Part 7

later, early evening

Nathan wiped the sweat from his forehead.  With the shade of so many trees he couldn't understand why it was still so hot.  "It feels like we've been walking for days.  Aren't we there yet?"

Ezra stopped to give him a sanctimonious once over.  "Don't tell me the mighty Hunter is tired already?  Really.  I feel sorry for your compatriots if they had to listen to your constant complaints on the long trip from Itreya to Four Corners."  Jackson was really starting to get on his nerves.  The man had been rude and unpleasant to him since the moment they'd met.

"I'm from Kandigar.  We have a dry heat there.  It's nothing like this horrible humidity.  I guess I haven't acclimated myself to it yet."


"Yes.  You know, desert kingdom east of Itreya?"

Ezra still looked perplexed.

"Land of the Golden Sands?  Of the Flaming Sun and the Thrice-Spiced Winds?"

"Never heard of it."

"Never heard of it?!  I thought you were well-traveled?"

"I said I'd been 'here and there'.  You simply assumed that meant I was well-traveled.  I haven't even been to the capitol city if you remember correctly.  Assumptions can be dangerous, Hunter Jackson."

"But everyone's heard of Kandigar!"

"Apparently, I am not everyone."  Ezra turned away from the healer to hide the smile that threatened to peek out.  If Jackson saw it, he would probably assault him.  The man was much too easy to rile.  Who knew this little jaunt would have such amusements?

"Hey, Ezra?"

"Yes, Hunter Dunne?"

"Have you ever heard of Belen?"

"Why, yes, I have.  Are you from Belen?"

Nathan smacked his head in frustration.  How could Ezra have heard of a far-off country like Belen and not even know about one of Itreya's closest neighbors?

Josiah watched them, bemused.  Ezra was baiting Nathan.  The Kandigaran really did get riled to easily.

JD was preening now, smug because Ezra had heard of his country.  "Yep!  I'm from Belen."

Ezra shook his head sadly.  "My condolences.  It must be a trial to be constantly under threat of sea krakens, dark mages, and giants."

"It's not that bad!  Belen's really good at making alliances.  The mermaids sing the krakens away from our boats and shores, the mountain white witches keep most of the dark mages out, and the dragons help us fight the giants."

"Dragons?  Oh, yes.  The Belenites use dragons somewhat like flying steeds, don't they?  It must be handy to have such ferocious creatures at your beck and call to unleash upon your enemies."

It was said so off-hand, but JD didn't like what Ezra was obviously thinking--the same thing the others thought before.  "It's not like that at all!  The dragons are our friends and allies.  They hate the giants, too.  We always worked together to defend our homes.  They could all fly away tomorrow if they wanted, but why would they want to?  They have their own homes, plenty of food to eat, gold blankets to keep them warm..."

Buck's eyes got big as saucers.  "Gold blankets?"

"Sure.  There's lots of gold in Belen."

Josiah frowned.  "Maybe you shouldn't spread that around.  Belen would soon be overrun by bandits."

"Nah.  They'd have to cross the Copra Sea first.  All the rumors about the sea are true.  Unless you have mermaids to help--and they won't help just anybody--you'd never make it halfway before a kraken or a giant squid ate your whole ship up."

Buck was still thinking about those gold blankets.  "Why not make the blankets out of wool?  Seems easier and more practical to me.  A lot warmer, too."

"Not for dragons.  They have a hard time staying warm--especially at night when they sleep.  When they touch gold it kind of reacts to their skin and heats up."

"So that's why dragons always have a horde of golden treasures in all those stories!  I always wondered what a dragon would need with a bunch of gold.  Now it makes sense."

"Yeah.  They wrap themselves around it at night to keep warm."

Ezra sighed theatrically.  "A creature after my own heart."

Nathan snorted at the thought.  "A heart?  You?"

"Perhaps not.  But then it's not the presence or absence of a heart that you required for this expedition--simply my knowledge.  And I can assure you I do have a brain."

Buck slapped him on the back good-naturedly, earning him a disgusted look from Ezra.  "A mighty arrogant and puffed up brain, but we'll take it."

"Yes, well.  Thank you for such a rousing endorsement."  Ezra turned to JD.  "It seems that we have something of an expert on dragons in our midst.  Tell us what you know about dragons, Hunter Dunne."

The others suddenly looked horrified.  They'd already heard everything JD knew on the subject on the trip from the capitol--plus probably just about everything else he knew period.

JD's face lit up.  "Sure!  Well, to start with, they're not just animals like most people think.  They're real smart.  They can talk and dance and sing and..."

Ezra had noticed the way Larabee always flinched whenever JD began one of his long speeches.  Apparently, the man in black had little patience for such youthful, energetic chatter.  To Ezra, who spent much of his time alone, it was a refreshing change of pace.  And he was quite interested in learning more about dragons--even if they were the Belenite variety rather than the Itreyan.  My!  JD certainly could talk!

Ezra felt the weight of someone's eyes upon his back.  Sure enough, when he turned to look, he found Chris staring at him with a dark light in his eyes that promised retribution.  Ezra merely smiled at him, daring him to do his worst, before he turned his full attention back to JD's lecture.

Part 8