The Dragon Ring
Neuyokkasinian Arc of Empire Series
C. Craig Coleman
Witch Earwig, the disgraced former queen, skulked about in the murky forest shadows behind a desolate royal way station. Holding a supply packet on her hip, she settled behind a rotting tree trunk and hunkered down in the moldy leaf litter. The witch jerked her dimwitted companion’s ragged shirtsleeve, but he remained standing, his head following a flock of birds.
“Get down,” Earwig said to the mountain of muscles who seemed not to notice the centipede crawling on his arm. “Listen you stupid oaf, no one must spot us. When the royal courier stops here for the night, you snatch him. Be careful not to bruise the man. Take him down to the river and drown him.” The oaf nodded. “Don’t mess him up, his death must appear an accident, like he fell in and drowned. Do you understand?”
The hulking man smiled at a mouse poking his head through the leaves and failed to respond. Earwig slapped his face and grabbed at the nearest stick breaking it over his baldhead. Dazed, he scowled down at her. The witch locked stares with the hulk, his breath as offensive as his teeth. She thrust her hand in front of his nose, blue flames dancing on her fingertips. The ferocity in his eyes turned to fear and he drew back.
“Bring me the mail pouch. Did you hear me?”
Rubbing his scalp, he grumbled and nodded. She put a finger to her mouth when she caught the sound of approaching horse hooves clacking on the road.
In a whisper, she said, “Keep down. Remember, don’t bruise him and get me the mail pouch.”
“Me know what to do.”
Approaching without hesitation or inspecting his surroundings, the dispatch rider dismounted and headed for the shelter disappearing inside.
Earwig poked her companion and pointed at the building.
The fool assumes a royal courier is inviolate, Earwig thought, bad supposition.
With the setting sun, shadow fingers of tree branches slid toward the retreat as the oaf crept toward the building’s corner, slipped around it and out of sight. Earwig could just hear a scuffle, groans and the oaf’s strained grunting. A harsh smack followed and all fell quiet. She held her breath until the grinning creature reappeared beside the shelter dangling the limp courier under one arm.
“The mail pouch,” Earwig said, “throw me the mail pouch.”
The oaf dropped the man to pull the pouch’s strap over his head but the courier began to regain consciousness. His eyes swelled seeing the brute looming over him in the mustard light. Then his face contorted when he beheld the vile former queen leering down at him. He slumped. The brute jerked the mail pouch breaking the strap and tossed the bag toward Earwig.
The dazed courier waffled. “Mercy!”
The oaf noted the witch’s sneer and grinned exposing missing and broken teeth. He took the man’s skull in both hands and jerked it sideways. The cracking sounds of bones breaking startled a bird overhead; the courier shuddered and went limp.
“Fool! I told you to drown him. Now they’ll know it wasn’t an accident. Crawl up under the station and bury him.”
The oaf nodded and grabbing the courier’s foot, plodded off toward the rear of the building. Earwig broke the seal on the mail pouch and rummaged through the contents. One of her spies had tipped her off about a correspondence from the new queen’s prime minister, the chatra, to Emperor Engwan IV of the Powterosian Empire. She continued rummaging until she found her prize, the accursed document. Contemptuous of the seal, Earwig ripped the letter open. The muffled sound of the oaf digging under the way station distracted her for an instant. She kicked a sideboard and read the correspondence before twilight swallowed the last sunlight.
Raging heat pulsed through Earwig’s neck and face as she read then looked up and crumpled the document. Her lips pinched covering grinding teeth. She rounded the back of the station and shoved the mail pouch under the edge.
“Bury this with him. Hurry up you fool, we must get far away from this place right away.”
As the oaf scratched under the building, stomach acid rose and burned Earwig’s throat. She gritted her teeth still pondering what she’d read.
So, you accuse me of my own downfall, she thought. You’ll pay for this, my dear sister-in-law, you and all your royal family. I’ll sit on the throne again when you’re all dead.
The gravedigger ripped his dirty tunic on a board startling her. He glanced up, and froze staring at the eyesore. Earwig hated how the veins transformed her face to mottled purple making the gaping pores more notable when she got angry. She turned away.
“You’re done? Come, we must get away from here before someone spots us.” The witch grabbed the oaf’s arm, noted the grime and drew back her hand. He backed up and she realized her revulsion showed. She wiped her fingers on his shirt and flashed a syrupy smile.
“Lead the horse down by the river and tear the saddle strap so it appears to have broken. Drop the saddle on the bank, and release the steed. We’ll take a shortcut home through the woods when you’re done.”
“Why don’ts we go on the road?” the oaf asked. “You’ll get dirty going by way of them briars and bushes at night. How can we tell where we’s heading?”
“Shut up and do as I say.”
Earwig glared at the simpleton whose head slumped as he led the horse away. When he returned, Earwig headed off into the woods with the oaf close behind. She led him far into the moon-speckled forest and stopped near a cave fronted by many large tracks indicating something coming and going.
“We best stop and eat. This is a good spot,” Earwig said.
The oaf scrutinized the animal footpaths, but Earwig pretended not to notice them. She selected a fried pie and shoved it toward her salivating companion. He devoured the offering and in moments, crumpled to the ground glaring up at her.
“Poison, why? I was your friend.”
His face grimaced. Groaning, he hunched up in a fetal position, his massive arms clutching his abdomen. His soil-encrusted fingers scratched at the leaf litter. A few tremors, a guttural moan, then his fixed open eyes and relaxing facial muscles assured Earwig he was dead. She poked him with a stick and got no reaction. The dappled moonlight danced on the corpse that slipped into darkness as clouds veiled the moon.
No one can link me to the courier’s disappearance now, Earwig thought regarding the cave. Soon your smell will lure out the bear. He’ll take care of the rest. I must get back before my worthless husband notes my absence.
Young Crown Prince Augusteros’ hand clung to the rusty iron gate as he surveyed the forbidden, abandoned garden at the periphery of the royal palace complex in Konnotan, the Neuyokkasinian capital. A haphazard gust of wind whipped tree branches into violent contortions beyond the wall. Hesitant, he stepped inside. The wafting scent of decaying blossoms and leaf mold assailed his nostrils. The gate closing behind him creaked and he jumped when it clanged shut. A flush of goose bumps sprang up and tingling nerves spiked his neck hair. Only a few steps along and a rodent scurried across the weedy stone path in front of him halting his progress.
This is stupid, the prince thought. There’s no one here. One of the court retainers is playing a joke to make me look like a fool. Swirling crud scared the rat. That’s all, nothing to worry about.
When his heart stopped fluttering, he approached the central well, listening for any sound other than the gravel crunching beneath his feet. A passing cloud with trailing fingers drew a dark shadow over the water source and Augusteros froze. He scanned the colonnade of fluted marble pillars encircling the well and walkway. Small animal sculptures capping the columns with fixed smiles focused on the well… all except one, a sneering gargoyle that seemed to leer at him. Augusteros shivered.
My imagination is getting the better of me, he thought. The other stone animals smile. I wonder why the stonemason made the one creepy thing.
He glanced around once more to be sure he was alone then stepped to the well casing’s granite edge where he found the folded note and a treat he sought. He stretched across the rim reaching for them, when the sudden sound of grinding rock behind him made him look back. A whoosh swept toward him. Something smacked him hard on the back and he gasped. Before he could recover, a scratchy hand with long, clawed fingers grabbed his leg, jerking him upward. He yelled, lost his grip on the edge, and flew forward plunging down into the shaft’s black, musty abyss.
“No one knows what happened?” Memlatec, High Court Wizard of Neuyokkasin asked his assistant wizard Tournak. The old primal wizard’s flowing robes and white hair stood in sharp contrast to the middle-aged man’s cropped, curly, black hair and clipped beard. They trod through the unkempt glen’s weedy seed stalks, the dampness chilling Memlatec’s feet. An instinctive sense of alarm grew as they approached the garden wall. Thrusting out his arm, Memlatec halted Tournak.
Standing beside the gate, the old wizard studied the garden. Neglect had reduced the elegant former retreat to debris clustered around spotty brown weeds and spindly branches of dead shrubbery. Stone accents became harsh garden bones. Paths of stepping-stones imbedded in gravel snaked through the blotches of tangled clutter. The only living thing was an ancient twisted oak branch groping in over the wall. Amid the rippling afternoon shadows, Memlatec noted a grinning red granite carving staring down from one of the colonnade’s pillars.
I can’t recall a gargoyle among the lichen-encrusted granite rabbits and squirrels, Memlatec thought.
“I didn’t think anyone came here,” Tournak said. “At least not since the queen lost her second child in that accident soon after she accepted the crown.”
Memlatec paled. “Witch Earwig is peering from the shadows behind the caretaker’s gate.”
“Where? I don’t see her.”
Stroking his beard, Memlatec fixated on the far, vine-shrouded gate. “She’s gone now. Strange she’d be here and so soon after the accident.”
Squinting, Tournak scanned the darkness. “Do you suspect Earwig is involved in this somehow?”
“She has no scruples,” Memlatec said. He surveyed frenzied whispering courtiers who buzzed around the shivering prince bundled in a blanket at the garden’s center. A sudden lance thrust barred the wizards from the gate.
“Stand aside,” a guard said as the queen rushed through to her son.
“You’re not telling me everything,” Tournak said.
Without responding, Memlatec started to move toward the throng at the well. Tournak put his hand on Memlatec’s arm restraining him. “Palace guards can’t protect the royal family from unseen black magic.”
Earwig is aware I guard the queen, the old wizard thought. Any direct attack against her would have the nobles demanding the former queen’s execution for treason. No, Earwig plots with discretion.
“We need to find out what transpired here,” Memlatec said.
Tournak shook his head, kicked a pebble, and followed Memlatec to the gathering at the well.
“What happened, Augusteros?” the queen asked. “You know better than to come here much less play near a well. Where were your attendants?”
The boy viewed the crowd, but shivering, stood silent. His face flushed, and his lips pinched tight as he drew the blanket tighter around him.
“Augusteros?” the queen repeated.
A guard stepped forward when the crown prince failed to answer, “His Highness had a tantrum. He forbad his attendants to follow him beyond the palace proper, Majesty.”
Augusteros glared at the sentry who withdrew to the gate. “I was playing hide and seek.”
“A message in my room said to come here. I spotted a puffy sweet and another note on the well’s edge. I reached to grab the treat and I heard a grinding noise behind me.” The prince scanned the gasping courtiers. “Then something pushed me in.”
“Something pushed you? Don’t you mean someone?” The queen scrutinized those around her.
“No, that thing up on top of the post.”Augusteros pointed.
“The gargoyle… Nonsense Augusteros, you make up things to avoid taking responsibility when you misbehave.”
“Where is the note?”
“It fell in the well.”
“You disobeyed in coming here, made up imaginary messages, and blame a stone statue so your father won’t punish you. You’re lucky the guard followed and heard you yell. Stay in your room the rest of the day for disobedience. I’ll deal with the attendants later.”
Augusteros stamped his foot and glared at his mother. The queen squatted down and hugged her son who shook free. She walked the crown prince back to the palace leading the retinue of courtiers. The wizards stayed behind to examine the well when Memlatec spotted a glistening speck on the well cap’s rim. He touched the spot and tasted his finger. Tournak’s muscular arm clutched his dagger.
“Honey,” Memlatec said.
Tournak glared at the stone gargoyle. “You must tell the queen.”
Memlatec scanned the far garden wall and gate. “A bit of sugar isn’t enough evidence to convince Her Majesty of anything. No one here has seen real dark magic for generations. Earwig has perfected her witchcraft more than I realized and beyond what she could’ve achieved without a mentor. I suspect the Dark Lord of Dreaddrac is involved.”
Tournak tasted the sugary substance. “Memlatec, you told me long ago you came to Neuyokkasin because a seer foretold the heir to the Crown of Yensupov’s power would arise here. If Earwig is delving into witchcraft, could she have stumbled onto Augusteros as the inheritor?”
“I doubt she knows about the Crown of Yensupov or its critical place in the overthrow of Dreaddrac’s Dark Lord in the Third Wizard War. That was in the Age of Primal Beings.”
“If Augusteros has inherited the power, could the fright today have left a power trace on the well?”
Memlatec stared at the younger wizard. “Perhaps, we must come back tonight with the lunadar crystal.”He took the crystal from a deep pocket in his robe, examined the gemstone and dropped it back in. “Before he died, the elf king, King Peldentak aligned the lunadar to the crown’s resonance. If there’s a power trace, the lunadar will reveal it tonight. I need confirmation Augusteros is the crown’s heir.”
The two wizards returned through the chilly garden’s twisting paths. The brown bones of a bush blew up against Tournak’s leg. Memlatec noted he flinched and peeked over his shoulder. The younger wizard kicked the tumbleweed away and continued onward.
“Time’s running out if this was an assassination attempt,” Tournak said.
Memlatec nodded. “These elements coming together at the same time foreshadow a more serious crisis.”
Veiled in an invisibility shield that night, the wizards crept past the palace guards, only decloaking when again shrouded in the murky glen beyond the palace torchlight. They walked in silence to the garden where the looming oak branch quivered as if in warning. Memlatec flicked his finger torch shedding pale light on the corroded gate. It rasped open and whimpered back to a low thud. The wizards moved through the weeds along the path in the dappled moonlight. At the well, a chilly breeze rippled Memlatec’s robe flashing silver rune reflections on the casing’s dark stones.
“In a moment we should have confirmation,” Memlatec said. His long fingers delved into the deep pocket for the lunadar crystal.
Tournak was wide-eyed. “Gone?”
Nauseous and gawking around him, Memlatec hesitated then hunched over probing among the weed clumps. His fingernails scratched the stepping-stones in the yawning gloom.
“Where did you have the crystal last?” Tournak dropped on hands and knees. He searched the stubble until he bumped into two small, bare legs that rose to shorts in front of him.
“Is this what you’re looking for?” Prince Saxthor, the queen’s twelve-year-old second son, asked. He offered a small leather pouch.
Memlatec frowned. A chill coursed through his wiry frame as he stared at young Saxthor. The old wizard fumbled and stood up without taking his eyes off the grinning, blonde boy.
“What are you doing here, Saxthor? You’re not supposed to be out unattended at night and never in this menacing place.”
“I was looking for lightning-bugs in the meadow,” Saxthor said. “The guards don’t bother watching me, just Augusteros. You showed up all of a sudden, so I followed along to find out what you were up to out here with no lamp. I thought you might be looking for dragons or elves or something,” Saxthor laughed and again extended his offering.
Memlatec lifted Saxthor’s chin and patted his head. “You keep your toys, young man. Now go straight to the palace. You shouldn’t be out here alone.” The magician poked the weeds with his boot.
Unfazed, Saxthor continued. “When everyone left here this afternoon, I came to see what the fuss was about. I almost stepped on the rock, but then it seemed to jump up at me and got real bright in my hand. I was going to put the sparkly in my pocket for my treasure box with my other favorite stuff.”
Turning side to side, Saxthor grinned back and forth between Tournak and Memlatec. The grave wizards stared; Saxthor stopped grinning.
The old wizard squatted down to face Saxthor who continued to chatter.
“I thought this rock might be what you were looking for when I saw you searching for something in the weeds. Is it one of your magic things?”
“Magic things,” Memlatec repeated.
“It’s kinda scary out here, isn’t it, sir?”
Tournak put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Jumped up at you… got bright in your hand, how so?”
Saxthor upended the pouch. “Yeah, look at it.”
The lunadar dropped into his hand and glowed to a brilliant white. The little prince glanced up and smiled at the stunned wizards.
“See how bright it is?”
Tournak’s eyes bulged.
Memlatec snatched the radiant crystal and smashed the gemstone against the well stones before anyone else could witness the dazzling reaction to the prince. Saxthor jumped back, bumping into Tournak who crossed his arms over the shaking boy. The old wizard searched the shadowy garden for anyone that might have beheld the resplendent light.
“I’m sorry,” Saxthor said.
Memlatec was crushing the stone to powder. “Nothing for you to be sorry about, son.
Tournak asked. “Did anyone come with you Saxthor? Did anyone follow you– see you?”
Saxthor’s green eyes, brilliant even in the moonlight, focused on Memlatec who stooped and held the boy’s head.
“No one followed me. I won’t mess with your rocks anymore, sir.”
“You’ve done nothing wrong, Saxthor, but you mustn’t tell anyone about the crystal, no one. No one, do you understand?”
“Yes sir, no one… except… I already told Bodrin.” Saxthor dropped his head. Memlatec and Tournak exchanged glances.
“Bodrin, yes… your best friend.Come, let’s get you back to the palace. You shouldn’t be out running around at night like this,” Memlatec said.
The wizards each held one of the smiling boy’s hands as they walked. The old man glanced over his shoulder at the well and caught a glimpse of a shadowy female figure that moved beyond the far garden gate. He spun around, but the woman was gone.
They rushed Saxthor back to the palace and turned him over to the guards at the base of the children’s tower.
Alone on the road back to Memlatec’s Wizard’s Tower in the hills above Konnotan, the two wizards traveled in silence before Tournak spoke.
“Earwig, Witch Earwig– she knows?”
Still staring ahead, Memlatec dreaded even the words he spoke.