Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 04

Dragon’s Ring — Snippet 04

Chapter 3

The gold of his hoard gleamed dully in the red light of the Dragon’s lair. He did, of course, remain between it and the others. He might tolerate, and indeed, conspire with lower life-forms, but there was a limit. Other creatures might want gold. Dragons needed it. Dragons were not builders. The lair had once been mere caverns. Some Dragons had had slaves in to improve them before they moved in. This had cost them dear, and had not happened here. There were no secret passages or hidden doors. Just rock. The caverns — with exception of smoothing by passage of hard bodies over generations — were as they had always been. Not a place which something other than a Dragon would have found comfortable. A Dragon would have found it pleasant, because of that hoard. Having them meet here, in his lair, this close to his gold was a gesture of faith. Almost unheard of faith. He wished that the sprite had not insisted on this place, as even talking to them here made him uncomfortable. But Lyr the sprite was a very necessary part of his plans. The tree-woman made no allowances for emotions. She didn’t understand them in the same way that the warm-blooded species did — although the sprites could feel hate.

“Let us call this meeting to order,” said Lord Rennalinn. The alvar lord looked as uncomfortable to be here as the Dragon was to have him. Alvar did not like caverns. And they liked to delude themselves that they, not the Dragons of Tasmarin, were the greatest power in the plane. “We need explanations. How dared you attack a fellow Lord’s demesne in force?”

Haborym, an almost-face in the dancing flames, replied. “Our auguries suggested that we would have the best chance of success.”

“We knew that you would not consent,” said the Lyr coolly. She always spoke like that. It was not a royal “we.” All the sprites were part of the same tree.

The flames danced as Haborym spoke again, his voice warm and persuasive as usual. “We thought it best to present you with a de facto situation. We’ve known that our final component is somewhere in Zuamar’s demesne for several moons. What have we done? Sat and argued. Zuamar is not aware of the intrusion. The raiders are not aware that they were sent thence by us. Even if they are caught, they cannot betray us.”

“It’s not right,” grumbled Rennalinn. “It’s not done that way. It’s not the tradition.”

“Actually,” said the centaur Actaeon, from the far corner — without stopping his narcissistic posing in the standing mirror there, “it is traditional, Lord Rennalinn. This business of respect for another’s demesne is a new thing. Historically, territory belonged to he who could hold it.”

Rennalin scowled. “Yes, but we’ve moved on from the war years. Civilization, Lord Actaeon . . .”

“May I remind you, alv, that we are trying to prevent the collapse of that,” interrupted Lyr.

“And sometimes we have to go outside the rules of civilized conduct to do so,” said Haborym.

The dragon snorted. But quietly. He needed those two. True, Rennalinn was powerful and wealthy on his island. But alvar conspirators were ten a penny. Merrow and dvergar mages could be compelled — and virtually every one of their kind had some skill. But one had to remember that all the sprites were effectively one creature. Alienate one and you alienated them all. And the untrustable creatures of smokeless flame . . . well, Duke Haborym had orders from on high, or the fire-being would not be here. They were more hierarchal than creatures of flesh and blood. Even their names followed a certain rigid tradition — based apparently on some arcane joke on humankind! The Dragon did not share their sense of humor, but well . . . Anger their Emperor, and that would be the end of their collaboration. He needed one of each of the intelligent species, a representative from each of the ancient planes, if his plan were to work. Besides, he rather agreed with the sprite and fire-being. Rennalinn’s petty insistence on protocols, meaningless outside the traditions and rituals of Alvardom, made reaching decisions like plowing through mud. A dragon flew above that. He was accustomed to making up his own mind, and doing whatever needed to be done himself. This need for consensus was un-dragonish.

“My good fellows, we are here to prevent a catastrophe. A catastrophe that will destroy our world. Yes, preventing it requires that we take actions that are frowned on by our various kind. It will take courage, and taking risks and breaking rules, because we pursue a high purpose. All we need is a human magic-worker. Lord Rennalinn, you know that we have caught and put to the test seventeen so far. Every one proved a fraud or of such minor power as to be useless for this task. We know that the one we need exists. By divination we have pinpointed it. We can not afford to wait indefinitely. Since the loss of the South-Eastern tower, we’ve found serious cracks in the Western, South-Eastern and Northern towers. Dragon and alvar have bent their skills to the attempt to repair them. We have failed. And there have been sudden and cataclysmic infalls — sinkholes in the very reality of Tasmarin. Are we going to sit and argue and worry about breaking a few rules to save our world. I say no. We only need one human . . .”

“There are a few other things,” said the centaur — too valuable a conspirator, if a hopelessly vain one — to be incinerated for stopping a dragon in full oratorial flow. “The treasures.”

“Those can be easily obtained,” said the Demon.

“Perhaps we need to do that then,” said the centaur. Like all of his kind he was a historian. Centaurs recorded everything in the endless stories of their oral tradition. Almost certainly he would recite all of this, even though his kind had foresworn contact with other species. They had withdrawn onto the high grasslands of their islands, and kept themselves to themselves. They had a very high opinion of their culture and their histories.

They also had the best and most complete record of the magical creation of this place, the refuge of dragons. Vorlian knew that he would need that, as much as he needed a centaur. Besides . . . treasures. No one had mentioned those before. And treasure often equalled gold. He was a dragon. He needed gold as other beings needed . . . air. The fire-being and sprite did not of course, but the other species could not do without air for very long. Humans tended to think dragons wanted gold for mere greed. There was that too, of course. It was beautiful. But at least there was real need behind their greed. “Tell us,” he said suspciously, “about these ‘treasures.’ And why no one saw fit to mention them before. It is apparent several of you knew of them.”

“Because they really are not an issue,” said the fire-being. “They’re mere symbols of the power of each species — given into the keeping of another species’s keeping as a gesture of faith.” Was that a hint of snicker in the fire-being’s voice?

“So where are they?” asked Vorlian, allowing his displeasure to show in his tone.

“We have the alvar treasure. And that of centaurs,” said Haborym. “The former was given to us, as there was no human to hold it.”

Vorlian wondered about the “given” part.

“We have the treasure of the Humans,” said the sprite.

The centaur nodded. “And we hold the treasure of the sprites. The dvergar hold the dragon’s. The dragons have the treasure of the creatures of smokeless flame, the merrows have the dvergar treasure, the alvar that of the merrows.”

“Are they . . . gold?” asked Vorlian.

Several of the conspirators had the temerity to laugh. “Only the dragon one,” said the centaur. “They are symbols. The harp of the alvar is silver, the staff of the sprites is naturally, wooden. The diadem of the merrows is a thing of pearls and dried sea-wrack.”

“Of course,” said Haborym, “the leather bag we had from the centaurs may be full of gold.”

The centaur snorted. “You know full well that it is not! Any more than the copper cauldron of humans is full of gold.”

“But I believe that the last holder did make jam in the pot,” said the fire-being. “Humans are not fit custodians.”

“The iron hammer of the dvergar should hardly be kept in the salt sea either then,” said the centaur. “The flame of the people of smokeless flame you have seen often, Vorlian. It burns in your conclave. A globe of the eternal fire.”

He’d seen it. Every dragon had. Never thought twice about what it was doing there, or what it might be. It was just a globe of flame on a plinth at the entry, that had always been there. It should be easy to go and take . . . “So, should we not be gathering these items?”

The fire-being’s flames shrugged. “Why? The dvergar and merrows can be compelled to give what they hold up to us. You know how it works, Dragon. The weaker species cannot resist.”

The centaur twitched. It really didn’t like Haborym. The centaur disliked having its expertise challenged too. “Not really. There is a balance of compulsion between the species. But it is in our favor in this instance. In fact the only issue is the merrow treasure.”

“Surely we have one of the leading nobles of alvar in our midst?” said Lyr.

Rennalinn looked excessively uncomfortable. “I am not on the best of terms with Lord Gywndar of Yenfar.”

“Yenfar?” said the dragon. That was the Dragon Zuamar’s demesne . . . where those two had just raided in their search for a human mage.

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