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Lest There Be Dragons

By Cami
Page 2 of 4

Avon's mood lightened by dinner. He was fully prepared to enjoy the Queen's company. Even the presence of the silent, young popinjay in all of his finery couldn't spoil his cheer. Avon and the Queen argued genially over the proper use of catapults during a siege, finally agreeing to disagree.

"You know," the Queen concluded, "my commanders tell me that military strategy hasn't really changed since those ancient times. I'm not sure that I believe them."

"More wine?" Avon held out a flask.

"Yes, though I shouldn't. I have to be up early tomorrow."

"You're leaving again?" Tarrant asked woefully.

"I'm afraid I must."

"But you just returned home," he protested. "It's boring when you're away."

"It shan't always be that way," she promised. "I have plans to fill our retreat with gaiety and laughter. We will hold court with all the splendor of the past. There will be balls and galas."

"Parties," Tarrant translated, his face brightening.

"The most wonderful of parties as soon as my phy... advisors pronounced the situation here... stable." She shared a smile with both of them. "Will you like that?"

"Of course, my Queen," Tarrant said eagerly.

"As long as it is not too distracting from my work," Avon qualified.

The Queen patted his hand. "My too somber Lord Avon. It is so hard to get a smile from you."

"A gift rarely given is all the more valuable."

"Pretty words," she approved. "I am the most fortunate of queens to have such gallant subjects. Now, perhaps Lord Tarrant will sing and play for us. It will help me relax for an early bed."

The boy's voice was as fair as his form, and the simple stringed instrument complemented it well. Avon quite enjoyed the entertainment. He went to bed almost content.

#

A restlessness grew in Avon during the days following the Queen's departure. He found himself prowling the castle and ignoring his research, and he wasn't sure why. It was his habit to take solitary meals in his room unless the Queen was in residence, but now he ate in the cavernous hall--alone. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Finally, Avon questioned a high-ranking servant about him and was informed that Lord Tarrant was away on a trip. The news didn't bring the expected wave of jealousy; instead, an inexplicable pang of pity for the boy tugged at Avon's conscience.

On the third day, Tarrant was at the table when Avon arrived. He looked lethargic and was even quieter than normal, not greeting Avon. Halfway through the meal, his squire led him away. Tarrant didn't even question being ordered about by his serving man.

Avon paced his room late into the night, trying to fit together pieces of what seemed like a dozen different puzzles. It was as if his mind refused to focus on a question, so an answer was unattainable. The only conclusion that he managed in the dark, midnight hours was that the boy was an important clue to finding a solution. It was his absence, not the Queen's, that made him jittery. And perhaps his return would help solve the mystery and allow Avon to return his attention to his studies.

The next morning Avon sought out his young fellow lord. Tarrant's quarters were in the east wing at the end of a long passage where artifacts were displayed. The walls were rife with tapestry, shields, and weaponry.

The boy's squire admitted him to a spacious sitting room, fully three times larger than his own. Avon found it impressive but, on consideration, wouldn't have traded the privacy of his tower for the expanded accommodations.

"He's still in bed," the servant reported, returning from the inner chamber, "but said for you to go in. I'm fetching his breakfast. May I get something for you?"

"Why not?" Avon said with a lift of his eyebrow. "Breakfast would not be amiss." He waited until the man had left on his errand before venturing into Tarrant's bedroom.

"Lord Avon." Tarrant was sitting up in bed, revealing the upper half of a satin sleep outfit. It was midnight blue with a diagonal pink band running across it. Avon wondered how many foppish loungers were part of his wardrobe.

Now that he was here, Avon didn't have the faintest idea what to say. He covered his confusion by asking, "How are you feeling? You didn't look well at dinner last evening."

Tarrant appeared surprised at the question, as well he might. Avon had never indicated any concern for him in the past. In fact, this rather unprecedented visit alone had probably thrown him off balance. Ruffling a hand through his hair, the boy finally answered, "I'm better this morning. I think I had too much to drink yesterday, that's all."

"Indeed? Your trip must have been enjoyable then."

"Trip? It's the Queen who is away. She's only been gone a day and I already miss her," he said. "But why would you think that I went somewhere?"

So, Avon reasoned, not only wasn't Tarrant aware of being gone, he'd lost two whole days. That increased the apprehension that had been building in Avon. "I remembered your desire to travel into the outside world. When I didn't see you around yesterday, I thought you might have managed a day's excursion somewhere."

Tarrant's obvious puzzlement deepened. "You are confusing me. I don't want to leave the castle. Why should I? I have everything here. The Queen is most kind and generous."

"That she is." Avon swallowed hard. Tarrant's declaration was far different from his yearnings on the castle wall. Bracing himself, Avon forced out words that caused a painful tightening in his chest. "However, as pleasant as our life is, I do enjoy my occasional jaunts to other places. Even the Garden of Eden can grow boring."

"I don't think so," the boy said with a shrug. "But I suppose you'd need more variety than I do. You...you're very bright. Though you don't travel all that much. Just twice since I've been here. So you can't find the castle too confining."

Avon spun swiftly about and went to study the view from one of the windows, not wanting the boy to see that the blood had drained from his face. His brooding suspicions had been confirmed. Like Tarrant, he had no memory of time spent away from the castle. Whatever was happening, was happening to both of them. "Tell me," he quested over his shoulder, "do I look rather worn after my vacations?"

"Oh, yes," Tarrant confirmed cheerfully. "You are quite the dullard. Why, one time, I even knew the answer to the Queen's question before you did." He sighed heavily. "I don't suppose that will ever happen again."

There was a silence as Avon's concerns pressed in on him, causing the room to darken and blur. Then the boy spoke again, pulling him from the depths of chaos. "Why are you here?"

"That's a very good question," Avon said, turning around. He walked over and perched on the edge of Tarrant's rumpled bed that looked large enough for any three people. "I have discovered that things might not be as they seem. Have you ever considered that we might be prisoners here?"

A myriad of emotions flickered across Tarrant's face: shock, disbelief, curiosity, then finally mirth. He chuckled. "You are teasing me, of course. If we were prisoners, we'd be held in a dungeon."

"Dungeon?"

"Yes. All castles have them." He hopped agilely out of bed and began rummaging through a jumble of booktapes on a shelf. "Let me show you," he offered, inserting one of the tapes into the viewer. Sitting next to Avon so they both could see, he began flipping through the screens.

"There." Tarrant pointed as pictures of castles were displayed, followed by blueprints for the structures. "Each one has a dungeon. Most of them are in the lower levels, but...." he scanned over several pages before stopping, "this one is called the Tower of London. Sometimes prisoners were kept in its tower rooms. Perhaps that is why you think you might be in a prison. Your rooms are in a tower."

"No."

"But there would be guards," Tarrant chattered on, "which there aren't." He seemed quite pleased that he'd found a subject that he knew more about than Avon. It had loosened his normally still tongue. "Besides," he concluded, "if you were a prisoner, you'd be in our dungeon and not in what I'm sure are a very fine set of rooms."

"I don't recall a dungeon in our castle," Avon said slowly. The Queen had brought him on a tour soon after he'd... arrived. Awakened? Of course, that had only included the part of the castle that housed the nobility. He hadn't seen any of the service areas or quarters.

"We have one. I'm almost sure." Tarrant set the tape viewer aside and crossed his very long legs. "I've explored the castle when the Queen is away. If you go through the kitchens, there's a passage leading downward. It was dark and cold. Where the sloping tunnel evened out, I was stopped by two men. They told me I wasn't allowed to go any further. They were the guards, of course."

"You think? But why would there needs be guards unless there was something to guard?"

"You're right," Tarrant exclaimed, a note of excitement creeping into his voice. "There would have to be a prisoner or prisoners, some enemy of the Queen's. That's wonderful news." He popped up and started across the room. Halfway, he glanced back and paused to meet Avon's eyes with his own very hesitant ones. "Could you keep a secret?" he asked cautiously.

"I suppose."

Tarrant didn't look like he entirely trusted him, but he also looked about to burst with his "secret." Finally he nodded and went to where a scarlet cloak hung on a hook set into the wall. Secreted in its voluminous folds was a large sword. Avon guessed that it had originally decorated the passage outside and had been removed without permission. The boy pulled it free, then went over and carefully locked the door to the outer room.

"That's quite a wicked blade," Avon noted as Tarrant swung the heavy sword around. "You'd better put it away."

"I want to be the Queen's champion," Tarrant said, obediently sliding the weapon back on the hook and furling the cloak over it. "She asked me what present I would like this time. I requested a sword and lessons." He slumped dejectedly. "She laughed when I told her why."

"Perhaps she'll still buy you a sword," Avon said sympathetically. "She seems very fond of you."

"Fond," Tarrant scoffed. "She calls me decorative and says she likes me that way. I want to be more than decorative. Once... once, when she was in a strange mood, she told me that I used to be both decorative and resourceful. What's resourceful, Lord Avon, and why aren't I resourceful anymore?" Before Avon could think of an answer, the boy rushed on. "Do you remember... on the ramparts... she said that I slayed dragons. I think I like the old me better than what I am now. Some days, I don't know who I am."

And that so exactly mirrored what Avon felt about himself that he found he couldn't speak. The confusion that had been tickling at him expanded into a fiery pain that threatened to engulf him. Fortunately, before Tarrant could notice his distress, there was the sound of someone trying to open the door. The boy hurried over to release the lock.

It was Tarrant's squire, back, followed by three of the kitchen staff bearing trays of food. "I've brought your breakfast, my lords."

"Put it on the table in the sitting room," Tarrant directed.

"And then leave us alone," Avon added, finding a faint voice. "We'll call if we require anything else."

"I didn't know you were eating with me," Tarrant said, suddenly sounding very vulnerable. "Perhaps I shouldn't have told you my secrets. I hardly know you."

"I'm not even sure that is true anymore," Avon murmured. "But we do need to know each other better now. We are going to have to work together if we have any hope of muddling our way to the truth."

Sitting at the breakfast table, a thought bubbled up from the recesses of his subconscious, prompting Avon to grab Tarrant's hand as he picked up a large glass of juice. "Don't drink that."

"Why?"

"I'm not sure," Avon said, not willing to admit that his decision was based on the vaguest snatch of memory from a befuddled dream. "However, I think it's important. I'd like for neither of us to drink anything, as an experiment. There are cisterns that catch rain for watering the garden. We'll only drink from those. It might help you find that past self who resourcefully slayed dragons."

"Not even wine?"

"No wine." His dream self had only caught a fragmented portion of the pertinent dialogue: //...reinforcement drugs, don't drink...//

Tarrant grimaced but nodded. "Shall I call the servants to take the juice away and get us some rain water?"

"No," Avon snapped, a tad more harshly than he intended. The extent of Tarrant's naivety, while not unexpected, had caught him momentarily off guard. "This will be another secret. Just between the two of us. I shall dispose of enough of whatever beverages they serve us so that they don't know what we're doing."

#

Avon was justifiably proud of his decision to avoid any drinks supplied by the servants. Within days, he felt like a new man. His mind was clearer, his body more energetic. And he noticed an even bigger difference in Tarrant. The boy wasn't the complete idiot that Avon had believed him to be.

Still, Avon was careful to frequently remind Tarrant of the need for secrecy. Despite his improved comprehension, he was still such a child. There was always the chance that he'd accidentally blurt out something to the wrong person. And, in Avon's mind, everyone else in the castle was suspect. They had to be involved in whatever conspiracy existed. He emphasized the need for discretion as Tarrant carried out his assigned task, which was to find out as much as he could about the dungeon area he'd discovered, then to report back to Avon.

Meanwhile, Avon began his own study of several inconsistencies that had come to light as his mind had shed the cloak of lethargy. They were living in a feudal castle, yet it wasn't authentic. After careful research, using his books, tapes, and computer as well as Tarrant's picture books, he confirmed that castles were rather uncomfortable places to live. Someone had updated this castle to eliminate those shortcomings. The rooms were well insulated and heated by some central system rather than fireplaces. Glass covered every opening to the outside, even the arrow loops, indicating that they were strictly ornamental as opposed to functional. The most conspicuous improvements were in the cleansing chambers, which were thankfully far different from the garderobes described in the books.

First question: Why build a facsimile of a castle? Answer--to live a fantasy without denying luxury. Second question: Who? Another obvious answer--the Queen. She was the only one with sufficient power and wealth, and she had as much as admitted to a fantasy world that day on the castle wall. Which meant that he and Tarrant were part of her fantasy. After that, he drew a blank.

If the castle wasn't real, what was? There were huge gaps in his knowledge that none of his data sources could fill. Though he had a thorough history of everything through medieval times, things grew sketchy after that. Obviously, some time had passed; great inventions had to account for the energy powering the castle, and the computer. But the Queen hadn't provided anything detailing that. It was as if she wanted this world to replicate an older era as much as possible.

Frustrated, Avon cursed himself for not being more observant and asking more questions of the Queen. He had allowed her to direct their conversations. And though he'd found much of interest in the crusades and various conquests, none of it helped him solve his current dilemma. Who was he? Why was he?

One thing he had deduced. The strange contraptions worn by all of the staff were weapons. He was sure of it and felt stupid for not having determined that earlier. He'd even likened the leather pouch to a scabbard! It meant that there was possibly danger involved in his investigation, but that didn't persuade him to stop.

#

Tarrant perched on the windowsill, enjoying the panoramic view from Avon's tower. "I can see why you like it up here," he said, "though the stairs are enough to wear a body out."

"Your young body should have no problem if my rather old one can manage."

"You aren't old," the boy protested, hopping down. "That's kind of you to say, but I must admit that it has been rather disconcerting facing you over dinner all these months. You are young and handsome. Those curls should be against the law."

"My hair?" Tarrant smoothed his hand over it and laughed. "You're jealous of my hair, and here I've been jealous of yours all this time. It's so shiny and smooth. This is a tangled mess. I daren't wear it long like yours or a bird is apt to take up residence in it."

Avon felt his ego puff a bit. It allowed him to further confess, "You are also upsettingly tall and graceful."

"Well, you're smart," Tarrant countered.

Spontaneous laughter bubbled free from both of them. Avon controlled his enough to ask, "How did we get into this battle, each trying to prove the other superior?"

The boy smiled wistfully. "I don't know. I suppose because it isn't distressing, like some other things."

"Then you admit that we might not have control over our destinies?"

"Perhaps," the young man said warily, "but I don't believe the Queen would do anything to harm us. There must be a reason for this...pretense."

"You are very naive, but I don't think you are quite as stupid as I once believed."

"You've helped me to learn," Tarrant admitted, "but it hasn't been easy." He tapped at his head. "It's as if something in here is resisting."

Avon felt the depression seeping back in. He was sure that they had been tampered with, and there was no way of knowing to what degree. They had been violated and there was no assurance that what had been done could be undone. It almost made him wish that he had never chanced to question their existence. Perhaps life would have been easier, living the Queen's fantasy.

As if he had picked up on Avon's thoughts, Tarrant asked, "What will we do when the Queen returns?"

"We won't let her know of our suspicions," Avon said firmly. "Try to drink as little as possible. Probably the wine is safer than the water or the juices. She drinks from the same carafe as we do."

"I'm not sure I can manage to fool her." Tarrant's eyes dropped to his lap. "We...we've been intimate."

"I guessed as much. Do your best. Flash those teeth and she won't be capable of concentrating on anything else."

Tarrant's face tilted up at that, spread wide with an irritating grin. "If you make another remark about my smile or my curls," he threatened teasingly, "I shall probably have to throttle your frail, old body."

"Then I shall have to curb my tongue," Avon retorted with equal mocking. Growing serious, he asked, "What have you learned about this so-called dungeon?"

"Not much. I can't linger near that area too often or someone will wonder why. Twice, I've seen trays of food carried into the tunnel."

"I'd say that was pretty conclusive evidence that people are down there. People who aren't permitted to come upstairs for meals."

"True, but what does it matter. How can a prisoner help us? Anyone in the dungeon would be in a worse position than we are."

"Possibly...." Avon stood up. "I'd like to try an experiment. Come along." He grabbed Tarrant's hand and pulled him toward the door.

The inner courtyard was rather more opulent than the castles in Tarrant's picture books. There were flowers, trees and a soft layering of grass.

"Where are we going?" Tarrant asked.

"We are going to the gate, where we'll request that they lower the drawbridge."

"Why?"

"Because we'd like to take a walk in the countryside."

"I don't want to walk in the countryside," the boy protested with a shudder. "Avon, please..."

Avon shushed his next comment as they approached the man on duty. "Open the gate and put down the drawbridge," he ordered in his most imperious voice.

"That is not permitted."

"I am the Lord Avon. Aren't you required to obey me?"

"Only when it does not contradict rules set down by the Queen."

"Then I suppose we will have to wait and make the request of her first," Avon said genially. He took the boy's arm and turned him around. "Isn't that right, Lord Tarrant?"

"Yes," the young man answered uncertainly. A few steps further he hissed, "What was that all about?"

"To prove that we are prisoners. So whoever is in the dungeon is on our side."

"I'm afraid I can't keep up with your lightning logic," Tarrant said with a wry smile. "But I'm sure you'll explain."

#


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