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The Defender of Rebel Falls: A Medieval Science Fiction Adventure

Contents

Copyright Page

Dedication

Author’s Note

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Keep Reading

About the Author

Acknowledgements

 

© 2017 Erik Christensen

All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the author, except as permitted by copyright law. For permissions contact:

[email protected]

Cover by Tatiana Vila.

 

Dedication

 

 

This book is dedicated to my late friend, Eric Ouellette. You were the first to tell me with sincerity that I had it in me to write one, and you were the first to read it when it was done. I am ever grateful you were in my life. This is for you, buddy.

Author’s Note

 

 

Dear Reader,

 

This book is neither pure science fiction, nor unadulterated fantasy.

Genre matters a lot in publishing. All book stores, whether they be on-line or brick and mortar, insist on assigning one to every book they sell, because that’s how they market them.

But more important to me is readers’ expectations. If you buy a book with a dragon on the cover, you may be disappointed to find there’s no magic, wizards, elves, dwarves, or anything else a typical fantasy story contains.

Then again, you might select a book from the science fiction category, only to find the author wrote nothing about spaceships, robots, or major advances in technology.

This book is primarily an adventure story, inspired by fantasy and other medieval styles, but applied in a science-y manner (I stop short of calling it scientific, as some of the science is imagined). In other words, I asked myself, “what if dragons were real, and distant planets could be populated from Earth? How could we explain that?” The Defender of Rebel Falls is the result of this process.

Regardless of what you, the reader, were expecting, I hope you enjoy the results. It was sure fun to write.

 

 

Erik Christensen

 

 

The history of Selection Day goes back 250 years, with some historians suggesting it began in larger cities more than a hundred years earlier. In late autumn, boys of seventeen, having no land to inherit or master to apprentice them, sign contracts of employment with the Earl of their township. Although they may state their preferred posting, they are legally bound to work for whichever administrator selects them. Stories of wide-eyed young men seeking glory only to be chosen for some menial task are so common as to have become cliché.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

[_ _]

William Whitehall sat alone on a bench behind the crowd and waited for the announcement that would change his life. The old meeting hall was silent except for the occasional scrape of a chair or rustle of papers. He stared at the solemn dignitaries seated at the table upon the dais, grim-faced officers who decided lesser people’s fates. One of them called a name—he didn’t notice whose it was—and the hall echoed with footsteps as the chosen man walked up and accepted his billet. Another name, more footsteps. Sweat dripped from William’s newly-trimmed hair and landed unnoticed on the dusty floor.

“Excuse me.”

William jumped; a man pointed to the seat beside him. “Sorry I startled you, lad. Mind if I sit here?” William shook his head and shuffled over. The man plopped down with a thump and offered his grimy hand. “Eloy Haggard.”

He shook Haggard’s hand. “William Whitehall.”

Haggard’s eyebrows rose. “Orrin’s boy?” he asked.

William nodded and turned his gaze back to the proceedings.

A clerk handed a stack of papers to one of the dignitaries. “Your Lordship, that concludes the temporary positions.”

Haggard grunted. “Good. I’m on time.” He pulled an apple from his dirty coat and took a noisy bite. Juice dribbled into his sparse beard as he rested his mud-caked boots on the bench in front of them. “Are you in the Draft?” he asked through a mouthful.

William nodded.

“What job?” asked Haggard.

William hesitated. “Guard.”

Haggard eyed him up and down. “Really? That’s mighty brave, a lad your size. My boy put in for Guard as well. Worth his weight in iron, my boy is, but he’d rather sit with his friends instead of me. Say…why aren’t you up front with them?”

William followed Haggard’s gaze; he knew those boys too well. “They aren’t my friends,” he said.

Haggard gave him a funny look, and began to speak, but a loud voice from the front interrupted him. “Are we ready for the permanent selections?” Bradford Masterman, Earl of Marshland Crossing, filled the large high-backed seat at the center of the table. His thick silver chain of office rattled as he glanced at the men on either side of him. When they nodded their assent, he waved at the old man furthest to his left. “Go ahead, Cairns.”

William groaned.

Haggard chuckled. “They always do the boring ones first.”

“I know,” said William.

“It’s so the boys who don’t get chosen for the good jobs won’t run away.”

He glared at Haggard. “I know why they do it. And I wouldn’t run away.”

“Well, I didn’t say you would, lad. No need to get snarly.”

William shook his head. “Sorry. I’m just nervous. I’ve…worked hard for this.”

Haggard dropped his apple core on the floor. “Old man Cairns sure is taking his time. Do any of the Draftees even know their letters?”

“Just me,” said William. “None of the others were in my classes.” Haggard’s jaw dropped; William raised an eyebrow in response. “What? Wait, never mind…he’s about to make his selection.”

Cairns, the old Librarian, stood and smoothed his charcoal gray robe and cleared his throat. “The Library selects William Whitehall for permanent employment.”

William stared, his face frozen as his mind reeled in denial. His hands shook as he reached for the seat in front of him. He glanced around the hall for any hint that it was just a mistake, or that someone was playing a nasty joke on him. The faces peering back gave him no comfort; most were grinning openly at him. When his gaze returned to the Librarian he knew for certain that his destiny had been stolen.

“You stupid old man,” he said under his breath. He slumped into his seat and hung his head as he tried to forget years of sword fighting lessons and countless hours of practice, all made pointless as a paper blade.

Haggard shook his head. “That’s tough luck, lad. But maybe—”

The Earl glanced at the uniformed man to his right. “Any objections, Captain?”

William gasped and looked at Haggard. “You’re right! Sir Hendrick can appeal. I know he will. He has to!” William’s knuckles turned white as he clung to the bench in front of him and held his breath.

Sir Hendrick Mattice barely turned from his papers as he shook his head.

The Earl scribbled a note and spoke loudly without looking up. “Very well. William Whitehall, you are ordered to report to Lester Cairns, Administrator of the Library, the morning after tomorrow.” William leapt to his feet, the bench behind him rattling as it recoiled. The Earl peered across the hall at William with a puzzled look, as though he hadn’t even noticed him before. “Unless you have something to say about it?” he asked.

William froze. The Earl’s decision would be final. If he didn’t speak now he would be trapped forever in a job he hadn’t asked for, forever barred from joining his father’s order. He groped for the words that would convey how wrong—how unjust—this selection was. But what could he say without offending the officers before him? The floorboards creaked as he shifted from foot to foot. Every pair of eyes in the hall watched him, every ear listened for his feeble protest. He resisted the urge to run, but could not force the words past his constricted throat. His vision blurred, and he became dizzy; he reached for something to hold on to, and dropped to his seat when his hands found nothing.

“Well, you’re certainly quiet enough to work in the Library,” said the Earl. William’s face burned as laughter erupted around him. On the dais, only Lester Cairns remained silent.

Even Haggard sported a gap-toothed grin. “No one believes his heart will be broken on Selection Day, do they? But somehow it always happens. Don’t worry, lad…you can always run away to the Port and try your luck with the boats. Now, if you’ll pardon me, I must go see my boy. It looks like there’s a spot on the Guard for him after all.” He cackled as he kicked his apple core into the aisle and sauntered away.

William slouched deep into the bench, trying to avoid notice while the other seventeen-year-olds were selected for jobs according to their skills, or lack of them. He heard names called again, followed by their designations: laborers, pages, servants. He glared with jealousy at those whom Sir Hendrick named to the Guard, and seethed when the lucky ones—Haggard’s son included—aimed their gleeful smirks his way.

“Pick up your apple, boy.”

William jumped. A gray-haired official glared at him from the aisle. “That’s not mine,” said William with a gulp.

“Do I look stupid to you? You’re the only one on this bench, aren’t you? King’s boots, the lack of respect among young folk today—it’s a disgrace.”

“Sorry.” William’s ears turned red as he picked up the core.

The clerk crossed his arms. “Have you been selected yet?”

“Yes, sir.”

The clerk pointed to the door. “Then you need not be here any longer.”

William held the spit-covered apple by the stem and slunk into the early evening drizzle. If there was any relief in leaving the Meeting Hall, it was short-lived. Before him stood the massive Library, the only stone building on Administration Hill, its walls rising far above his head. It mocked him, its pure white stone a reminder of the symbol he would never rightfully wear.

In a surge of anger his arm shot forward and hurled the apple against the edifice with a satisfying splat. What remained of the core fell to the ground, and a thin trail of green juice trickled down the wall to join it. The stain pleased him; it was a mark of defiance, his rebellion against the Librarian’s injustice. A gust of rain washed it clean, removing any trace of his action. He turned away in disgust.

He kicked at the gravel as he strolled past the other buildings. A startled cat hissed and scurried behind the Earl’s office in search of more secluded hunting grounds. William envied the cat’s clear purpose, its simple answer to a calling it had known from birth. He himself had no place to go, and nothing to do.

Drizzle gave way to downpour, and a stiff wind penetrated his ragged coat. He was close enough to home that he could stay dry if he hurried. He shook his head. He wasn’t ready for that yet. He could go to Jack’s house—no, that wasn’t an option either. Two places in town where he was welcome, and he wanted neither of them. There wasn’t a person alive whose company he wanted right now.

By long habit, his feet turned onto a side path about halfway down the hill. The cemetery was isolated and peaceful, away from buildings and prying eyes. He spotted it easily: the headstone emblazoned with the white fist, standing in its place of honor beneath a giant willow tree. William sat on the cold, hard ground and stared at the fist. That emblem should have adorned his own shield after today. He picked at the moss-covered grave marker and read the words as he revealed them: “Lt. Orrin Whitehall. 499 – 535. Slain while defending the innocent.” Grief washed over him as it hadn’t in ages. Nine years had not filled the hole left by his father’s death, but until now one truth had always comforted him: that one day he would take up his father’s sword, and his place in the Guard. A voice inside him asked, “What now?”

William heard footsteps in the gravel behind him and felt his stomach tighten. He cringed in memory of countless beatings, closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable nickname.

“Hey, Whitehands! I heard you’re gonna be a bookworm!”

William pushed himself from the ground and faced his challengers. He glared at the largest and addressed him in measured tones. “A Librarian, Oz. Not a bookworm.”

“Same difference,” said the second boy, who glanced up at Oz like a dog begging for a treat.

William snorted. “That doesn’t even make sense, Brady. It’s either the same, or different. It can’t be both.”

Oz strode forward and shoved William in the chest. “Teaching us to talk right already, Willie? What do you think, Kirby? Does he sound like a bookworm to you?”

The skinniest bully circled behind William. “Librarian. Bookworm. Who cares? With pretty white hands like his, it’s not like he’s gonna be someone important…like a Guard.” Oz and Brady laughed while Kirby sneered, his black eyes fixed on William. Kirby’s greasy hair brushed against William’s cheek as he leaned in from behind. “Look at the bookworm shiver. Are you scared Willie? You should be.”

“I’m just cold!” William gritted his teeth and spun toward Kirby. His back was exposed to the others now, but he knew who the greatest threat was.

“He’s scared. I can tell,” said Brady.

Kirby snickered. “You see? Even Brady knows you’re scared. Your little white hands are all bunched up, just like your Daddy’s white fist there. But you won’t do anything; you never do. In fact, I don’t even think you’ll try to stop this.” Kirby stared at William as he backed up to Orrin Whitehall’s grave.

William heard the urine splatter, even smelled the stench, before he could believe what he saw. His voice shook with rage. “King’s teeth, Kirby…do you have even the slightest idea—”

Kirby’s eyes sparkled. “Oh yes. The look on your face tells me everything I need to know.”

Oz’s belly shook as he howled in laughter. “Who on Esper thinks someone like you could be a Guard, Willie Whitehands? Not even Sir Kevin, I bet. Where is your precious body guard anyway?”

William whirled around. “I’ve told you before, Oz, he’s not my bodyguard. He was my father’s Captain.”

Kirby spat on the headstone. “His Captain didn’t do him much good, did he? So now he’s your bodyguard.”

“No…he retired, and then he taught me sword fighting.”

“He was fired, you mean,” said Oz.

“That’s a lie,” said a voice from within the willow. All four boys jumped in surprise and stared up at the tree.

William peered through the branches as the other boys backed away. “Sir Kevin?” he asked.

“You three! Leave this place immediately or we will open fire,” said the voice in the tree.

Oz frowned. “What do you mean, ‘we’?”

“Ready, boys?” asked Sir Kevin.

“Ready,” responded several other voices.

Oz and his gang retreated further, but not enough to satisfy the commanding voice. “Fire!” William heard several rocks rain down as the bullies turned and crashed through the brush to escape. He grinned when one of them yelped in pain—Brady, it sounded like. He could still hear them fleeing when a thump at the base of the tree caught his attention. A dark figure picked himself off the ground and grinned at him.

William scratched his head. “Jack? What are you doing here? And where’s Sir Kevin?”

Jack’s walnut-brown eyes twinkled. “How should I know? I’ve been in this tree for hours.”

“Then who was up there with you?”

“No one,” said Jack.

“What about the voices, the rocks…”

“Will, you’re as gullible as they are. Which was useful, since it convinced them there were Guards in the tree following a retired Captain who was ready to attack them with rocks. Since when do Guards hang out in trees and attack people with rocks?”

William laughed, embarrassed he had believed it. “How did you manage it?”

Jack started down the trail to town. “Ancient Gypsy secret.”

“Fine, don’t tell me. How long were you up there, though?”

Jack hesitated. “Since the draft started.”

William jumped in front of Jack to stop him. “Why?”

“Why what?” Jack stepped around William.

William grabbed Jack’s arm. “Jack! Why did you spend all day in this tree?”

“It’s nicer than all the other trees in town.”

“You know what I mean.”

Jack looked skyward and exhaled slowly. “Because you’re predictable, Will.”

“What—”

“You are so predictable! Why do you think those idiots found you right here, right now? If they could figure it out, then I could for sure. The real question is why can’t you?”

“What in the King’s name are you talking about, Jack?”

Jack buried his face in his hands. “Do I have to spell it out for you?”

“Yes!”

“Fine, then. I knew Sir Hendrick wouldn’t draft you—no, don’t say anything, you want it explained, so just stand there and listen. I knew he wouldn’t draft you, just like everyone else did but you. I knew you’d be shocked and disappointed, and whenever that happens you come here. I knew those clowns would hear about it, that they knew you’d come here, and that they’d follow you. So I set up some slings in the tree and waited. I’m just glad it wasn’t raining harder.”

William waited through Jack’s tirade, but when Jack finished he had nothing to say. He stared at the ground instead.

“Remember, Will, you asked me to spell it out.”

William nodded, unable to look his friend in the eye.

Jack pressed on. “So…you’re not mad at me then?”

William sighed. “Actually, I’m mad at everyone and everything right now.”

“I know. But me least of all, right?”

“Jack, sometimes I don’t know why we’re friends.”

“It’s because I’m so charming and witty.” He bared his teeth in a ridiculous fake smile.

William laughed despite his mood. “Yeah, that must be it.”

They walked in silence until they reached William’s house. Before they parted, Jack put his hand on William’s shoulder. “Listen, Will. Do me a favor?”

“Hmph. Let me guess…”

“Make the best of it,” said Jack.

“Got it. Any other words of wisdom?”

“Yes. Go easy on her.”

As Jack walked away, William opened the creaky gate to his small yard. He ignored the front door; he wasn’t ready for what waited behind it yet. He stepped into the garden and looked for anything to distract him. He raked a few leaves and fed his rabbits. But the garden lay dormant, and there were no heavy chores to do until spring. Even the firewood was chopped and stacked neatly behind his wooden target dummy. He ran his fingers along the dummy’s notched edges; it was almost time to replace it. A few good swings of his sword and it would be firewood too…but his sword was inside. He sighed and grabbed some logs for the kitchen fire and steeled himself to confront the inevitable.

Emma Whitehall looked up from her stitching as he entered, but her greeting died on her lips as she saw her son’s face. William dropped the logs beside the stove. “I know about the deal you made with Master Cairns.”

“But…that’s…” she said. “He promised he wouldn’t say anything!”

“He didn’t. I was only guessing, but now I know for sure.”

Emma rolled her eyes and dropped her work on the small wooden table. “You could have asked me. Why is everything so noble and dramatic with you all the time?”

Her soft, low voice and trace of old world accent took the edge off her retort, but it still stung. He crossed his arms and glared at her. “Would you have told me the truth?” he asked.

“For the love of…why wouldn’t I?”

“That’s true; it’s not like you’ve hidden your manipulations before,” said William.

“Manipulations? What—”

“Come on, Mom. It’s bad enough you kept me in school longer than I wanted. But you also asked Sir Kevin not to teach me everything I needed to get into the Guard. And you knew that’s what I wanted.”

Emma grew flustered at the force of William’s accusation. “Sir Kevin is a good man, and he—”

“And he did what you asked him to.”

She pushed the dress away from her. “Fine. I admit it. Yes.”

William turned his back on her and removed his boots. “You had no right to ask him to do that.”

“Ask who? Kevin, or Lester?” she asked.

“Either. Both.”

“I only did what I thought was best for you.”

He whirled and glared at her. “Really? You told me something a long time ago. You said your parents wouldn’t let you marry Dad. Was that true, or was that just a story?”

“It was true, but this is different.” Emma walked toward William.

“Huh? Tell me one way this is different.”

Her voice trembled as she answered. “I’ve already lost my husband; I don’t want to lose my only son too. Is that so wrong?”

Guilt weakened his resolve. He stared at the floor and shook his head in defeat. “No, I guess not.” He rose and drew her close as she had done to him so often in the past. She relaxed and put her head on his shoulder. Some of her long blond tresses had whitened; had worry done that to her? He thought of a way to quell her anxiety. “I suppose a Librarian would be paid better than a rookie Guard.”

She pulled back and looked up at him with the first traces of a smile. “I had that in mind when I planned my manipulations.”

He winced and thought of the years she raised him by herself. She had supplemented her miserable pension with long hours of sewing almost every day. He owed her gratitude, not resentment. He took her slender hands in his and brought them to his lips. “Truce?”

Emma nodded and wiped the tears from her face as she returned to her work. William turned toward his bedroom, but his mother’s voice stopped him.

“There was a time when we didn’t fight. Do you remember? In the old house?”

William laughed and nodded. “Was it really so much bigger than this one?”

“It was nine years ago, William. That’s a child’s memory. It was no mansion, but oh, what a garden we had…”

William’s eyes lit up. “I played Guards and Bandits with Dad, that’s what I remember most. His shield was so big I’d hide behind it. He even let me hold his sword once. I could hardly lift it, but he could swing it one-handed…” His voice trailed off; his comments had upset her. She focused on her work, but telltale signs of sorrow showed on her face. “You know what I don’t remember, though?” asked William. “I don’t think I ever saw you sewing at the old house.”

She smiled and peered up from her work. “I started when we lost your father so you could stay in school. My mother taught me…she said it was proper for a girl of my breeding. So we have that in common, William…both of us profiting from an education we never wanted.”

“It’s not that I didn’t want it—”

“I know. You always prattled on about the things you learned. Even now I buy extra candles because you read long after dark. So what bothered you so much about school?”

William hesitated. “You know what it was.”

“Oh, come on. You had friends there.”

“One friend. Jack. The rest treated me like the butcher’s leavings.”

“What about that girl? Melissa, I think her name was. You said she was nice to you. Whatever happened to her?”

“She left school a year early. I never found out why.” William stared at the wall as he suppressed the memory. “I can’t break my contract. What if the people at the Library are the same as the ones in school?”

She shook her head. “They won’t be.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Sons and daughters of lords don’t work in Libraries, William. Neither do bullies.”

After bidding her good night and lighting a candle, he drew the curtain to his bedroom. The candlelight glinted on the sword hanging on the wall over his bed. He took it down and turned it over in his hands. It was short, heavy, and as badly notched as his wooden dummy target. Sir Kevin had given him the sword for practice; it would never have served for real Guard duty. But now it was no more use to him than it was to his rabbits in their hutches. He was as trapped as they were—more, because he was aware of the difference—but his cage was built from honor, not wood. He wrapped the sword in an old shirt and tossed it into a corner out of sight. He set the candle on a shelf and thumbed through his small pile of books. He selected an old favorite, one with a faded dragon on the cover. He wished he could fly away on the back of a dragon, leaving behind the difficult choice he had to make, but that was just fantasy. If his father’s memory was truly to be honored, he would have to face reality and make a difficult decision. Maybe his mother was right—his education was a resource he could draw on, even if it wasn’t his first choice. As he settled down to read, an idea took shape.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

As the Kingdom grew and the distance between major production centers increased, a Merchant class emerged, which was largely responsible for trade between regions. Their frequent travel often subsidized the cost of ship building, and in some cases kept certain travel routes open where otherwise it might have been deemed too expensive for the royal court to finance on its own. Successful merchants could retire on the proceeds of a single trade, but it normally took years to attain the necessary status and capital to do so.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

William woke from a dream in which he had saved a town from foes now forgotten in the morning light. The cold sun slipped through the shutters, chased away the invincibility that permeated his dreams, and left behind a dull resignation. Just one more day of freedom; one more day to pretend the dream was still alive.

He wondered what Jack had planned today. There had been no need to confirm it the night before; every Sunday that Jack wasn’t traveling with his father, they would meet by his gate and go forth to find what entertainment they could. Some days they fished, other times they hiked behind Administration Hill. In high summer they might swim or find a shady place in nearby woods to play games or just talk. Anything, so long as they didn’t run into Oz.

William threw on some clothes and slipped out the door before his mother awoke. Despite their reconciliation he still harbored some ill feelings, and he wasn’t certain what he might say to her. It was best to avoid it. He fed and watered his rabbits, jumped the fence and began the trek across town.

Not the main road…not today. He held his breath as he passed the tanner’s shop and turned onto the path that followed the river. He had no love for the mudflats, or the shanty town that occupied them, but here he would be left alone. Channels of water gurgled between flimsy shacks and fractured ruins, a reminder of homes and lives taken by past floods. William reflected that if not for his father’s pension, he might have lived here too.

The path ended; he climbed the stone steps and sighed in relief when he saw the Market Square was empty. With no crops to sell during winter, farmers had no money to buy anything. Come springtime, though, there would be early grain to sell, and ready customers for all sorts of wares. By summer the Square would be packed, and the air would be filled with the sounds of salesmen shouting, children screaming and banners flapping in the steady breeze. Today he heard only the sound of his boots on the soggy ground and the rain tapping on his shoulders. A dull gray statue of King Stephen stood on the center pedestal, its head covered in moss and bird droppings. William gave it a nod of respect as he passed by, and shivered as he pulled his coat closed.

The shrouded sun had risen by more than a hand when he reached the tree-lined avenue among the affluent homes; it climbed another finger or two before he arrived at the Dorans’ gated estate.

“You’re early,” said Jack, as he jumped off a branch, rolling gracefully to the ground to break his fall.

William grinned and gave him a hand up. “And yet here you are waiting for me.”

“I figured you’d be early.”

William gazed through the gate at the large house. “How’s your mom?”

Jack shrugged. “Dad’s home. She has her maids. As well as can be expected, I guess.”

“And your dad?”

“Bored, of course.”

William rubbed his hands together. “So what’s the plan for my last day of freedom?”

“We’re going to the Inn,” he said.

William raised an eyebrow. “The Inn? What for?”

“Well, for starters, they have beer there.”

William laughed. “I don’t drink beer. Neither do you.”

“I know. But they also have food.” Jack patted his stomach.

William pretended to look at the trees. “I’m not hungry.”

“Don’t be silly; you haven’t had breakfast yet.”

There was no point in asking how Jack knew, less in denying it. “What’s your real reason?”

“Lucy, the barmaid. She’s quite pretty, and—”

“Jack…”

“Fine, I’m looking for news.”

“Huh? What kind of news?” asked William.

“Any news. We haven’t traveled since my father retired. So it’s hard to find out what’s happening in other places, like Faywater Port, or New Athens, or anywhere else.”

“Well, what does it matter? We’ll hear about anything important eventually.”

“But old news isn’t news,” said Jack. “Otherwise they’d call it olds. News is valuable when it’s fresh off the boat, and the boats come to the docks, and the Inn is beside the docks. Also, Lucy, the barmaid, she’s really—”

“Fine, we’ll go to the Inn,” said William. “Not what I was expecting, but I won’t complain.”

The docks stood at a quiet spot on the massive Faywater river. A breakwater of rock and old lumber jutted out a little ways upstream, creating a harbor of still water where the river boats could dock without fear of being torn from their moorings. Standing here on the docks, it struck William just how wide the river was. Even from the end of the breakwater, neither he nor Jack had ever succeeded in throwing stones even as much as halfway to the far bank, despite frequent attempts.

They walked between the warehouses and repair shops that lined the boardwalk until they reached the Inn. The sign above the door was a river ship, just like the ones that sailed up from the coast to trade. The docks could accommodate six of the real ones; today the only ship in sight swung on the sign above them in the morning breeze.

Lucy was as friendly as Jack had suggested and greeted him with warm familiarity. “Good to see you, Jack. Who’s your friend? Someone new in town?”

“No, this is my friend, William Whitehall. Will, meet Lucy.”

Lucy’s auburn ringlets bounced as she looked at William. “Whitehall…you’re Orrin’s boy?”

William suppressed an urge to grit his teeth. “I am.”

“Well, sit by the fire, boys, and take the chill off. Forget about the corner table; it hasn’t been cleaned yet from last night. I suppose it’s too early for beer?”

Jack hung his cloak on the post beside the table. “Do you have any of your mother’s chicken pies?”

“If my father hasn’t eaten them all. What about you, William?”

William shook his head as he took his seat. “Oh, I’m not hungry. Maybe just some tea?”

“Don’t be stupid, Will,” said Jack. “You haven’t eaten yet. Lucy’s mother makes a pea soup with bits of smoked ham that you have to try at least once in your life.”

“I’ll bring you a big bowl of that,” said Lucy. “And the tea.”

“But—”

“And I hope you don’t mind my saying…your father wasn’t here often, but he’s well remembered in our family. Always a gentleman.”

Jack elbowed William’s ribs as Lucy scurried away. “What’s your problem, Will?”

“I don’t want charity, Jack, and I’ve got no money to buy soup or anything else.”

“Would you get over it? How many times have I eaten at your house? Besides, it’s good for business.”

“Yours, or Lucy’s?”

“Both.”

William snorted. “I still don’t know what your business is.”

“Neither do I, until I find it. That’s why I came here, to find out what’s new.”

“How do you expect to do that when the Inn is empty?”

Jack raised an eyebrow at William as Lucy arrived with their food. “So, what’s new, Lucy?”

“Well, let me see…you don’t care about town gossip much, if I recall. You’ll want news from downriver, I suspect.”

Jack dug into his pie. “Has there been any?”

“Well, the wharf master says the season’s first ship is coming in three weeks.”

Jack’s eyes widened. “Really? That early?”

Lucy nodded. “And the mail packet came with a letter asking us to reserve a room for a special guest.”

That got Jack’s attention. “What sort of guest?”

She laughed. “The paying kind. That’s all Dad cares about. But for what it’s worth, the letter came from the Duke and said it was for a friend of his.” She beamed as Jack’s jaw dropped and his spoon fell from his hand.

“No kidding,” he said. “So, not the royal family then?”

Lucy burst out laughing, and even William couldn’t help smiling. “Enjoy your food, boys,” she said as she hurried away.

William scoffed at Jack’s smug grin. “You’re quite pleased with yourself. How does that help you? You don’t even know who’s coming.”

“No, but I know when to be here next.”

The soup tasted as good as Jack claimed, and William was trying to figure out a polite way to ask for a second bowl when a noise distracted him.

“Beer!” A deep voice bellowed from the corner Lucy had told them to avoid. A red, pock-marked face topped with a mass of dark, disheveled hair appeared from behind the bench. “Lucy! Bring me a beer!” He winced in pain at the sound of his own voice, then leered at William. “What are you staring at, boy?”

Jack leaned over and whispered to William. “Well, I see where Oz gets his charm.”

William nodded. “His looks, too.”

Lucy strode from the kitchen wielding a broom. “Roger Domnall, I’ve told you before you can’t sleep here. If you pass out here again, you’ll have to spend your evenings elsewhere.”

“King’s ears, woman, stop yelling. Just bring me a beer to ease this headache and I’ll be on my way.”

“It’s my father’s bar and I’ll yell if I want. You haven’t paid for last night’s beers, and you’ve drunk enough to make a nuisance of yourself anyways. Hey! Get back!”

“Don’t you call me a nuisance—and stop swinging that broom at me, or you’ll be sorry!”

William turned to Jack. “Should we call for the Guard? Hey—Jack! Where’d you go?” A quick glance confirmed Jack wasn’t under the table. He was torn between helping Lucy and looking for Jack; how could he abandon someone in danger like that? He decided to intervene. The elder Domnall was bigger and meaner than Oz, but it wasn’t just himself in trouble this time. He had no choice.

Domnall snatched the broom from Lucy’s hands, leaving her without even that meager defense. William jumped up, the stool clattering behind him. Startled, the drunken man turned away from Lucy and lurched toward William. Before William could even raise his fists to defend himself, Jack appeared from behind a wooden post and clouted Domnall on the skull. Rage melted into confusion, and Domnall’s eyes crossed as he thumped unconscious to the floor.

Jack ran to Lucy and put his arm around her shoulders. “Are you okay, Lucy?”

“I’m fine. You boys shouldn’t have had to see that, but I’m grateful you stepped in. I doubt he would have done much harm, especially if I gave him that beer, but I wasn’t happy about giving it for free.”

A door opened, and a heavy-set middle-aged man appeared on the base of the stairs he had just descended. “What’s this ruckus? Are you boys causing trouble?”

“No, Daddy,” said Lucy. “Jack and William protected me. It was him again.” She pointed at Domnall who lay senseless at her feet.

The man shook his head and scratched his beard as he stared at the drooling Domnall. “King’s blisters, that man is a pest.” He turned to Jack and William. “You boys defended my girl?”

William raised his hands in denial. “I didn’t really do anything. Jack knocked him out.”

“Don’t be modest, Will,” said Jack. “You distracted him for me.”

“Not on purpose.”

Jack smirked at William. “I’ve always said you do your best thinking when you aren’t thinking.”

Lucy’s father clapped the boys on their shoulders. “Well, my girl is safe and my tavern undamaged, so you have my thanks. Dan Deacon is my name, and your meal is on the house today.”

Jack and William protested, but Deacon would have none of it. “Lucy, could you please call the Guard to come haul our unwanted guest away, then bring another round of whatever Jack and William were having.”

“Right away, Daddy.” She turned on her heel.

“And something for me too, if you don’t mind. I’d like to have a chat with these boys.”

“Of course.” Lucy took a step toward the kitchen.

“Something for yourself too. It’s a slow morning, so you may as well enjoy our fine company.”

“Thanks, Daddy.” She attempted to leave again.

He caught her sleeve. “And one more thing. No matter how late it is, if that man refuses to leave on his feet at closing time, come and get me. I’ll make sure he leaves on his backside.”

Lucy pulled her arm away. “Yes, Daddy. Can I go do your bidding now? Or should I just walk away while you drone on?”

Deacon laughed. “Go,” he said. He turned to the boys and continued. “Gets more like her mother every day. Bossier, too, since she got married, but I guess that’s the way of things. What happened to that stool?”

Jack gave the innkeeper a sheepish look. “I broke off the leg to use as a club.”

William stared at Jack. “You snapped a leg off a stool, snuck past me and got behind that lunk all without me noticing?”

Jack shrugged.

“Let me guess,” William said. “Ancient Gypsy secret?”

“Something like that,” said Jack with a grin.

“Well, I can always use more firewood,” said Deacon. “But stools are hard to come by. Not that I blame you, Jack. I’d trade a stool for my daughter’s life any day.”

Lucy returned with trays laden with food. “Thanks, Daddy. It’s good to know I’m worth at least a stool.”

“In fact, Lucy is worth four or five stools at least, wouldn’t you say, boys? Don’t look at me in that tone of voice, Lucy.”

Lucy rolled her eyes at her father as she sat down. “I sent David to fetch the Guards.”

“David’s her younger brother,” said Deacon to William and Jack. “Completely obsessed with the Guard. Wants to be one someday, takes any chance he can to see them.” The Innkeeper’s smile faded as he saw William’s expression. He glanced at Jack and Lucy, then back at William. “You’re Orrin Whitehall’s son, aren’t you?”

William bit his lip, unsure of what he should say.

Deacon nodded. “And it’s the Library for you, and not the Guard, eh? That was thoughtless of me. I should have known who you were.”

William shook his head. “How could you have known who I was? I’ve never stepped foot in here before today. And how did you know about the Library?”

“It’s a lousy Innkeeper who doesn’t know what’s happening in his own town. I get little enough trade from outside, I need to keep the customers I have here. As for knowing who you are…you aren’t your father’s size, and you don’t take much after him, but there’s a look in your eye your father had. I don’t know what to call it, but you have it too.”

“That’s not much to go on,” said Jack. “Just a look in his eye?”

Lucy tilted her head. “What kind of look?”

Deacon tapped his spoon on the table as he pondered. He slapped his hand down and grinned. “Resolve! It took me a moment, but that’s what it’s called. A fancy word for an Innkeeper, to be sure, but that’s what you’ve got. Resolve.” He leaned back and crossed his arms across his aproned belly. “You were lucky not to be selected for the Guard. You know that?”

“Daddy! He doesn’t want to hear that right now.”

“Shush, girl. Folks never want to hear the things they need to. I know David doesn’t. He prattles on about the Guard, but I tell him, and I’ll tell you, William, the Guard is no place for a man today. Not like it used to be.”

Lucy shook her head and looked at the ceiling, but William had to know what he meant. “Why?” he asked.

Deacon leaned across the table as though sharing a secret. “Marshland Crossing is changing.”

Jack furrowed his brow. “Changing? How?”

The Innkeeper glanced up and held his tongue as a pair of Guards entered the tavern and laughed at the prostrate figure of Roger Domnall. Their grins widened when they spied William, and there was no hiding their glee at his disappointment the previous evening. They exchanged a few jokes at William’s expense, causing him to blush.

“Gentlemen,” Deacon said in a loud voice addressed to the Guards. “If you aren’t capable of doing your jobs without harassing my patrons, I’ll have a word with your Captain to suggest a few remedial tasks to help you learn.” Chastened, they hoisted Domnall to his feet and rushed him away to sleep off his stupor under lock and key.

“More big words for an innkeeper,” said Deacon. “Boys, Marshland is changing in more ways than one. People are moving away. They say there’s nothing here for them anymore. Look at the rundown buildings. I wasn’t joking about that stool, either; there’s no one here that can fix it because there’s no metal for tools. My beer kettle is near worn through, and there’s little copper to be had to patch it. Iron is scarcer.

“Crops are failing, too. Farmers can’t plow the ground deep enough, or they lose too much grain because they can’t harvest it fast enough without the right tools. And some say worse: they claim a part of their harvest goes missing during the reaping. Once the Earl gets his share for the rent of the land, there’s little enough to eat, let alone sell.”

He took a swig of his beer. “Business used to be good. Oh, I get by. Anyone who sells beer and cider will survive, but it’s not like it used to be. My guess is, if it wasn’t for the Library and the money the King sends for its upkeep, there wouldn’t be a town here at all. And unless something changes, there might not be anything left of the town in years to come.”

Jack and William exchanged glances. William couldn’t challenge Deacon on his comments; the facts were there for anyone to see. It was his conclusion that unsettled him.

Lucy giggled. “Daddy’s always cheering up the customers like that. Aren’t you?”

“Let’s say you’re right, Mr. Deacon,” said Jack. “What has that got to do with the Guard one way or the other?”

“Well, let’s say your friend here takes his Library job, and learns everything about it. What happens if the King moves the Library somewhere else?”

“I suppose he’d go with it.”

“What if he doesn’t want to go? Or what if the Library is closed completely?”

“I’m sure he could find a job as a clerk in another town, or keep books for some Baron somewhere.”

Deacon nodded at Jack. “Exactly. Now, let’s say instead he finds himself a member of our illustrious Guard. A year or two passes, and suddenly the town has no money to pay for all its Guards. Now he’s competing with his comrades for jobs in other towns. He has one skill to sell, and fewer people to pay for it. What happens to a soldier without an employer?”

William looked up quickly, sudden insight forcing the words out. “He becomes an outlaw.”

Deacon pointed his meaty finger at William. “Exactly.”

Lucy shook her head at her father. “Daddy, you go on like this all the time. Do you really think William would become a bandit?”

“No, of course not. But others would, and William would have a tough time of it either way. But that’s not the main trouble with Marshland Crossing.”

“Oh, here we go,” said Lucy.

“Tell us,” said Jack.

Deacon pointed toward the door. “You saw it in those two boys who dragged Roger away.”

William followed the innkeeper’s gaze, then looked back. “What?”

Deacon banged his empty mug on the table. “Rudeness. Simple, personal rudeness. People in a community are polite to each other because they know they’ll spend a lifetime as neighbors, and they stand to lose too much if they create bad blood. Only people with no thought for the future treat others like garbage, and that’s what’s happening. They have nothing to hope for, nothing to build, so there’s no sense in making friends. You can point at shattered windows, broken gates, moss-covered statues all you want. Those are bad signs, all right, but there’s no worse sign for a town than open contempt for one’s fellow man.”

Lucy put her hand on her father’s arm. “Daddy, isn’t it possible the slow business has less to do with rudeness and crops and metal, and more to do with you depressing the customers?”

Deacon chuckled. “I wish it were so, Lucy. I really do. Maybe there’s some hope, but I don’t see it.”

William stared at his bowl, his appetite lost. Jack looked no better and pushed his plate away. It was a lot to ponder. Deacon was older and knew how things had been before William was born, but William had lived enough to see the changes himself. Bad manners were more common than they used to be. People didn’t try as hard at anything. They simply cared less. The conversation carried on around him as he drifted away in thought, and it dawned on him that there were things he had to learn if life in Marshland Crossing was to get better.

Maybe the Library was exactly what he needed.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

From the very first, the Colonists were more concerned with storing knowledge than with spreading or obtaining it, especially since their priorities had switched from scholarly pursuits to survival. Marshall Ibycus himself was quoted as saying that knowledge and technology were not synonymous, and that further scientific advances would have to wait for future generations. It was his hope that primitive industries would eventually lead to another renaissance.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

William woke to find the town shrouded in heavy winter fog. The path to the administration buildings was difficult to find, and his frustration was not helped by the fact that he could very well be late on his first day at the Library. He inched forward, hands outstretched to ward off anything he might run into. Late or not, at least Oz and his gang would not see him—not that they would be up this early. Eventually, the sound of gravel beneath his feet and the slow incline of the path told him he was headed the right way.

He broke through the misty cloud layer near the top of the hill, and the morning sun blinded him as it reflected off the Library’s white stone. The large, imposing wooden door displayed the usual Crown and Aura relief, and for a moment he questioned whether he was worthy of entering. Don’t be a coward, he thought; you were chosen for this. He took a deep breath and pushed the door open.

The hallway was dark, and for a moment he saw only vague shapes. When his vision returned, a head emerged from a door on his left. “Ah, William, good to finally meet you. I’m Lester Cairns.” William guessed Cairns to be around sixty or seventy, given his thin wisps of hair and stooped figure.

“Pleased to meet you Mr. Cairns,” said William.

“No, no,” said Cairns, who raised a knobby finger in mock warning. “Call me Lester. No formality here.” Cairns gestured for William to follow him into the office and waved at the rickety chair opposite his desk. “Have a seat. Not much comfort here either, I’m afraid.” Cairns lowered himself with difficulty into his own chair. “So, William. I understand you were somewhat…surprised, I think, at being selected for the Library?”

William realized Cairns was being polite, and probably knew all about William’s disappointment. He warmed to his new employer, with his heavy, educated Ibyca accent and old world manners. “Yes, sir…I mean…Lester. But I’ve gotten over the shock of it, and I realized I could learn things here that I would never learn in the Guard.”

“Your mother gave you quite a gift with the education she provided. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.”

“That’s true. But I never thought of myself as much of a student, though. Some of the work was interesting, I guess. And I do enjoy reading stories. I just hope I don’t end up a disappointment here.”

Cairns nodded, and William sensed he had passed some sort of test. “Very well,” said Cairns. “Do you know the Library’s history?”

“Some, or at least I think I do. King Stephen founded it about a hundred years ago, right?”

“Correct,” said Cairns. “Stephen the Great, great grandfather of King Duncan, who still funds the Library to this day. Stephen decided the knowledge humanity had saved during the past four centuries would stand a better chance of surviving if it was copied and brought to another continent. Well, you know the story, so I won’t bore you with the details. Any questions?”

“Yes. What exactly is it that we do here?”

Cairns smiled. “We are gardeners of knowledge, William. I can see you are puzzled; let me explain. Information exists all around the world. Our job is to collect it, organize it and present it in a manner most fitting to those who need it. Just as there are trees, flowers and other plants in the wild, which a gardener arranges into something more easily enjoyed. In the same way, we arrange information that already exists into something more easily understood. Follow?”

“Yes, I think so. But…” William hesitated.

“Go ahead, ask,” said Cairns.

“What exactly is it that we do here?”

This time Cairns laughed out loud. He walked toward a bookcase on the back wall and began searching. “I like that you said ‘we,’ William. It means you already consider yourself one of us. I’m glad.” Cairns found the book he was looking for and handed it to William. “This is a sample of our work, commissioned by Duke Vincent from Faywater Port, one of our biggest patrons. This is a condensed version of many other books related to oyster farming.”

“Couldn’t he just buy one of the books on oyster farming?”

“No. First, most of our books are like me: old and fragile. They wouldn’t last long if removed from the Library. Second, none of them had the exact and complete information he wanted. Lastly, we had no books that were strictly devoted to oyster farming.” Cairns sat back and waited for William to speak.

He was being tested again. Put on the spot, his mind came up blank at first, but then the answer occurred to him. “There were several books that contained a little information about oyster farming, and this book was made from that information, but without all the other stuff.”

Cairns beamed. “Very good. Not everyone grasps that so quickly.”

William basked in the praise. “Thank you.” He thumbed through the pages, admiring the neat printing and crisp illustrations. “These drawings are good. I hope you don’t expect anything like that from me?”

“No, we have an artist. She can devote herself to illustrations full time now that you are here. Speaking of which, you should meet your colleagues.”

Cairns led William to the basement, which he had not known existed until now. Unlike the upper floor, the walls appeared to be carved from the native rock that formed Administration Hill. The air was cooler than upstairs, but not as cold as outside, nor as damp. It was the perfect place to store old books. In one of the storage rooms Cairns introduced him to Jessica Wright, a short, friendly woman a little older than his mother. She smiled at William and surprised him with a hug.

“Jessica mainly works on children’s books,” said Cairns. “As well as educational material for advanced classes, but lately she has filled in with research. She also makes hats.”

William looked back and forth between them. “Hats?”

“Not very good ones, I’m afraid.”

Jessica laughed. “Lester, you adore my hats.”

“Jessica, I adore your hats. William, this way.”

Cairns led the way upstairs and into a large room with bay windows along the ceiling that let in plenty of light. A large table dominated the room, covered in books and papers and half-finished sketches. “And here is Melissa. Melissa Reid, this is William Whitehall. He will be working in research and copy.”

William’s jaw dropped. “So this is where you’ve been!”

Melissa flashed a shy smile at him. “Yes, the whole time,” she said. “Did you miss me?”

He turned bright red and stammered until he forced out an answer. “Well…yes, of course…”

“Then why didn’t you visit me?” Melissa tilted her head and batted her lashes.

William sputtered until Cairns intervened. “Melissa, you’ll have plenty of time to torture William later. This is his first day, please go easy on him.”

“Fine. But I want an answer, eventually.” Her grin told him she was only partly kidding. But what answer could he give her? How could he admit that he hadn’t even known where she had gone after leaving school, especially since she hadn’t even left Marshland? He had wanted to ask their teacher, Miss Plevins, but he hadn’t wanted anyone to guess why he was asking. He had suffered enough ridicule already.

They left Melissa’s workroom without further embarrassment. William felt relieved that he had at least kept his feelings secret from Cairns, and as they entered another room similar to Melissa’s he felt a sense of normalcy returning.

“So, you’re in love with my illustrator, are you?” asked Cairns.

“Um—what?”

“Oh, I don’t blame you. She’s quite pretty. What shade would you call her eyes? Lavender? Lilac? Whatever it is, it’s quite unusual.”

“Uh…I always thought of them as light purple, I guess.”

“That’s a rather unimaginative description, wouldn’t you say?”

William sat at the large table and looked up at his new boss. “That’s just it though…I always thought that maybe I’d imagined the color. Every time I see them I’m always surprised they’re real. The first time I saw them was when—wait…you don’t want to hear this, do you?”

Cairns shook his head. “I really don’t. I only mentioned it to tell you not to let it affect your work. Or hers.”

William laughed. “I won’t. Whose office is this, by the way?”

“Yours,” said Cairns. “I think you’ll find everything you need here. If not, the supplies are kept in the room beside my office. Do you recognize this book?”

William opened the tattered cover and thumbed through the faded pages. “I haven’t seen one of these in years. We read these in school when we learned about the Kingdom.”

“It was outdated when you were a child, far more so now. We finally have the money to update it, and Jessica is leading the project. Melissa will redraw the maps, and I need you to collect fresh data on the Dukedoms: the names of the Dukes, their family trees, populations, largest trades…that sort of thing. And for King’s sake, try to make it interesting—this is dry reading to put a child through.”

William laughed. “I understand. I always enjoyed maps, though. But why do they need to be redrawn? It’s not as though the land has moved…has it?”

“Goodness, no. But borders between Dukedoms change. Sometimes they split, or merge, or pieces of land are traded. Not often, but every generation brings changes. In fact—follow me.”

William followed him back to Melissa’s office. “Melissa,” said Cairns. “This damp weather is torture on my knees. Would you be kind enough to take William downstairs to the map room? He needs to familiarize himself with the current borders.”

Melissa’s eyes lit up. “Can I show him the other thing?”

“I thought you might ask,” said Cairns. He smiled and fished a large key from his pocket and handed it to her. “Remember the rules, Melissa.”

“Don’t worry, I will. Come with me,” she said to William. When he failed to follow quickly enough, she grabbed his wrist and hauled him out of the office without looking back at Cairns. She snatched the lantern at the top of the stairs and descended the steps two at a time.

William steadied himself on the banister. “What’s this ‘other thing’? And can you slow down so I don’t break my neck?”

“Oh, so you’re worried about your own neck, and not mine?” she asked.

“Well you’re the one running down the stairs. What’s got you so excited, anyway?”

She unlocked the door nearest the stairs. “Since you care more about your neck than mine, I’m not telling you. Maps first. Hang the lantern on that post so it lights the table.” As William did so, she pulled some rolls from a shelf and laid them on the table, unrolling one and placing stone weights on the corners to keep it flat.

William stared at the map laid out before him, larger than any he had ever seen. All of Ibyca was depicted on the left side, while the right side showed most of Azuria, only its vast, unexplored south-east corner missing. He spotted Faywater Port on the west coast of Azuria, located at the mouth of the river from which it got its name. The Faywater river wasn’t long—William saw several longer ones on both continents—but fed by mountains on three sides, it carved a wide valley that ran over 700 miles inland. About halfway along the river sat Marshland Crossing, and seeing it gave William a sense of how little of the world he had seen. “This is magnificent,” he said. “Who made this?”

Melissa beamed. “I did.”

William shook his head. “Lester wasn’t kidding. You have talent. I don’t see any borders, though.”

“This is a terrain map, silly. These are the political ones.” She unrolled two smaller maps, one for the north half of Ibyca, one for the south. The dukedoms and their borders stood out in bold color, and the only physical landmarks displayed were coastlines and rivers. Villages and towns dotted the map, the capitals of each dukedom clearly indicated with a ducal coronet.

William counted thirty-five dukedoms between the two maps. He looked around for a third map. “Where’s the one for Azuria?”

She rolled the two smaller maps and handed them to William. “We don’t need one. Azuria is still only one dukedom.”

“A whole continent is one dukedom? Why?”

She rolled up the larger map and shrugged. “People only settled here a little over a century ago. Not enough population to split into more dukedoms I guess. But that’s your job, mister. I’m done with that stuff. Grab the lantern; we’re finished here.”

He followed her down the hallway until she stopped at a large wooden door with a heavy bar and latch. She turned to him and took the lantern. “Okay, rules,” she said. “First, no lanterns or any flame past this door.”

“Why not?” he asked.

She hung the lantern directly in front of the door, and the flames reflected in her eyes as she glared at him. “Obviously, whatever’s inside could catch fire, and that would be bad. May I continue?”

“Sorry,” he said.

“Second, wear these.” She handed him a pair of cotton gloves and put on a pair of her own. He did as he was told and waited. “Third, what you are about to see is a secret. Only three people in Marshland know about this, and you will be the fourth. Not even the Earl knows. You are not to tell a single person about this.”

William swallowed hard, awed by the responsibility bestowed upon him. “I understand.”

She unlocked the latch and removed the bar. “This door is heavy; help me push it open.” Inside, a giant curved silver mirror caught the light from the lantern and reflected it toward a glass case at the far end of the room. She unlocked the case and gently removed the glass cover. A solitary leather-bound book lay on a white silk pillow. She cradled it in her hands and motioned for William to approach. “This has been rebound twice that we know of, but the pages are original. Here, open it.”

He took the book from her as carefully as he could and opened it to the first page and read the title. “‘Paradoxes and Applied String Theory’. Is this a book about knots or something, because that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing—”

“Will, this is one of the two oldest books on Esper. It’s not about strings, it’s about…well, I don’t know what it’s about. Something to do with science. Something about how we got to Esper.”

William fingered the pages through his gloves. “This feels like quality paper. The printing is sharp, too. It doesn’t look that old. Are you sure—”

“Our best guess is around five hundred fifty years.”

William’s hands became numb. The sinking feeling in his stomach warned him that he might drop the precious object. He didn’t dare grasp it tighter; instead, he placed it gently on the table beside him where he could gaze at it safely. “This…this book is from Earth? I didn’t know any existed…”

“Look at the author’s name, Will.”

He scanned the page, most of which was filled with words he couldn’t understand. Near the bottom was a line that jumped out at him: ‘Author Marshall Ibycus explains his radical new technology in terms even the least scientifically literate of us can understand.’

Melissa pushed a stool behind his knees. “Sit down, Will. I don’t want you to fall.”

“This isn’t possible…”

She giggled at his reaction. “You don’t need to whisper; there’s no one here but us.”

“Marshall Ibycus wrote this book? The Marshall Ibycus?”

“I only know of one. According to the title page it was printed in Earth year 2074, two years before colonization. I’m sure you’ve guessed the book was printed by machine. They had machines on Earth that could print thousands…maybe even millions of copies. But turn the page.”

The next page was blank except for faded markings. He squinted and barely made out the hand-written words: ‘To my daughter Shelly: Never stop questioning. Love, Dad.’ “Who wrote this, and why would they deface something so valuable?”

Melissa closed the book and returned it to its display. “When the Ibycus family left Earth, Dr. Marshall told his two children to pack light, but to grab one treasured item each. Unknown to each other, they both brought their personal copy of their father’s book. The son’s copy is kept at the old Library in New Athens. Am I going to have to help you up the stairs? You look like you’re in shock.”

William shook his head to clear it. “I guess I am, a little. I’ll be okay, though. It’s a lot to take in at once.”

Melissa giggled again. “I reacted the same way. Jessica once told me Lester dropped the book the first time he saw it…but don’t you dare repeat that.”

“I won’t. I almost dropped it myself.”

“Let’s lock up so I can show you the records room. That’s where you’ll find the most recent information on the dukedoms. We get copies of all legal documents and reports, just like the Old Library does. Here we are. The shelves are arranged left to right, north to south…more or less. Each crate is labeled with the name of the dukedom, the year, and the administrative department. You’ll find trade agreements, shipping manifests, family records, Guard records—”

“Guard records? What’s in those?”

“You won’t need them. It’s just routine patrol reports, lists of captured outlaws, that sort of thing. Nothing you’ll need for your report to Jessica. Okay, I think we’re finished here; you have your maps—”

He lost track of what she was saying. It may have been the mention of the Guard or that the cramped quarters they stood in had caused her arm to brush against his, but he felt transported back in time. “Melissa,” he said.

“What?”

“Do you…that day, in class…do you remember—”

“Of course I remember, Will. No one forgets a day like that.”

“Well…I never thanked you. I should have.”

She stared at him for several heartbeats, scanning his face. “You’re frustrating, you know that? Bring the lantern up when you’re done. And don’t carry too much at once or you’ll burn yourself…or worse, one of my maps.”

What had he said wrong now? And why was he so awkward with her? She was just a person, like Jack, or his mother, or Lester, but it was so much harder to talk to her. He caught a glimpse of her graceful legs beneath her long skirt as she ascended the stone steps. He stared, hoping for another glimpse…but then she was gone.

He dove into the records with a frenzy. He filled an empty crate with twenty years’ worth of files, scanning for just the types of papers he needed, his gaze only briefly stopping on the Guards’ reports before moving on.

Those would have to wait.

 

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

It was soon realized that without fast methods of transportation or communication, even a representative democracy was unworkable over such vast distances. While the transition from Colony to Kingdom brought about the desired stability through enforced hierarchy, it also reduced expenditures on things that were once considered inviolate rights, such as health care, education, and justice systems.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

William’s hand throbbed. He had never written this much even while in school, and he struggled to keep his letters straight and tidy. A pile of completed pages sat on his right, blotted dry and ready for binding. On his left stood a much larger pile of empty pages, a grim reminder of the looming deadline Cairns had imposed on him and whatever punishment would come with missing it. He rested his pen in the inkwell and rubbed his eyes, noticing too late the smudge on his thumb that he had now almost certainly smeared across his face.

He splashed his face with water from the bucket in the corner, and scrubbed where he thought the ink was. The water soothed the burn on his arm that he had successfully hidden from Melissa so far. He unrolled his sleeve to cover the burn and returned to his seat, only to hear Cairns call his name. He capped the inkwell and hurried to his boss’ office.

“William, I wanted to ask about—King’s mercy, William, what happened to your eye?”

“What?” William felt his face, wondering what Cairns was referring to.

“How did you get that black eye? Were you in a fight?”

“Oh…no…it’s ink.”

Cairns raised an eyebrow. “Your penmanship concerns me, William. Our standard is to print letters upright and in a straight line, but it appears you have difficulty even keeping them on paper.”

The twinkle in Cairns’ eye did nothing to lessen the sting. “I’ll try to do better,” said William.

Cairns waved William’s comment away. “You’ll improve with practice. Still, I think Jessica should finish the copying. We want these texts to be neater than the students’ writing. Besides, I have another task for you.”

William massaged his cramped hand. “Research, I hope.”

“Indeed. As much as I enjoy mocking your handwriting, I must compliment you on how efficiently you gathered facts for the new text book. I require the same diligence on this project.”

William’s chest swelled with pride. “Of course. What sort of project?”

Cairns drummed his fingers on his desk. “I almost didn’t assign this to you. Duke Vincent has commissioned a report on changes in bandit activity in Azuria over the last twenty years.”

William jumped up from the chair. “But that’s perfect! I was hoping to—”

“Sit down William, and listen to me. This is why I questioned whether to give you this task. I don’t doubt your eagerness, but this is not intended to be your personal vendetta. Earl Masterman finances the Guard in this region, as does every other Earl in this and all the dukedoms. But the Duke has funds to bolster the Guard presence in areas of his choosing, and he needs a completely objective report in order to choose wisely.”

William hung his head so Cairns wouldn’t see his anger. Cairns had already stolen his chance to become a Guard, and now he was forbidding William to investigate his father’s death at the hands of the outlaws he was ordered to research. It was Selection Day all over again.

Cairns walked around his desk and placed a bony hand on William’s shoulder. “Any son would feel the same in your position, William. I would have grave doubts about any man who didn’t. Farmers, like the ones your father defended, pay rent and taxes to their Baron or the Earl in exchange for protection. The Earl pays his taxes to the Duke for the same reason, and likewise the Dukes to King Duncan. With the right information the Duke can place troops where they are needed most. In this way, you will be helping protect innocent lives as much as your father ever did.”

William nodded without looking up. “Okay. I understand. No personal investigation, just the facts.”

Cairns nodded vigorously. “Exactly. I won’t say you can’t look. But don’t focus on it. And if you do find something about your father, let me know about it. Now, is there anything else we need to discuss? I have a poker game to attend.”

“No, I don’t—wait, yes there is. When Melissa showed me the…I’m not sure what to call it…the…you know…”

“We simply call it ‘The Book’, William. And no, I didn’t drop it. That’s just a rumor Jessica started because I make fun of her hats.”

“Yes, The Book. Well, Melissa mentioned it was printed by a machine that could make thousands of copies. Why don’t we have anything like that here?”

Cairns put on his coat and wrapped his cloak around his shoulders. “William, I believe you’ve set a record for the fastest a new librarian has asked that question. I should have you research it yourself…but I’ve already assigned you a task, so I’ll have to tell you: it’s too expensive.”

“Look,” said William. “I know we can’t make the same machine, but can’t we at least try to build some sort of—”

Cairns raised a hand. “Fine, apparently you need to learn the hard way. Research it, and present a budget to me next week for the development of a printing press. If it makes sense, we’ll build it.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Don’t let it take too much time away from your bandit research.”

“I won’t.”

“And one other thing: while you’re at it, try not to burn yourself again. I may be sixty-eight years old, but I haven’t forgotten what burning skin smells like.”

Hours later, Jessica found him at his work table surrounded by volumes on ancient technologies. “William, what are you doing here so late? Your mother must be worried sick!”

He looked up, startled. “Why, what time is it?”

“Almost midnight, silly boy. What’s so important that it can’t wait until morning? If I hadn’t seen the light and come to check—”

“Oh, it’s this stupid project Lester gave me. I made a suggestion—”

Jessica laughed. “Let me guess: printing, right? We’ve all suggested it. Do yourself a favor and admit defeat.”

“No, I really think it’s possible. I’ve ruled out wood blocks; they’re too soft to print the number of copies we’d need. But if we get enough bronze—”

“Listen to yourself, William. Did Lester ask you for a budget?”

“Yes, how did you know?”

“He’s a smart man, our boss. You should have followed his instructions. If there was plenty of metal, don’t you think farmers would stop complaining about the lack of sturdy plows? Or that tradesmen would have sharper tools? Or that every man could shave when he wanted? Which reminds me, your cheeks are looking a little too fuzzy, young man.”

“My face is fine.”

“If you say so. But young ladies like Melissa prefer their men clean-shaven. It’s a sign of prosperity.”

William ran his fingers over the wisps that covered his chin. “What’s Melissa got to do with it?”

She wagged a finger at him. “You can’t fool me, William; I’ve lived longer than you. Young love isn’t a new story to me.”

“Okay, but why can’t—”

“William, you’re a smart boy, otherwise Lester wouldn’t have selected you. Can I help you reach the conclusion you would have made on your own eventually?”

“Well…okay.”

“Imagine you could get all the metal you wanted for free. How long would it take to make one plate?”

“Um…a day, I guess?”

“It would take two days. Melting and cooling are slow processes. But let’s say it’s only one day.”

“But then we could print as many pages as we wanted!”

“William, in the twenty years I’ve been here, we have never made more than fifty copies of anything. How many pages can you print in a day by hand?”

William shrugged. “Forty or so.”

“Really? No wonder Lester put you on research. I can write a hundred pages, Melissa about twenty more than that. And I’m sure you’ll get better soon.”

William tapped his pen against his fingers as he pondered Jessica’s words. “So it would be more expensive, no matter what.”

Jessica smiled. “It might be different if we printed a thousand copies, but that will never happen.”

William grunted. “Maybe it should.”

Jessica took the pen from his hand and put it away. “We’re Librarians, William, not merchants. Now let’s get these books tidied up so you can get home.”

The next morning William wrote a report for Cairns that included a passionate plea for increasing the number of copies of certain books that they printed. It was articulate, well-reasoned, and he tossed it on the brazier that warmed his office. The next version described his unconvincing epiphany that a printing press was a luxury the Library could not afford.

William’s work on bandit activity consumed most of his time during the next few weeks. The Town Guard had submitted hundreds of reports, and more had been sent from towns along the coast and down river. He was almost ready to compile the information into a single report when he made a discovery.

Jessica found him again, this time in the records room, leaning against the cold granite wall, staring blankly at the report in his hands, surrounded by dozens more strewn about the floor. “William, dear, you can’t leave these papers on the floor like this, they—oh, my.” She hurried away and returned shortly with Melissa.

“I found him here, like this,” said Jessica with panic in her voice. “Should we look for Lester?”

Melissa scanned the mass of documents around William. “What’s he been working on?”

“Oh, that project for the Duke, the bandit thing. I told him he was working too hard—”

“No, that’s not it,” said Melissa. “I think I know. I wish I had known he was working on this, but he hasn’t spoken much to me lately. Will,” she said, shaking his shoulder.

William came to and groaned in embarrassment. “Sorry. Have you been here long?”

Jessica stomped on the floor in frustration. “You frightened me out of my wits, William! I wasn’t sure if you were—”

Melissa stopped her. “He’s okay, Jessica. I can guess what you were reading, Will.”

“Yeah, I should have known I would find this, but it came as a surprise.”

Jessica pulled a reading glass from her blouse pocket. “What is it?”

“My father’s death report,” he said, handing her the paper. Jessica read the report while William and Melissa shared a look. William knew they were both reliving that day years before, just as he had done for the last hour.

Jessica covered her mouth in horror. “Nine years ago…I didn’t realize. You poor thing, to be reminded like this. No wonder you reacted that way. Still, you shouldn’t have scared me like that.”

“Sorry.” William grinned despite his heavy emotions. “Part of it was the shock. But there’s more to it…”

Melissa brushed some papers aside and kneeled in front of him. “What?”

William became conscious of her hand on his arm, unsure how to react, but hoping she would keep it there. “This seems silly, I know, but I’d always imagined myself becoming a Guard like my father. And when I found this report it was almost like seeing him again…and I didn’t want him to see me here. I wanted him to see me with a sword in my hand, not a book.”

Jessica exchanged a glance with Melissa, then whispered in her ear. Melissa nodded, and Jessica retreated upstairs, leaving the two of them alone.

Melissa sat and leaned against the wall beside him, her honey-brown hair spilling over his shoulder. “It’s not silly, Will.”

“The truth is, I’m happy here. I like the work. I didn’t expect to, but I do. So why should I feel like this?”

Melissa pondered for a moment. “I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know one thing.”

“What?”

“He would be proud of you,” she said, squeezing his hand.

For a few seconds he saw only her face, the room and the books forgotten. “Thank you,” he said. He stared into her eyes, felt her breath on his face, and for a brief, terrifying moment, considered kissing her.

Melissa jerked her hand from his. “We’d better get this mess cleaned before Lester comes back.”

William stood and stretched the stiffness from his back, pretending the moment never happened. “Where is he?” he asked.

“Meeting a new client at the docks. She’s coming in from Faywater Port. Another big project for you, no doubt.”

“I’d better finish this one, then.”

Although a shadow remained over his mind, he was fully composed when Lester returned from the docks. With him was the darkest-skinned person William had ever seen. Jack was darker than most people he knew, but compared to this woman Jack was nearly as pale as William. Nor had he ever seen hair like hers, so curly it refused to fall to her shoulders. Her wide smile came easily and contrasted against the darkness of her face, lighting up her hazel eyes.

She was beautiful.

“William, meet Maya Melchior, from Faywater Port. You may have heard of her parents, Catherine and Caspar. They run the Faywater Clinic.”

“Pleased to meet you Maya,” said William, shaking her offered hand. “I’m sorry…I haven’t heard of your parents.”

“Oh, it’s no big deal, it’s just a little hospital.”

“Maya, your modesty does you no credit. William, the Faywater Clinic is famous for its remarkable success in treating illnesses that mediocre physicians find baffling. Catherine Melchior’s skill is sought by the nobles and elites of Ibyca, while Caspar has developed many new medicines…Maya, am I embarrassing you?”

“Oh, only a little.” She giggled and hid her face under her hand.

“Good then. Maya has followed in her parents’ footsteps and is here to conduct research on their behalf at Duke Vincent’s request.”

“Really? What sort of research?”

“The problem with the Faywater River,” she said.

“Problem? What’s wrong with the river?”

“Maya’s parents have found…no, I’m sorry, you tell it, Maya,” said Cairns.

“Very well. We’ve noticed an increase in damage to flora and fauna along the river and the coast.”

William scratched his chin. “What kind of damage?”

She counted each item on her fingers. “For starters, we’re alarmed at the number of dead fish washing up on our shores. Crops watered by the river have withered, as have wild plants along the banks. Small animals are dying near the river, and worst, acute poisoning cases at our Clinic have increased. What these all have in common is contact with the river.”

“Poisoning? What kind of poison?”

“That’s the problem; we don’t know what it is or where it comes from. That’s why I’m here.”

“The poison is coming from here?”

“Well, not the Library itself. Did you think Lester had something to do with it?”

William turned red. “What? No! Why would you say—”

Maya flashed her smile at him. “Relax, I’m just teasing you. You’ll get used to it. In fact, it’s my most endearing quality. No, I’m starting at the Library for research purposes. But yes, we think it’s coming from upstream.”

“I don’t understand,” said William. “If the poison came from Marshland, wouldn’t we see damage here too?”

“That’s part of what I’m here to check,” said Maya.

“I haven’t seen anything like that here. Are you sure about this?”

Cairns gave William a stern glare. “Maya, William will provide you with whatever reading material you request.”

“Yes, of course,” said William, blushing slightly.

“Also, you will need to share your workspace with Maya. Melissa and Jessica both need room for their work.”

“Absolutely. Maya, I’ll help you get set up.”

“I’ll leave you both to it.” Cairns retreated to his office.

William helped carry Maya’s bags into his work room. “I didn’t mean to question your work. I was just surprised; I really haven’t seen any sort of damage near the river.”

Maya began setting up a workplace at the table. “That’s okay. Doubt is good; it forces you to verify your facts. But doubt should never stop you from looking for more data.”

Over the next several days Maya spent most of her time reading the books that William retrieved from the basement, leaving him free to finish his report for the Duke. Occasionally she brought a sample of water from the river and tested it using equipment William had never seen before. Despite his doubts about the poison, Maya’s systematic approach fascinated him, and he asked plenty of questions about the tests, learning much from her patient explanations. William realized that though his mother had provided him a decent education, there was still much he did not know.

In the meantime he had work to do, and during one of Maya’s absences he completed his report. He was confident about his work, but since it was his first report he wanted a second opinion before delivering it to Cairns for approval. Melissa agreed to read it, and he wandered around her work room, looking at her drawings while she read his work.

“How is your work with Maya going?” asked Melissa. Her gaze never left the page as her slender fingers rapidly traced the lines of text.

“Oh, good I guess. Not that I’ve done much. Just brought her books and stuff. But her experiments are interesting. Did you know that if you burn sodium it glows yellow? And copper makes a bluish green flame.”

“Fascinating,” she said dryly. “Then you should enjoy working with her. This is fine.” She handed his report back to him. “There’s a spelling mistake on page five, and your conclusion is a little too strong based on your data. Also, you’ve paid too much attention to the latest reports and not enough to the old ones. New things can be attractive, but you shouldn’t forget what was here before. Other than that it’s okay.”

“Um…thank you…” He stared as she ignored him. He became mesmerized as she rapidly sketched the outline of a flower. “What are you working on?”

“It’s a flower.” She barely glanced at him before returning to her work.

“Okay,” he said, not sure how to take her reaction. “Thanks again…” He was confused. He knew he often missed subtle nuances, but something in their conversation exceeded the concept of subtlety. He had to admit it: she sounded jealous. But that implied there was something to be jealous about. Was there really something between them? Was the attraction mutual, or was it only wishful thinking?

He wanted advice, the kind of advice sons ask of their fathers, but he had only two father figures in his life: Cairns, who would evade the question, and Sir Kevin, whom he hadn’t seen in months. Jack was the only person left who came to mind, but he knew Jack would take over the situation and manage it for him, and he wasn’t ready for that kind of invasiveness.

He knew what he had to do. He just didn’t know how.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

The rapid decline in post-Arrival scientific endeavor had two immediate causes: first, the Colonists no longer had access to large scale industry that was responsible for the manufacture of precision equipment necessary for research. Second, the majority of Colonists were forced to devote their time to survival activities, particularly farming. It was not until the reign of King Stephen that a resurgence in scientific inquiry occurred.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

[_ _]

“Look!” Maya held the paper in front of William’s eyes. “I’ve taken measurements for two weeks now, and if anything the numbers have increased.”

William looked at the numbers. “Are you sure whatever you measured is harmful? Do you even know what it is?”

“No,” said Maya. “I don’t know exactly. I haven’t seen those colors in the flame before, but that’s what worries me. If it wasn’t there before, and it is now, how can that be good?”

“But you said yourself, theories have to be tested.”

“Hypotheses, Will, not theories. A hypothesis is a question; a theory is an explanation.”

“Hypothesis, then. You’ve tested how much stuff there is; have you tested whether it’s harmful?”

She threw the paper aside. “I don’t need to test it, Will! I’ve seen what it does back home. For whatever reason, it hasn’t had the same effect here…at least not yet.”

William threw his hands up. “Maybe it’s not the same thing. There could be two different effects.”

Maya sunk into her chair, her eyes wide with surprise. “King’s whiskers…you’re right. I just assumed they’re the same.” Maya drummed her fingers on the table. “Okay. I’ll need twelve plants. Same type, same size, or as close as possible. We’re going to turn your office into a nursery.”

William laughed. “Oh, good. That won’t be inconvenient at all. Why twelve?”

“Three for control; they’ll get rainwater. We’ll divide the others into three groups. Group one will be watered with plain river water. Group two will get river water boiled to half, which will double the concentration of…whatever this is. The third group gets concentrated ten times.”

William shook his head. “Sounds complicated.”

“No, it’s actually simple, but it has to be double blind. That’s where you come in.”

“Hang on…what’s ‘double blind’? Being blind once is bad enough but—”

Maya threw her head back and laughed. “No, Will—it means both of us are blind to what the other knows. I’ll prepare the water, but I won’t tell you which batch is which. You’ll group the plants, and pick which group gets which water.”

They decided on lettuce, partially because it grew quickly, but also because food was a more meaningful test subject than flowers or reeds would be. William’s secret reason was that he didn’t want to bring flowers into the Library in case Melissa misunderstood their meaning.

Maya’s hypothesis was right in the end. After only two weeks, the lettuce with the most concentrated river water had died. After another week the second group had noticeable blotches and stunted growth. The other two groups appeared unaffected.

“There,” said William. “The plants that got plain old river water are just fine.”

Maya rolled her eyes. “Will, just because they don’t show damage doesn’t mean they’re free of poison. We proved the contaminant harms the plants at some concentration, and we proved concentration affects how quickly they get sick. The others would probably have shown the same signs eventually.”

“Okay, but does that prove it will harm people?”

Maya pulled a leaf from one of the unaffected plants. “Here…want to be the subject of our next experiment?”

William stared at the leaf for a moment, then stuffed it in his mouth. “Okay, set the hourglass. I’ll let you know when I get sick.”

Maya’s mouth hung open. “Will! How could…you could die from that. We have no idea…why in the King’s name are you laughing?”

He laughed. “That was from the group that got rainwater.”

“You!” She pointed at him with a shaking hand. “You…you would make a lousy scientist.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, hanging his head in mock shame. This was fun. “As an apology, may I offer you a salad?”

Maya burst out laughing. “I have my data,” she said, gathering her books. “Thanks, you’ve been a great help.”

As she left, William chided himself. Why couldn’t he relax and banter with Melissa like that?

Maya was still at the Library the following week, but he was not involved in anything she did. In fact, he had no idea why she was still there. She had gotten her answers, and whether or not he agreed with her assessment he knew she had made up her mind.

Early one morning, Cairns called William into his office. Maya was already there, and William had a hunch he was about to get bad news.

“William,” Cairns said, “You’ll recall that when you came to the Library, I told you part of your job would be research.” Cairns removed a kettle from the brazier and filled a teapot. “Not all research involves books, as Maya has demonstrated. By the way, please do something with those plants; your office is a mess.”

William nodded. “I fed the safe ones to my rabbits; I’m waiting for the others to dry so I can burn them.”

“Good. Tea?” He offered both William and Maya steaming cups. William sipped and the morning cold melted away as Cairns continued. “William, I need you to lead an expedition to help Maya find the source of the poison that is damaging the river.”

William barely avoided spitting out his tea, and Maya took advantage of his delayed response. “Will,” she said. “I know you don’t think this is serious, but it is. We have our experimental data, but there have also been reports of sickness right here in Marshland.”

William swallowed his tea. “It’s winter, Maya.”

“Yes, I know people get sick in the winter, but this isn’t the same. I’ve seen enough colds to know what one looks like. At least give me credit for that.”

William remembered she worked at what Cairns had called the most famous clinic on Esper; she knew the difference between a cold and a case of poisoning, even if she didn’t know what kind of poison was involved. “Okay, fine,” he said. “Something is poisoning the river. How do we know it won’t get better on its own?”

“We don’t,” she said. “Look, since we first noticed it, the problem has only gotten worse. Yes, maybe it will get better, but we can’t afford to wait.”

“Why not?”

“Because if it gets worse, what then? Either cities and towns move away from the river, or everyone gets sick and dies.”

“Maya, I don’t mean to disrespect you—”

“Then don’t!”

“—but I think you’re exaggerating.”

Cairns interrupted. “William, Duke Vincent has requested this expedition. In fact, he insists upon it.” He slid a piece of paper across the table. “And he asked for you specifically.”

William’s eyes bugged out, and he looked between Cairns and Maya to see if they were joking. “Me? Why?” he asked.

“Because he’s crazy, obviously,” said Maya.

“No, I agree with the good Duke,” said Cairns. “William, he commended your bandit report, and he trusts your ability to assess the situation. I wasn’t sure if you were ready for this task, given your youth and inexperience, but there it is.”

William’s face flushed, but he did not dare talk back to his employer. He calmed himself and slowly lowered his cup. “When do we leave?” he asked.

“I’ll leave that to you and Maya.”

William glowered as they left Cairns’ office. “What are you smiling about?” he said to Maya.

“Me? Nothing,” she said. “Did I smile?”

William ignored her smug smile as he cleared the pots of dead lettuce from the table. “So what’s the plan?” he asked.

Maya sat and consulted a book. “Well, we need to recruit a couple of people. First, we need someone who can hunt.”

“What on Esper for? We can bring food.”

“We don’t know how long this will take. Also, my equipment will take up space.”

“Can’t we use a pack mule?”

“Will, we don’t know where we’ll end up, and there’s no guarantee a mule can follow us the whole way. Do you have a spare mule you don’t mind losing?”

“Okay, fine. We need a hunter. Where do we find one?”

“Well, I have a friend arriving tomorrow who’s agreed to join us.”

His eyes narrowed. “You’ve already arranged this?”

“Yep. We also need someone from the Guard.”

“The Guard? Why?”

“Because the Duke is serious about this. And he wants us to come back alive. Well, he wants me to come back alive, anyway.”

William ignored the barb. “Look, if we can’t afford a mule, how can we afford to hire a Guard? The Earl won’t let us have one for nothing.”

“Actually, he will. The Duke has sent orders to that effect.”

“But he sent no orders for a mule?” asked William.

“Afraid not.”

“So that’s already been arranged too, then.”

A hint of a grin appeared on her face as she nodded. “Yep.”

“So this wasn’t a planning session so much as…I don’t know…a briefing?”

Again she nodded. “Pretty much.”

“And supposedly, I’m in charge?”

“That’s right,” she said, no longer hiding her smile. “If it’s any consolation, I think you’re doing a great job so far.”

Cairns, at least, left William in charge of one item. “I need you to go to the Guard Hall and speak to Sir Hendrick,” Cairns told him the next day. “I would go myself, but…” His voice trailed off.

Was his boss embarrassed? “What happened?” asked William.

“Sir Hendrick joined our poker game last night.”

“Oh? Who else plays?”

“The Earl of course, and whomever he invites. The richer, the better.” Cairns absent-mindedly jingled the coins in his pocket. “I always make sure the Earl does well, which takes some doing, but I have no qualms about taking money from his friends.”

“Uh-oh…”

“Sir Hendrick, it turns out, is a bad poker player. The more he lost, the angrier he got. And the worse he played. Unfortunately, I don’t take kindly to angry people.”

“So…”

“I took everything he had.” Cairns dropped a small sack of coins onto the desk. “I suspect he’ll eat at the mess hall until next pay day.”

William’s eyes widened, and he stifled a laugh. “I bet he’s still angry.”

“Which is why I’m sending you to have one of his Guards assigned to your venture.”

“Wait…won’t he take it out on me?”

“No, he may be bad at cards, but he’s not stupid. Besides, pride won’t let him direct his anger at my subordinate—he holds hierarchy in too much esteem.”

“Does he know we’re taking one of his soldiers? I don’t want to be the one to break the news to him.”

Cairns nodded. “The Earl gave him the paperwork last night. That was the good Captain’s only acquisition of the evening.”

William felt a rush of anxiety. This would be his first time meeting Sir Hendrick, and the Captain would remember him as the rejected would-be Guard. Also, he knew William was Sir Kevin’s protégé, which would win him no favors either. Add to that the sting of losing money to William’s employer, and he was bound to be ornery toward William.

The Guard Hall was not far from the Library, and mere minutes later William stood outside the Captain’s office summoning the courage to enter. After several nerve-wracking moments he knocked. A voice from inside told him to enter. William pushed the door open, and found himself in an office several times longer and wider than Cairns’ own cramped quarters. Shields and weapons of past heroes covered the freshly-paneled walls. Sir Hendrick Mattice sat behind a large desk, reading. He looked up and broke into a wide grin. He pushed his papers aside, came out from behind his desk and shook William’s hand warmly. “William Whitehall, isn’t it? I expected Lester—I hope he’s not ill? He seemed well enough last night. At his age, and such a late hour, he was still sharp enough to beat me at cards. He really is something, isn’t he?”

William was so prepared for a contentious meeting that he wasn’t sure how to respond. “No, he’s well…it’s just…he had another meeting.”

Mattice nodded vigorously. “Of course, of course…the Library is busy these days, so much happening. It must be very exciting.”

“Um…a little bit, yes.”

“Which reminds me, we have business to conduct ourselves, don’t we?”

“Yes, sir. We—”

Mattice raised a hand to stop William. “I hope you don’t mind, but I would like to take care of some personal business between us first, if that’s all right.”

William’s stomach knotted. He wasn’t sure what was coming, but he knew he wouldn’t like it. He held his tongue and nodded. Mattice took William’s arm and led him towards the far wall. “William, I’m aware you had your heart set on becoming a Guard. Sir Kevin put in a good word for you, and believe me, I was aware of your training. But matters were very much out of my control. Earl Bradford is very particular about ensuring all the Town’s departments are well staffed. While you would have made an excellent Guard, none of the boys we selected would have made half as good a Librarian as you.” He lowered his voice. “In fact, I don’t think any of them can read.” Mattice grinned at his own joke and continued. “So you see how it is? There was no slight intended.”

William’s chest swelled at having his honor restored, even if only in a private meeting. “Thank you, Sir Hendrick. I think I understand.”

“I’m glad, William. That means a lot to me. But there is something else I want you to see.” Mattice gestured toward the wall of shields; in the center hung a shield with the device that William knew so well: the white fist. “Of course, you know this is not your father’s actual shield; that was lost when he died defending those poor farmers. I took the liberty of having a replica made in his honor. I hope you don’t mind.”

William choked back the tears. “I…I don’t mind at all. My mother will be honored. Thank you.”

“He deserved the honor, believe me.”

“I do.” All was right in the world. He was vindicated, not just for himself and his own failed ambition, but also for the lost years with his father. He had never felt so at peace.

“And now to business,” said Mattice, startling William back to reality. The Captain called for his assistant. “Garcia, bring me Charlie Walker.” The assistant nodded and left, and Mattice continued. “William, I wanted you to meet Charlie before you sign this document acknowledging the transfer of personnel. It’s not fair to ask you to sign before you decide he’s suitable.”

“That’s…courteous. Thank you.” William had heard the name before, but he could not remember where.

The office door opened again, and a figure stood just out of sight. “Ah, Charlie, there you are. Come in,” said Mattice. “I’d like you to meet William Whitehall. You’ll be assigned to his company until further notice.”

William shook hands with the biggest man he had ever met. He stood a head and a half taller than William, and looked twice as wide. His reddish-blond hair seemed to have been plastered onto his round head, and his significant belly made him appear soft. Only his arms were muscular. William remembered where he knew him from. “You’re the smith’s son, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir. Alex Walker is my father.” His soft voice contrasted strangely with his enormous bulk.

“How is he?” asked William.

Charlie shrugged. “Not much iron these days. Mostly he bakes bricks now.”

“Charlie is the largest recruit in living memory, aren’t you?” said Mattice. He reached up and gave the young man’s shoulder a friendly shake. Charlie turned red in response and looked at his feet. “This is an important mission, William; only the best will do.”

William hesitated. Cairns had warned him about something, but as he looked back at Charlie he dismissed his fears. Mattice was being overly generous. He signed the paper and handed it back to Mattice.

“Very good,” said Mattice as he placed the document in his desk drawer. “Charlie, draw out your armor and gear and report to the Library.”

Charlie saluted. “Yes, sir.”

“William, do you have any orders for Charlie?”

“Oh…uh…not right now. We’re still making plans. We’ll fill you in on everything tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir,” said Charlie.

As they left the office, William thought he caught Mattice smiling to himself. Unsure of what it meant, William ignored it and turned to Charlie. “How long have you been in the Guard?”

“This is my third year.”

“You were drafted the year before last?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Charlie, can you try not to call me ‘sir’?”

“Oh…yes, s—” Charlie blushed at the near mistake.

“Look, I’m not a Guard, and you’re older than me. It feels strange to be called ‘sir.’”

“What should I call you?”

“Well, my friends call me Will.”

Charlie turned to look at William directly. “We can be friends?”

Charlie’s gentle simplicity disturbed him, and he didn’t know how to address it. He tried humor. “Look at the size of you. I’d hate to be your enemy.”

Charlie nodded, and said nothing. As they approached the exit, William noticed several Guards looking towards them and either smiling or laughing. A few even pointed at them. Something about it reminded him of the way Oz and his gang treated him. “Charlie,” he asked, “Is Sir Hendrick an honest man?”

Charlie bit his lip and hesitated. “He’s always been honest with me.”

William nodded. “Okay. See you tomorrow.” As he walked the path toward the Library, he knew he hadn’t gotten the entire story. Despite his misgivings, William reported favorably to Cairns. “Charlie is a third-year Guard, so at least he’s not a rookie. Big as a house, too. Big as mine, anyway.”

“No one can be as big as a house, William. Besides, that’s not what I wanted to know. Your life will be in peril, not mine, so I trust you to make the right decision in that regard. No, what I want to know is…is he still mad at me?”

William laughed until he realized his boss was serious. “Why would you worry about that?”

“William, the thing to fear about people like Sir Hendrick is not their swords, but their words.”

“Huh? How so?”

Cairns sat back in his chair. “Are you aware of how he came to be the Captain of the Guard when the position was already occupied by an able, willing and honorable man?”

“You mean Sir Kevin.”

“Yes. Has Sir Kevin ever given you the idea that he retired willingly?”

William shook his head. “I thought the Earl let him retire early based on his service.”

“Yes, that’s what’s said by those who would have you believe it. But what does Sir Kevin say?”

“I’m not sure. Actually, he never talks about it.”

Cairns raised an eyebrow. “You can learn much from what a person doesn’t say.”

William recalled the times Sir Kevin had coached him. It wasn’t as though he never spoke of the past; he had discussed the times he had gone on patrol with Orrin often enough. But it was true: he never spoke about how he came to retire. In fact, he now realized that every time he brought it up, Sir Kevin would change the subject. “So how did he lose the position?”

Cairns nodded. “Lose. Yes, that’s the right word. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it was taken from him. After the attack that killed your father, some people questioned Sir Kevin’s leadership. Mattice was not one of them…at least not out loud. Instead, he and the Earl conversed privately, during which they discussed—among other things—Mattice’s ideas on how to improve the Guard.”

“What sort of improvements? And if they were private, how do you know about them?”

“Poker is about more than money, William. As for what improvements: armor, training, patrols…things I know little about. But of even more interest to the Earl, Mattice also told him how to save money. While he never did criticize Sir Kevin directly, Mattice’s suggestions were an indictment: they implied that Sir Kevin was doing less than he should have. Soon after these discussions, Mattice was knighted and named Captain of the Guard, the youngest in Marshland’s history. Mattice even requested Sir Kevin be given the option to retire rather than be forcibly removed.”

“So Sir Kevin lost his position, and he can’t even criticize the man who replaced him because he’s the one who saved his honor.” William admired the way the coup had been carried out.

Cairns nodded. “No swords. No bloodshed. Just words.”

William stared at the ceiling and shook his head. “Wow…I hope he never wants anything from me.”

“Look again. He may already have. But now at least you understand why I don’t want him mad at me.”

“So you think Charlie might end up being useless?”

Cairns sipped his tea before answering. “Do you still have your sword? The one Sir Kevin gave you?”

“Of course.”

“Sharpen it before you leave.”

William pondered this as he walked home. A chilling thought occurred to him: what if Charlie wasn’t useless, but was actually planted by Mattice to ensure they failed in their mission, or worse, got killed? William reminded himself Mattice had no reason to want him dead. He considered appealing to Earl Bradford, despite the fact Mattice was the Earl’s friend. But then he remembered signing the paper confirming Charlie’s acceptability. Why on Esper had he signed it? The memory stung as he realized Mattice’s compliments had not been honest; they were intended only to cloud his judgment, and it had worked. No swords. Just words.

When he arrived home, three of his rabbits were dead, and two others missing. He cursed under his breath at the weasels that frequently robbed them of food. But when he searched the bodies for signs of violence, not only were they still warm, but none of them had so much as a scratch. William’s stomach sank as he remembered what Maya had said about the poison. Perhaps it hadn’t been such a good idea to feed them that lettuce after all. He buried the dead ones in the garden, and went inside and inhaled the aroma of Emma’s his mother’s stew. “That smells amazing! Mother, did you notice—”

Emma slammed her ladle on the table. “When were you going to tell me?”

William jumped. “I—just now. I only found them when I got home—”

“Found what?” She tossed the ladle into the soup pot. “This trip you’re going on, you ungrateful—”

“Mother, have you been crying?”

“Of course I have. Wouldn’t you if your only son ran off into the wilderness without saying anything?”

“That’s what you’re upset about? It’s not dangerous, Mother; we’ll have a Guard with us. Charlie Walker, he’s…”

“I know who he is, William. It’s not the danger that upsets me. I’m upset because you tried to hide it from me!”

It was true. He had kept it from her. He had even avoided speaking to her last night, and had gone to bed early, blaming long hours at the Library. He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples. There was no way out of it. “You’re right,” he said.

“Furthermore—what?”

He shrugged. “I said you’re right.”

“What sort of argument is that? You’ve never said that before.”

“It’s not an argument, it’s a simple statement of fact. I didn’t tell you about the expedition because I didn’t want an argument. Which was dumb, because you were bound to notice me packing, or at least wonder where I went.”

“So pain avoidance. That’s your strategy?”

“More like pain delay,” he said with a sheepish grin.

Emma shook her head and laughed. “You are easily the smartest son I have. But you can’t tell me this trip isn’t dangerous.”

“We’re bringing a Guard, Mother.”

“Which you wouldn’t need if it wasn’t dangerous.”

“We won’t be gone long. I’m not even sure there’s a real source of poison; I think it’s just coincidence.”

“William, people stop looking for something when they find it, not when they don’t. Besides, you know there are bandits out there.”

“Mom, that was nine years ago.”

“I’m talking about now. I’m talking about the paper you wrote for Duke Vincent.”

“What? How do you know about that?”

“William, anyone in Marshland who can read, and cares to, has read your paper. The Duke sent copies to all the nobles. One of my patrons showed me.”

William’s hair stood on end; Sir Hendrick might have a reason for wanting him dead after all. The report may have embarrassed Sir Hendrick, whose job was to protect the area from bandits and other threats. He shook off the feeling. “I have to do this. I don’t think there’s anything to it, but we have to find out.”

Emma sighed. “This is my fault. I got you into the Library, but I didn’t expect you to get into adventures. That’s what I wanted to avoid. So there’s nothing to this poison scare?”

“I can’t say for sure. Strange things have been happening, but who knows if they’re related?”

“Well, I hope you’re hungry. I’ve been cooking all day. I made rabbit stew.”

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

Exploration during early colonial times was strictly limited to fulfilling the needs of an expanding population. As such, while towns dotted the rivers and coastlines of Ibyca, very little was known about uninhabited lands except that which was learned before the Arrival. It was not until the reign of King Stephen that the Crown directly financed an exploratory expedition, but even then the parameters were strictly limited to finding new resources and living space.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

“Have you been far upriver, Charlie?”

Charlie shook his head at William. “We patrol the eastern farms every week. The older guys have gone farther, but Captain Mattice doesn’t send us into the woods anymore.”

“Well, we shouldn’t be gone long,” said William. “Either we find the source of the poison or we don’t.”

“Don’t listen to him, Charlie,” said Maya. “We’ll keep searching until we find it.”

“Maya…”

“Shut up, Will. Charlie, have you ever lost anything? Something important?”

“Well, I thought I lost my shield once, but it turned out some of the guys had hidden it.”

“And you kept looking until you found it, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. Well, actually, Sergeant Hawkins made them give it back.”

“But you would have kept looking, right?”

Charlie nodded. “If you lose your shield, you get in trouble.”

Maya beamed in satisfaction at William, who rolled his eyes. “Fine, Maya, you win. Charlie, pack for a long trip.”

“Okay, Will. But how will we know when we’ve found it?”

Maya jumped and grabbed her box of equipment. “Oh, you’re going to love this, Charlie!” Maya chattered on with her explanations without interruption while Charlie pretended to understand. His awe was genuine, though, when the flames changed color with each splint she burned. Afterwards, they both departed, Charlie to pack for the trip, and Maya to bring her friend back from the docks.

William could not help but stare when Rachel Malen strode into the Library. She was slightly taller than him, with long, panther-black hair that flowed down her back like a silky cape. She sized him up in a glance, her pale icy eyes and slight smile revealing nothing in return. She spoke with a low, quiet voice, and an accent he couldn’t identify. She came from Ibyca, that much was certain, but from which part he could not tell. “A small town you’ve never heard of” was the only answer he got.

She was so unlike Maya that William wondered how they ever became friends. But they were, and William knew he had to trust Maya’s judgment. If Rachel could hunt well enough to feed them without slowing their progress she would be welcome.

Still, William doubted they would be gone long. He approached Cairns with an idea. “I want to see if we can buy enough food to last us the trip so we don’t have to waste time hunting.”

Cairns’ eyes sparkled. “Have you brought this up with Maya?”

“And risk getting yelled at? Not a chance. If there’s no money for it, I don’t need to mention it to her. Or to Rachel.”

“No, perhaps not.”

“Lester…does Rachel seem…I don’t know…”

“Reticent?”

“That wasn’t the word I was looking for, but it works.”

“How about reserved? Secretive? Enigmatic?”

William grinned. “You keep a thesaurus in your office, don’t you?”

“William, don’t dig into people’s pasts. If you found someone digging in your garden, I can assure you that you’d feel violated. A person’s past is even more private.”

“Hmm. I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

“I have a small amount of money for food if you care to try to find a seller, but I expect it will be scarce this time of year. Planting hasn’t even begun yet.”

“True, but maybe someone has winter stores they can sell. Anything that can last the winter will keep in our packs.”

Cairns handed William a small bag of coins. “Where will you look?”

“Some farmers I’ve worked with. I’m sure I can find something.”

An hour later he reached the Earl’s personal barony. William had helped bring in the harvest here for many summers. He set out for the cottages, expecting the fields to be empty during winter, but he was surprised to see a farmer digging in a pasture beside the main road, a rickety old wheelbarrow beside him. He recognized the friendly, weather-beaten face of Morgan Delroy. William shouted hello and was puzzled when the farmer didn’t respond. Delroy had never been anything but cheerful before. A dusty burlap bag filled the wheelbarrow, its contents hidden. What crop could he planting this time of year? It was too late for winter wheat and too early for anything else.

“Hello, William,” Delroy said in a tired and shaky voice. “What brings you out this way?” His handshake was firm, but his face had more lines than William remembered. Delroy’s oldest son was William’s age, but the farmer appeared old enough to be his grandfather.

“Mr. Delroy, I hoped you might sell me some food, something that will keep on a long trip.”

Delroy dug into the soil. “What sort of trip?”

“We have a scientist visiting us from Faywater Port. She says there’s poison in the river.”

Delroy wiped his brow and squinted at William. “Poison, you say?”

“Yes, we hope to find the source, and we don’t know how long we’ll be gone. If we have to hunt and forage it will delay us, and well…that’s why I’m here.”

Delroy shook his head slowly. “I’m sorry William, I don’t got anything like that. It was a bad harvest, and the Earl’s share don’t leave us much for ourselves.”

“Oh, I didn’t know things were so bad.” He had known Delroy and many others on these farms for most of his life and they always treated him well. That they could barely feed themselves gave William a knot in his stomach; he felt guilty for asking for a part of what little they had—even though he was willing to pay for it.

Delroy leaned on the shovel and dug deeper. “We make do. We always have.”

“I see you’re making an early start this year, though. What are you planting?”

Delroy remained silent as he continued to shovel. William shifted back and forth on his feet, unsure of what to do or say, listening to the scrape of Delroy’s shovel as it dug deeper. A gust of wind blew the burlap sack open. Delroy pulled the bag closed, but too late to prevent William from seeing. William let out a small gasp; Delroy’s shoulders slumped as tears flowed down the channels of his weathered face.

William froze. This was not the same Morgan Delroy he’d known from years past, the one who laughed and joked with fellow farmers and hired help. He recalled the nights when everyone sang and danced after a hearty meal, Delroy among them. He could never forget how Delroy’s eyes followed his wife Casey, who was mere days from bearing him yet another child. William remembered these things because of what the wind had revealed: a tiny, cold gray hand.

Guilt weighed on him; he had just invaded the most painful and private moment in the man’s life. He had to do something. “I…I can help…if you like.”

Delroy wiped the tears from his cheeks, leaving a smudge of dirt in their place. “I only have the one spade,” he said. “It’s all right, lad, you don’t need to stay. I’m not the first father to lose a child. Besides, you have work of your own, right?”

William wished the farmer well, and hustled toward the cottages to give the poor, grief stricken father some privacy. He soon reached the central square, where a thin trickle of water splashed from a fountain into a pool at its base. There was no well here; the frequent river floods made that impractical. Instead, the fountain was fed by an aqueduct that drew directly from the Faywater. When William realized where the water came from he began to shake. Was the water toxic enough to kill a child? He knew the water had to be tested, and soon, before it could harm anyone else.

The docks were a short way upstream. He sprinted to the tavern and begged an empty bottle from Dan Deacon. In his haste he collided with someone as he exited the tavern. “Hey, watch where you’re…Jack? What are you doing here? Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Jack got up and brushed himself off. “No thanks to you. Shouldn’t you be working instead of knocking people over? Or is that a new part of your job?”

“I am working,” said William. He told his friend about the river and the trip. “Anyway, I was out by the Earl’s farms looking to buy food from someone. When I figured out about the fountain, I ran here to get a bottle to collect a sample.”

“Aha! Sounds like you need a purchasing agent.” Jack displayed his most mischievous grin. “How much money do you have?”

William raised his hands. “Forget it Jack. Whenever you get that look on your face, it means I’m about to get into trouble. I can’t waste this money.”

“Don’t be such a chicken, Will. I know what to do. Here, give me the bag. In fact, it’s better if you go somewhere else for a while. Go get your water sample, and meet me back here.”

William relented; Jack wasn’t going to give up, and the water was more important anyway. He jogged back to the fountain and returned half an hour later out of breath. Jack whistled to him from a gap between the tavern and a storage building, clutching a large canvas bag. He tugged William’s sleeve. “Let’s go.”

“Give me a moment to catch my breath, will you? What’s the hurry? And what’s in the bag?”

“Keep your voice down. Let’s just get out of here.” Jack dragged him away from the docks and didn’t stop looking over his shoulder until they reached Administration Hill. When they finally stopped he handed the remaining coins to William and opened the bag. “Okay, let’s see what we’ve got. There’s some cheese…good stuff, too, from the smell of it. Dried beef and pork, that’ll take care of us for a while…”

“Hang on a moment,” said William. “Us?”

“I’m coming with you,” said Jack, his head still in the bag.

“Um…”

“Raisins! Excellent…lots of nuts, too. That quartermaster knew exactly what to get.”

“What quartermaster?”

“The one on the ship. You must have seen it. Big thing, made of wood, floats on water.”

“Real funny,” William said. “It’s probably the one Rachel was on.”

Jack pulled his head from the bag. “Rachel’s the hunter, right? The one that’s coming with us?”

“Yes. Why?”

“I need more contacts from out of town. Think I can meet her?”

“If she’s still at the Library. And if you promise not to cause any problems. You never told me how you got all that food.”

“I don’t cause problems…I create opportunities. And yes, I did tell you. I got it from the quartermaster.”

“So why do I feel like we could get into trouble? This should have cost way more money than I gave you.”

“It must be your guilty conscience. Besides, I know how to get a deal. I’m a salesman, remember?”

“Which means you know how to sell, not buy.”

Jack dismissed it with a wave of his hand. “It’s the same thing, just from different sides. Anyway, I’m not telling you anything you don’t need to know.”

William shook his head. “Thanks, that makes me feel so much better.”

William found Maya in his seat and Rachel leaning back with her boots on his table, laughing at some shared joke. Jack followed after him, as William dumped the contents of the bag onto the table.

Maya’s eyes bugged out. “Will, where did you get all that? It must have cost—”

“What? What are YOU doing here!” Rachel stared at Jack, her eyes wide with surprise.

Jack grinned and bowed. “Didn’t I say I would follow you to any shore?”

“Ha! Why do you think I left the shore?”

“You can’t shake me that easily. The docks aren’t even three miles from here.”

William groaned to himself. “Jack, this is Maya. You seem to know Rachel already.”

Maya tilted her head at Jack. “Rachel, is this the guy you were talking about? I think I see what you mean.”

Rachel slapped her on the shoulder. “Maya! Shush!”

Jack made a spectacle of kissing Maya’s hand. “Will told me about your experiments. Very impressive.”

“Well, you seem to have made an impression on Rachel.”

Rachel glared at her. “Maya, I’m warning you…”

Jack gave William a quick wink before turning back to Maya. “Rachel and I shared a meal at the Inn last night, during which I pledged to her my undying devotion. So far, she is reluctant to accept this precious gift. But I am persistent, if nothing else.”

“You talked at me while I ate,” said Rachel. “That’s not sharing a meal; that’s harassment. Besides, we’ll see how long your persistence lasts. You can’t track me where I’m going.”

Jack nudged William. “Tell her, Will.”

“Tell her what, Jack?”

“You know…what we discussed.”

William clenched his teeth. “We didn’t discuss it, Jack; you just assumed I would go along with it. Why do you always…fine, forget it. I give up. Rachel, Jack is coming with us.”

Rachel howled with laughter. “You? What do we need a trader for? Is there someone in the wild you expect to sell to? Bears? Wolves?”

Jack wiped an imaginary tear and pouted. “That’s not fair. I can also climb trees.”

“Good, go climb one now.” Maya laughed at the exchange, but William grumbled under his breath. The mission wasn’t his anymore. Neither was his office. He rubbed his aching forehead and snuck out to find a quiet place. He assumed his absence would go unnoticed. Cairns’ office was closed, and he respected his boss too much to simply walk in. He wandered along the hall and found Melissa working in her office.

He hesitated at her door, unsure whether he should disturb her. Why had she been so frosty toward him lately? He had done nothing wrong; in fact, he had done his best not to bother her at all. He shrugged and sauntered across the room and flopped into a chair in the corner. ”Mind if I sit here and enjoy the quiet for a moment?”

Melissa barely looked at him. “It’s hard to work with all the noise, isn’t it?”

“Sorry about that…I guess my work is a little louder than normal these days.” She glanced up and said nothing. He added, “I need a quiet evening to relax. Wait…what’s so funny?”

“I’m not sure you’ll be happy, but—”

Cairns barged in. “William, why on Esper did you get so much food?”

William jumped to his feet. “D-don’t worry, boss, I didn’t use all the money. Here’s what’s left.” He handed Cairns the bag.

Cairns stared in disbelief at the coin sack for several seconds before he spoke. When he did, it was with cold, measured tones. “Where did you get it from?”

William swallowed hard. “Jack bought it for me, from the quartermaster on the ship that Rachel was on. I’m not sure why it was so cheap.”

Cairns slapped his forehead. “William, you fool. It didn’t belong to the quartermaster. You’ve bought stolen property! You’ve risked your reputation, and worse, you’ve risked mine as well.”

William’s stomach dropped, and a cold sweat broke out on his face. “Whose was it?”

“How should I know? You’d best hope it was some minor Baron who can’t count.”

“What should I do? Should I take it back?”

“And announce your crime? I shouldn’t think so. Pack it up, and get it as far away from here as you can, starting tomorrow morning. In the meantime, get dressed. Your mother brought your good clothes; you can change in the storage room.”

“Dressed? Good clothes? What for?”

“William, don’t tell me you didn’t notice everyone is in their finest clothes. Look at Melissa. Has she ever looked so lovely?”

Melissa giggled behind her hand. She wore a green silk dress accented with a braided copper necklace, and she had tinted her eyelids violet to match her eyes. Lovely was an understatement. He turned back to Cairns who looked almost regal in his robes of office. He let out a heavy sigh. “What’s the occasion?”

“A banquet in honor of your group’s departure. Common practice. As the son of a Guard I would have expected you to know that.” Cairns stormed out and left William with his mouth hanging open.

Melissa’s grin faded. “That wasn’t fair. He shouldn’t have said that.”

“No, he has every reason to be upset with me.” William sat and rubbed his eyes. “So do you, I guess. I’m sorry I never noticed your dress. It really is nice.”

Melissa shook her head and returned to her work. “You sure know how to make a girl feel special, don’t you?”

William glared at her. “No, I guess I don’t. And I’ll probably never figure it out either. But in the meantime, why not kick me while I’m down? It’s not enough that my boss thinks I’m a thief, I’m crowded out of my own office, and my best friend is taking over my mission. You should feel free to pile on.”

“Will, I didn’t mean—”

William hung his head and raised his hand to stop her. “No, don’t apologize. It’s me who should be sorry. It…hasn’t been the best day. I’m tired, upset, and embarrassed, and I took it out on you.” He took a deep breath. “Can we pretend I never said that?”

She crossed her arms and gave him an icy stare. “First of all, I didn’t apologize and I had no intention of doing so. Second, no we can’t pretend you didn’t say it, because you did say it.”

“Fine.” He stomped out and locked himself in the supply room. The last thing he wanted right now was to go to a banquet, especially one in his honor. He deserved no honors, but it was expected of him; he followed orders and dressed. He found a candle-mirror to check his hair; his reflection stared back with grumpy defiance, daring anyone to touch his hair, including himself. He left it unstraightened.

He found the others waiting for him at the main door. Jessica snagged his sleeve as he tried to walk past them. “William! What have you done to your hair?” She pulled a comb from her own hair and groomed him while he stared at his feet and listened to the chuckles around him. “Better,” she said, after what felt like hours.

The Town Hall evoked bitter memories for William. Cairns, as head of the Library, sat beside the Earl’s large, empty chair, in the same seat he had drafted William from. As the expedition leader, William took the seat on the right. He was relieved Melissa and Jessica were also on the dais; the more people at the table, the less conspicuous he would be. Jack, too, found a seat, and contrived to sit next to Rachel. Maya accepted being pushed over one seat, which in turn moved Melissa next to William. He ventured an awkward smile at her, and was relieved when she answered in kind. Charlie joined Cairns and Jessica on the other end.

The tables on the main floor were mostly empty. A few Guards and laborers had come for a free meal, but William doubted they knew the purpose of the banquet. His mother arrived, resplendent in a blue gown, on the arm of Sir Kevin Welford. It was gallant of his old sword-fighting tutor to do his mother this favor; it might have been awkward for her to sit alone. He even wore his old dress uniform to mark the occasion. And to his surprise, William’s old teacher, Miss Plevins, joined them.

Earl Bradford Masterman made a grand entrance, flanked by two footmen, and decorated in his official robe and chain of office. Massive silver and gold rings glinted in the lamplight, and squeezed into the puffy flesh of his fingers. Masterman posed in front of his great chair, and the hall fell into silence.

His voice boomed. “Fellow Townspeople, today we honor the expedition ordered by our…great…Duke Vincent. A mission of exploration—of science and learning—that will bring new knowledge of the lands around our town!” A spattering of applause broke out, mostly from his mother’s table. William’s jaw dropped. The Earl didn’t even know the mission’s purpose, or else he was denying it. He raised an eyebrow at Cairns, who gently shook his head in response. William fumed as the Earl continued, naming each expedition member, including Jack. He announced William as the leader, laughter broke out at the back of the hall. Sir Kevin’s icy glare quickly silenced it.

The Earl ordered everyone to stand. “We drink to the health of King Duncan Thorsten, long may he reign.” His toast was echoed with several mumbled calls of “to the King.” The Earl drained his cup, turned on his heel and marched out of the hall.

William stared in disbelief at the retreating Earl, then turned to Cairns. “He’s not staying?” he asked.

Cairns leaned across the empty chair between them. “No. It seems his Lordship is angry about a missing shipment of food.” William swallowed hard and stared at his empty plate. How much did the Earl know? Had he made an enemy of him as well as Sir Hendrick?

Luckily, the feast chased all dark thoughts away. Footmen brought wave upon wave of food the likes of which William had never seen, smelled or tasted. Slow-roasted lamb; pork braised in cider and honey; baked apples with sharp cheeses; a luscious potato soup. Only the fish remained untouched, as no one wanted to risk it. A different wine was served with every course, and it soon went to William’s head. He had rarely drunk before, and after the third glass he began to wonder why. In this relaxed state he laughed and joked with everybody, even Melissa, their earlier spat as forgotten as the cold wind outside.

The Earl’s absence was hardly noticed. In fact, the banquet was far more enjoyable than his presence would have made it. Before the meal ended the great chair had been shoved to the back of the dais, leaning askew against the wall. After the footmen cleared the last plates they all pushed their seats closer and laughed and talked as the wine flowed. Emma and Sir Kevin joined them on the dais after the freeloaders departed. Jessica surprised them with parting gifts: rain hats made from waterproofed sheepskin. They looked utterly ridiculous and fitted perfectly. “I guarantee they’ll keep your heads dry,” she said. “And won’t let the rain run down your face, either.” She showed them how to pull the side flaps down and tie them under the chin so the hats wouldn’t fly away in the wind. William did as instructed, and even joined in the laughter that followed.

During a quiet moment, William asked his mother when she wanted to go home. “Sir Kevin has graciously offered to escort me,” she said. “Why don’t you ask Melissa to walk with you? She’s all alone here.” William kicked himself for not thinking of it first. Melissa’s face lit up when he offered, and his heart leapt.

Jack tried to catch his eye, but William ignored him as he helped Melissa with her coat. The cold air felt refreshing on his face after the warmth of the hall. The walk back to town began pleasantly, but the wine that loosened his tongue earlier failed him now. He struggled to think of something to say, but before he could think of something Melissa missed her footing on the darkened path and stumbled. William caught her arm before she fell, and on impulse slid his hand down to meet hers. Relief washed over him when she didn’t pull it away.

They walked for a few moments before she broke the silence. “It’s about time, you know.” She held up their clasped hands. “How much more obvious do I need to be with you?”

William sighed and nodded. “I guess I don’t take hints well. Not even obvious ones. Besides…I don’t like rejection, and I wasn’t really sure if you liked me.”

“This might be awkward then. I mean, since we’re both shy.”

“Yeah…”

She giggled. “See? Even now you don’t know what to say to me.”

He groaned and then laughed. “I know. I’m like that with most people, at least until I know them better. And the more something means to me, the more I clam up.”

There was more silence, and then she said, “Okay, that was pretty good.”

William laughed despite his nervousness. Or was it because of it? Perhaps that was the key: humor. Not too much, though…just enough to relieve the tension. That must be why Jack was always joking: it could be quite disarming.

The route she led them on took them to an area of town he rarely frequented. They stopped in front of a gated fence. “This is my place,” she said. He was nervous again; he was supposed to kiss her now—that much he was aware of—and this was not the moment for a joke. Before he could muster the courage she raised a finger. “Wait here, I have something for you.” She opened the gate and disappeared inside.

William scrutinized the house. It was smaller than Jack’s, but much larger than his own. The walls were real baked brick, not cheap mud ones, and not a bit of thatch to be seen. Beams of bright light leaked through shutters into the night; apparently they could afford lamps instead of candle. He looked around, nervous; someone might see him standing here alone, away from where people like him lived, and assume the worst…

Melissa emerged before he could dwell on it for long. She slipped through the gate and handed him a wooden shield, smaller than his father’s had been, just large enough to use as a buckler. “I painted this for you,” she said. In the dim light he could just make out the symbol: a white fist, like his father’s, but holding a golden lantern. “I hope you don’t mind that I changed the symbol a bit. I know your father’s shield had a white fist, but I wanted something different for you, and I thought a lantern would indicate knowledge, and—”

He kissed her. No shyness or doubt could have stopped him at that moment. His arms enveloped her, and pressed the length of her body against his; her hands hesitated, then buried themselves in his hair. He smelled the sweet scent of wine on her warm breath and breathed it in greedily. She shivered; he gripped tighter.

Uncounted minutes later a shaft of light from the house distracted them. “Daddy says you’ve kissed him for long enough, and it’s time to come in.” A young girl stood in the doorway and waved. “Hi, William.”

“Um…hi,” he said.

Melissa hid her face on William’s chest. “King’s teeth…tell me this isn’t happening.”

“I didn’t know you have a sister,” said William.

Melissa nodded and mumbled. “Katie.”

“Hi, Katie,” William said to the girl. She giggled and closed the door.

“I guess I have to go,” said Melissa.

“Me too. We’re leaving at dawn.” He kissed her gently on the forehead. “I’ll be back soon.”

“Stay safe,” she said, her voice quivering. “Use that shield.”

“I will.”

William waited until Melissa closed the door, and then began the long walk across town. His house was cold and dark when he arrived. His mother was not in bed, and her boots and coat were not where they should be. As he built up the kitchen fire, the truth hit him. He wasn’t the only one to find love that night.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

In the early days of Azuria’s colonization, the population was concentrated around the new town of Marshland Crossing. Once the construction of the Library was completed, and the plans for a bridge across the Faywater were abandoned, the population slowly drifted downriver to Faywater Port and other towns along the coast. The shrinking population of Marshland had a cascading effect, and many nearby places experienced a similar decline.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

It was cold and damp, and William shivered as he pulled himself out of bed. The sun had not risen yet, but he felt around in the dark and found everything he needed: his pack, his new shield, and the old bronze sword soon lay ready by his bedroom door. He grabbed some bread and cheese for a quick breakfast and saw his mother’s cloak hanging by the door. She must have come home late; he decided to let her sleep.

William arrived at the Library and found Maya writing at his desk and Charlie packing gear. “How long have you two been here?” he asked.

“I got up early to test the water you brought from the fountain,” said Maya.

“And?”

“You were right to bring it in,” she said. “It was pretty bad.”

“So the poison killed the baby?”

Maya folded the paper and stuffed it into an envelope. “I never examined the poor thing, so I’m not certain. But yes, I’d guess it contributed. I wrote a note for Lester to follow up and have that fountain shut down.” That wouldn’t make those farmers happy. Where would they get their drinking water? And how would they water their crops? But then again, how many more might die if the tainted fountain still flowed?

His office table was covered with equipment, food and clothing. Maya joined Charlie in packing. “Maya, that pack is bigger than you are,” William said. “There’s no way you can carry that.”

“Don’t be silly. Charlie’s going to carry this one.”

William looked at Charlie who grinned back at him sheepishly. “Charlie, can you carry that and still be ready to fight?”

Maya squeezed Charlie’s huge bicep. “Of course he can.”

“How, Charlie?”

“Relax, Will, he does this all the time.”

William wasn’t happy burdening Charlie like an ox, and the fact that Charlie was letting Maya answer for him didn’t comfort William either. But he had to be certain. “Look,” he said, “I don’t want to be rude—”

Maya grumbled. “Fine. Charlie, show him.” She tied the pack shut and handed it to Charlie.

The Guard lifted the huge pack and slung it on the butt end of his spear and rested the spear itself on his shoulder. “We march like this all the time,” he said. Charlie carried the weight easily, and with his hand low on the spear he could shift the pack with ease if needed.

But William still worried whether Charlie could fight off an attacker with the spear weighed down. “What if I attacked you?” he asked. He jumped at Charlie with a pretend stab to the stomach.

Charlie reached over his shoulder and yanked on a strap, and the pack dropped to the floor. Charlie met William’s lunge, the spear point stopping an inch from William’s belly. He quickly lowered the spear as his face turned red. “Sorry, Will. They make us practice that.”

“No problem,” said William his voice shaking slightly. “That’s pretty impressive. Is anything in the pack broken?”

“King’s boots, William,” said Maya. “Of course not. I’ll carry the fragile stuff. I won’t be fighting or hunting, and no one will be more careful with my equipment than me.”

“Okay, okay…sorry I asked.” William avoided Maya’s gaze and looked over the remaining items on the table. Even if Rachel packed lightly, he and Jack could carry the rest. Having Charlie was almost like having a pack animal. Better, in fact, since mules would be useless in a fight.

Jack arrived and surveyed the room. “What did I miss?”

“All the hard work,” said William.

Jack snorted. “Not likely. There’s no way you could finish it all.” He grabbed a few items from the table and shoved them into his pack. He looked around. “Where’s Rachel?”

“Getting Steve,” said Maya.

William scratched his head. “Um…Steve?”

Maya nodded. “Yes, she said for us to meet her at the bottom of the Hill.”

He wanted to ask who Steve was, but he was distracted by Jack who was still jamming things into the pack. “Hey Jack, don’t take it all. I can carry some too.”

“Don’t be dumb,” said Jack. “This one’s yours.” Jack shoved the bag into William’s hands.

“I should have known,” said William as Jack pulled a smaller pack from inside his coat.

Cairns arrived as they finished packing and took William into his office and closed the door. “Remember what I told you, William. You are the leader of this mission. I don’t expect you’ll encounter any danger, but should anything happen, it is vital that Maya return if anyone does. I assume you understand why?”

“I do.”

“Good. Are you fully prepared?”

“Physically, yes.” William hesitated, not certain whether he should speak his mind. Finally he added, “Mentally, I’m not sure. I’m the youngest person in the group. What if they don’t accept me as their leader?”

Cairns put a friendly hand on William’s shoulder. “They already have, William; they agreed to go with you. How much and how well they accept it depends on how well you lead.”

“But they are all better than I am at what they do. Even Jack.”

“So they should be. If they weren’t, you wouldn’t need them. Leadership isn’t about being the best at what needs doing. It’s about knowing what needs to be done.”

The four travelers left the Library, burdened by heavy packs and buoyed by Cairns’ best wishes. As the cold air hit his face, trepidation and exhilaration dueled in William’s mind. For years he had dreamed of going on adventures, imagining the exciting places he would visit and things he would see, but here at the outset of his first adventure he began to question his readiness. Would there be danger? Would he be injured, or perhaps killed? And when would he next enjoy the shelter of a roof and four walls?

Jack caught up to William as they walked down the gravel path. “So, Will…you left early last night. Where did you go?”

William stared straight ahead, ignoring Jack’s grin. “You obviously know. Otherwise you wouldn’t ask.”

“That’s a nice shield. I haven’t seen that one before. Where’d you get it?”

“Jack, I’m not in the mood. Why do you care where I got it?”

Jack’s grin widened as William’s frustration grew more evident. “Hey, I’m just trying to be a friend. Want me to carry some of your stuff? That pack looks kinda heavy.”

“Of course it’s heavy, you idiot; you packed it that way.”

“Well, I could carry that shield for you,” said Jack as he made a grab for it.

William moved the shield out of his friend’s reach. “Shut up, Jack. And leave the shield alone.”

“It’s nice. Where’d you get it?”

“Leave me alone. I can carry my shield and my pack all by myself. I’m fine.”

“Okay, be a grump. But if you ask me, you don’t look fine.”

William glowered at Jack. “Well, I’m not. Not only did you over pack this thing, but it’s off-balance too. And I’m not used to this cloak. It’s too long, and it catches on my sword hilt. And this sword…I wish I had a steel one instead of this bronze hunk of junk.”

“Why didn’t you ask Sir Kevin to lend you a good one?”

“Jack, you don’t ask to borrow another man’s sword, even a spare one. That’s too…personal.”

“Whatever, Grump. You take this sword stuff too seriously. Look, there’s Rachel. I don’t see Steve though.”

Maya called out a greeting to Rachel, who stood at the crossroad waiting for them. Who was Steve anyway, and when would he get here? It offended him that yet another person had joined the group without his being consulted…and then didn’t show up on time. On the other hand, the more people they had the safer they would be. The only downside would be another mouth to feed, which might slow them down. But if he was a hunter like Rachel…

A blur of black and gray distracted him. “Oh, King’s blisters,” he said, his voice shaking with panic.

“What?” asked Jack. “What’s the matter?”

Maya was ahead of them, walking with Charlie. A giant dog bounded from behind a hedge and loped toward Maya, who froze in place. William realized with alarm that Charlie wasn’t reacting to the danger. William dropped his pack and sprinted, though he had no chance of reaching Maya before the beast did. He was still several steps away when the dog lunged toward her face. He launched himself, hoping to push the dog away before it harmed her, but he tripped on his cloak and hit the ground with a painful thump and skidded to a halt. He rolled over to see the dog’s mouth bearing down on his face. He raised his hands to protect himself but the dog pushed its massive head through. William closed his eyes and braced himself for the worst.

The bites never came. Instead, his face dripped with drool as the dog licked him while Rachel and Maya laughed hysterically. Rachel could barely get the words out, “Will, meet Steve. Steve, meet Will.”

“So…Steve is a dog,” said William as he reached up and scratched the hound’s ear.

“Half dog, half wolf.”

“Nicely done, Will,” said Jack as he helped William up. “That could have been Maya’s face being licked. You totally saved her.”

“King’s backside,” said William. “Give me a break.”

“That shield sure worked. It’s a nice one. Where—”

“Don’t say it, Jack.”

“Here’s your pack. Why’s it so heavy?”

He gave Jack a dirty look and turned to Rachel. “Half wolf, you say?”

Rachel stroked Steve’s head as he sat panting beside her. “I had a female hunting dog a few years ago. She got lured away by wolves one night and came back pregnant. Steve was the only pup that survived. Easiest dog I ever trained, smarter than most people I know. So now he’s my only hunting partner.”

William reached out and felt the soft black and tan fur on his back. “He’s beautiful. Where was it?”

She narrowed her eyes at William. “Where was what?”

“I mean, where were you when your other dog got lured away?”

“Somewhere far away,” she said. “You don’t need to worry about wolves around here.”

William turned away slowly. What exactly was her problem, anyway? He was just trying to get to know her, after all. Still, he knew better than to push the matter, especially after the lecture Cairns had given him. If she chose not to reveal her past, that was her business. As long as she did her job and didn’t risk the mission in any way he couldn’t complain. Besides, Maya trusted Rachel, and he trusted Maya. Even so, it made him uncomfortable to depend on someone who had secrets to hide.

Jack interrupted the awkward silence. “So which way are we going?”

“We’re going upstream,” said William. “What did you think?”

“I mean do we stay on this side, or cross the river? The south side looks easier to travel on. Why don’t we take a barge across?”

William lifted his pack onto his shoulders. “We’ve worked it out already, Jack. Did you think we didn’t plan this?”

“We have to stay on this side,” said Maya. “There are lots of streams running into the river from the north. That’s what makes this area so marshy.”

“But that’s my point,” said Jack. “We can go faster on the other side because it’s bare rock and sand.”

Maya shook her head. “We need to test each stream as we cross it. The river is too wide for us to test from the other side, and it might be impossible to cross the river when we need to.”

Rachel patted her bow. “The hunting will be better on this side too.”

“We’ve planned everything already, Jack,” said William.

“Well, sorry for trying to help,” said Jack. William clenched his teeth. As much as he respected and admired his friend, he was tired of Jack’s attempts to control everything. Was it wise to let Jack continue? Sure, he would be an asset, but would they still be friends at the end? He wouldn’t have much time to decide; if they went too far, it would be too late to send Jack home.

Jack lagged behind as they trudged through the muddy ground. It wasn’t until they reached the first major stream that Jack appeared to get over his hurt feelings. Maya unpacked her equipment, and as William and Charlie had done before, Jack displayed great interest in the process. “How do you test the water?” he asked her.

“Well,” said Maya as she prepared to lecture. “If I were back home, I’d use a flame test. I’d boil the water to concentrate it, then I would soak a splint in it. After it dried I would burn it and the color would tell me what was in it.”

“Why don’t you do that now?”

“It takes too long. Besides, I’ve devised a shortcut based on the fact that the poison appears to be acidic. Not as acidic as vinegar, but enough that it reacts when I add one of these.” She showed them a tiny white tablet. “This is a strong base, the opposite of an acid. Acidic water will foam when I do this.” She dropped the tablet into the sample of water and waited a moment. “No reaction. So no poison.”

“Very cool,” said Jack in an awed whisper. “So it’s safe to drink?” He cupped water from the stream with his hands and brought it to his mouth.

“I didn’t test it for germs,” she said as she picked up her pack and walked away. William laughed at the look of surprise on Jack’s face as he stopped mid-slurp. Jack tossed the remaining water in William’s face in retaliation. Apparently he wasn’t sulking anymore.

They made good progress along an abandoned road. This area had been cleared for farming decades earlier, but only grass and reeds remained now. The grass grew tall, even this late in winter, but the river’s edge was bare. Maya explained it was probably due to the river’s acidity. Normally the river banks would be covered in the same weeds that plagued the docks in Marshland Crossing, but now there was only mud.

They reached the woods by mid-afternoon. Here was the edge of civilization, where human activity ended and the world of wild things began. William had never crossed that boundary before, and it gave him a strange sensation, not entirely bad. He was probably the only one in the group who had never done so, and once again he wondered why Cairns had named him the leader of this mission.

Rachel’s prediction of better hunting proved accurate. She shot three pheasants in quick succession, and William admired both her shooting and the disciplined way Steve flushed and retrieved the birds.

They made camp in late afternoon. Rachel prepared the birds while Maya led the others in a foraging expedition. William understood hunting, even if he wasn’t a hunter himself, but foraging was something he knew nothing about. He was glad to have an expert to learn from. “What exactly are we looking for?” he asked.

“Edible roots,” said Maya. “There’s not much growing above ground yet.”

“So how do we know which ones we can eat?”

“There’s a simple rule you can follow,” she said. “It’s completely fail-safe.”

“Really? What is it?” He leaned forward, eager to know the secret.

“If I point to a plant and say ‘we can eat that’, you’ll know it’s safe to eat.” Jack laughed as William’s mouth hung open. Maya continued. “Will, there’s no way I can teach you everything I know all at once. You’ll learn with experience, the same as everyone else.”

William looked sheepishly at the ground. “No, I know that.”

“Seriously, Will. It took me years to learn what I know, and I still needed to do more research at the Library to find out what grows inland. Like those, for instance.” Maya pointed to a thick mat of green leaves floating in a gentle part of a stream.

“Those look like lily pads,” said Jack.

“Close, but not quite,” said Maya. “Here, Will. Go through this book and tell me what they are.” She handed William a book he recognized as the one Melissa had worked on. As he turned the pages he almost forgot what he was looking for. He came to a page with the most delicate, beautiful flower he had ever seen, in either real life or on paper. His fingers traced the flower’s outline, the gentle curves reminding him of how his hand had felt on the small of her back only a few hours earlier.

“Well done! You found it.” Maya grabbed the book and startled William out of his daydream. “These are lotus flowers. They don’t bloom this time of year, but we can still get the roots from the mud at the bottom. And by ‘we’, I mean you guys, of course.”

Jack and William grumbled as they removed their cloaks and rolled up their sleeves. Charlie did so in silence. As they reached into the frigid water to feel for roots, Maya continued her lecture. “These were considered sacred plants in India, back on Earth. They called it ‘Padma.’”

“Hey!” said Jack. “My ancestors were from India.”

“I thought you were Gypsy?” said William.

“Both. Besides, Gypsies supposedly came from India. Or so my dad says.”

“Anyway,” said Maya, as she tapped her foot on the ground.

“Maya,” said Jack. “We’re positively dying to learn more about the lotus plant. Could you please tell us more?”

She ignored his sarcasm. “They considered the lotus sacred because it symbolized great beauty escaping the foul mud.”

“Big deal. It’s just a flower,” said Jack as he pulled another root from the stream.

Maya took the root from Jack and placed it with the others. “It may be just a flower, but it has special meaning for us, too. When we see these growing on the banks of the Faywater again, we’ll know the poison is gone.”

With both pheasant and lotus roots in hand, it fell to Maya to cook their evening meal. William’s mother was a good cook, but when he tasted the pheasant he had to admit Maya was at least her equal. The others were equally impressed, and Maya basked in the praise they heaped on her. “I like to experiment,” she said, with just a bit of humility. Charlie especially enjoyed it, and put away three helpings. William was alarmed by the display of gluttony. If he ate like this all the time they would waste a lot of time hunting and foraging. Maya took it as a compliment, though.

Maya’s hidden talent surprised William, but Charlie’s shocked him. After the meal was devoured and the pot licked clean by Steve, Charlie pulled a flute from his pack and played. Nothing about Charlie suggested to William that he might have any attributes other than size and appetite. But there it was: the man could play. Everyone clapped and sang along, and William even dared hope that Charlie wasn’t just a big, dumb oaf after all.

Eventually they tired, and William looked for a secluded spot to relieve himself before unpacking his bedroll. As he finished he was startled by a sound behind him. Charlie had come looking for him. “Will, can I ask you something?”

“Sure, Charlie. What do you need?”

Charlie was fidgeting, and looked torn. What could be so difficult to bring up? After a moment he broke the silence. “Can I take the first watch?”

So that was it. Charlie, the experienced Guard, was embarrassed to have to remind William to set watches. Rather than say so directly, he had made it sound like he was asking for a favor, sparing William his own embarrassment. Yes, there was more to this quiet giant than first impression suggested. “Of course,” said William, playing along with the ruse.

“Thank you,” said Charlie with more relief in his voice than seemed reasonable. William searched Charlie’s face for clues, and the gentle giant seemed to crack a little under the scrutiny. “It’s…it’s the dark. I don’t like being the only one awake.” Charlie looked at his feet while William stood in stunned silence. This was the protection Mattice had given them? A Guard who was afraid of the dark? William remembered his meeting with Mattice and finally understood what had happened. It was too late to do anything about it now. If they returned it would look like a failure, especially since they had only been gone a day. No—he would succeed or fail with the resources he had, even if one of those resources was more likely to starve them than protect them.

“Fine,” said William, not quite hiding the anger in his voice. “I’ll set the watch schedule. Thank you for reminding me.” He wasn’t sure why he added that last comment, since it let Charlie save face. It wasn’t as though William felt generous towards him, but it kept the peace. He took the second watch himself, and assigned Jack the third and Rachel the last. He refused to give Maya a watch, telling her she could stay awake if she wanted, but not alone. No one argued with him, or asked why he was angry.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

Although any original literature describing the pre-Colonization efforts of Esperanza has long since been lost, it is known that most flora and all fauna are actually native to Earth. In a process called “terraforming,” species were introduced in reverse order of predation, beginning with plants and followed by herbivores, omnivores, and finally apex predators. Where humankind has not yet settled on this world, a natural balance presumably still remains.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

William sat near the fire, his bare feet propped up on a log. The last two weeks had been agony. His legs weren’t sore anymore; he had gotten over that in three days. But the blisters still pained him, despite Maya’s expert treatments. “Your feet are developing calluses,” she said. “These should be the last ones you get.”

“Feet?” he asked. “I should hope so.”

“Blisters, silly.” She bandaged his foot and handed him a cup. “Drink this,” she said. He winced as he swallowed the bitter brew. It was hard to force down, but without it he couldn’t sleep, let alone walk, and he cringed at the thought of what the others must think of him.

“I can understand a Librarian getting blisters,” said Rachel. “But what’s your excuse, Mister World Traveler?” She gave Jack’s shoulder a playful punch.

“I’ll have you know I travel by ship most of the time,” said Jack. “I may not be tough in the boots, but I can ride out a storm, and I never get seasick.”

“A lot of good that does you on dry land,” said Rachel.

“Well, I’ve ridden horses, too.”

Rachel laughed. “Which makes you tough in the—”

“Also, I’ve ridden in plenty of carts and carriages. Not much walking, though.”

“Wimp,” said Rachel. “Why not have your servants carry you?”

Jack shook his head. “Now that would just be showing off.”

William closed his eyes and retreated into his thoughts. He preferred to be left alone, at least until Maya’s medicine took effect, but Charlie chose this moment to sit beside him. William fought an impulse to pretend to be asleep. He opened his eyes and gave the Guard a reluctant smile.

Charlie looked at William’s feet. “Don’t worry. It gets better.”

William let out a deep sigh. “Are you sure, Charlie? It doesn’t feel like it. If anything, it’s worse than yesterday.”

“Same thing happened to me on my first patrol. It happens to all the recruits. It lasts for a while, then one day you stop getting blisters.”

William groaned. “Please, for love of the King, let that day be tomorrow.” Rationally, he knew his blisters would eventually go away. But what about Charlie’s malady? Pain…that was reasonable to avoid. But how strange and unsettling it was that someone could be afraid of something so intangible as mere darkness, and Charlie only made it worse every time he tried to ingratiate himself to William. He had sought William’s approval ever since his admission that first night, and William could not bring himself to grant it. But he was the leader of this expedition, at least in name. He couldn’t just ignore one of the team, no matter what he thought of him. “At least the rain’s stopped,” he said.

Charlie nodded, happy to get the attention. “Sergeant Hawkins says dry feet are healthy feet.”

“Rain or no rain, my feet will be wet, Charlie. These old boots won’t keep out the morning dew, let alone creek-water.”

“Maybe I could waterproof them for you. I’ll ask Maya if there’s leftover grease from the pheasants.”

“That’s kind of you to offer, Charlie, but it’s not worth the effort. They’re worn through in too many places. I’d be happy if the water wasn’t so cold though. Shouldn’t it be getting warmer now that the rains have stopped? Back home they must be planting the first crops by now, but I don’t remember it ever being this cold at sowing time.”

“We’re gaining altitude, Will,” said Rachel, who had overheard him. “It’s colder up here, especially at night. I thought you went to school.”

“Oh right…I forgot,” he said, blushing again. It was true they had climbed a fair bit. The trees had thinned out, and the ground was rockier, and fewer streams flowed into the river. They tested the river water at the bottom of each set of rapids they passed, and still the water was foul. Their destination, wherever it might be, was still upstream, but how much farther could they go? Blisters were not the only thing holding them back. Game was getting harder to find, and they’d gone through much of their preserves. Charlie’s appetite threatened to make short work of those, so they were forced to slow down while Rachel did her best to provide fresh meat, augmented by the occasional lucky find while foraging.

“This is strange,” Rachel said one day. “There’s nothing to hunt, but there’s signs of wolves all around us.”

“How can you tell?” asked Jack.

“Well, if the droppings weren’t a clear sign, there’s the fact that Steve has been sniffing at every stump we’ve passed. Also, I heard them howling last night on my watch.”

William glared at her. “Wolves? Last night? Don’t you think you should have mentioned that earlier?”

Rachel looked confused. “Huh? Why? What good would it do?”

“It might help to be prepared, don’t you think?” He was incredulous. One person was afraid to stand watch in the dark, and another didn’t even alert the others to danger. How could he possibly lead a team of people who wouldn’t do their jobs? It was more than he could stand, and he wasn’t about to back down.

Rachel stared back at him, and spoke through clenched teeth. “Fine. Next time I hear something at night, should I wake you? Or can it wait until morning?”

“Morning. Unless there’s immediate danger. Obviously.”

Rachel shook her head and walked away, grumbling under her breath.

“Nicely done, Will,” said Jack.

William threw his hands up. “What on Esper did I do?”

“You insulted her professional integrity, Will. That’s like me telling you to mind your spelling. Rachel knows her job. She’ll tell you when there’s something to worry about. Besides, she told me about the wolves when I took over the watch.”

“So you both held out on me? That’s just great.” He felt a knot in his throat so tight that it choked him. Was there no way he could earn their respect? All he had wanted was to be ready for whatever dangers were lurking in the darkness, but instead he had just driven a wedge between Rachel and himself. Maya might be mad at him too, since she was Rachel’s friend. And if Jack was sweet on Rachel, he wouldn’t likely show William much support either, best friend or not. And as for Charlie…no, it was probably best not to think about Charlie at all.

The tension lasted the next day and well into the one that followed. Jack was the only person willing to talk to everyone, and he was forced to act as a go-between. Fortunately, Maya’s prediction that he would get no more blisters proved correct, so at least he didn’t have to endure another awkward bandaging session.

Rachel’s prediction was less accurate. Their first warning was Steve’s antics. At first he simply growled and stared, but when he began whining Rachel drew an arrow. “Guys,” she said, pointing where Steve was looking. “Over there.”

Several gaunt-looking wolves emerged from behind the trees, with low growls and bared teeth. “Charlie,” William said. “Stay with Maya, don’t let her get hurt.” William joined Rachel and Steve where they faced the approaching beasts, pulled his sword and readied his shield. Jack stood on her other side, holding a steel dagger that shook violently. The four of them formed a wall between the approaching beasts in front of them, and Maya and Charlie behind them.

“Don’t show any fear,” said Rachel. William found it hard to follow those instructions, but he took a couple of deep breaths to calm himself as the three wolves spread out. One lunged toward Rachel but retreated when an arrow glanced off its skull. A second started toward her, but changed direction and jumped at William. His shield blocked the snapping jaws, but the beast’s weight knocked him down. He rolled onto his back and lifted his shield to protect himself, but the attacking wolf flopped lifeless to the ground, impaled by Charlie’s spear. Steve had somehow pinned the third wolf to the ground by the throat; it submitted and did not fight back. The first wolf, alone now, darted into the woods. Rachel drew her bow and aimed at the captive wolf.

Maya jumped in front of the wolf and held up her hands. “Rachel, no! Please, let it go.” Rachel looked at her in disbelief. Maya’s voice shook, but she held firm. “It’s given up, right?” Rachel hesitated, then relaxed her bow and called Steve back. The wolf scrambled to its feet and raced away to find its remaining companion.

William exhaled in relief. “Is anyone hurt?” he asked as he staggered to his feet. He was shaking, partly from fear, but also from a primal instinct that insisted he chase down the wolves. He hadn’t even swung his sword, let alone drawn blood, but the battle-lust was hard to resist. Luckily, no one was injured. It could easily have been otherwise, and William knew who to thank. “Charlie, that was an amazing throw! I thought I was a goner.” The big man beamed with pride, and he looked every inch the warrior as he withdrew the bloody spear from the carcass. “How in the King’s name did you learn to throw like that?” William asked.

Charlie looked up in puzzlement and shrugged. “They give us lessons.”

William stifled a laugh, not wanting to embarrass the man, especially after he had just saved William’s life. His simple answer seemed absurd in the gravity of the moment, and the others had trouble keeping straight faces as well. Maya suppressed a giggle and covered her mouth. Charlie looked around at the others and finally smiled and rolled his eyes. The tension was broken. The fear from the attack and the anger of the past two days erupted in laughter. They continued for several moments, tears stinging their eyes. When it subsided Maya hugged Charlie and said, “thank you.” Charlie put his arm around her, and she buried her head in his chest, reminding William of stories about conquering heroes and rescued maidens. Charlie was an unlikely hero, but no less deserving for that.

William doubled the watches after the attack. They traveled less to make up for lost sleep, and poor hunting slowed them further, but at the end of their third week their luck finally turned. They stumbled onto a cave that Rachel inspected and declared free of any sign of wolves. Nearby was a small lake that was practically infested with ducks. It was the perfect opportunity to rest and replenish their food.

Steve loved the water, and even when he wasn’t hunting ducks with Rachel he ran and frolicked in the shallows. Everyone else took turns dipping into the lake to rid themselves of nearly a month’s worth of stink. Rachel hunted ducks at her leisure, never straying far from the camp. Jack followed her most of the time, and though she appeared exasperated, even William saw that it was only a token resistance.

William enjoyed duck even more than pheasant, which was good, because they had a lot of it and not much of anything else. They kept a slow fire inside the cave and replenished their stores with dried meat, and at Rachel’s suggestion they made torches with rendered fat for defense against further wolf attacks.

It was a restful time. William realized they had needed it badly. It wasn’t just the time and distance they had traveled, nor the need for food. The attack had frightened them, and a few days of bonding after such a close call would do them good. Their evening meals took on a festive air, complete with music and singing. Late on the third evening, after a large supper in which he attempted—and failed—to outdo Charlie, William went outside to relieve himself. He squatted behind a tree and listened to the gentle sounds around him. He could hear the faint duck calls from the lake, the wind in the branches above him, and the snapping of twigs.

A cold sweat broke out on his brow. Twigs don’t snap on their own. He quickly fastened his pants and reached for weapons that weren’t there. Both sword and shield were back in the cave, and at least a dozen eyes glowed in the dark that surrounded him.

The first hit came from behind; a scrawny wolf snuck in from his side and bit deep into the flesh of his thigh. He cried out, calling for the others to alert them to the attack. A second wolf slammed into him and clamped its jaws on his arm, it claws scraping at his chest. He struggled to stay upright; if he fell, he was dead. He caught a breath and yelled for help again. Before the words left his mouth Steve shot from behind him and crashed into the wolf on his arm, tearing it away. The blow knocked William over, and as he fell to the ground the other wolf released his leg and snapped at his throat. The scrawny beast bared its fangs and lunged forward for the kill, but before it reached him it was skewered and thrown clear, Charlie’s spear embedded in its side. William staggered to his feet to help as the others ran to him with torches blazing, but his leg buckled and he collapsed in agony. The last thing he saw was Jack standing over him, waving torches at any wolf who dared come near. He heard the thrum of a bow and whistle of arrows being fired, and the growls and yelps of wolves.

He blacked out. At first it was just pain, agony so deep and all-consuming that it blinded him to any other sensation. Later he felt himself being moved, followed by a sensation he’d never had before, like his body was drifting away. He dreamed he was floating downstream in water reeking with poison that paralyzed his arms and legs, and burned his skin. He craned his neck to keep his face above water as he drifted toward the bank, aided only by the lazy current. His hands touched the bottom; he labored to get out, but the mud held him fast. He looked up to see bared fangs and snapping jaws, but the waiting wolves slowly morphed into the faces of Oz Domnall and his gang. He raised his arms to ward off the expected attack, but none came. Still frightened, he slowly lowered his arms. His enemies had vanished, and in their place stood lotuses, millions of lotuses, lining the river bank as far as he could see. Heart lifted, he rose from the riverbed, clean and pure, without a mark on his body. Melissa waited for him on the soft grass beside the water. She reached for him, and he bent over to kiss her…

He woke to the sound of Maya and Rachel talking. “It was my fault,” said Rachel. “I should have known. No, I actually did know. I knew something was different, anyway, and I didn’t say anything. Instead I just got mad at him.”

“But you do know your job,” said Maya.

“Apparently not. We were attacked twice, and everything I know tells me that shouldn’t have happened even once.”

“Your job is to provide food. That’s all you were hired for. You’ve done that and more.”

“Don’t give me that, Maya. My job is more than that. You told me you needed someone with experience in the wild. That includes staying safe from other predators.”

“Well, stop beating yourself over it.”

William stayed quiet, hoping Rachel might reveal something. He felt guilty listening like this, but it might be his only chance to learn something about her. That she felt responsible for the attack made it easier on his conscience.

“So what do you think happened?” asked Maya.

“What do you mean?”

“You said wolves never attack people.”

“They don’t. Unless you get near their den.”

“But they did. Like you said, twice. And it’s too much of a coincidence to run into two different dens. So what’s going on? You said you noticed something was different and that you didn’t say anything. So what was different?”

Rachel drew a heavy breath. “Okay. I didn’t want to alarm anyone, because there’s nothing we could have done about it anyway. But there’s nowhere near enough animals here. Prey animals, I mean.”

“We found lots of ducks.”

“Sure, but there should be other animals too; I saw plenty of tracks. We should have seen deer in the forest, and sheep and goats here. I haven’t even seen any rabbits either, but there’s plenty of rabbit holes around.”

“I haven’t seen any.”

“You weren’t looking for them.”

“True.”

Rachel drew another breath, and her voice quivered as she continued. “Wolves wouldn’t live here unless there was prey. But whatever they hunted before is gone now. And that’s made them desperate.”

“Gone? Why? Does it have something to do with the river?”

“No, we would have seen the bodies if they’d been poisoned.”

“So what happened?”

“Something else is hunting here. And whatever it is, I haven’t seen a single sign of it.”

William’s skin turned cold. A creature Rachel didn’t know? Anything that could hunt a region bare and remain unseen and unknown to an expert tracker must be dangerous. He shifted his legs to get rid of the stiffness, and gasped as pain shot through the length of his body.

“He’s awake,” said Rachel. Despite his pain he heard the relief in her voice, and the concern on Maya’s face was clear even in the dim firelight.

“What time is it?” he asked.

“The moon is nearly full,” said Maya.

“Only midnight? I guess I wasn’t out as long as I thought.” He caught a look passed between the two women. “What?” he asked, uncertain if he wanted the answer.

“You were out for two days,” Maya said.

“You’re lucky, mister. This woman is a magician,” said Rachel. “She kept you alive so I could strangle you myself for going out there alone—”

“What Rachel means is she should have warned you about the wolves, and she’s sorry—”

“No, Maya,” said William. “It’s my fault. They attacked before. It doesn’t matter what wasn’t said…I should have realized there could have been another attack. I was dumb to go out there alone and unarmed.”

“See? That’s what I told ya,” said Maya to Rachel.

“Anyway, Maya saved your life. She cleaned the wound and stitched your leg, and did some other doctor stuff.”

William tried to remember the details of the attack. “I’m pretty sure you all saved my life. I remember Charlie impaled the one on top of me, and Jack waved torches at anything that came near me. If you hadn’t thought of making torches, we’d all be…hang on…Steve! What happened to Steve?” William sat up and looked around, remembering it was Rachel’s dog that had pulled the first wolf off him.

“Lie down, Will,” said Maya as she laid a firm hand on his shoulder. “You can’t stand on that leg yet.”

“Where’s Steve?” asked William again.

Rachel pointed. “He’s beside you. Calm down, you’re still not well.”

William couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen Steve, lying so close that they almost touched. “His legs are bandaged. What happened to him?”

“A couple of bites, is all. He’s fine,” said Rachel.

Steve wagged his tail. William stroked the dog’s head, and had his hand licked in response. “Then why is he lying here?”

Rachel laughed. “He hasn’t left your side since the attack. The stupid mutt’s supposed to be loyal to me, not you.”

Maya held a steaming cup to his lips. “This will help you sleep. Don’t argue; you still need to rest. I’ll look at your leg in the morning. I checked it an hour or so ago, and I didn’t notice any infection, but I need to see it in the light to be sure.”

“Hey! Why don’t I have any pants on?”

“Don’t be silly. I had to stitch your leg.”

“Oh. I guess that makes sense. Anyway…thanks.”

She touched his forehead with a reassuring hand. “Get some rest.”

He snuggled beside Steve and wrapped his arm around the dog’s chest and closed his eyes. A moment later he bolted upright. “Maya…was anyone else hurt?”

“Everyone’s fine, Will. Go to sleep.”

William slept until daylight and awoke refreshed. Jack fussed over him as Maya checked the wound. Once again he was compelled to thank Charlie for saving his life. Charlie took the compliment in bashful silence.

Maya insisted he stay off the leg for two days. He was confined to the cave, since he couldn’t move quickly if the wolves attacked again. The others went about their business in the sunshine while he stayed inside, frustrated at his lack of activity. Even faithful Steve abandoned him for the pleasures of early highland spring.

He grew restless. He took advantage of the fact that no one was around to scold him, and leaned against the cave wall and pushed himself upright. Maya was not wrong about his leg. He could barely put any weight on it as he shuffled toward the back of the cave. Maybe a little exertion would help it heal faster.

As he reached the back wall he saw an opening they hadn’t noticed before, hidden in the shadows, away from the firelight. He struggled back to the fire and lit a torch. It was tricky business getting back to the opening; twice he almost added burns to his list of injuries, but he made it to the opening and squeezed through. What he saw made him forget the pain in his leg.

Jack’s voice came from the cave entrance. “Will, where are you?”

“Back here.”

“What are you doing up? Maya will be furious with you.”

“Never mind that, Jack. Look at this.”

Jack poked his head into the opening. “King’s knees! Bones, broken spears, arrows…”

“What’s that on the wall?” asked William. He held the torch near the rock surface, illuminating an array of markings drawn in what looked to be charcoal.

“I’ve seen symbols like those before. My dad says travelers use them to leave messages for each other. These are different, though…bandits, I bet.”

“Or worse,” said William, remembering Rachel’s comment about unseen predators.

“What do you mean, worse? I’d rather face wolves than bandits any day.”

William hobbled back to the fire. “We need to get ready to leave. Go get the others.”

Jack stood fast. “Will, you can’t travel on that leg.”

“We don’t have any choice. Go back and look at that garbage. How much dust is there on it?”

“I saw. Some of it’s recent. So what? You can’t walk.”

“Do you want to be here when they get back, whoever they are?”

Jack thought for a moment. “Fine,” he said. “But we’re going back to town.”

“Not a chance. We still—”

“Are you insane, Will? There’s no chance you can carry on.”

“Jack, think about it. If I can walk back, I can walk forward just as easily.”

“Yes, but then we’ll be farther from town.”

“I know that. I’m not an idiot.”

“Are you sure about that?” Jack was yelling now. “Every step takes us farther from safety. And for what?”

“I was given a job to do, and until I am finished or completely unable to do it, I’m going to keep trying.”

“Forget it, Will! I’m not letting you do this.”

“King’s teeth, Jack, shut up!” It was William’s turn to yell. “You may be my best friend, perhaps my only real friend in the world. But I’m tired of you deciding things for me. This is my job. Not yours. You invited yourself on this escapade because you thought it would be a lark, or maybe because you wanted to chase Rachel halfway across Azuria. If you want to go back, then go. I won’t stop you. But the rest of us have a mission, and until I say otherwise, we’re going on.”

Jack stared back at William, and then toward the cave entrance. The rest of the group stood at the cave entrance in dumbfounded shock at William’s outburst. Jack snorted. ”Well, look who’s all grown up now.” He pushed past William and stomped out of the cave. Rachel followed after him.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

A thorough land survey of Esperanza’s continents was completed during the terraforming process. These records were understandably lost during the rush of Colonization, with the result that contemporary maps lack detail and accuracy. Today’s most respected map-makers are still unable to include Eastern Azuria, Ibyca’s northern coastline, or the uninhabited continents that have gone unseen for centuries. Even inland travelers are sometimes surprised by features not recorded in these records.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

“Can’t we wait here at least one day? Your leg needs time to heal,” said Maya.

William shook his head as he packed. “We don’t know how many bandits there are, but I’m sure they are all experienced fighters. If I have trouble walking, you’d better believe I’ll have trouble fighting. Tell her, Charlie.”

Charlie nodded. “We’re a target here.”

Rachel came into the cave with Jack in tow. “Will, Jack has something he wants say to you.”

Jack’s scowl made it clear he wanted no such thing, and he stood in the entrance staring at his boots as he scuffed the ground around him. Prompted by Rachel with a punch to the shoulder, he said, “Here. I made this for you.” He tossed William a branch he had hacked and carved into a makeshift crutch.

“Perfect height,” said William as leaned on it and hobbled around gingerly.

“What else, Jack,” said Rachel.

“I’d like to continue on the mission with you,” said Jack, looking at everything except William. “That is, if I’m welcome.”

“Of course you are,” said William. “Why wouldn’t you be?”

Jack looked to Rachel who simply said, “Keep going.”

Jack kicked at the dirt until he could no longer hold it in. “You’re an idiot, Will,” he said. “But you’re an honorable one,” he added before Rachel could punch him again. “And I’m sorry about what I said, about…you know.”

“I know,” said William. “And you’re a clown. But you’re not a stupid one. And I meant what I said, about…you know.”

“I know,” said Jack.

An awkward silence filled the cave as everyone looked at each other.

“Well, I feel better,” said Jack. “Don’t you?”

William laughed at Jack’s mock innocence; it was impossible to stay mad at him when he played the fool. “Much better, thanks. Aside from this bite on my leg.”

Rachel shook her head in exasperation. William knew she thought Jack had shortchanged him on his apology, but she didn’t know Jack the way he did. The crutch was the real apology, and he was certain Jack had made it before Rachel scolded him. His words were no more than adornment to his action.

The crutch came in handy. Without it William would have slowed everyone down. The ground became rockier as they gained altitude, and walking became much more precarious. They were often well above the river now, the water having cut deep gorges through the undulating highland terrain. Where the ground was level the river made slow, wide turns around dark, sandy banks. Two days after leaving the cave they stopped testing the water because the banks were too high and steep. The few streams they crossed were clean.

William tolerated the agony as well as he could. Most of the time he stared at the ground, his eyes unfocused, following the sound of his friends’ footsteps in a daze, practically unaware of his surroundings. He didn’t realize how little attention he was paying until he bumped into Jack. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Why did everyone stop?”

Jack pointed. “We’re blocked.” A massive wall of rock barred their way upstream. He looked hopefully across the river, but the current was too fast to cross. Besides, the wall was just as high and sheer on the south side. The only opening in the cliff was where the river rushed through it, and there was no way they could make progress through that torrent.

“We’ll have to scout a way up on this side,” said William. “King’s boots, I wish we brought some rope.”

Rachel peered up to the top of the wall. “I don’t see anything up there to attach a rope to.”

Maya grabbed William’s arm. “Someone else will have to do the scouting, Will. You sit and rest until I say otherwise. I don’t care who attacks us, you aren’t moving.”

“No argument from me; I can barely move. But you aren’t going either. And that means Charlie stays too.”

Rachel sighed and turned to Jack. “There’s no getting away from you, is there?” she asked.

“Lucky you. You can help me save the day,” said Jack.

“Me help you? Who’s the expert here?”

Their voices faded as the pair disappeared into the thick growth, and William chuckled to himself. Finally able to relax, he contemplated the vast landscape sprawled out before him. Compared to the flat, marshy plains where he had spent his whole life, this place was rocky and rugged. He marveled at the cliff that blocked their way, and at how immense and almost artificial it looked. He had a vague understanding of how rivers could change the land; the gorge beside him was a perfect example. But this wall defied understanding.

Maya seemed to read his thoughts. “There must have been a huge quake here some time ago. Either this side dropped, or the other side was raised. I’ve seen other places where something like this happened, but not this spectacular.”

William looked around nervously. “Could it happen again?” he asked. “If we’re stuck here whenever another—”

Maya laughed. “No, no…it happened a long time ago, probably millions of years. If this was recent the river would be falling from above us, but it’s had time to cut a channel further upstream. In fact, I’m willing to bet there’s a waterfall somewhere upstream from here.”

They sat in silence as they waited for Jack and Rachel. The afternoon sun shone on the rock face behind William, and he soaked in the reflected warmth. How long he had been cold, wet or both? He fell into a blissful sleep, not waking until he heard Jack’s voice. “Stop hogging the glory, Rachel. I’m the one who found it.”

“All you did was climb a tree and point,” Rachel said. “I’m the one who actually checked it out.”

“I’m pretty sure Steve made it up there before you did.”

“You didn’t go up there at all.”

“I delegated. Ouch! Will, I am pleased to report that I discovered a way up the ridge about a half mile north of here. Rachel will tell you she found it, but you can’t believe anything she says.”

“Jack is handsome,” she said.

“Except that.”

Rachel narrowed her eyes at Jack, and a sly smile spread across her face. “Jack is half a genius, and very possibly competent at a few things.”

“And…I actually don’t know how to respond to that.”

“Jack at a loss for words,” said William. “Well done, Rachel; I’ve never managed that. The way up you found—is it safe?”

“It’ll be tough on your leg,” said Rachel. “But the path is wide enough.”

“No, I mean…that’s good, but I meant did you see any signs of other people? Bandits or otherwise?”

Rachel and Jack looked at each other and shook their heads.

“Okay, we should leave now, or we won’t make it to the top before dark. Am I done resting, Maya?”

Maya shook her head and shrugged. “It’ll have to do, I guess.”

“Good. We can’t spend the night — ow! King’s blisters, that hurts. It must have stiffened up.”

“Can you walk?” asked Jack.

“Let me look,” said Maya, who pulled at his trousers without waiting for a response. William lowered them to reveal the wound, which had grown red and swollen. “No pus. And it doesn’t stink. But I don’t like the looks of it. I’ll change the bandage, but as soon as we get to the top I want to get a closer look.”

“How much closer do you need to be?” asked William as he pulled up his pants.

Maya glared at him. “I stuck my hand inside it once, mister. I can go deeper if you like.”

“No, that’s okay,” said William, recoiling from the fire in her eyes. “Sorry, I’m just tired and sore. We all are.” William’s leg loosened as they trudged along the wall, but the pain remained. When they reached the path William’s heart sunk. It was steep enough to challenge a person with two strong legs; he doubted he could climb it without help. The path was too narrow to have someone to walk beside him, and the last thing he or anyone needed was to tumble down a cliff.

“Are you sure there’s no other way?” he asked.

“You can make it,” Jack said. “There’s trees on both sides of the path. You can use them for balance and to pull yourself forward.”

“Not the whole way,” said Rachel. “The top part is bare rock and dirt. Nothing to hold on to.”

William stared at the cliff in despair. He would have to pull himself up somehow or they would be stuck here another day. He hated the idea of camping this close to the cave, even more than he disliked the idea of falling off the cliff. He cursed himself again for not bringing a rope. He might walk on all fours, or even climb crab-style, but no matter what position he took he would still need to push with both his legs. A crutch was no substitute for a leg when it came to climbing.

“I can carry you,” said Charlie.

William stared in disbelief. “Are you sure?”

“I carried my dad once. He’s bigger than you.”

“Did you carry him up a hill?” asked Rachel.

Charlie hung his head and said, “No.” He added nothing to convince them, and hope faded in everyone’s eyes. Even Maya said nothing.

William wasn’t willing to give up. If Charlie was his only hope, then so be it. “Charlie, if you say you can do it, I believe you.” He got the result he wanted: pride filled the big man’s face as the others added their encouragement.

“Jack will carry your pack,” said Rachel.

“I will? Ouch! Charlie, let me carry your pack.” Jack rubbed his arm where Rachel had punched him.

William climbed onto Charlie’s back, and Charlie lifted him with ease. Using his spear for balance, Charlie began the ascent. Steve raced up the path with ease, and the others, even without the advantage of four legs, climbed rapidly and were quickly out of sight. Charlie stopped twice to rest before tackling difficult sections, but at no time did William doubt they would reach the top. Soon they passed through a narrow gap between two large rocks at the top of the path.

Charlie froze; William gasped and gripped his sword-hilt. Three dirty, ragged men had taken them by surprise. A hairy ape of a man nearly as large as Charlie, but meaner looking, held a knife to Maya’s throat. No wonder they hadn’t called out to warn them. Rachel had tossed her bow aside and held Steve beside her. Another man was searching through their packs; the third approached William and Charlie, his short, crooked knife aimed at their bellies. “Drop your weapon, big boy, or the girl gets her throat cut open.”

Charlie did as instructed. William slid down Charlie’s back, hiding his sword from view. He hoped their attackers would dismiss him as an invalid, having seen Charlie carry him in; any advantage was worth trying for.

Maya’s captor turned to his colleague rifling through their bags. “I thought you said there was five of them,” he said.

“There is five. These four and the dog,” said his scrawny colleague. William looked around and could not see Jack anywhere. His heart pounded as he realized his friend had somehow eluded these men. His left hand hovered near his sword hilt, still hidden from the bandits by Charlie’s frame. William held on to Charlie’s cloak to keep him in place, and to appear as though he needed the support.

The largest man spoke again. “What kind of tracker are you, Sniffer, if you can’t tell the difference between a man’s tracks and a dog’s?”

“Stop busting my chops, Joe. We found them, didn’t we? We have their weapons and their food, too. The boss will be happy enough.”

“I want that bow,” said the third man, whose eyes made William shudder. “And the girl.”

“You touch me, and my dog will rip your throat out,” said Rachel.

Sniffer laughed. “Who said he was talking about you? One girl’s as good as another.”

Rachel aimed her cold gaze at the tracker. “You touch her, and I’ll rip out your throat myself and feed it to my dog.”

“Shut up, both of you,” said Joe. “Ripper, you can talk to the boss about the bow, but there’s others who can use a bow better than you. As for the girls, we’ll take—”

Jack’s attack surprised even William. Joe’s knife had dropped from Maya’s throat; Jack dashed from behind a rock and sunk his dagger in the man’s shoulder. His knife-hand disabled, Joe smashed his other arm into Jack, knocking him down. Steve lunged at him before he could finish Jack.

Charlie had been ready, too; in one smooth motion he kicked his spear into his hands and slammed the heads of the other two bandits as they charged him. Sniffer reeled; Ripper bounced up and slipped past Charlie’s spear. Sniffer found his feet, and William hacked at him before he could reach Charlie. The skinny tracker backed away, unwilling to fight one on one. William, unable to follow, slashed instead at Ripper who was holding his own with Charlie despite his size disadvantage. Ripper sidestepped William, who again could not pursue.

Sniffer’s yell distracted him. “Joe! The girl has arrows!” Rachel was on her knees, stringing an arrow she retrieved from the ground.

“Let’s go!” Joe threw off both Jack and Steve and dove for the path below, ducking Rachel’s arrow. Sniffer followed, but Ripper never got the chance. The handle of his own knife was sticking out of his chest, courtesy of Charlie.

William collapsed to the ground, as much from shock and relief as from pain. He stared at the body in front of him, its eyes open and unfocused like a fish at market. Just moments before this was a human being, a live person just like himself, and now that life was gone. It was one thing to kill an animal, even one as majestic and noble as a wolf; but to take the life of a fellow man, even one who had attacked him and his friends, was an enormity for which William was simply unprepared.

Jack touched him on the shoulder. “Will, I’m really sorry. We should have checked things out better,” he said.

“What are you talking about?” asked William. “You were perfect. No one could have timed that attack better.”

Jack’s breath came in rapid shudders, his shoulders still heaving from excitement and fear. “Maybe I reacted well, but we shouldn’t have been caught in the first place.”

“He’s right, Will,” said Rachel. “It’s my fault, I should have looked—”

“It’s not anyone’s fault,” said William, cutting her off before she could blame herself further. “Is anyone hurt? No? Okay then, we did fine.”

“But—”

“Rachel, we can discuss it later if you want, but right now we have to get out of here. You heard Joe. They have other people, and they’ll be back here soon. Maya, you look shaken. Are you okay to go?” She nodded as Charlie consoled her, shock making a frozen mask of her face.

William forced himself to stand, coaxing the others into action by example. “Did we lose anything? No? Good. Let’s get everything back into the packs and start moving. Rachel, can you check that body to see if there’s anything we can use? I’d do it myself, but I can’t bend my leg right now.”

Maya regained her composure. “Wait. Will, let me check your leg.”

William shook his head. “Later.”

They departed as quickly as they could. The ground on the high side of the cliff was flat and devoid of trees, which aided their progress but made concealing themselves nearly impossible. William ignored the pain as best he could; it was slow going, but they put some distance between the rock wall and themselves, enough that they could relax. As Maya predicted, they discovered a massive waterfall about two miles upriver where the water dropped at least fifty feet into a churning pool, raising a mist that filled their lungs and invigorated them. William had never seen anything like it, and he wished they had time to marvel at the view. Maya insisted on taking a water sample despite the risk that they were being pursued. It was still toxic.

They traveled at night to avoid being seen, but they paid a heavy price for it: Rachel couldn’t hunt. She laid traps for squirrels and gophers, but with no result. Meals were sparse; they had to preserve what food they had for as long as possible. Worse, the darkness made for slow progress. Torches were out of the question, as they could easily be seen for miles. Instead, as each evening fell they would decide on their path for that night’s journey, keeping the river close by so they wouldn’t get far off track. But the mountains to the east would appear no closer when morning broke.

William suffered the most. Aside from being hungry—they all were—he constantly tripped on roots and rocks in the darkness, which made the pain in his leg even worse. At the end of their fourth nightly march since the waterfall, they found a small hollow to camp in. William collapsed to the ground without even unpacking his bedroll, and Maya would no longer be put off. “Will, you’re burning up. This fever is a bad sign. I’m sorry, but I absolutely have to open your wound and take a look.”

William knew she was right, but he wasn’t looking forward to it. It would hurt, obviously, but that seemed less important than the possibility he might not be able to walk afterward. But he had an even worse fear. “Look, I’m not afraid,” he said through short, shallow breaths. “I know it’ll hurt. A lot, but I can handle it. But what if I scream? What if someone out there hears me—”

“Don’t worry,” said Maya. “I can knock you out.”

“How? On the head? If that’s what it takes…”

“No, silly. Chloroform. It will put you to sleep for a few minutes, and you won’t feel a thing. I don’t usually use it, but I couldn’t bring the good stuff.”

William was confused, but he was in so much pain it didn’t matter. “How does it work?” he asked as she unpacked her equipment.

“First, a little alcohol to sterilize everything. Get your pants off. No, stay put. Jack, help him.” Jack scrambled over, glad for something to do. “Now,” said Maya. “Anything to say before I get started?”

“Someone keep a watch,” he said. Rachel moved and found a spot where she could survey the land and still be hidden. She too, was glad to be occupied.

Maya held a cloth to his mouth. “Breathe through this.” William coughed as the sweet fumes filled his lungs. Consciousness slipped away, and he blacked out, aware of nothing until a distant voice told him to wake up. He tried to sit up, but a heavy weight on his chest restrained him; Maya told him to relax. It took him a few moments to remember where he was and what had happened. He shivered, and someone threw a blanket on him. Slowly, he opened his eyes and saw familiar faces. Relief washed over him. He had survived.

“Hava muh murg?” he asked, his tongue refusing to cooperate.

“Your leg is fine,” said Maya. “I have a present for you. Can you see yet?” She handed him a jagged yellow fang. “I found this in your leg. You should have let me do this sooner. Another day and we probably would have lost you.”

With the decaying tooth removed, William improved immediately. Surprising even himself, he could walk that very evening while putting only a little weight on his crutch. It was still slow going—he couldn’t risk tripping and tearing the new stitches—but any improvement was welcome. The nights grew colder as they approached the mountains, but walking kept them warm. The mornings came later and later as the looming mountains blocked the rising sun, full daylight warmed them up quickly. The ground was no longer flat here. The rolling hills alternately concealed and exposed them, but they offered a strategic view of the land to the west. With Rachel’s guidance they kept frequent vigil, searching for any sign of people following them. “Watch for any sudden flights of birds,” she told them. “Or smoke against the sky. Look for flashes of light too; it might just be water, but it could also be sunlight on metal. And don’t just look; keep your ears open, as well.”

Twice every night they concentrated on covering their tracks. They walked on hard rock where possible, erasing all signs of their passing. Rachel even stopped Steve from relieving himself during these episodes, causing William to shake his head in wonder at just how well she had trained him.

They ventured to the river at least once a day to test the water, always with the same results. They even detected a faint odor that would have warned them against drinking it had they not already known about the danger. The banks themselves were clear of greenery for several feet on either side. They had to be nearing the source of the poison now, thought William.

Far upstream, they could see the river vanishing between two mountains. They would have to cross it soon, or else find a path through the mountains on this side. Several small streams flowed in from the snow-melt higher up. Maya reminded them that any stream might be the source of poison, and that no one should drink from any of them until she tested it. William noted with despair that she was running low on the tablets she used to test the water. He didn’t bother to ask if she could make any more; what if the answer was no?

They had gone so long without sign of their attackers that William dared hope they had escaped. He was on the verge of deciding they could finally travel during the day when Jack spotted something during his watch. At first he thought it was bushes swaying in the wind, but the longer he looked the more nervous he became. He woke Rachel to get her opinion.

Rachel stared into the distance even longer than Jack had. Finally something convinced her. “It’s them.”

“How many?” asked William.

“I can’t tell yet.”

The next few days were tense. They traveled as far as possible every night, no longer taking time to cover their tracks. The bandits were obviously on their trail because they got closer every day. Each night they increased the distance between them; every day the bandits more than made up the ground.

“Rachel, how far are those mountains?” asked William. “I can’t judge the distance.”

“We can get there today if you want.”

“I do. We’ll have better luck finding a place to hide there, I think.”

Rachel nodded. “And we’ll have the high ground if it comes to it.”

William didn’t want to think about that possibility, but she was right. “Can we get there before they catch us?”

“If we don’t stop in the morning, then yes.”

It would have to be a forced march, then. By morning, one way or another, their fate would be decided.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

The single biggest impediment to the mining of ores was the lack of metals to begin with. The Colonists arrived without tools, leaving them only the equipment left by research teams in the years prior. The only ores found near the surface were soft metals like silver, gold, and copious amounts of copper. There was little iron to make the necessary tools for digging mine shafts.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

By morning they reached the high ground they had hoped for, and from there they could clearly see the bandits in the distance behind them. Their pursuers were still gaining on them, moving quickly day and night, and not even bothering to conceal their approach. Rachel pointed out two more groups, one south of the river, and one to their north. It appeared the bandits were closing a net around them, and that made William more nervous than before, because it implied what he had already feared: the bandits must know their quarry was trapped, and that there was no path upstream for them to escape. They were blocked by bandits on three sides, and a mountain range on the other. Uphill was their only choice. Eventually, they would probably be trapped beneath some impassable ridge, but at least they would be on higher ground where they might have an even chance in a fight. It was the only option that gave them any hope at all.

They stayed out of sight as much as possible, keeping an eye out for permanent hiding spots. There were no trees at this altitude, only low-lying bushes, and even the largest boulders offered no permanent refuge.

The searing pain in William’s leg returned with a vengeance. The wound was no longer infected, but the stitches had had no time to heal, and he had strained his leg far more than he should have. They had already marched well past their normal sleeping time, at a faster pace than they had before, and the steady uphill grind sapped what little remaining strength he had. The path in front of him careened as his balance finally failed. His leg gave out, and he staggered sideways through a bush and collapsed with a heavy thud. “Rest time already?” asked Jack. William was too exhausted to respond.

“I’m surprised he made it this far,” said Maya as she gave Jack a dirty look. “He should have been resting, not walking.”

“As long as we’re stopping, let’s get behind these bushes,” said Rachel.

William struggled to get up but his strength was fully spent. Charlie dragged him behind the bushes he had crashed into, and the others followed. As they looked around, it became apparent that this was a better hiding spot than they could have hoped for. The bushes had concealed a small, rocky cleft, which in turn led to a rift surrounded on all four sides by solid rick. They had just enough space for all of them to lie down, and unless one of the bandits crashed through the same bushes, they would remain safely hidden. All they needed now was to wait silently and hope the bandits would give up their search. Fatigue soon took them. One by one they fell asleep before they could even unpack their bedrolls. No watch was set; who could possibly stay awake after a full day of marching, and on an empty stomach at that?

Tired as he was, William awoke first. His leg throbbed; no doubt it was that which had woken him. A small patch of dried blood on his pants hinted at torn stitches, but he resisted the urge to look. Best to let Maya tend to it when she woke. It wasn’t as though he was bleeding to death.

The day’s last sunlight reflected off the rock face above him. Somehow they had escaped detection for the entire day, and soon they would have the cover of darkness. Would it protect them, or leave them vulnerable? He wondered if they should dare attempt an escape during the night, sneaking past the bandits before dawn revealed their hiding spot. No doubt Jack could pull it off, and likely Rachel and Steve as well. Charlie and Maya too, maybe, if they were careful. But William himself could barely walk. Stealth was out of the question.

The sound of voices startled him. It came from beyond the bushes that concealed them, and they were accompanied by the sound of footsteps. Try as he might he couldn’t make out what they were saying. His heart pounded as he weighed his options. Should he risk waking the others? What if they forgot where they were and spoke too loudly before he could warn them? King’s beard…what if Steve barked? He decided to wake Rachel first, trusting she would stay quiet by instinct and keep her dog under control. He was right. Quietly they woke the others, and together they kept a silent vigil, waiting for the bandits to give up and depart.

Jack tapped William’s shoulder and nodded toward Steve sniffing at the other end of their hiding spot, whimpering. “What’s that mutt getting into?” asked Jack in a hushed voice.

“I don’t know,” said William. “Can you check it out? I can’t trust my leg yet.”

Jack slipped away silently, returning a few short a few moments later, his eyes glowing with excitement. “It’s a tunnel, Will. A small one, but even Charlie will fit.”

“What kind of tunnel?” asked William.

“I don’t know. It’s a tunnel. What kinds of tunnels are there?”

“I mean does it lead somewhere? Who made it?”

“Oh…no, it’s natural. It probably just leads to some caves. Anyway, there’s nothing to gain by staying here.”

“Maybe,” said William. “Let’s tell the others and see what they say.”

The noises outside stopped. Likely their pursuers had bedded down for the night, but were no doubt keeping a watch. William and Jack told the others about the tunnel. No one warmed to the idea of going underground, but only Charlie was dead set against it. William knew why, but kept the reason to himself. He resented having to account for Charlie’s weakness while figuring out how to keep everyone alive, but if it came down to it he could order Charlie to stay above ground and guard the entrance, possibly sacrificing him in doing so. Then again, if this was the only entrance, Charlie’s presence might draw the bandits to them. It was a horrible quandary, like standing on a burning boat and not knowing how to swim.

William was surprised when Jack called from the tunnel entrance. Somehow, he had moved all the bags to the opening without anyone noticing, and was dropping them into the hole, one at a time.

“Jack! What on Esper are you doing?” William asked, almost forgetting not to yell.

“I fell in by accident,” he said, despite clearly not having done so. In answer to William’s puzzled look, Jack moved beside the hole, then plunged out of view.

“King’s throat, I’m going to strangle him!” said William. He hobbled to the hole and called for Jack as loudly as he dared.

Jack’s face appeared from the shadows below. “Get everyone in,” he said. “It’s safe; the gravel slide will break your fall.”

William ignored the comment. “Get back up here, Jack!”

“I can’t. No rope, and it’s too high to reach.”

“What on Esper has he done?” asked Rachel. “Why did you do that, you idiot?”

Jack’s grin was apparent, even in the dying light. “Like I told William, I fell in by accident.”

William seethed. He had no choice now. As mad as he was, he couldn’t abandon his friend, especially now that all their gear was in the tunnel. Besides, it was the decision he was probably going to make anyway. “Fine,” he said, trying to keep the anger out of his voice. “Everyone in.” Rachel jumped first, quickly followed by Steve. Maya had a difficult time trusting the fall wouldn’t kill her, but she eventually jumped.

Charlie was shaking, and William raised an eyebrow at him. “I’ll be okay,” the Guard said. “You go.”

“Are you sure?” asked William. “I can’t leave you here by yourself.”

Charlie nodded. “Watch your leg.”

William limped to the hole and let himself fall. He hit the gravel on his backside, and slid to a stop about twenty feet down. His injured leg jammed into something solid and his mind went dizzy with pain. Several agonizing moments later he heard Charlie jump in behind him. Charlie’s momentum drove him into William, multiplying the pain in his leg. William couldn’t tell if he had blacked out or not until Jack lit a torch.

No one dared move. They strained to hear any sounds from above, concerned that the sound of them landing on the gravel might have drawn the bandits’ attention. Satisfied that they hadn’t been followed, William looked around the tunnel. The ground sloped gently downward beyond the torchlight, and a faint breeze hinted at another entrance somewhere below them. Whether they could find it was another thing altogether, and William wondered whether they hadn’t made things worse. Jack was right; they couldn’t get back out by this entrance. They had to move forward now.

Immediate danger avoided, William directed his attention to a less urgent, but no less important issue. He hobbled over to Jack and punched his shoulder. “What did I tell you about making decisions for me?”

Jack rubbed his shoulder stared back at William, his jaw set in a look of defiance. “This wasn’t just your decision, Will. My life was in danger too.”

“So you decided your judgment was better than mine, or anyone else’s?”

“It’s not that—”

“Yes, it is that. We were discussing our options when you started tossing our bags into the hole. So my only choices were to follow you, or leave you on your own.”

“Why didn’t you just leave me on my own, then?”

“I couldn’t, Jack! You made sure of that when you dropped the bags down here. We act as a group, we take risks as a group. When you decide on your own, you endanger us all.”

No one else spoke as Jack stared at his boots. “I only did what I thought was safest. I really wasn’t just thinking of myself.”

“No one thinks you were,” said Maya. “But we came here to do something more important than ourselves. Sometimes we’ll have to take a calculated risk, and we have to do that together.”

“Fine. I’m sorry,” Jack said after a tortured silence. “I won’t do it again.”

“Well, we should at least look around,” said Rachel. “We won’t get anywhere by just standing here.”

“True,” said Maya. “But we haven’t taken much of a look here yet.”

“Fine, then, let’s look instead of talking. Jack, if you’re just going to flap your gums, hand me that torch.” Rachel grabbed the torch before Jack could answer, and she and Maya began surveying the tunnel. They walked back and forth, examining the surfaces closely, ignoring everyone else. At one spot Maya pointed at something on the wall and Rachel nodded.

“What?” asked Jack.

“Hush,” said Rachel with a wave of her hand. “Let the grownups work.” Jack sat on the gravel pile and sulked. Charlie followed the women as they wandered down the tunnel, but stayed out of their way. William was pleased he didn’t have to remind Charlie to protect them. Whether he was motivated by duty, or fondness for Maya, or the fact that they were carrying the only torch didn’t really matter. William was glad for the chance to rest his leg after landing on it so hard, but his impatience soon matched Jack’s. What could be taking them so long to investigate a simple cave? Before they got completely out of sight they turned around and headed back.

“Well?” asked Jack.

Ignoring him, Rachel spoke directly to William. “This tunnel isn’t natural.”

“What?” asked Jack.

“Don’t worry, Jack, neither are you,” she said. “It started out as a natural cave, but we found scrape marks on the stone where it has been widened.”

William’s stomach felt as though it had dropped several feet. “There are people down here?”

“No, I don’t think so. The ground is covered in dust, and we saw no tracks. Also, Steve didn’t smell anything.”

Relief washed over him. “King’s teeth, you had me worried there.”

Jack got to his feet and grumbled. “Well, if there’s nothing to worry about, let’s start exploring.”

William nodded. “Fine. But the priority is finding a way out. We aren’t exploring just for the fun of it.” Jack grumbled, but didn’t argue. At William’s insistence Charlie lit a second torch and led the way while he himself took the rear. Maya stayed in the middle sandwiched by Jack and Rachel. If anything jumped out of the gloom it would have to get through two people at least before Maya would be hurt.

They moved slowly at first, but the further they went the more obvious it became that the tunnel was no product of nature. William marveled at the amount of work it implied, cutting through this much solid rock. “Whoever made this tunnel must have had iron tools,” he said to Jack.

“If there’s a source of iron ore here, do you know how rich we’ll be?” asked Jack.

“Hang on,” said William. “I thought all iron goes to the Duke for ships.”

“Most of it does,” said Jack. “Some of it ends up becoming razors, tools, daggers like mine, or even swords for people like Captain Mattice or Sir Kevin. Still, the Duke has to make sure there’s enough iron to make nails for ships, but whoever finds the iron for it gets a hefty payment. That’s why so many people look for bog iron in the marshes. If we found a whole mine full of iron, we could retire in comfort. Hey, what’s this?” He bent to pick up something from the ground. “Will, bring the torch here. Hey guys, look at this.” They all leaned their heads in to look at the small object in his hand. “It looks like a squished coin.”

Maya took the object and rubbed it, then smelled her thumb. “It definitely has copper or iron in it. I’m guessing copper from the color, but it’s hard to tell in the torchlight.”

“I wonder who would come all the way out here to squish pennies?” asked Jack.

“Don’t be silly,” said Rachel. “It’s probably left over from whatever tools they used to dig this tunnel.”

“But who, and how long ago?” asked William. “The last expeditions from Marshland Crossing were before I was born.”

“Maybe even before Rachel was born,” said Jack. “‘Grownups’, she says. Ouch!”

It was hard to tell how straight the tunnel was with just the two torches, but they continued to follow it for longer than William could estimate. After a while he thought he heard something other than their footsteps; not loud, but consistent. He paused to listen, and when Charlie turned around to see who had stopped it became obvious what the noise was: Charlie’s teeth were chattering from fear. William did his best to keep the look of disgust from his face, not wanting to make Charlie feel worse than he already did, but William knew they would be in perpetual night until they found a way out, and he wasn’t sure how effective a defender Charlie might be in his condition. True, Charlie had fought off the wolves in the dark back at the cave, but they’d had torches then. They couldn’t waste their few remaining torches to keep their sworn defender from wetting his pants. Meanwhile, he was still a significant drain on what little food they had left.

Food! William hadn’t even considered not being able to hunt down here. There might be some sort of animals hiding down here, but would they be safe to eat? If not, then they were out of luck, because what sort of plants could they hope to find? Not for the first time William questioned what he had gotten himself into. Sure, he had wanted adventures. He had wanted glory. But neither of those could be earned without great risk, and right now William would have traded all the glory in the world to be back at the Library holding Melissa’s hand. But forget glory: what about the river? That was the real reason they were here. He realized now the truth of something his father had told him years ago, that glory was just the side effect of fulfilling a mission. “The job has to be done, William. And the job has been given to me. No matter what, it must be finished. You must never run or hide from your duties. That is the true source of honor.”

Would Orrin Whitehall have led this group into such a sorry situation? Would Sir Kevin have stood his ground and fought off the bandits, or would he have run and hidden like William had done? Never had William’s self-doubt haunted him as it did right now, here in the nearly complete darkness, with nothing but a few torches and some morsels of food between them and a tragic end. He wondered if maybe the darkness was affecting him. Not the same as Charlie, of course, but in a more subtle way. If so, then maybe the others were having moral crises of their own too. He would have to deal with that, somehow.

“This is actually kind of fun,” said Maya, her voice echoing oddly along the stone walls of the tunnel. “A little dirty, but still fun.”

Rachel nodded. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“I wish we had more light, though,” said Jack. “Who knows what we’re missing in the dark.”

William sighed. So it was just him. Charlie too, but that concerned him less right now. As a leader, at least in name, it was his job to keep the group safe and effective. How could he do that if he couldn’t keep his own spirits up? “Come on, Willie Whitehands,” he said to himself. “You’re in pain, you’re hungry, and you’re almost out of food. Your main defender is scared of the dark. Your best friend is undermining your authority, and you have no idea where you are. And you still don’t know how the poison is getting into the river. Cheer up: there’s no way things can get worse.”

They came to a crossroads. The way forward ended, leaving them only left or right as their choices. Perfect, thought William. Another decision to screw up. As the others waited, he looked as far as he could in each direction. The air from the left was cooler; he pointed that way, hoping it might lead to an exit.

He soon lagged behind again, weighed down by his gloomy mood and the constant aching of his leg. He recalled the time when blisters were the worst of his worries. The thought almost made him laugh out loud.

Ahead of him, the others had stopped. As he caught up, he saw why. Gone in an instant were pain, hunger, and self-pity. In their place a primal urge welled up, one that screamed for him to turn and run. The fur on Steve’s neck stood on end as he let out a low, deep growl. Maya slowly edged her way behind Charlie, and Rachel pulled an arrow from her quiver, her shaking hand barely able to nock it. William drew his sword and heard Jack do the same with his dagger. None of it seemed sufficient. It would never be enough. Because ahead, perfectly framed by the torchlight, stood a beast that William had read about often enough, but would never have dreamed he would encounter.

It was a dragon.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

A surprisingly large and diverse collection of fiction from Earth survives, albeit not in its original form. The Colonists, being highly educated even for the time, counted books among their most prized possessions, and even with the rushed nature of the Arrival there were few families who didn’t count among their belongings at least a few volumes of fiction.

Early on, large efforts were made to catalog and copy every title for the sake of posterity. Copies of these works still exist today in both Libraries and in private collections across both continents.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

At least it looked like a dragon. William had only ever seen drawings, and even those were only copies of copies of books from Earth depicting imaginary creatures. True, those pictures showed creatures with the same long toothy snouts, scales for skin, lethal talons and long, flexible tails. Not to mention fierce countenance. It even appeared to have wings, although they remained close to its body.

But it differed from illustrations in one major factor: this one was real. And it didn’t look happy at their unexpected appearance in what must be its territory. It stood no taller than Steve at its shoulder, but was twice as broad. The torchlight glinted off a ridge of scales lining its spine, adding to its menacing appearance. It charged toward the group, wings spread, sending them scrambling backward, then slowly retreated, maintaining its gaze on them. Again it charged, and Maya screamed as she jumped behind Charlie. She kept on screaming after it backed off again, or so William thought: he soon realized the dragon was making the noise. The high-pitched whistle lasted nearly a minute, as the dragon continued to charge and retreat, as though trying to scare them off or hold them at bay.

“Will,” said Jack.

“Yeah,” said William.

“Is that a dragon?”

William nodded. “It sure looks like a dragon.”

“One problem.”

“Only one problem?”

“Dragons don’t exist, Will.”

“Try telling it that. Then maybe it’ll go away.”

“Can we just agree to call it a dragon?” said Rachel. “Maybe then we can focus on not getting eaten.”

“Whatever it is, it’s too small to eat all of us,” said Jack.

“I don’t care about its appetite, Jack!” said Rachel. “I’m worried about being on the menu in the first place.”

“Can you shoot it, Rachel?” asked William.

“There’s not much to shoot at when it faces us, but I’ll try.” She strung an arrow. William heard the thrum of the bow and the whoosh of the arrow, followed by a dull clank as it bounced off its mark. The arrow clattered along the rocks behind it.

She shook her head. “It didn’t even notice. I think those scales are metal.”

“Squished pennies,” said Charlie. “That’s what the squished pennies are. Dragon scales.”

“What do we do, Will?” asked Jack.

William looked around at the faces of his companions; they were as shocked and dumbfounded as he was. He gulped and said, “I’m open to suggestions.”

Maya’s look changed from shock to horror, and Charlie pointed. The frame of a much taller, bulkier dragon emerged from the gloom, its wings filling the width of the tunnel. A second followed behind it. The whistling had been an alarm, not a challenge.

Jack yelled, “I suggest we run!”

They scrambled back to the crossroads, William lagging behind. As he limped up to the others he pointed straight ahead, past the dead end tunnel they had come from; they may as well try the unknown since there was no exit the other way. William checked over his shoulder; the smaller one was keeping up without trouble, but the larger ones could not match their pace. The ground shook as the monstrous beasts pursued them.

Jack stopped at a small fissure in the rock wall. “Here,” he said, gesturing for the others to enter. Charlie squeezed through last, and he turned and jabbed his spear at the little dragon that snapped at him. The dragon scurried back as the two giant ones arrived on its heels. William got a better look at them before Jack yanked him further into the fissure; they were darker than the little one, almost black, but with a slight shine. Perhaps Rachel was right about the scales being metallic. It was too dark to be certain, but the smaller one looked copper-colored. He contemplated how luck had cheated them the last time they squeezed between rocks. What was the old saying about a rock and hard place? By his own count, they were between a mountain of rocks and all the hard places on Esper.

Maya leaned against the rock wall, her eyes unfocused and wide with fear. “Dragons,” she said through her fingers. “This can’t be happening.” Rachel wrapped her arm around Maya to comfort her, but Rachel’s face bore the same traumatic look. Jack sat with his back against the rock wall and stared at the dusty floor, rocking back and forth. Charlie stood in the middle of the little space shuffling his feet, looking at nothing. Poor Steve slunk as far back into the wall as he could and whimpered. William knew the group was ready to fall to pieces at any moment. The shock of coming face to face with a mythical creature could push a person to the edge of sanity, but being hunted by it might drive them into madness.

He had to do something, and he had to do it right away, or no one would be of any use if they ever got an opportunity to escape. He looked at each person to gauge how much they had left, to assign them some sort of challenge to get their minds working again. “Rachel,” he said with as much calmness and authority as he could muster. “How many torches left?”

“Uh…four, I think.” William waited. Rachel opened her bag and counted. “Four,” she said.

“Good. Be ready to light the next one when that one dies. Maya, did you get a good look at those dragons?”

“I think so, yes.” She was unsure, but she didn’t want to show it. That suited William just fine.

“Think of ways they might be vulnerable. No beast can defend itself against everything, right Rachel?”

Rachel nodded. “In theory, but—”

“Help Maya with those theories.”

“But—”

“I don’t care if they’re good ideas, just get me some ideas. Jack. You’re the sneakiest person I know.”

“Thanks much, pal,” said Jack as he looked up from his daze.

“I need you to get as close as possible and see what you can see. If they spot you, get back right away. But find out something I don’t already know.”

“You mean about girls, right?”

“Yeah, Jack. That’s exactly what I mean.” Good old Jack. He’d seen through his plan, and was going along with it anyway. It felt good that he could trust him with something this important, and he hoped beyond all hope he wasn’t sending his best friend to a nasty death. Which gave him an idea. “Charlie, if Jack has to beat a retreat, I want you there to defend him. You’re the only one who can handle that spear, and that’s the only weapon we have that might stand a chance.” The big man nodded. William drew close so no one else would hear. “You’ll be a little distance from the torch.”

“I know,” said Charlie.

“You know what I’m talking about, right?”

He nodded again. “I’ll be okay with Jack there.”

William squeezed his shoulder. “Shout if you need me. I’ll be there as fast as one leg can bring me.” As Jack and Charlie receded into the darkness, William sat beside Rachel and Maya who were already deep in conversation. He listened instead of joining in, knowing he couldn’t match what either of them knew about animals, or science, or pretty much anything else.

“Any animal can be crushed,” Maya said. “You’re thinking in terms of hunting, or killing. We have to think of ways they might die, even by accident.”

“Oh, I see what you mean,” said Rachel. “If we caused a cave-in, or something like that, they might be buried under the rock.”

“And bonus points for blocking the path for the other dragons,” said Maya, her voice rising with excitement.

“Okay,” said Rachel. “They are big, strong, and probably heavy if they have metal scales. What weakness does that imply?”

“I bet falling hurts them.”

“Of course! ‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall’. That’s perfect.”

“Also, I doubt they can swim,” said Maya.

William let the women discuss options. Their ideas were brilliant, and could even work given the right resources. But good ideas without means of implementing them were no better than bad ideas…but he decided to keep that to himself. He hadn’t given them this project in order to find solutions, but to occupy their minds. On that alone he had succeeded.

They were interrupted by a thunderous roar followed by shouting, and the sound of Jack and Charlie scrambling back. An orange glow erupted behind them as they emerged into the torchlight. “Well,” said Jack, catching his breath. “We had mixed results.”

“You both made it back. I call that good results. What did you learn?” asked William.

“I have a plan. Okay, so you know how dragons are always supposed to be guarding treasure? Like in the stories, I mean. Well, here’s my plan: all we have to do is kill all the dragons, find the treasure, look for a way out, and then we’ll all be rich!”

William rolled his eyes. “Jack, just tell me what you saw.”

“We’re pinned in. Unless we can find a way through solid rock, there’s no way to escape without passing them. They have four of those giant black ones posted outside, two in each direction. I got almost all the way past in one direction, but they spotted me.”

“You went out into the tunnel?” asked William. “Why would you take a risk like that?”

“No risk, no reward. You wanted information, remember? Anyway, I got back in, and one of the big ones tried to follow me but it couldn’t squeeze through. Their armor doesn’t bend.”

“Good to know,” said Rachel.

“So I stood there watching it try to jam itself through the hole. It backed away, and the little one took over and managed to get in and take a swipe at me. Don’t look so alarmed, Will; I’m in one piece, aren’t I? Anyway, Charlie gave it a good poke, and we came back as fast as we could. It didn’t follow us. You know, I’d say the small one is just as afraid of us…what do you think, Charlie?” Charlie nodded.

“And the orange glow?” William asked.

“I didn’t see what made it. I was running away from them,” said Jack.

“It felt hot,” said Charlie.

“Okay, let me get this straight,” said Rachel. “The little one…or ones…can get in, but are afraid of us. The big ones aren’t afraid of us, but they can’t get in. And at least one of them breathes fire?”

“Yep,” said Jack.

“A standoff. Fantastic,” said Rachel.

“So now what do we do?” asked Maya.

All eyes turned to William. He had nothing, but saying nothing wasn’t an option. He had to improvise until a better plan came along. “We’ll set a watch to stop any attacks from little dragons. We’ll make the food, water and torches last as long as possible. Then we try to think of something.”

It wasn’t a great plan. In fact, it was terrible. But they had nothing else until circumstances changed or someone had an idea. William set overlapping two-person watches, excluding Maya. The last thing they needed was for one of them to fall asleep and let one of the smaller dragons get in. They kept busy, piling loose rock near the entrance as a blockade, but it was obvious from the start that it served more as a psychological diversion than a physical defense. He wondered whether they were wasting energy, but then he remembered the torches were probably going to run out before the food. If only they had a few logs for a fire, then they wouldn’t be limited by the few torches they had left. Then again, that would just delay the inevitable.

William preferred his time on watch. He hadn’t given up on finding a plan, but the discussions were taxing. Once again he questioned his leadership qualities given that he favored being closer to danger over exchanging ideas with his colleagues, but he had reached a point where he just couldn’t feel worse about himself than he already did. His decisions had brought them to this hopeless situation; why should he inflict more bad decisions on them? He chuckled to himself when he realized simple coin flips would probably have led to better results.

At least the others were busy thinking of ideas and arguing with each other—all but Charlie, that is. True, he hadn’t been brought for his brains, but it would be nice to get a contribution from him once in a while. Rachel came and relieved Jack, who was eager to leave William to his dark mood and join what he called the “fun group”. Rachel sat on the pile of rocks with her back to the entrance, ignoring the potential danger. The dragons had long since given up sending forays into the side tunnel, likely expecting the humans would eventually succumb to hunger.

“Last torch is lit,” she said.

“Thanks,” he said, tossing pebbles at the wall for something to do.

“Tough spot we’re in,” she said.

“You know, I don’t even care that I’m probably about to die,” he said, unexpectedly glad for someone to hear his thoughts. “Knowing you guys will too, and because of me…even that isn’t the worst part.”

“What is?” she asked.

He hesitated before answering. “I’ll never see her again.” He felt tears on his cheeks and quickly wiped them away in disgust.

“Melissa,” she said.

He nodded, then laughed. “And now I feel guilty for thinking about her and not the mission. Or you guys.”

They sat without talking for a while. Eventually, Rachel had enough of the silence. “You don’t know how it will end. Not yet anyway.”

“What do you mean? How else can it end?”

“That’s just it. We don’t know.” He looked at her, puzzled by her comment. She continued. “Look, how many things in your life have turned out exactly the way you expected?”

That surprised him. The more he considered it, the more he realized it was true. Short of falling off of a log, few things in life could be predicted accurately every time, without fail. The question was how inevitable things were right now. No—even that wasn’t the question. Even if things really were inevitable they still had no way of knowing it, so why act as though it was? It was cold comfort, but it was comfort nonetheless. “You’re thinking more clearly than I am,” said William. “They need you back there coming up with ideas. Why don’t you send Charlie to take your place.”

“You sure?”

He hesitated a second or two before nodding. “If I think of anything brilliant I’ll come back there, but don’t hold your breath. Let me know when the torch has about an hour left.” He didn’t need to explain why. Charlie arrived and sat on the opposite end of the barricade. “Sorry to have you come out here early, Charlie,” William said.

“That’s okay.”

There was something about Charlie’s vulnerability that disturbed William. He was big, he was strong, and hard as it was to believe, he was more shy than William was. And what about his fear of the dark? How does someone live with that? William pondered his own anxieties, and how sad it was that he would not live long enough to outgrow them. Maybe he could help Charlie overcome one of his instead. “Charlie, have you always been afraid of the dark?” he asked. The Guard gave William a questioning look. William continued quickly. “I don’t mean to judge. I have…fears of my own, so I know what it’s like. I figured, if I can understand yours, maybe it will help me understand mine.”

Charlie relaxed. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and spoke slowly and quietly. “My mom died when I was young. I don’t even remember her. Dad worked as a smith, but there wasn’t much metal, so he made bricks too. Even that slowed down because no one was building anything. So he worked at the docks as a night watchman.” He shuddered, and continued. “He would leave me alone at home, and…” His voice shook. “Anyway, that’s why I learned to play the flute, so I wouldn’t feel alone.”

William doubted he himself would have fared any better in Charlie’s boots. Any child left alone at night would develop crippling fears. Despite those fears, Charlie had still chosen a career that would lead to confrontation. It was amazing he functioned as well as he did. William hung his head in shame as he recalled how harshly he had judged the Guard. He found it almost impossible for him to look Charlie in the eye. “My father died when I was young,” he said.

“I know,” said Charlie.

William looked up. “You do?”

“Your dad was a hero to the older Guards. Still is. The younger ones don’t know, mostly, and Sir Hendrick never talks about it. But the old guys know.”

“It hurts, doesn’t it? Losing a parent.”

Charlie nodded.

The talk behind them had slowed somewhat, and the exclamations were fewer and quieter. William sensed they had run out of ideas. “Tell you what, Charlie. Why don’t we go back and join the others, and you can play the flute for us.”

Charlie looked doubtful, glancing toward the main tunnel where the dragons waited.

“Don’t worry,” said William. “The dragons haven’t come near us for hours.”

“I was about to come get you,” said Rachel as they approached.

“Charlie is going to entertain us,” William said. The others grinned, welcoming the chance to celebrate what may be their last hour alive. “How much food do we have left? I’m starving.”

Jack went through the pack and passed out what morsels remained. There wasn’t much, but they would not die hungry. Maya patted the ground beside her. “Here, Charlie, sit beside me.” She rested her head on his shoulder and slipped her arm around his waist. She closed her eyes as he played a gentle melody. As gentle notes filled the air Jack gazed over at Rachel, who stared back defiantly. Relenting for reasons she kept to herself, she waved him over. William smiled as she drew Jack close. So there were feelings between the two of them after all.

And here he was, alone, even amongst his friends. Sorrow gripped his chest like a belt cinched too tight. He couldn’t let the others see his feelings; it wouldn’t be fair to darken their last moments. He knew who he wanted with him, just as he knew he would never allow it given the choice. To ask her to share his danger in order to avoid being alone…never. Still, he envied the others. An idea came to him. “Steve!” he called. He didn’t need to ask twice; the dog bounded to him as soon as his name was called, eager to vanquish his own sense of isolation now that his mistress was spoken for. As the gentle beast rested his head on William’s lap, the last remaining tension dissipated and everyone burst into laughter. Even Charlie was laughing so hard he had difficulty playing. As he regained his composure he settled into a tune that mesmerized the others into silence. Tendrils of sound reached out and lulled them into a trance, whispering of sadness and hope, of beginnings and endings, of solitude and intimacy. William wished it would never end.

He closed his eyes and stroked the dog’s head. Charlie had played for them before, but never like this. He had played songs and little tunes they could sing along to, but this was far more personal. In a moment of clarity, William understood this was the music Charlie had played to keep his hope alive during those dark, solitary nights, when a family home had left him feeling both caged and exposed. That he would share it with them was a gift beyond compare.

When the second flute joined in, his mind soared on wings of ecstasy, as though a mere mountain of rock could not confine his soul. No one should be able to play so well, William thought; it was almost too much of a good thing. Wait…second flute? He opened his eyes; Charlie was still only playing one flute. The others had their eyes closed; they didn’t realize what was happening. His heart pounded with excitement. “Charlie, wait,” he said.

“Will, no,” Maya said sleepily. “Don’t spoil it.”

“I’m not spoiling anything, Maya—listen! Charlie, play that last bit again.”

Charlie repeated the melody, and again another flute joined in.

“Don’t you hear?” asked William. “The dragons are answering us!”

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

The English spoken and written today on Esper is remarkably close to that of Earth at the time of Esper’s Colonization more than five hundred years ago. That there should be less change in the language during this time than in the previous half millennium may seem surprising, but scholars have noted potential reasons for this. One is the tendency of colonies to maintain the purity of language as a means of preserving cultural ties to their ancestral homelands. Another, and perhaps more important reason, is that the scientific background of the Colonists instilled a much higher value on education than was prevalent on Earth. Until this century, even though not everyone was literate, at least the appearance of education was still very much in vogue. In recent times this has become less true.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

Charlie played several musical phrases. Each one was echoed back note for note from outside the fissure they had been trapped in for the past several hours. Tentatively, they approached their makeshift barrier and watched as a dragon they had not seen before slowly approached with its head low to the ground. William had seen dogs assume this submissive posture; it looked as though the dragon was trying to be as nonthreatening as it could. “Charlie, put your spear away,” he said. “I’m pretty sure it means no harm. But keep your flute handy.”

The new dragon was markedly different, with black and silver scales adorning its body, reminding William of a checker pattern, but more complex. Its claws and teeth were shorter and less threatening, and its tail lacked the spikes its plainer cousins had. Where the others appeared functional—although who knew what their function was—this one seemed ornamental, even decorative, like a Guard officer wearing his dress uniform. It stopped at a safe distance and peered at the group. No one dared breathe, and even the dragon looked as though it was too scared to do anything else. Finally, it blew three clear notes from its snout, which William recognized from Charlie’s tune. He turned to the Guard and nodded. “Play the same tune.” Charlie played the notes, and though the dragon turned his gaze toward the flute, William was sure the dragon first glanced in his direction when he spoke.

Again, it played a series of notes. It seemed as though whistling was a natural form of communication for the dragons, or at least for this one, as they had not seen it use anything artificial to create the sound. Besides, it had no hands with which to hold a flute, just miniature stubs of wings that seemed unsuited for either flying or grasping.

Charlie played the same tune as the dragon. The dragon answered with yet another melody. Before Charlie could respond, William said, “Play something else. Play the same thing, but…longer. More complex.”

“A variation,” said Maya.

Charlie did as he was told. William could hear the notes from the dragon’s phrase within the music that Charlie played, but it was too complex for him to follow. “We can’t keep talking in music,” he said. “Anyone have any ideas?”

Again, the dragon looked toward William when he spoke, as though trying to understand. “Did you bring a Dragon-to-English dictionary?” asked Jack.

“My pack was full, thanks to you. Any ideas, Maya? Rachel? So far Charlie is the only one—”

“Thou…art….men?”

Five heads turned as one, looking to see if the dragon really had spoken. The dragon repeated, “Thou…art….men?”

Maya pushed her way past William to address the dragon. “We are human,” she said.

“Thou…art….not…men?”

Maya pointed at William, Charlie and Jack as she said, “men.” She then gestured to herself and Rachel as she said, “women.” Lastly, she pointed to everyone and said “human.”

“Five…human. And…dog?”

Rachel looked around in disbelief. “This isn’t possible! How—”

“Shh!” said Maya. “Yes, dog. Five humans. Dragon?” she asked, pointing to the dragon.

“Dragon…old…name,” it said.

Maya and the dragon continued their back and forth attempts to communicate, adding words every few exchanges. The dragon continued to suggest new words that were frequently correct, to everyone’s amazement. It seemed to prefer archaic words and forms of English that William recognized from ancient books, works that were old before the Arrival. He agreed with Rachel: this wasn’t possible, not by the greatest stretch. And yet it was happening; he had no choice but to accept reality. There was mystery here, deep mystery, and he hungered to get to the bottom of it.

Maya and Charlie stayed with the dragon while the others retreated to discuss the events where they would not be overheard. “What on Esper…” said Rachel. Her eyes were wider than William had ever seen them, and she continued to shake her head in disbelief. Of more concern was Jack’s silence; for that to happen, he must be in shock.

“You were right, though,” said William. “We didn’t really know how things would turn out.”

“I know, but this?” She laughed. “Look at Steve. He wants to make friends with one of the little copper ones.”

“That’s a vote in their favor if there ever could be. I trust his judgment. What do you think, Jack?”

“Huh? Me? Uh…sure.”

“Jack, get a grip,” said Rachel. “We’re alive. Maybe we’re not out of danger, but we’re alive. And we’ve found something amazing. Isn’t this what you live for?”

Jack shrugged. “Yeah, I suppose.”

“What’s wrong?” asked William.

“I keep thinking about how this is my fault. If I hadn’t jumped down that stupid hole we never would have gotten in this mess.”

“You fault, or your brilliant idea?” asked William.

“Don’t tease me, Will. I apologized.”

“Jack, I’m serious, this might end up being a good thing. It’s better than being captured by bandits, isn’t it? Do you think any good would have come from that?”

“No, but—”

“Do you know anything about dragons?” asked William.

“No, but—”

“Exactly. None of us do. But don’t you think the unknown is at least a little better than a known bad thing?”

“I don’t know, maybe…”

Maya and Charlie joined them.

“Well?” asked William. “Any progress?”

“I think so,” said Maya. “He seems to already know English, or at least an older version of it, and he picks up new words fast. He’s already learned enough words that we can hold a pretty good conversation.”

“What were you talking about?” asked Rachel.

“Well, as near as I can determine, we were discussing our terms of surrender.”

“What?” asked William, taken aback.

“Not much better, eh Will?” said Jack.

“Surrender is better than dead, Jack. What do you mean, ‘surrender’, Maya?”

“They seem to believe we were here to attack them.”

“With five people and a dog?” asked Rachel.

Maya shrugged. “They’re pretty defensive, from what I can make out. He didn’t say as much, but I don’t think all the dragons are built for fighting.”

“They sure look it,” said Jack.

“We fought off the copper one, remember?” said Rachel.

“That’s true,” said Jack.

“So what are the terms?” asked William.

“Well, the Ambassador still needs to get authorization, but for now, we have to stay in the tunnels under guard. We can look around, but we can’t leave.”

“Ambassador?” asked Rachel. “That’s his name?”

“I don’t think they have names,” said Maya. “That’s his job, apparently, so that’s what he’s called.”

The dragons escorted them from their hiding place down the main tunnel to where they had run into the first dragon. A short distance from there they came to another crossroad where they turned right. This tunnel continued upward and led to a large open cavern with a somewhat higher ceiling supported by thick stone columns. Spherical lamps adorned the columns, lighting the space around them without so much as a flicker. The soft, yellow light filled the cavern from one end to the other, with hardly a shadow to be found. It was a welcome change after nothing but torchlight for so long.

Dozens of dragons of different sizes and colors moved about, some fast and some slow, and the group stayed close to their giant escorts to avoid being trampled. Every dragon they saw was in motion; ‘busy as bees’ didn’t do it justice.

“This is but one of many large chambers,” said the Ambassador. “We have a small chamber for thee in this direction.” They followed the Ambassador to another large cavern, similarly lit, but occupied by fewer dragons, many of which were barely moving. They came to a small room chiseled out of the main chamber’s wall, private and lit with the same lanterns they’d seen everywhere else. At least Charlie would not go crazy down here.

“Thou shalt have food and water,” said the Ambassador. “Hast thou need of anything else?”

“No,” said William. “But are we free to walk around? We won’t try to escape.”

“Remain in this large chamber,” said the Ambassador. “Go not into the tunnel. I must speak with the Elder. He will say your fate.” With that he walked away.

“Pleasant fellow,” said Jack. “Maybe we should give him a name.”

“Why?” asked William.

“You wouldn’t want to be called ‘Librarian’ all the time, would you? How about Hermes?”

“The Greek god of travel?” asked Maya. “What for?”

“Not just travel,” said Jack. “Also diplomacy. Like an ambassador.”

“Call him Jailer for all I care,” said Rachel. “I don’t like the idea of being a prisoner.”

“I’m sure they’ll realize we aren’t a threat, and they’ll let us go,” said Maya. “It’s almost like he’s following a protocol, like he has no choice in the matter.”

“I still don’t like it.”

“Well, look,” said William. “When they do release us, I don’t want to go back home and tell people that we only saw this little den. Who wants to go look around?”

They decided to walk around the main chamber, William and Jack in one direction, while Rachel, Maya and Charlie would go the other. William and Jack found other little dens like their own, all carved out as private niches. Most were empty, which seemed odd to William as the rock seemed to be freshly cut. A few were occupied by sleeping dragons, but nothing else. Some dens were guarded, and they made no attempt to look beyond the posted dragons, as they were of the large, threatening black variety.

The most common color of dragon was copper, and they noted most of these were about the same size as the first one they had seen. The black ones were always big, but most of the others were of more than one color, like Hermes. All appeared to have a metallic sheen.

“So where are the piles of gold?” asked Jack.

“I guess they don’t keep them in this room,” said William.

“Why do you suppose they’re here?”

“You mean in this room?”

Jack rolled his eyes. “No, Will. On Esper.”

“How would I know?”

They made their way around to the other side of the giant chamber and saw Rachel, Maya and Charlie ahead. They heard Maya laughing; as they approached, the reason became obvious. Steve was cavorting with several smaller dragons, taking turns chasing and being chased, trading barks and whistles of glee.

“Baby dragons,” said Jack. “Is that why this place smells so sour?” William hadn’t noticed it before, but the air did have a certain odor.

“Are you seeing this?” asked Maya. “This is definitely a good sign. We must have something in common with them.”

“Steve does, anyway,” said Rachel.

“Maya, Jack mentioned something. Have you noticed the smell?”

She sniffed. “You’re right, it does seem off.”

Rachel shrugged. “Every animal smells different. Maybe that’s just how dragons smell. We’re in a closed space, so it’s bound to be strong. A cave full of bats can be pretty foul.”

They returned to their assigned den just as Hermes arrived, followed by the strangest dragons they had seen yet. Two ridges ran down their backs instead of one, with a concave space between them where they carried several animal carcasses each. “Cargo dragons?” asked Jack.

“Looks like it,” said Maya.

“Will this suffice for your needs?” asked the Ambassador.

“Hermes…may we call you Hermes?” asked William.

“What is a Hermes?” asked the Ambassador.

“It’s a name we want to call you, instead of just your title.”

The Ambassador stared, as though waiting for more explanation. “I do not understand why I need two names in your language. But very well.”

“Hermes, we are not accustomed to eating meat raw, and we have no means to cook it. Do you have wood? Dead trees,” he added when the Ambassador failed to understand.

“We will bring wood.” Having no need for wood themselves, it took a while for the dragons to collect it, but when they did it was far more than they needed. They piled most of it to the side for future use and built a small cooking fire in the center of their den.

“Goats,” said Rachel, looking at the carcass that had been deposited on the dusty floor. “I bet this is why game is scarce; the dragons have hunted the area clean.”

“By the looks of it, they sure eat a lot of it,” said Maya, gazing at the dragons out in the main chamber. The meat was piled in the center and was being devoured raw by the crowd of dragons that surrounded it. There was no fighting, but it was hardly polite dining.

“Why are those ones eating alone?” asked William. He nodded toward a few stationary dragons.

“I noticed them earlier,” said Maya. “They haven’t moved since we got here. I’m not sure, but they look like they might be sick or injured. At least their scales didn’t look right.”

“How do we know what looks right?” asked Rachel.

“Well, not the same as the others, how’s that?” said Maya. Rachel shrugged.

“Hang on a second,” said Jack. “Did that blue one just eat a rock?” They all looked where Jack pointed and waited. “There, that one did, too.”

“Hmm. Maybe it’s a digestion thing,” said Maya. “Some birds do that too.”

After their meal William and Jack took another walk around the chamber. Maya had warned William to take it easy on his leg, but he was restless, having spent far too much time sitting still since they were trapped. Jack tried conversing with passing dragons, but none spoke as the Ambassador did. Aside from the Ambassador the only form of communication they detected was whistling, or trumpet-like bellows from the larger dragons. They were attempting to negotiate their way out of the main chamber when the Ambassador showed up. “You are the master of your people?” he asked William.

“Uh…I’m not sure what you mean. I am the leader of this group.”

“The Elder wishes to speak with you.”

“Can Jack come with us?” asked William.

The Ambassador stared at William. “What is a Jack?”

“This is Jack,” said William, pointing to his friend.

“This is not a man?” asked the Ambassador.

“Of course I’m a man,” said Jack.

“Jack is his name,” said William.

The Ambassador seemed confused. After a short delay, he said “your Jack may come.”

The route was long and convoluted. They passed many cross-tunnels as they descended, and the tunnels became more rugged and the floors more littered with rocks and pebbles. Jack grabbed a handful from a small pile and inspected them as they walked. “Look at this one.”

“What is this? A sapphire?”

“Amethyst, I think. Hard to tell in this light, though.” William went to hand it back, but Jack waved it off. “Keep it. Give it to Melissa,” he said.

“Are you sure? This could be worth a fortune.”

“If I’m right, there’s more than one fortune to be had here.”

“So you’re not worried anymore?” William smiled at the quick change in his friend’s morale at the mention of money. “What about Rachel?” he asked.

Jack gave him a sidelong glance. “What about her?”

“Why not give this to her?”

“She doesn’t feel that way about me.”

“It sure looked like it before,” said William.

“People act different when they think they’re about to die.”

William didn’t argue the point. They walked on in silence until they were surprised by the sight of several dragons working in a large chamber. Where others had wings attached to their shoulders, these had what appeared to be hands, or at least the draconian equivalent. Unlike wings, these appendages faced forward, but Hermes urged them on before they could see what they were doing.

They reached a chamber whose entrance was guarded by two pairs of large black dragons. Hermes led the way into the corridor, William and Jack following, the guard dragons bringing up the rear. William reminded himself they would already be dead if the dragons had wanted to kill them, but his heart pounded anyway. There was still a chance they could say something wrong to get themselves executed, and there would be no way out this time unless the dragons allowed it.

The Ambassador stopped short just before the corridor ended. “I have taught the Elder most of your language, but I shall remain in case there are words he does not know. Heed my warning: the Elder is old and wise. Do not speak any untruth, for he shall know and it will not go well for you.”

William and Jack both swallowed hard and nodded. They followed Hermes into the den, and before them sat the fattest, oldest-looking dragon they had seen so far. He was ash gray, aside from his tiny white eyes, and his legs were indistinguishable from his body. His wings, if they could be called that, were mere stumps. His head was his largest appendage, massively over-sized for his body. “Come closer,” he said with a raspy voice. “My eyes do not see as they once did.” William and Jack obeyed. “Strange,” he said, gazing intently at the two human visitors. “Strange it is to see creatures from the old legends.”

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

Though today’s lifestyles are comparable to those of the late Middle Ages on Earth, most Esperians enjoy better health and longer life expectancies than their medieval counterparts. This is in no small part due to better understanding of germs and the necessity of cleanliness, but it is also believed that many of the diseases on Earth were not present among the Colonists, leaving fewer maladies to plague their descendants.

Still, the lack of modern medical technologies such as genetic testing, radiological imaging and targeted drugs has reduced lifespans by as much as twenty years.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

William’s mouth hung open. Muffled pounding sounds drifted in from some distant tunnel as the Elder stared, waiting for his answer. “We—we’re creatures…from your legends?” he asked.

“Does this surprise you?” asked the Elder, his sharp eyes seeming to pierce their way into William’s thoughts.

“Well…yes, it does.”

“And why is that?” asked the Elder.

William glanced at Jack, who looked just as bewildered. “Because to us, you are creatures from our legends,” William said.

The Elder lifted his head slowly and peered down at William and Jack. “Do your legends portray us kindly?” he asked.

William hesitated. What if Hermes was right? What if the Elder really could detect lies? Even if he couldn’t, it was still unwise to try. “No, not all of them,” he said. “The oldest legends speak of battles between men and dragons.”

“As do ours, though they give few reasons for it.”

“This makes no sense,” said Jack. “How can two species share legends of each other if they aren’t from the same planet?”

“That which you fail to understand,” said the Elder, “may be clear to another. The Ambassador has never before seen your kind, yet his memory holds a language similar enough to yours that he learned yours almost immediately. It is obvious our peoples share a past—yet the details are hidden from me. There may come a time when we will know more about this past, but it is today that concerns me.” The Elder craned his head forward as far as his thick body allowed, nostrils flared and smoking, and fixed a firm gaze on William. “Why have you invaded our home?”

Jack interjected before William could formulate his answer. “We were hiding from other men.” Jack made no mention of their mission, and William knew his friend well enough to know the omission was deliberate. Jack must have thought it best not to reveal this detail, but why? And did it count as lying? He decided to follow Jack’s lead for the moment.

“Why must you hide from your own kind?” asked the Elder.

“They wanted us dead,” said William. “Or at least to cause us harm, and steal our possessions.”

“Men battle other men?” asked the Elder. “No dragon has harmed another in my lifetime, nor in the lifetimes of my own Elders. This does not speak well of your people.”

William dropped his gaze. “If you knew our history, you would know it is far too common for men to harm each other.”

“Do not presume to teach me what I already know. Our own legends tell enough of your brutal nature. I am sure you will understand I find it hard to trust creatures so willing to kill.”

“But we weren’t trying to kill anyone,” said Jack. “Those other men were trying to kill us!”

Wafts of smoke spewed from the Elder’s snout. “A more credible explanation is that you came here to kill dragons. This is more to your nature.”

“Forgive me, Elder,” said William. “I don’t want to offend you, but do you really believe five humans and a dog could do serious harm to your people?”

“You came armed,” said the Elder, looking at William’s sword in its scabbard.

“What? This piece of junk? It can’t do serious damage to anything.” William drew the sword to show the Elder, but a black guard dragon tore it from his grasp, the sword a mere toothpick in its massive jaws. William made no attempt to retrieve his weapon as the beast presented it to the Elder. After a brief inspection the Elder and Ambassador exchanged whistles, and the latter gave a sharp whistle that was answered by one of the dull gray dragons they had seen.

It took the sword in its odd-looking hands and inspected it from many angles. To William’s horror he bent the sword and snapped it in two. Jack caught William’s arm before he could try to reclaim his blade. “Don’t be stupid, Will. Let it go. It’s broken anyway.” William relented, and the gray dragon sniffed the broken sword, after which it whistled to the Ambassador.

The Elder turned back to them. “You are correct. This sword would have harmed none but the weakest of dragons. But you may not have known this, and we are aware that you have other weapons.” He drew a deep breath and continued. “Still, your explanation is not without merit. I will ponder your fate.” With that he closed his eyes.

The Ambassador took his cue. “You are to leave now,” he said to William and Jack.

“But we haven’t had a chance to convince the Elder—hey, watch it!” Jack succumbed to the large black dragon that pushed him into the corridor. William followed quickly. “Well that was rude,” said Jack as they followed the Ambassador back up the corridor. “The Elder acts like he’s some sort of royalty.”

“I don’t care,” said William. “Royal or not, he shouldn’t have had my sword broken.”

The Ambassador looked back at them over his shoulder without slowing. “The Elder is not royal, if I understand the word. But he is not to be disobeyed. And you were foolish to bring a weapon into his presence.”

William limped as quickly as he could to catch up. “Hermes, tell me honestly. Do you think the Elder will release us?”

The Ambassador continued forward without so much as glancing in William’s direction. “It is not for me to decide.”

William cut in front of the Ambassador and stopped short, halting the dragon in its path. “I’m not asking you to decide. I’m asking what you believe the Elder will decide.”

The black and silver scales shimmered in the lamplight as the dragon stood silently before answering. “You are alive. This is more than I expected.” He pushed past, leaving William with his mouth hanging open.

“You had to ask,” said Jack as they followed.

“Where have you guys been?” asked Rachel as they returned.

“We met the Elder,” said Jack.

Maya looked up from the equipment she was cleaning. “Oh, that’s not fair. I was hoping I could see him.”

“It wasn’t the experience you were hoping for,” said William as he flopped to the dusty rock floor.

“What’s with him?” asked Rachel.

“He’s sore because they broke his favorite sword,” said Jack.

“Make fun if you want, Jack, but it was my only sword.”

“You still have your shield,” said Jack, the smirk on his face poorly concealed. “It’s a really nice one. Where’d —”

“Want it jammed in your mouth? It might stop that constant flow of—”

“Forget the sword, forget the shield!” said Maya. “Tell me about the Elder. What was he like? What did he say?”

William answered through clenched teeth. “The Elder, in his infinite wisdom, has deferred his decision as to whether we may leave until later.”

“You mean we’re still prisoners?” asked Rachel. “Didn’t you explain why we were here?”

“Of course we did,” snapped William. “But apparently humans have some sort of past with the dragons, and he’s convinced we are violent creatures bent on destroying them.”

Jack filled them in on the details, occasionally interrupted by William’s angry comments. Rachel grew as angry as William, but Maya’s reaction was one of curiosity. The possibility that dragons and humans had interacted long ago fascinated her. “It explains why the Ambassador learned to speak with us so quickly,” she said.

“That’s what Chronos thought,” said Jack.

“Who’s Chronos?” asked Rachel.

“That’s what I decided to call the Elder. After the god of time. I figured we should stick with the theme.”

“How does it explain it?” asked William. “I’m sure our ancestors interacted with Roman soldiers, but if we met one today how quickly would we learn Latin?”

Maya rubbed her chin before answering. “Well…we aren’t the same as them. And really, only the Ambassador learned English. From what you described he taught the Elder—I mean Chronos. None of the others speak English, right?”

William nodded. “Right. As far as we know, anyway.”

“I think the dragons are more specialized than we are. We’ve already seen lots of different looking dragons, and they appear to have different functions.”

“Like bees,” said Charlie. “Only smarter.”

Everyone turned, surprised both by the unexpected break in his silence, and by the significance of what he said. The insight was obvious once stated out loud, and it had come from the last person William expected.

“You may be right Charlie,” said Maya as she grinned at the Guard. “We’ll have to watch for other similarities.”

“Well, does anyone know when bees—or dragons—go to sleep?” William asked. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m exhausted.”

Was it day or night now? Who could tell? They had spent so long underground under such stress that William guessed they had gone more than a day and night without sleep. His suggestion of bedding down for the “night” was accepted with tired enthusiasm. Charlie offered to take the first watch, but William told him to sleep instead. “Prisoners don’t keep watch, Charlie.”

Someone tossed a cloak over the lantern that had been left in their den, and William fell asleep immediately. Untold hours later the smell of roasting meat and the growling of his stomach coaxed him awake. Maya was preparing their breakfast, Charlie helping by tasting the samples she gave him. Rachel snored in the corner, but Jack was absent. “Bathroom,” said Charlie in answer to his query. This reminded William that he hadn’t relieved himself since they had gone underground, and when Jack returned he showed William where the dragons had set up their waste facilities.

It was simple and effective. An underground stream flowed along a channel in the floor of a hidden alcove. Whether the source was a spring or snow-melt William was unsure. It flowed from a fissure half way up one wall, and down the channel and out a drainage hole at the other end. He couldn’t see where it went from there, but it neatly solved the problem of waste removal without using valuable resources. For dragons, who stood on four legs, the arrangement was perfect. For humans it required an awkward squat, but it was better than stinking up a corner of their own den. According to Maya’s tests, the water that flowed into the “bathroom” was safe to drink, which solved another problem.

Hermes arrived as they finished eating. He politely declined their offer of food, and informed them of a minor change in their status. “You are free to travel anywhere in our home, aside from the guarded places. You will be escorted, and if you attempt to escape you will be returned and confined here.” William noted that the Ambassador’s English had improved dramatically. Not only could he make himself understood, he had also mastered the art of unspoken meaning.

“So the Elder has not decided,” said William.

“The Elder hopes this new liberty will make up for his delay.”

William nodded. “Please express our thanks to the Elder.”

The Ambassador left, leaving behind five large guard dragons. The Ambassador was taking no chances that the group might split and evade their chaperones.

“Why did you thank him?” asked Rachel. “We’re still prisoners.”

William shrugged. “I don’t know. It seemed like the right thing to say.” Now he doubted himself. Should he have argued with Hermes instead and made a show of standing up for their rights? He had no illusions that it would have worked, but maybe he had shown weakness in not even trying.

“Who’s up for exploring?” asked Jack as he tossed William’s crutch to him.

“Me, I guess,” said William.

“Will, your leg,” said Maya.

“My leg is fine. Well, better anyway.”

“I’ll decide that. Let me look.” After a brief examination she pronounced it fit enough to walk on, so long as he took it easy. “I must have done even better work than I thought. You boys be back before dinner.” It was good to hear her laughing; perhaps it was a sign everyone’s spirits were rising, despite their imprisonment.

As they left, two black dragons followed them, the other three remaining behind to watch the others. “Where do you want to go?” asked William.

“How should I know? I don’t know what’s here any better than you do. I just want to see what I can see.”

“I meant which direction, but whatever. Just so long as we don’t get lost.”

“I have a perfect sense of direction, I’ll have you know. Now, where’s the exit from this chamber again? Oh, there it is.”

They recognized all the crossroads they had seen before, including where they ran into their first dragon. This time they hiked in the opposite direction, down the same tunnel that led to the Elder’s den, but they turned down an unexplored tunnel the first chance they got. Its yawning entrance beckoned, the sheer width of it practically inviting them in. Even the smooth worn stone beneath their feet told of heavy traffic and new things to discover. Jack pointed out the dragon scales of various colors that littered the floor. “I’d really like to know how they have metallic scales,” said William as they walked past. “Do the dragons make them, or do they just grow that way?”

“What’s it matter?” asked Jack.

“Well, do you know of any other living thing that has metal parts? It’s interesting.”

“It’s only interesting if you can do something with the information.”

“Hold on,” said William. “That’s not true at all. Some things are worth knowing just because they’re interesting.”

“If you say so. But I think you spend too much time with books.”

“It’s sort of my job description, Jack.”

“Your job has changed a bit, hasn’t it?”

William chuckled. “Maybe a little.”

They became aware of a distant, dull rumbling. The tunnel split several times, and each time they invariably followed the noise. The din grew so loud as they continued that they had to cover their ears, but they were rewarded when they came to a large open cavern with several dragons of varying size and color. The source of the noise was obvious: several large copper dragons were smashing the cavern’s walls with their tails. Approaching as close as they dared, they saw that the ends of their tails were large and solid, like massive hammer heads on flexible, living handles. Giant shards of rock flew at every swing, littering the ground with boulders and pebbles and everything in between.

“So this is how they make their tunnels,” said William, yelling over the noise.

“Look!” Jack pointed at a cargo dragon entering the room, similar to the one that brought them meat the day before, only much larger. With its long neck, wide snout and flattened jaw, it loaded itself full of rocks that the smashers had blasted from the cavern walls. William stood and stared with his mouth hanging open as the behemoth shuffled under its burden toward the exit. The weight it carried was beyond William’s ability to comprehend, but the beast trod slowly and steadily on its short, powerful legs without any sign of struggle. “Let’s see where it goes,” said Jack as he pulled William by the arm to chase after it.

It was an odd procession: the cargo dragon, apparently unaware of the two humans who followed it—one of whom was limping—followed by two giant guard dragons who dwarfed everyone in front of them. William wondered what they thought of their assigned duties, or if any of the larger dragons were capable of much thought at all. The procession made its way back to the Elder’s tunnel, past the spot where William first saw dragons with hands. A short distance further they reached a wide open space filled with several dragons of varying colors, but similar shapes. “Look at the huge bellies on those guys,” said William, pointing at three odd-looking dragons with pearly-white scales. The cargo dragon sidled up to a pile of rock, tilted itself to one side and added its load to the pile. It then began to load itself from a second pile, but William and Jack lost interest when the white dragons converged on the first pile and began swallowing rocks.

“Okay, that’s strange,” said William, his eyes wide.

“Is there anything about them that isn’t strange?” asked Jack.

The big-bellied monsters began heaving their chests up and down, gulping and exhaling massive amounts of air in a slow rhythm. The room grew hotter, and jets of fire soon shot from the dragons’ mouths while their chests and throats began to glow a dull red. Several minutes passed, during which William could do little more than shake his head in disbelief. The fire breathing stopped, and each dragon spat the remains into the second pile. One dragon spat into a third pile, the contents making a clinking sound as it hit the floor.

Jack gripped William’s shoulder. “I’ve got it!” he yelled as he danced with excitement.

“Ow! What’s the big deal? They eat rocks.”

“No, that’s not it. Well, maybe they do, it would explain the metal scales. But look what they’re doing. This isn’t just a dragon den: it’s a mine! These beasts here are smelting. I’m sure of it. Let’s watch them a little longer.”

After several more rounds it became evident Jack was right. Jack’s theory was that the heavy breathing was like a bellows feeding air to flame. Each round they expelled the leftovers, and every few times they produced enough pure metal to spit up.

“Maya’s going to love this,” said William, joining Jack in his enthusiasm. “It’s a scientific marvel. Fire breathing, metal digestion—”

Jack laughed. “Are you crazy? Forget the science! Can you imagine the trade opportunities? My dad will go out of his skull when he hears. I’ve never seen so much metal in one spot before. Do you think we can grab some? To look at, I mean; not to keep.”

“Uh…I wouldn’t advise it. I don’t want these guys on my bad side. Nor the Elder for that matter.”

“Chicken. Fine, we’ll do it your way. Let’s go back and tell the others.”

They traced their way back to their den with little difficulty, taking only one wrong turn in the process. As expected, Jack’s suggestion that the dragons were mining was met with interest, but Maya had news of her own to share. “I think this chamber is a combination of a hospital and a nursery.”

“Not to mention a jail,” said Rachel.

“What makes you say that, Maya?” asked William, ignoring Rachel’s complaint.

“First, from what you’ve described it seems isolated from the other chambers, and I’ve wondered about that. Second, this is the only place where we see the little dragons…unless you guys saw some on your travels?” William shook his head. “I thought as much. But what clinched it was several dragons that were brought into another side den like ours. The den was guarded, but we still saw the dragons inside, and they all look injured or sick.”

“How could you tell? We don’t know anything about dragons,” said Jack.

“True, but when an animal—any animal—is immobilized, or slower than normal, it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s sick or injured. But the gaping holes in their sides were a pretty good clue, too.”

“Well, yes, I suppose they would be,” said Jack sheepishly.

“Also, every time a sick dragon arrived, we got a whiff of that smell. I think it has something to do with their illness.”

“Some sort of plague, maybe?” asked William. “Could it affect us?”

“There’s no knowing,” said Maya. “But I’d guess not. Their physiology must be radically different from ours. Besides, we would have shown symptoms by now.”

“Look, this is all very interesting,” said Rachel. “Fire breathing, mining, stinky plague…what on Esper do we actually do? I’m getting tired of waiting.”

No one had any suggestions. Finally Jack broke the silence. “Does it seem to anyone else that the dragons are hiding something?”

“Like what?” asked William.

“I don’t know. Something…important. Something that would make a difference.”

The Ambassador arrived with the meat cargo and approached the group.

“Hermes, may we ask you some questions?” asked Maya.

“I will answer what I can,” he said.

Maya looked at William, who nodded his assent. She was willing to defer to him, but she knew more than he did about sickness and healing.

“Do dragons mine metal?”

“Some do. Others hunt for meat, others are guards. Metal is important to us.”

“Do you have doctors? Healers, I mean.” Maya grew frustrated at Hermes’ apparent inability to understand her. “I mean, who cares for your injured in those dens over there?”

The Ambassador hesitated. “We care for them as best we can. Dragons are highly specialized. Illness and injury are not common, and are considered acceptable losses, so healing is not a specialty we have developed.”

“But your losses aren’t acceptable right now, are they?” asked Jack.

“You seem to know much about our losses,” said the Ambassador. “More than one who had nothing to do with them.”

Rachel pushed past William and confronted the Ambassador, hands on her hips. “It would be obvious to anyone with half a brain. This is why you’re keeping us from leaving, isn’t it? You believe we have something to do with it.”

William was sure the Ambassador sighed. “The Elder is cautious, as he should be. But I do not believe I am revealing a secret when I tell you that we are under attack, and that we do not know who our enemy is.”

“You must know it’s not us,” said William. “That much has to be obvious.”

“Until we have proof…” Was that a shrug? Perhaps dragons weren’t so different from humans after all.

“What if we help the injured dragons?” asked Maya. “I am a trained healer, a doctor.”

“Yes, if we healed your injured, that would be proof enough, wouldn’t it?” asked William.

The Ambassador gazed at each of them in turn before answering. “It might serve. But the decision belongs to the Elder.”

“Fine,” said Maya. “Tell us what you know about the injuries, and we’ll try to do something about it.”

“There is little to tell,” said Hermes. “We find the injured dragons, and we bring them here. Some get better, others die.”

“That’s the smell, isn’t it?” asked Jack.

“I do not know of any smell,” said the Ambassador.

“You can’t smell the odor in here?” asked Maya. “Interesting. I wonder if it’s because of the mining. They would need to be able to detect inorganic material, which might interfere with—”

“Thank you Ambassador, I believe we have enough information,” said William, ignoring Maya’s glare. “Are we permitted to inspect the injured dragons?”

“I will inform the guards on my way out.”

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

Early terraforming efforts included seeding the planet with a large variety of medicinal plants. These plants were well established before the Arrival, and having been cut off from modern drugs, the Colonists were forced to recreate ancient extraction techniques to satisfy their therapeutic needs. Even today most households maintain herb gardens for the treatment of simple health problems.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

[_ _]

She raged back and forth across the width of the den, the others avoiding her path. “I can’t believe you want to help them!” she yelled. William couldn’t tell whether she was angrier at Maya or the dragons, but she voiced her displeasure at both at frequent intervals. He had never seen her this mad, and had no idea how to address it.

Only Maya seemed willing to challenge her. “What else are we supposed to do? Just sit here?”

“We could try to escape. If you weren’t all cowards, that is.” Rachel hurled a piece of wood at the fire, scattering coals. William half-expected Charlie to come to Maya’s defense and tackle Rachel, but he seemed lost in his own misery. The dragon lamps kept the darkness at bay, but they didn’t eliminate it, and William knew Charlie was feeling the effects.

The bickering annoyed William, especially since the solution was obvious. “Look, why don’t we do both? There’s no way I can cure sick dragons, and I’m pretty sure Jack can’t either. Charlie, you stay with Maya; the three of us will go exploring.”

“Exploring isn’t the same as escaping,” said Rachel.

“I know, but as long as the Elder lets us walk around here, we may as well check all our options.” He ignored Rachel’s resentful look and pressed on. “We’d have to do that anyway, right?”

“Fine,” she said. “Let’s go.” Without looking at Maya she stomped away, calling for Steve to follow her. Jack shrugged in response to William’s questioning look and followed Rachel.

William lagged behind to smooth things over. “Maya, I don’t—”

“Let me guess: you think I’m wasting my time, too, don’t you?” She crossed her arms and looked away.

“No, just the opposite,” said William. “I think looking for a way to escape is a waste of time.”

“Then why are you doing it?” she asked.

“Because it’s all I have left to do,” said William. “I meant what I said; I can’t help you with this.”

Maya’s demeanor softened. “You probably could, you know.”

“I’d be nothing more than a sounding board, someone to bounce ideas off. You know that. Besides, Charlie is a better listener than I am.”

She chuckled. “That’s true; he’s better than most.”

An idea came to William. “Charlie, maybe you can help by playing the flute. That got their attention last time. You haven’t played since we got captured.” The big man nodded. William gave them both an encouraging smile and hobbled after Rachel and Jack.

There was an awkward silence when William caught up, made more painful by the dance he performed to get around the guard dragons that tagged along. When humans and dragons separated into their respective groups he asked, “So where do we look first?”

“Let’s start where we saw the dragons smelting,” said Jack. “I want to see where the metal goes.”

“Is it anywhere near a way out?” asked Rachel.

Jack raised an eyebrow at her. “How should I know? We haven’t been there yet.”

Rachel sighed deeply, making no effort to hide her exasperation. “You aren’t the least bit serious about finding a way out, are you? Either of you?”

William wasn’t sure how to respond, but Jack beat him to it. “No. Not yet anyway. I’m still convinced there’s a pile of gold around here somewhere.”

Rachel snorted in derision. “Even you aren’t that dumb, Jack.”

“Okay, not a real pile of gold,” said Jack, ignoring the insult. “But there’s an opportunity here, I’m sure of it. If all we do is escape without figuring how to profit from it, my dad will sell me down the river for cheap labor.”

“Would it be any better to discover riches, and then never get out of here?” asked Rachel.

“No, so let’s see everything we can before we do something stupid.”

Even in the dim light, William saw the anger between them. The tension was tighter than a bowstring; he needed a way to release it. “Like jump down a hole?” he asked, hoping to make them laugh. Instead, Jack gave him an icy stare before walking away.

“Nice one, Will,” said Rachel as she followed Jack. William stared at their retreating figures in disbelief. Forget being eaten by dragons: they were tearing themselves apart already. By his count at least three fights plagued the group, not counting Charlie’s own internal battle. Again he suspected that Cairns had erred by putting him in charge, even if the rules required it.

He caught up as Jack and Rachel reached the smelting place. Their timing was perfect, as the dragons had just started their fire breathing ritual. All signs of animosity disappeared from Rachel’s face as she became enthralled in the sight before her. “This is incredible,” she said, moving as close as she dared to get a better view. Steve was less impressed, and hung back with William, whining in protest at the flames shooting from the beasts’ jaws. William stroked his ears to comfort him.

“We should follow those cargo dragons, and see where they go,” said William.

“Which ones?” asked Jack. “They go in two different directions.”

“Let’s follow the ones carrying the metal,” said William. “I’d rather see that than a garbage pile.”

They were forced to wait, as the smelted metal piled up more slowly than the waste. Eventually one beast took on a load and embarked on a new path, one that led them around and below the Elder’s den—or so William pictured it in his mind. They reached another open space where they saw several of the dragons with strange hands. He wished he could look closer to see how much they had in common with human hands, but he wasn’t willing to risk it.

Though nothing looked familiar to them, it had to be a manufacturing facility of some sort; the hammering sound alone was evidence enough. The handed dragons took raw material from the pile the cargo dragon provided, returned to what looked like a giant anvil, and began hammering it. White fire-dragons served as walking bellows, heating the metal on demand. William found himself amused to recall the words “manufacture” and “manipulate” both came from the Latin word for “hand.” He didn’t bother sharing that with the others.

“Can you figure out what they’re making?” asked Jack.

Rachel shook her head. “Not sure. But you know what we haven’t seen? Support structures. With all these tunnels, you’d think they’d need it.”

“Maybe they’ve got some sort of sense about it. There’s columns in all the big chambers.” Jack pointed at a crafter at the far end. “Look at that. I’d swear they used those things to smash the walls. But I thought their tails grew that way. How would they attach them?”

William stayed out of the conversation, as it was clear that they were talking only to each other, ignoring his presence completely. A lump grew in his throat, but he saw no point in complaining; it would only make it worse.

“Are those arrowheads?” asked Jack. He gestured toward another crafter.

“They look more like crossbow bolts,” said Rachel. “Interesting. I wonder if they hunt with those; they never shot them at us. Good thing too; they would do some serious damage.”

“I’m going to get a closer look,” said Jack.

“Are you sure it’s safe?” she asked.

Jack grinned. “What’s the worst that could happen?” The worst, it turned out, was a trumpet blast from a black guard, its meaning clear, and Jack scrambled away from the crafting area. “Okay, so that was a bad idea.”

By unspoken agreement they returned in the direction they came from. They had nothing else to do, so they took another look at the piles near the smelting dragons. A cargo beast dropped a fresh batch of rocks, and Jack eagerly sifted through them. He expressed surprise at how many stones appeared semi-precious or better. He found a particularly beautiful one and made a spectacle of offering it to Rachel.

William was in no mood for Jack’s antics. He had watched his half-hearted advances get rejected with amusement, but now that Rachel had warmed to him it was more than he could bear. “I’m heading back,” he told them. “My leg is killing me.” After a short time he heard their footsteps behind him, but despite their better legs they never caught up with him. William was fine with that.

Jack and Rachel were eager to discuss what they had seen, but they found an unwilling audience in Maya, and a silent one in Charlie. This pattern remained for the next few days, or at least what felt like days without the rising and setting of the sun. William kept the peace as best he could, alternating between exploring with Jack and Rachel and helping Maya find a cure for the dragons. No one succeeded in their stated goals, but at least Jack discovered new kinds of dragons. He described tiny messengers, small enough to land on his hand, flitting about the tunnels. He had also spotted large silver dragons near work sites, and Jack swore one addressed him in English. Hermes had no word for them when asked, but there was every indication they were important in dragon hierarchy, perhaps even outranking the Ambassador himself. Perhaps they were the Elder’s children?

The giant black dragons still barred them from many tunnels, and still they had found no sign of an exit. Meanwhile, Maya’s frustration grew, her spat with Rachel preventing her from expressing it in a useful way. Normally she spoke to anyone who listened, but now she stubbornly refused to show weakness of any kind. It felt to William as though the two women were competing to see who spent their time the least uselessly. Neither said anything directly, but each made pointed comments from time to time that revealed their acrimony toward each other.

Maya spent most of her time with the sick dragons. Charlie brought his flute on those visits, and as William had expected it made approaching them easier. An audience of dragons followed Charlie when he played, and the “patients” were more relaxed about letting Maya examine them. The success ended there, however. William didn’t pretend to understand what she was looking for, but he knew that she hadn’t found it. She attempted to grow cultures from their wounds with what little equipment she had, but got no results. She experimented with different medicines she had packed, all to no avail. In desperation she asked for, and received, special dispensation to look for herbs outside—under guard, of course.

“Why did she get to go out, and no one else?” asked Rachel as she returned from another expedition with Jack. Maya refused to answer, and continued grinding herbs.

“Self-interest, I guess,” said William. “They want a cure even more than we do.”

“Not more than I do,” said Maya as she stomped away in search of a patient to treat.

“Can someone please tell me why she keeps trying,” said Rachel as soon as Maya was out of earshot. “It’s not like they deserve the help.”

“Look, Rachel, I don’t know why you’re upset about this,” said William. “There’s nothing else she can do; this is what she does. She heals things. Maybe it will pay off, maybe it won’t, but her only other options are to follow you guys around, or to sit here and do nothing. And for the record, following you guys around isn’t much fun, either.”

William expected a heated response, but they remained silent and ignored him. He wished they would either come around to his point of view or argue with him about it, but not knowing what they thought was worse. He passed the time by pretending to sleep so he wouldn’t have to talk to them. He must have been tired, because the next thing he knew he woke to the sound of Maya cursing.

“What happened?” Jack asked.

“They died, is what happened!” she said. “Three of them, right in front of me. I watched them carry the bodies out. King’s blisters, why can’t I figure this out?” She kicked her pack across the den, spilling its contents across the stone floor. She hammered her fists against the wall until Charlie intervened so she wouldn’t hurt herself. She relaxed and buried her face in his chest.

William couldn’t think of a single thing to say. What do you tell someone who feels guilty about three deaths despite her best efforts? Or was she embarrassed? He looked at Jack, but his friend shrugged helplessly. Rachel appeared conflicted, however. She approached Maya, her instinct to comfort overcoming her doubts. “It’s not your fault,” she said, gently touching Maya’s shoulder.

Maya whirled to face Rachel. “How would you know that?” she demanded.

“If you weren’t here, they would have died anyway, right? I mean, at least you didn’t make things worse.”

“You’ve already told me that what I’m doing is pointless. Now you’re saying I’m useless?”

“No! No…” Rachel struggled to find the words. “I’m saying it’s not your responsibility. You chose to help them; no one forced you.”

Maya gave her a sidelong glance, clearly not trusting Rachel’s line of reasoning. “I guess,” she said.

Encouraged by her success, Rachel continued. “Like I said, it wasn’t likely to come to anything anyway.”

“What do you mean?” asked Maya, turning a suspicious eye on Rachel.

“I—I just mean—even if you found a cure, they wouldn’t let us go anyway.”

“That’s not what you meant, and you know it,” said Maya as she pulled away from Rachel. “You still think I’m wasting my time. Well, let me ask you this: what have you done? It’s not like you’ve found a way to escape, is it?”

“Look, I’m sorry, I—”

“Oh, never mind.” Maya waved her hand at Rachel dismissively. “I’m tired, I’m upset, I’m angry. The last thing I need right now is a fight. What I need is to figure out why I can’t figure anything out.” As she slumped to the floor with her head in her hands, the only sound they heard was the rush of water from the underground stream and the occasional echoing whistle or bellow of a dragon. Even the din of the dragons’ hammering did not reach their den.

“Maybe we can help you think it through,” said William. The others agreed readily, if for no other reason than to relieve the tension. “What have you tried so far?”

Maya dropped her hands to her lap and counted on her fingers. “I’ve taken cultures from their wounds—no result, so it’s probably not a germ. I’ve tried all the medicines I brought, and nothing helped at all. Even the herbs had no effect, although I wasn’t expecting them to.”

“What about poison? That’s what we’re looking for anyway,” said Jack.

“The wounds wouldn’t be so localized,” said Maya, shaking her head. “It can’t be heavy metal poisoning, because they’d have to be immune to it since they work with metal. I don’t have any way to test for any other kinds of poison.”

“Maybe it’s a rash of some sort. Like an allergy?” said Rachel.

“I thought of that,” said Maya. “But we can’t think in human or mammal terms, though. Their skin is bizarre. It doesn’t seem to secrete fluids or have any pores, and this—stuff, whatever it is—gets underneath and eats away at it from inside.”

Rachel winced. “Ugh…sounds unhealthy. No way to cool or clean themselves.”

“That’s what’s so frustrating. Their skin isn’t even skin the way we think of it. It’s almost like clothing or armor.”

“My armor sometimes needs cleaning,” said Charlie. “Do we have any soap?”

The laughter died on William’s lips when he saw the look on Maya’s face. Charlie’s comment had given her an idea, and she sat in rapture, eyes unfocused. “Soap…could—no, there’s no way it could be that simple.”

“You mean they might just be dirty?” asked Jack. “This whole place is nothing but dust and rock. How could they possibly stay clean?”

“No, not dirty,” said Maya. She was getting animated now. “But soap is made with lye, which neutralizes acid. And it got me thinking, maybe what I’ve been looking at is acid burns. They look nothing like burns do on human skin, but like I said, their skin isn’t like ours.”

“From what?” asked Rachel.

“Who knows, but it’s worth testing.”

“Okay, but where do get lye?” asked Jack. “We’re nowhere near town, and I’m sure the Elder won’t let us leave and get some.”

Maya laughed. “What did they teach you in school, Jack? We make it from ashes. And water; we need lots of water. Here, fill these pots.” Charlie and Rachel each grabbed two pots and ran to get water. “Okay, we need a cloak, or something to hold the ashes and act as a filter. Are you sure?” she asked William as he offered his own. “It’s going to get dirty.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll clean it after. This is important.”

“Okay, now a tripod. Will, do you still need your crutch? No? Good. Jack, grab a couple more branches the same size from that pile.” Soon they had built an apparatus where water could be filtered through the ash-filled cloak into the large pot below. They passed the water through several times, producing a batch of slimy, soapy water.

“And now to test it,” said Maya. She filled a few bottles with lye water and turned to Charlie. “Bring your flute. They may need calming if this doesn’t work. Oh, and guys…don’t use those pots to make dinner. Cross your fingers for me.”

The concoction succeeded beyond Maya’s expectations. It wasn’t a complete cure, but it proved her suspicions that the wounds were, in fact, acidic in nature. More importantly, it stopped the burns from spreading. Soaking the skin with lye was not enough; she had to pierce the surface of the hide and pour it in. The hide did not appear to have any pain sensors, but she learned quickly to avoid deep cuts lest the patient recoil in pain. She could judge from the bubbling that resulted exactly how much solution to use, and the relief was immediate in all but the most extreme cases.

Later, she explained the process to the Ambassador who then put dozens of excavator and cargo dragons to work following her instructions. Copper dragons smashed and chiseled two large pits connected by a narrow, shallow channel. Cargo dragons brought huge quantities of wood which the smelting dragons burned, after which the ashes were dumped into the flooded pit. Water trickled through the channel into the second pit, resulting in a giant bath of lye water.

The bath was easy for the dragons both to maintain and use. They could not spare crafting dragons to cut skin and apply the solution directly, but soaking in the bath alleviated that need. Each afflicted dragon, beginning with those most affected, soaked themselves until the burning stopped. Some needed repeated treatments, but by the time William and the others bedded down for the night, most of the sick dragons had returned to work, and the infirmary’s population began to drop.

Maya’s breakthrough had given the dragons time to heal themselves. William knew this might go a long way to getting the Elder to release them, and he had high hopes that Chronos might acknowledge a debt of gratitude. It would only be fair and reasonable. But for some reason his palms began to sweat when the Elder summoned him.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

The feudal system adopted by the Colonists resulted in problems similar to those encountered in systems used during Earth’s medieval period. Among these was the issue of inheritance. If property were split between all children, land parcels would shrink over generations. A doctrine of primogeniture was adopted to keep political boundaries intact, with provisions to split fiefs if the vassal lord agreed. This was generally granted if income from the lands in question were large enough to support such a split.

An unintended consequence of this system is that most second, third and subsequent sons of titled lords were often disgruntled due to a lack of inheritance.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

[_ _]

They were given permission to leave.

The Elder responded to Maya’s cure with gratitude, as William had hoped. However, the Elder stressed that their freedom depended on swearing not to reveal the dragons’ presence. “That’s not fair,” said Jack. “How can we trade with them if we have to keep them a secret? If we flood the markets with metal, someone’s bound to ask questions.”

Everyone else was relieved, though. With relief came clearer minds, and William reminded them all of what even he had forgotten about: “We still have to find where the poison is coming from. Isn’t it too much of a coincidence that we find dragons in the same direction as the poison? We need to keep looking around here.”

Rachel gave him an icy stare. “You mean we finally get released, and the first thing you want to do is stay here?”

“Will makes a good point,” said Maya, whose grudge against Rachel had not been completely forgotten. “I was so busy curing their illness—and gaining our freedom—that I didn’t even think about the river.” William wished Maya wouldn’t taunt Rachel like that. True, Rachel hadn’t apologized, but unlike Maya she at least seemed willing to drop the matter and stop arguing.

“Well, maybe the dragons will let us look in places we couldn’t before,” said Jack. 

“We should start outside,” said William. “At least that way we can search for the spot where the poison enters the river.”

“Have you forgotten that there are people out there who want us dead?” asked Rachel.

“King’s beard,” said William. “Yes, I did forget.” He drummed his fingers on his knee as he pondered the dilemma. “No matter what, we have to leave eventually. We may as well see what’s out there. We can always come back in if we need to.”

“And lead the bandits into the dragon hive?” asked Jack. “As fun as that sounds, I don’t believe Chronos would appreciate it.”

“Fine,” said William. “Let’s ask if they have any other exits we can try first. Hopefully the bandits won’t be watching there. But we still tell them nothing about the poison in the river. Agreed?”

Hermes showed them several concealed exits in ravines and crevices. It took several minutes for their eyes to adjust to the first sunlight they had seen in days. When their vision returned they saw they had exited farther north than they intended. They had not told the dragons what they were looking for, asking only to be led away from where they had last seen the bandits. Maya tested the small creeks around them for the sake of certainty; as she suspected, they were clean. “These streams are probably just snow-melt,” she said. “We need to get closer to the river to have any hope of finding the source.”

As they trekked southward William sent Rachel to scout the surrounding area, partly to determine if the bandits were near, but also so he could talk to Jack alone. “This fight between Maya and Rachel is driving me crazy,” he said.

“Tell me about it,” said Jack.

“Should I say something? Try to help them…I don’t know…get over it?”

“Sure, if you want to fan the flames, go ahead.”

“What do you mean?” asked William.

“Well, what could you possibly say? No matter what, you’ll have to tell at least one of them they’re wrong or acting immature. Maybe both.”

“But they are!”

“Sure, but do you think they want to hear that? Besides, they’ll probably both start fighting with you instead.”

It was true; he had caused the exact same thing when he tried to intervene in Jack and Rachel’s spat. Not worth it, he decided. Say something now, and it can’t be unsaid. Wait, and he could say something later if he needed to.

Rachel returned, running at full speed and breathless. “There’s fresh footprints all around here,” she said. “I was hoping they’d given up by now, but they’re still looking for us. And over there…that looks like smoke from three different campfires. There’s no way we can reach the river without being seen.”

William sighed. Would they ever catch a break? “We’d better get back,” he said. “The longer we’re out here, the more chances we’re taking.” They hurried back to the hidden entrance and made the reluctant trip back to the den.

“Now what?” asked Jack as they all rested their backs against the rock wall.

“I’m out of ideas,” said Rachel. “We can’t stay here forever, but we’ll get caught if we try to leave.”

“Can’t the dragons help us?” asked Charlie.

William shook his head. “They won’t get involved. The Elder made it clear they want no one else to know about them. We can’t drag them into this.”

“Maybe there’s another way they can help,” said Jack. “They have to go outside to hunt, but they never get caught or noticed.”

“That’s right,” said Maya. “They must know the terrain if they hunt or forage.”

Rachel nodded. “They’ve practically cleared the whole area of game.”

“So how do we ask them? We don’t want to tell them about the poison, do we?” asked Maya.

“I still don’t believe we should,” said William. “The Elder won’t be happy when he finds out that’s what led us here. But we could at least suggest that if they help us escape unnoticed, we would be less likely to draw attention here.”

“That’s risky,” said Rachel.

“And bad salesmanship,” said Jack. “If you want someone’s help, you don’t tell them how it might be bad for them.”

“What’s the worst that can happen?” asked William.

“Think it through, Will. What would you do?” asked Jack.

William knew the answer. If the dragons felt threatened, they might refuse to let them leave. But it was the only option, and he had to try it. But they needed a backup plan. “Speaking of salesmen, I’ll need one with me when I visit the Elder. Know any good ones, Jack?” he asked.

“Well, my dad is the best there is, but he’s a bit far away. Perhaps I can help?”

“You’ll have to do,” said William, grinning with delight that his friend was joking again. “You three prepare to leave if we don’t come back. If we aren’t back in…I don’t know, just get out if you think we aren’t coming back.”

“Will, it’s not worth risking your life!” said Maya.

“I don’t think I am. Maybe my freedom, but I don’t think the Elder would have us killed. Anyway, finish the job if you can, but get out alive no matter what. I mean it. And if they keep the two of us prisoner, feel free to tell everyone about the dragons. I’ll be damned if we keep a promise if they won’t. Let’s go, Jack.”

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Will?” asked Jack as they hurried down the corridor.

“I have no idea whether this will work, Jack, but it’s our only option as I see it. How do you want to approach it?”

“Silently, and from behind,” said Jack. “But since we can’t do that, we have to make an offer that sounds good for them.”

“How?”

Their footsteps echoed as Jack pondered. “We’ll convince the Elder it’s his idea,” he said finally. “We tell him the evidence we found, and that we came back to warn them there are other humans nearby.”

“Won’t his instinct be to hide the dragons until the bandits go away?”

“No, they have to eat, same as us. They have dragons out at night anyway. They may as well scout for the bandits while they’re out there.”

William gasped as Jack’s idea became clear. “Yes! We say our colleagues in town will want to capture these bandits, but we would have to know where they are first.”

“I like it. It could work.”

They reached the smelting area and admired the fire-breathing for a moment. “You know, I’m eager to leave, but this is one sight I won’t get tired of,” said Jack.

“I know what you mean,” said William. “You know something? No matter how this all ends, it’s been a pretty amazing trip, hasn’t it?”

Jack sighed. “It’s a shame we can’t tell anyone.”

They were about to leave when a cargo dragon crossed their path. “Whoa, that beast nearly flattened me,” said Jack. He stared as the colossal dragon receded into the dark. “Wait a minute…have any of the cargo dragons gone that way before?”

“Not that I remember,” said William. “What’s got you so excited?”

“Will, the garbage pile, the stuff they don’t use, whatever they call it. That’s what it’s carrying. We’ve never seen where they take it, have we?”

“We don’t have time to satisfy your curiosity Jack. We have a job to do, remember? Maya and the others will leave if we waste too much time.”

“You don’t get it, Will! Listen to me. What would you do with all that garbage?”

“I don’t know, I’d want to dump it far away as possible. It’s probably toxic, and…oh!”

“Exactly. Can you keep up? They move pretty fast.”

“Don’t worry about me,” said William. “Just follow it; I’ll find you later.” Jack ran after the lumbering beast and disappeared into the darkness ahead. Even the sound of the cargo dragon’s pounding footsteps faded, but William had no difficulty choosing the right path: none of the tunnels branching off were large enough to accommodate the behemoth. They descended at least a hundred feet below the Elder’s den by William’s reckoning, deeper than they had ventured before. Eventually, he found Jack waiting for him at a level spot. As he bent over, heaving to catch his breath, he asked Jack, “Why’d you stop?”

“Look,” said Jack.

William followed Jack’s gaze. Ahead lay a vast underground lake, its far end lost in darkness. At its near shore loomed a giant pile of castings, much of it spilling into the water. Splashes echoed through the massive cavern as the cargo dragon discarded its load, ripples spreading across the water and faded into the blackness.

“Jack, this is it! This is where the poison comes from! Do you have anything to carry water? We need to get a sample for Maya.”

“I left all my stuff in the den.”

William searched his clothing. He’d already lost his cloak to Maya’s lye-making contraption. Rifling through his pockets, his hand chanced upon his forgotten hat. Wait…hadn’t Jessica told him it was waterproof? It had kept his head dry, but holding water was another thing. “Jack, you have to run this to Maya as fast as possible after you fill it. I don’t how long it will hold water, but you’re faster than me right now. You need to get there before they leave.”

“So why are you still talking? Give me the hat.” Jack scooped a hatful of water and turned to leave. “You’ll be okay alone?”

“Go!”

In truth, he wasn’t excited about walking back alone. He wished he hadn’t surrendered his crutch; walking without it had strained his injured leg, and now he had a long uphill climb ahead of him. He limped his way up the tunnels, seeing neither dragon nor human, and hearing nothing but his own staggered footsteps. Twice he stopped to ease the pain and listen for his friends. That Jack hadn’t come back for him was a good sign, but he was nervous anyway. He had no desire to be left behind. Relief washed over him as he reached the den and he saw that his friends were still there. Exhausted, he stumbled and fell to his knees several yards from the entrance.

Charlie noticed him first, and ran over. “Your leg?” he asked.

“You have a way of cutting right to the point, Charlie.” He groaned as he tried to stand.

“Let me help you,” said Charlie.

“Thanks.”

“It’s positive,” said Maya as they entered the den.

William winced as he sat beside the fire. “For certain?”

“Great idea, using your hat. I had enough water for a flame test, and it had all the right color flashes, only brighter. If that dump isn’t the source, then the source is upstream from it.”

“I suppose that would be unlikely,” said William. “But now what? Do we simply ask them to move it and hope they agree? Or do we go back to town and convince the Earl to send enough guards to subdue a mountain full of dragons?”

Jack shook his head. “There’s no chance the Earl would do that. He wouldn’t even spend money on donkeys for us; he won’t pay for dozens of Guards that he might lose.”

“I doubt Guards could do much anyway,” said William. “We don’t even know how many dragons there are, and how many it would take to fight one giant black. It wouldn’t be worth trying.”

“So how do we convince the Elder to move the dump?” asked Maya.

“Jack gave us the idea earlier,” said William.

“I did?”

“Sure,” said William. “You make it their idea, because it’s sensible. Consider this: we came all this way from—what, two hundred miles or so?”

“More like three hundred,” said Rachel.

William nodded. “Okay, so we know the dragons want to stay hidden. Cleaning the dump is exactly what they should do, assuming they don’t want to attract more people here, right? Even if we keep our promise not to tell anyone about them, someone else will show up on their doorstep sooner or later.”

“There’s no way it’ll be that simple,” said Rachel. “Maybe you can convince them to start dumping their trash somewhere else, but do you really expect the Elder to spend all that effort on moving what’s already there?”

“It’s worth a try,” said Maya. “Their own security is at stake, too.” William noticed she and Rachel appeared to be on speaking terms again and could disagree without animosity. He was glad he hadn’t needed to intervene. He probably wouldn’t have anyway, based on Jack’s advice; doubtless it would have done more harm than good. No, it was best to stick to concrete matters, and let people solve their own personality conflicts.

Consensus reached, they hiked to the Elder’s den, William leaning on his recovered crutch. Convincing the Elder was not as easy as he had hoped. “Why did you hide from me your purpose for coming here? And what will you tell your people when you return? You will need to lie in order to keep your promise not to reveal our presence here, and while I do not know humans well, I understand you well enough to know you dislike speaking falsely, William Whitehall, even though you did so to me.”

William jumped at the sound of his name coming from a dragon’s mouth. It hadn’t happened before. “That’s true, Elder, but I dislike breaking promises even more.”

“Then what will you tell them? They must believe your words if you are to prevent others from following your path to our home.”

“Why tell them anything?” asked Jack. “We can say we didn’t find anything, and let them be satisfied the river got clean on its own.”

“That’s not an easy lie to tell,” said Maya. “Lester knows how determined I am.”

William hadn’t considered Lester. He could deceive the Earl if he had to, or any of his other officials, but even the idea of misleading his boss made his stomach turn. Besides, he doubted he could pull it off: the old man was sharp.

“We could blame the bandits,” said Jack.

Rachel shook her head. “One of them is bound to be caught one day, and when the Earl’s men question him, you can be sure the truth will come out.”

“A mountain slide?” asked Charlie.

Once again, William was struck by how often Charlie found the exact words or idea they needed. He didn’t talk much, but when he did it really mattered. From the looks on everyone else’s faces, they thought the same.

“I guess we could sell that,” said Jack.

“How do we explain the river getting clean?” asked Maya.

“We tell them most of it had already washed away, and we moved the rest in a heroic effort,” said Jack. “Of course, that would only work if it actually does get cleaned.” Jack looked at the Elder pointedly.

After a moment’s thought, the Elder answered. “I do not like this. If we do nothing, the poison might attract others. If we do as you ask, the swift change in the river’s condition may do the same. There is no path that removes the threat completely, so I find I am forced to trust you. If you betray us—”

“We won’t,” said William.

“—whether you mean to or not, it may threaten our existence. I believe you mean us no harm, but it is not my place to extend that trust to all of your people. We are not yet ready to face other races, and we do not wish to do so until we are fully prepared.”

“Prepared to do what?” asked Jack.

“Defend ourselves, of course. Sickness has ravaged us, and I owe you thanks for helping contain it, but we still do not know its cause. For all we know another race may be attacking us.”

“Are you serious?” asked Rachel. “How likely would that be? And how could you not notice?”

“Before you came here, would you have imagined it likely you would find dragons? And yet, you did. My people have colonized many planets, and we have encountered many beings capable of attacking us whether by force or by stealth. In fact, I am convinced we have met your people at least twice now.”

“That reminds me,” said Maya. “How did you get here? On this planet, I mean. If your people have been to many planets, how do you travel between them?”

The Elder stalled before answering. “I have said I am willing to trust you, and that I deem you to be honest. I ask you to extend me the same courtesy, and believe that I tell you the truth: I do not know how we arrived here, or how we travel between planets.”

His colleagues’ silence told William they were as puzzled as he was. How could the Elder—the leader of his people, at least on this world—not know how they got here? “You mean—”

“We will clean the dump site, and we will find another location that does not foul the water. This is something we should have noticed before, but the damage has been done. It must suffice that we do no more damage.”

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

Despite numerous requests, Dr. Marshall Ibycus declined the mantle of leadership. Citing his late arrival, and the success of the colony administration to date, he stated that there was no point in replacing those who had done a better job than he ever could. When reminded that it was his work that had brought them to Esper, he responded, “the merit of that remains debatable. But be it for good or ill, my work would not have been done had I been stuck in a desk job.”

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

William stared at the flickering shadows on the cave wall cast by the firelight as he lay on his bedroll. Every muscle in his body ached, and he desperately needed the sleep that would take him if he allowed it. He resisted, preferring instead to relish this feeling, one he had never experienced. True, he had accomplished things before, and the confidence that had given him wasn’t negligible. His report for Duke Vincent had been one of his best moments, and he still remembered nearly bursting with pride after the praise reached his ears.

But nothing compared to what he felt now. He understood the enormity of what they achieved, as well as its consequences. At least two large towns, and who knows how many other communities had been saved. Crops would flourish again. Fish could be caught, and livestock watered. Lives would be saved.

And that was only the beginning. The metal might have an even bigger effect. Even if the dragons refused to trade, he still had direct evidence that metal existed in these mountains. The changes this implied were staggering: better tools, stronger carriages and wagons, more boats. Buildings could be raised more quickly and new land cleared for farming. Even a regular shave might soon be available to the common man.

He fell asleep dreaming about the progress they could make if only they could get their hands on that metal…

And if they could get home. He startled himself awake from a bad dream in which bandits surrounded him. It was one of those horrible dreams, the kind where he could make no progress or get away from danger. He would escape temporarily, but the bandits always trapped him again. Worse, he always returned to the same place, and he never managed to travel any distance downstream.

The worst of his anxiety passed as he rose from his bed and shook his head, but it still cast a dim shadow on his mind. The river would run clean eventually whether or not they made it home, but nothing else would happen if they failed to return. And the Elder could not spare dragons to scout the area for bandits, so a safe return was by no means certain.

A thought darted around William’s mind, like a mouse scurrying between dark corners. Something about the dragons bothered him, something the Elder said that was lost in yesterday’s euphoria. Perhaps if he stayed quiet it would sit still and he could ponder it properly…

He snuck out of the den to relieve himself, making sure not to wake the others. As he splashed cold water on his face, he remembered. The Elder had said he did not know how he and the dragons had come to Esper. If the Elder didn’t know, then no dragons knew, or so William supposed. Perhaps the name “Elder” was a mistranslation? No, the Ambassador obeyed the Elder completely, and Hermes could boss any other dragon they had seen so far. The Elder must be the top dragon. So how could he not know?

When he returned Jack was awake and agitated, and he intercepted William outside the den. “Will, I was thinking…doesn’t it seem odd that the Elder doesn’t know how they got here?”

William’s jaw dropped. “I was just thinking the same thing.”

“You’re just saying that,” said Jack. “Quit trying to share the glory of my genius.”

“Why would I—never mind. What were you saying?”

“What I’m not sure about is whether they’ve been here for generations, or they were brought here against their will, or if they have some sort of amnesia.”

William nodded. “I know. It’s confusing.”

“Will, I think we need to stay here a little while longer and learn what we can. We don’t know what we don’t know, and that could be dangerous.”

This wouldn’t be an easy decision. They had done their job, and to go home now was well within their rights. “You’re probably right, Jack. But we have to convince the others. I won’t ask them to stay against their will.”

“That’s fair, I guess.”

“And if we leave for home now, I’ll arrange for us to come back.”

“I won’t be coming back without a full company of Guards, Will.”

“Who’s coming back?” asked Maya as she appeared beside them.

“Jack thinks we should stay here a little longer to learn more about the dragons, and I agree.”

“But why?” asked Maya. “We did what we set out to do, or at least we assume we did. The only way we’ll know is to head back down the river and test the water again.”

They shared their thoughts with the others about the Elder’s odd gap in knowledge and what it might imply. William repeated his promise not to force them to stay if they didn’t agree.

“I’m satisfied either way, but I’m not sure what you’re aiming for by staying,” Rachel said. “I was contracted by the day, so I won’t lose anything. I do miss sleeping in a bed, though. And I’d like to eat something besides meat soon. I know that’s strange for a hunter to say, but that’s how I feel.”

“Will, I’m done here,” said Maya. “I’m glad we did what we did, and it needed doing, but if we had to do it again I’m not sure I would. I’m tired of being cold and dirty all the time. I don’t know what we’ll learn here today that we can’t learn later. Yes, I’m curious about the dragons, too. But there’s a lifetime of research ahead for whoever studies them, but I already have a job and a life. I want them back.”

“Whatever everyone else wants is fine with me,” said Charlie.

“No, Charlie,” said Maya. “Say what you really mean.”

Charlie looked at William, then back at Maya. William urged him on. “Charlie, this isn’t one of those times when you just follow orders. I want to know what you want.”

Charlie looked at his feet as he thought of what to say. “I’m used to following orders. I never really have to think about what I want.”

“Well, I’m ordering you to think about it and tell me what you want.” He got the response he wanted. Everyone but Charlie laughed, and Charlie at least smiled.

“I want to see the sun again,” he said. “The other day when we went outside…it felt so good, like I could defeat every bandit we ran into. I know it sounds silly, but I’d rather do that than stay here another day.”

Nothing else needed to be said. It was time to leave, and everyone knew it. Charlie’s comment reminded William how much he too had missed the sun. There would be opportunities to come back, of that he was certain. “Let’s pack up,” he said.

A whirlwind of emotions filled his mind as they strolled through the tunnels. Foremost was a sense of relief, the job done and only the journey home remaining. But another part of him regretted leaving something behind that he might never get back. He tried to think of what it might be, but it eluded him, and he chided himself for being so emotional.

The Ambassador was nowhere to be found, so it would be an exit without goodbyes. With no dragons around to ask for directions, they were forced to use the exit they were shown before, though it put them farther north than they wanted. But at least it wasn’t near the spot where the bandits nearly captured them more than a week before. William intended to avoid the river and lead the group west until they reached the rock cliff, where they would search for another way down. By then they should be close enough to Marshland Crossing that they could avoid the bandits. At least that’s what he hoped.

“Sunshine, here we come!” said Maya as they neared the end of the tunnel. Everyone had looked forward to it since Charlie spoke of it, and now they could smell the fresh air wafting in from outside. A cave might be secure, but it does little for morale, and William felt guilty for not having noticed. The weight of a mountain lifted from his shoulders as he reached the tunnel entrance—and got drenched.

It was raining. Violently. The wind blew harder than he ever remembered happening back home. He briefly wondered whether the mountains themselves made it so windy, but he forgot about that when he realized something more important: it was nighttime, and they hadn’t even realized it. That was how badly their time underground had disoriented them. No, that was the wrong word—distempered? He would have to consult Cairns’ thesaurus when he got back.

“Will,” said Charlie. “Is this one of those times when I have to follow orders?”

William laughed. “No. Perhaps not.”

“Then can we stay here another day or two?”

“That might be best.”

They returned to the den, cold, wet, and disappointed. Rachel rebuilt the fire, and they hung their clothes to dry. William noted that only his hair was dry; Jessica’s hat had done its job again. Maya was preparing a meal when the Ambassador poked his large head into the den.

“Pardon the intrusion, but I wanted to suggest you wait a day or two before leaving.”

“Why?” asked William.

“There is heavy wind and rain, which will last for at least a day, maybe longer. It will not be comfortable traveling.”

William tried to keep a straight face as he answered. “We just came back from outside. I agree, it’s not worth traveling in weather like that.”

“I see. The Elder thinks this is a good opportunity to learn more about each other.”

“I thought he was eager to see us leave,” said Jack with a smirk.

“The Elder is wise,” said the Ambassador. “His wisdom often leads to conclusions that are not immediately evident, and he seeks always to confirm or refute those conclusions.”

“You mean he’s changed his mind,” said Maya.

“Perhaps. Perhaps not yet.” With that the Ambassador left.

“Well, you wanted to learn more about them. Now’s your chance,” said Rachel.

“Where do we start?” asked Maya.

“You’re the scientist,” said William. “What do you suggest?”

“No sense making things harder than they need to be. Let’s go talk to the Elder.”

They found the Elder eager to speak with them. William still had trouble reading the dragons’ emotions—in fact, it was not clear they had any. But William sensed the Elder was more curious than friendly, and they might not get much information from him if he still felt threatened by humans. William decided to let the Elder question them first so they could establish some level of trust. Hopefully the Elder would return the favor.

The Elder asked about the size and location of their home, the population of humans on Esper, and how they were organized. What interested the Elder most was the concept of outlaws. “How is it these—bandits—do not obey your King?”

“I suppose they’ve chosen a leader of their own,” said William. “Or else they have no leader.”

“Every dragon in our hive knows his place.”

“They all obey you? All the time?” asked Jack.

“For now,” said the Elder.

“What do you mean, for now? You said they knew their place.”

The Elder hesitated, as though admitting a secret. “I am not the true leader of this hive,” said the Elder.

“Who is?” asked William.

“She has not been born yet.”

Maya gasped. “A Queen,” she said quietly.

The Elder stared. “Yes,” he said finally. “Our Queen.”

Maya leaned toward Charlie and smiled. “You were right about them being like bees.”

“The Queen will be our leader,” said the Elder. “She will also give life to new dragons.”

“I’m sorry. ‘Will be?’ When will she come?” asked William.

“She is here now, but she has not yet been hatched. It is not time.”

“Can we see the egg?” asked Jack. Rachel elbowed him. “Sorry,” he said.

“I’m confused. Why isn’t it time?” asked Maya.

Again the Elder hesitated before explaining. He described how he, several other dragons, and a great many eggs, including the Queen’s and her eventual mates, were brought to Esper from another planet by a means not understood by the Elder. He was instructed to establish and grow the colony until the Queen could be born without fear of being killed by enemies, or dying from lack of resources. Without a queen, a dragon colony would die a meaningless, slow death, and they had only the one precious egg.

“So why didn’t they tell you how you traveled, and why would they dump you here?” asked Jack.

“My name in your language means ‘old’, and I am old, at least compared to you. But I am a young Elder, just beginning the life I was bred for and trained to live. For me, and for the dragons and eggs that came with me, this is a test. Either we survive and thrive, and discover the secrets of our Great Elders for ourselves, or we remain isolated here. Or we die.”

William frowned and shook his head. “That seems cruel. Why can’t they just teach you what they know?”

“What you call cruelty, William Whitehall, is how we improve our kind. Many colonies perish. Most are never heard from again, and probably also perish. But those few who return always come home with new knowledge to enrich our people.”

“I still say it’s cruel,” said William.

“William, do you know how to get to Earth?” asked Maya.

“No…”

“And do you know why we’re here on Esper?”

“Weren’t the original colonists forced here because…oh.”

Maya squeezed William’s shoulder. “Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to judge, okay?”

“You’re right. I’m sorry Elder. I hope I didn’t offend you.”

“No, you did not.”

“Since you aren’t offended, may I ask a question?” asked Jack. “A few days ago you weren’t sure whether to let us live or not. Then you weren’t sure whether to let us go or not. Now you tell us your greatest secret, the existence of one single egg, which if you lost it would mean the end of your colony. Why did you risk telling us?”

“Because, Jack Doran, I now believe you are not a threat. You have already prevented the deaths of many dragons, and for that I am grateful. But many are still being attacked, and we have lost too many. We lack the resources to hatch both our queen and the remaining drones, and without them we cannot replenish our work force, as most of those have already been hatched. I can no longer concern myself only with threats. I must make progress or we are doomed. I must have help.”

“And we are to be your help?” asked William

“You six only,” said the Elder, apparently including Steve. “Not your people. I must take risks, but I cannot be reckless.”

“What can the six of us do?” asked William.

“I do not know yet. But you have knowledge we do not possess, just as we know things that you do not. There will be ways we can help each other, I am certain.”

“See, Will?” said Jack. “Trade. Just like I said.”

“So long as it does not expose us,” said the Elder.

“Oh, come on!” said Jack. “There’s no way we can do that. The obvious thing you can offer us is metal, which our people need. If we bring metal home someone will try to figure out where it came from.”

“That is your problem to solve.”

“Then why should we help you?” asked Jack. “This makes no sense at all. You should either hide in your holes for the rest of your lives, or do something to improve your chances. There’s no progress without risk. Not for anyone.”

William needed to be alone with the Elder. The Elder respected hierarchy, and he seemed to recognize William as the Elder of his own group, and that was a bond worth exploiting. But William could tell from Jack’s clenched fists and furrowed brow that his friend was agitated, and he worried Jack might say something they would regret. “Jack,” he said, gently placing his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Take the others and find the Ambassador. Talk to him and learn what you can, and let him do the same.”

“I don’t need to be sent out of the room, Will,” Jack said, pushing William’s hand away. “I’m not a child.”

“I never said you were. But I want to talk with the Elder alone.” The others looked at each other nervously. William knew he could pull rank on Charlie, and probably Rachel. Maya might resist if she felt strongly enough, and he couldn’t do much about it. But Jack was his friend, and he wanted him to submit of his own accord, not because the others did so. “I need you to do this for me.”

“Fine,” said Jack as he and the others left William alone with the Elder. Jack was sulking, but at least he wasn’t angry. It wasn’t everything William wanted, but he accepted it.

“Your people confuse me,” said the Elder as William turned to him.

“How so?”

“I do not know humans well, but I can see that Jack Doran was not pleased to do your bidding.”

“Humans aren’t like dragons in that way, I guess. We aren’t born to serve unquestioningly.”

“You serve another human, yes?”

“I have an employer who assigns me tasks.”

“And if your employer gave you a task that would cost your life, would you do so?”

“Not without knowing why, and the reason would have to be worth my life. But he doesn’t give those kinds of orders. It’s not that sort of job.”

“Did he send you here?” asked the Elder.

“Yes,” said William. “Although other people helped decide. And before you ask, yes, this trip could have cost my life, although I didn’t really know it back then. In fact, it might still cost my life. But knowing what was at stake, I probably would have agreed anyway.”

The Elder sat in silence as he pondered William’s answer. “What you describe seems alien to me. I do not know if your way would be easier or harder.”

“What do you mean?”

“I rule alone, until the Queen is born. It might be easier if others shared that burden. But to have others who question me…it would waste time.”

William nodded. “It’s complicated, that’s for sure. I’m still learning myself. If I decided everything, I know I’d be wrong too often. Most decisions are made by whoever knows the most about the subject at hand. But if no one agrees, that’s when I have to make a final decision. Then I try to get everyone to abide by it.”

“And what if you can’t?”

William shrugged. “Then I wouldn’t be a leader, I suppose. Not everyone can be.”

“It is the same with dragons. But until the Queen is born, I am the only one.”

“What Jack said wasn’t wrong. Shouldn’t you hatch your Queen now and make the best of it?”

“If she dies, so do we. We aren’t ready yet.”

“But why not? Sure there’s danger, but there always is. You aren’t holding on to power, are you?” asked William.

“I’m not sure if that means what I think it means, but it is not in my nature to want to remain in my current position. Every scale on my body cries out to hatch the Queen, and to let her take from me the burden of deciding our fate. But it is not a simple matter of warming the egg and waiting. We need special food for her.”

“Special food? What kind?” asked William. Perhaps this was another opportunity for trade.

“As you no doubt have surmised, dragons eat both meat and stone. The meat is for our muscles, as I assume it is for yours. The metal is required for scales, bones and other parts of our bodies, including our minds.”

William shrugged again. “You have plenty of metal. What’s the problem?”

“We have not found enough of the right metal.”

William’s stomach dropped and his pulse quickened. “What metal is that?” he asked, certain he already knew the answer.

“I believe you call it gold.”

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

[_ Expansion into Marshland Crossing triggered an increase in trade both within Azuria itself and between the two continents. Lumber was floated down the mighty Faywater to shipyards, where both sea and river boats were built by the hundreds. Many of these ships carried back luxury goods, especially earthen- and glassware, and returned loaded with iron from the Marshland swamps, and crops from its fertile fields. _]

When the bog iron production dwindled and no suitable replacement was found, the King decreed all iron be devoted to the maintenance of ships, without which trade was impossible. But this also meant fewer trees could be felled, plunging the region into economic stagnation.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

“So much for your theory of dragon treasure,” said William. “The most valuable metal, and they don’t have enough for themselves.”

Jack slouched against the cave wall, tossing bits of bark into the fire. “So what? Gold isn’t wealth, it’s just a way to measure it and move it.”

“Huh? What do you mean gold isn’t wealth?” asked William. “That makes no sense.”

“Okay, answer me this. What is gold good for? For us, I mean, not the dragons. What do we use it for except jewelry and ornaments?”

“Well, I guess…I don’t know. But if gold isn’t wealth, why do only rich people have it?”

“Because they’re the only ones who can afford it,” said Jack. “But gold always comes after they’ve gotten rich. It doesn’t make them rich. Not unless they find a pile of it somewhere, but even then most of it usually belongs to the Crown.”

William shrugged. “Well, if you say so. But if gold isn’t what we need, then what do we trade?”

Jack looked at William with surprise. “Other metals, of course.”

“No, I mean what do we give to them in exchange for metal?”

“The Elder said the dragons need help, right?” asked Maya. “Did he mention anything specific after we left?”

“Not really. He just said he won’t risk having the Queen hatched until they have enough gold and the attacks have stopped.”

“Look,” said Rachel. “I said before I didn’t mind staying here longer, but I don’t work for the dragons. We’ve had enough trouble of our own on this trip, and I don’t feel like looking for more. Not for all the iron on Esper.”

“It wouldn’t matter if we did,” said Jack. “One favor, whether it’s curing a disease or eliminating an enemy…that isn’t trade. Not long term anyway. We have to find something they need that we have.”

“Food?” asked Maya.

“No, they have no problem getting food on their own,” said Rachel. “All they eat is meat and rocks, and they’re surrounded by rocks.”

“But game is scarce, right?” asked Jack. “We barely found enough to eat, and we have the best hunter in all the land.”

“Stop trying to butter me up,” said Rachel, tossing a rock at Jack’s boot. “Have you seen them hunt? They can fly, Jack. At least their hunters can. I can’t, and the closest you can come to flying is falling out of a tree.”

“Hey, I never fall!”

“Why are you so obsessed with trade, anyway?” asked William. “What’s wrong with just helping them?”

“Because the kind of help they need is a onetime thing. Trade is what makes things better for both sides forever.”

“Getting rich is good for us maybe, but how does that help everyone else?” asked William.

“It makes everything better,” said Rachel. “You talk about how life would improve if we had more metal tools. What if the dragons need something, and they could get it cheap from us?”

“Well said,” said Jack.

“I thought I told you to stop buttering me up,” she said, this time kicking his foot.

“Kick me if you want, but you sounded smart like a trader for a moment instead of a hunter—ow!”

“Okay, I get it,” said William. “Trade is good. But if the dragons don’t need anything that we have, then how do we trade?”

Jack shrugged. “Life isn’t perfect for them, the Elder admitted that. We have to figure out what might make it a little better. That means learning a little more about them.”

William looked around the den in alarm. “Where’s Charlie?”

Rachel burst out laughing. “You just noticed he’s not here?”

“Give me a break,” said William. “He’s quiet. He barely talks. If Jack goes missing and I don’t notice, then you can make fun of me. Where’s Charlie?”

“He’s playing music for the injured dragons, and the young ones,” said Maya.

William’s jaw dropped. “Why?” he asked.

Hands on hips, she glared back at him. “They like it. Don’t be so judgmental!”

“I’m not…I’m just surprised.”

“You shouldn’t be. Come see.” Maya grabbed William’s hand and hauled him into the main chamber. Across the expanse between the massive pillars, several dragons, large and small, converged on a single point against the far wall. Clear notes of a soaring melody drifted through the air. Not a dragon moved as they sat in rapt attention. Through a small space between two large dragons, William spied Charlie, blissfully unaware of the attention, or else so in tune with it he need not acknowledge it.

“I forgot how well he played,” he said.

“You don’t give him enough credit,” said Maya.

William sighed. “I know.” He listened for a little while longer, unable to pull himself away. “You know, it’s too bad we can’t sell music to the dragons. Has the Elder heard this?”

Maya scratched her chin. “You know, back on Earth music was recorded and sold like books, and people could play it whenever they wanted.”

“Not as well as Charlie plays, I bet.”

“No—as well or better. The sound was recorded. It sounded exactly the same every time.”

William looked at Maya with surprise. “That can’t be possible. How?”

“I’m not sure. My father explained it once. I only pretended to understand. He’s really the scientist in the family. He said machines stored music like a book stores words. It could be played over and over again, and you didn’t have to know how to play music yourself.”

A chill passed through William, and his heart pounded. “That’s it!” he said breathlessly. “That’s the answer!”

“What is?”

He grabbed Maya’s arm. “Books, Maya! They don’t have books. That’s what the dragons need. Books!” He leaped in the air, unable to contain his excitement.

Maya did her best to restrain him. “Quiet, Will! You’re disturbing the dragons.” Several large ones had turned their heads to see what the commotion was.

“Sorry,” William said to the dragons absentmindedly. Impatiently, he pulled her away from the mob surrounding Charlie. “They don’t have books. That’s the sort of thing the Elder needs. I’m sure of it.”

Maya stared at him with a quizzical look. “Why would they need books?”

“Well, first, I haven’t seen any. Have you?”

“No, but—”

“Second, I don’t think they store knowledge except in the Elder’s brain, plus maybe Hermes and a few others. He made it sound like they’d been marooned on an island and left to fend for themselves, and that it was their job to figure out how to get off the island. If they do, it means they passed some sort of test.”

“But wouldn’t that be cheating, if they get knowledge from some other source?” asked Maya.

William grinned at her, his passion undiminished by her questioning. “Not if that’s how they were supposed to get it.”

Maya thought for a bit. “You know, maybe I don’t give you enough credit either.”

“Let’s see what Jack says,” he said as he blushed from the praise.

William could barely contain his excitement. He skidded into the den, startling Jack and Rachel. “Books,” he said.

“What?” asked Jack.

“Books,” said William. “That’s what we trade for the metal.”

“What are you talking about? Books? They can’t even—that makes no—actually…” Jack’s expression changed several times as the idea took hold in his mind. “That’s brilliant. Are you sure it was your idea?”

“I had help from Maya and Charlie. We were listening to him play, and I said I wished we could sell music to the dragons, and Maya said that back on Earth they used to be able to put music in books…well, sort of…but anyway, it made me think of books.”

“Slow down, Will,” said Jack. “Take a breath. Yes, it’s a good idea. But we need to present it to the Elder before we get too excited.”

To his surprise, they found it difficult to explain what books were, and what their purpose was. The Elder had nothing to compare it to in his culture. Any knowledge he now possessed had been passed to him verbally by another dragon, or learned through personal experience. If they understood the Elder’s explanation, dragons communicated much faster than humans, and once a dragon had information he never forgot it…provided it applied to his role in the hive. But to communicate, both the sender and receiver had to be present. Aside from messenger dragons—whose capacity was limited—they could not communicate over a distance. Unlike speech, books could cross barriers of both space and time.

The Elder was mildly interested once he caught on, but his dull eyes widened when he found out books could teach him all the knowledge humans were willing to share. William knew in his gut this was the sort of help the Elder was sold on the ideawanted. That they could have it without exposing their existence to other humans clinched it.

Jack suggested the dragons might want stories as well. At first the Elder dismissed it as pointless. “Dragons do not need anything frivolous. Most workers are simple-minded, with enough mental capacity to do their jobs. The rest, such as myself, are focused on their tasks.”

“Tell that to the dragons in the hospital ward,” said Rachel.

“The what?” asked the Elder.

“That’s what we call the large den where the injured and young are kept,” said Maya. “I work in a hospital, with wounded and sick, so that’s what we called yours, too.”

“I see. And what is it I should tell the dragons there?” asked the Elder.

“You should see them crowding around Charlie, listening to him play,” said Maya. “Ask them if they’d like some entertainment.”

“I have heard about this music. I have reports that workers are heard to whistle these songs. Thankfully it does not affect their work.”

“But work isn’t the point,” said Maya. “They don’t work non-stop, do they?”

“No, they would die from exhaustion.”

“Well, music and stories are for the times between work. It makes life more enjoyable.”

“I admit, I have wished I could move from this den so I could hear his music.”

William realized that the Elder was hinting to have Charlie brought here to play. Why couldn’t the Elder just ask? Maybe so it could be offered as a gift? “No matter, Elder,” said William. “Charlie will come to you.”

The Elder nodded. “That would be enjoyable. Do you have any story books with you? I would like to see one.”

They all looked at each other before William answered. “I’m sorry, Elder, we didn’t know we would need them.”

“That is a shame. I think a story would be a good way to learn about you humans.”

“We don’t need a book for that,” said Maya. “I am sure we could tell you a story from memory.”

“I would like that,” said the Elder. “How soon can you do this?”

“Well, we could have one of the guys run and get Charlie, and I can tell you the story right now, if you want.”

“No, wait,” said Jack. “I have an idea. Elder, do you ever have large meetings with all dragons present?”

“It happens rarely, but the hall outside my den has space for most of the hive to assemble for special events, such as the birth of the Queen.”

“Would it be too much to ask to have you assemble as many dragons as possible so they can hear both the music and the story?” asked Jack. “I apologize if this is a rude request.”

“It is not inappropriate, just unusual. It will be done.”

Several hours later the Ambassador summoned them. As promised, the area surrounding the Elder’s den was packed with dragons of all colors and sizes. The larger ones sat farther away, giving the smaller ones a chance to see. The crowd of dragons parted to make a narrow corridor to the Elder’s den.

“How will they all hear us?” Maya asked the Ambassador as they walked the intimidating path.

“This hall was designed to carry sound to the far end,” he answered. “The music will do so, but it matters little if your voices do not.”

“Why not?” asked William.

“Few of us understand your language. The Elder, myself, and a few drones I taught. The rest will hear your story spoken by these drones.” William nodded that he understood. “This is a rare event,” said the Ambassador as they neared the Elder. “I have never heard tell of aliens addressing an assembly of dragons before this. Do not make us regret it.”

The Ambassador retreated into the throng of dragons before William could ask what he meant. Had he failed to see some risk? If the dragons didn’t like the song or story, might they be in danger? He and Maya exchanged a glance, but she had nothing to offer. Luckily, the others hadn’t heard; this was no time to burden them with worry.

Charlie began with a song. They knew from experience his music would be well-received, and again the dragons gazed in rapture as the music flowed from Charlie’s flute. He played a simple, catchy tune, one that would set human toes tapping if played beside a campfire. When he finished, he was rewarded with a chorus of whistles and trumpets.

“It seems my people approve,” said the Elder. “As do I. That was most enjoyable.”

“I’m glad,” said Charlie, his deep sigh of relief belying how nervous he had been.

Jack followed with a story that William once thought his friend was named for: Jack and the Beanstalk. Jack chose it not only because it was his favorite story as a child, but because it represented human desire to reach for something greater, as well as the dangers involved in greed. A large silver drone translated as Jack spoke, filling the hall with complex, melodic phrases that fluctuated in tone and pitch. Jack was a natural storyteller, full of emotion and dramatic pauses, so the dragons’ muted “applause” surprised him. Jack stomped away and leaned against the wall, his arms crossed and with a sour look on his face. “I was hoping for a better response than that,” he said.

Charlie played again, reprising the song he played while trapped in the rocky alcove, facing death. As before, William lost himself in the music, nearly forgetting where he was. He was startled when Maya nudged him and whispered in his ear. “Listen. They’re singing along again!” William heard the sounds of accompaniment coming from the vast hall. Never did it drown out Charlie’s flute, but its presence was unmistakable. Maya whispered something about chords and counterpoint, but music theory was lost on him. When Charlie finished he received yet another round of whistles and trumpets. William couldn’t help but smile at the pride on Charlie’s face.

It was William’s turn to speak. He chose the story of the Ugly Duckling because of its effect on him as a child. He had always felt like the odd one out in any group, especially after his father died, and he had long dreamed of becoming something different when he grew up. But before he finished it dawned on him that he had chosen poorly. If he had learned anything about the dragons it was that each one had their place and knew it well. Whether or not they dreamed of being something different he did not know, but judging by the silence and the Ambassador’s chastising glare, they did not.

At least Jack reacted well. In fact, he was laughing. “Now I don’t feel so bad.”

“Thanks a lot,” said William as he slunk out of the dragons’ sight to hide his shame.

“Maybe we should finish with music,” said Maya. “I don’t think they like the stories.”

Jack shook his head vigorously. “We need to tell stories. Or better ones, anyway. They need to be excited about entertainment, not just facts.”

“Wait a second,” said Rachel. “When I was young, traveling storytellers had musical accompaniment to show anger or excitement, or whatever emotion.”

Maya slapped her forehead. “Of course! They did the same thing in Faywater. Charlie, can you do that? Improvise music to feelings?” asked Maya.

Charlie nodded. “What story?”

“The Slave and the Lion. Do you know it?”

He nodded again. Maya began her story by describing a wretched slave, beaten and starved by his master until the poor slave escaped into the desert. Charlie conveyed perfectly the fear and anger the runaway must have felt. Maya spoke of the cave the young man found to spend the night in, and Charlie imitated the slave’s apprehension, building the tension to a peak. The dragons reacted visibly to Charlie’s expression of panic at the sudden appearance of a lion, whose cave the slave had invaded. In William’s mind the story and music were one, as even the translator’s whistles began to match Charlie’s flute in tempo and scale.

Maya continued her story. The lion rolled over and presented its paw to the young slave instead of eating him. The slave, seeing a deeply embedded thorn in the lion’s paw, approached with dread, but determined to help. With shaking hands, he extracted the thorn, and the two became friends, sharing the cave in harmony for some time.

When the slave desired to be with his own kind again, it was a bittersweet parting. The slave, rather than being rewarded for returning to his master, was tossed into prison as an example to other would-be runaways. He was sentenced to be thrown into a pit of wild animals as a punishment, and for the amusement of his master’s friends. To his surprise, his friend the lion was among the animals, and the grateful feline recognized the slave and protected him from the other beasts. The master, seeing the faithfulness between lion and slave granted them each their freedom, and they both lived long, prosperous lives, each vowing always to help the other when needed.

The music and the story were so compelling that William was unaware of anything else. He was startled back to reality by the thunderous applause that lasted for minutes. It so moved him that he found himself hugging both Maya and Charlie, joined soon after by Jack and Rachel.

The Ambassador returned as they broke apart. “I hope you were able to hear well, Elder.”

“I did. I was most impressed with the music, but the stories elude me, save perhaps for the last one.” He turned to William and the others. “Tell me, is that story factual?”

“No,” said Maya. “It’s an old fable from Earth. Its meaning is not literal.”

“Then the slave represents something else, as does the lion. Is this correct?”

“That’s right. The slave is anyone trapped in a life they wish they could escape, whether from boredom or hunger or pain…or anything. The escape represents an attempt to improve on life’s conditions, moving ahead despite the fear of recapture, or failure, or even mockery.”

“And the lion?” asked the Elder.

“The lion symbolizes difficulties one might encounter,” said Maya. “Things that might stop you from achieving your dreams. Only by facing them and looking for hidden opportunities can we overcome them.”

“Hang on,” said Jack. “That’s not what I was taught. It’s that kindness never goes unrewarded.”

“You two have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Rachel. “It’s about the bond between friends.”

Maya giggled. She turned to Charlie and asked, “Want to take a stab at it?”

Charlie shrugged. “My dad says big, scary things aren’t always the most dangerous.”

The Elder stared at each of them in turn. “Most confusing. You all know this story, and yet it holds different meanings for each of you. And none agreed with mine.”

“What did you think?” asked William.

“I had thought the slave stood for you humans, and that we dragons are the lion. That by helping us with our illness, you had hoped to gain our trust and friendship.”

Maya coughed and hung her head with a shy grin. “I have a confession, Elder. I chose that story because I knew that particular meaning would occur to you. But a good story has many lessons, and not everyone sees the same aspects; even the same person sees different meanings at different times. That’s why we listen to them or read them over and over. As we grow, the same story can reveal new messages.”

William had never thought of stories in that way, but it made sense. Each interpretation was right in its own way, but escape from a life of drudgery for one of heroism was what really touched him. But he also understood Charlie’s point of view.

Back in their den, preparing for sleep, they discussed the evening’s results. The Elder had agreed books would be suitable for trade. He was anxious to learn more about stories, but he desired most to learn what knowledge humans had. For this he promised immense quantities of metal, especially iron, the one thing they had in abundance.

“Well, you got what you wanted,” said William. “This is the closest anyone could get to finding a dragon’s treasure.”

“I know,” said Jack. “I’m still in shock. This is more than I was hoping for.”

“What about you, Will?” asked Maya. “Did you get what you hoped for? Have you learned enough about the dragons?”

He thought for a moment, deciding whether or not to ask her unstated question. “I could probably stay here a lot longer, honestly,” he said. “But we’ve been here long enough, and we’ve learned enough about them to establish trade. There’s nothing stopping us from coming back and learning more later. Besides…” His mind drifted, picturing the people back home. Cairns, his mother, Sir Kevin…especially Melissa. Where that romance would lead he was unsure, but that uncertainty made him less nervous than it had before. All paths lead somewhere, he thought, but only if you walk them. He vowed never again to fear trying something simply because he didn’t know what the results would be.

“Besides what?” asked Jack, yanking him back to reality.

“Oh—nothing. It’s time to go back, is all.” Jack knew where his thoughts had been, of that he was certain. He also knew his friend was in a generous mood on this night of triumph, and would keep it to himself this once instead of mocking him.

“Uh…we still have to get past the bandits,” Rachel said.

William slapped his forehead. “King’s boots, I’d forgotten about them. Again. Well…I suggest we start as early as possible tomorrow, preferably before light, so we can sneak past them.”

“Should we take the north exit, or the river exit?” asked Jack.

Before anyone answered, the Ambassador stuck his head into their den. “I am sorry to disturb you. I trust I have not woken you. The Elder asked me to deliver a message, and he was most eager that you receive it tonight.”

“Not at all, Hermes, you aren’t disturbing us,” said William. “What is the Elder’s message?”

“The Elder is aware of your plans to leave soon, but he asks that you delay for a short time.”

Maya’s sigh came loud and clear across the den. Neither she nor the others would be happy waiting longer than necessary. “How much time?” William asked anyway.

“Half a day only. He advised me to tell you he will make certain it is worth your time.”

This was unexpected. The toxic dump was being moved; trade had been established…what more could the Elder offer? He didn’t want to risk a mutiny, but no matter everyone else’s eagerness to leave, it was worth half a day to find out.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

Basic steel was smelted from the earliest days of Colonization, the method being no more complicated than smelting iron ore with charcoal. Carbon ratios became easier to control with practice, producing compositions of varying strength and ductility. However, grades of steel previously available on Earth were never duplicated, as the technology to isolate the desired alloy metals was out of reach.

Some sources of iron ore produced superior quality steel, suggesting trace amounts of other metals were present. Tredwick blades were once renowned for their hardness, and recent analysis of those that have survived indicate the presence of manganese and nickel. After the Tredwick mines ran out, no source was found to equal it.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

“What on Esper do they want now?” asked Rachel. William was thankful she wasn’t throwing things, but he still gave her plenty of room to pace.

Jack slouched against the rock wall, following Rachel’s tirade with a look of amusement. “You were fine with staying before. Why the sudden change?”

“I was fine with staying if it was our choice, not theirs, stupid.” She turned to William. “So what’s the hold up now?”

William shrugged. “I don’t know. Hermes wouldn’t elaborate. It was the Elder’s decision. I’m not even sure Hermes knows what he’s up to.”

Rachel flopped onto her bedroll and pulled her hair in frustration. “I’m tired of this place. I’m sick of the dark and the cold. I’m tired of not feeling the wind or hearing birds. I want to get out of here!”

Jack nodded with a hint of a grin. “That, and we’re all packed already.”

“You aren’t funny, Jack,” she said.

“Look, we all want to leave, Rachel,” said Maya. “It won’t be much longer. And it’s not Will’s fault.”

Rachel took a deep breath and released it slowly. “I don’t blame Will. Really, Will, I don’t. We’ve been stuck here for so long now, and I’ve lost my patience. How long has it been anyway?”

“I don’t even know what day it is,” said Jack. “We’ve been underground for so long I’ve lost track of time.”

“We’ll figure it out when we see the night sky,” said Rachel. Maya nodded.

“Huh? How?” asked William.

Rachel stared at William with a look of disbelief, then broke out in laughter. “Don’t tell me they didn’t teach you that at school.”

“Well, sure, in theory. But I’ve never done it for real.”

Rachel crossed her arms and looked at him with a slight grin. “Then explain the theory to me. If we’re stuck here, you may as well amuse me. Come on, show me how smart you are, bookworm.”

William cringed at the nickname. He knew Rachel meant no harm; in fact, she probably meant it as a compliment. But it took effort not to react and to direct his thoughts to the problem at hand. “Well, to start with, the moon is stationary in the sky,” he said. “It orbits at the same speed as Esper spins on its axis.”

“Right. So where does that get you?”

“If you can see the moon, you should be able to tell the time of day from how full it is. But I don’t see how knowing the time of day—or night—helps.”

Rachel groaned in exasperation. “The stars, silly. All you have to do is look at the Northern Kite. If you know which way the Kite’s tail points at midnight at different times of the year, it’s simple to work out.”

“Wow, of course! That makes sense. I never thought of that.”

“Wait a second,” said Jack. “What about the fact that we’re further east? Doesn’t that mess up the calculations?”

“Oh, Jack,” she said with a smirk, patting his cheek. “It’s a good thing you’re so pretty. I’ll do the thinking from now on, okay?”

“What? What did I miss?”

“Will said it already: the moon doesn’t move. We can adjust based on how much closer it is to the western horizon.”

“King’s pants. I completely forgot. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen that while crossing the sea.”

Time passed slowly as they waited for the Elder, each of them trying to occupy themselves in their own way. Jack poked around for discarded gemstones. Charlie played for the dragons in the infirmary while Maya inspected their wounds. Rachel grumbled as she checked her bow and other equipment in preparation for the return trip. She was so grumpy that Steve preferred to follow William around rather than remain with his mistress.

William’s curiosity got the best of him, creating an itch that he had no way to scratch. He yearned to talk with the Elder again, but he knew it was too early to go see him. Instead, he wandered to the underground lake where the ore tailings had been dumped in days past. The pile was already gone, carted away to some unknown but safe destination. The water smelled less foul now, but he resisted the urge to taste it. It might be a long time before it would be safe to drink this close to the source. Steve avoided the water too, and William took that as a sign that he had guessed right.

He walked as fast as he could on the way back to the den, testing his injured leg to see what it could endure. It was more stiff than painful, and the strength was returning rapidly. He felt ready for the long march back home, but he worried about the possibility of more attacks; he wasn’t sure whether he could run, let alone fight.

He ran into the others before he reached the den. “Hermes told us Chronos is ready,” Jack said. “We were just coming to find you.” As they approached the Elder’s den, William sensed everyone’s nervousness. He had reason enough for concern too, as the Elder had been fickle in his decisions before. Trepidations multiplied in his own mind as he considered the possibilities.

“Thank you for agreeing to delay your departure,” said the Elder as they arrived. “I thought it best to meet once more before you leave, and I needed time to think beforehand.”

“You made us wait—” William’s glance stopped Rachel in mid-sentence.

“It was no problem, Elder,” said William. He avoided Rachel’s glare by focusing on the Elder.

The Elder continued, unfazed by the outburst. “In our jubilation we agreed to trade metal for books. I am still eager to trade, both for stories and knowledge. However, I must repeat my earlier demand that you not reveal our existence to anyone else. This must remain a secret that only you six may share.”

“Five, Elder,” said Rachel, unwilling to hold her tongue any longer. “Steve is a dog. He doesn’t speak.”

“Very well,” said the Elder. “Only you five may know about us, no others.”

“Pardon me, Elder, but that’s a huge obstacle to trade,” said Jack. “Even if we make books in secret, someone will notice the increase in metal and start asking questions. We can only put them off for so long.”

“That is your problem to solve, not mine. The hive’s safety is paramount; if trade must be sacrificed to ensure it, so be it.”

The mood in the Elder’s den was hot. William’s own anger matched Jack’s and Rachel’s, although he tried to hide it. The Elder, too, seemed defensive. William needed to defuse the situation before they lost any chance of establishing a relationship with the dragons. But if the Elder could not be trusted to keep his agreements, how could trade take place? “Elder, may I suggest a compromise? You have trusted us because you found us worthy of trust, am I correct?”

“You are,” said the Elder cautiously.

“You are selective in who you trust.”

“I must be.”

“As we must,” said William. “As I told you before, all humans are not of one hive. We act independently, although we often band together for common good. If you permit us to disclose your existence to a small number of trusted people, we could trade without the danger of others discovering you. In fact, I believe it’s safer this way in the long run. We’ve been delayed in our return, and people will ask questions. With a few key people, we could cover our tracks, and leave you undetected.”

The Elder did not speak for a long time. As they waited in silence, William noted the looks of approval from the others.

“I will accept this, William Whitehall, but with great unease. This choice leaves my scales on edge. I am weighing the risk of exposure against the possible benefits of shared knowledge, and I fear this is a verdict that should not even be mine to make. Choose your colleagues with care.”

“We will, Elder. Thank you.” William’s sigh of relief was cut short.

“This is not the only matter I wished to discuss,” said the Elder.

William’s stomach tightened. What more could the Elder throw at him? This trip had taxed his strength, energy and wits; he didn’t know if he had it in him to handle another crisis.

“I am aware of the difficulties you had before arriving at our hive. You spoke of other humans who hunted you. I do not wish them to find you as that would risk the secret of our existence.”

“Not to mention our own hides,” said Jack.

The Elder snorted a puff of smoke and turned his gaze on Jack. “I am not indifferent to your own danger, Jack Doran. In this matter, what helps you also aids me, no matter how I state it. May I continue?”

Jack stared at his feet. “Sorry. Go on.”

“I have had the area scouted for these bandits, as you call them. There are not many, but they return frequently, and only north of the river. They are persistent.”

“I’m not sure we should cross the river,” said William. “No matter how much safer we would be. Even if the water’s not deep we’d still be exposed, and there’s no way we can cross at night.”

“You need not cross the river above ground, William Whitehall. We have many tunnels, and some go as far as the other side. Of these, a few will also take you a good distance downstream.”

“How far downstream?” asked Maya.

“The longest would take half a day.”

The exclaims of delight echoed in the chamber. “We could get completely past the bandits!” said Jack.

“Elder, why didn’t you tell us about these tunnels before?” asked William. “Hang on, I know. You didn’t know whether you could trust us. I would do the same in your place.”

“Just so. Are you prepared to leave?”

“We will be once we collect our gear from the den,” said William.

“Then I shall not detain you, except to give you a parting gift.”

William was taken aback. While the dragons had been generous with food, it had been given more as a necessity than a courtesy. He hadn’t suspected dragons understood the concept of gifts. He wasn’t entirely sure the idea of trade was within their grasp, either.

The Elder whistled a command to a messenger dragon, who flitted away, returning soon after with a crafting dragon. “William Whitehall, I did you a grave discourtesy when I had your sword broken. I did not know you then as I do now, but even so, breaking it was not necessary. I could simply have withheld it from you until I decided your fate.”

William swallowed hard. If gifts were undragon-like, apologies were more so.

The Elder continued. “Dragons have no need of swords, but I do understand their purpose, and metal is at the very core of our existence. Would I be correct in saying your sword was of—inferior—quality?”

“It was as good as can be made today with the metal we have, but yes, it was junk.”

“As I supposed. Rather than having it repaired, I ordered a new one forged with the best alloy of metals for its purpose.” The crafting dragon came forward at the Elder’s gesture, and presented to William a longer, more slender sword than his old one. It had a dull white sheen, pale and lacking the luster of steel, but its design was both simple and elegant, and the edges straight and sharp. He grasped the hilt and found to his amazement the sword weighed less than half the broken one. “This is beyond amazing, Elder. Thank you,” he said. “Charlie, check this. You’re a soldier, and a smith’s son. What do you think of this?”

The sword whistled through the air as Charlie swung it a few times. “Good balance. Long reach, light weight. Best I’ve ever held. Even my father couldn’t make one like this.” The others crowded around, admiring the craftsmanship…or should that be craftsdragonship? Someone would have to invent new words.

“This is masterful work, Elder,” said William. “Miraculous, even. It goes well beyond replacing what was lost.”

“I hope you will accept it as a token of our friendship, William Whitehall. It is well forged, but not unbreakable. Treat it well.”

“I will.”

They left without fanfare. The Elder, while gracious, did not appear emotional. For William’s part, he found it difficult to leave but could not say why. As they wound their way down the tunnel that led under the river, following their silver drone escort, he rested his hand on the hilt of his new sword. Jack quizzed him as they walked, asking if the change in design was to his liking.

“It’s longer than I’m used to, but so much lighter. It’ll give me a reach advantage without a loss in speed. But I’ll need to practice until I get used to it.”

Jack shook his head in admiration. “It must be worth more than a Tredwick.”

“There you go again, putting a price on things. It was a gift; I’d never sell it.”

“Give me a break, Will; I know that. What I mean is, if this is what dragons are capable of, trade will be more profitable than I thought. It’s interesting how simple it looks, though, isn’t it? If people had made this, it would be decorated and engraved.”

William shrugged. “The Elder probably doesn’t want it drawing attention.” He swung the sword as they walked, marveling at how much better it felt than his old bronze one. He soon fell behind the group, and with reluctance he returned the sword to his belt and hurried to catch up. When he reached them he was surprised that everyone had stopped. “What’s going on?” he asked.

Maya pointed at the opening to a small side tunnel. The light from the lanterns revealed a dead dragon, killed by what appeared to be the same injuries that Maya had treated in the infirmary. In broken English their drone guide told them he would deal with it on the way back. No one else spoke. William understood now why he was reluctant to leave. The dragons were still in danger, and the Elder had befriended them in hopes of gaining allies against the unseen foe that attacked from the shadows. Guilt weighed on him: of what use was a sword if it never faced an enemy?

Jack crossed his arms and stared at William. “No, Will. We aren’t staying.”

William sighed. “I know. But the dragons deserve better. What if they can’t ever hatch the Queen? They’ll die off, there won’t be any trade, and…they’ll die, Jack. It isn’t right.”

“No, it isn’t. But we have our own lives to worry about. Even if this tunnel gets us past the immediate danger, there’s still plenty more we can run into.”

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

The story of Marshall Ibycus is one of heroism as much as scientific ingenuity. However, five hundred years after his death it remains difficult to separate fact from legend. It is beyond doubt, though, that without the illicit preparations of Ibycus and his staff, the survival of the Colonists would have been questionable at best.

Further, historians mostly agree that it was Ibycus’ willingness to deceive the University that allowed his family—and himself—to escape to Esper at a later date. Writings of contemporaries indicate that his reputation for honesty and forthrightness was a perfect screen for this deception.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

Maya squinted at the glass tube as she held it to the sunlight.

“What’s the verdict?” asked William.

Maya’s brow furrowed. “It doesn’t look bad. We shouldn’t drink it until I can test it with better equipment, but so far, it seems okay.”

“So what’s the problem?” asked Jack.

“We still don’t know where the dump drained into the river, and the last test on the way up was near the waterfall. I won’t be convinced until I get another sample from there.”

“That won’t take long,” said Rachel as she looked back at the mountains. “We’re two or three days from the falls, at most.” They had maintained a quick pace for three days since leaving the tunnel and their silver drone guide. The Elder had provided them with plenty of dried meat, saving hunting and foraging time. Even William’s leg had improved. Progress was good.

“What does your gut tell you?” William asked Maya. “Is the water clean?”

Maya glared at him, hands on hips, her smirk barely contained. “William Whitehall, I am a scientist. I do not make guesses based on the contents of my stomach. I collect and analyze data and use proper scientific procedures to reach rational conclusions.”

William groaned out loud and grinned. “Fine, then. From the data that you now have—which I stipulate may be insufficient for a conclusive determination—combined with the wisdom you have gained from years of experimentation and scholarly study, are you comfortable providing a preliminary report on the condition of the river?”

“Well, when you put it like that,” she said with a huge smile, “I’d say the river is clean. We did it.”

Joy and relief flowed through him, pride swelling his chest. He felt ten feet tall and light as the wind. As he laughed along with the others, he felt a sense of belonging that he had never experienced before, and noted with surprise it didn’t alarm him. In fact, he welcomed it.

Maya raised a finger in warning. “Remember, though, we still need to test the water below the falls. All knowledge is provisional. One test proves nothing, but it’s a good start.”

Jack sunned himself on a large rock while watching Charlie go through his exercises. After being confined underground for so long, Charlie felt stiff and weak and had taken to running through the Guards’ standard fitness routine each morning and evening. “Glad to feel the sunshine again, Charlie?” asked Jack.

“King’s beard, yes,” said Charlie with a shy smile. William had never heard Charlie swear before. It seems everyone was starting to relax after their long ordeal.

Three days later they reached the falls. The plume of mist rose so high that they saw it a full day before, but reaching the bottom proved more challenging. The cliff wall that had blocked their way upstream was as much of an obstacle on the south side of the river. Far below, a black sandy bank stretched into the distance. It would make for easy traveling, but the wall frustrated their efforts to get there.

William decided he and Jack would scout for a path down. Rachel seemed insulted, and William recalled her guilt about being ambushed on a path she and Jack had scouted. He tried to put her mind at ease. “I need to keep moving, Rachel. I’m restless. If I have to wait here, I’ll go crazy. Besides, I want to talk to Jack.” She accepted his statement, although she didn’t look too happy about it. Maybe she wanted to be alone with Jack? He chuckled to himself as he realized he didn’t care.

“We’ve been stuck together for days now—what could you possibly want to talk about that you couldn’t before?” asked Jack as they pushed southward in search of a descent.

“I want to know how on Esper we’ll manage to trade with the dragons if we can’t tell anyone about them.”

“Didn’t you convince the Elder to let us tell whoever we wanted?” asked Jack.

“No, I convinced him to let us tell whoever we trusted. There’s a difference.”

“Okay, so what?”

“So…who do we trust?”

“King’s boots,” said Jack after a long silence. “I see your point.”

“Right. Anyone we tell winds up with the same problem, until we either decide to tell no one, or else everyone knows. And that’s before we get our hands on one bar of iron or print a single page.”

Jack slashed at the dense bushes that blocked their path. “It’s probably not that bad. People have worked secret mines before. Only a few people knew where the Cartringham silver mines were.”

“Don’t be silly,” said William. “They were in Cartringham.”

“Yes, but where in Cartringham? The city was full of silver trade workers, but hardly anyone knew where the mine was, because the Duke kept it secret.”

“So?”

“Well think about it. What if there had been dragons there, and only those few people knew about it?”

William stopped short. “Wait a second. You really think Cartringham had dragons? The Elder never mentioned any other hives.”

“No, that’s not my point,” said Jack. “I’m saying that however they kept their location secret, we could do the same. As far as the people in Marshland and Faywater Port are concerned, they won’t care who’s doing the mining as long as the metal flows downstream.”

“Okay, so how do we set it up?”

“I’m thinking about it.”

“Okay, what if we—”

“I said, I’m thinking about it. Shut up for a change.”

William shut up. When Jack asked for silence it was usually for good reason. He wasn’t what William would call a deep thinker, not like Lester, or maybe even William himself, but when Jack needed to solve a problem he could focus like no one else William knew. And the results were almost always worth it. William took over the task of slashing at the brush while Jack followed behind, muttering to himself.

The wall got no lower nor the slope gentler as they pushed forward. Without Jack’s help it was slow going, and William eventually halted in exhaustion and sat down. He had lost track of how long they had been at it, but he found the sun through the trees overhead and guessed three hours at least. If they didn’t find a way down soon they would have to turn back.

“Why did you stop?” asked Jack, who stared at him with a puzzled look on his face.

“We both stopped,” said William. “And I’ve been doing all the hard work, too.”

“That doesn’t sound likely. Anyway, have you found a way down yet?”

“Since we’re still on this side of the cliff, let’s assume I haven’t.”

“And you’re sure you were doing all the hard work?”

“Shut up, Jack.”

“Anyway, should we head back?”

“Don’t bother,” said Rachel as she emerged from the path William had blazed. “We decided to come find you.” Maya and Charlie arrived closely behind her.

“Get this, Rachel,” said Jack. “Will says he’s been doing all the hard work.”

“He has,” said Rachel. “You don’t have a drop of sweat on you, and he’s soaked through.”

“Why didn’t you stay at the river?” asked William.

“I was thinking,” said Jack. “That’s the hardest work of all.”

“A lot of good it did us, Jack,” said William.

“We got scared,” said Maya.

“We did not get scared, Maya,” said Rachel. “At least I didn’t…I got nervous.”

“Fine, you were nervous. I was scared.”

“You know, Will,” said Jack. “If you hadn’t stopped I probably would have thought of something by now.”

“Thought of something about what?” asked Maya.

William gritted his teeth and looked skyward. “Never mind him. What were you nervous about?”

“I was thinking of how to arrange a system where we could trade with the dragons without anyone else learning about them,” said Jack.

“Did you think of anything?” asked Charlie.

“No, because Will stopped,” said Jack. “I’m not even sure what he was doing the whole time.”

William smacked his sword against his shield, startling the others. “For the love of the King, the Queen, and all the Dukes in all the lands, could someone please tell me why we should be nervous?” William looked at the shocked faces staring back at him and added, “Besides me jumping off this cliff to get away from the lot of you?”

Rachel recovered first. “Well, we have all the food we need for a while, so I haven’t been looking for anything to hunt. But I got bored waiting for you guys and looked around to pass time. There’s nothing larger than a squirrel here.”

“Big deal,” said William. “That’s how it was before, right? The dragons have probably cleared everything around the mountains.”

“True, but there’s not even any animal paths here. It’s been empty here longer than the north side of the river.”

“So what does that mean?” asked Jack.

“I don’t know. And not knowing makes me nervous.”

“That’s it?” asked William.

Rachel shook her head. “No. Steve’s been acting strange.”

“Strange how?”

“He keeps looking over the cliff, like there’s something down there.”

“Didn’t you say there were no animals here?” asked Jack.

“I know when he’s sensing an animal. I can usually even tell what kind of animal from how he acts. This is different.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” said William. He had come to trust the dog’s instincts, especially since the first wolf attack. Steve’s quick reaction had saved William from becoming a meal.

“There’s one more thing,” said Rachel. “When I looked at the river bank below, I’m pretty sure I saw tracks. Human tracks.”

The sweat on William’s neck grew chilly; he stifled the urge to shiver. Not in front of the others, he thought. “You could have started with that bit of information,” he said, his voice matching his cold skin.

Rachel’s jaw dropped as a look of dread spread across her face. “Oh…sorry…I meant…I was just telling you in the order I noticed it. I never meant to drag it out.”

William relaxed. “Okay, never mind. You surprised me is all. I shouldn’t have gotten upset.” What to do next? No one had any ideas, but it was evident they all felt safer together rather than being split up. He looked around for ideas, and something began nagging at his mind. Something was missing. “Charlie, did you bring all the gear with—”

“Wait a second! Where’s Steve?” asked Rachel. That’s what he had missed, and his absence was both conspicuous and alarming given Rachel’s report. He suppressed the urge to call the dog’s name, in case their worst fears were realized and someone heard them. A muffled bark filtered through the trees. A few tense moments later Steve crashed through the brush. William breathed a sigh of relief, as did everyone else.

“You silly puppy, where did you go?” asked Rachel, her relief evident.

“Wait a second,” said Jack. “He came from this side, right?” He poked at the bushes where the dog had emerged, and stuck his head through. “Well, would you look at this…he found it!”

“You must be kidding me,” said William. They all jammed themselves through the brush to look at the path. It was narrow, but not too steep, and looked safer than the one they ascended weeks before. “That’s impressive. Rachel, did you send him to look for a way down?”

“No. He scouts around unless I tell him to stay close. We got lucky, I guess.”

“I don’t think so,” said Charlie. “Look.” Small handholds were fixed to the cliff exactly where they would be needed.

“Any Were those were made by Guards?” William asked.

Charlie shook his head. “We never patrol this far. If we did, we wouldn’t waste time making those. Whoever did has been here for a while.”

The path appeared well-used: they saw no footprints, but the stones were bare and free of moss, unlike the surrounding boulders and fallen trees. If they were going to use this path, they would have to descend quickly and hope for the best. It was that, or back out and find another way. But was there any place safe that they could retreat to? They had seen signs of people on both sides of the river now; short of taking a major detour they would have to travel through bandit territory.

He decided before anyone else spoke. “Grab everything. Jack, you go first, make sure the path is safe. Give me your gear so your hands are free. Rachel next. If someone attacks, you need to protect Jack. Charlie next, then Maya. First we get down as fast and as quiet as possible, then we figure out what to do next. Go!”

It did not go as quickly as William hoped. Their gear made the descent more treacherous than it would have been otherwise, and at one point where the path doubled back on itself they stopped and lowered the packs by hand. But they reached the bottom uninjured and equipment intact. If anything, the brush was even denser than above the cliff. William had it in mind to head for the river, having seen the clear and empty banks from the falls above, but decided the extra speed wasn’t worth the risk of exposure.

No one dared speak for fear of giving away their presence, but they made plenty of noise slashing through the foliage anyway. Two hours of toil and tension later, William called a halt. Maya, exempt from brush-slashing duties, got a cold meal together. Jack flopped to the ground and closed his eyes, while Charlie leaned against a tree to catch his breath. William found a log to sit on and inspected his new sword. The edge was still sharp despite the abuse he’d given it. A sword should never be used this way, but it had come through better than he had dared hope.

“How long do we keep this pace?” asked Jack without opening his eyes.

“It took us four weeks to get from Marshland to the falls,” said Rachel.

“Sure, but we took our time,” said Maya. “And this side of the river should be easier to travel on.”

“That’s not what I meant,” said Jack. He rolled over and propped himself on his elbows. “How long until we can take our time without worrying about getting captured?”

William wiped his sword on his sleeve to remove the green stains. “If I had my way, we’d walk to Marshland without stopping. I won’t feel safe until we get home. Even then, Charlie and his colleagues will need to come back here and clean the place out. But since we can’t go non-stop, I suggest we do our best getting through the woods for another day, and then make for the river. As long as we’re in dense forest, we know no one else has been here. But that doesn’t exactly satisfy me.”

No one argued, but was it because he was right, or were they simply too tired to think of anything else? He forced himself back onto his feet. “We need to get going.”

Jack grumbled. “Can’t we travel at night? No one will see us then.”

It wasn’t a serious question, but William answered anyway. “Can you imagine hacking our way through this in the dark?”

Jack staggered to his feet. “Fine. But you’re leading. I don’t think I can swing my arms at another branch.”

“You’ll be fine once you warm up again.”

“I’m plenty warm, thanks.”

It was true, though. After a few minutes their muscles relaxed to the inevitable and the pain faded. But they were still tired and sweaty. True relief came an hour later, when Maya noticed the trees had thinned. “I can see the sky ahead. Maybe we’re near the river.” They pushed their weary bodies toward the patch of blue, but instead of the river they discovered a wide clearing. William’s skin crawled, and he reached for his sword. His own thought was mirrored in Charlie’s eyes: this clearing was man-made.

They had no time to discuss anything. Several men emerged from the far side, armed with crude axes, clubs and spears. They wore the same rags and cheap armor as their previous attackers; they were clearly from the same group that attacked them before. The bandits faced them from several paces away, and approached slowly without a word, maneuvering to surround them against the forest wall they had just cut through. William scanned the area quickly. If they tried to escape through the forest they would be easily captured. Neither could they stand and defend themselves; they were outnumbered, admittedly by poorly armed men, but there was no winning this fight. Only one option remained.

“Charlie, get everyone out of here. Make for the river, then march as far and as fast as you can towards home.”

Jack grabbed his shoulder. “Will, this isn’t a game! This isn’t the time to play hero.”

“What else am I supposed to do, Jack? I don’t have time to argue. Maya has to get back, and if you care about me at all, you’ll make sure that happens. I’ll try to escape later; I don’t think they want to kill anyone.”

“You’re willing to bet your life?” asked Jack.

“Of course I’m not!” said William. “But sometimes we have to do what we don’t want to do. That includes you. Get going!”

Jack slowly retreated with the others. They hesitated a few feet from the clearing, reluctant to leave. The bandits had trapped William in a semicircle, apparently respecting the long blade in his hand, but they would soon get over their fear and overwhelm him with their numbers. He turned to his friends. “Go! Get home, get help. I’ll hold them for as long as I can, but you need to leave now. That’s an order.” Charlie’s training took over, and he urged the others forward. Maya’s eyes were red, and Rachel’s clenched jaw trembled with fury. Jack gave him a look that told him he would exchange places if he could. And then they were gone.

Relieved his friends were safe, at least for the moment, he faced his attackers. He was outnumbered by at least ten to one, but he was fortunate none had bows, or were unwilling to use them. They had nets, though; it looked like they wanted to capture rather than kill him. They would pay for the privilege in both time and blood while William blocked the only clear path into the forest.

A bandit charged him, spear in hand. William pivoted and raised his sword to block. The spear-man turned away as two others attacked from the other side. He slashed at them, breaking one attacker’s spear and slashing the other’s shoulder. Both retreated to their spots in the semicircle, blood streaming down the injured man’s arm. Another bandit attacked and retreated, followed by two more attacking from the other side. Again William parried them away, leaving one bleeding from the face. The pattern continued, but the bandits remained silent. They must have done this before; they were better trained than they were armed. If their aim was to tire him, they were succeeding; they would overwhelm him soon, but not until his friends had a chance to get far away. His only goal was to buy them time to escape and reach home. His own survival was secondary.

One bandit gestured to another. Two men stepped forward, a net strung between them. They charged, flanking William to entangle him. He faked a jump over the net, saw them raise it to match his jump, then slipped underneath, slashing at the net to try to damage it. Two more men attacked from behind before he regained his balance. One grabbed his sword arm and received a deep gash on his hand for his efforts; the other yanked at William’s shield, and tore it away.

Again came the net. This time he couldn’t avoid it. He kept his feet, but they circled him. He tried to wriggle free, and was jumped by men from behind. He wrenched his sword arm free, stabbing and slicing at anything he could reach. It was mere desperation now. Someone grabbed his wrist and twisted; he dropped the sword as a bolt of pain shot through his arm. His vision cleared in time to see a giant of a man swinging a club at his head. The impact on his forehead made a sickening thud, and he dropped to the ground, eyes unfocused. Through the ringing in his ears he heard a voice say, “Tie him up. Bring him to the Keeper. You four…go after the others. The Boss won’t be happy if they get away.”

His last thought before passing out was his hope that Maya and the others had gotten away.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

The history of Esper differs from that of Earth in that no war has ever been fought on this planet. Aside from minor skirmishes between outlaws and Guards, or rivals for natural resources, armed conflict has been avoided on Esper.

The fact that all populated land is incorporated into a single political unit has meant that disagreements tend to be resolved through negotiated settlement or royal dictate. The claim to the throne itself is handled by the Council of Dukes, but some authors have questioned what might occur if several claimants appealed at the same time.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

William awoke on a dirt floor in a small shack, his hands bound together behind a pole. Sitting up caused him considerable pain. Even breathing hurt. He had bruised ribs for sure, probably broken ones too.

He welcomed the pain; it sharpened his senses. He stayed silent, surveying his surroundings before the inevitable encounter. The shack was made of a strange tube-shaped wood he had never seen before. The walls consisted of smaller branches lashed together, while thicker tubes formed the corner posts and roof beams. The post he was tied to was several inches thick, and supported the little building’s roof. Despite his predicament William was intrigued; such a wood might be handy for building houses quickly and cheaply. He would have to learn where it came from.

But later. Right now he needed to learn as much as possible about this place and plan an escape. The far side of the hut was cluttered, but it was too dark to discern what the pile was made of. He promised himself he would steal a glance whenever the chance presented itself.

His captors must have had faith in their knots, because the hut’s only door was unlocked; in fact, it was ajar, and swung easily in the breeze. William checked the bonds on his wrists, and found their faith was justified. Giving up for the moment on escaping, he leaned over to get a better view through the door opening.

It was still daytime. Either that or the sun had set and risen; he could not be sure, but he wasn’t hungry, which meant he’d been unconscious for a few hours at most.

A small, busy crowd of people scurried about outside, all dressed in the same ragged style he had seen before. Most were men, but a few women passed by as well, though with the narrow view it might have been the same woman each time. He leaned further to get a better view, wincing at the pain in his ribs as he did so. His face was so low he could smell the dirt floor, but he got no better view for his efforts. He tried to pull himself up without screaming in agony, sucking in air to stop from shouting—and breathed in a noseful of dirt. He sneezed before he could stop himself. The sneeze strained his ribs, and he yelped in pain before clenching his mouth shut. Outside, the crowd turned his way. They parted, and a new figure approached the hut.

It was a different sort of man who strode toward him, one far better dressed and armed than the others. The deference the others showed him made it clear he was their leader, or at least someone important. Unlike the poor clothing and the rough leather armor of his underlings, he wore soft leather pants and a black cloak embroidered in silver and red. His cloak flowed behind him as he walked, as did his sandy brown hair. Whoever he was, he was tall, lean, attractive, wealthy, and confident, and everything else William had ever wanted to be.

The door opened and sunlight poured in, nearly blinding William. The man strode in, giving William a piercing, icy stare. He paced slowly around the central post, his boots thudding in the packed dirt. As the room darkened again, William made out the dusty blue eyes of his adversary staring at him. His circuit around William completed, the man sat on a stool he grabbed from the storage pile that William had forgotten to peek at.

“You,” he said, pointing his finger at William, “have caused me problems.” He spoke with a soft Ibyca accent, probably southern. “Not only did you injure some of my men, but I understand your friends have eluded capture. At least so far.”

William’s heart pounded with excitement when he heard the others had gotten away, but he kept silent. He fixed his gaze on the man’s smirk, which was obscured by a well-trimmed goatee.

“So, what shall I do now?” the man asked. “Your friends will no doubt inform the authorities of our presence here. That is, if they evade my trackers. If they do, then my choices seem clear: remain here and hold you hostage against attack by the Earl’s men, or leave and find another place to camp. If we must leave, then you become a liability, and I would do well to simply dispose of you. You appear to be educated. Tell me…if you stood in my boots, which would you choose? Ransom or execution?” The man stared at William, daring him to answer.

“Who are you?” asked William with all the contempt he could muster.

The man laughed at William’s insolence. “My apologies. Protocol first. I am Kaleb Antony of Faywater Port, although from my accent you may have guessed that I was educated overseas. I am the leader of this little…group here.”

“William Whitehall, Marshland Crossing, born, raised, and educated. Librarian.”

Antony raised his eyebrows. “Librarian? What on Esper is a Librarian doing this far from town?”

Should he answer? Hiding the truth served no purpose. Better to be forthright and gain the man’s trust, so that lying later might be more fruitful. “We were investigating the poisoning of the river.”

“Hmm. Yes, several of my people have been getting sick. We had to search elsewhere for water. Did you find what you were looking for?”

Again, he wondered how much of the truth to tell him. He could not divulge the dragons’ existence to these bandits of all people. But an outright lie might be detected. “We did,” he said.

“What did you find?” asked Antony.

“A rock-slide from one of the mountains—the one on the north side. The poison came from there.”

Antony paced around William again. William was sure it was a tactic to unsettle him, but knowing this didn’t prevent it from working. “Were you able to clean up this rock-slide?” asked Antony.

“No, it was too big. But the poison had nearly dissipated by the time we left. It should disappear within a month or so.” This was the most deceitful he had been so far. He suspected the time would come soon when he must tell a blatant lie; he hoped he could pull it off.

Antony reached into the storage pile again. “And why does a Librarian need this?” he asked, holding the shield Melissa had given him.

Just his shield? Where was his new sword? Did Antony believe he had carried a shield but no weapon? “We didn’t know who or what we might run into,” he said, avoiding any mention of the sword. “Being armored was better than not. As it was we were attacked three times…once by your people, and twice by wolves.”

“And you expect me to believe a Librarian is capable of using this?”

William sighed. “My father was a Guard.”

“He taught you?”

“No, he died before he could. But I was taught by…someone else. I had hoped to be chosen for the Guard myself.”

Antony’s eyes widened. “And yet you became a Librarian. Weren’t you disappointed?”

“Yes,” said William. “But I’ve grown to enjoy my duties.”

“Such as trekking all over Azuria searching for sources of poison?”

William couldn’t help but laugh. “Among other things.”

Antony returned to his seat. “I wasn’t here to witness it, but I’m told you fought well before being captured. My men were under orders to capture you alive, otherwise you would be dead now, despite your skill. Wouldn’t you prefer an opportunity to live your dream, wielding a spear and shield instead of pen and paper?”

William’s face burned. “I won’t shame my father’s memory by becoming a common thief,” he said through clenched teeth.

“No, I wouldn’t imagine so,” said Antony, rising again. As he opened the door to leave he turned back. “But ask yourself this: am I really just a common thief?” And with that he closed the door behind him.

Antony’s parting question struck a nerve. If they weren’t bandits, then what were they? Antony was too well dressed and armed to be a thief himself, but he still might be commanding others to steal for him. William recalled the bandit activity report he wrote for Duke Vincent. That’s what Cairns called it: bandit activity. Maybe that was just an unchallenged premise. William had considered himself clever for finding a likely point of origin for the outlaws. For all his cleverness he had stumbled into the middle of their encampment anyway.

But now that the question was asked, he had to ponder it: were they really bandits? He had no evidence either way, so he did what he should have done from before: analyze the situation and search for inconsistencies. So what did he know for certain? First, he had seen at least two dozen men besides Antony, probably more. Second, this encampment was stable enough to warrant building a permanent structure, namely the one he was in, which contained a stockpile of items evidently worth keeping. Lastly, if he’d guessed their whereabouts correctly, there were no major towns within several days’ march. Marshland was a week or so away, and the southern coast of Azuria more than twice that.

Question: why would bandits camp here? Answer: they wouldn’t. So if they weren’t bandits, who or what were they? Antony made it obvious he didn’t intend to be caught. Being caught implied wrongdoing—a cold chill spread through him. He knew what they were.

Rebels. These people intended to defy the King’s authority and take power for themselves. It was the only explanation, and it angered him enough to hyperventilate despite the pain in his ribs. Without thinking he tugged on his bindings, but they held fast, digging into his wrists. The pole was buried deep and didn’t budge.

He forced himself to relax before he injured himself further. He slowed his breathing and looked for something constructive to do. His only hope of escape was to dig around the pole to loosen it, but he couldn’t move his hands enough. He sighed, realizing he was helpless, at least for now. A few rays from the sinking sun slipped through the cracks in the wall; night would fall soon, and he had to try to sleep. Hopefully an idea would come to him by morning.

The door opened again. William thought Antony had returned to talk again, but instead he saw the round, friendly face of a middle-aged man. “Boss says it’s time for you to eat,” he said. “My name’s Finn; some call me the Keeper.”

“Keeper?” asked William.

“Yup. I keep the new folks like you until they decide to join us. The Boss says I can trust you, but I gotta ask anyway: if I untie your hands so you can eat, d’ya promise not to run? I should warn you, them that tried got themselves killed.”

“I promise,” said William, happy to have his hands loosened for a few moments. “Can I walk around? I want to stretch my legs.”

“Sure. I’ll be standing by the door, though, so you won’t be going nowhere anyhow.” Finn’s smile seemed genuine, but William was sure he meant business. He resolved not to try escaping, at least not while this man was watching. The meal was meager and tasteless. What sort of rodent or bird it was he dared not ask, but he could not bring himself to finish it.

“Water,” said Finn, offering a cup. “Not too much, mind, as you’ll be tied up all night and you don’t want to be wettin’ yourself.” William heeded the advice and took only a few sips, using the rest to clean his hands and face as best as he could. “If you gotta go, go in the corner.” Finn pointed toward the corner nearest the pile. William didn’t relish the idea of smelling his own urine all night, but he decided to use the opportunity to inspect the objects hidden in the dark. His suspicions were confirmed. Among other items, he saw axes, spears, clubs and all manner of crude weapons and shields. Some looked as though they had been made with materials on hand; others more likely stolen from richer men. He contemplated snatching a weapon and fighting his way to freedom, but he rejected the idea right away. He couldn’t fight anyone in his condition, let alone someone as burly as Finn. William was sure he was being tested, and that meant Finn was confident of the result of any duel. No, it was best to use the time to look around.

As he relieved himself, a stray beam of light from the doorway fell on a shield hanging on the wall, illuminating the pure white symbol painted on it.

It was a fist. He was staring directly at the shield his father had carried until his last day. Whoever killed him was probably here in this camp. With great effort, William removed all emotion from his face as he returned to Finn to have his hands tied.

“May I ask a question?” asked William as Finn opened the door to leave.

“Sure,” said Finn with a shrug. “No harm in a question.”

“What makes you sure I’ll join?”

He shrugged again. “Everybody does. The Boss has a way about him. Besides, when his ways don’t work, there’s always mine.” He left without explaining his last remark, which left William guessing the worst. They weren’t counting on the fact that William knew they had murdered his father. The Keeper’s words lingered in the darkness. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was this could not end well for him. His only hope was to survive as long as possible and prevent Antony and the others from leaving. The delay might give Maya and the others a chance to reach Marshland and raise the alarm. The Earl might not want to send his men to save William alone, but he couldn’t allow a band of criminals to camp seven days from town. Not while he answered to Duke Vincent.

He spent a fitful night dozing and waking. A sentry paced just outside the door, which alone would have hindered sleep. But having his hands tied behind him with only a pole to lean against was no way to rest. His ribs ached and no position brought relief. But none of that mattered compared with the mental torture in William’s weary mind. In fitful dreams, rebels attacked his father over and over; other times he himself was the target. Every fight ended in capture or death, only to have the vision start over again.

He was woken in the morning by a scrawny redhead no older than himself. “Boss wants to see you,” said the young man in a surly voice. As he untied the bonds, William noticed a shadow near the door. Another pointless test. If he ran now, he would get nowhere anyway; his legs were cramping after such a lousy sleep.

The shadow belonged to Finn, just as he suspected. “Good night’s sleep?” asked Finn, his friendly smirk reminding William of Jack. He decided he had nothing to lose by bantering back.

“Actually, I was about to complain to the inn keeper. Care to join me?”

Finn laughed and clapped a strong hand on William’s shoulder. “King’s trousers, lad, it’ll be good to have you on our side.” William did not return the smile. They crossed an open square of hard-packed dirt. Several tents of dubious quality surrounded it, along with open hammocks and a few fire pits. The camp was spacious but concealed, and looked as though it had existed for a long time. Antony would not be enthusiastic about moving.

They approached the camp’s only other permanent structure, a long, low building built from the same tubular wood as the prison shack. Two doors graced the long side; they entered the nearer one. Inside, Antony sat behind a rough-hewn makeshift desk.

“Have you figured it out yet, Whitehall?” Antony leaned back in his chair, hands behind his head. “Are we bandits or not?”

William was stopped at the desk facing Antony. Finn and the younger man stood behind him, blocking any potential escape. He looked Antony in the eye, hoping his fear didn’t show. “You are rebels,” he said in a clear voice.

“You were right, Finn,” said Antony. “He’s a clever one. Now, Whitehall, let’s try a harder question. What is our plan?”

William had puzzled over it, and no satisfactory answer had come to mind. “Well, you plan to seize Marshland Crossing, obviously, but I can’t imagine why.”

“Why not?”

“Because you can’t succeed. You might overpower the Guards by surprise, but someone is bound to get a message to Faywater Port. They’ll send a whole company of Guards to take back the town, and you’ll either be captured or killed, or at best you’ll escape. Not only won’t you have the town anymore, but you’ll be chased and eventually captured. Worse, your secret will be out.”

“So capturing Marshland makes no sense. Which means I must be stupid, correct?”

“But you aren’t. At least you don’t seem that way to me.”

Antony raised an eyebrow. “Flattery? Don’t even try.”

“No, that’s not it. I’ve met smart people, and I’ve met stupid people. You aren’t stupid.”

“Correct. I am not stupid. So far you are doing quite well, I must commend you. But now we come to the tricky part. If I am not stupid, why would I make such a drastic mistake as to attack a town I can’t possibly hold?”

Antony clearly enjoyed testing William. William wasn’t eager to gratify him, but he had to learn what was going on here, and Antony wasn’t about to spell it out for him. He was sure of only a few facts, and fairly certain about most of the rest. An old rule about puzzles popped into his head: if the reasoning is correct, but the conclusion is wrong, then at least one assumption must be incorrect. Fine, he thought. What am I assuming?

First, that they were rebels. But Antony had admitted it, so William ruled that out. He had also assumed they intended to take and hold Marshland Crossing; maybe they only wanted to loot it. True, they had robbed the outlying areas for a long time now, but maybe they found it too slow and desired a bigger haul.

Of course, he only assumed Marshland Crossing was the target. Maybe the real target was Faywater Port. It would be a hard town to capture, spread over several islands and strands throughout the river delta, but a rescuing army would take weeks to muster from the small towns. Help from Ibyca might be even longer in arriving with fewer ships sailing. But such a plan didn’t seem realistic. What if—

The answer crashed into William’s brain with enough force to stagger him. He reached for something to hold on to, but found nothing, keeping his feet through sheer force of will. His faulty assumption was that this was the only rebel camp, and Marshland the only target. In fact, they had many camps, poised to attack several major towns and cities at once. The important question was when—but he needed to know something else. “Why?” he asked, unable to hide the disgust welling inside him.

Antony laughed. “Well done! Finn, that’s the fastest anyone’s figured it out, isn’t it?”

Finn nodded. “Pure iron, Boss. Just like I said.”

“I don’t trust him, Boss,” said the younger man. “He’s an Earl’s man, I can tell.” William turned, and was met by a look of pure anger.

“Young Finn here doesn’t seem to trust you, Whitehall.”

“Young Finn?” asked William. “Then he’s his son?”

“No, they aren’t related. That’s Ray Findlay,” said Antony, pointing at the older man. “This lad is Finbar Delroy. For reasons surpassing understanding they are both called Finn.”

Delroy? Could he be Farmer Delroy’s son? He would be about the same age, for sure. If it was him, he would have reason to hate anyone associated with Earl Masterman. No wonder he spoke out against me, thought William. But he needed to focus on Antony now.

“Why do you want to overthrow the King?” he asked. “Do you plan to take the throne yourself? You know the Dukes will never stand for it.”

“Not me, no. And if the Dukes have a problem with it, they can share the King’s fate. No, my motive is not personal glory.”

“Then what is?”

“Whitehall, has it occurred to you that the current system of government is broken?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean Barons are nothing more than men who learned to please an Earl, or their firstborns. Earls are appointed by Dukes who inherit their positions from fathers who got them by the King’s favor, in return for supporting the King’s claim to the throne. Meanwhile men and women of ability—second borns, third borns, commoners—feed on scraps from the manor table. Meanwhile the Kingdom declines, slowly enough that no one notices, but decline it does. And no one has courage to stop it.”

“Except you,” said William, unable to hide his sarcasm.

“Except me, and others like myself. The men and women in this camp have grievances against the Earl, or whichever Baron whose shadow they once lived under. Those who lead them are chosen by the man who will replace Duncan the Coward when the time comes.”

“How dare you call him that…” William’s hand reached for his sword. When it came back empty he simply glared at his captor.

“More of a King’s man than an Earl’s man, I see. So your complaint is not with the King, but with the Earl.”

“The Earl does what he does for the good of the town,” said William.

“The Earl does what’s good for himself!” said the younger Finn. The older Finn grabbed his arm to hold him back from William.

“Really, Whitehall,” said Antony. “Smart, yes, but you’re quite naive, aren’t you?” Antony tapped his dagger against his knuckles. “Very well. I’ll leave you in the hands of the two Finns. Perhaps they can convince you.”

“A smart lad like you should see you’ve got no choice,” said the older Finn as he led William back to the shack. “The Boss has only three things he can do with you.”

“Which are?” asked William.

“Recruit you, ransom you, or kill you,” said the Keeper, counting the options on his fingers. “And you aren’t worth much ransom. So it’s up to us to convince you. Have a seat while young Finn ties your hands, and we’ll start the persuading.”

The younger Finn tied his hands much tighter than the older one had, and he was not gentle about the business. The young man’s hostility was evident, but William could not understand why it was directed toward him.

“So,” said the older Finn as he sat on a stool in front of William. “What questions do you have? We’ll answer anything we can to help you decide to throw your lot in with us.”

William swallowed hard. The older man genuinely wanted William to convert, but the younger man’s eyes spoke of vengeance instead. He had to find out what fueled that hatred.

“What’s his story?” William asked in a low voice as the younger man pulled another stool from the storage pile.

The Keeper laughed. “What, you don’t want to hear my story first? No, my tale’s not worth telling, really. Work was hard to find, at least not the kind of work I wanted to do. I have a good spot here with the Boss, that ain’t no lie. Delroy, quit dallying and bring that stool here. Our guest is curious about you.”

“Why should he care? He’s had a soft life.” The young man slammed the stool to the floor before sitting.

“Just you never mind what kind of life he’s had. Tell him about yours. Remember, the Boss wants this one.”

“The Boss is wrong.”

“So you’ve said, but the Boss disagrees with you, and so do I.”

The younger man glowered at his senior partner before turning to William. “You’ve never been hungry, have you?”

“I’ve missed dinner a few times, but other than that—”

“Listen to him! Missed dinner, he says. You have no idea what it’s like to be really hungry, do you? To starve. My family spent whole winters with nothing but a few rotten onions and a handful of oats every week. We’d go days without a scrap of food passing our lips, and you talk about missing dinner.” He was animated now, enough that William feared he might lash out at him. But his face changed, and he stared into an unseen distance. “It could have been better,” he said in a quiet voice. “It should have been. My father is a good farmer, he’s been working on the Earl’s land since he could walk. We had land to work as long as I can remember, but something always went bad for us. Harvests came up short, less than what my dad knew we should reap, but we could never prove a thing. A prime lot would be given to another farmer, usually someone new. It got harder and harder to grow enough to eat, let alone pay the rent, and the rent never dropped even though we had less and less good land to work. Meanwhile, the Earl and his friends got richer and richer…”

Delroy seemed to have forgotten William. He went on as though speaking to himself. “Five children we were…I was the oldest, and another was on the way. Times were hard, but we had reason to hope for a good crop, and the sheep were healthy. We thought we might finally have a comfortable winter, but then three sheep went missing. Dad knew who it was, too. He found them on a new tenant’s field, my dad’s brand burned over by the newcomer’s. Dad complained to the Earl, but the Earl ruled in the new man’s favor. What could we do?”

“You could appeal to the Duke,” said William.

Delroy whirled to face him. “What good would it do? Even if one of us could be spared to walk all the way to Faywater Port, would the Duke himself ride back with us? Not for the likes of me, you can be sure. Even if he sent a letter back overruling the Earl, it would be too late. Those sheep were dead within a week, served up on the Earl’s table, you can count on it. Later, I found out who that new tenant was: a second son of a Baron under Bradford’s thumb, making a living robbing honest farmers and giving the Earl a cut.”

William had no answer. He had no proof for or against the story, but knew in his bones it had to be true. Earl Bradford had earned notoriety as a greedy man, but William hadn’t realized the extent to which the town’s supposed protector went to stuff his coffers. To cheat starving people of their only source of livelihood…that was low. “Your father is Morgan Delroy?”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Finbar, his eyes narrowing. “How do you know him?”

“I’ve worked his harvest every summer for years.”

“I thought I knew you,” he said. His face darkened. “If you had anything to do with our harvests going missing—”

“Not on my life,” said William. “Stealing is not my way, nor would I keep silent if I saw anyone who did.”

Delroy glared at William for a moment. “I don’t believe you. You helped steal our crops, and Bradford gave you a soft job in return. Admit it.”

The Keeper broke in. “Now, Finn, don’t go jumping to conclusions. Nothing will get those crops back now. Let’s give the man a chance to decide which side he’s on.” He shifted his gaze to William. “You’ve heard his story, and I could tell you a couple dozen more from folks in this here camp. Every other camp has a bunch more. Are you still sure about your Earl now?”

William swallowed hard. “I’ve never had any great love for the Earl, but the Duke is a good man.”

“That he is, but he is a rare one. And he’s guilty by association, as they say. A good man fights evil, else his goodness is for nothing. You’re either with us, or against us. Which is it?”

Nothing William could say would improve his chances. He didn’t dare admit he knew the truth about his father being killed by these rebels, or else they would know he would never join, and would probably kill him right away. He couldn’t tell Delroy about the baby’s demise; he would surely ignore the elder Finn and take William’s life here and now. And he couldn’t join, or even pretend to join the rebels. They would be watching him, and anyone with half an excuse to end his life would do so without hesitation. No, better to let them believe he might change his mind later, and submit now to whatever “motivation” Antony might think fit.

It was Oz and his gang all over again. The intimidation, insinuations, and insults, all with the threat of violence lurking in the background, silent but powerful, like a concealed panther waiting to strike from above. His heart raced, pounding so hard that it blurred his vision. “I don’t know…” he muttered, hoping it was convincing.

The beating was savage. They pummeled his battered ribs without mercy, making it impossible to inhale and brace himself for the blows that followed. They avoided his head on Findlay’s orders, because, as he put it, “the Boss wants him to keep his wits.” When he shielded his ribs, they switched to his legs; it was impossible to block all the blows raining down on him.

It was surreal in a sense, as Findlay constantly gave his young student lessons on how to extract the most pain with the least damage. It was a cold and calculating voice that said, “This here is bamboo.” Findlay held up his beating stick. “From down south. You’ll agree it’s perfect for the job. Enough weight to make a decent impact, light enough to swing hard.” He struck William’s chest with a solid thud to demonstrate. “Same stuff this shack is made of, and the Boss’s quarters too. Very useful.”

It went on for three days. It became a waiting game, where William would delay his final decision, and the two Finns would exact a painful toll to force William to declare his allegiance. They let him rest between sessions, at least as well as he could while lashed to the pole. They gave him plenty of water, but no food. When they returned the questions were always the same: “Are you with us or against us?” Each time he answered without commitment, saying he couldn’t disappoint his mother, or his own boss. When he refused to choose, the beating would resume, and William did his best to withstand it. He tried to concentrate on other things, like his friends, whom he hoped had gotten away; or Melissa, who once again was torn from him before he had a chance…

Most often he focused on the shield in the shadows only a few steps away, out of sight. He didn’t need to see it, though; the vision of the white fist glowed in his mind, and sometimes he barely felt the sticks on his battered flesh.

Bruises covered his body, and he could hardly move when they left him alone. For that matter he barely moved when they were there; it hurt more than being hit now. His muscles felt like they had been beaten to a jelly that would never take useful form again. It occurred to him that this was exactly what he had feared all those times Oz and his friends tormented him. They would never have been this thorough, though. With his mind fixated on the white fist, he realized even this didn’t match his worst fears. Physical violence could only hurt him so much. True, it did hurt—a lot. But the fear had been worse in a way. He chuckled at how ridiculous it was to submit to those whose only goal was just that. If they wanted to kill him, they would have done so instead of tormenting him. It was a simple formula, but one he had accepted willingly. And it was funny to him now, even now with the possibility of death hanging over his head.

He laughed out loud, unable to contain the feeling of freedom that accompanied his realization that he could never again be manipulated by fear. Even the agony of his ribs couldn’t stop his convulsive laughter. He didn’t notice when the blows stopped. The Keeper said in a voice that sounded miles away, “He’s lost it. Let’s go tell the Boss.”

They left him alone for at least three days. It may have been more, but William didn’t know how long he had been unconscious. Food and water were brought daily by either of the two Finns, but neither one spoke other than to instruct him to stand, sit, or relieve himself. The wait was agonizing. Not just because of his injuries, which were extensive, but also because he didn’t know what would happen next, or when. His only consolation was that every day that went by was a day closer to a possible rescue. Not that he held much hope for it.

Had his captors freed him, he would not have gotten far. He couldn’t walk, let alone find food or shelter, or defend himself. The ropes binding his hands were superfluous, and served only to prevent him from finding a less painful position.

The morning was warm and smelt of spring when Findlay fetched him. The Keeper’s friendly banter was gone now, and William suspected Findlay had suffered for William’s resistance. About thirty rebels filled the courtyard outside Antony’s quarters, and Antony himself stood on the step overlooking the crowd. William was brought to stand in front of him, the camp’s inhabitants surrounding him.

“Whitehall, you’ve delayed enough. I’m an honorable man, so I will give you one more opportunity. I told you before I have only two options: the other is to have you killed to prevent you from giving away any information about us. As your friends have eluded capture, I am forced to break camp before your Earl sends men to find us; I have no doubt we could defeat any group he sends, but it is not in our interest to confront them yet. So, once again, I invite you to become one of us, and swear an oath that both of us know you would not fail to keep.”

William hesitated only a moment. He had to answer without looking weak. He had one weapon, and Antony’s pride was its target. If he hit his mark, he might have a chance. Taking as deep a breath as he could without wincing, he answered in the clearest and loudest voice he could manage. “Kaleb Antony, you are an outlaw and a rebel. You claim your cause is just, but you have killed innocent people and would kill more to achieve your supposedly noble goals. If I cannot die at the hands of an honorable man, then I will die at yours.”

Antony’s face distorted in rage at William’s insult. The crowd murmured behind him, and the few men in the corner of William’s eye looked between him and Antony, watching for their boss’s response. William could not help but smile at the effect he had made on him, and his smile angered Antony more. “Who are you to call me dishonorable?” asked Antony as he dismounted from the step and circled William. “What sort of claim to honor do you hold that you pass judgment on me?”

“I have the same right as you, as any person, to judge another by his actions.” William was gaining confidence now, and pushed on. “Do you know what I saw when I looked at you?”

Antony spat on the ground. “I don’t care what you saw.”

“Of course you don’t.” William shrugged, hiding the pain as he did so. “Only an honorable man would.”

Antony stopped in his tracks. “Very well. I won’t have it said that I had a man killed without letting him have his last words. What is it that you saw, oh Master Bookworm?” Antony bowed in William’s direction, resorting to sarcasm to win his men back.

“I see a man who would order someone else to kill an unarmed, injured adversary, rather than face him in honest combat.” His trap was set. The rebel Captain looked around him, and saw the looks of expectation on the faces of his followers, and there was no way out.

He leaned forward and whispered to William alone. “So that’s your game. You are either a better swordsman than I thought, or else you have miscalculated.” He returned to the step and addressed the camp. “What will it be boys and girls? Do we gut him here and now, or shall we have a fight?”

It was a clever ploy, designed to rouse his men. They cheered, yelling “Fight! Fight! Fight!” Despite Antony’s smug satisfaction, William felt relieved. His captor couldn’t back out now, no matter what happened. And William intended to control what happened next.

Antony whipped his sword from its scabbard with dramatic effect to the cheers of his followers. He began to loosen up, his blade slicing the air so quickly William heard it sing from where he stood. “Bring a sword from the armory,” Antony said, sending two men scurrying to the shack. This was the moment.

“Kaleb Antony, you disappoint me,” said William, loud enough for everyone in the camp to hear. All cheering stopped as heads swung to look at him. Even the two men running for the sword stopped. Antony’s arm froze mid-chop and slowly fell to his side.

“What did you say?” asked Antony through clenched teeth. It was intended just for him, but the men nearest him heard it too.

“I said you disappoint me,” said William loudly.

“You wanted a fight, and you’re getting it. What’s your problem now?” asked the rebel.

“No honorable man would fight an injured and starved prisoner and call it fair. Especially when those injuries came at his own orders.”

A few gasps broke the silence that followed. The trap was shut, and he saw Antony realized it too. He couldn’t fight today, nor could he back out. William had won another delay.

Antony neither fought the inevitable nor wallowed in defeat. “Three days,” he said. “You will take my quarters, where you will be held without bonds. You will eat what I eat, more if we can spare it. You will be given a sword to practice with, not that it will do you any good. I trust this satisfies your sense of honor?” Antony spat out the last word like poison.

“I will do my best to recover and give you a worthy fight.”

 

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Marshall Ibycus was quoted as saying that the greatest stroke of luck the Colonists had was the distinct lack of lawyers among their numbers. This, he claimed, had freed them of the burden of statutes and legal precedents that no longer served their needs. A rudimentary code of law was developed by an elected council, judges were appointed, and systems created for both criminal and civil courts.

These systems survived the Change, though they are now administered by nobility rather than appointees, and issues of jurisdiction and appeal are far more convoluted than in days past.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

Three days of rest did limited good. William’s ribs healed enough that he could breathe with almost no pain, even swing a sword, but they would sustain little in the way of a direct hit without crippling him. This mattered not at all to William, who expected death by bleeding rather than battering. But he could move. Three days of exercise had loosened his joints, healed the worst of his bruises, and boosted his stamina. Most importantly, he was no longer starving.

Still, it was a lost cause. No rescue party had come to save him. He had delayed as much as he could, but ten days had passed since his capture, and Antony intended to strike camp as soon as the duel ended. The rebels had packed their few belongings, and the tents had been folded for transport to their next location. Only Antony’s quarters and the shack in which William had been held still stood. The courtyard was wide open now, giving the two combatants an unobstructed arena in which to fight.

“This will be a slaughter, Whitehall,” said Antony as he led William from his temporary billing. “You’ve embarrassed me in front of my men, and because of it you have lost the right to a clean execution.”

“Since we both know this is an execution, I have the right to say my last words,” said William.

“If you insist, but make it quick. I won’t be delayed any longer.”

“Of course.”

Antony addressed his followers from the step as they circled around him. “The prisoner will now give his last words, but before he does, I make this final offer before you all as witnesses. Whitehall, you have proven to have wits about you, and you are as brave as they come. I can always use another good man, and it would pay back the fact that because of you, we must now relocate. As I said, you have proven your fighting skills, but you stand no chance against me, and we both know it. Do the smart thing. Join us and fight for a better world.”

Antony relinquished the step to William. The camp’s inhabitants stared back at him, eager to hear him speak. “People of this rebellion,” said William. “I know some of you are here because you believe you are fighting against injustice. Yes, injustices happen, and they should be opposed. But not like this. You heard Kaleb Antony tell me my cause is pointless, that I will lose. He is right. But I ask you, is your cause any less pointless? Do you stand a chance against the well-armed and well-fed men of the King’s Guard? Or will you waste your lives living like this, moving from camp to camp without end? Your only hope is to sneak out one night and make your way to some small town where you can find work and live in peace.” A few faces stared back in defiance, but others cast their gazes downward, refusing to meet his gaze. Perhaps he had at least helped diminish the rebellion’s numbers.

“Wrap it up, Whitehall,” Antony said with a growl.

“Since I cannot leave, I choose to die now in open confrontation, though I know my enemy is stronger. Better this than to linger in doubt forever.”

“Bring the weapons,” said Antony, ending William’s speech.

Two men approached, one bearing Antony’s massive iron blade and thick wooden shield. The other carried a bent and badly-notched bronze blade and a shield no thicker than tree bark. William laughed at the equipment being offered and let the man stand there holding it. “Do you really seek such an advantage, Antony?” asked William, making sure the whole camp heard. “You can’t be that afraid of me.”

Antony’s face turned so red William thought the man might have a stroke. “What now?”

“This sword is a piece of junk, and you know it. This shield won’t stop the wind, let alone a heavy blade such as yours.”

“Don’t expect me to give up my sword and shield to benefit you. As you’ve said, we aren’t well-armed. You’ve got the best of what I have to offer.”

“What about my sword? The one I arrived with.”

Antony looked genuinely puzzled. He turned and yelled. “Finn!”

“Yes, Boss,” said the older Finn.

“You never mentioned a sword,” Antony said, glaring at the Keeper.

Finn swallowed hard. “I won it fair in combat, sir.”

“What’s the rule about captives?” asked Antony.

Sweat beaded on Finn’s forehead. “Report all confiscated property, sir.”

“I’ll deal with you later, but right now I want you to get that sword and hand it to Whitehall.”

Finn returned, his face glowing beet red and murder smoldering in his eyes. As he handed the sword to William he whispered, “If you get lucky and live through this, don’t count on surviving long.”

“That’s quite a sword, Whitehall,” said Antony. “Are you truly a Librarian? Perhaps I didn’t give you enough credit.”

“My shield, too please,” said William.

Antony sighed. “Finn, his shield if you please.”

Finn raised his hands in protest. “Honest, Boss, his shield was broken when we captured him. It’s the one with the lantern painted on it.”

“Yes, that’s right; I remember,” said Antony. “It certainly was pretty. But are you sure you want to fight with a broken shield?”

“Not that one,” said William. “My father’s shield. The one with the white fist.”

Silence gripped the campsite. A look of understanding passed between the two combatants. “You never had any intention of joining us, did you?” asked Antony quietly.

“No, I did not,” said William.

“That shield belongs to us now,” said Antony, raising his voice for the others to hear. “Won in combat as Finn says. And it never did belong to you.”

“Very well,” said William. He seized the offered shield and threw it on the fire pit. “I’m ready.”

Antony rolled his eyes and unstrapped his own shield. “Whitehall, if I wasn’t about to kill you, I swear you’d be the death of me.”

“A pity we’ll never know for sure,” William said as they walked toward the center of the clearing.

“If you change your mind…yield, and I won’t kill you.”

“You actually believe I could forgive you?” asked William.

Antony paused. “Your father…I’m sorry about that. I truly am. Your mother, is she still alive?”

“Yes.”

“I could have a message sent. Any last words you’d like to send her?”

William faced the rebel Captain and readied himself for the battle. “Just one message.”

“What is it?”

“Tell her I died standing up to a bully.”

It was one insult too many. Antony stabbed at William’s chest, and William parried it with ease. Antony slashed low, glanced off William’s block and aimed for the head. William ducked under it and felt a rib digging where it shouldn’t. Refusing to stay on the defensive, William sliced at Antony’s arms, hoping his longer sword would give him enough of a reach advantage that he could nick away at his opponent without leaving himself open. Antony dodged everything without so much as breaking a sweat.

Antony was toying with him. The older man was more experienced and in better shape, and where William might be faster with his lighter sword, Antony was stronger. William’s arms vibrated with each heavy stroke that he blocked; if even one blow breached his defenses the fight would be over. He needed to even the odds.

The morning sun hung low above the trees. An idea popped into William’s mind. He maneuvered with each block and thrust to put the sun at his back and in Antony’s eyes. As expected, Antony moved to prevent it. They crept eastward, the crowd around them moving to compensate. They drifted into rougher ground outside the courtyard, and William prepared for his final move. He faked a last attempt to win the better position, and changed stance at the last moment to take advantage of Antony’s countermove—but Antony was ready. With a twist and a spin, Antony took the coveted sun-ward position, and with it the initiative.

William barely survived the flurry of blows that followed, and found himself backing up. He was living a swordsman’s worst nightmare: the sun in his eyes, retreating over rough terrain. When he tripped, he fell hard, smacking his head on the ground. Dazed, he waited for the inevitable final blow.

It never came. The men and women intent on the fight now murmured and pointed elsewhere, confusion and fear evident in their faces. Dozens of silvery shapes darted in and out of the crowd, too quickly to see clearly, but the flames they spurted told William what they were. Even Antony paid attention, forgetting his helpless opponent in front of him.

Over the eastern tree line, a large, ominous shape rose silently. The crowd froze at the sight of this monstrosity, ignoring the spectacle of the fight. The monstrous silhouette filled the sky, and William’s heart leapt for joy as massive flames shot high into the air, and a deep trumpet blast pummeled their ears. The giant shape sank as quickly as it had risen, but the damage was already done. The rebels fled, the messenger dragons corralling their stampede down a single pathway into the woods.

William and Antony were left alone. William tried to hide his smile, but Antony noticed it. “You know what those things are, don’t you,” he said. “That’s why you came here. It had nothing to do with the river.”

“I told you. I was sent on a mission to find out what was wrong with the river.”

Antony touched his sword tip to William’s throat. “Maybe you were. But you know what those are, don’t you?”

He saw no point in denying it. He couldn’t lie convincingly, and no near-truth would suffice. “Yes,” he said. “But I won’t tell you.”

“I will have the truth out of you one way or another. If you think you felt pain before, wait until we start on you this time.” Antony’s sword pushed against his throat, pinning William to the ground, leaving him no way to squirm free without cutting himself. But still he refused to speak.

“Over there!” A voice shouted from somewhere behind him. Antony looked up and backed away from the approaching figures. William kicked out and tripped Antony as the rebel boss ran away. Relief flooded over William as two Town Guards tackled Antony and restrained him.

“What on Esper did they do to you?” William recognized his best friend’s voice, and looked up to greet him. Charlie stood beside him.

“Jack! Charlie! Boy, are you guys are a welcome sight.”

“You okay, Will?” asked Charlie as he helped William to his feet.

“I’ve been better, Charlie, I won’t lie.”

“We never should have left you, Will,” said Jack. “You don’t look good at all. Maya’s on her way from the river as soon as it’s safe. She’ll let us know if you’re better than you look or not.”

“I’ll be fine. Where’s Rachel?”

“With the Guards picking off the rest of those bandits. They caught most of them when they ran down the path. Can you walk?”

“I’ll lean on Charlie. Say, whose idea was it to send the dragons? Is the Elder okay with everyone knowing about them?”

Jack filled him in on the events of the past ten days. Charlie and Maya had headed for town, running with little rest for four days. Based on their report, Hendrick Mattice had gathered all the Guards plus many able-bodied volunteers, and rode to the rebel camp to deliver justice. Mattice was no fool, and he was determined not to let any criminals get away.

Meanwhile, Jack and Rachel returned to the dragon hive. They had an intense meeting with the Elder, and hatched a plan that would both rescue William and preserve their secrecy. They decided to use several tiny, fast moving messenger dragons to grab the attention of the camp, and one large, menacing silver drone displayed briefly to terrify the rebels into fleeing. They had arrived the day before, and prepared the attack to coincide with the Guards’ approach.

The plan worked, and the dragons departed before anyone understood what they had seen. Plausible deniability, Jack called it. “The best part is, not one Guard saw them at all. The messenger dragons scattered at the last moment as the bandits crashed into the Guards’ trap.”

“But I don’t get why the Guards expected them to run into the trap at all if they didn’t know about the dragons.”

“Oh. We told them we would sneak here and pretend to run into them again. We said we would make it look like we were staging a rescue, and that they would chase us once we were spotted.”

“I don’t know,” said William. “It sounds complicated. Someone is bound to tell someone else what they saw, and then the secret’s out. ”

“It’ll be fine,” Jack insisted. “Remember how long it took us to realize we were looking at dragons, and we were standing right next to them.”

“Well, I guess we’ll see.” William was certain the Guards could tell the difference between people chasing and people fleeing, and he wondered if Mattice would figure out what the rebels had been running from. Hopefully there had been enough confusion that nothing would come of it. After all, Antony had looked right at them and didn’t know what they were.

The walk to the Guard camp was agony. With no immediate threat of death to distract him, he could no longer ignore the pain. By the time he reached Maya he had nearly passed out.

“King’s mercy, Will, what did they do to you?” she asked as she struggled to keep her composure. “Here, get him inside this tent so I can examine him. Charlie, don’t let anyone in. No, Jack, you can’t stay.” William submitted to Maya’s controlling tone, and did as he was told. He didn’t know half the things she was checking for, and didn’t have the energy to ask questions as he normally would. “The bruises look bad, but it’s your ribs I’m worried about,” she said. “They’ve been like that the whole time?”

“They were injured when I got captured. The bruising came after.”

“Who would do such a thing? They starved you too?”

“Only part of the time,” he said. “They gave me plenty to eat for the last three days. They can’t cook like you, though.”

“Are you hungry?” she asked.

“I’m okay for now.”

“Good, because I want you to sleep. Drink this.”

“King’s sweat, this is awful,” he said, nearly gagging. He fell asleep moments later.

Night had fallen when he woke to the sound of Maya arguing with someone outside his tent. “He’s sleeping, you can’t talk to him now,” she said. “He was badly injured, and I’ve given him medicine that will knock him out for a few hours.”

“Listen, little girl,” said a man’s voice. “I’m going in whether you like it or not. Whitehall has information that I need, and this is my camp, and Charlie follows my orders. Move aside Charlie.”

“Don’t you ‘little girl’ me, mister. I’m a doctor, not a child, and if you put one foot in there you’ll need a doctor yourself.”

“Maya, let him in,” said William. “You’re putting poor Charlie in a horrible bind.”

The tent flap tore open. “You get back to sleep!” Maya said to him.

“I’m awake now. I can’t sleep through that racket anyway. The sooner we talk, the sooner I can sleep again.”

“Fine,” she said, meaning anything but. Her head disappeared and was replaced by that of Hendrick Mattice.

“Whitehall,” said Mattice as he shook William’s hand. “Don’t get up; I know you’ve had quite the ordeal.”

“That’s one way to describe it,” said William. He gestured toward Maya’s examination stool, which Mattice took.

“So,” said Mattice, clearly feeling awkward. “Charlie did well for you, I hope?”

“More than I could have asked for,” said William, knowing Mattice had expected otherwise. “I can think of three times he saved my life.” He hoped he had spoken loudly enough for Charlie to hear. “No, make that four now.”

Mattice nodded. “Good, good. Your injuries. Are they healing well?”

“Well, it’s only been a few hours, and my doctor says I should be sleeping, so…”

“Yes, of course. My apologies. I have a few questions, and I expect you’ll have some for me. I’ll be brief.”

It took hours. Mattice questioned him on the minutest details, hoping for a hint of where other rebels might be based, what their plan was, and who was involved. William found himself more than a little interested, and asked Mattice plenty of questions as well. As they conversed it became clear to William that the picture of bandit activity he had painted for the Duke was only a small part of a much larger mosaic that possibly involved the entire kingdom.

“So if Kaleb Antony isn’t the leader, who is?”

“Antony hasn’t confirmed it yet, but if I had to bet I’d say it’s Zander Bertrand.”

“I’ve never heard of him.”

“Acting Duke of Stansby.”

“Acting?”

“He married the Duke’s daughter. Both the Duke’s sons died under strange circumstances, leaving the only daughter to inherit. Bertrand has taken it upon himself to act on her behalf, as the Duke himself is old and unfit. Or so it has been said.”

“And you think he’s the one stirring up trouble?” asked William.

“Well, if he’s not the leader, he’s sure to be involved. And if he’s involved, he’ll be leading it. So yes, I’d bet my weight in iron it’s him.”

“Can’t you have him arrested?”

“Me? I’m just a simple Guard Captain working for an Earl in a minor town on another continent. I have no jurisdiction in Stansby or anywhere else in Ibyca, north or south. Besides, what charge? There’s no evidence against him on anything. No, the King himself would have to move against Zander Bertrand, and we both know the King would do nothing of the kind. For all we know, Duncan might name Bertrand his heir to avoid a confrontation.”

It pained William to hear the King spoken of this way. Whether people were loyal to Duncan or not, they described him as cautious to a fault—and that was usually the best thing they said about him. The complaints Kaleb Antony had about the King were the same as Mattice’s, and those two stood on opposite ends of the loyalty spectrum, so there must be at least a bit of truth to it.

They finished speaking as the sky lightened over the eastern horizon. While Maya would be furious with Mattice for keeping him awake for so long, her anger with William would be double for letting it happen. Even so, William stopped Mattice as he was about to leave.

“What is it?” Mattice asked.

“You’ve already done so much for me, I almost hesitate to ask for a favor.”

William wasn’t sure whether Mattice was holding back laughter or rage, but either way his gambit hit home. “Name it,” the Guard Captain said.

“One of the rebels you captured, young guy, red hair. His name is Finbar Delroy.”

“What about him?”

“If it’s possible, could you go easy on him? He wasn’t with this rebellion for long, and a tough situation at home drove him there in the first place. His father is Morgan Delroy, a farmer on the Earl’s lands. They lost a baby this spring, and I can’t imagine what they’d go through if they lost their oldest, too.”

Mattice looked at the ground and shook his head. “A rebel is a rebel, Whitehall. I can’t show him mercy just because he had bad luck in the past. I can understand stealing food to stay alive. ‘That which is necessary is legal.’ But nothing justifies disloyalty to the Crown and its Officers. Besides, their fate isn’t up to me. I just catch ‘em; I don’t try ‘em. That’s for the Earl to do.”

William sighed as deeply as his battered ribs allowed. “I thought as much. I had to try, though.”

“I’ll let you sleep now,” said Mattice with a grin.

What was Mattice so amused about? William never got the chance to ask. Maya stormed into the tent after the Guard Captain left, and William tried to placate her before she could yell at him. “I’ll sleep now, I promise.”

Maya glared at him, hands on her hips. “You really are a problem patient, you know that? The tents are being pulled down. They’re marching the prisoners to town, and they aren’t waiting. There’s no time left to sleep, you fool.”

He had never felt so tired as he did at that moment.

 

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Despite thorough attempts during Transition to codify every aspect of life, the rules of royal succession were left surprisingly uncertain. The public need for stability and the private desire for power led to a stalemate between King Andrew I and the Council of Dukes, wherein the King could nominate any family member or sitting Duke as his heir, subject only to the ratification by the Council.

While the majority of heirs since then have been firstborn sons, it is not actually a requirement, as second sons have twice been nominated by a reigning King in order to bypass inept firsts. Only three times has a childless King been forced to choose from among the Dukes.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

William’s tent came down as soon as he had packed his few belongings. These included his father’s shield, which Jack had rescued from the shack before the Guards could confiscate it along with the other weapons and armor. The sun was rising into a clear sky, and the river’s straight and level southern bank promised a smooth journey. The rebels were yoked and tied for marching, and a full complement of Guards were on the watch to prevent escape. Compared to the past month, this was luxury.

He only wished he could enjoy it. Though still suffering the effects of beating and starvation, he had squandered a night’s sleep with his late discussion with Hendrick Mattice. The Guard Captain entered the camp on horseback and grinned in amusement at William’s exhaustion. William sensed no malice or deceit from him; in fact, it was more like the good natured ribbing he and Jack often traded with each other. Had Mattice really accepted him as an equal, or at least as a worthy ally?

“Feeling fresh enough for the trip, Whitehall?” Mattice asked. He glanced at blue the sky and added, “It’s perfect traveling weather, wouldn’t you say?”

William nodded. “The best. I only wish I could enjoy it the same way,” he said, admiring the horse. “I’ve spent enough time on my feet the past few weeks.”

Mattice dismounted and handed the reins to William. “This beast isn’t mine. My own horse is being saddled by my tent. This one is your prescription.”

William blinked in disbelief. “My what?”

“I paid a price for keeping you awake last night. That doctor of yours is a tough lady, and she cares a great deal about you. Or maybe she was advocating on behalf of her patient. Anyway, the man who rode this beast is part of the prisoner escort now. His name is Chance. He’s yours to ride all the way to Marshland.”

“King’s treasure…I don’t know what to say.”

“The word you’re looking for is ‘thanks’, but truth is, you’ve earned it.”

William gave a sharp glance toward Mattice. Was Mattice recalling their earlier meeting in which he had said nearly the same thing? It had been a ruse then, and William had seen through it—too late, of course, but both men knew this sounded like a stab at an old wound. Mattice gave William a sheepish look, and slowly walked away.

The remaining tents were packed; it was time to leave. Jack helped William mount before getting on his own horse. Maya and Rachel rode up, Rachel giving William a kiss on the cheek. “Glad to see you alive,” she said. “Steve, get away from the horse’s legs, you’ll get kicked.”

William reached down and rubbed Steve’s ears. “Where’s Charlie?” he asked.

“Helping with the prisoners,” said Maya, who frowned in that direction. “I think Mattice has taken him back from me. I mean you. Us.”

“So you chatted with Mattice,” Jack said to William, changing the subject. “Did he say anything about you know what?”

William recalled the discussion as well as he could. “Actually, no, not even close. We talked about the bandits, that’s all. Hey, did you know they’re actually rebels, and not bandits?”

“That’s what we heard, but the Guards have been told not to talk about it. Did Mattice tell you anything?”

William hesitated, but then realized he wasn’t sworn to secrecy. “He said the rebellion leader was probably a Duke or something from Stansby. Barnard, I think…no, Bertrand. Zander Bertrand. Any of you know him?”

“No,” said Rachel. Maya shook her head.

“There’s no Duke named Bertrand,” said Jack. “Oh wait, did you say Stansby? Oliver Lund was Duke of Stansby until he died last year.”

“I don’t know the name,” said William. “But Mattice said the Duke’s sons died, leaving his daughter the heir. Zander Bertrand is her husband.”

“That’s right,” said Jack. “I remember now. There was an uproar about it at court. He even started acting on the old Duke’s behalf before the poor guy died. Everyone was talking about it, but King Duncan never challenged Bertrand’s claim.”

Rachel snorted in contempt. “Of course he didn’t.”

William said nothing. Only a few months ago he would have risen to the King’s defense.

“I’m sure I’ve heard the name Zander Bertrand before,” said Jack. “He’s related to Duncan somehow, second cousin or something. I wonder if that’s why Duncan left him alone.”

“Then why would he—”

“Boring,” said Rachel as she rolled her eyes. “Let’s go tease the prisoners.” She shot forward on her slender black mare, followed closely by Steve.

Maya shrugged. “Let’s go,” she said, and followed as quickly as her tan pony would allow.

“That was strange,” said William as they followed the women at a slow walk. William was too sore to even let his horse trot, let alone canter.

“What? Rachel and Maya are practical,” said Jack. “What do they care about politics?”

“I suppose, but this isn’t just politics. The Kingdom itself may be at risk. Why wouldn’t anyone be interested?”

“Beats me.”

“Was Rachel trying to avoid the subject?”

“How would I know, Will?”

“Well, you seem pretty close to her, so I—”

“Stop right there, pal,” said Jack. “Yes, I like her. More than I’ve admitted to her—and maybe even myself. But she prefers to keep her past to herself, and if you go poking into her private life she’ll get angry. And that might affect me, so I’d like you not to do that.”

“Okay, fine,” said William, recalling similar advice from Cairns. They rode for a while in silence, William nearly dropping off from exhaustion. It occurred to him that they would be home soon. His mission had been a success, but readjusting to a Librarian’s quiet life would be hard. He remembered that he would see Melissa again soon, and his heart pounded, rousing him from his near slumber. With a pang of guilt, he realized that returning home might mean the opposite for his friend. “Do you think Rachel will hang around when we get back?”

“I haven’t thought that far ahead,” said Jack. William didn’t dig any further.

They caught up to Maya, who was waiting on the side of the path. “Where’s Rachel?” asked Jack.

“She and a few scouts went ahead to hunt. They have more prisoners than they expected, so we’re short on food. What are you pouting about, Jack?”

“Nothing,” said Jack.

“How about you, Will? How are you holding up?”

“I’m tired, but I suppose I shouldn’t complain.”

“No, you shouldn’t, but I want to know anyway. Let me know if it hurts too much to ride. I can talk Mattice into giving us a Guard or two to stay with us. I think he’s scared of me now.”

“I’ll be fine. But let’s keep talking so I don’t fall asleep.”

Jack and Maya did their best to keep the conversation flowing. Jack was knowledgeable about royalty and nobility from both Azuria and Ibyca, and regaled the two with stories of his travels with his father. At one point William asked him if there was any royalty he didn’t know.

“Just one,” he said with a frown. “The next one.”

“What do you mean?” asked William.

“Well, King Duncan is sixty or so, and the Queen never bore him a child. Unless she dies and the King remarries, he’ll have no natural heir.”

“Doesn’t the King choose an heir from among the Dukes in that case?”

“He’s supposed to, but rumor has it he’s stalling, not wanting to alienate the Dukes he doesn’t select.”

“So what happens if he dies without an heir?”

“You aren’t entirely stupid,” said Jack with a grin. “What do you think?”

William pondered it, and realized it would have to end in chaos if the King refused to name an heir. “Can he write it in his will?”

“Even I know this one,” said Maya. “The heir has to be ratified by a meeting of the Dukes. If it’s the King’s own son, the vote is almost always unanimous.”

Jack continued. “The few times a King has chosen an heir from among the Dukes, infighting and politicking turned the court into a circus. If that happened after the King’s death…” Jack’s voice trailed off. They rode slowly, letting the parade of Guards and prisoners pass them. As the rear of the chain gang caught up to them, they heard Kaleb Antony preaching loudly to anyone who would listen. When Antony spotted William he raised his voice pointedly. To those who didn’t know him he would have appeared crazy, but William knew better. The man’s words were dangerous. He couldn’t believe Mattice was letting him spew his rhetoric for all to hear. Someone as smart as Mattice should know what sort of damage he could do if the wrong people heard his words. Instead, he laughed along with his men at the captive’s antics.

William yelled across the crowd. “Captain Mattice! Perhaps your guest might benefit from being gagged. I’m afraid he’ll tire himself before the long march.”

Mattice seized on the idea. “Aye, he might get some good of that. If he doesn’t, the rest of us might.” Mattice had the task completed by two of his larger Guards; Antony glared at William with such malice that Jack suggested they let the line pass and join the rearguard.

Mattice ordered a halt well before dark to set up camp. With so many prisoners in tow, he had more people than usual to feed and shelter, and fewer free hands to work. William tried to pitch in, but Maya stopped him before he could pound a tent peg or build a fire. “There’s a tent right there, away from everyone else, and a nice bed roll ready for you.” He submitted to her will, too tired to do anything else. He protested that he couldn’t sleep so early, but she forced another draught on him, and he soon fell asleep.

When he woke it was still dark, and his empty stomach growled. A Guard stood outside his tent—probably put there at Maya’s insistence. William got up, and was disappointed to find it wasn’t Charlie. He asked the Guard what hour it was, startling the man. “Nearly dawn,” the young man said, looking around with anxiety. “Uh, listen…you won’t let me get in trouble with the doctor lady, will you? She told us you were supposed to sleep until morning.”

“It’s almost morning, isn’t it? Besides, it’s me she’ll be mad at. Hey, if you’re supposed to guard me, come help me find something to eat.”

The Guard had to be older than William, since he wasn’t among this year’s recruits. Even so, he gave William a look of respect that William wasn’t used to. “You’re William Whitehall, right? The guy that fought all those rebels?”

“That’s my name,” said William. “But I’m not sure you have the story right.”

“All the guys are talking about you. My name is Ethan Weimer.” He shook William’s hand, and looked proud to have done so.

William shrugged and chuckled. “There’s not much to talk about. All I did was get caught. The Guards were the ones who knowingly ran into danger and saved me from being impaled on Antony’s sword.”

“Yeah, but we had surprise and numbers on our side—oh, there’s the chow fire. Hey guys! This is William Whitehall. Give him a big helping.” Someone handed William a large steaming bowl. His stomach rumbled at the aroma, and he accepted it with thanks. The other men made room for him beside the fire, and they swapped stories until the sun rose. He felt no compulsion to leave, not even when Jack and Maya found him.

“Oh, hey guys. Meet my new friends.” He rattled off their names as though he had known them his whole life. “This here is Jack, and this is Maya. Oh wait…You must know them already, Maya, since you rode here with them.”

“We were sort of rushed. Hi, boys.” The Guardsmen looked positively frightened of her. She pouted half-heartedly and said, “Come on, guys, I don’t bite.”

“That’s not what the Captain told us,” said one of the Guards.

“Even him I wouldn’t bite,” she said. “Much too bitter.” She slipped into a spot beside William and asked in a low voice, “Feeling better?”

“A lot. I’m surprised at how little I hurt.”

“I slipped a painkiller in your sleepy tea yesterday. I’m afraid you won’t be pain free for much longer. Did you eat?”

He nodded.

“Good,” she said. “I can’t give you the same stuff during the day, or you’ll fall off your horse, which would just give me more work, and we can’t have that. But if it gets bad, I can give you something to take the edge off. Don’t try to be a hero, okay?”

“I just told these guys how I’m not a hero,” he said.

“Yes you are,” she said, kissing his forehead as she rose.

The day’s ride started well. The full sleep had refreshed him, and the meal shared with new friends had lightened his mood. “What on Esper is wrong with you?” asked Jack as he noticed William smiling to himself as they rode behind the line of prisoners.

“What’s not to be happy about? The sun is shining, I hurt less than usual, and I’m enjoying the company of fine people, such as yourself.”

“Okay, now you’re scaring me,” said Jack.

William laughed. “You miss Rachel, don’t you, you grump?”

“Shut up, Will.”

His good mood didn’t last. The pain returned as Maya predicted, and though his horse was gentle the ride jarred his bruised ribs and other injuries. As promised, Maya gave him something to lessen his suffering, but the day’s march ended none too soon for his liking.

“Hey look,” said Maya. She pointed as they passed under a large tree branch overhanging the path. “It looks like Rachel and her friends found some food.” Two large bundles hung from the branch and soon proved to contain several pheasants and a small boar. They would eat well tonight. William hoped to stay awake long enough to enjoy it, especially if Maya cooked.

Maya again frustrated William’s attempt to help set up camp. He settled for resting by a fire near his tent. The flames beat back the chill in the air as the sun descended. He closed his eyes and soaked in the warmth.

“Does something seem strange to you?” asked Jack, startling William awake.

“Everything seems strange with these pills. What’s in them, Maya?”

“Secret herbs and spices,” said Maya.

Jack shook his head. “No, I mean about the way the food was hanging.”

“Huh? It hung down,” said William. “How else is it supposed to hang?”

“The bags seemed far apart to me. If you have two bags of food to hang, would you have placed them so far apart?”

“I don’t know Jack. I’ve never hung bags of food before. What’s gotten into you?”

“I’m taking another look,” said Jack as he stood. “Who’s with me?”

William looked at Maya, and receiving no disapproving glares he struggled to his feet. “I guess I am.”

“Me too,” said Maya with a sigh. “They won’t let me cook, and Charlie’s still on duty, so I’ve got nothing to do except watch my patient.”

“There,” said Jack when they reached the tree. He pointed to the branch where they found the food cache earlier. “Look. What do you see?”

William squinted at the branch above, unable to see any details through the medicinal haze.

“There’s the ropes that the bags were hanging from,” said Maya. “You can see where the Guards cut them.”

William moved to get a better view, and with the blue sky behind the branch the two ropes came into focus. “Okay, I see them now, too.”

“Now look between them,” said Jack.

He found it hard to keep the branch in focus, but when he relaxed his eyes he caught a glimpse. “Is that a third rope?” he asked.

Maya nodded. “Same kind, too. That’s strange.”

“Was it cut higher up? I don’t see it hanging down,” said William. “Are my eyes playing tricks again?”

“No, it’s been flung over the branch to hide it,” said Jack. “Look on this side, you can see the end right there.” Maya confirmed it, but William couldn’t make it out.

“So what does it mean?” he asked, fearing he already knew the answer.

“Someone found the cache, stole one of the bags and tried to hide the evidence,” said Jack, confirming William’s guess. “We should tell Mattice.”

Mattice shrugged it off when William informed him. William did his best to convince him, but Mattice grew impatient. “I have four people hunting and scouting. If someone else is out there, they would know about it and report back unless they were injured or killed. The fact that they left food for us tells us they aren’t hurt or dead. And we have the largest armed force in Azuria outside Faywater Port sitting right here. No one would be crazy enough to attack. And besides, we don’t know for certain there was a third bag.”

“Yes we do, I saw the rope myself.”

Mattice slammed his fist on the chair beside him. “But you saw no third bag, did you? Look, Whitehall, I pulled a fast one on you back in Marshland. I’m man enough to admit that. The truth is you’ve given me reason to respect you. In return, you need to respect my ability to judge the situation here, especially since I’ve done this job for as long as you’ve been alive.”

William was surprised by the Captain’s speech, almost insulted. But Mattice was right. William was not the expert here, Mattice was. “I apologize,” he said. “I didn’t mean to suggest you didn’t know what you were doing. Well, yes I did. But I was wrong to do that. I’m sorry.”

Mattice let him go without argument. They would never be friends, but they had a mutual respect and even admiration that prevented outright hatred. William left the Captain’s tent and found a group of Guards sitting around the cooking fire. He recognized Ethan Weimer, who called him over and offered a slab of roasted boar.

“Thanks,” he said, finding a seat next to Weimer. “Not on duty?”

“No, I have night watch. I’ll be guarding your tent, among others.”

“Oh, drew the short straw, did you?”

Weimer laughed. “Volunteered.”

William shook his head and grinned. “Crazy.”

“Hey, maybe we can chat a while if you aren’t too tired.”

“Not a chance!” Maya arrived in time to spoil the Guard’s plan. “Drink this, and finish eating,” she said to William. “You’ll be sleeping in no time. No, don’t argue. You want to feel decent in the morning again, right?”

William laughed and did what he was told, and stumbled his way to his tent less than an hour later, nearly careening into a large tripod that held a collection of copper pots. Catastrophe averted, he slipped into his bedroll and was asleep in moments…

He woke hours later, fully alert, in complete darkness and dead silence. He tried to sit up, but a firm hand closed over his mouth and forced him back down. Something sharp jabbed at his throat and stayed there.

“You and I are going to leave here quietly.” William recognized Kaleb Antony’s voice; somehow the rebel leader had escaped his bonds, but how? The only answer he got was the savage beating of his heart in his ears. Antony pressed the blade even harder against William’s throat. “If you make a sound, this dagger will silence it instantly. Understand?” William nodded.

“Get up slowly. No, on this side.” William did as he was told, moving slowly to avoid giving Antony an excuse to slice his throat open. “I have a present for you,” said the man. Before William had time to be puzzled, his mouth was gagged with a ball of cloth. Antony knotted it with a yank that belied his anger. “Fair is fair, Whitehall. I expect you’ll enjoy it as much as I did. Now, out of the tent.”

Antony kept his dagger at William’s throat as the rebel pushed him from behind. His view unblocked, William glanced around for a way to raise an alarm. His stomach dropped as he saw the body of a Guard splayed before him. A dark pool of liquid shone in the pale moonlight beside the corpse. William realized it was Ethan Weimer, who had volunteered to stand watch here.

“Move,” said Antony, pushing him between the fire and the body. William complied—but faster than Antony expected. A small gap opened between them, and William stopped short and swung his head back into Antony’s face. Free of the older man’s grip, William kicked over the tripod straddling the fire. A wave of joy passed over him as he heard the crash of pots on stones.

“You insolent bookworm!” Blood poured from Antony’s nose, but he ignored it and lunged for William. William bent over the fire and scooped a double handful of embers into his attacker’s face, his hands searing with pain. Antony screamed and clutched his face, his momentum knocking William over. Antony groaned in pain as they both sprawled on the ground, unable to fight.

“Over here!” William heard the voices of Guards as they approached. Antony staggered to his feet, nearly blind. A figure emerged from the dark, and William recognized Ray Findlay.

“Come on boss, we have to git.”

“Get Whitehall!” yelled Antony.

“Forget it boss, they’re coming.”

The two men had almost disappeared into the darkness when William heard the sound of an arrow followed by a muffled scream. Another arrow flew past him, but no sound indicated that it hit its mark.

“Rachel! When did you get here?” William asked.

“Not soon enough. Otherwise they’d both be dead.”

“It sounded like you got one.”

“A leg wound, I’m pretty sure,” she said. “Are you hurt?”

“Just my hands. They’re burned.”

“How on Esper did you manage that? No, never mind. Where’s Maya?”

“I’m here,” she said as she arrived at a run, Jack and Charlie right behind her. “King’s blisters, William! What did you do to your hands? Why can’t you fight like a normal person?” Bewilderment and worry fought for control of her voice, and bewilderment was winning.

“Charlie,” said Jack. “I don’t care what Mattice says, you’re guarding Will from now on. At least until they catch that man.”

Charlie nodded, but Maya protested. “If Charlie had been here, he would have been dead, and not him,” she said, nodding toward the cadaver. “That’s not happening.”

“Forget it,” said William. “I’m not sleeping anymore. At least not until we get home.”

Maya sighed as she bandaged his hands. “We’ll figure something out. Your hands aren’t too bad. But don’t injure anything else, okay? I’m running low on supplies.” Her voice quavered, and tears welled in her eyes.

“Hey, it’ll be okay,” said William. “We’ll all be home soon.” He reached up to touch her cheek, but jerked his hand away in pain.

She snapped. “I hate this!” she said, her voice shaking. “I hate it! All of it. The trip, the river, the bugs, the dirt.” She fell into Charlie’s arms. “The fighting. I hate the fighting. Make it stop!”

William and Jack stood in stunned silence, unsure how to react to this outburst of emotion. Even Charlie didn’t know what to do, so he put his arms around her. Only Rachel seemed to understand. “It’s not the same, Maya,” she said, trying to soothe her friend.

“I know,” said Maya, her voice muffled against Charlie’s chest. “But it feels the same.”

“That’s natural. Just let it pass,” said Rachel as she stroked Maya’s hair.

“What’s going on?” Jack asked William in a hushed voice.

“I have absolutely no idea,” said William.

Rachel left Maya with Charlie and approached William. “It’s your burns, Will,” she said.

He stared at his blistering hands. “What about them?”

“She has trouble dealing with burns. They…bother her. You need to leave her alone for a bit. Okay?”

A Guard ran up to William before he had a chance to answer. “The Captain is asking for you,” he said. “You’re to come immediately.”

William scowled at the Guard. Mattice had no right to order him around. “I’m a bit busy. My friend here—”

“Go, Will,” said Rachel. “There’s nothing you can do right now. In fact, it might be better if you aren’t around her for a bit.”

“Fine,” he said, his scowl deepening. “Where is he?” he asked the Guard.

Mattice was pacing in his tent when William arrived. “Two Guards dead, Whitehall. Go ahead and say it. I was wrong.” He glared at William, almost defying him to speak.

“You weren’t wrong, Captain,” he said. “At least not about one thing. You said they would have to be crazy to attack us. But desperation makes people crazy.”

“That doesn’t make my decision right,” said Mattice. “In fact, this is the sort of decision that ends a man’s career, you know that?”

William knew of no answer he could give, especially not when two lives had been lost. “Weimer was one. Who was the other?”

“Weimer’s dead? King’s gizzards, that’s three now.” Mattice kicked his pack across the tent in anger.

“Any prisoners dead?” asked William.

“We found five bodies. Four more are unaccounted for, probably escaped. We got lucky, too. Something drew the watchman’s attention before all the prisoners escaped. He heard some sort of crash.”

“Yes, that was me. I knocked over some pots.”

“You did that? Why were you awake?”

William explained what had happened. When he finished, Mattice noticed William’s hands for the first time. He shook his head in admiration.

“You’re a resourceful man Whitehall. I shouldn’t have let Cairns take you. If you still want to be a Guard, I can talk to the Earl. Especially since I’m going to need replacements after tonight.”

William looked at his feet before answering. In a quiet voice he said, “That’s not what was meant to be.”

Mattice nodded, disappointed at the answer. “Our plans have changed. It’s a forced march between here and Marshland now. Can you handle it? If not, I can leave a couple of guards with you, but I’d prefer we all stay together.”

“I’ll keep up.”

 

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While the population of Esper has not yet covered either Ibyca or Azuria, the Kingdom itself has no true outer boundaries. When the conversion to Kingdom took place, it was decided that in order to maintain the peaceful benefits of the new hierarchy, it could never be allowed that new population centers be created outside the jurisdiction of the Royal Court.

Typically, new settlements are financed by either Dukes or Earls who wish to increase their holdings on bordering wilderness, so rarely is fealty questioned. However, these developments have been uncommon in the last century, and are just as likely to be peopled by displaced laborers than sponsored settlers.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

They arrived in Marshland Crossing four days later having slept no more than three hours each night. The grueling pace had drained William, but he refrained from complaining since unlike many others, he at least had a horse. The Guards took turns riding, while the prisoners marched the entire way, many in bare feet.

It was painful, perhaps even cruel, but it was necessary. Mattice would not repeat his mistake and let the escaped rebels attack them again. “Even if we are being followed,” he said to William, “they’ll be more worn out than we are. And our prisoners would be too exhausted to fight. Besides, we can rest when we get home.”

Exhausted as he was, sleep was low on William’s mind when the familiar sights of Marshland came into view. Administration Hill shone like the head of a bronze statue as it reflected the morning sun, the white stone walls of the Library its silver crown. William and his team were ferried across the river and reached the hill a few minutes later. The Armory and the prison lay ahead, while the upper path led to the Library. Maya and Rachel gave their farewells and headed to Deacon’s Inn while Charlie remained with his company. William handed the reins to a weary Guard who was grateful to ride the remainder of the way. Mattice shook William’s hand. “Remember what I said, Whitehall. I meant it.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

“What was that about?” asked Jack as the line of prisoners was marched away.

“He wants me to join the Guard. He needs replacements now.”

Jack’s jaw dropped. “Are you serious? That’s perfect! What will you tell Cairns?”

“Nothing. I’m staying at the Library.”

Jack’s mouth hung open as William walked on. Catching up, he said, “After all this, you’re turning down your dream job?”

William hesitated before answering. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate the offer. And I’m glad I proved him wrong for not choosing me in the first place. But you saw the Guards. Their job is mostly marching around, or waiting, and sometimes fighting…and getting killed. I never really considered that before. I know it sounds strange, since my father was killed on duty…but it never dawned on me until Ethan Weimer died outside my tent.”

“We nearly died, too, you know.”

“Yes, I know. I was there, remember? But between us and the Guards, who had the most excitement?”

Jack grinned. “You’re smarter than you let on, you know that?”

“And you’re almost as smart as you pretend to be.”

“Well, a smart son shouldn’t keep his parents waiting after so long away, so I’m heading home. You should, too.”

“Soon,” said William. “I have a couple of errands at the Library first.”

“Suit yourself.” Jack took a few steps toward home, but turned back. “Have you figured out what you’re going to say to her?”

“Who? My mother?”

“No, stupid. You know who I mean.”

William sighed. “You can call her Melissa.”

“Fine. Have you figured out what you’re going to say to Melissa?”

“I’ll start with hello, and take it from there. Why are you asking me this?”

Jack raised an eyebrow and shot a mischievous grin at William. “Because you’re scared of girls.”

William laughed. “After everything we’ve been through I’m not scared of a conversation.”

Jack smiled and nodded. With a wave he turned and headed home.

When William opened the Library’s large wooden door he was met with a scream of delight. “He’s back!” said Jessica, who hugged him so hard he groaned in pain. Melissa emerged from her workroom as he winced.

Melissa let out a long sigh of relief, tears welling in her eyes. “You’re back. How long—oh, King’s mercy! Are you hurt?”

They pulled him into a well-lit office and fussed over his injuries, Jessica tut-tutting as she inspected his visible wounds, Melissa searching his face for evidence of how much pain he was in. “I’m fine,” he said, taking Melissa’s hands in his own bandaged ones.

Jessica took William’s act of intimacy as her cue to leave and smiled at them both. “Welcome home, William,” she said, and left the room.

After weeks of hardship, of near-death experiences, of wondering if he would ever return home, he finally found himself alone with her; he vibrated with nervous joy. Despite his comment to Jack, William had no clue what to say. He fell back on his only plan. “Hello,” he said with a stupid grin.

“What did they do to you?” asked Melissa.

She looked cute when she was concerned. The crease between her eyebrows deepened with every injury she noted; William caressed it until it disappeared. “Nothing I couldn’t handle,” he said. “When they…when things got difficult, I pictured you—talked to you in my head. In a way, you helped me through the worst of it.” The crease returned, deeper than before. “What’s wrong?” he asked, gently lifting her chin to look into her eyes. They were as mesmerizing as he had remembered.

“Will, we have to talk.” Elation gave way to dread, but he caught himself before it controlled him. There’s nothing to fear, he told himself. She was struggling to tell him something she didn’t want to, he understood that much. Whatever she had to say wasn’t likely good news, but he resolved not to make it difficult for her, or harder on himself than it needed to be.

“Okay,” he said. “But maybe this isn’t the place? Or the time?” Melissa nodded, wiping away a stray tear. “How about I take you on a picnic tomorrow, and we can talk about whatever you want. Is that okay?” She nodded again, unable or unwilling to speak. “I have to talk to Lester now, and then I need to go home to prove to my mother I haven’t been killed, but I promise we’ll talk tomorrow.” He kissed her forehead and turned to leave.

“Will?” said Melissa as he reached the door. “I really am glad you’re back.”

What a strange reunion. He couldn’t guess what the future held for them, but he vowed not to let fear complicate it. As bad as it might be, it was not something to be afraid of.

“The rumors are true, the victorious hero has returned,” said Cairns as William entered his office. “Let me look at you. Ah yes, a bit of damage here and there, but nothing time won’t heal. I trust you’ll have scars to remember your adventure by?”

William laughed. “I expect so, yes.”

“Good, good. No sense in having an adventure without souvenirs. So, the task was completed?”

“Yes. I have quite a lot to report, so—”

“Is any of it a matter of life or death?” asked Cairns.

“Um…no, I suppose not. At least not anymore.”

“Good. Report to your mother immediately. She was tormented by worry, and making her wait longer would be cruel.”

“But I have—”

“They can wait until tomorrow, William.”

Had the path not been downhill, William might not have gotten home. Emma Whitehall fell to her knees when her son arrived, so relieved was she to see him. She then rushed to his side to inspect his injuries. “What have they done to you?” she asked as she held him at arm’s length.

“You have no idea how many times I’ve been asked that recently,” said William.

“Well, obviously something happened. Don’t evade the question.”

William gave an abridged version of the story, excluding the dragons. He trusted his mother with his own secrets—well, most—but her knowing about the dragons was not crucial to trading with them. More importantly, he softened the truth about the attacks by wolves and rebels, and said nothing about being starved and beaten. It was disconcerting how easy it had become to lie, even to his mother.

“You are so much like your father,” she said, causing William to beam with pride. “He withheld details, too,” she added, quickly deflating William’s ego. “Very well, you don’t need to tell me the gruesome parts, but I’m calling a doctor. I don’t have much money, but I am sure I can—”

“Mother, don’t bother. We had a doctor with us, remember?”

“Well, she apparently didn’t do a good job. Look at you!”

William almost answered “you should have seen how bad I was before,” but he stopped short, realizing it wasn’t a smart thing to say. Instead, he simply said “I’m fine, Mom. I need sleep more than anything. We traveled for almost four days straight, and I was tired before that.”

“Have you eaten?”

He suddenly realized how famished he was. He stayed awake long enough for her to boil soup from her meal the night before. “What did you mean when you said Dad withheld details?” he asked as he soaked a hunk of bread in the broth.

She smiled and shook her head. “Your father never wanted me to worry, but what he didn’t realize was that not knowing made it worse. He would go on secret missions, and I would have to ask Kevin where he had gone and how long he would be away.”

“You mean Sir Kevin?” asked William.

“Yes,” she said, looking at him quickly. “What did I say?”

“You said—or I thought you said—never mind. I must have misheard you. I’m tired, is all.”

She took the empty bowl from him. “Get some rest. We’ll talk more later, and you can tell me whatever details you want.”

Was she giving him permission to keep secrets? Or was she asking him not to expose hers? William headed to his room with a sense of guilt. Before he fell asleep he concluded that maybe she was simply treating him as an adult.

He awoke to find he had slept through the whole day and into the next morning. He was so stiff and sore that he found it difficult to get out of bed. Maya had predicted this, and was waiting with his mother in the main room, medicine in hand. He was grateful of course, and said so, but he noted with sheepishness his mother’s accusing stare. Thankfully, Emma must have felt compelled not to say anything in front of a guest.

When he and Maya arrived at the Library, William was surprised to find not only Jack there, but his father Hiram as well. “It’s good to see you again, William,” said Hiram as he clapped his shoulder. “You’ve had quite the ordeal, and you overcame long odds. Your father would be proud.” As always, the glow of Hiram Doran’s smile warmed him. It was easy to see where Jack got his charm.

He had missed a lot while sleeping. Someone had told both Hiram and Cairns about the dragons, a decision William agreed with but felt he should have been consulted on. More than that, the two Dorans had already devised a plan for trading with the dragons. “Earl Bradford must establish a settlement at the rebels’ camp,” said Cairns. “We know the rebels haven’t been completely eradicated, so a presence there is necessary. The Duke will send men to help garrison it.” William understood Cairns was implying that none of this was the Earl’s decision, and that Duke Vincent would force his hand. But he didn’t see how this would help them trade, and he said so.

“Someone has to be the settlement’s Administrator,” said Cairns. William began to sweat as he guessed what was to come next—until Cairns said, “That’s where Hiram comes in.”

Relief flowed through every vein of William’s body as he realized the burden would not be his. “Mr. Doran will be the Administrator?” asked William.

“It’s Sir Hiram now, but call me Hiram,” said Jack’s father. “You’re an adult now, and we’ll be working together, so we may as well be on a first name basis now.”

“You’ve been knighted? That’s fantastic! Wait a minute…working together? That means I’m leaving again?”

“You did say he was quick, Lester,” said the elder Doran.

“It’s temporary, William,” said Cairns. “Both as a liaison to the dragons, and as a clerk on behalf of the Library. It’s voluntary of course, which is why I have already accepted your offer.”

“Um…yes, of course,” said William, his mind in a whirl from so much news in such a short time. “Mr. Doran—I mean, Sir Hiram—you’ve already been confirmed as Administrator?”

“Signed and pledged,” said Sir Hiram. “Even packed. The Earl can move quickly when he doesn’t have a choice. Actually, Duke Vincent promised me a position like this last year, and we were simply waiting for an opportunity like this. I promised Jack’s mother I wouldn’t go on the road anymore. It’s still a distance from home, but who knows—we might make a permanent home there one day.”

“Don’t worry,” said Jack. “I’ll be there to keep you out of trouble.”

“Since when have you done anything but the opposite?” asked William.

“It looks that way to you, because you usually don’t know how much trouble you’re in until I help you out of it.”

“Do you have any idea what they’re talking about, Maya?” asked Cairns.

“Not a clue. I’d better go with them to keep them out of trouble.”

“Excellent suggestion,” said Cairns.

“Oh! I thought you’d be going home, Maya,” said William. “Not that I want you to leave, of course.”

“No,” said Maya. “I still have work to do.”

“With all the excitement about dragons and rebels and metal, we’ve lost sight of the fact that there was a job to be done,” said Cairns. “While you have completed the difficult part, Maya must still monitor the river until we know for certain. She has decided the new camp is the best place to conduct her tests.”

“That’s great!” said William. “It’s too bad we won’t have Charlie and Rachel there, too.”

“Well, then,” said Jack. “I have good news for you.”

“Charlie will be on Guard duty at the camp,” said Maya, cutting in.

“And Rachel has agreed to sign on as scout and hunter,” said Jack.

William’s head reeled from excitement. How attached he had become to these four people, only one of whom he had known more than a few months ago. But this time the burden of leadership would not be on his shoulders; he could relax and enjoy their company.

“How soon do we leave?” he asked.

Doran explained that they could not leave earlier than two weeks from now. A large company of Guards had been dispatched from Faywater Port, and there would be much more to pack for the establishment of a real encampment than was needed for their previous mission. This time they would have not only horses and mules, but wagons as well.

Excited as he was to be part of this new mission, two things worried William. When the meeting ended, he asked Cairns for permission to go home early to deal with the first. “Not again,” said Emma when William broke the news. “You are not leaving again. I nearly died from worry last time.”

“Mother, there’s nothing to worry about this time—”

“King’s tongue, William! It’s as though your father was standing in this room right now.”

“Mother, listen to me. Dozens of Guards are coming up river with us. We won’t be five people in the middle of nowhere this time.”

“William, they don’t send Guards where there’s no danger.”

“In this case, they do. It’ll be a base of operations for them. The danger is in the wild, and that’s not my job this time.”

Her face softened, though she still appeared suspicious. “What is your job?”

“Clerk, and assistant to Sir Hiram.”

“Oh! Jack’s father was knighted?”

“I just heard it myself. You didn’t know?”

“No, we never heard anything.”

“We?” asked William, before he could stop himself. “Who is ‘we’?”

“I mean, I never heard,” Emma said quickly as she went back to her stitching.

It was time to let her off the hook. “Mother, are you in love with Sir Kevin?”

She stared at him, with an expression on her face that suggested she would rather discuss any topic than this one. “I—what do you mean?”

“What makes you think I’d be upset about it?” he asked.

She heaved a ragged sigh that seemed somehow to contain both sadness and relief at the same time. “Oh, son…I’m sorry I tried to hide it from you, but I know how you feel about your father, and how you felt robbed of the time you would have shared. I worried about how it would look to you.”

“Does he love you?” asked William.

“Yes. He has told me so many times.”

“Then it’s time you were happy, Mom. What’s it been, nine years now? You’ve raised me alone all that time, and Dad on patrol much of the time before. I’m an adult now, with a job. Perhaps you’re holding on to the past a little too much?”

“Oh, William,” she said as she hugged him and laughed. “You’ve grown so much faster than I expected. Yes, you’re a man now, and your father would be so proud to see you. Just as I am. Go on this trip of yours. Go with my blessing, since you don’t need my approval. But be sure to come back.”

Time now to address the more difficult issue. He scavenged through the larder for picnic-worthy items, and when Emma found out she scolded him for leaving it so late to arrange, chased him from the kitchen and quickly prepared a basket for him.

“She’s a lovely girl, William,” she said as he left. “I hope it works out for you.”

It took some convincing for Melissa to leave early, but Cairns assured her it was more than acceptable. They walked in silence down the back slope of Administration Hill, strolling along trails that William had walked alone or with Jack in years past when he wanted to avoid Oz and the other bullies. The foliage and early spring blossoms surrounded them, forming a cool, colorful tunnel of the path. They soon found a clearing bathed in late afternoon sun, and William set out the basket’s contents, noting the small skin of wine and two cups his mother had included. Melissa said nothing as she watched William, her worry crease disappearing when he smiled at her, returning when he looked away. He resolved not to upset her any more than she already was. Whatever was bothering her would come out in time. He handed her a cup of wine, poured one for himself, and waited for her to speak.

“Is it still painful?” she asked after a timid sip.

“Well, I’m not hurting much right now. But I’m not sure if that’s the medicine or the rest.”

“Is it true that rebels captured you? Is that who…did these things to you?”

He repeated the story he told his mother, but with two differences. First, he bragged a little, enough to portray himself as the hero that some people claimed he was. Second, he knew Melissa believed every word of it. Reading people didn’t rank as his greatest skill, but he could not mistake the wonder and respect in her eyes.

But when he finished, her admiration faded and she became distant and anxious again. “Oh, I just remembered,” he said. He dug into his pocket and clutched the gem he had carried since their first days in the dragon hive. He sensed that he had to give it to her now or forever lose the chance. He searched for a string to tie the gem to, and found only his boot lace. Her look of puzzlement turned to astonishment as he slid the hastily-crafted amulet over her head. The sunlight shone through the gem as she held it up to admire it, and William noted it glowed the same vibrant shade of purple as her eyes. She let the stone fall to her throat where it bounced in time to her heartbeat. She leaned over and kissed him. “Thank you,” she said, her voice a mere whisper.

She looked down again at the stone and fidgeted, her worry line forming a deep channel. Unwilling to see her in this much pain, he took her hands in his own. “Just tell me,” he said.

“I can’t be your girlfriend.” She held his gaze for a moment before looking away as though to deny the words were hers.

Stunned, he withdrew his hands. “Why not?” he asked, trying not to betray any hurt or anger that might make her defensive.

“I can’t tell you,” she said. “I just…can’t.”

If Ray Findlay’s bamboo club had missed his battered ribs and pummeled his heart directly, it would not have hurt like this. But through his own agonizing fog, William knew Melissa was feeling worse. She could have lied, and said she no longer had feelings for him. Or that she liked someone else. Or that she was too young for a serious relationship. But she had been honest with him, at least as far as she was capable, and it hadn’t been easy. Her parents put her up to this, he decided. She was a good daughter, and would be loyal and not speak ill of them; she would do their bidding, of that he was certain. He wouldn’t be the first young man rejected by his love’s parents for lack of money or position.

“It’s okay,” he said.

She looked at him in surprise. “Really? You’re okay with this?” She appeared almost angry at the suggestion.

“No,” he said. “Of course I’m not okay with this. I think you know how I feel about you, and I have a pretty good idea what you feel for me. But you can’t tell me why, and that’s what I’m okay with.”

She buried her face in her hands and rocked back and forth. “I’m sorry, Will. You really don’t deserve this. And I don’t deserve you.”

“Of course you do,” he said, stroking her hair.

“No, I don’t! And I don’t deserve this either,” she said as she yanked the amulet from her neck.

“Hey, wait a second,” said William. “I can’t make you love me, and I won’t badger you into explaining. I respect you too much to do that. But don’t you dare give that back to me. It’s a gift. Wear it, bury it, or hide it in a closet; do what you want with it. But don’t you dare try to return it.”

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll keep it out of—respect for you.” She stared at the ground, avoiding his eyes.

Silence fell over the clearing as the shadows grew longer. This was worse than the worst he could have imagined, but even in this mood he knew he had been right not to fear it. Fear changes nothing, he thought to himself, except to amplify the pain. “Well,” he said. “This has been a pretty good picnic so far, wouldn’t you say?” She laughed despite her mood. This was the release he had wanted. He joined in, and they hugged and laughed until the worst of the pain passed. They sauntered back to town in comfortable silence, but there was no hand-holding, and no kiss at the gate this time.

As he trudged home, the evening breeze off the river chilled him.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

During the terraforming process, an attempt was made to create diverse ecological zones in order to allow as many species of flora and fauna as possible to survive the transition. Special attention was paid to islands and relatively isolated continental areas, where various trees and plants were matched based on expected climate models.

Some of these attempts failed. Temperate zones in both Ibyca and Azuria are dominated by evergreen and deciduous forests interspersed with grasslands, and the animal species best adapted to these zones. However, even in recent times, discoveries of long-forgotten plant life have been made in far reaches of some tropical and sub-tropical areas.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

The next two weeks were awkward. Work at the Library had backed up in his absence, so William found himself laboring again in his work room, with only a wall separating him from Melissa. To his surprise, they spoke more now than they had before his mission, perhaps because the romantic tension that had previously dominated their exchanges was now gone, or perhaps because there was nothing at stake anymore. Regardless, the unanswered question “why?” was ever present in his mind, like a silent, uninvited guest he wasn’t bold enough to send away. Whatever drove her to end their romance remained a secret, and not once did he pursue the matter.

More uncomfortable was the visibility of his mother’s affection for Sir Kevin. His father’s former Guard Captain had avoided the Whitehall household out of respect for William’s feelings, but now that William had denied any misgivings they no longer kept their love secret. He was invited to evening meals at Sir Kevin’s manor, where he was pitted against unfamiliar cutlery and cuisine, among fellow guests he barely knew. He felt ragged and rude in his simple clothes compared to the finery of the other visitors, but Sir Kevin spared him the shame of being offered new clothes to help him fit in.

Worse still was keeping the secret of the dragons. He was forced to recount his adventures to everyone he met; regardless of their rank or role in life, they all believed he had been lucky to experience it, and demanded to hear every detail. The gaps in his story should have been obvious to everyone, but thankfully no one seemed to notice.

Keeping the secret from strangers was hard enough, but withholding the truth from Sir Kevin hurt him more. This was the man who had taken him as protégé when his father died, and who once held the post that could have made them colleagues for life. He had taught him how to use a sword, and now William had to repay him with deceit. He even hid the sword the Elder gave him, fearing the questions it would evoke. It might be necessary, but it irked him. The day of departure could not come soon enough for him.

It finally came on a mild, sunny morning. The convoy had been ferried across the river on barges the day before, and almost everyone had camped there overnight. William had spent the night in his own bed, hoping for another picnic with Melissa. She declined, however, leaving him bored and alone, so he went to bed early and rose before dawn.

The Earl—or Sir Hiram, more likely—spared little expense for this trip. Eight large wagons bearing food and tools, pulled by oxen destined for beef or plow; horses for every rider, plus spares to replace those that went lame; forty Guards, and at least as many laborers; and a small flock of sheep and goats. In a place once dedicated to destruction, they hoped to create something to endure.

William found all his friends packed and ready to ride. “You aren’t on duty, Charlie?” asked William.

The big man shook his head. “I’m on assignment again.”

“Really? With us?” William was confused; he hadn’t expected to have a team again.

“I’m working with my dad,” said Charlie. “Building a forge.” Maya beamed, clearly happy not to have him taken away again by his duties.

“That’s great,” said William. “We can all ride together. Where’s Steve?”

“Begging for scraps of bacon from the Guards,” said Rachel. She whistled, and a few seconds later the half-breed dog bounded into their midst and skidded to a halt. He greeted William with a leap and a yelp of joy, nearly knocking William over. A dog never keeps his feelings secret, thought William. Two weeks of separation from friends could feel like an eternity to them—sometimes for people too.

It was nice not to hurry their progress, or stop every half mile to test the water. They didn’t even need to worry about setting up camp, or cooking, or hunting. Everything was provided for; all they had to do was ride and stave off boredom. Sometimes Jack and Rachel would ride away together. Their playful banter had tapered off since returning to Marshland and William couldn’t decide if that was good news or bad. But it left William alone with Maya and Charlie, and he often lagged behind to give those two their privacy as well, at least until Maya stopped him. “Let those two do whatever they want,” she said. “You stay with us.”

Most of the time Sir Hiram rode with the Sergeant in charge of the Guard contingent, but from time to time he visited William and his friends. He queried them on how they should set up operations, what crops to grow, or what the land was like at the site. He asked the questions so that anyone could answer, but it was clear they were directed at William. It seemed as though Sir Hiram was grooming him for a specific job, but why wouldn’t the newly-knighted man prefer his own son for it? Even so, he found the talks stimulating, and he pondered the questions even when Sir Hiram wasn’t around.

The most compelling topic was what to name the new settlement. “Since I am the first administrator, I have the right to name it. But given what you endured there, the honor should be yours, William. Let me know what you decide, and I’ll inform the Earl.”

“That’s fantastic, Will!” said Maya. “How many people get a town named after them?”

“Well, it’s not really a town, is it?” said William.

“Keep it simple,” said Jack. “Williamtown.”

“It’s not a town,” insisted William. “And besides, I don’t want it named after me.”

“Oh, come on, Will,” said Rachel. “Don’t be stuffy about it. At least name it Whitehall or something like that. Or name it after your dad.”

“Look, I don’t want my name on it. And yes, I’d love to honor my father, but I honestly don’t think he’d want a town named for him either.”

“I thought you said it’s not a town,” said Jack.

“Oh, leave him alone,” said Maya. “If he doesn’t want his name on it, that’s his right. Let’s think of something else.”

They discussed possibilities including Dragon Camp and Iron Fort, but they soon realized that any references to mining or dragons would invite questions better left unasked. “Something about the area then,” said William. “When I was working on the maps for Lester I saw plenty of places named for natural features. Marshland itself, for one.”

“Faywater is already taken,” said Rachel. “Maybe something to do with the falls?”

“William Falls,” said Jack. “No, really. You do. I’ve seen you fall lots of times.”

William rolled his eyes at Jack. “Thanks so much—”

“Rebel Falls,” said Charlie.

“That’s brilliant,” said William as the others gawked at Charlie. “Anyone disagree? No? Then Rebel Falls it is.” By the time the convoy reached the camp two weeks later, everyone knew the name and had embraced it. Sir Hiram chose the rebels’ main campsite as the center of the new outpost, and took Kaleb Antony’s old lodgings for his own. William spent much of his time in the office, organizing work parties for urgent tasks. The rest of the time he spent trudging from work site to work site to monitor progress.

More than anything else, they needed wood—and they needed it quickly, because Sir Hiram wanted a palisade erected around the central part of the camp. At least a few rebels had evaded capture, and no one could guess how many remained. He was not taking any unnecessary chances.

Other structures were erected in descending order of importance. After the palisade came a small infirmary, a watch tower, and a storage building beside the one William occupied as a prisoner. Since the weather was warming, tents would suffice for sleeping quarters until the essential buildings were completed.

“It’s a shame we can’t get more of this bamboo,” said Sir Hiram as he ran his hand along the wall. “It’s the perfect construction material. I wouldn’t use it for the perimeter, but for everything else it’s exactly what we need. A quarter of the weight, and nearly all the strength, less than half the construction time…we’ll have to send search parties to see where those rebels found the stuff. Once we can spare the bodies, that is.”

Charlie and his father, Alex, had begun work on the forge outside the encampment’s walls, far enough away not to be a fire hazard. William attended an uncomfortable meeting where Sir Hiram addressed the smith. “Mr. Walker, you’ll be getting metal to work soon, but I don’t want people knowing that yet. That’s why I want your forge to start as a kiln for bricks. Can you do that without making too much extra work for yourself?”

“Of course,” said the smith. “Where is this metal coming from?”

Sir Hiram tapped his fingers on his desk as he gave Walker a long look. “I can’t tell you. Not yet, anyway.”

Alex Walker shrugged. “That’s fine. Metal is metal, don’t matter where it come from.”

“Good. But I should also tell you that Charlie knows, and that he is forbidden by oath to tell you, or anyone else. Will this be a problem?”

Alex Walker stared at Sir Hiram, his jaw set like stone. “You think Charlie would tell me? Is that what’s worrying you?” He spoke quietly, but his face glowed like embers. “My son breaks no oaths, Sir Hiram. Not for his dad. Not for no one. I may be a simple man, but I raised him better than that.”

“I understand,” said Sir Hiram. “I meant no offense. Please let me know if you need anything to help in your task.”

As clerk, William’s job involved recording everything that happened within the camp as well as keeping his new boss informed. At first he enjoyed this role; it was more varied than copying books at the Library, but held none of the dangers of his recent assignment. He could watch the camp’s progress unfold in a way that would not have been possible had he focused on one single task. Plus, the job came easily to him.

But the task he wanted most was not given to him. Sir Hiram assigned the book making to Dayna Klipp, a well-educated daughter of a Baron who’d lost his lands to a rival. Sir Hiram took pity on the former Baron and employed his daughter. This sort of employment should have been beneath her, but she was good at it, and William resented it. It was his idea after all. Why should he be forced to give it up? Sir Hiram explained when he asked. “William, most people excel at only one or two things. Dayna probably would have been a fine wife, mother, and hostess had she married the way her father intended, but the truth is she is much better at this.”

“I know, but so am I. That’s what I did before the trip up river.”

“Yes, but she has experience with illustration, which you don’t. Besides, you are destined for much more than mere book printing. You must know that by now.”

William laughed. “I made up my mind to be a Guard a long time ago. Even before my father died. Every day since then people have told me my destiny lay elsewhere.”

“Were they wrong?” asked Sir Hiram.

“No. But I wish someone would tell me what my destiny is, so I can get on with it.”

They both chuckled. “I can’t tell you what your destiny is,” said Sir Hiram. “No one can. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. But I do know what sort of work you are good at: organization. You might run the Library one day after Lester retires, or you might be Administrator of a colony like this, or maybe manage some sort of business. I know you believe Jack should be doing your job, him being my son and heir, but this isn’t his sort of work any more than book printing should be yours. Jack is more of an explorer.”

“Really? An explorer? But all he talks about is money.”

Sir Hiram shook his head vigorously. “No, William. He talks about trade, not money. There’s a difference. Anywhere he goes he looks for new opportunities and ideas, meets new people and listens for the latest news. Isn’t that what exploring is all about?”

William could see the wisdom of it, but he still didn’t know where that left him. He only knew he was jealous of someone else running the printing operation.

“Look,” said Sir Hiram. “The work you are doing now is only part of the overall job. You give me the information that I need to make decisions. Those decisions are the other part, and I have a strong feeling it’s the sort of work you’ll be good at, and in the end will satisfy you the most.”

William nodded, accepting if not entirely agreeing with the statement. “So what’s next?”

“I want to combine your skills with Jack’s and have you both accompany the next scouting mission. I need the two of you to tell me what the Guards can’t.”

“Like what?”

“You found plenty of interesting things on your last trip. I want you to do the same on this trip. Keep your eyes open and look for anything that might intrigue me.”

It felt good to get out in the wild again, thought William the next day as he and Jack followed the Guards blazing the path ahead. They headed south from the camp rather than follow the river as the previous scouting missions had done. It was less explored, and it was possibly the doorstep to the towns dotting the Azurian coastline hundreds of miles southward. The ground gently sloped upwards for several miles, well covered in trees until they reached a certain altitude. The ground behind them undulated too much to see all the way back to the river, but the southern vista was an altogether different sort of landscape. It was bright green, lush and wet, and they would have a difficult time navigating through it if they didn’t find a path.

The descent into the forest was like passing into a new world. The air up high was cool and dry, but below the hot, steamy air stifled their breathing, and more than once an abrupt deluge of rain soaked them. They found no obvious path, but a briefly-flooded river bed served as adequate passage once the rains passed.

Jack noticed the signs first. He had assumed the task of climbing trees to scout the land ahead, and at the base of one tree he found signs carved into the bark, the same symbols they found in the cave weeks before. The markings weren’t fresh, but the same people had made them, of that Jack was certain.

Had they been alone instead of traveling in a well-armed contingent, William might have returned to the camp for safety reasons. He had brought his sword, but he now knew from experience that this was not always enough. Protected by their numbers, they continued down the creek bed until they reached a valley where the tall pines and cedars gave way to a different sort of plant life. These new trees were nearly barren, devoid of branches and bearing leaves only at the top. They had a smooth, bright green surface, and grew straight and tall in sections, like elongated pillars.

William recognized it right away: bamboo. The rebels had used this wood to construct the two buildings in their campsite. His mind leaped to two startling conclusions. First, the rebels must have carried their bamboo from here to their campsite. They would never have done so if they hadn’t already known it was worth traveling here to obtain it, which meant they had used bamboo before.

And that led to the second conclusion: somewhere, either here or elsewhere near the bamboo forest, another rebel camp lay hidden. Whether it was occupied or not he couldn’t guess.

Jack wasn’t convinced. “That seems like quite a stretch. Just because we found bamboo doesn’t mean there’s rebels nearby.”

“Maybe not,” said William. “Still, I’m sure your dad will want to hear about it one way or another.”

“That’s SIR dad to you.”

They returned after four days in the wilderness, and Sir Hiram received the news of both the rebel activity and the bamboo with enthusiasm. “I wish we had men to spare to get that bamboo,” he said. “It will have to wait, though. In the meantime, I have something of interest to you, William. This arrived the day after you and Jack left.”

Jack’s father handed him a note, the handwriting on which he recognized right away. His heart pounded as he opened the letter. It was short, sweet, and said nothing he wanted to hear. He had hoped Melissa might change her mind, and that this letter would be evidence of such a change. Instead, she wrote a friendly note with no hint or mention of romance, past or present. It hurt him to read it, but he read it alone in his tent three more times anyway, before forcing himself to write a short reply in the same tone. He returned to Sir Hiram’s office to place it with the outgoing mail, but could not bring himself to drop it into the box. Doing so meant giving up. Why didn’t he have the courage to tell her what he really felt? Was he still afraid, or was he simply respecting her wishes?

“So it’s really over, huh?” Jack had slipped into the office unnoticed.

“I guess so,” said William as he shrugged and dropped the letter into the mail crate. He was too used to Jack guessing his thoughts to bother asking how he knew. He hadn’t even told Jack about Melissa’s decision, but in hindsight it must have been pretty obvious, even to someone lacking Jack’s intuition. “Time to move on,” he added. “I wonder if that Dayna girl is single?” he asked without conviction.

“What, and you without a knighthood? Good luck, buddy.”

Jack was only joking, but the joke contained a kernel of truth. William was merely a son of a Guard; he had no place courting a girl from a good family. Even if he wanted to, it was pointless to try.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

Rivers were critical in the expansion of Esper’s population. While coastal towns provide ready access to marine food sources, it is inland settlements that supply the vast majority of life’s necessities, such as farm produce, game, lumber, and in some cases minerals.

Without the natural transport system of rivers, many of these goods would remain where they are. In some places, transport has been augmented by canal systems, allowing for extended inland reach, or even trade between towns not previously connected by waterways. Most, however, have fallen out of use due to disrepair.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

William threw himself into his work; idleness gave him chance to recall things he’d rather forget. The only way he could fall asleep at night was to be too exhausted for his mind to replay unhappy memories—or worse, pleasant ones. He pondered the advice Sir Hiram gave him, and sought new things to record, and new ideas to investigate. He inspected the camp at different times of day to get a sense of how much work was being done, and kept tabs on which projects progressed and which were frequently delayed. The laborers started calling him “Bookworm,” a nickname he normally detested, but unlike those in Marshland they said it without mockery. Most knew he had been captured and tortured by the rebels on this very spot while buying time for his friends to escape. They respected him, and soon he knew most workers by name.

A week after Melissa’s letter came he was surprised to find one of the construction sites abandoned. It was a permanent housing site, due to be finished within a week, and should have been crawling with laborers. It was too early for the lunch bell, so where had they gone? As though in answer, a worker ran past, barely noticing him, spade and bucket in hand. Puzzled, William followed the man down the path leading to the river.

When they reached the river bank, William could only stare in disbelief. This was the same river bank he had seen from the waterfall’s edge as they returned from the dragon’s hive. Only now the black sandy gravel was swarming with people digging, most shouting and laughing, a few squabbling.

“Hey, Bookworm! Look at this!” Duarte, a worker he’d spoken with many times during his rounds, ran up to him and jumped around in frenzied elation. His shaking hand held a shiny object the size of his grimy fingernail. William had never seen gold before except on fingers or necks of lords and ladies. How out of place it looked in the dirty hands of this ragged, aging worker with missing teeth and a lazy eye. All he could do was stare at the nugget before him, its value exceeding that of everything he himself owned. Duarte shook William’s shoulder. “There’s loads of it here, boy! Get a shovel before it’s all gone!” The man scampered to an empty spot and resumed digging.

Emotions battled within him. Gold was good. It would pay for things Rebel Falls needed. On the other hand, the rush for it might cause chaos and spell the end of the settlement. But foremost in his thoughts was what the Elder had told him: the Queen needed gold for her hatching. Without her, the hive would slowly die. That would mean the loss of an ally, as well as any possible trade in metal, trade worth more than all the gold they could ever dig from the ground.

“Get a shovel, Bookworm! You’ll miss out!” Duarte said as he attacked the sand.

“Right, a shovel,” William said. “I’ll be right back.” He knew what had to be done, and he hoped Sir Hiram would agree. It took several minutes to explain, but the Administrator acted quickly once he grasped the situation. Within moments the entire Guard company was deployed, rounding up men and women from the beach and herding them to the same square in which Antony Kaleb had nearly taken William’s life. A small force remained at the beach under orders not to allow anyone to step foot on the sand.

As the entire labor population of Rebel Falls waited for him, Sir Hiram ranted in his office. “That gold is the property of Rebel Falls, and by extension, the Town,” he said as he stomped back and forth. “They should know better than to steal Town property. Any man or woman caught there again will be expelled, do you understand?” he said to the Guard Sergeant. “I brought these men here at my expense to build, not dig for treasure. If they don’t want to work, they can leave.” William clenched his lips as Sir Hiram spoke. His eyes must have given him away, though, because Sir Hiram shot a glance at him and said, “You don’t agree, I take it?”

William had known Hiram Doran for as long as he could remember, but he had never seen him this angry. Jack once told him that whenever his father got mad, he would hide for hours before sneaking home after dark. If Jack was scared to face his father’s rage, William would be smart to follow that lead. “It’s not my place to argue, sir,” he said.

“King’s pants, boy, it is your duty to argue when you disagree with me. Otherwise you’re no more than a servant. Speak up!”

William swallowed hard and met Sir Hiram’s gaze. “Very well, sir. Most of these people have been hungry for much of their lives, or at least poor. Most have lived in shacks that barely keep out the wind, and they’ve chosen to seek a better life here.”

“What of it?” asked Sir Hiram.

“Finding gold is probably the only lucky thing that’s happened to them. If you take away not only the gold, but their jobs too, the rebels will have a bunch of new recruits overnight. Not only that, but we won’t get our work completed here, either.”

Sir Hiram relaxed somewhat. “If you’re going to tell me what I shouldn’t do, you’d better have an alternative for me.”

“I do, sir. Let them dig for gold during their off hours. Anyone who hasn’t worked a full day can’t dig. Half of what they find, they keep; the other half goes to the Town.”

“That’s a lot of the Town’s gold you’re giving away, William.”

“I don’t think so. Without their help, most of it will stay in the ground, and that helps no one. This way, everyone benefits.”

Sir Hiram stared out his window, silently pondering. After a moment he turned back to William. “What if someone tries to hide what they’ve dug up?”

“Send those ones home,” said William. “They’ll have themselves to thank instead of bad luck.”

Sir Hiram nodded. “You’ve convinced me, William. Don’t ever hold back again, you hear me?”

The Sergeant broke in. “I’ll need to post more men at the river bank, but they won’t like not being able to dig for gold. We might have deserters.”

“Have your men pool what they find, and share it evenly among them,” said Sir Hiram. “That way your night watch won’t feel cheated.”

The men and women of the labor force received the news with surprise and gratitude. From what they told William after, they had expected the Administrator to declare the river bank off limits. William didn’t tell them how close it had come to being that way.

The rush for gold was surprisingly peaceful. Fights were few on the first day, and non-existent the day after when the combatants were ejected from the site. No one wanted to risk their digging time; politeness reigned. Sir Hiram announced a policy at William’s suggestion that all gold would be held in trust under guard to prevent theft among the laborers. Every person leaving the dig site was escorted to the weighing station and had their gold stored and added to the ledger. Only three people were foolish enough to try to hide their gold; they were arrested and shackled to await transport. After that, no one attempted it again.

William decided to try his luck, and spent the better part of an evening prospecting with Jack. Between them they found a few small nuggets, but they lacked the tools that the other diggers had devised to pan and filter for small flakes and dust. They might have earned good money if they spent enough time at it, but as with the iron bogging, the work was harder than it appeared.

Maya and Rachel laughed when they met for a late evening meal. “I never thought I’d see you give up so easily, boys,” said Rachel.

“Well, Will is more of the administrator type, you see,” said Jack.

“And Jack here is the explorer type,” said William.

Jack nodded. “Digging isn’t our thing.”

“Of course not. You need muscles for digging,” said Rachel as she squeezed Jack’s arm. “Maybe you need Charlie’s help.”

“Here he is,” said Jack as the smith’s son pulled up a seat. “Care to join us in a gold mining business, Charlie? We’ll split it three ways down the middle.”

“That makes no sense, Jack,” said Maya. “Down the middle is two.”

“I never said they would be even splits,” said Jack with a mock look of hurt on his face.

“Careful Charlie,” said Rachel. “You’ll probably find more gold on your own without these slowpokes in your way.”

“No, I don’t really want to do that,” said Charlie. “I want to work the metal, not look for it.”

Jack nodded. “A man has to know his strengths. Will’s still trying to figure out if he’s good at anything.”

How easy it was to laugh at his own expense now. He’d always known Jack never meant those insults like other people did, but he’d always reacted the same regardless: with shame and resentment. So what had changed? He didn’t feel different, so it had to be the circumstances. Yes, that was it. Here, he was among friends. He had a job he was good at. The people around him respected him.

He belonged.

It felt good. He was buoyed by a sense of lightness that let him relax in a way he never could before. But that only made it harder to broach the next subject.

“You know, speaking of metal,” he said, his voice trailing off. He looked around to make sure no one else was listening. The others caught on and looked around as well. Satisfied, he continued in a whisper. “You know what this gold discovery means, don’t you?” he asked. “The Queen.” Despite being alone with his friends, he was reluctant to spell it out.

“We can’t just pick it up and bring it to them,” said Jack. “You saw how hard it was to find the small amount we did. And half of that isn’t even ours to keep, and honestly, I’m not sure I’d want to give up my half.”

“Jack, that’s not nice,” said Maya.

“No, but it’s practical. Did the Elder say how much they needed?”

“No, not exactly,” said William. “More than we could manage ourselves, I’m sure. But we don’t have to get it ourselves.”

“What do you mean?” asked Rachel.

William looked around at the puzzled faces staring back at him. “Think about it,” he said. “Where did the gold here come from?”

“I guess it was always here,” said Jack.

“Of course it wasn’t. You and I bogged for iron back in the marshes. Where did the iron come from?”

Jack shrugged and shook his head. “No idea.”

“The mountains,” said Charlie. “The iron came from the mountains. The gold must have too.”

“Exactly,” said William. “I’m not sure why we found it here before anywhere else. Maybe whatever caused the land to rise and fall here exposed a vein of gold, but I’m willing to bet everything Jack owns there’s a vein of gold somewhere near the tunnel that the dragons brought us through to avoid the rebels. Somewhere near the river.”

“King’s treasure, you’re right,” said Maya. “It’s been so long since I studied anything but plants and medicine that I’d forgotten the geology I learned as a kid.”

“We have to go tell the Elder,” said William.

Once William explained, Sir Hiram insisted they leave as soon as possible. Charlie’s work on the kiln was complete, and his father needed no help making bricks for now. Maya had no patients to monitor, so she was free to go. Rachel made it clear she was going regardless of what duties she might have, and Sir Hiram did not argue.

They left after dark to avoid being followed. Traveling with all the speed they could muster, they reached the tunnel in just three days, and met the first dragon well into the tunnel a few hours later. They were recognized immediately, and a pair of cargo dragons was dispatched to deliver them to the Elder. When they reached his den after a bumpy ride, they found the Ambassador already in attendance. “Your arrival is unexpected,” said the silver and black beast. “Is this a good omen or bad?”

“Good, I hope,” said William. “Elder, we have found gold downstream. A lot of it. You might be able to find gold too, within a reasonable distance from here. Perhaps enough for…”

“The Queen,” said the Elder in a hushed voice. “At last. Our wait may be over.”

“Tell us how you found this gold,” said the Ambassador. William and the others related the story from the time of William’s rescue to the present, and they answered many questions regarding how much gold they found, the depth they found it at, the size and consistency of nuggets and flakes, and the concentration of gold. There were many other questions they could not answer, and still more they couldn’t understand.

The Elder and the Ambassador exchanged comments in their musical language. The group could only watch and listen without comprehending. The discussion ended, and the Elder pondered in silence. Finally he spoke to the Ambassador, who then left without a word or a whistle.

“Thank you, William Whitehall, for this information,” said the Elder. “The news you bring may save our hive.”

Embarrassed to be singled out, William replied, “It was a group effort, Elder. And we were glad to do it. As I understand it, I have my life to thank you for as well.”

The Elder nodded, the most human gesture he or any other dragon had made. “It was a calculated risk, and I am gratified that our plan succeeded. As for the gold, I can only hope it will be enough.”

“What do you mean?” asked Rachel. “If you find gold, then that’s it, right? You can hatch the Queen?”

“Yes,” said the Elder. “But it is not certain that we can extract it.”

“I’ve seen your mining operation at work,” said Jack. “It shouldn’t even be a challenge for you.”

The Elder hesitated. “The information you brought tells us that the gold, if it exists, is likely reached by a tunnel we have excavated already, a branch off the tunnel that you just arrived by. It has long been abandoned.”

“Why?” asked Rachel.

“Most of our deaths and illnesses have occurred there. Some of those dragons return, but not all, and none can tell us what attacked them.”

William felt a chill not entirely due to being underground. An unseen assailant was mortifying enough, but something that could kill dragons by stealth was that much more menacing. “So even looking for the gold is a risk?” he asked.

“Yes,” said the Elder.

“What did you decide?” asked Maya.

“I have told the Ambassador to send prospectors to obtain samples, but not to linger. My hope is that they can locate the gold and return in time to be cured by the ash bath.”

“And if they find it,” said William, “will you have enough dragons to extract it?”

“That depends on where we find it.”

William did not envy the Elder. What a heavy burden to bear, to decide the fate of not only himself, but also for his entire colony. An entire people, in a way, since this hive no longer communicated with their home planet, just as humans on Esper had lost contact with Earth more than five hundred years ago. For all anyone knew, Esper might contain the last dragons in the universe…or even the last humans for that matter.

Message delivered, it made no sense for them to remain. The Elder assured them that their fate was not immediate, and that he would send a message if their help was desired. William felt relieved. To stay would have been depressing. The hive, never crowded from the time they first saw it, now appeared nearly empty. Dust had accumulated on once busy tunnel floors, and their footsteps echoed along the dark hallways. How many dragons had died in their attempt to secure a source of gold? He did not dare upset the Elder by asking.

On the way back they paused near a side tunnel. They had no guide to confirm, but it appeared to be the tunnel branch the Elder mentioned. For one, it lay on the correct path toward the river. For another, it had been recently traveled after a long period of disuse. Fresh tracks led into the tunnel in what looked like a deep layer of dust. They listened for hints of what might be going on, but no sound emanated from the tunnel. Thoroughly spooked, they hurried to the exit and made camp for the night.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

Subsequent to the terraforming of Esper, the Colonization Authority began the process of building agricultural centers. Only a few breeds of dog were deliberately imported, such as Border Collie and Welsh Corgi, for their intelligence and herding instincts.

However, a few individual pets were smuggled to Esper during the Arrival, though most were confiscated before their owners could make the crossing. From records taken at the time, it appears that only the most clever and obedient dogs avoided capture, leading to a canine population more intelligent on average than its predecessors.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

“What’s bugging you, Will?” asked Maya.

William sat in silence, his meal untouched. Glancing down, he realized it had gotten cold. He tasted it, dropped the spoon, and grumbled. “Nothing,” he said.

“You can’t fool me, Will. You haven’t said a word since we made camp.”

“It’s that girl, isn’t,” said Rachel. “Melissa’s her name, right? Trust me. Girls are trouble. I should know. I am one.”

“No, it’s not that,” he said.

“Aha, so it is something,” said Maya. “You’re worried about the dragons, aren’t you?”

“He’s not worried,” said Jack. “He feels guilty. He thinks we should go back and find out what’s killing the dragons and destroy it.”

“No, I don’t think we should do that,” said William, anger giving his voice an edge. “I wish we could. But I didn’t say it, because I know we can’t.”

Maya patted William’s shoulder. “They’ll be fine. And even if they aren’t, it’s still not our fault. We helped them more than they had reason to expect. Especially since they wanted to kill us first.”

“I know,” he said, handing his bowl to Charlie who gladly accepted it. “I’ll share the first watch with you, Charlie. I can’t sleep anyway.” Charlie nodded, his mouth too full to answer.

Hours later, the stars gently illuminated the faces of his sleeping friends near the tunnel entrance. Concealed from the river and anywhere else on the ground, visible from the sky: it was a perfect spot for dragons, and more than good enough for humans. They really didn’t need two people on watch.

He sent Charlie to sleep early, and soon heard his gentle snoring as he lay next to Maya. Maya and Charlie had long abandoned any pretext that they were no more than friends, unlike Jack and Rachel who hid their feelings for each other when others were around. William wasn’t sure which was worse: witnessing the kind of love that he once thought he might have, or the pity implied by those who would hide it from him. Then again how could he be jealous of his friends, or wish that they couldn’t experience what he so desperately wanted? To cherish someone, and be cherished in return…he’d experienced it for such a short time, but the memory was fresh, and already he missed it.

He couldn’t succumb to self-pity, he decided. If love was not to give his life purpose, he would have to decide a purpose of his own. An idea formed in his mind that he couldn’t reject, one that would lead to guilt no matter which way he decided. He reached back in his memory to locate some forgotten nugget of wisdom. What was it his father had once said? When faced with two otherwise equal options, choose the most reversible choice.

But no matter how he looked at it, both choices might be irreversible. It came down to action or inaction. Stated in such simple terms, his choice became clear. He’d wanted to accomplish great things for as long as he could remember, to do something people would notice and applaud—yes, to be a hero. He may as well admit it. Well, here was his chance.

He packed his bag as quietly as he could, taking only a few torches, leaving the rest for his friends in case they should need them on the way home. He grabbed a little food for the journey, and strapped his sword to his belt. He hadn’t brought his father’s shield, but he couldn’t worry about that now. He slipped past his friends and approached the tunnel entrance. It would be dark in there, but he didn’t dare light a torch yet, not until he was deep inside. He walked in as far as he could and let his eyes adjust to the darkness.

He heard whining behind him and turned. Steve was there, staring at him and wagging his tail. The dog tilted his head as though to ask “What are you doing?”

“No, Steve,” said William. Go back.” What he wouldn’t give to have the dog by his side…but he had no right to steal him from Rachel. “Stay, Steve. Good boy.” He walked a short distance and looked back to make sure the dog didn’t follow. The dog obeyed, but looked worried as only a dog does when a friend departs.

He followed the corridor wall by touch until he no longer saw the starlight through the entrance, and only then did he light a torch. He moved quickly and quietly, the torchlight flickering ghostly shadows, and his footsteps echoing with a hollow sound. He shivered, his skin prickling with goosebumps. He knew now what Charlie must feel. It was eerie being alone in the dark, knowing full well he would meet somewhere in these halls an as-yet unseen enemy. He had at least an hour to go before he reached the side tunnel. He could not spend that time wearing himself out with worry. Slow, deep breaths relaxed his racing heart. He began a deliberate, steady march toward his destination.

His dread dissipated as he concentrated on his pace. Something else replaced it, something he had experienced often while sword training, and once or twice when writing. He lost himself in the moment, his conscious mind merely along for the ride and contributing nothing, all his thoughts and actions dictated by something deeper within him. Sir Kevin had compared it to a river that didn’t care where it went, but flowed without ceasing, bypassing or overwhelming any hindrance. He was a boat on that river, carried by patient, persistent, unending currents to whatever calm sea lay in the distance. Time and distance disappeared. He knew the side tunnel was there before he saw it, the one the Elder named as the source of their problems. He turned even before the opening was exposed by the torch and continued his stride unchanged.

He sensed something behind him. A threat, but sooner than he’d expected. He spun on his heel, sword drawn in an instant, heard the cold clang of metal on metal, and felt the impact in his wrist and forearm. Before him stood Kaleb Antony.

“I suppose ‘so we meet again’ would be melodramatic, wouldn’t it, Whitehall?” he said. “I must say, I didn’t expect you to be so stupid as to wander off alone, but here we are.” Antony swayed back and forth, his own shorter but heavier sword in hand. He looked fit to fight, but William detected a slight limp. A quick glance confirmed his suspicion: a dark stain had spread on his thigh, betraying the spot where Rachel’s arrow had connected.

“You followed me,” said William, keeping his gaze on Antony. “Alone, too. Why?”

“You cost me my camp, and a good number of my people. Years of sacrifice, leaving behind comfort and wealth for the sake of a greater cause. Oh, you’re a clever one, aren’t you. Delaying like that. I underestimated how quickly the Guard would arrive, but I still lay the blame at your feet. Before I resign myself to a Spartan life again and rebuild my camp, I will indulge myself this once. I will give myself the gift of ending your life by my own hand.”

William chuckled. “I mean so much to you that you would delay your work and follow me?”

“Don’t be stupid,” said Antony. “Not you…those things I saw. They came from here, didn’t they? They must be important or else you wouldn’t have come back. Maybe I can use them. Tell me what they are, and I’ll go easy on you.”

“You wouldn’t believe me,” said William, maintaining his stance.

“Then I’ll beat it out of you after we finish what we started. A fair fight to the death, that’s what you bargained for. And before I let you die, you will tell me what this place is, and what I saw at my camp.”

William said nothing, his mind and body still controlled by his deeper self. They locked eyes as they circled each other, but he still took in everything around him: the ground, the fallen rocks around him, every movement of Antony’s arms, head, and especially his legs—the injured one, most of all.

There was no sun to maneuver his opponent’s eyes into. The torch was the only source of light, and William controlled it. He was glad now that he hadn’t brought a shield; the flame might prove more useful. The tunnel floor was slightly inclined; he could use that too. Seizing the initiative, he stabbed at his enemy, testing his movement. He caught Antony wincing as he stepped to the left.

Slowly they revolved around each other, each probing for the other’s weaknesses. Antony stepped in quickly with a killing move; William turned it aside easily. He returned the attack, but Antony’s sword was fast in its defense, and threatened to counter. William backed off, satisfied Antony was not at his peak. A few more exchanges, and he might have the man tired enough to beat him. His confidence rose.

Just as William sensed Antony’s energy was waning, the rebel launched a desperate attack, hacking and slashing with reckless speed. Sensing his chance, William countered, turning each block into an attack of its own, forcing the man to his left with each blow. After a lengthy exchange Antony yelped and dropped to one knee. William plunged in for the final stroke—Antony’s injured leg shot out and tripped him. William landed on his back, and Antony’s eyes filled with malice as he kicked William’s sword out of reach. The torch had already fallen from his hand unnoticed, its sputtering flame casting a hulking shadow of Antony on the tunnel wall.

No one would witness his end. With luck, the dragons might find him eventually, but they would never know how he had met his fate. His mother would never know, nor Cairns, nor Jack or any of his friends. Nor Melissa…

Antony stood over him, sword-point at William’s throat, just as he had done at the rebel camp. “You are good, Whitehall, I’ll give you that. But you aren’t devious enough to be a swordsman. You’re too honest. That’s your weakness.”

“I won’t tell you a thing about this place,” said William, more for spite than to buy time. But he would not die having given the man any satisfaction at all.

“No worry. I’ll wander around and take a look. If it was safe for you, it’ll be safe for me. What? Why are you laughing?”

William hadn’t realized he was laughing, but he had to admit the humor of it. Antony would be dead within hours, and only William knew it.

“Answer me, boy, or I’ll start cutting little pieces off your—” Antony’s words were cut short, and his rage turned to shock. He spun, then fell, landing on his back with a thud. William’s heart leapt as Charlie appeared behind him, spear in hand. The former Guard followed his blow with a butt end to the chest, pinning Antony to the floor. “He’s here,” said Charlie over his shoulder. The others arrived right behind him. Maya came in first and picked up the fallen torch and moved behind Rachel and Charlie.

“Good thing you made so much noise,” said Rachel, her face obscured by shadow. “You were easy to find once we realized you had gone.”

“How did you know I left?” asked William, squinting to see her.

“Steve raised the alarm,” she said. “He led us right to you.” The dog bounded into the light and licked William’s face. William wrapped his arms around him and buried his face in fur. How many lives did he owe Steve now? Three? Four?

He felt a kick in the shoulder. “You and I are going to have words, Will,” said Jack, his hands shaking with anger. “But right now I have to find my dagger. I threw it to save your worthless skin and now I can’t find it. Did anyone see where it went?” he asked as he walked away in search of the lost blade. “Will, you’re buying me a new one if I can’t find it,” his voice said from the darkness.

Maya kneeled beside him. “Are you injured?”

“He will be!” said Jack from the shadows.

“I’m fine,” said William. “You guys got here just in time—again.”

“I’m surprised the dragons didn’t show up first with all that noise,” said Maya.

“Dragons?” It was the first time Antony spoke since they arrived. “Did you say dragons? I knew it, but I couldn’t make myself believe it.”

Maya swore under her breath. She looked around at the others, pleading with her eyes for someone to suggest a way to correct her blunder.

“He has to die now,” said Rachel, urgency filling her voice. “We have no choice. If he tells anyone, who knows what the dragons will do.”

“No, that’s not fair, Rachel! It’s my fault,” said Maya. “He shouldn’t have to pay for my mistake.”

“At least let the dragons decide,” said Jack. “They can show mercy if they want.”

“Relax,” said Antony, his voice coarse and gravelly. “I’m not going anywhere. You there, the one looking for your knife. Is this it?” He lifted his arm, revealing the blade sunk to the hilt in his side. “It was a good shot. Or lucky.”

Jack slowly approached. He stooped to remove the dagger, then jerked his hand back, unsure of the etiquette of retrieving a blade from a still-breathing enemy.

Antony coughed and wiped the blood-colored foam that formed on his lips. “You can get it when I’m dead, if you’re that delicate,” he said. “Which reminds me…you and I had a deal, Whitehall. To the death. Don’t let me linger.”

William was not prepared for this. Killing a man in battle, one who threatened him or his friends or family, was difficult enough. Taking his life while he lies still was too horrible to contemplate, whether or not the man asked for it. “Maya, can you bandage him so…can you bandage him?”

“Don’t be a fool, Whitehall,” said Antony. “Look where the blade is. I have minutes at most. And they won’t be easy minutes.”

“It’s true, Will,” said Maya, who looked no happier than William felt. “The blade must be in his lung. It’s a matter of time. Not much.”

“Let him suffer, Will,” said Jack. “Remember what his people did to you.”

“So everyone gets a vote, do they?” asked Antony, exasperated. “What about you, big man. The quiet one. You’re the one who took me down twice. Do I spend my last minutes in agony, or can I be put out of my misery?”

“Whatever Will says,” said Charlie.

Antony spat blood as he cursed. “King’s knuckles, Whitehall, you’re a weakling. You play with swords, but you’re no swordsman. A man ought to have a sense of what he’s getting into before he arms himself. How about you? The one in the shadows with the bow. You were eager for me to die a moment ago. You shot me once, you can do it again.”

“Not my job,” said Rachel.

Antony fell quiet. “That voice,” he said. “Do I know you?”

“Where would you know me from?” asked Rachel.

“Move into the light,” said Antony. “Let me see you.”

Rachel stepped forward, her face still in shadow, and pulled her bowstring.

“Yes. That’s it, don’t hold back. You’ll be doing me a favor. Aim for the heart and get it done.”

Rachel raised her eyes to aim. “You!” said Antony at the moment she released the arrow. The thud of the arrow striking his chest was unexpectedly loud in the emptiness of the cavern.

William shuddered. It was done. He was alive, and his enemy dead, though not by his own hand. “Thanks, Rachel. I’m sorry I left it to you, but I couldn’t do it.”

“That’s not a bad thing, Will,” she said. “I’ve been killing for a while now—well, animals anyway. I suppose it’s second nature to me, but maybe it shouldn’t be.”

“What was he going to say before you…did what you did?” asked Jack.

“How would I know?” asked Rachel. “And what are you so squeamish about? I’m the one who had to shoot him.”

“He said ‘You’ like he knew you. And he knew your voice.”

“He’d lost a lot of blood, Jack,” said Maya. “He was probably delirious.”

“I suppose,” said Jack, looking unconvinced.

“Now what?” asked William. “Do we leave him here? I’m not sure how pleased the dragons will be.”

“We can’t drag him back to the camp,” said Jack. “We should find a side tunnel and leave him there to rot. It’s what he deserves.”

“I don’t know about deserving it,” said William. “But it’s the practical thing to do.”

“Wait,” said Charlie, startling everyone. “We have to search the body.”

“No,” said Rachel.

“Why not?” asked Jack when she said nothing else.

“They searched him when he was caught the first time.”

“Sure, and I bet he kept his pockets empty since then to make our lives easier,” said Jack. “Charlie’s right, we need to search him. My dad would be furious if we didn’t. Umm…who wants to go first?”

“Fine. I will,” said Rachel. “I need my arrow anyway.”

“Grab my dagger while you’re at it, would you?” Rachel gave him a dirty look. “Please?” he asked.

“Big baby,” she said as she yanked the dagger out and handed it to him. She pulled her arrow out with effort and began searching the dead man’s clothes. William was impressed with her efficiency, and how little she seemed to be affected by death.

“Nothing on him,” she said. “Just like I—”

“Wait. What’s this?” asked William as he pulled a piece of paper from underneath Antony’s cloak. “You missed this.”

“It’s a picture,” said Jack.

William gave his friend a dirty look. “I can see that, Jack. I went to school too, you know.”

“Whatever, let me look.” A woman’s face was drawn on it, the details unclear in the dim torchlight. But it looked familiar.

“Is that a picture of Rachel?” asked William.

“Impossible,” said Maya. “It must be a coincidence.”

“Maybe,” said William. “But it looks a lot like her. Take a look.”

Maya peered at the picture and frowned. “A little, I guess. It could be anyone.”

“Anyone who looks like Rachel, you mean,” said Jack.

“Well, yes.”

“Look, I have no idea what this is about,” said Rachel. “And neither does anyone else. Besides, aren’t you mad at Will?”

“Yes, I am!” said Jack, recalling his previous anger and turning to William. “You have some explaining to do, Will. Why on Esper did you run off alone?”

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

The terraforming process did not include all known creatures on Earth. In fact, a concerted effort was made to exclude both insects and mammals known to be carriers of diseases that afflicted humanity since before written history. Rats were one scourge that all scientists agreed Esper could thrive without. More importantly, they barred entry to the most deadly creature known to humankind: the common mosquito.

While enjoying a much-reduced burden of disease compared to their Earth-bound ancestors, people on Esper would not remain free of less deadly but still troublesome insects and animals.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

There was nothing William could say, and he knew it. “What exactly was your plan, anyway?” asked Jack when he ran out of things to call William. The looks on everyone else’s faces made it clear they felt the same way, although maybe not with the same intensity. Only Steve seemed not to be upset with him, but even he refused to come near William while he was being scolded.

William threw his hands up. “I didn’t really have one, I guess. But I didn’t want to involve you guys. I didn’t think it would be fair.”

“Will, did you honestly think we wouldn’t come looking for you?” asked Rachel. “No matter what you intended, you involved us anyway.”

All he could do was nod. No doubt about it; he had acted stupidly.

Jack stopped pacing and pointed his finger at William. “When I jumped into that tunnel when we were running from the bandits—rebels—whatever they are. You told me we have to act as a team. I know this isn’t the same mission, but the same rule applies. Or it should.”

“Okay,” said William.

“I’m serious,” said Jack. “If you don’t promise right now, I’ll never go on another trip with you anywhere.”

“I promise.” He could barely look Jack in the eyes.

“Good. Anyone else want a go at him? I’m done.”

“Jack’s said everything,” said Rachel. “But I’m still curious what you figured you’d accomplish that dragons couldn’t.”

“I didn’t know, exactly. But I couldn’t stand the idea of leaving them to die off without at least trying something. Ow…what was that?”

“What was what?” asked Maya.

“Something bit my arm.”

“Let me look. You probably got nicked by Antony’s sword. Bring me that torch, Charlie.” She squinted at William’s arm in the dim light. “No, you’re right, that looks like a bite, or a sting. That’s fresh blood.”

“King’s knuckles!” said Rachel as she shook her hand in pain. “Whatever it is got me, too.”

Charlie slapped at his neck, his fingers leaving red streaks on his fair skin.

Maya pulled her cloak around herself. “Everyone, cover yourselves. Don’t let any skin show.”

“What on Esper are those?” asked Jack as the tiny shadows flitted around them. “Ouch! My nose.”

“I told you to cover up!” said Maya. “Obviously they’re some sort of stinging insect. Hornets probably, since we’re underground. We must be near a nest.”

“Maya, did you see Charlie’s neck?” asked William. “Hornets don’t draw blood like that.”

Maya spoke with a muffled voice from beneath her cloak. “Maybe it’s some kind of hornet we’ve never seen before.”

“Have you ever read about any hornets like that from Earth?” asked William.

“No, I suppose not,” she said. “Does it hurt? I mean like a bee sting would?”

“It feels more like a burn,” said Jack.

“Not like a fire burn, though,” said Rachel. “Like a cut with salt rubbed into it. No, not salt…”

“Vinegar!” said William. “Can’t you smell it? This is what’s attacking the dragons. It must be!”

“Are you daft, Will?” asked Jack. “How can tiny hornets attack monstrous dragons?”

Rachel swiped at the air with the end of her cloak. “Look guys, this is fascinating, but can we talk about them after we leave? There’s a lot more now, and if we don’t get going, they’ll do something bad to us.”

“Think about it, Jack,” said William. “If these got under our clothes, imagine how bad it would be. Now imagine them under metal scales, and not having hands to swat them or brush them away.”

A distinct buzzing grew louder as they contemplated the horror that William had described. “He’s right,” said Maya. “It’s the same smell. Rachel, remember when we guessed at what weaknesses the dragons might have? Back when we thought they would kill us?”

“Hmm…thousands of tiny creatures against a few giant ones…” she said. “Of course. It makes perfect sense. If you don’t have size, you need numbers.” Her brows furrowed as she added, “But how do we fight numbers…?” Her voice trailed off as she became lost in thought.

Jack slowly backed toward the main tunnel. “Rachel’s right. We can’t fight this. It’s not our job anyway. We can tell the dragons what’s here, and they can deal with it.”

Reluctantly, William followed Jack. “Wait, guys,” said Rachel. “Let me try something.” She pulled another torch from her pack, cursing as her hands were stung. She used one torch to light the other, then swung them back and forth in front of her. “It’s working! They’re dropping like….well, it’s working.”

William grabbed another torch and followed Rachel’s example. “Everyone get two torches and line up across the tunnel,” he said. “Let’s push our way forward.” Together they formed a nearly impenetrable barrier of flame against the hornets. An acrid stench replaced the sour smell of vinegar, and the air filled with sizzling and popping sounds as the team swept their torches through the swarm. They inched forward, their footsteps crunching the bodies of burnt insects that dropped before them. The intensity of the swarm declined, and soon they could walk forward at almost a normal pace. The air around them cleared, and finally they could bare their heads without fear of being stung.

“Did we get them all?” asked Jack.

“Don’t count on it,” said Rachel. “There’s an opening ahead. How much you want to bet there’s a nest in there?”

“I’m not betting against you,” said Jack.

“Smart boy,” she said. “Get me a torch from my pack.” Taking the torch from Jack, she lit it and tossed it into the opening. A swarm emerged and descended on them with twice the fury as before. Maya screamed; Charlie swung his torches around her to clear the air around her, taking several stings to the face in the process. William jerked his hand back under his cloak after several stings; blood trickled down Jack’s face as he swatted at the air in front of him. With flailing torches they soon beat back the onrush of angry hornets.

“What on Esper…” said Jack as he winced in pain. “Are you trying to get us killed?”

“Sorry, everyone,” said Rachel. “I expected a reaction, but not that bad.”

Jack wiped the blood from his face, leaving a smear across his cheek. “Did you hope to burn them all at once?”

Rachel turned to Jack and glared. “No, we need to know what’s in there. I thought of sending you in, but I didn’t expect you’d volunteer.”

William broke in. “Guys, we know more than we did before. Is everyone fine? Good. What’s next?”

Rachel slowed her breathing and turned to William. “We need to know what’s in there. That’s why I threw the torch in, so we could see. Luckily it’s still burning.”

Maya blocked Rachel’s way. “You can’t seriously be thinking about going in there.”

“There’s only one way to find out what’s there, and that’s to look. I caused that swarm, so the risk should be mine.”

Maya grabbed Rachel’s arm to hold her back. “It’s too dangerous. You saw what came out of there.”

“Let’s move forward together,” said William. “Like before. We’re safer as a team.” Everyone hesitated. Their eyes showed the same fear that would have frozen him as well had he not committed himself this far. They were so close—they couldn’t quit now. “Look,” he said. “If it gets bad, we’ll retreat and let the dragons handle it. Deal?”

He almost gave up waiting for agreement. Rachel was willing, he knew, but as much from guilt for causing the swarm as anything else. Charlie would walk through fire if asked, but it had to be his decision, not blind obedience. Maya was scared, but did her best not to show it. Jack…well, Jack was pragmatic, and would risk nothing unless a potential reward enticed him. William was about to suggest turning back, when Jack finally nodded and took his place facing the opening. Charlie walked to the middle of the tunnel, his long reach covering nearly half its width. Maya stood next to him, as close as she could without leaving a gap. Rachel moved in beside Jack. “You better cover my flank, Jackass.”

Jack smirked. “I will.”

William stepped into the open spot and they inched forward. The swarm had subsided, but still they moved at a slow, deliberate pace, expecting a new attack at any moment. Closer and closer they came, and still no attack. The light from the thrown torch spilled out from the opening, and soon the flame itself came into view. Still no hornets. The air around them was clear; the swarm was gone. Emboldened, they moved in front of the entrance itself.

William broke into a sweat, and the flame of his torches flickered in time with his trembling hands. Maya gasped and dropped a torch. Charlie swore under his breath while Jack moaned and shook his head in disbelief. At the far end of the small cavern stood a purple-gray hornet the size of a horse, its huge wings beating at the smoke-filled air. Surrounding the massive insect was a humming cloud of hornets so thick that William doubted he could throw a stone through it…not that he wanted to try. The swarm had retreated to protect their hive, and what was probably their queen. They would defend it—or her—to the death.

Despite the danger, William could not help wondering if these hornets—if that’s what they were—were in any way related to the dragons. Finding two entirely new species in the same mountain with similar social structures seemed like too much of a coincidence. But that didn’t help in determining how to destroy them. He had no illusions of making peace as they had with the dragons.

They backed away from the infested hollow to confer, unwilling to provoke an attack before they were ready. “Any suggestions?” William asked.

Rachel cleared her throat and gave William a sheepish look. “Well, I’m not sure if you trust me after what happened last time. But since no one else seems to have any ideas…?”

William looked around at the others. Satisfied no other proposals were forthcoming, he nodded at Rachel.

“Hold these,” said Rachel to Jack as she handed him her torches. She slipped her pack from her shoulder and rummaged through it, removing things as she found them.

“What’s the plan, Rachel?” asked William.

“You’ll see. Jack, keep those torches back,” she said as Jack leaned in to observe. She poured the powdered contents of two bottles onto a square cloth, wrapped the cloth into a tight ball, and tied the top with a bit of greased twine. “I’m not sure how many will survive, but be ready. We might have company.” She lit the wick, edged toward the entrance, and lobbed the package into the hornet’s nest.

She leapt away. Even if he’d been warned, William could not have been prepared for the ball of fire that erupted from the nest. When the flames expired they listened for the furious swarm they expected to spew from the nest. All they heard was sweet silence.

“A little warning might have been nice!” said William, squinting to readjust his eyesight as darkness returned.

“I’m fine. Sorry, I forgot our eyes were used to the dark.”

“Well, it worked,” said Maya.

“Maybe, maybe not. We’ll have to check when the smoke clears.”

Jack stared at Rachel, his mouth hanging open in disbelief.

“What?” she asked.

Jack shook his head. “You are full of surprises, woman.”

“You have no idea, mister.”

The smoke cleared quickly, a testament to the dragon hive’s air circulation. The torch that Rachel had thrown was extinguished, but their own torches revealed that the swarm of hornets had been destroyed in the inferno.

All but one.

“King’s backside, it’s still alive,” said Jack. The hornet queen was huddled at the end of her nest, to all appearances undamaged. “I’m not sure I want to fight something that can live through fire.”

“It was just a short burst of flame,” said Rachel. “You would have lived through it, but your hair wouldn’t have. Anyway, it got all the little ones.”

“I’d rather fight that than the little ones,” said Charlie.

“Don’t be so sure,” said Maya. “If the little ones can draw blood…” She shuddered instead of finishing her thought.

“Are you okay?” asked William.

The scientist shook her head. “Bugs give me the creeps. Especially huge ones. And that’s the hugest I’ve ever seen.”

“Let’s get rid of it then.” said Charlie, striding into the nest.

“Charlie, wait!” said William. Giant or not, he couldn’t let him do this alone. “Jack, Rachel, let’s go. Maya, stay back. We may need some doctoring when we’re done.”

“Do you have a plan?” asked Jack. “I mean other than the one my brain keeps suggesting? Namely, to leave now.”

“Charlie, you’re the only one with a shield,” said William. “Try to keep the hornet occupied while we figure out how to kill it. I’m sorry to ask you —”

“It’s fine,” said Charlie, not taking his eyes off the beast.

“Rachel, shouldn’t you get Steve back with Maya?”

She gave him a look of disbelief. “He’s a hunting dog. This is his job!”

William nodded. “Fine. Have him do whatever you think needs doing, and see if your arrows can penetrate that hide. Jack, you and I will look for weaknesses once Charlie has its attention. Ready everyone?”

As they approached, they got a better look at the monstrous hornet. Its armor glistened in the torchlight, a dark luster with tiny flecks of reflected light. Its huge wings covered the length of its body, which ended with what looked like a massive stinger. Dark liquid dripped from the end, and a sharp stench filled the air. With or without a doctor, they might not survive even a single sting.

Danger was not limited to the back end. The hornet’s mouth had two jaws that snapped shut sideways, lined with jagged edges. They would have to avoid attacks from both ends of the beast.

Charlie whacked the bug several times across the face with his spear, the smacking of wood on insect armor echoing in the cavern. Keeping his shield up, he dodged the bites, using his spear to stop it from charging forward. Jack and William stood on either side of it; neither could get close enough to slash or stab it, as the hornet swung its stinger from side to side. Steve circled around, but the hornet had backed itself against a wall, leaving no room for the dog to get behind it. Rachel fired three arrows before she gave up; they bounced off the armor without leaving a mark.

William slashed at the massive abdomen as it heaved toward him. It did no more than glance off, leaving barely a scratch. The insect concentrated on Charlie who kept his spear in its face and his shield active.

“I can’t make a mark on this armor,” said Jack as he danced around the stinger.

It had to have a weakness. He noticed that the bug squinted when Charlie’s spear got near its face. That was it. “Rachel, aim for the eye!” William said.

Charlie lowered his spear and shield long enough for Rachel to shoot. The arrow missed high, bouncing off the skull. She was about to fire again, but stopped. Beset on all sides, the creature became enraged, spread its wings and began beating them. The blast of wind blew William and Jack off their feet as it took flight, and soon the insect’s massive head towered above Charlie. William feared that Charlie would be defenseless against an attack from above, especially if the beast dropped its weight on him.

Steve growled and attacked. Like a wolf clinging to its quarry, he clamped his jaws shut on the hornet’s rear leg. His grip near the upper joint kept him away from the stinger, and his mass prevented the bug from swinging about so wildly. More importantly, the insect couldn’t get airborne. Its head loomed above Charlie, but the tail end dragged on the ground.

The bug’s body was stretched apart by the lift of its beating wings and Steve’s weight. A gap formed in the hornet’s armor, and William saw his chance. Bending low to avoid the wings, he slipped under the body and slashed at the exposed area. The hornet’s rear segment ripped away, while the front end soared and smashed into the cavern ceiling. William rolled away just before it crashed down beside him.

It landed on its back, unable to control its flight. Charlie finished it, his spear penetrating the belly easily. The giant insect convulsed before finally expiring.

William was too exhausted to celebrate. He had fought two deadly battles with barely a break in between, and it was all he could do to sheathe his sword without dropping it.

“Someone please tell me that’s the only one,” said Jack as he gasped for breath.

“It had better be,” said William, nodding toward Charlie. “That one nearly destroyed Charlie’s shield.”

Charlie held up the remains of his spear. “This, too,” he said. Its tip had been sheared off by hornet jaws; nearly a foot was missing.

Maya ran to Charlie. “Are you hurt?”

Charlie looked himself over. “I don’t think so,” he said.

Rachel stared at Charlie, her mouth hanging open in admiration. “Not a mark on you except for the stings you had before…”

“I doubt there’s a single man in the Guard who could have stood up to that beast, Charlie,” said William. “Probably not even my father.”

Jack clapped Charlie’s shoulder. “I’ve lost track of how many times you saved our hides. Will’s especially.”

Charlie’s emotions were too strong to permit him to answer, but his face showed equal measures of both pride and humility.

With their enemy destroyed, Maya could treat their stings. “Is anyone having trouble breathing? I don’t have allergy meds with me, but I might be able to—hang on…what are those?” she asked, pointing at a gelatinous mass near the hornet’s body.

“They look like eggs,” said Rachel. “Cool! I’ve never seen hornet’s eggs before…or whatever kind of eggs these are.”

“That is not cool, Rachel!” said Maya, her voice a mix of disgust and rage. She tore Charlie’s spear from his hand and beat at the clump of eggs, splattering them all about. “They’re disgusting! Die! Die! All of you, just…die!”

“What is your problem, Maya?” asked Rachel. “We’re safe. They can’t hurt us. They’re only eggs.”

Maya shuddered. “I know, but they’re disgusting. I’ve always hated bugs, stinging insects especially. But these…”

“Then we’ll get rid of them too,” said Rachel. “There’s a better way, though. And it won’t destroy what’s left of Charlie’s spear.” Rachel retrieved one of her bottles and sprinkled the contents over the pile of eggs.

“Hang on,” said Jack as he backed away. “Is that—”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “This stuff only burns. You have to mix it with the other stuff to get a fireball.” She touched her torch to the eggs, and the flames engulfed them and went no further. In mere seconds the eggs popped open, their contents forever prevented from taking flight or stinging humans or dragons.

Maya took a deep breath. “Thank you, Rachel.”

“I have all of you to thank, too,” said William. “I was stupid, and I led you all into danger, and I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.”

“Well, stupid or not, maybe it was the right thing to do,” said Jack.

“We still don’t know for sure if there are any more, though,” said Rachel. “We have to assume there are, though. There’s never just one of anything.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said William. “No, it really doesn’t,” he said in answer to their stares. “The dragons can get the rest. I know how.”

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

While education became a lesser priority for commoners after Conversion, the opposite was true for members of the nobility. One of the first acts of the new King was to commission two Academies, one each in North and South Ibyca. For hundreds of years these Academies have been attended by sons of Dukes, Earls, and the wealthiest of Barons, and their courses include many subjects not taught at lower ranking schools. Among these are Commerce, Rhetoric, Psychology, Military Tactics…

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

“Have you lost your mind, Will?” asked Jack. “If the dragons could have killed the hornets before, don’t you think they would have by now?”

William shook his head. “I doubt they even knew it was hornets in the first place. The worker dragons don’t seem too smart, at least not the ones that smash rocks. Second, the fire breathers don’t move much; all the smelting gets done at the central area, and I’m sure the Elder doesn’t think of the smelters as fighters. But if he sent a few fire breathers and a couple of the big guard dragons in—”

“Of course! They could clear out a nest with a blast of fire!” said Rachel. The others nodded in agreement.

“Exactly,” said William. “Anyway, there’s not much more we can do here anymore. All we can do now is tell the Elder what we’ve found.”

“Let’s bring that carcass with us,” said Jack. “We can show the Elder what’s attacking them.”

“Not a chance!” said Maya. “You are not dragging that all the way to the Elder’s den!”

William unsheathed his sword, still wet from the creature’s guts, and hacked the stinger from its hindquarters. “This is the most important part,” he said. “We can describe the rest.”

“King’s nose, what’s that stench?” asked Jack as he nearly retched.

“It must be hornet venom,” said Maya through a pinched nose. “It’s the same as the smell from the sick dragons, only worse.”

“It’s leaking from where Will removed the stinger,” said Rachel. “I think I’m going to throw up.” The others murmured their agreement and rushed for the exit into the tunnel, where everyone breathed deeply in relief.

“If the dragons are lucky, they won’t smell that,” said Jack.

“I doubt they can,” said Maya. “That may be why they didn’t know what was attacking them. Remember, Hermes had no clue what we meant when we first asked him about the smell.”

“Hey, where’re you going, Charlie?” asked William. “The main tunnel is this way.”

“I see something,” said Charlie as he strode into the darkness.

The others followed him about twenty feet into the darkness past the hornet nest. The body of a small copper dragon glittered in the torchlight, its insides nearly eaten away. Several larvae were still visible on what remained of the flesh, and the sour odor of venom permeated the air around the carcass.

Maya fulfilled Rachel’s prediction and threw up.

“Got any more of that stuff, Rachel?” asked William.

Maya glowered at the parasites while Rachel torched the infestation. “None of the dragons in the infirmary looked or smelled that bad,” said Maya. “I never found larvae on them, otherwise I would have figured out what was killing the dragons.”

“That’s because those dragons got away before the hornet queen could get inside and lay eggs,” said Rachel. “There’s no way hornets could carry even a small dragon, so they probably ambush them. The ones they manage to kill right here are the ones they eat.”

“With any luck, they’ve eaten their last meal,” said William as he kicked dust over the singed carcass. “Let’s go see the Elder.”

They returned in triumph to the Elder’s den. The great dragon expressed surprise at seeing them again so soon, but when he learned what had transpired, he acted decisively. Taking William’s suggestion, he sent out half of his smelting dragons, the only ones capable of belching fire in large quantities, along with guards and a few silver-colored drones to command them. A significant portion of the hive’s remaining dragons were being sent into danger; if the Elder lost these, the hive would likely never recover. Already he had lost three prospecting dragons since their last meeting, including the one they saw being devoured by hornet maggots.

William asked the Elder the reason for the change in his demeanor. “You have given me knowledge, William Whitehall. Without it, all my decisions were mere guesses. I cannot move as other dragons do, but even I know that running down an unlit tunnel invites injury. You have cast light on my path. I need not be cautious now.”

Maya spoke up with an abrupt thought. “Elder, you should have an ash bath set up near the tunnel entrance where we found the hornets. It will offer a better chance of survival for those you send against them, in case the hornets attack.”

The Elder gave quick orders to another drone, who then departed to fulfill them. “A wise suggestion. I thank you.”

William started to speak, but thought better of it. The Elder noticed and said, “You wish to ask me something.”

William kicked at the dusty ground. “Elder, I don’t know how else to ask this, but what are your chances?”

“I ask myself the same question, William Whitehall. I see three possible outcomes. One is that we destroy all the hornets and find gold for our Queen. The second is that they find nothing, and we continue as we have.” The Elder hesitated.

“And the third?” asked William.

“That too many of my dragons are destroyed in this hunt, and the rest of us slowly die. We would be left without means to mine metal or hunt for food, and without these we will perish. Slowly, but perish we will.”

Jack threw up his hands in frustration. “That doesn’t answer Will’s question. What do you think your chances are?”

“Jack Doran, I desire certainty more than you do,” said the Elder. “After all, my Queen and colony are at stake, not yours. But I cannot pretend to be certain. All I can say is that our chances are better now than they were before you brought this news.”

William reached for his pack. “That reminds me, Elder. I brought you this.” He removed the stinger from its wrapping and placed it at the Elder’s feet. To William’s surprise, the Elder recoiled.

“Cover it!” said the Elder in a screeching voice, nearly rising on his rear legs, an unexpected feat for such a corpulent and wizened creature. “Remove it from my sight!” The Elder breathed in gasps and attempted to shield his eyes with his puny wings. “What horror was that?” he asked after William wrapped it.

William’s brows furrowed with concern. “I’m sorry, Elder, I had no idea it would affect you that way. It’s the hornet queen’s stinger.”

The Elder slowed his breathing, opened his eyes and gazed at William with a small measure of control. “I must apologize. I cannot say why I reacted in that manner; it was not voluntary. I fear the dragons that I sent out may have the same response. I must send a warning.” The Elder dispatched another silver drone commander, leaving the central hive area even less defended. “All our eggs are in one den now. And the walls around them are crumbling.”

William knew not to take him literally, but he could tell that even now the Elder held little hope for success. He had to do something. “Maybe we can stay for a little longer and help. Rachel has this stuff—”

Jack grabbed William’s sleeve, and pulled him aside. “Elder, would you excuse us, please?” he said as he dragged his friend outside the den. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked as he shoved William against the rock wall.

“Hey, watch it! What’s the deal?” asked William.

“I should ask you that,” said Jack. “You can’t offer to keep us here again when you know perfectly well the rest of us want to get back home.”

“But it shouldn’t take long,” said William. ”And if they don’t destroy the hornets by themselves, what then?”

Jack jammed his pointed finger into William’s chest. “It’s not our job, Will. And it’s sure not your job to offer our help because you feel some high and mighty sense of nobility or something.”

Maya joined them and put her hand on William’s shoulder. “We’ve done more for them than anyone could expect. It’s up to them now.”

“If the dragons can’t survive on their own effort, then no amount of help will keep them alive for long,” said Rachel.

“It wasn’t fair of you to volunteer our help without talking to us first,” said Jack. He was no longer ranting, but he was still obviously angry.

Rachel punched Jack in the shoulder. “Give him a break! He wasn’t trying to hurt us, Jack. He only wants to help the dragons.”

“You’re feeling guilty, Will,” said Maya. “You believe that if they die, that somehow you failed them. But that’s not true. Giving them a decent chance to survive is more than they could have asked for.”

William hung his head. It hurt being ganged up on like this, even though only Jack seemed truly angry. “I know. But so many dragons have died…”

Jack broke in. “That’s not why, and you know it. It’s because your father died, and you somehow think it’s your fault, and you’ve been trying to redeem yourself ever since. That’s why you always need to be the hero, to save the day, because you couldn’t back then.”

William’s heart slammed in his chest, as though pounding the inside of his ribcage to be released. He gripped his belt, fearing what his hands might do if he let go. “Oh, real sensitive, Jack,” said Rachel.

“Who cares if I’m being sensitive or not?” said Jack. “It’s true. Isn’t it, Will?”

“That’s nonsense, Jack,” said William. “You don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“Oh, really? Perhaps you’ve forgotten all the times we played as kids, you had to be the rescuing hero, or the valiant warrior who saved the town. But when it came to dealing with idiots like Oz and his friends, you gave in like a beaten dog. And who had to save you then? It was either me or Sir Kevin. And now you want to play the rescuer again. And once again someone else will have to save your lousy skin.”

“Jack, I mean it! Shut up,” said Rachel. “It’s not like he wanted to hurt you.”

William’s face burned in shame, his breath coming in ragged shudders. Jack’s words hit hard; his accusation had merit. It was true that he had always dreamed of performing heroic deeds; it was also true that Jack had often defended him. Perhaps he hadn’t grown up as much as he had believed.

“No, it’s okay, Rachel. He’s right,” he said finally. He couldn’t let her defend him after being accused of having other people fight his battles. “I never thought about it that way, but I suppose you’re right, Jack. You’ve never lost a parent, so you don’t know how it would affect you. I guess this is how it affected me. I try to make the world a better place, and sometimes I fail. Is that so bad?”

Jack hadn’t expected this answer, and a sheepish look replaced his angry demeanor. “It isn’t, I guess,” he said. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “If I’m going to be completely honest, you don’t always fail, either. At least not recently. Do me a favor though, and ask us next time before you donate our time, would you?”

William nodded. “I’m really sorry. I should have thought of that. I’ll let the Elder know we’re done here, and then we can go home.”

The Elder was grateful despite their departure. William was learning how to read his thoughts, which was odd since he considered himself poor at reading people. It seemed as though the Elder was understating his own fears, reluctant to burden an indisposed but well-wishing ally. William did his best to bury the feelings of guilt, but he could not ignore the fact that he and the others had to leave. After all, the Town paid his wages, not the Elder.

They plodded along the tunnel in sullen silence. They stopped briefly at the tunnel fork where the dragons were preparing an ash pit. They had discovered the body of Kaleb Antony and had dragged it to the wood pile to be burned. Why hadn’t the drones questioned them about the presence of a human corpse in the tunnels? In the excitement of delivering the news of the hornets to the Elder, they had forgotten to mention that their hive had been invaded by another human, and William wasn’t sure whether he regretted that oversight or not. He was certain Antony had acted alone, and that the dragons’ existence was still a guarded secret held by a trusted few, but he doubted the Elder would concur. No…telling the Elder would lead to complications he’d rather avoid.

Seeing Antony again reminded him of the picture they found, the one that resembled Rachel. William was beginning to get a different picture of Rachel in his head, one that did not match her persona as a hunter. There were countless oddities and too many things unspoken for her true story to be that simple. He didn’t summon the courage to speak to her until they made camp outside the tunnel entrance. “Rachel,” he said. “Those explosives you used back at the hornet nest…those aren’t exactly standard hunter weapons, are they?” he asked.

She was sitting near the fire, repairing broken arrows. She kept her eyes on her work as she answered. “I told you before, they weren’t explosives.”

“So what are they?”

“The proper term is ‘incendiary’,” she said. “They burn, they don’t explode.”

“But I saw a big ball of flame.”

“Did you feel a blast?”

“Well…no,” said William. “Just a bit of heat.”

“That’s the difference.”

“I see.”

She continued her work in silence. Finally she looked up at him. “You’re waiting for me to say something else, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

She dropped her arrows and crossed her arms. “Okay, no. They aren’t standard hunting equipment.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“What of it?”

How far should he push it? Was satisfying his curiosity worth risking a friendship? What if he drove a wedge between her and Jack…or even himself and Jack? Clearly, she didn’t want to say anything. A sharp pang of guilt gripped him. Why force her? He was willing to keep the dragons’ very existence a secret, even to the point of losing the opportunity to trade with them, but here he was doing his best to expose his own friend’s secret against her will. He had focused on the idea that Rachel was hiding something, when for all he knew she was merely protecting herself, just as the dragons were. She deserved better from him.

He shrugged and did his best to hide his previous intent. “I was thinking that if you were a standard hunter, we probably wouldn’t be alive right now.”

Her face softened, and she smiled. Resuming her work, she said, “That wasn’t what you were going to say.”

“No,” he said. “But I still mean it. And I’m sorry; I won’t pry anymore.”

“Good. And I won’t make funny faces behind your back anymore.”

William couldn’t help but laugh. How lucky he was to have fallen in with such people. He ought to be more loyal to them, instead of taking them for granted, like the way he had offered their services to the Elder without asking them. If Rachel wanted to keep her past a secret, why should he try to uncover it? She was the person she wanted to be right now, and he was friends with that person, not the one he was trying to discover. To force her into being into someone different, even someone she used to be, might destroy a friendship—or even a friend.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

Earls and Barons have long been responsible for the application of justice within their jurisdictions. While lesser matters are normally handled by clerks, the adjudication of disputes, findings of guilt or innocence, and passing of sentences are typically reserved to the nobles themselves.

Along with these duties come the more onerous tasks of maintaining birth and death records, marriages, and other vital statistics, which are left entirely in the hands of clerks and other functionaries.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

“Check it out, Will!” Maya bounced into the office, her arms laden with greenery. “The first lettuce is already being harvested. After months of hardly anything but meat, I can finally have a salad!”

“It’ll be a pretty plain salad,” said William. “Unless you have something else to harvest.”

“Well, there’s spinach, and other kinds of lettuce too. The root vegetables will take another month or so, same with the squash and beans. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to gorge on lettuce. You should too—doctor’s orders.”

William laughed. “I’ll wrap some roast mutton in lettuce. How’s that?”

Maya smiled and shook her head at him. “You know, it wouldn’t kill you to eat more vegetables.”

“Maybe not, but why risk it? So the river water really is clean enough for the crops? You said it might be months before we know for certain.”

“I thought it would. But it tested clean when we got back from the hive, and I let the rabbits drink it as a final test. Not a single hint of illness.”

“So why are the plants along the river banks still dead?”

Maya shrugged. “I guess the poison soaked into the ground, and it hasn’t rained enough to wash it out yet. Don’t worry; we’ll see lotuses yet.”

Sir Hiram trudged into the office and tossed his hat onto his desk. “William, have you checked the progress of the palisades?”

“Yes, sir. They were completed late yesterday, along with the last Guard bunkhouse.”

“You’ve written the report?”

“It’s on your desk.”

“Very good. Good morning, Maya. The first vegetables are in, I see.”

“Good morning, Sir Hiram,” said Maya. “A bumper crop. Would you like some?”

“My wife hides lettuce between pieces of bread so I’ll eat it. Can you do something like that?”

Maya laughed. “We’re short on bread, but I’ll see what I can manage.”

“Will you stay for tea?”

“No, I only stopped by to brag to Will. I have to go water my herb garden.”

“Smart girl,” said Sir Hiram after Maya left.

“She’s saved my life at least once,” said William.

“Yes, the incident with the wolves, if I recall. Well, compared to that and the lettuce, I’m not sure how exciting this news is, but I wanted to show you this.” Sir Hiram handed William a package.

“The first book!” said William as he unwrapped it. “Already?”

“I told you, Dayna is particularly suited to this.”

William leafed through the pages, admiring the crisp text and sharp illustrations. “Early reading lessons… excellent work, too. How many copies will we make?”

“Five hundred. Work has already begun on the second volume.”

William’s jaw dropped. “Five hundred? That’s amazing! But will the dra—will they need so many?” Even behind closed doors, William was reluctant to mention the dragons out loud.

“I’m not sure if they’ll need any, but I know they won’t need five hundred. Probably one or two of each book, if I understand Maya’s description of their social structure. But they’re cheaper to print in large batches, which means we can sell them to tutors and schools. Maybe even the Junior Academies. If we don’t sell books to other places, people will ask why we’re making them at all.”

“But five hundred…how?”

“I told you, Dayna is good at this. She devised a typesetting system after I traded gold for iron and other metals she needed.”

William shook his head in admiration. “Typesetting…that’s a luxury we never had at the Library.”

“I’m aware. Perhaps Dayna could help set something up once we have everything running smoothly here.”

“That could come in handy.”

Sir Hiram lowered the report he was reading and stared at him closely. “William, I’ve mentioned Dayna by name three times now, and you’ve said nothing about her.”

“Aren’t we talking about the books?”

“We are, but I brought her up because she seemed eager for you to see this book.”

William looked up from the book. “Me?”

“She named you specifically.”

“Well, maybe because I work for the Library.”

Sir Hiram’s eyes twinkled as he smiled at William. “I suppose that’s as good a reason as any.”

William did not like the direction the conversation was taking, but he couldn’t avoid it. “Well, if she asks, you can say I think it’s excellent.”

“Why not tell her yourself, William. Regardless of what else you might think of her, she is doing good work, and you shouldn’t ignore her. There are few of us here who understand and appreciate what she’s accomplished, especially this far from town. A kind word would go a long way.”

The Administrator’s words surprised him. It was true: he had been avoiding her, and it had nothing at all to do with the former baron’s daughter herself, but with his own memory of Melissa. Being friendly with another woman struck him as dishonest somehow—except for Rachel and Maya of course; they were both friends and colleagues. But what exactly was he being faithful to? Whatever it was, it couldn’t be reason enough to completely dismiss Dayna. In fact, by avoiding her he had announced his thoughts to everyone. He resolved to visit her operation during his daily rounds.

Rounds—that’s all he did now. In the six weeks since they returned from the hive he had done nothing but inspect work sites and record results, with the occasional report written for the Library’s records. The weekly mail to Marshland Crossing never left without a small volume of his own writing; when it returned, it brought nothing of interest for him.

At first it excited him to witness the progress around the camp. Rebel Falls thrived, growing quickly thanks to the influx of would-be gold miners, but Sir Hiram kept everything in order with the Guard company’s help. The town’s share of the gold paid for even more laborers, and small buildings sprouted on both sides of the palisade. Most impressive was the wooden tower built in the very spot where William faced Kaleb Antony in their first death match. William climbed it as the workers added the finishing touches, and the view astonished him. From his vantage point he enjoyed a panoramic view from the falls themselves to well past the banks where the gold-panners prospected. If not for the trees, he suspected he could even detect where Charlie had carried him up the steep rock face and straight into the arms of three rebels.

Rebel Falls was a village now, if not a town in its own right. Families moved here after news of the gold reached Marshland. People built little shacks for themselves outside the palisade, and William had a difficult time finding them all and noting their location and inhabitants. He was still not sure he had found them all.

Sir Hiram had given William the honor of naming the camp because of what he endured at the rebels’ hands, but every building that rose from the ground reminded him that being held captive was the only noteworthy thing he had accomplished here. Not one board or brick had been laid by his hands, not one tree felled or cabbage grown. Books were printed without him, and gold extracted from the ground without his help. Everything was passing him by.

And he felt selfish for feeling it, which drove him to work even harder at his assigned task. At first he knew nearly every face in the new community, but more and more people arrived whom he didn’t recognize. Some came from Marshland; most of these he knew by sight at least. But others came from Faywater Port and from smaller coastal towns. Some of the new faces troubled him, but Sir Hiram explained that frontier communities always attract a rough sort of person. “William, we need people like that here. Men and women who won’t miss the comfort of home and are willing to put in hard hours. It’s been more than a generation since the Kingdom witnessed any sort of growth, so we’ll welcome a few more such people, I expect. People starving for excitement.”

When Sir Hiram’s comments failed to quell his fears, the older man suggested William take an official census, and record the names and places of origin for every man, woman and child who now lived there. William applied himself with an energy he reserved for the tasks he cared most for. The results astonished him. More than three hundred people now called Rebel Falls home. Most were men, but over fifty women had joined them, as well as fifteen children of various ages. It wasn’t quite a family community yet, but it soon would be.

Not all the news was comforting, however. Several people refused to give their names, or say where they came from. Many laughed him off, dismissing him as a child. When he returned with armed guards, they treated him with no more respect than before, and William suspected that more than a few had given him false names.

Again, Sir Hiram brushed it aside. “William, sometimes people do desperate things when times are tough. Stealing food from a Baron or a neighbor might land a man in jail, but when he has no other way to feed his children, what else can he do? So if he comes here to escape his past and decides to work hard, why should I care if he won’t tell us his real name or where he’s from? Record what you can, and don’t worry about the rest.”

William soon had an opportunity to collect some of the missing names. Maya and Charlie announced they would be married as soon as her parents could make the trip from Faywater Port, which would be three weeks hence. Sir Hiram intended to invite everyone to the festivities he would give in honor of the community’s first wedding, but William convinced him to invite people by name only. Anybody who desired to partake in the beer and cider the Administrator served would have to give a name, real or not. Few resisted temptation, especially since drink was neither cheap nor plentiful this far from town.

But the wedding introduced a new problem for William. He fulfilled his promise to visit Dayna, and praised her efforts. She put him at ease by remaining professional, and he visited regularly, hoping to learn enough of her methods to use them when he returned to the Library.

On the day before the wedding she surprised him. “William, would you be kind enough to escort me to the wedding?” The way she asked it had been matter of fact, as though she were simply asking him to deliver a message or pass her a bottle of ink. The hard weeks of traveling, the days of torture at the hands of rebels, the keen insights into human nature that he won while risking his life had all prepared him for just a moment like this.

He stared with his mouth hanging open.

She laughed at his reaction. “King’s boots, William, you do know how to make a girl feel special.”

“I…uh…”

“Look, I know about your girl back home.”

William came to his senses and groaned. “Jack talks too much.”

“Yes, and Maya. And Rachel. Even Charlie tried to tell me, but he was so shy.”

“They all talked to you? Why?”

“I lost my best prospects for marriage when my father lost his position. You’re recently single. Your friends were bound to jump to conclusions.”

“Uh…what kind of conclusions?” he asked.

“You know, you might be even more shy than Charlie. Look, I’m not ready to marry, and I know you aren’t over that girl back home. But I don’t want every half-drunk Guard accosting me. They respect you, so I was hoping if I went with you, they’d leave me alone.”

“Well…I guess there’s no harm in that…”

She smirked and bowed in mockery. “Your enthusiasm overwhelms me. I am positively swept off my feet.”

“I’m sorry…I’m not good at this sort of thing. Yes, I’d be glad to accompany you.”

“That’s better.”

“But I should warn you—Charlie has asked me to be best man, so I’ll be busy part of the time.”

“That means we’ll get good seats at the banquet, right?” she asked.

“I guess so.”

“Good. A woman of my station has certain expectations.” She flipped her long blond hair in mock snobbishness.

“I will do my best live up to them,” said William, bowing in answer. “I shall wear my finest rags.”

She laughed, unable to keep a straight face. “That’s the William I’m used to.”

“Do me a favor,” he said. “Call me Will.”

“Okay,” she said, brushing back her hair as she smiled at him.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”

The wedding was a tremendous affair. They were celebrating not only the marriage, but all the hard work that had gone into building the new village, the cleaning of the river, and the defeat of the rebels all in one festival. Sir Hiram himself officiated, reveling in his duties. Maya’s parents beamed from the front row of seats. They adored Charlie, and invited his father to sit with them. Alexander Walker appeared self-conscious, especially when he saw their fine clothes and manners, but they became good friends in short time. Duke Vincent, their good friend and patron, could not attend the wedding, but sent a gift for the bride: a fine silver circlet that sat atop her black curls and transformed her from simple country bride to near regal consort. Charlie looked magnificent in his Guard uniform. He was no longer an active Guard, but having been released honorably, he still had the right to wear it, and his former fellows felt a stronger kinship with him for doing so. Besides, they were his only good clothes.

Sir Hendrick Mattice also made the trip, both to escort Charlie’s new parents-in-law and to deliver a relief contingent of Guards. He himself commanded the honor guard that lined the procession aisle, something Charlie seemed grateful for. William wondered whether it was Mattice’s own idea or Sir Hiram’s, but kept his musing to himself.

As for William, he was lucky his mother caught wind of the nuptials and sent him new clothes. They were finer than anything he had owned before, and he suspected Sir Kevin had a hand in purchasing the materials. The deep blue silk was not something his mother could have afforded on her own.

Dayna wore a blue gown to match, and to all eyes they appeared to be a couple. Still, she kept her word and made no romantic overtures. Aside from taking his arm while walking she barely touched him, and his anxiety soon faded. He still wasn’t sure what he was being faithful to, but until he figured it out he would remain resolute. He caught himself thinking about Melissa, especially during the banquet after the ceremony while everyone chatted. He imagined what life would life have been like if he and Melissa had stayed together. It had been such a short romance, but he knew without a doubt that they had been right for each other, no matter what caused her to break it off. Maybe this banquet could have been in their honor, or perhaps a year or five from now. Had he wanted that? He wasn’t sure, but would it even matter now if he did?

He drifted back to the present and noticed Dayna watching him. He was being unfair. He shouldn’t ignore her, not after he’d agreed to be her consort for the wedding. He rejoined the conversation, trading insults with Jack and teasing Charlie on his new role as husband, and simply talking the way people do when they aren’t distracted by a broken heart.

When the meal ended, William and Dayna joined the others in a walk to the river to escape the revelry for a while. He felt unnatural pretending to be part of a couple, but Maya and Charlie played the part of newlyweds perfectly. They had never hidden their affection, not even during the mission, but now they doted on each other. Still, somehow they managed not to make the people around them feel like an afterthought. Jack and Rachel also appeared to be cozy with each other, but William knew that could change from day to day. He had no illusions that he would be attending his best friend’s wedding any time soon.

The party had spread, and several people shouted their well wishes for the couple, some more drunkenly than others. William drank two glasses of cider at the banquet, his first drink in months, and he felt the effects more than he had expected. He wasn’t used to drinking, and he hoped he didn’t look or sound like the worst of them. At least he didn’t stumble or slur like some of them did.

The party had gone more smoothly than he had feared. Not the wedding itself; that could not have been better. But he had expected the rougher sorts of people to cause problems when they got drunk. Instead, their apparent restraint surprised him, and he wondered if he had done a disservice to the poor Guards who had to stand duty because of his worried comments to Sir Hiram.

“Those guys don’t look like they’re having that good a time,” said Jack, echoing William’s thoughts as he studied the group of men huddled around the gate.

“Hey guys!” said Rachel as they approached them. “Did they run out of beer?”

The men around the gate exchanged glances. One yelled back, “we’re working in the morning.”

“Don’t need a foggy head at work,” said another.

Maya giggled and chimed in as they reached the gate. “Whoever your boss is, tell them I said you could have one. And if you’re late for work, tell them it’s my fault.”

“Who is your boss, anyway?” asked William, not recognizing the men in the dark.

“Whoever needs us,” said the first man with a shrug. “We go from job to job, whatever needs doing.”

William looked him up and down. The man was hiding something, that was certain, but he couldn’t question him now. He refused to cut short his friends’ celebration by taking his duties too seriously. But as they walked past one of the men muttered, “The Boss never should have given him a chance.” William’s skin turned cold.

Dayna tugged at his hand. “Hey, Will. Slow down. You’re practically running.”

“What’s gotten into you, Will?” asked Jack.

He waited until they were out of sight and turned to his friends. “I’m sorry guys, but I think this is a work night.”

“What do you mean?” asked Maya.

“Those men are rebels,” he said.

Their silence told him they believed him. “Are you sure?” asked Jack.

William nodded. “One of those men mentioned ‘the Boss’. That’s what they used to call Antony.”

“I knew something was wrong with them,” said Rachel.

“King’s neck,” said Maya. “What do we do now?”

“Jack, tell your dad. Have him hide anything valuable. Charlie, go warn Sir Hendrick. Tell him I sent you. Rachel, Maya, you both know what to do. Dayna, can you handle a knife?”

“A knife?” she asked. “For what? What’s going on, Will?”

“I don’t have time to explain,” said William. “We’re about to be attacked.”

“Oh, come on. There’s no way—” She stopped as she saw the others doing as William told them. “This is serious, isn’t it?” she asked.

“It is. Come with me.” They returned to his quarters where he grabbed his sword and shield. He took Dayna back to Sir Hiram’s office where he found Jack arguing with his father.

“William!” said a red-faced Sir Hiram. “Did you put Jack up to this? If this is a joke, it’s not funny. I don’t have time for this.”

“No joke, Sir Hiram. Do you have weapons?”

“Of course I have. I’ve lived on the road for—”

“Can you spare one for Dayna?”

“Me?” said Dayna. “I have no idea how to fight.”

William took the knife that Jack handed him and forced the handle into Dayna’s hand. “Stay here,” he said. “If anyone you don’t know comes near, scream and slash at them with this. Don’t leave here until we come to get you.”

Sir Hiram grabbed William’s sleeve and stopped him. “William, you are taking this too seriously. I—”

“Sir Hiram, they will try to come here. We’ll do our best to stop them. Split everything it into small piles and hide it. If they break in you can give them something and still have most of it left.”

“William, this isn’t necessary, and I won’t—”

“Dad,” said Jack, grabbing his father by the shoulders. “Do what Will says.”

Sir Hiram looked at his son with surprise in his eyes. Finally he nodded.

“We’ll get through this,” said William. “I promise.”

The first alarms rang as William and Jack ran out the door and heard it bolted behind them.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

Construction methods and building materials vary widely on Esper, depending on climate, available resources, and economic status. Due to the scarcity of metal tools, the use of stone is limited to the largest and most prestigious buildings, such the Palace Royal, the Dukes’ Hall, and the two Libraries. Clay and mud bricks are preferred for most homes, with wattle and daub sufficing for cheaper residences and outbuildings.

Except for temporary structures, or in rapidly-growing settlements, plain wood has rarely been used since the Great Fire of 237 leveled the eastern section of New Athens.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

William and Jack raced to the gate and found Guards and other men bracing it shut as a determined band of attackers shook and rattled it from the other side. “How did you get them outside?” William asked a Guard as he put his shoulder to the gate.

“Charlie pushed the intruders out before they got organized. Then he told me to raise the alarm and bar the gate.”

“Where’s Charlie now?” asked Jack.

“He ran to the farms to bring the families here.”

“King’s breath, that’s suicide,” said Jack, his eyes wide.

William shook his head. “Don’t count him out yet, Jack.”

The rebels ceased pushing the gate, but the relief was short-lived. Balls of flame soon flew over the palisade into the compound, some landing harmlessly on the ground, others lighting rooftops on fire. William was tempted to help douse the fires, but few others had weapons and he knew he could not leave the gate. They had no water for fighting fires anyway; no one had expected to be trapped inside the palisade.

The gate shook again; the fires were just a diversion. The defenders pushed back before the rebels could break in, but it took all their combined strength. The beam across the gateway was bent almost to snapping. William called to a stunned bystander, “Find something to barricade the gate!” The man responded; woken from his daze, he nodded and ran toward a smoldering lumber pile.

“He’d better hurry,” said Jack with a grunt as he slammed his body against the gate. “I’m not sure how much longer we can keep them out.”

“Will! Jack!” Rachel waved her arms at them from the watchtower. She pointed outside. “Charlie.”

William yelled over the din to make himself heard. “Get ready to cover us!” She nodded her acknowledgment.

“What on Esper are you planning?” asked Jack.

“Listen, everyone,” yelled William. “Charlie’s coming back, hopefully with those families. We need to open the gates, let them in, and then close the gates again. That means we have to attack hard, then get back in fast. Ready?”

“Now, Will!” yelled Rachel.

William signaled for the gates to be opened and led the charge. The rebels retreated in surprise, momentarily in disarray. Charlie sprinted from the woods, ushering a dozen or so people, including children. The gates were slammed shut just as the rebels reformed their line and began the counterattack. William spotted three bodies outside before the gate closed. He scanned his allies who were busy bracing the gate with wooden posts. “Anyone missing?” he asked. No one answered. Good; three of theirs, though whether by arrow or sword, he couldn’t be sure. He wiped the blood from his sword and sheathed it.

The fire attacks came from all sides now. The rebels appeared more intent on destruction than breaking in. The Guard was fully deployed now, at least those who were inside when the attack started. Mattice was leading them now, but they had nowhere to attack inside the walls. “Whitehall!” he yelled. “Report!”

“At least twenty outside the main gate, three dead.”

“Any of ours dead?”

“None that I know of.”

“They have at least that many on every side,” said Mattice. “We have people throwing dirt on the fires now, but there’s not much else we can do inside the fence.”

“You’re thinking of making a foray?” asked William.

“It’s the only way to fight them.”

“Mind if we join you?”

“Will,” said Jack. “Are you crazy?”

“Yes!” said William, his knuckles white from clenching his fists. “Right now I’m crazy. I’ve been attacked by these people before, held captive, starved, tortured and nearly killed. I’m sick of them, and if that makes me crazy, so be it. Are you in, or out?”

Jack rolled his eyes. “No need for the dramatics. I’m in.”

“We need information,” said Mattice. “Can that girl of yours up there tell us where Antony is?”

“All of us can,” said William.

“Will, no!” said Jack.

Mattice looked at them both. “Where is he?”

“Dead,” said William.

Mattice grabbed William by the shirt. “Why don’t I know about this?”

“Because you got here yesterday, and I don’t answer to you,” said William as he pushed the man’s hands from him.

“We’ll talk about this later,” said Mattice. “But right now I’ll take any good news. It means there’s a rabble out there without a leader.”

“A large and armed rabble,” said Jack.

“If you’re scared, stay inside,” said Mattice with a sneer.

Jack gave the Guard Captain a dirty look. “No need for the insults, Captain. I have no intention of hiding inside.”

“Fine. But when this is over, I’ll be teaching you some manners.” Mattice turned to the men who awaited his orders. “Men! Shield wall!” The men snapped into formation six men across and three deep, their shields covering their front, sides and heads, and their spears thrust forward. To William’s eyes they looked like a giant spiked turtle. “Get behind us, lads,” said Mattice to William and Jack. “Don’t let them attack our rear.”

Mattice gave the order for the gate to be opened, and William and Jack did their best to keep up. The formation slammed into the mass of rebels, knocking several down and scattering the rest. The uninjured rebels ran into the woods, refusing to engage the Guards directly.

Mattice threw his shield down in disgust. “King’s feet, there’s no way we can stay in formation if we follow them in there. They still outnumber us and we can’t maneuver in the trees.”

“What’s their next move?” asked William.

“That depends on what their goal is and how smart they are.” Mattice had no better option than circling the compound and engaging the rebels where he could find them. But as soon as they scattered one group, another would emerge from the woods on the opposite side, throwing burning rags and rushes, and hacking at the palisade. The rebels adapted to Mattice’s attack method and scattered before the Guards reached them. If Mattice split his force to cover every spot, they would be spread thin and overwhelmed. The only casualties now came from Rachel’s bow, and even those were few as the rebels concealed themselves behind the very walls they were attacking.

The fires spread inside; dust and dirt could not douse the flames fast enough. Holes grew in the wooden wall and no trained Guards were inside to defend them. Cursing, Mattice ordered his men inside to fight the final battle.

Inside, William gaped at the damage done during their short foray. Nearly every building was ablaze. Only the infirmary and the office stood untouched. The flames made it difficult to find a place to wait for the final breach. Guards defended the gaps, fighting back the rebels who cut at them, but it was clear the defenders were outnumbered.

A scream rose above the roar of the flames, and a primal yell escaped William’s lips as the watchtower collapsed in a ball of fire. William acted too late to stop Jack as his friend shot toward the wreckage and disappeared into the inferno.

He was torn. The rebels would be pouring in any moment, possibly from more than one entrance; chasing after Jack and Rachel would weaken their defenses. But leaving his friends to their fate was unthinkable. With one eye on the wall he silently urged his friend to escape. He was about to leave the wall to the Guards when Jack emerged from the flames carrying a body, smoke billowing from his clothes. He couldn’t tell whether Rachel was alive or not, but Steve followed Jack as he ran to the infirmary. If Steve had survived the fall, perhaps Rachel had as well.

With a deep breath of relief he turned his attention to the wall. The holes were getting larger; the rebels would be inside soon. With Rachel gone they had not a single archer; what a colossal oversight that not one Guard was a trained bowman. Just three or four might have kept the attackers at bay longer. He vowed to learn the skill himself…if he lived through the night.

A chorus of yells alerted him that the wall was breached on the far side. He followed the Guards as they ran to push them back, and he saw Charlie standing at the opening, his spear whipping through the air like a twirling baton. One rebel was knocked back several feet and lay motionless beside several of his fallen brethren.

An entire section of the wall fell over; rebels poured through it toward Charlie. William rushed to Charlie’s side in time to block a flank attack on the former Guard. The would-be attacker fled, his arm severed above the elbow.

Rebels swarmed from all around the palisade to concentrate their attack at the largest breach. A ragged line of men soon faced the small band of Guards, waiting for the order to attack. Malicious grins belied their expectations of victory. William knew how disciplined these rebels could be, but he had expected that discipline to vanish with Antony’s demise. A figure emerged from the dark and joined the line of rebels, and as the attack order was given, William realized who had taken Antony’s spot.

Ray Findlay. The Keeper. The man who had so relished inflicting pain on William, hoping to force him to betray his father’s memory. The lieutenant who had mentored a young man in the sadistic art of torture, a young man whose father’s crops William had helped harvest. Their eyes met, and in that glance he saw that whatever else happened, Ray Findlay had no intention of allowing William to live.

The mob moved. It was a poorly armed mob, but a well-trained one, and William steeled himself for the onslaught. The line of rebels marched forward, weapons brandished, with not a gap between them. The Guards stood ready, their shields locked together and spears thrust forward, determined to exact a price. William stood at the line’s end, his father’s old shield part of its old unit once again. His sword rested at his side, ready to be raised in a final defense.

As the line of attackers approached, William had time to muse. Here he was, standing in formation with the Guard, a full member in everything but name. His old dream was fulfilled after all. The absurdity of the situation made him laugh. If it’s my final dream, he thought, let it be the best, regardless of the ending. The rebels charged. William locked eyes with Findlay, who headed directly for him. William raised his sword.

A screech pierced the air behind him. Several dragons emerged from the smoke overhead and smashed into the attackers. Bodies crumpled underneath the massive weight; several more were tossed backward like rag dolls. The surviving rebels panicked and broke ranks but a second line of dragons blocked them. These were not the giant black dragons, nor the little copper ones. These were silver drones, the most imposing dragons William had seen. In mere seconds they had ended the battle, capturing the rebels in one smart maneuver, without resorting to unwanted flames.

The Guards beside him retreated in fear, and stood at a distance. Only Charlie remained beside him. William put his hand on Charlie’s shoulder. “Some wedding night, isn’t it?” Charlie smiled and nodded.

Mattice had kept his distance, but now he approached William. “Whitehall, are those real dragons, or is this some sort of trick?”

“Those are real, Sir Hendrick. They swore us to secrecy, but I guess that’s not an issue anymore.”

Mattice stared in disbelief at the ring of dragons that held the rebels captive. “You’ve seen them before.”

“We were captives of theirs once.”

Mattice turned to Charlie, his face a mixture of bewilderment and anger. “Walker, why didn’t you report this?”

Charlie lowered his eyes. “I was following orders, sir.”

“Whose?”

“Will’s, sir. He was my commander then.”

“It was the price of our freedom, Sir Hendrick,” said William. “We’ve made progress in our relations with them, but they have never released us from that promise.”

The largest silver drone approached them. Mattice backed away until he noticed that William and Charlie didn’t move. The dragon’s head towered even above Charlie’s.

“William Whitehall,” said the dragon.

“King’s wings,” said Mattice. “This is a fantasy come alive.”

“Yes,” said William to the drone. “I am William Whitehall.”

“Our scouts report that your enemies are all captured or dead.”

“All of them?” asked Mattice, his military training snapping him out of his daze. “We’ve thought that before.”

William interjected. “Sir Hendrick, if he says all, he means all. They have no trouble seeing in the dark, and they are airborne.”

“What shall be done with these?” asked the drone, indicating the captured rebels with a nod of his massive head.

“They still outnumber us,” said Mattice. “Whitehall, ask if they can hold them for a while.”

William turned to the giant drone. “If you don’t mind standing guard a little longer, we can remove and secure them one by one.”

“They will remain confined until you are ready,” answered the silver.

“Sir Hendrick,” said William. “There’s one rebel in particular you’ll want to question. I know him from my time here before, and he seems to be the leader now that Antony is dead.”

“Come point him out to me, and I’ll make special arrangements for him,” said Mattice as he shook his head in disbelief. “Dragons. I can’t believe I’m seeing dragons.”

William took his leave after indicating Findlay and ran with Charlie to the infirmary to check on their friends. They arrived none too soon. Maya was doing her best to treat the wounded, but the majority of cases were burns. A dozen cots or so were occupied by patients with various parts of their bodies bandaged, some with missing patches of hair and skin. William’s stomach turned at the smell of burned flesh and the patients’ whispered moans. The sight was unbearable, and for all William had gone through at the hands of the two Finns, he would never have traded places with these patients. And yet, he could tell from Maya’s face that hers was the greatest pain in the room. Still, somehow, she held her composure long enough to treat the last one.

“Are you okay?” asked Charlie as he held her.

She nodded, but William was not convinced.

Jack tugged on William’s sleeve. “Will.”

“Oh, you’re here,” said William. “I didn’t see you.”

Jack pointed at the nearest bed. A slender form lay on it, legs bandaged, arm slung and splinted, head wrapped completely so that the face was hidden. William recognized Steve lying beside the bed, then realized the figure on the cot was Rachel. He stifled the emotions that wanted to pour out in empathy of his fallen friend. “She looks so frail,” he said, his voice quivering. “Is she…?”

“She’s alive,” said Jack. “Knocked out cold. At least she can’t feel the pain right now. Her arm was broken during the fall, and her legs were burned.” Never in William’s memory had Jack been this serious, this concerned. The night’s carnage and destruction faded, and for a moment William felt nothing but his friend’s anguish.

“Burns and broken bones heal, Jack. She’ll be okay.”

Jack’s face contorted with pain as tears escaped his eyes. “She hit her head, Will. Hard. She hasn’t woken up yet. Maya won’t say anything, but I can tell she’s worried.”

What could he say? Rachel would prefer a clean death to a lingering one, or even life as an invalid. It would be painful for Jack to watch that choice be taken from her. William knew he couldn’t say “it’ll be okay,” because it probably wouldn’t be; all he could do was share his friend’s pain. In all the time he had known Jack, they had never hugged each other. It would have felt weird. Tonight, it didn’t.

Jack wiped his tears as they separated. “Have you seen my dad?” he asked.

“King’s biscuits,” said William, forgetting to keep his voice down. “I’m an idiot.”

“What?” asked Jack.

“I left him and Dayna in the office and told them to bolt it and not let anyone in.”

“Is the office…”

“The fire didn’t get that far. But I better go see if someone has told them it’s okay to come out now.”

“Will, I’m…tell my dad…”

“Stay here. He’ll understand.”

William rushed out the door and ran to the office and found Sir Hiram replacing the valuables he had hidden. “Good to see you, lad!” he said, the relief in his face evident.

“Will!” A knife clattered to the floor as William was crushed by Dayna’s embrace. “You’re okay. You didn’t come back, and the Guard who found us didn’t know what happened to you…King’s mercy, you’re alive.”

“I’m fine. Jack’s okay, too. He missed the worst of it when he took Rachel to the infirmary.”

“What happened to Rachel?” asked DoranSir Hiram.

“She fell from the tower when it burned down.” Doran winced as William described her injuries, but was relieved that Maya and Charlie were unhurt.

“So how did we finally prevail?” asked Doran. “The Guard that came wouldn’t say.”

William smiled, his first time since the attack. “More likely he didn’t believe it.”

Doran grinned in response. “So they came! Are they still here?”

“Who came?” asked Dayna.

“Come see,” said William, grabbing Dayna by the hand.

Doran quickly locked the valuables away and followed them out the door. As he closed it behind him, a man screamed somewhere in the dark distance.

“That can’t be good,” said William.

“They wouldn’t hurt one of our people, would they?” asked Sir Hiram.

“Who wouldn’t?” asked Dayna.

“I have no doubt they would if necessary,” said William, his face grim. “But I don’t think that’s what’s happening.”

“You don’t think what’s happening?” asked Dayna.

“Who’s being hurt, then? And by whom?” asked Doran.

“I believe Sir Hendrick is entertaining one of our guests,” said William.

Dayna halted, jerking William to a stop. She crossed her arms and stomped her foot. “William Whitehall, I’m not taking one more step until you tell me what’s going on!”

William did his best not to laugh at her frustration, but failed. “I’m sorry, Dayna. I know it seems like I’m ignoring your questions, but really, it’s too much to explain. It’s best you just see it.”

“See what?” she asked, her lower lip quivering in anger.

William glanced at Doran, who smiled back and nodded. He turned back to Dayna. “Dragons,” he said.

“Look,” said Dayna, her finger wagging in William’s face. “If you’re going to mock me, or play games, I’m not going to play along. I spent forever in that office waiting for you to come back, wondering whether you were even alive. The least you can do is treat me like an adult and tell…what on Esper is that?” She backed away from William as a tiny chrome messenger dragon circled him.

William held out his arm for the dragon to land. “This? It’s a dragon. A small one, though.”

“William Whitehall?” the dragon asked.

“There’s no such thing as dragons,” said Dayna, staring in amazement.

“I think this one would disagree,” said Doran. “Is it a boy or girl dragon?”

William shrugged. “I have no idea. But they have a social structure like bees, so unless it’s a drone or a queen, it doesn’t matter I guess.”

“William Whitehall?” the little messenger repeated.

“I am William Whitehall,” said William.

The messenger dragon gave a chirp of acknowledgment. “Your presence is requested at the hive of dragons.”

Dayna shook her head and breathed deep, ragged breaths. “Okay, I know for sure there’s no such thing as talking dragons. There can’t be.”

“Who requests my presence?” William asked the messenger as he took Dayna’s hand to comfort her.

“Your presence is requested at the hive of dragons,” it said again.

“It must not be capable of much more than delivering messages,” said Doran. “But this message is most welcome. I wondered if this day would come.”

“You and me both,” said William. “Thank you,” he added to the messenger, who then flew away.

Dayna held William’s arm and did her best to calm herself. “Okay, if I promise to believe in dragons—even talking ones—will you please, in the King’s name, tell me what’s going on?”

“Dayna, I’m sorry,” said William. “I’ve forgotten how overwhelmed I was when I first met them.” William explained how they had discovered the dragons, and how close they had come to not returning. She stared wide-eyed as he related how the relationship had grown to the point of trade. She gazed at him with open admiration, and William realized he had not done himself any favors. He was grateful when they reached the circle of dragons guarding a much diminished number of rebels, the remainder of whom were shackled to prevent their escape. Doran gazed in awe at the massive silver drones, while Dayna clutched at William’s arm in fear. “They won’t hurt you,” he said. “They know friend from enemy.” She gripped even harder.

William searched for Mattice. Another scream caught his attention, and he quickly spotted the Captain near the edge of the woods a short distance away. As he expected, he spotted Ray Findlay as well, tied to a tree, blood running down his face shining black in the torchlight. “Dayna, wait here, would you? Sir Hiram and I need to have a chat with Sir Hendrick.”

“Here?” she asked with a worried glance at the drones. “Do I have to?”

Doran put a hand on her shoulder. “It’s best you stay here, lass. Or meet us back at the office.” Curiosity overcame fear, and she opted to stay.

“A word with you, Sir Hendrick, if you please,” William said. The Captain turned to William, but ignored him until he caught notice of Sir Hiram. He left Findlay in the custody of four Guards and approached them. “I remember being on the other end of that sort of treatment,” said William, nodding toward the battered captive.

“So your memory is intact,” said Mattice. “What of it?”

“I also remember that it didn’t work. Is it working now?”

Mattice glanced at Doran, who remained silent. “No. Not yet,” he said. “But I’ve just started.”

“It’s not really an honorable way to treat a prisoner, is it?” asked William.

“What does honor have to do with it?” said Mattice. “They treated you worse than this. And I need to find out what he knows.” Mattice turned to leave.

“So that’s to be your legacy, is it?” asked William. “That you were no worse than a criminal?”

Mattice strode back and stood toe to toe with William, staring down to exploit his height advantage. “I told you before, Whitehall, I’ve come to respect you,” he said. “And if I didn’t before, I would after tonight. Be that as it may, I still find you arrogant and smug. But that’s not the point.”

William didn’t flinch, and met the older man’s gaze without wavering. “What’s your point?”

“I don’t take orders from you.” Again, he turned to leave.

Doran cleared his throat, and Mattice reluctantly stopped. Slowly, he turned his gaze toward the Administrator. “You do, however, take orders from me,” said Doran. “At least while you are here. And since William is my assistant, his orders are mine.”

Mattice fumed, but said nothing. William and Sir Hiram waited for him to compose himself. “What are your orders?” he finally asked, pointedly addressing the Administrator. Sir Hiram turned to William.

William ignored Mattice’s glare and spoke with a firm and clear voice. “Offer amnesty to the first man who tells you what you want to know. Bring them into the office one by one so no one can witness them snitching, and they’ll be more willing to talk. Get confirmation from at least two more. You’ll find out everything you need if you make it clear they have only one chance to talk.”

The Guard Captain’s face turned crimson. “You expect me to let these criminals go?”

“Three or so. No more than that. These men can’t do anything without a leader. He’s the one you want,” William said, nodding again at Findlay. “You’ll probably get more details from him later, after he sees a few of his men go free.”

“This is a stupid plan,” said Mattice. “Is this your order, Sir Hiram?”

“Yes,” said Sir Hiram. “It is.”

They got their information and confirmation before the sixth rebel was brought in. The rebels had built another large camp far to the south, but fewer than a dozen men remained there. They had spent the greater part of their force on the desperate gamble that they could drive the people of Rebel Falls away. A large number had spoken against the plan, but Ray Findlay had bullied them into it. The Boss would never have made such a stupid move, the men said. But Findlay convinced them the Boss was being held captive, and that they could spring him free. Even if Antony wasn’t here, they had hoped to capture hostages to trade for his release. William could not find it in himself to rejoice in Antony’s death, but he savored the look on Findlay’s face when he learned that his Boss had died, and that his ill-fated attack had been pointless.

Purpose or not, it did have an effect, however: the camp was a smoking ruin. Most buildings were now roofless, empty shells; still others were razed to the ground. A few had little more than smoke damage; the printing house was among them, thankfully. In an odd twist of fate, the outlying buildings suffered the least damage, likely because the rebels had not seen them in the dark, or thought them unworthy of attacking. Those left without shelter were taken in by families with homes outside the wall, except for the Guards who quickly built themselves a rough shelter next to the pen where they housed the captive rebels.

After walking Dayna to her quarters in the print house, William sat with Doran in his office. He had nowhere to sleep now, his quarters being among those buildings damaged beyond use. The Administrator offered him the office cot for the night.

William declined the offer. “You heard what the messenger said, right?”

Doran sighed. “We have a lot of work today after what happened tonight.”

“Yes, but this is important. It’s why we’re here in the first place.”

“I know,” said Doran, nodding agreement. “But at least wait until dawn. You can’t be possibly thinking of going tonight.”

“Actually, that’s exactly what I was thinking,” said William.

“At night? And you haven’t even spoken to your friends. They won’t be ready.”

“Well, there’s no way Rachel can go. And I don’t expect Jack will leave her side for a while.”

“True.”

“And Maya has patients to care for,” said William.

“And Charlie won’t leave her, not right after their wedding,” said Sir Hiram. “This is what I mean, William. You can’t go walking through the woods alone. You of all people should know that.”

“I’m hoping not to be alone,” said William, a smile slowly spreading across his face. “Or walking.”

“I don’t understand…Oh!” said Doran as William’s meaning became evident. “Do you think it’s even possible?”

“If it isn’t, then I’ll wait. The message did say ‘requested.’”

William left the office and found a few remaining drones still guarding the captured rebels. After a quick discussion with the largest, he sprinted to the smoking remains of his sleeping quarters. He grabbed his pack, which had survived by some miracle. He found his cloak and wrapped himself despite the heat of the summer night and the burning embers around him. He would need to dress warmly.

It would be cold where he was going.

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

The success of the Kingdom as a method of government has been due to its centralization. The personality of the King permeates all facets of life, so much so that the Kingdom itself can be said to take on a similar temperament. During the reign of Stephen the Great, most Dukedoms enjoyed a period of expansion, and calculated risk-taking was the norm. When Duncan ascended the throne more than a century later, growth was largely abandoned in favor of certainty and security.

The common thread throughout all reigns has been peace. That all people, be they commoner or lord, look to one authority, has rendered armed conflict on a large scale near impossible.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

He’d only read about it in stories before. Now it was about to be real—he was about to fly on the back of a dragon. William knew humans had flown before, but that was back on Earth. Even so, it could not compare to what he was about to experience: soaring through the open air as he had dreamed so often, but never once believed possible.

Guilt tempered his excitement. He was leaving behind a huge mess, not one of his doing, but one he ought to be helping to clean up. The final count wasn’t in, but early reports listed six deaths among the inhabitants of Rebel Falls. A young family had gotten trapped in a burning bunk house, and two laborers were caught outside the palisade by the rebels. William hoped their deaths had been quick.

The rebels suffered many more losses, mostly during the drone attack. The Guards, too, took their toll, and Rachel had certainly inflicted damage before she fell from the tower. If the blood on his sword indicated anything, William himself had likely taken lives as well. He shuddered, and pushed the images from his mind.

But for all the carnage and injury and death, it was leaving without his friends that he hated most. Hadn’t they also earned this right? By what privilege should he experience what they could not? Until now they had shared everything together, but now he was leaving without even telling them—again. After a long, sweeping glance at the carnage around him, he climbed atop the dragon’s back.

“What name shall I call you?” William asked the drone.

“I am a drone,” said the dragon.

William sighed. If unique dragons such as the Elder and the Ambassador were denied the value of a name, how could a single drone among many need one? “There are many drones in your hive. If I wanted to speak to you, and only you, how would I ask for you?”

“I am the oldest of my den of twelve,” said the drone. “I am also the largest. Is this what you wish to know?”

“I can’t call you ‘biggest and oldest of twelve.’ I’ll call you Apollo. He was one of our old gods, but it was also what we named the first ships to fly people to another world.”

The silver beast craned its neck to look back at William. “I do not know what gods and ships are, but I am only flying to the hive.”

William laughed until he could barely breathe. “That will be fine. I am most grateful, Apollo.”

Sitting in front of the beast’s wings was more comfortable than he would have guessed. He rested his back on the spinal ridge behind him and gripped the spikes at the base of the neck in front of him. His legs dangled on either side, and if need be he could squeeze them for a better grip. Apollo assured him he was barely a burden at all. How heavy was the dragon that his own weight was so negligible? And how much strength did it take to fly? It seemed beyond possibility for something so large to be able to soar through the sky, and yet he had seen it with his own eyes.

No one witnessed his departure. He preferred it that way: no fanfare and no questions. This was a first, for both him and all humanity, and if his friends could not share it, then no one else should either. He felt himself pressed against the dragon’s back as its huge wings beat against the air, lifting them far above the trees in just a few seconds. If not for his strength, William might have been impaled on the neck spines, but he held fast.

William gasped at the spectacle as Apollo wheeled around to gain altitude. Fires burned below them; mostly campfires where the Guards slept, but a few smoldering buildings too. Smoke rose in columns, obscuring the night sky in patches. As they turned north the campfires near the gold-panning beach came into view, and far in the distance silhouettes of hills stood against the night sky.

They flew upstream toward the mountains. William caught his breath as they neared the falls, the mist glowing white with reflected moonlight. Behind them, the river snaked westward, its rippled surface matching Apollo’s silver scales. No duke or king had ever seen such a sight, nor had any wealthy tradesman ever bought such a view. This was his alone to experience, something beyond wealth or treasure.

The wind in his face told him they were going faster than he had before, even on horseback, but perhaps even that wasn’t saying enough. Until he glimpsed sun rising over the mountains he hadn’t realized how quickly they had flown. What had taken three days to walk at their fastest pace had been covered in no more than a couple of hours. The blazing sunrise warmed him, and the snowy peaks below him glowed like a kiln stoked by the fierce wind. Silver threads trickled from the mountain crucible and converged, its wealth flowing west to feed the forges downstream.

They landed high atop the mountain, and William slid off the dragon’s back and rubbed his aching legs. “Thank you, Apollo,” he said to the dragon, flexing his fingers to relieve the pain from holding on. The drone nodded toward a well-concealed tunnel entrance. The snow was not thick, but the cold wind bit into William’s exposed skin. He hadn’t slept in nearly a day, and much of the night had been spent in furious battle. Fatigue was finally catching up to him. His knees shook as he approached the entrance, and he found the Ambassador waiting for him. “Hello, Hermes,” he said. “I believe the Elder is expecting me.”

“Hello, William Whitehall. Welcome again. You are expected, indeed. But where are your friends?”

“Rachel was injured in the attack, and the others are tending to the damage and the wounded. By the way, do we have you to thank for the drones’ aid? If not for them, we would not have survived.”

“I do not make such decisions, William Whitehall. I am a liaison only. But I am gratified they made a difference.”

“Shall we head to the Elder’s den?” asked William.

“A moment, please.” The Ambassador summoned a messenger and whistled to it before it flitted down the tunnel. “Let us proceed,” he said to William as he led the way.

This tunnel was new to William, and it appeared to be well used. Its entrance was much higher than any he had seen before, and was probably the most secure as well, as airborne dragons could use it without divulging it to ground dwellers. After descending for several minutes William recognized the main tunnel they had first stumbled into months earlier. They passed the fire and smoke of the smelting chambers and approached the Elder’s den, but to William’s surprise they continued past it. The Elder’s bulk bound him to his room, so they couldn’t be meeting him elsewhere. So where were they going? Then William recalled the Ambassador’s exact words. His heart thumped at the expectation growing in his mind.

They soon arrived at a spacious den, so brightly lit that it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. When they did he found himself facing the most wondrous creature he had ever seen. She was shaped like other dragons, but more slender and graceful. Her coloring—if it could be called that—made her body appear crystalline, though not transparent. Light seemed to emanate from her, her sleek curves bending and twisting it, making it appear as though she herself was the source of light.

Her markings were gold, in both color and luster. William was certain it was real gold; if so, it would explain why the Elder said they needed so much. It colored the tips of her spines and the ridge on her back, and swirled in delicate thread-like patterns along her face and body. It evoked in William a feeling of reverence, as though he were staring at a throne, or a crown. William was loyal to King Duncan, but he had never felt anything as compelling as this. He could only imagine how it must affect the other members of her own people. No doubt they would give their lives for her; not for the colony’s benefit, but simply because she asked it. She peered down from her pedestal and rose to full height as he approached. The sight struck him dumb with awe. He stopped a respectful distance from her and waited.

“Welcome, William Whitehall.” Her voice, like clear liquid music, both enchanted and relaxed him. “I am saddened that your friend was hurt. But news that your attackers were defeated was most welcome. I hope my drones deported themselves honorably.”

“They did…they were magnificent.” It was hard enough to speak in her presence, even without the uncertainty of how to address her. He dared not risk insulting her with a lesser title than she was entitled to. He felt silly worrying about protocol with a creature no older than an infant, but he couldn’t help it.

“I’m glad,” she said. “When the Elder informed me of your visit here, and all you had done for my hive, I deemed it just that we return the favor.”

“We are most grateful,” he said, resisting the urge to bow. Or should he? He was too nervous to think straight. “I hope our…peoples…can work together for mutual benefit in the future.” Was ‘peoples’ the right word? Would she even know if it wasn’t? King’s boots, this was Jack’s sort of job. William was sure he was about to botch it.

“It is my hope as well,” said the Queen. “The Elder has also informed me of the arrangement he has made, to trade metal for…books, I believe. Is this your understanding as well?”

“It is…yes, that’s correct.” He would have to find a way to give her a name. Calling her ‘Queen’ didn’t seem quite right, nor did any honorifics like ‘Majesty.’

“I would like to see one of these books.”

At last! Something he had done right. “I have one here,” he said, reaching into his pack. “The first one made for delivery to your people.” He moved tentatively forward to hand it to her.

She lowered her head as though to scold him. “I am winged, not handed, William Whitehall. You must show it to me.”

“Sorry. Of course.” He edged closer and held the book open in front of her. Slowly he turned the pages, knowing she couldn’t decipher the writing. Her sapphire-blue eyes mesmerized him as she scanned the pages; he smelled the sweetness of her breath that contained no hint of smoke or fire. He lowered his gaze, not wishing to be caught staring.

“These markings are speech?” she asked. This time, she appeared to be the one in awe.

“They are. This one says ‘dog’ in our language. This is a picture of a dog. This is ‘water’…and this says ‘tree’. This book is meant for our children, but it should suffice as a learning tool for you as well.”

“I hope we may both profit from this exchange,” she said. “That is why I sent the drones…not only to help your people, but to release you from your promise of secrecy. The Elder was correct to extract this promise from you as I alone could say otherwise. I wished to make clear that I consider our peoples to be allies, as you did when you delivered the news of our attackers.”

“I wondered about that. Were the hornets destroyed?”

“All that we found,” she said. “None have been seen since I was hatched.”

William hesitated, but curiosity drove him on. “May I…ask how long ago…?”

“I was hatched 30 days ago,” she said without any hint of anger at the question. “But my quickening began long before. Hatching begins the final phase of the growth of my body, which is still quite small. I cannot yet breed, but my mind already exceeds even the Elder’s. Is it not so with your people?”

“No, we require nearly twenty years for both our bodies and minds to mature. If Maya were here she could explain it better. Her mind is greater than those of our Elders as well.”

“And yet she is not your queen.”

“No,” said William. “We have both a King and a Queen, but the Queen does not rule.”

“Your people seem as strange to me as ours must to you,” said the Queen. “I trust we will learn more of each other. You must have noticed that my people resemble a hive of insects. This was done on purpose.”

“On purpose? How?”

“The Elder explained that our people send colonies to different planets to either adapt or perish?”

“He did,” said William. “He told us there must have been a colony on our home planet a long time ago. Earth, I mean.”

“It seems certain. How else could we have learned your language so quickly? When a colony returns, it brings with it the knowledge it has gained, which is why your offer to trade knowledge is so welcome. But we also learn in another way.”

“What way is that?”

“By observing other creatures on worlds we are sent to, we learn which adaptations are effective and which are not. Of all the lifeforms we have encountered, the insect type is the most successful in numbers.”

“You mean there are insects on other planets besides Earth and Esper?” asked William.

“They would not be insects as you know them, but the likeness would be obvious. One breeding monarch, many workers, other specialized functionaries. But they lack other features that we value.”

“Such as what?”

“None of them has what you and I would call intelligence.”

“So how did you manage to get both?”

“You are familiar with how creatures become the way they are?” asked the Queen.

“Not entirely,” he said. “I know parents pass on traits to their offspring, and traits that lead to survival are passed on to the next generation.”

“Correct. Survival is but one part of it; creating offspring is the other. Survival without progeny is pointless.”

“That makes sense.”

“Dragonkind have learned another method of obtaining traits to add to our own, by sampling living material from other creatures. This is one of my duties: to find a successful species with traits we desire, and obtain a sample to be incorporated into my young.”

William stood in stunned silence. The implications of this self-directed evolution were staggering. Add the speed of a horse to the strength of a bear, or the ferocity of a lion, and you’d have a formidable creature. The dragons already possessed so many daunting traits, he couldn’t imagine what else they would need. “Well, now that you’re no longer hiding your existence, I suppose you’re free to look for such a species.”

“We have found the desired species already. In fact, we already know the one member of that species that we want.”

“Already? That’s fast work.” Again, curiosity overcame shyness. “May I ask what it is?”

“Yes. It is you.”

Many emotions gripped William at once. The first and most dominant was ‘why me?’ What did he have to offer that the dragons did not already have? Lurking behind that thought was another asking what would be expected of him. Would he have to stay here? Could he come and go as he pleased? Would he even survive the process? But none of these found a voice. “I am honored,” he said. “But my people hold sacred the birth of their children, as I expect your people do. I hope to have children of my own someday, and becoming father to a generation of dragons might make that impossible for me.”

The Queen’s bright blue eyes sparkled as though she was laughing. “No, William Whitehall. No father would you be to my children. I expect the drones would have something to say about it even if it were possible.”

“Then—”

“If you agree to it, I will take a minuscule piece of you. Like your books, each life is formed by writing of a kind. I would add a part of your writing to mine. Some will be added to the life story of my children, so you would be more an uncle to them than a father. Which, if I understand human families, would make you a brother to me.”

William’s mind spun. “What quality of mine could you want? Nothing about me would improve your people.”

“You think too little of yourself, William Whitehall. This one fact nearly disqualified you. But what the Elder most admires is your overwhelming desire to learn and accept new things. We also have this trait, but it is limited. The Elder believes that by adding your powerful curiosity to our own, we might better our chances to fulfill our destiny and return to our home world victorious. And I agree.”

She was right. He did feel a strong desire to learn everything. It wasn’t what he most admired about himself, but he recognized its value. “So, how do we do this?”

“You are offering your life story to me?”

“As long as it doesn’t kill me, yes.”

The Dragon Queen closed her eyes and dipped her head, a bow if William had ever seen one. “Come forward,” she said as she raised her head. “Hold out your arm.” Her tail reached around from behind her and wrapped itself around William’s outstretched arm. A long, thin golden needle extended from the end of her tail. William shuddered against his will as the tip of it pricked his skin, but he felt almost nothing as it penetrated. The tiny needle was opaque; whether it drew blood, skin or muscle he could not tell. It may even have hit bone, for all he could feel. The Queen withdrew the needle, leaving a small dot of blood on his skin. He rubbed the spot after she unwrapped her tail from him, and felt nothing worse than a bruise.

Her tail now touched her belly, and the same needle that pierced his skin now pushed into hers. After a small shudder she pulled her tail away. “Thank you, William Whitehall. Now you must ask something of me in return.”

William pondered. What does one ask of a Queen after donating genetic material? Especially one whose name he didn’t know? Wait—of course! That’s what he wanted. “What is your name?” he asked.

Her eyes laughed again. “The Elder—or Chronos, as I understand it—told me you preferred to call us by name. My name in our way of speaking simply means Queen. Will that not suffice?”

“In our language that would be your title, not your name. For instance, our Queen’s name is Sabrina.”

“Perhaps you could call me that.”

“No, that would be confusing.”

“Very well. What would you call me?”

William looked around for inspiration. They had named the other dragons for old gods, but that seemed inappropriate for the Queen. Nothing in these dirty, dusty tunnels could suggest a name for such a beautiful creature. In fact, the juxtaposition seemed bizarre, like the lotus flower Maya had shown him months ago growing from the murky water.

Aha! That was it. “Padma,” he said. “I would call you Padma.”

“I like the sound of it,” said the Queen. “What does it mean?”

“It’s a flower revered for its beauty, and for the fact that it grows in the dirtiest of conditions. It’s considered a good omen to find one.”

“I offer you a gift in exchange for the one you gave me, and instead you give me yet another. I will watch for this trait in my children. It will be most welcome.”

“You honor me,” he said, unable to resist bowing.

“Very well,” she said. “I will give you a gift rather than having you ask for one. I will give you a name as well. All dragons are named for their place in the hive. I will call you Brother, and you will be known to my people as the Queen’s Brother. I think it fit seeing that—what is wrong with your eyes? Are they damaged?”

“No,” he said, laughing as he wiped away the tears. He was glad Jack wasn’t here to tease him. “I am grateful for the name. It will be among my most valued possessions.”

The drones crowded him for the honor of carrying him back to Rebel Falls. Perhaps they were only eager to please the Queen in hopes of fathering her children when she was ready. Regardless, William had the pick of mounts to choose from. Word had spread of his new name, and the drones all called him “Brother,” each professing to be the fastest. William laughed and said he hoped he could fly with each of them soon, and simply chose the nearest one for the flight home. He would have selected Apollo again, but he wasn’t sure if it would tax him to fly again so soon. Besides, if carrying him was an honor, he would do well to spread it around.

As he climbed onto the back of his new traveling partner, he remembered his pack. He had left it in the Queen’s chamber, forgotten after he had displayed the book to her. No matter—nothing else in it warranted running after it. But before they could take flight, the Ambassador himself arrived, carrying William’s pack in his mouth. The silver and black dragon had to reach up slightly to pass it to him, so large was the silver mount that William had chosen.

“Thank you, Ambassador. Ouch, that’s heavy. You didn’t put the book back in here, did you?” he asked.

“No,” said the Ambassador. “Only payment for it.”

William had barely enough time to peek into the bag before the dragon took flight. He laughed aloud in surprise, yanked the strap tight and pulled the bag close to his body. It wouldn’t do to lose it before he could show Sir Hiram.

 

 

[_ _]

[_ _]

Private enterprise has a long history dating back to the first few years after Arrival. It was quickly determined that personal gain created greater production than central planning could, and early attempts at a controlled economy were quickly abandoned. Large cooperative efforts were made possible when rules were written regarding capital, liability, and shared profits.

These laws remained in place after Conversion, and survive to this day. Though modeled after Partnerships on Earth rather than Corporations, there are several key differences, the most important being that the local lord always enjoys a share of the profits.

Planet of Hope: A History of Esperanza

 

The delivery of iron was just the first of many. William oversaw weekly trades, which were limited only by how quickly Dayna could print new books. These books, and the knowledge they brought her colony, delighted Padma; likewise, Sir Hiram put the metal they received in exchange to good use. A portion was sent to Faywater Port for use in ships as King’s Law required, but Rebel Falls’ greatest need was for saw blades. The new ones made by Alex Walker kept their edges much longer than the old bronze ones. Construction soon flourished, and within weeks all signs of carnage from the rebel attack had disappeared.

Exciting news came a month after William returned from the hive. Duke Vincent sent official notice that Rebel Falls was to become a permanent town, complete with its own Baronies and Guard, and separated from the Earldom of Marshland Crossing. Sir Hiram was named Earl of Rebel Falls, signifying the start of many changes in the new community.

Changes for William too: he was going home. After all, Earl Bradford paid his wages, not Hiram Doran. William was to return on the next trade barge, along with crates of books, stacks of iron tools, and the best friends he’d ever had.

Rachel’s numerous injuries were healing, but slowly, and she was accompanying Maya to the Melchiors’ clinic in Faywater Port for further treatment. Charlie was joining them of course, with plans to open a tool-making shop. The influx of metal from the dragons would soon bring his trade into great demand, especially in a large city like the Port.

On the day of departure, William sat on Jack’s cot as his friend packed. “I’m surprised you’re coming back with us,” said William. “I’d have guessed your dad would need you here.”

Jack strapped his pack closed and hoisted it on his shoulder. “My mother needs help preparing for the move. She can’t do it herself, and my dad is busy. Mother won’t trust a stranger, so it has to be me. Are you ready to go? The barge is about to leave.”

Excited as he was to go home, William was leaving Rebel Falls with reluctance. The hardest part wasn’t saying good-bye to Jack’s father, who taught him so much; nor was it leaving the little town he’d helped establish and had the honor of naming. What pained him most was his final talk with Dayna.

“Ready for your hero’s welcome back home?” she asked as she approached the barge.

“Huh?” he said. “Hero’s welcome?”

“Spare me your humility. We both know you’ll be famous now.”

William grinned and waved it off. “I’m no one special.”

“‘Dragon Brother?’ You really don’t think that will get around?” she asked. William shrugged. “Anyway,” she continued, “I’m sure you’ll have your pick of girls to choose from. Just remember—I knew you first.”

William laughed. “You weren’t first. And anyway, you said you only wanted me to keep the Guards away.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “How can someone so smart be so daft at the same time? Yes, I played it slow, but did you honestly believe I wasn’t interested in you? And by the way…out of all the girls who haven’t rejected you, yes, I was first. So stop making this so difficult.”

“I’m not,” he said. “At least not on purpose. And when it comes to love, I really am daft.”

“That’s why I’m telling you this. To make it obvious for you.”

The sun shone on her long blonde hair as the wind blew it back. She was beautiful, smart, and what was more, she understood him. He hung his head and kicked at the ground absent-mindedly. “I’m sorry. You deserve better than to be someone’s second choice.”

Dayna squinted away her tears and looked away. “King’s eyes, Will! Let me decide for myself, would you?”

He shook his head again. “I’m sorry.” As she stomped away he wondered how big a mistake he’d just made.

Sir Hiram arrived at the barge and handed a small package to William. “See that Cairns gets this, would you? It’s a copy of the settlement’s records to date; the Library will need it.”

“Of course,” said William.

“I hope you won’t find the Library boring after all you’ve been through, William. You have a gift for making things happen; don’t let it get stifled. If you ever find yourself looking for other opportunities, let me know and I’ll set you up with something.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll keep that in mind.”

Earl Hiram shook everyone’s hands. “Best of luck to you all,” he said as the poleman pushed off. “I’ll see you soon, Jack.”

“Bye, Dad.”

“Shouldn’t that be Lord Earl Father now, Jack?” asked Rachel as the rear poleman pushed the barge into the current.

“Watch how you address me, woman,” he quipped, nose in the air. “I’ll have you know I’m a potential future Earl now.”

“So how about it, Will?” asked Maya. “What are your plans?”

William shook his head. “I don’t know yet, but I could stand a little boredom for a while.” Everyone nodded in agreement. “I’m not sure about the future, though. Earl Hiram was right. The last few months have changed me.”

“How could they not?” asked Maya. “They’ve changed all of us.”

Rachel snorted. “You’re the Dragon Brother now. I don’t think you’ll be bored for long.”

“And here I am, just a lousy future Earl,” said Jack.

“You don’t want to be an Earl, do you Jack?” asked Charlie.

Jack sat in startled silence for a moment. “No. I guess I don’t. I hadn’t decided until now, but you’re right. I don’t want to be an Earl.”

“So what will you do?” asked William.

“Well, I have a job to do right now. I have to get my mother moved, and then I’m sure Dad will assign me something else.”

“And after that?” asked Maya.

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll explore. Less than half of Azuria is mapped in detail, and hardly any of it is populated. The possibilities are infinite. Anyway, I’m not sure I want to stay in one spot for long.” He looked pointedly at Rachel lying against the cargo. “Unless I have a reason, that is.”

Rachel rolled away to avoid his gaze. “Jack, we discussed this already.” William shot a questioning look at Maya, who shrugged back at him and shook her head.

“We talked about it, but we never settled anything,” said Jack.

Rachel gritted her teeth. “Look, do we have to do this now? In front of everybody?”

“When else can we do this, Rachel?” asked Jack. “As soon as I step off this barge in Marshland, you’ll be off to Faywater and I’ll never see you again.”

Rachel clenched her jaw and refused to look at him. Maya cut in. “We’ll stay a few days in Marshland, Jack. I don’t want my patient traveling non-stop all the way.”

Rachel stared at the deck boards near her feet. “I told you, I have things to do.”

“Yes, I know,” said Jack. “First you have to go to the Clinic, then you have to go somewhere and do these mysterious ‘things’, whatever they are.”

“Just leave her be, Jack,” said Maya. “You don’t know—”

Rachel whirled toward Jack. “My father is Zander Bertrand!” She glared at Jack, daring him to respond. “Are you happy now? You’ve finally dragged the truth out of me.”

Silence descended on the barge, leaving only the sound of gurgling water. Jack gaped at her, his unformed thoughts unwilling to coalesce into words. Several seconds later William remembered to close his own mouth.

“Okay, now you know…” muttered Maya.

Rachel shook her head and continued. “Look, I’m sorry I yelled. But I’ve spent the last two years running from my father, staying hidden. I assumed trekking through the wilderness of Azuria would be enough to avoid him, but no, we have to run into his henchmen.”

Goosebumps rose on William’s skin. “King’s eyes…the picture we found on Antony.”

She nodded. “I thought for sure he would remember who I was. He visited my father often enough when I was quite young. They’d been best friends since their Academy days, and Antony was the only one he would have trusted with an operation this far away.” She shook her head. “Thankfully I’ve changed a bit since then, but it was still close.”

“Rachel, why didn’t you tell me?” asked Jack. “If I’d known—”

“You would have done what, exactly?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” he said, throwing up his hands. “Cared.” He looked away from her and gazed at the horizon. “Even if I couldn’t do anything useful, at least I would have cared.”

Rachel hesitated, then slid across the deck to wrap her good arm around him. “I know you would have.” She rested her head on his shoulder. “But I doubt you would have understood.”

“Try me,” said Jack.

She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Fine. What’s the harm now. My father raised me to be a leader. Girls can’t attend the Academy, so he educated me himself. All the things fathers teach their sons, he taught me. He had a lot to teach. Hunting, obviously, but also fighting. Weapons, bare hands, explosives…you name it. He hired tutors to teach me letters and numbers. I learned how to run a farm, command a labor crew, how to tell when someone’s lying…”

“He wanted you to inherit,” said Jack.

“That’s what I thought. I was his only child, and it didn’t matter to him that I was a girl. After all, why couldn’t I run a Dukedom? But when I got older I learned he wasn’t a Duke at all. Not really. My mother’s father was the real Duke, and one of her brothers should have inherited. But they both died, and since my mother was the only child left, my father took it upon himself to run my grandfather’s Dukedom.”

William cleared his throat. “You don’t think your father had anything to do with your uncles’ deaths, do you?”

“My father is an ambitious man, Will. Later when he told me about his family history, I learned what he really wants: to regain his lost birthright.”

“Hang on,” said Jack. “You said he’s not the real Duke.”

“He isn’t,” said Rachel. “Jack, you know royal history. Who was King Duncan’s father?”

“King Michael, of course.”

“And who was king before him?”

“Thomas. Everyone knows that.”

“Sure they do. But do you know any of Thomas’ siblings?”

“I don’t have a clue,” said Jack. “I only memorized the kings and queens.”

“Well, my father had reason to know. He’s descended from Thomas’ older sister Nora. The first born of King Stephen Thorsten and Queen Priscilla.”

William let that sink in. Rachel was a direct descendant of Royalty. That’s why it meant so little to her. “But so what?” he asked. “If you go back far enough I’d bet we’re all related to royalty.”

“I suppose so,” she said. “But the law doesn’t say only sons can inherit. In fact, the Dukes have to approve inheritances before the King’s death…or the Queen’s if she is sovereign.”

Jack gasped. “If Thomas had named Nora his heir, your father would be King now, instead of Duncan.”

Rachel nodded. “Everything he’s done so far in his life has been to win the throne one way or another. He hasn’t said this out loud to anyone but me, and presumably his trusted lieutenants. Like Kaleb Antony.”

“And he wanted you to be part of it,” said William.

Rachel nodded.

Jack hugged her gently. “No wonder you wanted to get away. And no wonder you didn’t want to tell anyone. So now what?”

“I have to talk to him,” said Rachel. “Convince him to abandon his plans.”

“Why not tell someone like Duke Vincent?” asked William.

“What could he do? One Duke has no authority over another, even an acting one. And King Duncan…I know how you feel about him Will, but the King really is a coward. He won’t lift a hand. He won’t even name an heir for fear of causing a fight among the Dukes. For all I know he might hand the throne to my father. Believe me, you don’t want that. Anyway, I can’t expose him without talking to him first. No matter what he has done, he’s still my father.”

The rest of the trip passed quietly. The countryside slipped past them while the constant western breeze brushed their faces, but at night those things disappeared. Everything seemed still while they huddled in the dark beneath the tarpaulin, except when the barge passed over a large eddy, or the poleman pushed the barge away from the bank. Despite the illusion of stillness they woke to the familiar sight of Marshland’s eastern borders, empty of both people and trees, with nothing but grass and reeds for miles, the same ground they had trudged through at the start of their long trek.

“Well, would you look at that,” said Jack as he stared at the mass of blooms along the riverbank.

Maya laughed and tossed a peanut shell at him. “I thought you said flowers weren’t a big deal.”

“Lotuses,” said William. “Thousands of them.” He looked at Maya. “We really did it, didn’t we? The river is clean again.” Maya smiled in response.

The barge reached the docks of Marshland a few hours later, and they each went their separate ways, agreeing to meet that evening for a late meal. William was torn between reporting to the Library and seeing his mother. Duty won, and he began the long walk alone to the Hill. He was lost in a daydream when he heard a voice.

“Look! Wee Willie Whitehands is back from slaying dragons!”

He looked up to see the inevitable: Oz and his companions blocking his path up the hill. He had no time for this, but he couldn’t avoid it. Anger got the best of him. “I didn’t slay dragons, you idiot. I found them, became their friends, established trade with them. What have you done besides wander the streets during the day and drink what your father leaves when he passes out at night?”

Oz’s eyes narrowed. “You leave my dad out of it.”

“Oz, I’d gladly leave you and your father out of everything for the rest of time. Get out of my way.” He moved forward, but Kirby pushed him back.

“You’re making that stuff up about dragons,” said Kirby. “Trying to make yourself look important.”

William stared him in the eyes, refusing to flinch. “Compared to you, Kirby, all I have to do to look important is get out of bed in the morning. I said get out of my way.”

A sick smile spread on Kirby’s face. “I heard you got tortured. Tied up. Starved and beaten. You know what? That sounds like a fun game. Maybe you’d like to play? If you don’t, then maybe you should stop trying to be such a big shot.”

Oz shoved William hard, pushing him back a step. “Yeah. A big shot gets noticed. Gets into trouble.”

Brady looked eager to get his dig in. “He’s probably saying all that stuff to get his girl back, right Kirby? But it won’t work, will it?”

Kirby shot a dirty look at Brady. “Shut up, you moron.”

The exchange puzzled William. Unbidden, the answer came to him. He drew his sword in one smooth motion. The three bullies backed away in shock, but William tossed his sword into the long grass beside them. He strode forward, grabbed Kirby’s shirt and hurled him to the ground, a well-placed knee at the bully’s throat restraining him. A warning glance at the other two convinced them to keep their distance. He turned back to Kirby. “What do you know about Melissa?”

“Nothing,” said Kirby. He grinned at William despite his position.

William pushed his knee harder against Kirby’s throat. “Try again.”

Kirby shook his head and grunted at the pressure against his throat. “I never spoke to her.”

“You lie.” He looked over at the others. “He’s lying. Isn’t he, boys?” They nodded vigorously, afraid to be next in line for this unexpected wrath. “Fine,” he said. “Since we have the truth now, I may as well tell the rest of the story. Stop your squirming, or I’ll stop it for you.” Kirby stopped wriggling and William continued. “Correct me if any of this is wrong. You told Melissa to stop seeing me, or else you would beat me, isn’t that right? Keep your lying mouth shut; your eyes tell me the truth. You also told her not to tell me why, so I would doubt myself. All so you could enjoy the pain you inflicted on us.” He glared at Oz and Brady. “And you two pathetic fools went along with it, even though you aren’t like him. Are you?”

Oz and Brady huddled together and shook their heads.

William continued. “Yes, Kirby, I know what you are. The word is ‘sadist’, although I doubt you know it. You like pain. You even enjoy feeling pain yourself, that’s how much you like it. It would explain the cuts on your arm. But it’s easier to hurt other people, isn’t it? I bet you even hurt your pals here when no one else is around. But not enough to drive them away. Am I right? Yes, the look on Brady’s face tells me I’m right.”

He dug his knee in again. “You won’t look for pain here anymore. Not from me, not from my family or friends. Not from anyone in Marshland. You can leave or you can die. I don’t care what trouble I get in. Your family would be so relieved they’d probably give me a medal. Now stand up, keep your mouth shut, start walking and don’t stop until you’re gone.”

Kirby scrambled to his feet as William released him and glanced toward the sword lying in the grass. William glared back, almost hoping Kirby would try. Defeat slowly replaced rage, and Kirby slunk away. Twice he looked over his shoulder before breaking into a run. Moments later, he was gone.

“Now you,” said William as he strode toward Oz.

Oz raised his hands to fend off the expected blows. “It wasn’t my idea!”

“I don’t care. We have something else to discuss.”

“What?” he asked, his voice shaking.

“I’m tired of your nicknames. My name is William Whitehall. Not Willie, not White Hands, not Bookworm. My friends call me Will, but you haven’t earned that right. One last thing—from now on, you will speak to me with respect, or not at all.”

Oz nodded his agreement. William retrieved his sword from the grass. Oz pointed at Brady. “What about him?”

William sheathed his sword. “He’ll do whatever you do because he can’t think of anything different.” He walked past them and climbed the hill. They vanished from his mind before he reached the Library door.

“I’m back,” he said as he strode into Cairns’ office. He dropped the packet of reports on his boss’s desk. “We have a lot to discuss, I know, but I have to do something first.”

Cairns looked up from his papers. “Welcome back, William. She’s in her workroom.”

William grinned at his own transparency and left to find Melissa hard at work. She looked up in surprise. “Oh—I didn’t expect you back today.” She rose from her seat but quickly sat down again, doing her best to mask her fear.

William strode around the table toward her. “That’s strange… Kirby Elric knew I was back.”

She recoiled at the mention of his name. “Who?”

He bent to kiss her. “Melissa, you don’t need to pretend anymore. Kirby and I came to an understanding.”

Doubt still clouded her face. “Wh—What sort of understanding?”

“That he would leave and never come back.”

Her eyes widened in amazement. “He agreed to that?”

“I didn’t give him a choice.”

She leapt from her chair and clung to him, exhaling in shudders as she buried her face in his chest. “He said such horrible things, Will! I was so worried he would hurt you if I even looked at you in public.”

“I know. But it’s okay now. He can’t touch us.”

She gazed up at him with those large violet eyes. “Are you sure, Will? He won’t come back? To get even?”

“If he does come back, it won’t be to hurt us. He doesn’t care about revenge; he wants easy victims. He won’t find any here.” He took her face in his hands and kissed her. Slowly, her doubt melted. She slipped her arms around his shoulders and let herself be lifted to the table. Papers fell to the floor unnoticed.

Lester’s voice came from the door behind William. “Why can’t you greet me with the same enthusiasm, William?”

“Oh, sorry, Lester.” He laughed as he and Melissa quickly separated.

“Don’t apologize. In fact, I hated to interrupt. I have a meeting with Earl Bradford soon, and I must speak with you before I leave.”

“Of course,” he said. He left Melissa with a squeeze of her hand and followed his employer to his office.

Cairns pointed at the packet of reports as he sat behind his desk. “Very interesting reading.”

“I tried to be thorough. Shall I pour tea?” He gestured at the boiling kettle.

“Oh! Yes, please. I’d forgotten I’d put that on. No, I’m referring to reports that are not of your writing.”

“I figured there would be other stuff in there. From Earl Hiram, I suppose.” He brought Cairns’ tea to the desk and poured his own.

“Yes, and Sir Hendrick as well. You know, the Captain of the Guard is not happy with you, although he gives you much credit. How did you displease him?”

“We argued about how to treat prisoners, among other things. Is he looking to get back at me somehow?”

“Perhaps. He’s asked permission to transfer you to the Guard. I suspect he wants to keep you where he can control you and administer punishment as he sees fit. I assume you’ll decline?”

William smiled at how quickly his life had changed. Less than four months ago his answer would have been completely different. “Of course.”

“I thought as much. This, however, I expect you’ll be much less likely to reject.”

William raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

“Earl Hiram didn’t tell you? Well, I suppose he had his reasons. These documents represent shares in business of trade between the town of Rebel Falls and the dragons. There are eight here.”

“Eight shares? Shares of what?”

“The profits, William. Don’t you know about shares in large operations?”

William laughed. “Lester, the largest operation I’ve been part of is raising rabbits. Jack knows more about this sort of thing.”

“Well, he’s part of this, too. When a trade or operation is too large for one person, everyone involved shares in the profits.”

“That makes sense, but I’m not involved. That’s Earl Hiram’s job, and Dayna Klipp is printing the books.”

“Yes, but large ventures need help getting started, which normally calls for money. A patron of such a business also receives a portion of the profit for the use of his money.”

“Okay, I see the logic in that. But the only money involved was Earl Hiram’s.”

“And Earl Bradford’s. He will get a share as well.”

“So that’s two shares. So who are the other shares for?”

“The five of you who discovered the dragons, plus one for the Town of Rebel Falls itself.”

William grabbed the table for support and lowered his tea. “Why would we…why do I get a share?”

“William, not all businesses start with money. Some begin with inventions, or an idea…or, as in your case, a discovery. Earl Hiram understood quite correctly that you and your companions are each entitled to a share. Without your discovery of the dragons, and the adept way in which you handled it, no trade would have been possible.”

“I know Earl Hiram is generous, but—”

“I assure you, William, had Earl Hiram not done so, the Duke would have intervened. This is a firm matter of law. Normally it applies only to wealthy men, but it’s law just the same. Soon you will receive money in amounts I simply cannot match. I won’t take it amiss if you decide you no longer wish to work here.”

William leapt to his feet. “Of course I do! Where else would I work?”

“Calm yourself, William. You say that now, only because you aren’t aware of your options. A wealthy man has many opportunities, and you may want to take advantage of one or more. Again, I won’t be insulted if you leave, but you have a job here for as long as you desire.”

He didn’t tell Melissa the news; it didn’t seem real to him yet. His head reeled as they walked hand in hand down the hill to see his mother. How would Emma receive the news of his new wealth? Would she expect him to stay at the Library out of loyalty? For that matter, what would Melissa think if he left? Would his money make them a better match, or would it divide them? Was her father rich, or just comfortable, and how did William compare? Money might solve some issues, but it sure made others worse.

Melissa tugged at his arm. “What’s wrong? It’s like you’re not even here.”

He snapped back to the present. “Sorry, I was mulling over something I did by accident.”

Melissa halted, her eyes wide with anger. “It’s Dayna, isn’t it?”

William’s jaw dropped. “How on Esper do you know about her?”

“Never mind that,” she said, her eyes burning bright. “Who is she?”

“No one,” he said. “No, sorry; that’s not true. She’s the person Earl Hiram put in charge of printing books.”

“And nothing happened between you two?” she asked.

“No. She wanted there to be, but I turned her down.”

“You expect me to believe that you refused her? Even though I had told you we were finished? Why would you do that?”

He laughed. “Melissa, you got angry when you thought I had. Why question it?”

She crossed her arms and glared. “Why did you turn her down?”

He shrugged. “Look, I told her I’d already made my first choice, and I wasn’t making a second. That’s all.”

Melissa covered her mouth and chuckled. “Okay, now I feel dumb for putting you on the spot. Does your magnificence have no end?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “You haven’t heard about the accident yet. You might change your mind.”

“Well, it looks like your mother is in. Why don’t you tell us both?”

His mother fussed at his arrival, as expected, but she stopped when she saw Melissa. Her face brightened, and she invited Melissa in.

“Thank you,” said Melissa. “William was about to tell me about some mistake he made.”

Emma turned to William with a stern look. “Was it Dayna?”

William threw his hands up in exasperation. “Do women have some secret communication method I don’t know about? How do you know about her? Never mind. No, Mother, it wasn’t Dayna. And it wasn’t a mistake, Melissa; I said ‘accident.’”

Melissa grinned at his discomfort. “Very well. ’Fess up. What did you do?”

He paused, milking the suspense. “I accidentally got rich.”

“What?” said Emma with a gasp. Melissa stared, too stunned to speak.

William explained his share in the trade venture. Melissa’s jaw dropped, but Emma breathed a sigh of relief. “Well, this makes things easier.”

“I’ll say,” said William. “For starters, you can be picky about the patrons you sew for now.” He noticed something odd about the way she stared at him. “Wait a moment. That’s not what you meant, is it?”

Emma squirmed in her seat. What could she be so reluctant to say? “No, William, it’s not. Sir Kevin has asked me to marry him. He insisted that you’re welcome to live at his estate, but I didn’t know how you’d feel about that. But once I leave this house it reverts to the Town.”

What a burden she’d endured! Find his own place with little money, or move into someone else’s home: it would have hurt her to force him to choose. But at his age, she shouldn’t have to worry about that. “Look, we have to leave here soon anyway, right?” he said. “Now that I’m working, I mean. This house was never meant to be ours forever, was it?”

“There was no specific time,” said Emma. “But at least now you have choices.”

William scratched his chin and nodded. “I could find a small house in town, closer to the Library. But you’re right. I have options now. More than I had before I became a Librarian; much more than I would have had as a Guard. I understand now why you chose that path for me, Mom. I owe you a lot.”

“Oh, William,” she said as she hugged him. “Nothing could please me more. But no, you don’t owe me. A child owes his parents nothing but to make the best of the life they’ve given him. And you’ve already paid that debt in full.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“Melissa, will you stay for dinner?” asked Emma.

“I would, but William and I are meeting the others at the inn for a last meal before they leave for Faywater Port.”

“Another time, then.”

“Of course,” said Melissa. “William, are you ready?”

“Almost.” He unfastened his sword belt and pulled the blade from its scabbard. He wiped it clean before mounting it on the wall beside his father’s broadsword. He hung his father’s shield below them and stood back to admire the display. Satisfied, he nodded and turned to leave. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”

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About the Author

 

 

Erik Christensen lives in Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada, with his partner Diana, and their corgi Abby.

 

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Acknowledgments

 

 

Although writing is a solitary business, publishing is not, and I owe a great debt of gratitude to several people for their help in bringing this project to fruition.

Thanks go to Tatiana for her wonderful cover art that was so good, it made me rethink my book’s title. Also, credit must go to Zoe for her quick and thorough proof-reading.

No book should ever be published without good beta-readers weighing in, and this book is no exception. James and Josh, both of whom I met at Goodreads, offered excellent advice. I was also lucky enough to have friends and family members read early drafts: Kieran, Summer, Eric, and Matthew all gave excellent feedback and encouragement.

A special thanks to Aimee, who cast the first professional eyes on my initial draft, and despite being a new mother buried in editing projects of her own, spent several hours coaching me and reading updated drafts. Your help was invaluable, Aimee!

Lastly, I cannot conclude without a heartfelt thank you to my partner Diana, without whose patience and support this book would not have been completed; and to Abby, who forewent far too many belly rubs while I was busy writing.


The Defender of Rebel Falls: A Medieval Science Fiction Adventure

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but William Whitehall knows which one feels better in his hand. As a librarian—a reluctant one—his reports catch the eyes of a powerful nobleman, who selects William for an important mission. As he faces danger after danger, he soon realizes that having the right weapon is one thing, but having the wits to use it is quite another. Because when he faces his ultimate challenge, it's more than just his own life at stake.

  • ISBN: 9781370080915
  • Author: Erik Christensen
  • Published: 2017-09-03 18:20:22
  • Words: 121630
The Defender of Rebel Falls: A Medieval Science Fiction Adventure The Defender of Rebel Falls: A Medieval Science Fiction Adventure