Charles Stone was in a bad temper. In his normal routine, people could hardly bear his whims, but if he was really pissed off, everyone tried to avoid him as much as possible. The quest for the ring hadn’t started very well. Half of the detachment had to struggle with diarrhea. Obviously, the quartermaster had stocked food that wasn’t quite eatable anymore.
To disguise this, the cook had excessively seasoned the meals. Consequently, an important part of his men had to run for the bushes to answer nature’s call. That wasn’t very favorable for the fastness of the detachment. It caused considerable delay every few moments and Charles Stone was a very impatient man.
Fortunately, he had been spared by this sickness just because of the fact he never tasted a bit from his men’s rations. He ate more delicate things than his men, and he had someone else who looked after his meals. Someone who knew he had to look at least twice and taste as many times beforehand the food he would serve the prince royal. Of course, it helped to know the quartermaster hadn’t survived the food incident.
After a few day’s march, Charles Stone summoned the responsible Master of the Brotherhood of the Black Wizards. Master Darius Felten wasn’t afraid of Charles Stone. The man himself didn’t possess magical powers who would help him against the Black Magic of a member of the Brotherhood. However, he feared the lancers and the men with the crossbows who surrounded him. When he would raise one finger to the pretender to the throne, it would be the last spell he was casting. These bodyguards were the best of both Upper and Downland. The glance in their eyes was cold as ice and they were above all loyal to Charles Stone.
Darius Felten didn’t understand how someone could have sympathy for such a tyrant. The fact they were paid very generously played an important role in this matter. Even if Charles Stone was an intolerable person he knew his world and the price to buy someone’s service.
‘Master, I’m sick to death the troops didn’t advance much faster. That so-called disease has to stop. Don’t you have a remedy or a spell to end this misery?’ The young leader’s face spoke volumes. His lips were distorted in a childish pout and his left brow lifted, awaiting a positive reaction.’
Darius Felten looked around for a moment and saw just some soldiers disappearing behind a little shrubbery. The sounds that came afterward underlined the importance of the young future sovereign.
‘Maybe, Monsignor, I have some powders we can mingle in the soup, but can I, even so, suggest to get rid of the infested rations. That’s the reason of this diarrhea and as long the men eat the same food, there’s no use to cure them because they will be sick again tomorrow.’
Charles Stone looked a moment at the Master, who aware of the reaction, looked back at the prince. You always had to take into account the whimsical character of the heir of the Stone Dynasty, you never knew how he would react to a suggestion.
‘Good, Master Felten, shake your powder in the soup this evening and let the word spread that everybody has to drink of the substance. The one who still dives into the bushes tomorrow will feel the point of a lance in his behind. You can go and call for Master Filiander Mercandor. I urgently need his services.’
The Black Wizard turned his horse and looked for one of his apprentices in the caravan. ‘Joeri, search immediately the geographer and let him know he has been summoned by the Monsignor. Then return right away because we have to prepare some powders for tonight.’
Joeri Marten was glad he was one of the candidates between the apprentices of the Black Wizards who was chosen to participate on the quest. He was probably the only one besides Charles Stone, who knew the real reason behind the march on Ralot. He touched the little box inside his gambeson that contained the finger of King Conrad. A precious evidence he had kept back. Fortunately, Charles Stone hadn’t noticed him yet and so he didn’t know that Joeri Marten of the Black Wizards had joined in with them. He liked to keep it that way. He was more afraid of him than he was of a dozen Masters of the Brotherhood. He hurried to the tail of the traveling companion and passed the order to the old Master.
Master Filiander sighed. He had imagined his old days in a different way. Certainly not on the back of such a bumping thing they called a horse. He hated it. Still, he stirred the obedient stallion up to get to the crown prince.
‘Monsignor, you needed me?’
‘Master Mercandor, the rations the quartermaster has stocked on this voyage must be dumped right away. Leave them behind somewhere at the side of the road where they can bother someone else. There’s a village an hour’s ride from here called Tjula. It seems to be a farmers and peasant village. Take these ten men with you and claim the food of those people so that my men can eat healthily. Those who refuse to help us will be killed, do point this clearly out to them. Go and don’t delay, my patience is up.’
The Master greeted his sovereign and accompanied the men who came riding alongside and they split off from the detachment to carry out their mission. When he was out of hearing distance the old man cursed the young whippersnapper who didn’t take anybody into account. The poor peasants would have to surrender their goods and receive nothing for them. The village would be sentenced to death after their mild offering and Master Filiander Mercandor couldn’t do one thing against it.
Tom looked surprised at Moira Goldfoot, who sat like an amazon on Hector, her ash gray donkey which trampled along with them. Hector was a peculiar beast, Tom noticed after a while. Moira hadn’t fed him once and still the little animal passionately rode along. In any case, Hector took smaller steps and still the donkey kept pace with them. Tom didn’t understand it very well and each time he tried to follow his legs to discover how the animal did it, his glances were blurred and he had to look away. He definitely knew that it was magic. It was as if Hector floated alongside and accelerated when they galloped faster.
‘Mummy,’ he spoke to her, using the name she had asked they would use. ‘How is it possible that Hector can keep up, we ride on two outgrown powerful horses and Hector indeed is a fine animal, but he’s just a donkey and still a lot smaller?’
Moira laughed at him and then answered with a mysterious glance in her eyes. ‘When Hector deemed it to be necessary, he will tell or show you himself. I’m just a simple woman and I don’t have the right to tell about him. Patience is a beautiful virtue, Tom. When you master this human quality you’ll be a lot wiser.’
Tom blushed a bit and saw that Jul, busy chuckling, had followed his conversation. ‘Don’t tease him, Mummy. He’s young and it’s just because of his impatience he will acquire a lot of experience. We’ll look for it, I and you, he doesn’t run simultaneously seven locks.’
The young Varsen who thought he was a man already looked up to Jul and saw the lights in his eyes and he knew the man was also teasing him and enjoyed it very much. He couldn’t but laugh back when he saw Jul’s facial expression.
‘Stop!’ Moira’s voice sounded explicitly loud and with an overtone of fear. Jul and Tom looked around them, searching for the reason why Moira was startled. They were standing on a little plain here and there interrupted by little pools of water and high bushes. Tom supposed the heavy underground was the reason the rain couldn’t penetrate the earth. He had his hand on his ax and expected any moment to appear a Buldra or another predator out of the bushes.
‘What’s going on, Lady Moira?’ Jul, under the spell of the warning from the Agoeteia, was ready to escape on her sign or to start a fight, but he saw nothing and it would be difficult to fight some shrubbery or the rare tree that stood on this plain.
‘Don’t move, friends. We haven’t paid attention. Do you see those brown-green borders around us? We are in the middle of a Devil’s pool.’
‘Devil’s pool?’ Both men looked frightened around them. In a sort of irregular form, they had indeed seen they were standing in a circle that was bordered by a foaming brown-green collar.
‘Is this the work of demons, Mummy?’ Jul had some confidence now that Moira had identified the danger. He had a great trust in her skills and counted on the fact she had a solution for everything.
‘Unfortunately, that’s not the fact, in that case, I would know how to react. It’s just a natural phenomenon. This place, this pain is a string of little swamps, close together. The overhead ground surface seems to be thick and in some places it's indeed the fact, but I had to know better. That foaming border is a sign we can irrevocably sink through here. We are not the problem and even not our horses. They could, if we are careful, pass this Devil’s pool. But… Hector is a whole other matter!’
Now both friends didn’t understand it anymore. How was it possible, that this little donkey was a problem for these swamps if two tall horses weren’t? They looked at Moira Goldfoot for more explanation who was just whispering something in his ear. The more they were amazed when the donkey nodded back as if he had understood her.
‘You asked earlier what Hector’s secret was. I know he doesn’t like humans to see him in his real form. He’s one of the last of his kind and being my protector, I always respect that. But this is an emergency. If Hector still makes one step further, we’ll sink through this pool down because of his weight and then even magic will not be able to help us.’
Hector heehawed as if he wanted to underline Moira’s words. Out of his back, two wings unfolded and became visibly larger and larger. A strange light shone from the inside of his donkey body that illuminated him with its glow. His shoulders expanded and his chest became scaly. His forelegs grew thicker and longer and his skin constantly changed color. On both sides of his head, dreadful protrusions came out and on his neck a double row of hard spines stuck out that were sharper than the lance of a soldier. The dragon Hector had transformed, turned out to have nothing in common with the gray donkey that a moment ago still was hee-hawing.
‘By all the gods, Hector is a dragon! Tom whispered. Both he and Jul were trembling in their legs by Hector’s transformation. He now towered above them. The glow in his chest that gave him all kinds of colors now mounted up inside his neck and with a deafening shriek that almost made their eardrum pop, the dragon was spitting a devastating fire above their heads.
‘I’m sinking,’ Jul shouted. Then Tom saw he also was sinking in the Devil’s pool caused by the weight of the dragon. The animal was too heavy for the swampy ground. It wouldn’t take long before they would die a death from asphyxiation sinking away in this traitorous bottom.
Moira had pulled herself up on one of the protrusions on the body of Hector and now sat astride behind the neck on the back of the dragon. ‘Now, Hector, our friends need you. Only you can save us now.’
The dragon with the colorful chest spread his two enormous wings and with a few wingbeats he escaped the swamp. By this action, Jul and Tom sank even faster into the sucking swampy ground. Hector flew away for a moment to come back at full speed and with the claws of his forelegs, he took both horsemen and pulled them away from the boggy earth. He placed them carefully on a piece of harder ground and flew back for the horses. The eyes of both animals were wide open from panicking and foam was on their lips. Fortunately, Hector was just in time to save the sinking animals.
With some wing-beats, he brought the animals to their owners who tried in the best possible way to calm them down. Once the animals felt solid ground under their feet and didn’t feel the pulling power of the Devil’s pool they settle down rather fast.
Hector landed a bit further on a space that was more fitted for him. Moira Goldfoot looked with a concerned glance at her companions. ‘Is everything alright? I’ve got to apologize to you. I had to know better with my experience, from now on, I’ll have to look better. Maybe I’m getting old. But let us not forget our good manners. Dear friends, may I introduce you to Hectorius Magnificus, one of the last rainbow dragons and also my personal bodyguard.’
© Rudi J.P. Lejaeghere