Learning to Fly (7 Hunters)
The three of them rode for almost an hour with King Michael playing tour guide. He was thoroughly enjoying his role. It wasn’t very often that he got to relax and just talk with other people. Maybe he should make such outings mandatory for him and his Hunters.
JD was having a great time. He hadn’t embarrassed himself yet by doing anything stupid like falling off his horse or talking too much. And the king had been really nice about answering his questions.
Ezra was also enjoying their little jaunt. It gave him a chance to see more of Itreya and learn more about JD and the king. He was curious as to where they were headed. The king seemed to be moving in a particular direction with determination.
JD cleared his throat. “Your M…um…Michael, sir. I was wondering. Why do the people call you Michael the Just?”
“Itreyans have a thing for nicknames. Almost every ruler since the beginning has been given one. Usually the people wait until the new king or queen has been in power for a while so they can see what special talents the ruler has.”
“The Hunters aren’t the only ones to be granted special abilities, JD.”
Ezra knew it! He knew there was something different about the king! “If it’s not too personal, Sire, what would your talent be?”
Michael grinned at him. “That’s better. There’s actually more than one. Every ruler gets the ability to know truth from lies. I can always tell when someone is lying to me.”
“A handy talent to have in your position.”
“Definitely. It keeps the ruler from being tricked or deceived. The second gift everyone gets is a sort of sense of the land itself. It’s hard to explain. It’s not a sense of the physical land itself, but more of a sense of wrongness in the community. For example, I’ll get a feeling that the weaver’s guild is having financial troubles or that there’s a sickness spreading in one of the nearby villages.”
Ezra gave him a speculative eye. “And when one of his Hunters is troubled?”
Michael blushed. “Now that you mention it… This ability to sense a “wrongness” about things is stronger in regards to people close to me—especially my Hunters.”
JD thought he was missing something between Ezra and the king. “But what about your nickname?”
“Ah, yes. Michael the Just. I have the ability to perceive the best outcome for a situation.”
The king laughed and nudged his horse off the main path. The other two followed. “Imagine, JD, being able to know what decision will bring about the best solution. As king, I, along with my council, see all court cases in the kingdom. Sometimes the Hunters have the power to act in our stead, but for all intents and purposes, we are the final voice of judgment in Itreya. Imagine using that power in trials combined with the ability to know the truth. I can always tell who is in the right, but what if both parties are right to some degree? Or what if a heavy-handed judgment against one person makes things worse for everyone in the long run? I know after I’ve listened to all sides how to settle the dispute in the best interest of all—what will give the maximum benefit to the most people and to Itreya. After several months they started calling me ‘the Just’.”
“And your great aunt?”
“They called her Matilde Prosper. Her special ability was in finances. She knew absolutely everything about the economy, the guilds, trade agreements—you name it. She was able to increase productivity in the country and make it more prosperous than ever at a time when that was what Itreya badly needed.
Michael the Just isn’t the most exciting nickname, but it could’ve been worse. There were some rulers in history who got nicknames that didn’t have anything to do with their abilities. Some were named for their physical attributes: Charles the Bald, Lenore the Loud, Round Robert, Edward Eyebrows, and Eliza Long-nose. Her nose was actually part of her ability. She could smell Orcs. They were a real problem back then. Then there are those who got their names because of their personalities. There was Lawrence the Loner, Harried Queen Helen, George Grim, and the unforgettable Dirty Deirdre. She grew up on the docks and had a vocabulary that would make a sailor blush.
It’s all very fascinating. You should both take some time to read the chronicles in the city library.”
“I’ve already started! I’m learning lots of things about Itreya and its people.”
Ezra nodded. “I, too, have been spending some time in the library. I have found myself to be woefully ignorant of my own country.”
“Don’t worry, Ezra. You’re smart and determined. You’ll soon know more about Itreya than I do. I believe that you can do whatever you set your mind to as long as you continue to try.”
It was Ezra’s turn to blush. He inclined his head to the king in understanding. Once again JD thought he was missing something between Ezra and the king.
Ezra quickly turned his attention back to his horse. The terrain was now becoming a bit rougher. Ezra could also hear the roaring of the sea. The king was leading them down a slightly worn trail that twisted around some hilly ground. Where were they going?
“Ah, here we are. We can leave the horses tied at these trees. We won’t need them for a bit.”
“Are we taking a break?”
“Not quite yet, JD. Follow me. And everyone grab your packs and food supplies.” JD and Ezra dismounted, gathering their stuff to follow the king on foot. He was fumbling around through the brush.
“Do you need any assistance?”
“I will in just… There! Found it! Help me clear some of this brush here.”
After a few minutes, Ezra could see what it was King Michael had been looking for—a cave.
The king ducked into the darkened opening. Ezra and JD just stared at each other. Michael popped back out. “Well? Are you coming?”
JD merely shrugged and followed him in. Ezra reluctantly joined them. “Excuse me, Your Maj…”
“Michael. I don’t believe that JD brought the proper equipment with him for exploring caves. I know that I certainly didn’t. Did you bring torches with you?”
“We’re going to take the left fork in the tunnel ahead. Right now we still have light behind us from the entrance. Once we turn, you’ll understand why we won’t need torches.”
Michael chuckled. “Not all that mysterious. I just want you to be surprised.”
As the three of them turned down the left path in the tunnels, Ezra understood. The tunnel glowed with a luminous blue light similar to that of the Itreyan castle, bright enough to see by. “Is this a natural phenomenon?”
“No. These tunnels were dug by dwarves, and then the rocks enchanted by elves using the same methods that were used on the royal castle. It’s a crystalline rock native to Itreya that has a slight bluish cast to it. The elves were able to use their magic to enhance the color and strengthen the rock itself.”
JD puzzled face took on an eerie glow in the tunnel light. “But why here? Why did they do all that work in a bunch of caves?”
“Ah, because these weren’t always ‘just a bunch of caves’. Just a little bit further, right around this corner. Here we are!”
JD and Ezra stood dumbfounded. The tunnel had opened into an enormous cavern. In the glow of the blue crystals combined with the afternoon light streaming through partially covered openings, they could see the remnants of a once-grand structure.
“What is this place?”
“It was a fort in the days before this land ever bore the name Itreya. The back wall of the cavern there is actually the front of the fort. It’s part of the cliff face itself overlooking the sea. A lot of the windows and lookouts have become overgrown with vines over the years. Several more tunnels lead out to other secret holes like the one we entered, scattered across the hills. There’s also a ship harbor and dock in the lower levels. It was all built by humans, dwarves, and elves to guard against sea invasions. They were having a lot of trouble from seafaring Belen and Katar in those days.
Amazing, isn’t it? Would that our peoples could work and live together like they did back then. Maybe it was having a common enemy that brought them together. Now the dwarves have all moved south near Marfan. The elves have retreated to the Tenereth Mountains, rarely approaching human settlements at all anymore.”
JD was practically skipping from place to place, looking at every chiseled stone, touching every worn wall. “This is so… Wow!”
Ezra, too, was eagerly walking through the ruins, trying to recreate its glory in his mind. “Not the most eloquent expression, but extremely fitting. ‘Wow’, indeed.”
“It’s kind of a rite of passage in Itreya to come here. Adolescent boys and girls have been daring their peers to spend the night in the blue fort for generations. I first came here with Buck and Chris when I was a teenager. Buck, of course, tried to scare me with stories of ghosts and monsters.”
JD’s eyes grew wide. He looked around nervously. “Are there? Are there…ghosts here?”
“There’s no such thing.”
“We have them in Belen. Mostly just in graveyards, though.”
“I stand corrected. My apologies, JD. Rest assured, there are no ghosts in Itreya.”
Ezra sighed. “Thank you, Your… Thank you, Michael. This place is simply astonishing. This is truly an unforgettable experience.”
“But it’s not over, Ezra. This was only one of the reasons I brought you here. The second part of my surprise will have to wait awhile. It’s not dark yet. In the meantime, put your packs down over there and let’s explore.”
Michael gave them the grand tour. They wandered through the old soldier’s barracks and royal living quarters, down into the dungeons, and back up to the kitchen and Great Hall. Ezra saw that JD was as amazed as he over the sheer magnificence of it all. It looked not only formidable, but also elegant. Many of the walls were adorned with intricate carvings of great battles, mysterious creatures, dwarves, elves, and yes, dragons. There was even a faded mural in the Great Hall of a group of dragons doing aerial acrobatics over the sea. Why had they all gone away?
King Michael came to stand beside him, admiring the mural with him. “I can’t imagine what an amazing sight that must have been. Some of the dragons in these scenes are probably still alive. What stories they could tell us!”
“Do you think they will ever return?”
“I’m sure of it. We know that dragons hibernated every few hundred years. It’s been about that long since they left. They will return any day now. Exciting thought, isn’t it?”
“Don’t you want to meet other dragons?”
“I’m not sure. I could certainly learn so much from them on what it means to be a dragon, but… What use would they have for a young dragon that knows so little about his own people, who can’t even fly?”
JD was concerned at that. “Ezra, those dragons will be fussing over you like crazy! They can’t help themselves. You’re a young dragon who wants to learn. You’ll be beating them off with a stick. They’ll all want to teach you things, and show you stuff. That’s the way they are.”
“But my mother…”
“I don’t know why she’s different. All the dragons I know love young dragons and want to help and protect them.”
“But that’s in Belen, JD. Maybe Itreyan dragons are different.”
Michael shook his head. “From everything I’ve read in the library, the dragons here are nurturing and protective the same way.”
But Ezra was still left to wonder why his mother didn’t feel that way about him. Was he defective somehow? Maybe that was why he couldn’t fly. The other dragons would know it, too, if they saw him. What if he met them, only to be rejected by them, too?
The King grabbed Ezra’s arm. “Don’t worry. You’ll learn to fly. Trust me.”
They continued their tour, carefully climbing the steps against the cliffside wall up to an archway streaming with light. Pushing aside a bit of vine, they stepped out onto a battlement overlooking the sea. Ezra was reluctant to put himself out so high above the sea on an ancient walkway, especially after his recent disastrous falls, but the King had promised that the stone was sound. He said that dwarven-made structures would last ten-thousand lifetimes.
Once Ezra got over his initial misgivings, he began to relax and take in the view. JD was pointing out the direction of his homeland, detailing the many dangerous creatures that lurked beneath the Copra Sea between Belen and Itreya. Ezra listened with half an ear, having heard the story of JD’s journey to Itreya before. Instead he found himself staring out over the water, imagining what it would be like to soar over the waves, dipping down then spiraling up into the clouds. He watched the sun go down over the horizon, threading crimson and gold through the ripples in the water.
As the sun sunk low in the distance, Michael moved over to stand next to Ezra. “Dragons have better eyesight than humans, correct?”
“I’ve been told so.”
“Look down to your right, over there. Do you see that opening in the cliff face?”
“Keep a careful eye on it. As it gets darker, JD and I won’t be able to make it out, but you should be able to easily enough.”
The three of them stood there, looking down at the same spot. It felt like hours that they stood there. “Your Majesty…”
“Michael. Why are we watching this particular opening?”
“Did you hear that? I think you’re about to get your answer, Ezra. Watch closely.”
“I still don’t…”
It was so dark out on the walkway that JD couldn’t see much of anything. Too bad it was so cloudy that you couldn’t even see the moon. He did hear something, though. It was like a rustling, getting louder. The louder is got, the more it sounded like…flapping? He could see something, no, a whole bunch of somethings flying through the air. But it was too dark to tell what they were. “Are they birds?”
“Oh, no, JD. They’re bats. Are you watching, Ezra?”
Ezra stood in awe. He’d never seen anything like them. They didn’t have any feathers, but they still flew. They had fur! There weren’t any types of reptiles that sported fur, were there? He cursed himself for his ignorance of such things. Were they mammals? Flying mammals?
“Watch how they fly, Ezra. Look at the way they move their wings.”
Ezra did as the king suggested. How very odd. Their wings looked almost like dragon wings. And the way they flapped them was different from that of a bird or an insect. There was a different rhythm and pattern to it. It was quite beautiful and mesmerizing.
“JD. Call out to them and ask a few of them to come closer.”
“But, but…I’ve never talked to bats before! I don’t even know what a bat is! What if they’re not friendly?”
“Bats aren’t overly aggressive creatures as long as they’re not threatened. This particular variety only eats fruit. Ask them to come over politely. Tell them we have a dragon among us who’d like to meet them.”
JD was wary, but did as the king asked. Much to his surprise, several of the animals started flitting around in front of them. JD was amazed. They reminded him of baby dragons except for the fur and strange faces. “They…they want the dragon to come and fly with them.”
“Tell them I cannot. I don’t know how.”
The bats made all sorts of excitable noises. JD listened intently.
“What did they say?”
“They said that the first ancestors were rodents, forever stuck to the ground. But the Grandfather, the Grandfather Dragon showed them how to fly. They said they would be honored to show you. Just watch and learn.”
And that’s just what Ezra did. For the next hour he traced their movements through the air, committing the patterns and cadence to his memory. If a dragon had once taught the ancestors of these creatures how to fly, surely the technique would be similar enough.
“Ezra, what are you doing?”
Ezra had climbed up onto the stone wall that surrounded the walkway. He gazed out over the sea, trying hard not to look down. “This is the only way to know for sure if what I’ve learned from these bats is the correct method for a dragon.”
“Shouldn’t you try it somewhere a little safer, like perhaps a meadow?”
“I have a feeling that this is right, that this will work. I need to do it now while the bats are here to help me.”
Ezra leaped from the wall, aiming for deeper waters. He felt sure it would work, but just in case, he didn’t want to get smashed against the rocks straight down. He transformed in midair, taking on his dragon form. His wings unfurled, reaching out to catch the wind. A sudden rush of panic came upon him as he started to spiral downward.
“Flap, Ezra, flap! Do exactly as you saw the bats do!”
Several bats flew around him, flapping furiously as if to encourage him. Ezra forced himself to concentrate, trying to re-create the bats’ wing movements with his own. He saw the sea rising up to meet him and flapped faster, harder. He suddenly found himself pulling out of his spiral, flying off at an angle so close to the water that one of his wings cut the surface. With a burst of energy he pushed upward, moving his wings the way the bats did.
He wasn’t falling! He was flying! FLYING! He barely registered the sound of cheers coming from the walkway. He was actually flying! His flight was unsteady and unsure, but practice would take care of that.
JD and Michael watched Ezra flying through the night sky accompanied by excited bats. They watched him for hours until they both fell asleep.
Ezra was having so much fun that he’d completely lost track of time. It wasn’t until the first rays of the sun began to peek up over the horizon that he realized he’d been flying all night. No wonder he was exhausted! JD and the king! He’d forgotten them, as well.
As he flew back towards the walkway, it suddenly occurred to him that he didn’t know how to stop. The bats had only showed him how to fly, not land. JD and the king were awakened to the sound of Ezra’s talons scratching against stone as he tried to stop himself. He tumbled through the entrance and down the stairs back into the cavern area, JD and the king hurrying to his side.
Ezra lay in a heap at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at a beautiful mural of a dragon soaring over the land. He was tired, sore, and bruised, but thought this was the best day of his entire life.Part 5