Rocklift the Mage is on a mission to make certain that fools who interrupt her cash flow become extinct.
A dog's yapping interrupted the conversation between Dudalos the dragon and Danner, which involved Lady Seaguard's recent purchase of a pearl and diamond tiara, which Danner thought overly extravagant and also overly flaunted. They both straightened up from their gossiping tete-a-tete to hear the spell-bound little dog shouting, "They're here, Mistress! I found them! Here! Here!"
We leaped forward to see Rocklift the Mage and her apprentice struggling with panicking horses, "Can't go there!" roared a horse in a basso voice. "Let me run! Let me run! Badness!" The mage swung skillfully off the horse's back, and pulled the cocking lever back on a crossbow. "Get the dragon first, kid!" She shouted, not at all impressed by the presence of a dragon in our midst. "Get the eyes!" The young fellow half-fell, half-scrambled off his prancing horse, cocked his crossbow and raised it to aim just as Danner ran forward and piled into his midsection. The crossbow tumbled out of his hands and hit the ground, jarring the firing mechanism hard enough to fire the quarrel -- deep into Danner's right leg.
Rocklift took careful aim, muttering to herself as the dragon hissed and started for her. His belly had begun to rumble as he prepared to breathe flame. Then Rocklift simply disappeared!
Spells to alter appearance were her specialty, and she was using this one to full advantage. Who was she aiming at? Where was she aiming from? The dragon unfurled his wings and arched them forward to cover his vulnerable eyes, but there was nothing to stop Rocklift from running to the side and hitting either of us before we could spot her by her tracks or the drenching rain patterns.
The apprentice had regained his feet and was wrestling his crossbow from Danner when Narsai the baboon barreled out of the cave to tackle the kid, rolling over and over with him down the slope.
The yapping little white dog bounded excitedly, forward and back, forward and back, barking shrilly, "I'll save you, Mistress! I'll bite the snake! Oh, what a snake! I'll save you!"
"There! Behind the dog!" I cried. The canine yelped and sailed through the air, kicked by an unseen foot, and I began throwing cobbles as fast and hard as I could at the air behind the source of the kick to keep the invisible mage off-balance. The dragon hissed a sheet of flame that turned raindrops to steam and scorched the trees. Rocklift's footfalls skidded down the slope away from us. The dog followed the steps, limping a little, through the brush and trees, dripping tail between hind legs.
I ran to Danner, who had dragged herself to sit with her left shoulder against a tree. The rain made it hard to see how badly she was bleeding. "If you had aimed a little higher," I told her, "you could have attained fame far and wide for shooting yourself in the ass with your enemy's crossbow."
Danner explained to me many coarse points about my ancestors and their baser proclivities while the dragon held a wing over us so that I could take a closer look at the wound. There wasn't a lot of blood, but the depth of the arrow was beyond my healing skills. I hoped the bolt hadn't been poisoned. "Now, Danner, don't forget that they're mostly your ancestors, too. Let's try and get you into the cave." I got one shoulder under her left arm and she leaned on the brassy scales of the dragon with her right.
As we approached the mouth of the cave, Narsai came rollicking to us, holding a quiver of crossbow bolts. "I believe we can use these, can we not? I took them from the young man who has knocked himself simple on a tree stump."
"Thanks, Narsai, you may have saved my life," said Danner.
"In the place from which I was taken, I was excellent at chasing off intruders," said the baboon. "It was a pleasure to see action again." He trotted back into the rain to retrieve the crossbow.
The dragon, meanwhile, was licking his scaled lips and twitching his tail. "I have an urgent task to perform," he said, "but I fear that mage will come back and try to attack you again. You are armed now, but you cannot see her."
"True, but Narsai and Guillaume could probably scent or hear her and her yappy little dog, and anyway, she's probably still trying to figure out how to tackle a dragon with one crossbow and a concussed apprentice. She won't know you're gone. Wait, you're not looking for an excuse to eat the apprentice and Rocklift, are you?" I asked him, tugging at one metallic-looking wing.
"Eat them," Danner growled, wincing as she tried to move her leg.
The dragon launched, laughing, off the hill into the rain and disappeared from sight. Narsai left his brother by the fire and set himself as a sentry in hiding under the shadows of a drooping pine tree.
"That was a pretty big risk you took, barreling into the apprentice. He could have shot you. Rocklift could have shot you."
"Ah, the apprentice is slower than molasses on Solstice Morning after a snowstorm. He could only do what Rocklift told him to do, which was aim at Dudalos. And no way would she have taken her attention off the dragon to shoot at me -- by the time she got the next bolt cocked, he'd have had her barbecued and half-eaten. Sometimes you just have to seize the moment, Aser." Danner picked at the cloth wrapped around her leg, trying to see the wound.
Yes, sometimes you do. Sometimes you just have to give and give and not tally up the cost ahead of time. To save some animals from a degrading existence, we barged in and wrecked Rocklift's place. They didn't ask us to do that, we just saw something that needed to be done and did it. Now granted, it got us on the painful end of a hunting party, but neither of us regretted the action.
I met an old lady once in Great Well who hobbled painfully around on crutches, her legs nearly useless after she'd shoved a small child out of the way of a carriage, only to be crushed by the wheels herself. "Oh, I get by, Shaman," she told me as I carried her groceries one morning, "and I thank the Life That Guides the World for these crutches every hour. These things remind me that I saved another's life, and how many people can say that?" She came to the step at the end of the sidewalk, stopped, and looked at it. "Well, most every hour."
And Marten Tanner from my village proposed to his wife-to-be after overhearing her tell his older brother that she was with child. His brother, Bear Tanner, had enlisted with Lord Stonewall's army, and brushed her off, saying that a military man could not afford to be tied down. Her sobs after Bear left her moved Marten to make the grand gesture, and after fifteen years of peaceable marriage, he's forgotten whatever risk there might have been.
All of us are in danger, every day, all the time. When the spirit moves us to protect each other, why, that's a good thing.
Narsai coughed an alarm from his hideout and started forward menacingly as the apprentice stumbled up the hill out of the bushes. I picked up the crossbow, but Danner waved at Narsai to retreat and said, "Put it away. He's no threat to us."
"Can I share your cave until the rain stops?" The young man asked miserably.
"No, get lost," Danner told him with authority.
"Oh, all right," the apprentice said. "You don't have to be so bitchy about it. You see a woman come by here?"
"Dressed in hunter green, with a nice hat? And a dog? And a couple baboons on leashes?"
"Yeah, that's her! Where is she?"
Danner pointed up the side of the mountain above us. "She went thataway."
"Thanks," said the bruised fellow and started to climb up through the rocks between the trees.
"That forgetfulness spell still," Danner replied to my questioning look. "He can't even remember he attacked us, and he won't remember he talked to us two minutes from now."
Flapping rain into a stinging spray, the dragon Dudalos returned, landing rather heavily. "Here you are, some trinkets for you." He handed us the saddle bags from Rocklift's horses. "Much better, so much better. You know, the talking dog was amusing, and the talking baboons show a lot of promise as conversationalists, but talking horses don't have a whole lot more to say than horses who don't talk. Didn't even try to reason with me."
"You ate the horses."
"Breakfast of champions," he agreed, and belched. "I'll fly over to Oceanwind tonight and try to get a message to the wizard master without getting my tail shot off. Might as well help you out -- I'm going to have to leave this place anyway, and you did get hurt defending me. Not that I needed the help, of course, but I'm not totally insensitive."
"Listen," I said to him. "If you can work out a non-eating-people pact with my clan, I bet they could raise some extra herd animals and hire you on as security. I'd even go negotiate, myself. How would I get in touch with you?"
"Oh, don't worry, Shaman, I'll be keeping an eye out for you." He launched himself again, headed south.
When darkness was well upon us, and I had dosed Danner with goldenseal to try to hold off infection, I asked her, "So, why didn't we see any wizard moves during that fight today?
"It's a long story," Danner mumbled. "And I don't want to tell it."
"I've gathered that," I responded. "But I still want to hear it so that I know what to expect when Rocklift's muttlet picks up our trail again."
A small voice from the stream that flowed out of the cave carried in the night. "You needn't worry about the dog, Shaman." Fisher came forward into the entrance to the cave, handed his sack to Guillaume and shook himself. His mate followed him, sheer adoration in her eyes. "We met the animal on our way back. He barked at us," Fisher said, standing on his hind legs and puffing his damp fur out, while Marjorie sat and extended one hind leg to lick a scuffed spot on her foot. "And had the nerve to nip my lovely wife."
Marjorie gazed at him glowingly, then put a paw to her muzzle. "I'm so sorry, Shamans ... there just wasn't enough to share."