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The Search for the Red Dragonby James A Owen
It was not the soothing notes of a lullaby that lured the children from their beds, but it was a song nonetheless. Their parents never heard it, for the tune had not been intended for them.
It was a song played for children; and when they heard it, the children came.
Half-asleep and barefoot, still in their nightshirts, the children climbed from their beds and through windows that had been opened, unknowingly, to let in the cool breezes of evening.
They walked, entranced, down winding lanes that converged into a single path that none of them had ever seen before, but that had always been there.
It had many names, for it was only ever walked by children, and children have a fondness for naming things. But each child, as they passed, knew it for what it truly was — the Road to Paradise. They knew this, because the song they heard told them so.
The notes of the music seemed to emanate from all around them, played everywhere and nowhere all at once, and the music maker, when they glimpsed him in the twilight air, seemed to change shape in time with the music.
His flickering, ghostlike form was sometimes a grown-up, and other times a child like themselves. And sometimes he seemed not to be human at all. The music told them his name: the King of Crickets. And none of them could resist the song he played.
None, save for one.
She had been cautioned that one day the King of Crickets would come, and that unless she was prepared, she would not be able to resist his song. No children could, unless they were crippled, and could not follow, or were unable to hear the tune and fall under its spell.
The beeswax she put into her ears, as the dream had told her to do, kept out enough of the music for her to resist its lure — but not so completely that she couldn't feel the desire, nor hold back the tears that streamed onto her pillow as she finally slept, still dreaming of Paradise.
For some children, the path ended at a great mountain face that split open to embrace them, and closed as they passed through. For others, it ended at a great precipice, which they stepped over, willingly, because the song told them they could fly. But for most, it led them to the Men of Iron, and the great ships that departed with the dawn.
In the light of morning, the path would again vanish, but it would have a new name: the Sorrow Road.
As they awoke to find the beds of their sons and daughters empty, the mothers and fathers in the towns and villages would feel bewilderment, then fear, and then terror. And they would name the path with their cries.
But it was too late. Much, much too late.
The children were already gone.
Copyright © 2008 by James A. Owen
The Angel in the Garden
John rarely dreamed, and it was even more seldom that he could recall what he dreamed about. But as of late, he had had dreams every night, and he remembered them all — because when he dreamed, he dreamed of Giants.
Massive continents of bone and sinew, creating their own topographies as they strode across the landscapes, giving little notice to the awed creatures watching from below. The Giants were so great it seemed they had both gravity and weightlessness; as if the next thundering step would suddenly launch them into space, to join with the gods and Titans among the constellations.
Standing with the populace of his dream world (all of whom, strangely, seemed to be children), John watched in mute wonder as the Giants strode past with geological slowness. Then, as in each of the dreams, one of the Giants turned and looked down, directly at John. Shifting its weight, it bent and reached for him with a hand the size of a barn as the children around him began shrieking....
The train whistle was shrill in the afternoon air, startling John out of his troubled reverie. He stood and quickly scanned the crowd departing the train that had just come in from London. The station at Oxford was not large, but the afternoon schedules were always full of both comings and goings, and he didn't want to miss the person for whom he was waiting.
He realized with a rising thrill that he was far more excited to see his old friend than he'd expected to be. They had, in point of fact, spent only a few weeks together a number of years before — but the events of those days were enough to make them closer than mere colleagues. And so when the thin, nervous-looking man with the high forehead and round spectacles finally emerged from the train onto the platform, John rushed forward and greeted him like a brother.
"Charles!" he exclaimed joyfully. "I say, it's terribly good to see you!"
"I'm very pleased to see you, too, John," said Charles, clapping his friend on the back. "It's odd — as I got closer and closer to Oxford, I kept feeling as if I was coming home. But it wasn't because of the place — rather because I knew I was going to be seeing you and Jack. Does that sound strange to you?"
"Yes," replied John, chuckling, "but in all the right ways. Come on — let me help you with your bags."
As they loaded Charles's belongings into John's vehicle, Charles looked around nervously and leaned closer to his friend. "I wanted to ask," he said in a conspiratorial whisper, "do you, ah, do you, you know, have, ah, 'it' with you?"
"Of course," said John, pointing to a bundle of books and papers on the rear seat. "It's there in the middle somewhere."
Charles's eyes widened in shock. "Here? Out in the open?" he exclaimed. "Not locked away or anything? John, are you out of your mind? That's, that's..." He lowered his voice again. "That's the Imaginarium Geographica. The single most valuable book on Earth. Don't you think it's a bit, ah, risky?"
"Not at all," John said with a trace of smugness. "Take a look at the lecture on top of the pile."
Charles adjusted his spectacles and peered more closely at the document. "It says, 'A proposal for syllabus reform as regards the study of Ancient Icelandic.' And the rest appear to be notes on courses in Comparative Philologies."
He climbed into the seat next to John and gave his friend a puzzled look. "Don't take this the wrong way, but how many people, even at Oxford, would care about such things?"
"Precisely my thinking," said John as he started up the car. "I have a hard enough time getting the undergraduates to pay any attention to Anglo-Saxon, much less Old Icelandic. What better protection for the Geographica than to bury it amongst manuscripts that no one else will care about?"
It had been nine years to the day since John and Charles had met each other in London. Nine years since they and the companion they were going to see had gone on the most extraordinary expedition of their lives.
Exceptional circumstances had brought the three young men together at the scene of a murder. The dead man, John's mentor, Professor Sigurdsson, had been one of the Caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica.
The Geographica was an atlas of maps of a place called the Archipelago of Dreams — a great chain of islands that had been coexisting with our own world since time began and had influenced many of the great men and women of history.
But not all of those influenced by the Archipelago were influenced for the better.
A man called the Winter King tried to use the Geographica and the knowledge found within to conquer the Archipelago. Another Caretaker, Bert, enlisted John and his two friends to travel into the Archipelago to try to stop the Winter King. And somehow, despite terrible odds, they managed to do it.
The Winter King lost, and fell to his death over the edge of an endless waterfall. A new order was established in the Archipelago, under a new king and queen. And the Geographica now had three new Caretakers: John, Charles, and the youngest of the three friends, Jack.
But there had been prices paid for their victory. Allies were lost. Mistakes were made. And although there had been a measure of redemption, there were some events that would never be far from their thoughts.
Events in the Archipelago resonate with those in our world — which was then still in the midst of World War I. John resumed his service in the military just as Jack began his. Only Charles was spared, due to his general nervous nature and age. And when finally, the war ended, they all resumed their lives as if the war, and their adventure in the Archipelago, had been imaginary aberrations, or dreams.
And perhaps John could have convinced himself that it all had been a dream, if it were not for the great leatherbound book that he still possessed. He had not had so much as a message from Bert since the old tatterdemalion had returned them to London aboard the White Dragon — one of the great living Dragonships that were able to cross the boundary between our world and the Archipelago.
At least, John mused, there hadn't been any more murders. Or another war. He didn't think the planet could survive a second war on the scale of the one they'd come through. But then again, much of the responsibility for those events could be attributed to the Winter King — and he had been dealt with.
John had been working in his study at Oxford when the messenger boy arrived with the note from Jack's brother Warren that requested he come to see Jack immediately. As he was reading it, the telephone rang. John picked it up and was happily surprised to find Charles on the other end, having just received a telegram of his own. In short order, arrangements were made for Charles to travel to Oxford, where he and John could meet and then go together to see Jack.
When they had parted ways in London years earlier, they had made a pact to never contact one another except in the event of a situation arising that involved the care of the Geographica, or the Archipelago, or in case of another extreme emergency. It was, they decided, the only way to protect the secrets they had been entrusted with.
It was likely, if not inevitable, that their academic pursuits would sooner or later bring them into contact with one another; but otherwise, it might foster too many questions for the three to be in one another's company. And in nine years, no occasion had arisen for any of them to cross paths — so for Jack to deliberately break their pact and contact each of them directly was, John suspected, probably more for a bad reason than a good one. Unlikely as it was, he hoped it was the latter.
The small cottage where Jack was staying was near a cozy little village at the edge of Oxford city. They parked the car on a patch of gravel just off the road, and after checking on the Geographica, went to the front door and knocked.
The door was opened immediately by a thickset, tanned fellow in military dress, who bore more than a passing resemblance to the young man they both remembered. John and Charles both hesitated, before remembering that it was Jack's brother who had summoned them there in the first place.
John immediately stiffened into the formal posture he affected when addressing a fellow officer. "You are a captain, I believe?" he asked before the other waved off the question.
"Please, we're all informal here," the man said, shaking John's proffered hand. "I'm heading swiftly for retirement in a few more years and plan to soon be devoting my time to assembling the family papers and as much reading as I can manage."
"I'm John, and this is Charles. We came as quickly as we could."
"A pleasure," said Charles, stepping forward to shake the man's hand. "You're Warren?"
"Call me Warnie — Jack does. I'm very grateful to both of you for coming. Although I must admit, it is a bit odd that he should ask for you."
"Why is that?" said Charles.
"As I understand it," Warnie explained, "you've not actually become officially acquainted since he began teaching at Magdalen. In fact, before yesterday, Jack never so much as mentioned either of you at all."
It was a testament to the swiftness of their self-control that neither John nor Charles exchanged a glance at this.
"It's just that Jack is an intensely private person," Warnie continued, "and while he's an excellent tutor, and is very affable with our circle of friends, it's unlike him to be so open about personal matters with, er, ah, strangers, so to speak. And especially so to invite them here to his private study. No offense."
"None taken," said Charles, trying to keep the mood light. "If I'd come here for a bit of solitude, I wouldn't want to be disturbed either. This is a lovely accommodation. It's called the Kilns, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is," said Warnie, nodding, "after the brick buildings down the way.
"We've taken it for a few months so that Jack could get some work done," he went on. "It's a very pleasant place, actually, and very convenient to Oxford, as you've seen. The gardens are quite large — almost a park — and extremely overgrown. But I wouldn't mind settling here for good, if we had the coin to afford the price."
He regarded Charles appraisingly. "You called it the Kilns — you know Headington Quarry, then?"
"I've had my opportunities for walking expeditions from the city," replied Charles. "Not so much now that I'm based in London, but I do like returning here to Oxford now and again."
"I haven't been out this direction yet," John said, "but now that I've been given the new position at the university, I expect I'll have plenty of opportunities."
"New professor of Anglo-Saxon, Jack said?" asked Warnie.
John nodded. "Yes. The professors and college tutors don't have too many occasions to socialize, but I imagine we'll be coming together sooner or later."
"How is it that you know Jack, if you don't mind my asking?"
"We, ah, we met during the war," said John. "The three of us, that is. It was a very unusual circumstance...."
Warnie made a dismissive gesture but smiled knowingly. "Say no more. It's all clear to me now. The war created brothers in an instant, and made allies of enemies and vice versa. I was wary that he's asked me to summon colleagues he's never mentioned to me — but if you served together in the war...I didn't mean to pry, but brothers should look out for one another, you understand?"
"We do," said Charles. "That's why we didn't hesitate to answer your summons."
Warnie smiled again. "Good show, good show. Let me take you back to Jack's study — he's waiting for you there."
"You said it was personal matters he wanted to discuss," John said. "But it wasn't clear in the telegram you sent what exactly Jack wanted to see us about."
"He's stopped writing in his journal — stopped writing altogether, now I think on it," said Warnie. "Then he stopped reading. That's when I really began to worry."
"Why?" asked John.
"He lost a very close friend in the war. And although he was nowhere near at the time, Jack feels he is somehow responsible for the fellow's death."
Charles and John each drew a sharp breath. That had to be a factor in why Jack had asked for them. In the battle with the Winter King, he had been responsible for the death of an ally, and it had affected him greatly. But Jack seemed to have reconciled himself to it well before their return to London — or so they had assumed. Apparently they were mistaken.
"How is he sleeping?" John asked.
"He isn't. Night terrors, I'm afraid," Warnie said somberly. "They've been going on for several days now, and there's been little I could do to help. The worst was two nights ago. Lots of screaming and thrashing about, and calling out a word over and over — 'Aven.' I have no idea what it means, and Jack wouldn't speak of it. It was that next morning he told me to seek out the two of you and ask you to come here."
He paused at a sturdy door and hesitated before knocking. "I'll leave the three of you to catch up. I'll be puttering about in the garden if you need anything."
As Warnie moved back down the hall, John and Charles opened the door and entered the book-crammed study. Jack — taller, broader, more manlike than the boy they'd known — stood at the window with his back to the door.
"Jack?" Charles ventured. "Jack, we've come. It's Charles and John."
Jack tilted his head slightly, acknowledging their presence, but he did not turn around. Instead he asked a question.
"Was it real? Did it all really happen, after all?"
It took a moment for them to realize what he was asking.
"Yes," said John. "If you're asking what I think you are."
"So...the Archipelago of Dreams...the Imaginarium Geographica..."
"Yes," John repeated. "It's all real."
Jack turned to look at them, his face inscrutable. "Do you have the atlas with you? Can — can I see it?"
"It's, ah, it's in the backseat of the car," John admitted sheepishly.
"In a lockbox, or a leather bag, I'd assume?"
"No," said Charles. "It's protected by a thick layer of lectures on Ancient Icelandic."
Jack blinked and then snorted. "And they call you the Caretaker Principia. Did you at least mix in a few papers on old Anglo-Saxon? Or are you giving your professorship short shrift too?"
John and Charles stared at their friend for a moment before the somber expressions on their faces were broken by broad, transcendent smiles.
"Of course it happened, my good fellow," said Charles, clasping Jack by the shoulders. "Our adventure in the Archipelago of Dreams has become the stuff of legend. And you are one of the heroes."
Jack embraced each of his friends, then stepped back to look at them. "Charles," he said with a hint of teasing, "you've gotten old."
"Editors don't grow old," Charles retorted. "They just become more distinguished."
"And you," he said to John, "how are you finding teaching at your old stomping grounds?"
"I like it as much as I expected," said John. "Although I think I'd prefer to be left alone to write if I have another crop of students like the current bunch. Hardly an inquisitive or creative mind among them."
"It could be worse," said Charles. "You could be teaching at Cambridge."
At the mention of their old joke, the three friends doubled over in laughter. But soon enough a more serious mood settled upon them again, and the haunted look Jack had worn when they entered returned to his face.
"Why have you called us, Jack?" John asked. "What's happened?"
"It's hard to say," Jack replied. "I came up here with Warnie to work on some of my poems — and perhaps a book or three — but several weeks ago I began to have nightmares, and in the last few days, they've gotten worse."
"Warnie said you called out Aven's name," said Charles.
"Yes," admitted Jack, wincing visibly. "I've tried not to think much about her since our return to England — but I've been dreaming about her. I — I think she's in terrible trouble of some kind. But I can't say what."
"Hmm," John mused. "What else has been in these dreams?"
"Well, dreamstuff, naturally," said Jack. "Things that come bubbling up from one's subconscious. Indians, and crows, and strangely...children."
"Do tell," John said, considering his own recent dreams. "If there were children, I'm assuming there were also..."
"...Giants," finished Charles. "If there were children, then there were also Giants. I've been having the same dream."
"As have I," said John. About the Giants, but not about Aven, he said silently to himself.
Before any of them could elaborate further, they were interrupted by a knock at the study door.
"I'm dreadfully sorry to interrupt," said Warnie, "but it seems we've, ah..." He paused and bit his lip, as a curious and puzzled expression came over his face.
"Warn?" said Jack. "What is it? What's happened?"
"Oh, nothing bad — I think," Warnie replied. "But it appears we have an angel in the garden."
There was indeed, as Warnie had surmised, an angel in the cottage's garden; or at least, something that was as close to a description of an angel as one might give if one was unaccustomed to finding such things in one's garden.
Sitting in a disarray of just-blooming bluebells, mud, and free-floating feathers was a small girl. A small girl with wings.
Her face was smudged with dirt, and her clothing, a simple brown tunic, belted at the waist and across the shoulders, was tattered and torn. Her wings were spread out behind her in a manner that was more awkward than graceful, and they were bare in patches where the feathers had detached themselves in an apparently difficult landing.
"More of a cherub, really, don't you think, John?" said Charles.
"And you would know this how?" asked John. "When have you ever seen a cherub?"
"Look," said Charles, "when he said 'angel,' I was expecting something a little more grown-up. This cherub can't be more than five years old."
"I'm eight, I'll have you know," the girl piped up. "Next Thursday, anyway. And I'm not a cherub or an angel, whatever those are. I'm Laura Glue, and Laura Glue is me."
"Your name is Glue?" asked Charles.
"Laura Glue," the girl protested. "There is a difference, you know."
She stood up and dusted off her clothes, all the while keeping a wary eye on her accidental hosts.
"How did you get here?" Warnie asked, looking around. "Are you with your parents, or on a school outing, perhaps? This is a private garden, not a picnic spot."
Laura Glue looked at him like he was speaking Swahili. "I flew here, I'll have you know. What d'you think the wings are for, anyways?"
Jack began examining Laura Glue's wings, and quickly discovered they were not naturally hers, but were in fact artificial. Delicately made, of extraordinarily inventive design, but constructs nevertheless.
"Hey!" Laura Glue cried, stepping back defensively. "You should ask permission b'fore poking someone's wings, y'know."
"My apologies," said Jack with a deferential bow.
"'S okay," Laura Glue said. "Longbeards never ask."
"I would not have been able to tell," said Charles. "From a distance they looked like they were quite real."
"Uncle Daedalus makes 'em for all the Lost Boys," the girl said proudly, "but ol' Laura Glue's the only one what can fly with 'em. This far, anyways."
"Uncle Daedalus?" John exclaimed. "You don't mean to tell me these wings were made by the Greek Daedalus of myth? The one who lost his son Icarus when the boy flew too close to the sun?"
"What, are you daft?" said Laura Glue. "He'd have to be a thousand years old."
"Exactly," Charles agreed.
"You're thinkin' of Daedalus the Elder," explained Laura Glue. "The one what built my wings is Daedalus the Younger."
"A descendant?" John asked, teasing. "Or Icarus's brother, perhaps?"
"Pr'cisely," said Laura Glue. "An' the reason he don't use wax anymore when he makes the wings."
"All right," stated John. "So where were you flying to? Or do you mean to tell us that you planned to crash in Jack's garden?"
"Planned to crash, no," said the girl, "but this is where I'm supposed to be. I'm looking for the Caretaker. I got an important message from th' Archipelago."
John, Jack, and Charles exchanged terse looks with one another at the mention of the title. It could apply to any or all of them, but it most likely meant John. Warnie, of course, had no idea what she meant.
"I told you," he repeated, "this is a private garden. There is no caretaker."
"I'm not looking for a gardener," the girl retorted. "I'm looking for the Caretaker of the Imaginarium Geographica."
She rummaged around in her tunic and drew out a delicate flower that seemed to be made of parchment, on which three symbols had been carefully rendered. The flower also seemed to be glowing faintly.
John recognized the first symbol as the seal of the Cartographer of Lost Places — the man who had created the Imaginarium Geographica. The second was the seal of the High King of the Archipelago. "What's this third mark?" he asked.
"That's what makes it work," replied Laura Glue. "This is a Compass Rose. The seal of the king gets it through the frontier, the seal of the Cartographer tells it where everything is, and the third mark is what lets you find what you're looking for. In this case, the Caretaker. The closer I gets, the more it glows. And when I flew over your cottage, it went so bright it blinded me, and I crashed in your bluebells.
"So," she continued, marching around them with a determined look on her face, "where are you hiding him, anyway?"
"Look here, Jack," Warnie began.
"Perhaps you should go in and put a pot on to boil," Jack suggested. "She's obviously a troubled young girl, but I think we can sort it out."
Warnie nodded and headed for the cottage at a trot without looking back.
John knelt before the girl and noticed that the Rose was still glowing but got no brighter because of his proximity.
"I'm the Caretaker Principia, Laura Glue," he said gently. "Now can you tell us what this is all about?"
Her reaction wasn't what John expected. The girl's eyes grew wide with surprise, then narrowed in suspicion.
"You're not the Caretaker!" she exclaimed. "Where is he and what have you done with him? Tell me now, or I shall be very, very cross."
"But your Compass Rose is glowing," said John. "And I have the Geographica nearby. I am the Caretaker. Why would you think I'm not?"
"Because," answered Laura Glue, who had taken a defensive, defiant stance, "he called you John, and I know the real Caretaker's name is Jamie."
"Jamie?" Charles exclaimed, turning to the others. "It's no wonder she doesn't know any of us. She's looking for the last Caretaker — the one John replaced.
"She's looking for Sir James Barrie."
Copyright © 2008 by James A. Owen
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