Chapter 9: The Last Stage
More dragons showed up on the plateau during Edmund's final day there, most of them females who arrived the morning he was to depart. They greeted Wieda with a mixture of excitement and sadness in their singsong voices. They also regarded Edmund with open curiosity.
One female, whose belly scales were a watery aqua-blue, studied him quite intently. "I have never seen a human up close before," she warbled. "He looks… delicate."
Edmund poked his cheek with his finger tip. "Our skins are not as tough as dragon hide," he admitted. "But it heals quickly when damaged, if the injury is not too great."
"Ah." She lifted her front foot. "May I?"
"Certainly." Edmund held out his hand and she poked the back of his wrist gently with one claw. Despite the gentleness of her touch, a tiny red bead of blood appeared.
"I am sorry!" the dragon trilled, her eyes swirling in alarm.
"It's nothing," Edmund said quickly. He licked the spot of blood off his wrist and held his hand back out. "See? It's already stopped bleeding."
She leaned over his wrist and warbled with relief. A few of the others watching also stuck their heads in to look.
Wieda looked over his shoulder. "Their skin is badly damaged when exposed to fire," she said. "Edmund told me it does not heal well after burns. That is why they fear uncontrolled fire."
"Is that why the ancient humans feared us?" a young female asked.
"I think so," Edmund said.
"But you do not fear us."
She shifted her weight from foot to foot. "I am with egg," she said. "If I leave them in the warm sand, perhaps one day they can be hatched as they should be."
Wieda dipped her head. "I would be very pleased to do so." A rippled of excited trills flowed through the group. "But it will be some years before I am old enough," she continued.
"I will wait," the other dragon replied. "To see my young ones hatch will be a great joy."
Edmund moved away then to allow Wieda and the other females to talk about eggs and hatching. He sat down a short way away and watched, idly tossing pebbles he found on the ground beside him.
Warmon sat down next to him. "The females do not often come to the plateau. It is good to see them."
"Wieda looks happy," Edmund said. "I'm glad."
"Are you ready to go?"
"I guess so." Edmund sighed. "It really hasn't been that long since I left home, but I feel like I've changed a lot." He looked up at the sky, which was a piercingly deep blue. "But maybe I won't feel this way when I return. I'll have my chores, and their will be guests to look after." He sighed again. "I miss my parents."
Warmon stood up. "Then it is time to go." He trilled Wieda's name.
Edmund stood up as Wieda approached. "I should go home now."
"Yes," Wieda dipped her head in acknowledgment. "Thank you, Edmund. You have been a good guardian."
"You're welcome." Edmund put his arms around her neck. "Be well."
"May the wind always blow warm under your wings," Wieda trilled into his ear.
Edmund stepped back and turned to Warmon. "I'm ready."
Warmon silently extended a foreleg and lowered his shoulder.
Carefully, Edmund put a foot on Warmon's scaled foreleg and pulled himself up onto the dragon's back. Warmon was larger than Wamiyan and Edmund was just able to clamp his legs around the dragon's sides.
Then Warmon flared his wings. "Hold tight!" he cried and leaped into the sky. Edmund was ready for the jolt this time and he kept his place without slipping. Warmon stroked hard at first to gain altitude, but then he spread his wings and mostly glided across the plateau, letting the wind carry them. When they reached the edge of the plateau, a warm draft of air welled up from the canyon and Warmon rode it higher into the sky, turning in lazy circles before banking out and gliding along above the mountain slopes. The air was chilly at this altitude and it wrung water from Edmund's eyes.
After a while, Warmon looked over his shoulder at Edmund. "I smell smoke. That is where men will be. When we near them, I will fly close enough for you to wave and draw their attention to you. Only then will I land, because otherwise they will shoot at me with their arrows." Warmon ran his tongue out in a quick laugh. "They cannot kill me with those puny darts, but the pricks are uncomfortable."
Below them, Edmund could see the pale ribbon of the mining road winding along the wall of the canyon. He could see trees now, too, with glimpses of tilled fields in the distance.
"There they are!" Warmon cried. He banked slightly and Edmund saw the tiny figures of horses and men in a wide meadow bisected by the mining road. "Hold on!" Warmon rolled over and spiraled down, losing altitude rapidly. When the meadow came into view again, Edmund saw it was bustling with activity. Men were pointing at the sky and dashing about in a panic. Warmon turned into a steep bank and circled above them, and Edmund began to wave. He stuck his arm straight up and made wide arcs from side to side. He shouted too, but he was not sure if his voice would carry all the way to the ground. As they turned above the meadow, he caught a glimpse of white hair on a man lying on the ground near a fire, and his heart missed a beat.
"Grandfather?!" Edmund cried.
After a moment, the men in the clearing stopped running about and started pointing back. Edmund could see the bows they were holding being lowered.
"It is time," Warmon rumbled and he pulled out of his bank and flew straight across the camp. Then he turned, dropping one wing so they plunged steeply toward the ground. When he was over open ground, he lowered his hind quarters and back-winged, stalling out and dropping to a neat four point landing.
The soldiers immediately trained their bows on the black dragon, their fear plain on their faces.
"Wait!" Edmund cried. "Don't shoot! He's just bringing me back!" Quickly, he swung his leg over and leaped from Warmon's back.
"Edmund!" Castus cried. He sat up stiffly and waved.
"Grandfather! You're all right!" Edmund hurried to Castus' side. "I was so worried!"
"This one's a tough old bird," Captain Esora said from behind Edmund. "It would take more than one arrow to bring him down. Unlike that creature." Edmund turned to find Esora staring at Warmon. "I take it we are in no danger."
"Yes, Captain. The dragons really aren't dangerous. The deaths all those centuries ago were the result of a misunderstanding."
"Dragons are still known to attack men," Esora replied.
"Hah!" Warmon rumbled. "Humans come into the mountains and camp among the goats. Then they shoot at us with their arrows when we come there to hunt. Who is at fault?"
Esora started in surprise. "It can talk?!"
"Mature dragons don't eat all that often, Captain," Edmund put in. "So when they are prevented from reaching their hunting grounds, it makes it difficult for them."
Esora looked down at Edmund and raised his eyebrows. "So you're telling me that men have been in the wrong, and brought this on themselves."
Edmund bit his lip. "And then punished the dragons with the curse for trying to defend themselves and their way of life."
"Heh." Esora shook his head. "You're turning my whole life upside down, young Mister Lehore."
Edmund was not sure if he should apologize, so instead, he removed his pack and dug out the diamond. "The dragons sent this to the king as proof that they would like to end the enmity between dragons and men."
Esora's eyes opened wide. "Is that a diamond?!"
"The elder dragon said it was. He said it was one of the stones men were digging out of the mines in the old days."
Esora took the diamond and held it up to the sky. Even uncut and unpolished, the stone winked beautifully in the sunlight. "If I give this to the king, he will want to reopen the mines."
Edmund nodded. "The dragons understand that. All they ask is that you stay away from the warm sands and not disturb their nests."
"And stop shooting at us when we hunt," Warmon rumbled. He flicked his tongue out. "We have no desire to eat men. I am told you do not taste good."
"Is that all?" Esora began to laugh. "Well, I cannot speak for the king, but I cannot imagine him passing up the chance to reopen the mines, especially in the face of such small demands. With that in mind, I tentatively accept your terms for peace. I will also put forward to his majesty that disturbing dragon nests be made a crime. That will allow you to turn perpetrators over to us for punishment."
Warmon dipped his head. "That is a fair exchange, human." He turned to Edmund and switched to dragon speech. "Edmund Lehore, I give you my thanks and the thanks of all dragon kind. You have given us the chance to be restored to what we once were. I am honored to know you and call you friend."
Edmund bowed his head. "Thank you, Warmon," he replied in dragon speech. "I look forward to seeing you again."
"Until then!" Warmon trilled, and he flared his wings. With a mighty stroke and a powerful leap, he swept up into the sky and banked away, returning to the distant plateau.
Esora stared at Edmund. "You speak dragon."
Edmund flushed, suddenly aware of all the eyes pinned on him. "Wieda taught me."
"I should take you to court. The king might want to appoint you as his liaison with the dragons."
"All the dragons know human speech," Edmund said quickly. "And I need to go home. My parents must be worried about me."
"You would pass up the chance to become a member of the king's entourage?" Esora chuckled. "He might even grant you a title."
Edmund blinked. "I'm just an innkeeper's son. I already have a place where I belong."
"You won't be able to tempt him, Esora," Castus said. He pushed carefully to his feet and put his good arm around Edmund's shoulders. "Edmund's not like me. He's his father's son."
Edmund regarded his grandfather gravely. There was pride in Castus' voice; pride that his grandson was like his father and not like him. "Shall we go home, Grandfather?"
Castus smiled at him and nodded. "Yes."
Esora smirked. "Very well. We'll escort you back to the inn and make sure you get there safely." He held the diamond up again. "But don't be surprised if I return with a royal summons. His majesty may want to hear the whole story first hand."
The return trip, on horseback and following the North Highway, went much more quickly than the trip out. In a way, Castus was relieved. It was not so much the injury to his shoulder, which made riding uncomfortable, but the sense that the Greenway Inn was where they belonged. Edmund became increasingly excited the closer they got to home. Amusingly, whenever he became extremely excited, he had a tendency to warble at them in dragon speech. The sing-song language was beautiful, and Castus sincerely hoped that Edmund would not lose his knowledge of it.
On the evening of the sixth day, just when Esora called a halt for the night, Edmund pointed excitedly at a lightning-blasted tree by the side of the road and emitted a long rumbling trill from deep in his throat.
Castus grinned. "Would you like to try that again in a language I know?"
Edmund flushed with embarrassment. "Sorry! But I recognize that tree. It was struck by lightning when I was little and we all came out to see it."
Castus nodded. "I remember. I'd just come back to the inn and your father took it as a bad omen." He chuckled. "I told him that if that were true, the lightning would have struck the inn, not a tree over half a day away."
"Are we really that close?!" Edmund's eyes shone. "I can't wait to get back! I miss Mother and Father."
"I'm sure they've missed you, too." Castus settled down stiffly, cradling his bad arm. "We've been gone a long time, from their point of view."
"Summer's almost over," Edmund said thoughtfully. "Father was anxious to finish the inn before winter so the guests would not have to sleep outside. I wonder how close they are."
"We'll see tomorrow," Castus replied.
Edmund barely slept that night, which did not surprise Castus in the least. In the morning, he was the first one up, stirring up the fires and putting water on to boil for tea.
Esora watched Edmund with a smile on his face. "I can see that you're right, Castus," he said. "I'm never going to get that boy to go to court."
Castus slowly nodded. "Some of us take years to figure out what we want to do with our lives. Edmund just needed this one adventure to tell him he was already doing what he wanted to do." He scratched his head and grinned ruefully. "Too bad I wasn't that smart. I missed out on a lot wandering all over the kingdom."
"But it put you in the right place at the right time for your grandson."
"True." Castus clapped Esora on the shoulder. "We'd better get a move on before Edmund demands to know why we're standing around doing nothing."
Esora chuckled and went to saddle his horse.
Castus had to admit, as they covered those last few miles, that he was starting to get excited himself. He really was getting too old for adventures. When the inn finally came into view, Edmund bounced up and down in his seat behind one of the soldiers and trilled excitedly. Castus did not bother to correct him this time. It was obvious what Edmund was saying. The exterior of the inn looked nearly complete, with just some trim work still to be done. But the cook fires outside were gone, so Castus assumed the kitchen was fully operational, which meant the basement was probably also complete. But there were still a lot of workmen on site and the tents for guests were still set up, so it appeared that the guest rooms were not yet finished.
As the soldiers neared the yard, Dob straightened up from digging what was apparently a new privy hole and let out a shout. Then he dashed for the inn, calling out for Conn and Mera. As they rode into the yard, Conn and Mera appeared in the doorway, their expressions a mixture of excitement and fear.
Esora dismounted first. "I have good news, innkeeper. I found your son unharmed."
Conn swallowed. "Thank you, Captain." But he got no farther than that because Edmund scrambled down from the back of his horse and dashed into his father's embrace. Mera crowded close and hugged her husband and son together.
Castus climbed down more stiffly and approached his son's family slowly. "Sorry that took so long, Conn."
Conn regarded him steadily and stuck out his hand. "I knew you'd bring him back."
Castus clasped his hand a little awkwardly, since it was on the same side as his good hand.
Conn's eyes swept him, taking in his bandaged shoulder and sling. "What happened?"
"It's nothing. I should only be laid up for a few more weeks." He lifted his eyes to the inn. "Looks like you're about finished."
Conn turned to stare at the building proudly. "We're making good progress. I plan to move the guests inside next week."
"That soon?" Castus nodded approvingly. "That's good."
"There are still quite a few details to tend to, but we can do that while the inn's in full operation. You got back just in time." He clasped Edmund's shoulder. "We can use Edmund's help."
Edmund beamed up at his father and warbled happily. Conn blinked in surprise and Mera let out a startled gasp.
Castus chuckled. "Just remind him to use human speech when he does that. I think he said he's ready to get to work."
Edmund blushed bright red. "I'm sorry!" he exclaimed. "I keep forgetting! When I was on the plateau with the dragons, even though I was only there a short time, I used dragon speech a and I've kind of gotten into the habit."
"You were on a plateau with dragons?!" Mera questioned worriedly. With a mother's natural concern, she checked him quickly for signs of injury.
"It's all right, Mother!" Edmund laughed. "The dragons were friendly. I was never in any danger."
"You should be doubly proud of your son," Esora spoke up. "He brokered a peace treaty with the dragons which will benefit the entire kingdom. The king himself is likely to reward him."
"The king!" Mera's eyes opened wide and she pulled Edmund back into her embrace.
"You needn't worry, Missus Lehore," Esora said. "I've already been told that Edmund has no desire to go to court. I'm not going to take him away from you."
"What happened to the dragon?" Conn asked.
"I left her with the other dragons," Edmund said. He glanced at Esora and bit his lip. "She said she would visit me one day. That's all right isn't it, Father? Wieda considers me to be her family."
"A dragon here?!" Mera exclaimed. Her eyes flicked worriedly to the yard as if she could already see a dragon resting there.
"Warmon said he might visit, too. He's the dragon who flew me down out of the high mountains."
"Two dragons?!" Mera put her hand to her chest. "I don't know. The guests…"
Conn put a hand on her arm. "We will deal with that when and if it happens," he said. "We're innkeepers, Mera. We can handle guests of all kinds."
Mera drew in a long breath. "Of course." Then she smiled at Edmund. "I am so happy to have you safely home, Edmund. We've missed you terribly."
"I missed you, too, Mother." He straightened his shoulders. "But now it's time for me to get back to work. What chores need doing?"
Mera hugged him again. "Dob could use a hand with the privies. They all need to be moved."
"Right. I'll get a shovel." Edmund walked away with Dob, while Dob gestured to where he was digging the new holes.
Mera watched him go for a moment and then turned to Castus. "Thank you for taking care of him, Castus."
"I was happy to spend the time with him, Mera. He's a good boy, and well on his way to becoming a great man."
Conn cleared his throat. "You're a good man, too, Castus," he said stiffly. Castus had to suppress a smile. Praise for his father did not come easily to Conn. "I'm sure Edmund learned a lot from you."
Castus gripped Conn's shoulder. "The most important thing he learned is that he wants to be like his father." They looked into each other's eyes for a long moment, and then Conn smiled.
"Thank you, Castus." He stepped back and became all business. "Captain Esora, I hope you are planning to stay with us for a few days. You and your men look tired, and I think your horses could use some rest as well."
"Thank you, innkeeper. We could use a few days off before we start back. We'll camp across the road, as usual."
"Very well. I'll send some hot stew and a barrel of ale over shortly."
Esora nodded his appreciation and remounted his horse to lead the way to their campsite.
Mera studied Castus' bandage. "Why don't you let me tend that, Castus? Do you need to lie down?"
Castus patted his sling. "I'm fine for now, Mera. You can look at it later. I was thinking I might go lend Dob and Edmund a hand. At the least, I can hand them tools when they need them."
"You're ready to get back to work, too?" Conn asked.
"I am," Castus replied with a firm nod and a wide smile. "I don't need to see anymore of the world. Edmund learned a thing or two from me on this trip, but I learned something from him, too. I learned that the Greenway Inn is where I belong. This is my home."
To Castus' complete surprise, Conn embraced him. "Welcome home."
-o-o-o- The End -o-o-o-
Thank you for reading. I hope you enjoyed the story. This is a simple coming-of-age short story that happens to take place in a world of fantasy. I started this story sort of as a diversion from my usual fare, but I tried to put the same effort into it that I do for my other stories. I hope I was able to meet your expectations. For those of you who were able to leave a review, thank you. I appreciate your taking the time.