Vidar finds a familiar face in a new home. Tafari’s path as a Dragon Speaker is set before him.
Vidar is 29
Drakewood City was the largest and finest urban settlement in all of the Rustica Empire. Great red and gold buildings seemed to tower as high as the sky, while the streets swept majestically in loops and figure-eights around tall monuments and acres of parkland. Statues of the City’s founder, as all great cities had in Rustica, stood majestically in front of numerous museums, libraries and the cathedral. Amidst all the finery, a young man emerged from a house and headed in the direction of a green park area where the remains and sounds of a party were faintly straining on the wind.
Great changes had occurred in the last four years for Vidar. Finch had gone, Choral and her child were now unheard of, and he was settled into a routine in a Dragon City. Marianne too was gone – she had perished in a house fire a year ago in her village. The three losses had hardened Vidar to a state he had previously unknown and for a time he had been almost scared by the levels of his own grief and anger at what had happened.
Drakewood City never let him feel down for long though, and amidst all the frantic flurry and activity of everyday life, Vidar began to feel a gradual belonging and sense of security. He had come across the City six months ago in his wanderings and decided to lay low for a bit whilst learning the trade of the merchants. The Dragon Guardians were the best protection he could have had, and he was learning all the while to see a new side to the docile creatures whose brothers he had once slain.
He entered the parkland and crossed the bridge that led to wide open grassy play areas. He did not much like parties and frivolous merriment, but for once, he wanted to be out in the sunshine amongst company. Already, he could see bands of people spread out over the banks by the river, and a knot of celebrating adults and children gathered by a table under some trees. He recognised a few smiling faces and returned a nod here and there. There were people from other Cities, and they were welcomed with warmth from everyone they saw. Even now, Vidar did not understand the easy friendships that others could fall into so naturally. Amongst the crowd, he spotted a figure he recognised and whom could easily have raised his hackles at any other point: the tradesman, who had won Marianne from him some years previously.
He knew who Florian was of course; Niall had mentioned him briefly and both he and Florian had even met and spoken once at a traders’ meeting a few months ago while Vidar had been working undercover. There had been no sign of a little girl though, but now …
Florian turned as shrieks of laughter danced through the air. He called to a young child who was running barefoot through the grass. The girl swerved, screamed with merriment, and jumped into her father’s embrace. She accepted a piece of cake from him and then ran on, all sticky crumby lips and cheeks fattened by the treat. Vidar reeled for a second.
It couldn’t be. Marianne’s daughter? Here?
Vidar tried to ignore the little girl as she dashed, giggling, from one tree to the next, followed by a number of other tiny children. So like her mother – he remembered how Marianne had never been on her own; she had always had someone to talk and laugh with. He couldn’t help but stare though, as he tried to work out whose party this was. Was it her birthday? Did she and Florian live here? If that was the case, then certainly Drakewood City was no longer for him. He needed to move on straightaway. He thought of the one place he had always felt safe and happy, and where protection was always guaranteed. He must make plans to go back to Niall’s school at once and apply to be a recruiter …
He turned, at once forgetting everything Niall Kobor had ever taught him, too entranced by the innocent charms of the party and his own wild thoughts. Choral stood before him, smiling wanly. It had been seven years since he had seen her. He had to blink three times to make sure she wasn’t an image he had conjured up.
‘It is a surprise seeing you here.’
‘I could say the same,’ he answered cautiously, wondering if she was going to start a scene. However, there was an expression in her eyes that suggested that she was not going to. She seemed exhausted inside. He wondered what she had been doing with herself the last few years.
‘What are you doing in Drakewood City? Do you live here?’
She shook her head. ‘No, I have been travelling. I have been for a while now.’
‘With your son? With …?’
‘It’s Tafari,’ she reminded him, a hint of the old smile back on her face. ‘It’s his birthday today, actually. We’re having a little celebration before I move on.’
She pointed Tafari out. A small boy by the trees on a grassy slope was surrounded by a group of children singing to him. The boy was grinning merrily, looking as if he could not believe he had some friends. Vidar had to force himself not to look shocked or tear his eyes away; with a pang, he recognised much of himself in that overjoyed expression.
‘There’s not much time for me to explain what’s been happening to me and Tafari, but I do need your help …’
‘Anything,’ he assured her.
‘Finch always said Tafari would be special. He was right, in a way he never got to know how. Those who are different are always going to attract attention, and Tafari will be in permanent danger of attracting the wrong sort …’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘My son can talk to dragons, Vidar. He has always been able to, ever since he was very young. I can’t explain to you how or why right now, but Tafari has the Gift.’
‘The Gift? You’re sure? But that is what …’ He stopped abruptly.
‘I know, it’s what Theodoric Oadir has,’ Choral murmured, and an odd shadow passed over her face. ‘And you know his aims. You were asked once to join him in slaying all the dragons in Rustica.’
Vidar could feel himself beginning to redden. Any moment now, she would bring up Finch’s death. But how could she know Oadir had the Gift? It was only really well known amongst the dracologists and among the slayers.
‘You think that Oadir may be interested in learning more about Tafari?’
‘I have no doubt of it. He is really dangerous, Vidar. Truly treacherous. I must ensure Tafari is kept well out of his reach.’
‘Choral, if you’re in any danger, we can hide you and your son here,’ he told her seriously.
‘It’s too late for me. Tafari must stay here, under the protection of the dragons. If I could ask, under your protection also.’
Vidar frowned. ‘Wait a moment. You’re leaving Drakewood City without him? For how long?’
They stopped talking abruptly as the little boy rushed to his mother and pulled on her hand. Vidar jolted in surprise to see how much he looked like Finch. There was a gap in his top row of teeth that tugged surprisingly for a second at Vidar’s heart.
‘Wait a moment, sweetheart. There’s that friend of yours who wants to play with you.’ She pointed at Marianne’s little girl who had wandered nearer.
Choral waited until Tafari had run off before she continued. ‘I really don’t know. There is no telling when I will be back for him, but I must leave today before time runs out. I wanted to stay this week for him, to see his seventh birthday. All I can tell you is that there is a force out there which Tafari will be much safer from in a Dragon City. You understand about fighting and wild dragons. I have to keep him safe from all that; even as a Dragon Speaker, Tafari will not understand. Not yet. And I want your word you will watch over him until I return.’
‘Please, Vidar. The dragons have agreed to do the looking after, but he needs human counsel too, from a trusted source. There is no one else to ask.’
Vidar knew he could say no. This was a woman who had berated, blamed and hated him for years, and now she was requesting favours of him simply because she knew nobody else. But what possible reason could he give? He wasn’t a full-time babysitter, he didn’t enjoy children, and she had a cheek approaching him out of the blue after years of silence? She would hear none of those.
‘Melchior will take care of him. I must ask that you will be there too, if he should need you.’
‘He needs you. Where are you going and why?’
‘I can’t say, Vidar, please don’t ask me. In case a trail follows me away from Drakewood City. I just need to know Tafari will be protected. You know as well as I do that having the Gift is not going to make life easy for him. But I have tried to make it as painless as I can, providing him with some dragons to live with.’ What she said next almost took his breath away. ‘For Finch,’ she said eagerly. ‘Do it for him, Vidar. He would have wanted his son to be looked out for by his best friend if I couldn’t. I take back what I said. You can be his guardian again; you can look out for him properly now.’
She had trapped him on that point and he could not think of a reply. He was frankly staggered.
‘You’ll do it?’ Choral pressed.
Vidar hesitated, and then nodded.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered. ‘Thank you. You have no idea what this means.’
Don’t thank me, Vidar wanted to say. Take your son and leave with him now. Take him away so I don’t have to look at him every day and be reminded of the best friend I lost. Take him away so I don’t watch him being friends with Marianne’s daughter and see her every day.
When it came down to it, Choral had no idea what leaving Tafari in Drakewood City was going to mean for any of them.
‘One more thing I must ask. Don’t tell him who you are. Or who you were. Revealing that you are a slayer of the creatures he can Speak with will only confuse him. And I don’t want him hating you because of it. I don’t want that.’
Her eyes shimmered with an indescribable emotion. Was this her attempt at a tentative reconciliation?
His childhood friend gave him a grateful glance and hurried to where Tafari was playing with Eirian in the shade of the trees. I could have protected you, he nearly said to her back. I could have been the one to save you and your son, even if I couldn’t save Finch. He turned away for a few minutes to let them have a farewell, and when he searched her out again, Choral had gone. He blinked in surprise. It seemed she might be able to teach him a trick or two about disappearing. Tafari too was looking puzzled, staring around him at the crowds. Only the Chief Guardian of the City, Melchior, did not seem surprised. The dragon caught Vidar’s eye and swiftly took to the air, landing immediately at Tafari’s side. The young boy smiled in delight, reassured to see a familiar friendly face.
The sun soon disappeared behind the clouds and spots of rain began hitting the outdoor furniture. Melchior had to leave Tafari’s side to confer with the Guardians, and Florian collected Eirian to take her home. Finch and Choral’s boy began wandering about by himself, searching in earnest. After two minutes, he spotted Vidar and remembered him as someone his mother knew. The child ventured to his side and Vidar, quite unintentionally, took a few steps back.
Vidar could clearly see plump tears forming in Tafari’s eyes. He felt a sudden surge of indignation that Choral could do this disappearing act to her little son, on his birthday too. What was the matter with the woman?
Tafari looked up at him, dark eyes filled with confusion and worry, and his bottom lip beginning to tremble.
‘Where’s my mummy?’
That’s all, folks! Thank you so, so much for reading these past ten weeks - I don’t know where the time has gone.
This final chapter now sets the stage for the events of THE BALANCE OF FOUR, (available on Amazon,) first in the ‘Dragon Speaker’ trilogy, where Tafari and Vidar’s stories continue …