white letters on a red background.
Viani spoke to both Astra and the Dunchovian host.
"Yes, I am seeing a vision. I see a great camp, with stone houses. The days are cold. There is a line of thrones.
"The one that she wants to show me clearly has a name on it in red and white - Astra. Is that your name?"
Astra nodded in agreement.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> She was making progress. She had hoped that Viani might recognise her name and realise who she was. After all, Radagaisic had mentioned that Viana had been to Aqualaria, and thus might be expected to know the names of at least some of the royal family. But perhaps that was asking for too much.
"Thrones?" Radagaisic said. "What is a throne?"
"It is a very large and ornate chair, that members of Aqualarian royalty use. If the one that she focussed on had her name fixed to it, that would seem to imply that she was a member of the royal family, a princess."
Astra smiled. Even if Viani did not recognise her name, she had arrived at the right conclusion.
Viani turned back tio her and said, "So how long ago were you transformed?" How could Astra convey that it had been very recent?
Astra remembered where she was on the three evenings before she fell asleep.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]>
announced, "It looks like three nights have passed since you left wherever you came
from. The first night there was lightning, and you were on a mountain. The nearest
ones are north of here. Nasty, nasty place with a dragon and many filthy creatures
that are up to no good. Why would you go there? The second evening you stopped
at a bend in the
nodded her head. The
Astra now tried to answer Viani's question as to how she came to the mountains, by imagining how she had been kidnapped, and how she had initially escaped the dragon. Astra concentrated hard, as she attempted to convey a succession of images which she hoped would tell her story.<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> She hoped that Viani would realise that the visions were in order of the events depicted occurring, and that all of them preceded the visions of the last three days that she had already conveyed. (She realised that she had rather done things the wrong way round, but only now had she gained enough confidence in her own transmitting ability and Viani's ability to receive to attempt something so ambitious.) To tell the full story would have taken dozens or even hundreds of pictures, and would most likely have totally confused Viani, so Astra confined herself to the essential points that she wanted to put across.
She showed herself, sabre in hand, proceeding through a
passage in the
Following the seven visions, she made a gesture that she hoped would indicate that she was finished. The whole process had taken well over five minutes, each vision taking about thirty seconds to create in her mind's eye and then being projected for about the same length of time.
Seeing that Viani appeared rapt, the tribe had guessed that she must be receiving further images, and had not done anything that might distract her. Viani now raised her head, which she had bowed to assist her own concentration. "Goodness!" she said. "I have a splitting headache now, but it was worth it."
is one of the refugees in the Dragon's Park. He
is the one that meets Fred, is of late middle age, and can do some carpentry
and can carry a sword. He appeared to be in
some sort of conspiracy with Simon, and attempted to perform some sort of spell at
Princess of Aqualaria attempted to kill the dragon earlier, but was captured. Freed
by a trick on the dragon by Simon the Painter. Survived
Dragon (unnamed) was a marauder of Allaria,
kidnapper of Princess Astra, and master of the Dragon's Caves and Dragon's Park. There was
much loose spoil in his caves, and he had a good wine collection. He
also had a number of servants, although that number fluctuated with the intake into
the caves and with the outbursts of his temper. Although
he was a fire-breathing dragon, when partly submerged in water his breath would not
ignite. Still his breath was a potent but non-lethal
weapon simply from its stench. He was surprisingly
agile when moving from the water to the land, and could speak in a deep voice, but
preferred to communicate silently. He was apparently
willing to barter with Simon the Painter for control over Princess Astra, and died
in a fireball at the
Edwin is one of the refugees in the Dragon's Park. He manned a catapult at the battle of the Dragon's Pond and knows stories of the steingeweser.
FitzHugh was a non-commissioned officer with the rank of ancient, and a noted and unconventional warrior. He was famous for going nearly naked into one battle to test a theory of his, and for offering key advice in taking Signal Hill in one of the battles, where he fought alongside Thomas of Alkamore.
Lord Fred is a knight of Allaria charged with a quest to kill the Dragon. He lives in the Duchy of Suffex. He fought in and survived the Battle of the Dragon's Pond.
Gerald of Trescent fought in the Battle of Signal Hill with Thomas of Alkamore, and also known to Fred. He once servedthe Molenari family.
one of the refugees in the Dragon's Park. He
manned a catapult at the
Hildegarde is one of the refugees in the Dragon's Park. She accompanied Anselm when he met Fred. She can weave a special thread that gives rope a greater tensile strength than usual.
The King of Allaria is introduced in the first episode, he sends Lord Fred on a quest to kill the dragon that has been harrowing Allaria.
Legolam is a seedy elf who encounters Fred in the dungeons. He takes him to the Dragon's Park and runs away.
Queen Maia of Aqualaria is Astra's sovereign, and relative. In episode 88298, it is implied that Astra is her daughter.
one of the refugees in the Dragon's Park. He
manned a catapult, and assisted Thomas after the
chief of a Dunchovian tribe.
Radagaisic is chief of a Dunchovian tribe.
the Painter was sent by the court of Aqualaria to find and rescue the princess,
and he was able to do so through his mastery of painting. He
appeared to be a traitor in the
King Suliman of Hespan The events in this story took place on or shortly after the fourteenth year of his reign. During his reign the Great Hurricane and collapse of the Golden Lighthouse took place.
of Alkamore is a leader of a band of refugees trapped in the Dragon's Park. He
was formerly a soldier of fortune who specialized in artillery weapons. He
has unconventional ideas as to novel military uses for catapults.
He survived the
Viani is a shaman or medicine woman of a Duchovian tribe. She communicates visually with Astra.
Unnamed minor characters in order of their appearance:
The strange man who controls the cave lighting is unnamed in this story, so he is not necessarily Belboz. Fred sneaks past him early.
The first drunk elf meets Fred in the Dragon's wine cellar. Fred slips past him after taking a bottle of wine, which he keeps until he meets Legolam. For all we know, Fred still has it.
The shepherd is a simple but kindly soul who sees Astra frozen like a statue, and muses on her before returning to his flock.
The two fishermen are a father and son who are scared by Astra, as she looks like a moving stone statue. They misinterpret her vision and think that she is telling them about a hidden treasure.
implied that this is the home city of
Allaria is Fred's homeland. Fred lives in Suffex, a land that is a duchy within Allaria.
Aqualaria in this episode as so many others is Astra's homeland. Its location not specified, but it appears that it lies to the south of the caves, in accordance with most of the story canon.
Double Hill is a rise in the Dragon's Park where the catapults were placed in an attempt to ambush the Dragon.
Dragon's Caves in the Mountains are later revealed to be part of the
The Dragon's Park or "valley" or "basin", depending on who is telling the story, is a bowl-shaped area with a small pond in the centre, surrounded by mountains without an obvious pass. It is connected to the Dragon's Caves.
Dragon's Pond is in the centre of the Dragon's Park.
It is the site of the
Hespan is a rival to Aqualaria in a location not specified in the story, but has a coast line subject to hurricanes.
Jaxinarta is a monarchy that was Thomas of Alkamore's last employer before he became trapped in the Dragon's Caves.
Signal Hill is the location of one of Thomas of Alkamore's battles.
unique to this series of episodes. They are nomadic tribes adjacent to Aqualaria,and famous
for their superior leather craftsmanship and equestrian skill. They
recognize Aqualaria as the dominant power in the region and do not cause problems.
Dunchovians are unique to this series of episodes. They are nomadic tribes adjacent to Aqualaria,and famous for their superior leather craftsmanship and equestrian skill. They recognize Aqualaria as the dominant power in the region and do not cause problems.
The House of Molenari are the rulers of Trescant. In other stories, they are rivals to Suffex. They are difficult to deal with, according to Fred.
Introduced in episode 87564. They are a race unique to this series of episodes. These are the known facts about the steingeweser, mostly from what is seen of Astra after the transformation.
<![if !supportLists]> 1) <![endif]>Edwin believes that there is a race of them south of Aqualaria, but has never seen them. Astra may be different in some ways.
<![if !supportLists]> 2) <![endif]>Durable and strong.
<![if !supportLists]> 3) <![endif]>Resistant to cold.
<![if !supportLists]> 4) <![endif]>Needs light to stay awake, but it need not be direct light. Limits where she can go.
<![if !supportLists]> 5) <![endif]>When asleep, she is indistinguishable from a stone statue.
<![if !supportLists]> 6) <![endif]>Sees very well.
<![if !supportLists]> 7) <![endif]>Cannot speak. Weaker sense of smell and hearing, but not deaf.
<![if !supportLists]> 8) <![endif]>Unlike a traditional golem, she can move with the agility of a human. The skin is apparently more like a plastic or a hard but pliable substance that a brittle stone.
<![if !supportLists]> 9) <![endif]>Some form of telepathy or "silent speech," although she cannot convey sound or express words using it. She may differ from natural steingewesers (if they exist) by having some of her old memories that allow her to understand language.
<![if !supportLists]> 10) <![endif]>Very heavy. 900 pounds seems to be a good working figure.
<![if !supportLists]> 11) <![endif]>Does crave a little water, and is either refreshed or healed by certain types of muds that are rubbed on her body.
<![if !supportLists]> 12) <![endif]>Warm to the touch.
<![if !supportLists]> 13) <![endif]>Still unknown whether she needs to breathe.
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Sir Toby, Episode 2, "The Start of the Quest," written February 9, 1999
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Sir Toby, Episode 4, "To the Right!" written February 9, 1999
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Sir Toby, Episode 8, "Follow the Light," written February 10, 1999
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Paulito, Episode 15, "A Strange Room," written February 14, 1999
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Josh Bieber, Episode 134, "Fred Climbs Down the Ladder," written February 14, 1999
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Sir Toby, Episode 146, "Down the Ladder," written February 16, 1999
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Paulito, Episode 429, "The Wine Celler," written February 16, 1999
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Unidentified author, Episode 541, "The Visitor," written October 30, 1999
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Eric Kantona, Episode 5305, "The Dark Tunnel," written January 5, 2006
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Lots42, Episode 55844, "Secret Passage," written March 27, 2008
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 74744, "Marks on the Wall," written March 31, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86157, "The Painting," written April 1, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86160, "Scabbard," written April 1, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86162, " and Sabre," written April 2, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86183, "Elf," written April 4, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86170, "Fred Interrogates the Elf," written April 5, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86173, "The Source of the Cloth," written April 5, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86174, "Fred Runs Out of Patience," written April 6, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86177, "The Elf Sees Fred's Point," written April 6, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Won-Tolla, Episode 86181, "The Story of the Painting," written April 7, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86183, "Trapped!" written April 7, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86188, "The Basin of Isolation," written April 9, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86192, "Into the Open," written April 10, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86269, "Anselm and Hildegarde," written April 14, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86270, "Legolam Appears to Have a Problem," written April 15, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86274, "Taking Cover in the Basin," written April 16, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86307, "Taken In," written April 17, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86315, "Bramble Trail," written April 17, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86329, "Underground Once More," written April 18, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86331, "Quarantine," written April 18, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86334, "Fred Joins the Company," written April 19, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86346, "Conversation," written April 19, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86354, "An Argument Against Delay," written April 22, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86366, "Thomas Puts Fred to Work," written April 24, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86390, "Thomas Tantalises," written April 27, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86934, "Catapult Talk," written April 29, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86403, "A Desparate Plan," written April 30, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86407, "The Legend of the Ancient Fitzhugh," written May 1, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86427, "More Details of Thomas's Plan", written May 4, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86455, "Blazing a Trail," written May 4, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 85456, "Simon the Painter," written May 7, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86458, "Fred's Preferred Title," written May 15, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH,
Episode 86471, "A Fortunate
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86548, "The War Council," written May 23, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86620, "The Council is Convened," written May 24, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86630, "Thomas Probes Fred's Plan," written May 25, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86661, "A Choice of Tactical Options," written May 26, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86681, "Mixed Signals," written May 26, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86693, "An Unkind Twist of Fate," written May 28, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86694, "The Last Ten Yards of Water," written May 28, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86722, "The Dragon is Uneasy," written June 3, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86773, "Stuck," written June 4, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86781, "Like a Cat with a Mouse," written June 13, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86830, "Fred's Waterlogged Charge," written June 30, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86933, "An Unexpected Development", written July 2, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 86934, "Simon Says", written July 2, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 86939, "Attack from the Rear," written July 6, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 87070, "The Promise of a Special Power", written July 17, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode Episode 87557, "Demonstration," written July 18, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 87564, "Fireball," written July 24, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 87598, "Aftermath," July 26, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 87600, "Funeral," written July 30, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH,
Episode 87630, "Waiting for
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps,
Episode 87637, "
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 87638, "Fred Has Much to Ponder," written August 9, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 87642, "Visions without Words", written on August 29, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 87812, "A Way Out?", written August 30, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 87817, "Diagnosis", written August 31, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 87819, "The Steingeweser Equivalent of Cracked Ribs?" Written September 3, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 87862, "Shadows", written September 7, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 87874, "A Storm in the Mountains", written September 11, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 87876, "Breaking the Ice", written September 16, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 87878, "Astra's Improved Braking System", written September 17, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 87892, "Sliding Down the Mountain", written September 20, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 87895, "The Meadow in the Valley", written September 27, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 87901, "Concrete Leather and Pearly Thread", written September 28, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 87904, "Mud, Glorious Mud", written November 2, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 87909, "Looking for the Landmark", written November 8, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 88083, "A Very Dull Day", written November 10, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 88087, "A Sign of Humanity", written November 13, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 88136, "The Shepherd", written November 14, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 88141, "The Shepherd's Speculation", written November 15, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 88142, "Astra Receives a Compliment", written November 19, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 88166, "Following the River", written November 20, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 88190, "A Bend in the River", written November 22, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 88194, "Astra and the Two Fishermen", written November 23, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 88198, "Spotted", written November 25, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 88209, "The Big Goldfish", written November 30, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 88225, "Communication Difficulties", written December 2, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 88236, "Astra Gets the Fishermen out of the Way", written December 4, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 88238, "Into the Great Plains," written December 9, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 88249, "Hunters", written December 10, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH,
Episode 88254, "Encounter on the
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Ib, Episode 88298, "Astra Among the Dunchovians", written December 26, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 88309, "My Name is Astra", written December 30, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 88583, "Astra Makes Progress", written December 31, 2009
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> Anableps, Episode 88625, "Three Sunsets", written January 3, 2010
<![if !supportFootnotes]><![endif]> JH, Episode 88754, "Astra's Virtual Photograph Album", written January 10, 2010.