On the first year of his travels with the notable Montery June, it had never occurred to the boy that he should keep a journal. His master kept the habit, and he perceived it to be a very popular pastime in certain circles, but he never quite made the connection between the grand slopes of the mountains and golden fields before him, and the groggy feeling, in the back of his mind, that someone ought to be getting this down somewhere, so that it would not be forgotten. He came to regret this very much, later, but that was then.
And this is now.
June was a man who, by his own admission, was very fond of his possessions. He had once stumbled upon a monastery deep in the forgotten East, where a group of well-meaning monks tried to show him the ways of Enlightenment and Salvation. They told him, very kindly, that the only way to true happiness was to relinquish the materialism of Man, and then watched in dismay as the quixotic young explorer burst into hysterical laughter.
On this day he wore a long, flowing coat embroidered with golden tassels, and a hat pierced with what, a year ago, the boy would have easily admitted was the largest feather he had ever seen. His horse, too, was a chestnut study in effortless grace. It seemed to flow rather than trot, and slid over the miles like oil over a warm pan.
By comparison, Thad (for that was what he was called, in those very old days) had been given a mule.
The only thing worth mentioning about the mule was that it was a very alarming shade of bright yellow, and as they were approaching a fresh town, Thad thought that this was as good a time as any, to bring the matter under fresh consideration.
"We've gone over this, boy!" came the jaunty reply. "They'll love it. It's wizard work, see? The common folk adore wizards, think they're good luck to have around, or something."
"Er . . . but, Master?"
"I thought you said they hang wizards. In these parts, that is."
"Hm? Oh. Oh, yes." June was peering happily at the golden fields, smiling at the way the wind swept over the grass, leaving patterns, like waves, that left loving imprints on the eyes.
To be less poetic, he was ignoring the boy completely.
"I wouldn't worry about it," said June vaguely. "I hear they make wonderful eggs."
"They lay eggs?"
This earned him a critical look. "Be grateful, boy. I knew a carpenter who traveled from town to town, fixing unbalanced tables. Twenty miles between the two closest ones, and you know how he got around? Wagon! Plush as a duke, and he made his apprentice walk behind it." The feather bobbed in what should have been an indignant gesture, if a stray breeze hadn't caught it and whirled it around. Unnoticed by anyone, it swung around in a perfect waltz step, fueled by the motion of the horse and several billion nomadic coincidences.
"But it's yellow!" wailed Thad. He wasn't a whiny boy. He was, however, rather averse to the idea of being hanged. "If it's all the same to you, master, I rather would walk, really."
"What, and drag me behind? Pshaw!" June urged his mount which, on cue, began to clop forward at a considerably faster and decidedly regal pace.
The town's name was something beginning with the letter L-. That was all the boy could ever remember, and in his mind, it was all anyone ever called it. It was a cozy sort of place, built not so much as an actual village, as much as an occasional meeting spot and landmark for the surrounding farmers. On a regular day, it was an unassuming collection of quaint and empty streets, and windows where the only evidence of occupation was the odd line of hanging laundry.
Today, however, was anything but regular.
There were slots installed in the one public square, for use during market weekends. Stalls would fill them, hanging wares on handily assigned hooks, and thus would leave the streets open to easier navigation for those on foot. It was a very good system, and yet today it was utterly overwhelmed.
The tent was the giveaway. It was of such proportion to the surrounding landscape that "huge" was a laughably insufficient description. As they crested a small hill overlooking the basin, Thad felt his jaw drop open.
"A beauty, isn't she? They used to pass it around, you know. Between the cities."
June shrugged. "Well, this place is all that's really left," he said. "The rest of them moved up the Myr, assimilated with the steelworkers."
Thad's head conjured up a picture of huge, belching columns of smoke, and narrow streets coated with soot and bustling crowds and a miasma, near the edges, of abject human misery.
"Sterl," he said.
"Good," said June, and gave a small nod of approval. The boy felt his spirits rise with an electric jolt of glee.
"What do they keep in there?"
"Oh, you know. Beer, mostly. Big pumpkins, sometimes, and once," June remarked, "I saw the largest grape you've ever seen. You can't get grapes like that any other part of the world. The wizards can't grow them. Don't reckon the Arboretium can, either. I should know. I've been there."
"I mean..." Thad groped for words that had no intention of helping him, and gave up. "Well. Do they eat them?"
"Eat them?" June barked out a laugh. "My boy, they squeezed from that monster the finest wine this side of the seas. Or so I hear."
"You haven't tasted it?" This was surprising. June was one of those men who gains a bad reputation as a boaster, simply because he cannot fathom how regular people have not accomplished in a lifetime what he gets done on a regular Monday morning.
On this occasion, he frowned. "Aged it a good decade, didn't they? Wasn't around to try it. I was fighting in the war."
"The one with all the flags," he said dismissively. "Now come on. We're losing the day as it is."
What stuck out most about L- was its gentleness. Everything: the hills, the homes, the smiles on the children who swerved through the boulevards like hyperactive moles, had a touch of genuine tranquility to it that cannot today be found in any place inhabited by man. Even now, braced as they were against a winter that was sure to be mild, the world seemed open and calm. Around the tent, vast crowds filled the air with a comfortable buzz of mixing conversation, and Thad clung to his master's arm with a look of unrestrained wonder on his face.
"Come of it, boy," said June, though not unkindly. "I haven't seen that stupid look of yours since the time I took you round the palace of Thribe. It's just a tent."
He paused a moment at a corner stall, to buy Thad a cup of warm cocoa, which the boy took with a smile. June regarded his pocketbook with a sigh. It had taken a good chunk of his savings to convince the stableboy that the mule was not, in fact, magical, but instead was afflicted with a very rare and certainly not contagious affliction, though of course it would be better for everyone that it be kept far out of sight of anyone walking by, yes?
At any rate, he would have enough. There were attractions aplenty in the village of L-, and the winter festival would soon spread over all the surrounding countryside like a convivial rash. He felt a familiar contentment at the notion. To be doing something - to be living! It was all so very exciting. He regarded the tingling feeling in his chest with a small smile. His mood would last him at least the week. Possibly nothing could ruin it.
And the boy came running.
"Master! Master, you really ought to try this, it's amazing!" Cheeks flushed, two scraps of loose parchment in his hands, Thad weaved through legs and grumbling purses until he came to a stop by the stock-still figure of June, who raised an eyebrow in his direction.
"When did you go running off?"
"Here, see, you write them down, see, and if you pay the man a coin"-
"Which you found where?"
"he says they'll come true," finished the boy, and the gleam in his eyes was enough to draw his master in.
"Just what are you going on about?"
Thad scrunched up his round face. "Rega - Rema -" he gave up with very little ceremony. "Just come on! I'll show you, sir, he really is grand! A proper wizard!"
"Suppose they just hang the improper ones, then?" muttered June, but the boy was already gone. He sighed, and wiggled his way in slow pursuit. The hat was getting a few more stares than he was partial to, especially from the scattered members of the festival guard.
"Bugger off," he snapped at one, who was holding up a small rod, decorated with counter-runic inscriptions. "It's not magic, it's high fashion. Your wife'd tell you."
"I'd bet she would."
June left him in disgust. He peered around the square, looking for his apprentice, who was . . . there.
The other man was tall, much taller than the norm, and held in his hands a bottle, full of red and swirling liquid. The beard, of course, was a giveaway. That, the robe that caught a nonexistent wind, to billow in the still air, and of course, the damn boots. They stretched up nearly to the upper thigh, stitched with thick, dark material that contained an unhealthy number of pockets.
The wizard watched him approach. "Hail, traveler." There was a reproachful note, wavering at the end of the punctuation. "May the drafts be ever full in your sails."
"June. Montery. What do they call you? 'Allacopta the Magnificent,' some nonsense like that? What are you doing this far east, without a death wish?"
"Ah, but I am not a wizard."
"They put you on the wheel for far less," said June. Most of the crowd near here had scattered. Thad looked up at him with a bemused expression, still holding his scraps of parchment.
"As they would," said the wizard with a smile, "if they could see me as I am." He flickered, and for a moment, June stared as a stooped and decrepit man with a mouth of broken teeth took the place of the man, leering unctuously into his eyes.
And then it was gone. The wizard nodded. "I know of you, Mr. June. And you know of me, very, very well."
"No, I'm sure I"- he paused. "Wait. Wait! You're that fellow from Ans, Tepparis, or something. From the Embassy!
The wizard nodded again.
"And what are you doing here?"
A pause. Thad pulled experimentally on his master's sleeve, and earned himself a look.
"You've got to write them down," he muttered. "Else they don't work."
"What's the boy going on about? He's been on me since the other side of the square."
"Ah." The gray eyebrows went up, and came back down into a more genial countenance. "Not too very complicated, really. Plenty of will, and it is magic that makes their way."
"I've walked too far today for nonsense."
"Losing weight? Get a new wheel for the cart? Learn to swim?"
"What are you saying?"
"Resolutions, Mr. June. I've taken up the business."
June frowned. They'd formed a sort of bubble, even in the crowded square. The hordes went around them, as if by instinct. "And this means what, exactly? They tell you what they want, you . . . make it happen?" A nod. "With magic?" Another nod, and a smile. "Why, but that's illegal!"
"Law is subjective, Mr. June. You of all people must know that. There is demand, I have supply, and the rest is just good business."
June glared at his apprentice. "And what nonsense have you been writing?"
The boy beamed proudly. "I'm going to find a dragon!"
June blinked. "Alright, enough of this." He raised a finger at the calm figure of the wizard. "They're extinct. You lot did that, remember? Not so much as a dragon's finger left on the whole of the world. So what's all this? Never seen a wizard fall to simple cons."
"Oh, you have so little faith, Mr. June." Tepparis shook his wizened head. "So little! If one cannot believe in the impossible, how ever will he do the possible? Hm?"
"I mean, what kind of resolution is that, even? Seeing a dragon? I thought this whole thing was about what, self-improvement, no?"
"But I'd rather like to see a dragon," said the boy with a hopeful smile. "Mr. Tepparis says it'll build character, too. And I thought, since we go all over anyway, maybe . . ."
The wizard produced a remarkably innocent expression. "Perhaps we did miss a spot or two, out in the Fell Marshes," he said. "You could start there."
"And how is any of this magic?" demanded June. "You . . . standing there with your pens and your nonsense . . . where's the sorcery of it all? The style?"
"Would you care to find out?" June found himself looking at a tipped quill, offered along with a length of parchment. At the tip of the quill, ink ran in a color richer than blood. Something clutched at a primal region of his mind, and gave a ferocious tug.
"Absolutely not," he growled. "Come on, boy. We're leaving."
"Do not be afraid, Mr. June. I am no monkey's paw." The wizard raised his arm in an expansive gesture, oblivious to the other man's cool stare. "What is it a man such as yourself desires, hm? Is it fame? To wander a foreign village square, and instead of all these odd looks and harangues, to be welcomed as a hero, yes? To be known. Or perhaps you will want to find your peace. Do you fear the still land? The look of a place when you can remember which way it is to the well, or how many steps it is from the hearth to the kitchen? Do you want to feel peace, Mr. June? Hm?"
June felt his jaw set firmly into a grimace. "That is quite enough," he whispered. He whisked the boy quickly around, and was halfway back across the square when he looked at the boy with fire in his eyes. "That paper of yours," he snapped. "Where did you stow it?"
And looked in horror as the boy pointed back, far back across the square, to an empty corner, where once a wizard had stood.
In a land far removed from the known light of the sun, on plains where the notion of mirth has been wiped from the memory of the dead and rocky soil, lay the mountain of Iridirhas Diun. It is said by that upon its weeping cliffs, the Dvarfen waged endless war against the gods, in the cold first years of the world. For the first time in fifteen thousand years, a light blazed at its summit, and cast warm terror over the surrounding lands.
Al-Paroux awoke from a sleep deeper than the heart of a star, and flapped his pleated wings with a sound like imploding thunder. A mind older than the tides crashed through the dormancy of ages and turned its burning wisdom to the first passion it had felt since the ordering of the continents. The winds halted on their usual route, to tremble and await the first words of their ancient dread lord.
I COULD KILL FOR A GOOD STEAK, muttered the dragon, and lo! the mountains shook before him.