The Black Forest was different from any other swath of woods. There was something primal about the great trees and the open air between them. But it was the silence of the place that truly burned into Fitzgerald Muldoon's mind. It was like God himself had brought quiet and stillness to the whole forest and forbidden anything to move between the tall trunks and long shadows. The hooves of Fitzgerald's roan stallion clipped on the dark cobblestones of the winding road. The noise was deafening.
Fitz looked ahead as the trail ended at his destination. Castle Stein stood amidst the trees. The dark stone and curling walls of the castle made it seem like it had grown from the black soil, just like any of the ancient trees. Fitzgerald slowed his horse. "Easy there, now," he said, his strong Scottish accent hushed by his whisper to the animal. "We're almost there."
He brought the horse to a canter as he neared the castle. A small bridge over a dry moat allowed entrance to the main gate. The castle appeared to be in some decline. Vines grew wild over the walls and the ramparts were crumbled and pitted, as if from a recent siege. Fitzgerald rode to the bridge and looked around. The castle seemed as still as the forest.
Fitzgerald had arrived there for a job. Until recently, his career was that of a soldier for the British Army. Many men were pressed into the ranks of the Redcoats, but Fitz went willingly. A feud amongst the Highland Clans of his homeland had marked him for death. It was almost strange that he found safety in the bosom of the East India Company's private army. India, the New World, Europe, darkest Africa – Fitzgerald had seen them all, and experienced their horrors and glory. But he was through with a-soldiering. Now he had come to Castle Stein, for a new kind of job.
He was a tall, gaunt man, with practiced strength in his long limbs. Red hair bristled on his head and crept down his cheeks in two long sideburns. The red suit under his dark redingote, battered tricorne and worn trousers marked him as one of the king's soldiers, but the claymore on his back and pistols with heavy butts on his belt proved that he as Scotsman, and a highlander at that.
"Hello there!" he called. "I've come for the job! Is there a soul at all in this castle?"
A powerfully built Teutonic fellow emerged from behind the gate, and walked across the bridge. He wore a fur cloak and had broad shoulders. He was completely hairless. With one hand, he beckoned Fitzgerald to join him. Swiftly, Fitzgerald dismounted and led his horse over the bridge. He followed the bald man into Castle Stein.
The bald man said nothing as he led Fitz into a courtyard, and then held out his hand for the reins. Fitzgerald stared at his eyes. There was no white in them. It was like the man's face was a mask, stretched across some obsidian orb. Fitz stepped back. His hand rose to the basket hilt of his blade.
"There is nothing to fear, Mr. Muldoon." Fitz turned around. A young woman walked down from a staircase, leading to the ramparts. She wore a dress of red velvet, her midnight black hair piled on her head. Round spectacles on a thin silver chain rested over her dark eyes. She had a thin nose, giving her the appearance of an inquisitive Raven. "Klaus is a mere homunculus. A remarkably lifelike automaton created by my father. Alas, but he does not speak." She had a hint of a German accent. Her voice was delicate and kind.
"Your father. That would be Solomon Stein?" Fitzgerald asked.
She stood in front of him and curtsied. "Indeed. I am Aradia Stein, his eldest daughter. Come along. My father will meet with you." She noticed his eyes darting back to the homunculus. She smiled. "Do not worry, Mr. Muldoon. Klaus will see to your steed."
"Aye. I'm certain he will." Fitz nodded to the silent giant. Klaus returned the nod. Fitzgerald handed him the reins and followed Aradia up the stairwell.
They walked over the ancient stone, moving further up into the cool air of the Black Forest. Fitzgerald sucked in the crisp air. It cut into his throat like a knife, sharp and clear. "So, your father's a bit of a conjurer, is he now?" he asked. "It seems to have done little good for this castle."
Aradia turned around and stared at Fitz. Her eyes flashed. "Castle Stein has been in this state since it was sacked in the Medieval Ages, its lord slaughtered along with his family. We keep the damage, to honor their deaths. Only his youngest son, Otto Von Stein, managed to escape. The boy learned the ways of magic from a former druid in a monastery in England, and became the greatest wizard of his age. And Mr. Muldoon, my father is the greatest wizard of his."
They reached the top of the ramparts. Two figures stood on the aged stone, looking out the endless waves of dark trees. One was a tall man in a long black cloak, a neat Van Dyke goatee and moustache was white as snow on his chin and above his lips. His hands were behind his back, and his keen eyes were staring into the distance. He wore a silken cravat. A boy stood next to him, a lad of no more than thirteen years of age. The man was tall and confident in his bearing, but the boy seemed nervous and fidgeted in his dark suit, with a matching waistcoat, shirt with a high collar and stockings and breeches. The boy had his sister's raven black hair, straight and neatly combed, and wore round spectacles.
The old man turned around and examined Fitzgerald. "Mr. Muldoon," he said, his German accent stronger than his daughter's. "It pleases me to finally see you."
"Aye, it's a fine thing for a man to meet his employer." Fitzgerald bowed his head to Solomon Stein. "Now, Mr. Stein, you didn't exactly mention what you needed my services for. I'm a hard man, and no mistake, so I assume it includes a fair measure of violence."
"It may." Solomon nodded to the boy. "This is Elijah Aurelous Stein. He is my youngest child. He is my only son. He is the heir to the name of Stein, and to all of my wealth and knowledge." Solomon turned away from the boy, and looked out again at the Dark Forest. "Do you know much of ancient Macedonia, Mr. Muldoon?"
"No, sir," Fitzgerald replied. "Ain't exactly the sort of subject one comes across in my line of work."
"I know a little of it, f-father," Elijah replied. His voice was thin and nervous. "I studied the Classics in boarding school, y-you know and—"
His father continued, without heeding the boy. "A boy would sit with the other children, until he went out into the wilderness and slew a wild boar. The ancient ritual of the hunt, the blood of the kill – that was what made him into a man. Now it is time for my son to hunt the boar. And you will guard him."
"H-him?" Elijah stared at Fitzgerald. "Father, he seems rather, well, brutish. I don't think—"
"Brutish?" Fitz asked. "See here, laddie, I'm no simpleton. I've scars on my rump older than you, so perhaps you'll hold your tongue when you speak of me."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Muldoon, I didn't mean to insult you and—"
"Well, I'm afraid you already have." Fitzgerald felt his temper rising, a warm tide that rolled through his veins and made his fingers itch. Shepherding some spoiled rich man's son was not a task for the likes of him.
But Solomon raised his hand. "Silence. Both of you." His voice was like the whistle of a wind through a desolate mountain. It put an end to Fitzgerald's thoughts. He turned back to the Black Forest. "Do you know what a Great Work is, Mr. Muldoon?"
"I'm not sure I do, sir."
"Every truly great sorcerer or natural philosopher must create one. The transmutation of lead into gold. The creation of artificial life. The gift of immortality, or the cure of all diseases. Those are Great Works. It is time for me to make mine. But such a work requires ingredients. I have identified them, scattered throughout the world. My son is to go and collect them. You will guard him."
Fitz tapped a foot on the ancient gray stone of the ramparts. "I know naught of magic and sorcery, Mr. Stein. I don't not think I'd be the fellow for your assignment."
"My son knows of them." Solomon's hand fell to his son's shoulder. Elijah shivered a little at his father's touch. "He was educated at a boarding school in England, and from private tutors, including some of the greatest magical minds of Europe. His sister, Aradia, also assisted, and there are few who know more than she. Elijah is ready for such a task."
"Are you certain, sir?" Elijah asked. "I do not know—"
"I do. You are ready, my son." Solomon looked straight at Fitzgerald. "Now, will you help him, Scotsman?"
He considered shaking his head and leaving. But he looked at Elijah's eyes and saw the fear there. He remembered Rani's little son, his own dark eyes going dim as he bled to death in Fitz's hands, all in some blasted clearing in the jungles of bloody Bengal. He sighed. "What's the fee, then?" he asked.
Solomon told him. Fitz cocked his head. It was quite a sum. "A fortune, I know," Solomon explained. He looked down at Elijah. "But I wish for my Great Work to be completed, and for my son to be safe."
"For that money, you have yourself a bodyguard." Fitzgerald spoke without thinking. He smiled a little at Elijah, who still seemed frightened. "So, what's the first item on your list?"
"The eye of a dragon. One slumbers nearby, a great queen of her fearsome breed. She sleeps in these woods, in Wurmhaven. The boy knows the way." Solomon turned back to the Black Forest. "Bring me the eye, Elijah. Do not disappoint you father."
The boy shivered and put his hands in the pockets of his frock coat. "But, sir, I don't know if—"
"Go, my son. Go and slay your boar. Come back to me as a man."
"Yes, father." Elijah walked over to stand next to Fitz. He turned away from the highlander, keeping his eyes on his polished shoes. He looked up at Aradia. His eyes were wide and he looked like he wanted to run, though he couldn't determine the direction. Finally, he looked back at Fitzgerald. "Well," he said. "I suppose we should go and find that dragon."
"I suppose we should, laddie." Fitz offered Elijah a grin. It was not returned.
After a few preparations, Elijah Aurelous Stein and Fitzgerald Muldoon left the castle and rode into the woods. Elijah sat uneasily on a stout bay pony, which trotted along dutifully despite the boy's clumsy yanks on its reins. Elijah rode next to him, slowing his horse for the lad's pace. Elijah stared straight ahead, occasionally looking at the map in his hand, and then checking his pockets for some of the equipment he had brought.
They rode on through the silence of the Black Forest. The quietness was oppressive, and Fitz tried to think of something to break it. "So," he said, leaning back in the saddle. "Your father's a great man, laddie. You ought to be proud to know him."
"I am, sir. I am indeed." Elijah gripped tightly to the reins of his horse. "But, well, I don't exactly know him. Not really. He's busy with his work most of the time. You know, his studies into the depths of the occult, contacting ancient gods and conversing with angels and long dead wizards."
"Oh, aye. That sort of thing." Fitzgerald nodded, as if that was a normal profession for one's father. "So your older sister, Aradia, she took care of you, then?"
"Yes. My mother perished, soon after I was born. So it was Aradia, and Mattie." He smiled a little. "Mattie was very jealous when father said that I would leave Castle Stein. Mattie is my sister, though her real name is Tiamat. She's just three years older than me, but she has so much courage! You know, she told me that she would enter the ruined castle of Baron Von Struck, and I almost believe she would."
"Baron Von Struck? I ain't familiar with that story."
"Oh, he was a fearsome nobleman, with a passion for hunting. They say he turned his hounds and spears on his own people, chasing them through these woods for grim sport. And when he died, he was cursed to haunt these woods for his sins, hunting anyone unfortunate to wander across the path of his murderous specter." Elijah smiled to himself. "There's all sorts of stories about the Black Forest, you know. Hidden beasts, and phantoms, and dragons. It's supposed to be rather dangerous."
Fitz sniffed the air. "I've no doubt of that. And there's more than phantoms haunting these woods. Highwaymen, laddie. They're a right menace in the moors of my homeland, robbing passerby and shouting 'stand and deliver' to coaches with wealthy passengers. Of course, no highwayman can live long without giving their proper tribute to the clans."
"And you've done your fair share of such savage bloodshed?" Elijah asked.
"Savage bloodshed?" Fitzgerald looked at the boy. His good humor drifted away. "I've seen many a cruel officer accuse of being a savage fool from a savage land, but never a mere child. What exactly about my manner has convinced you that I'm a barbarian?"
"Well, there's the rather large s-word, sir. And the musket on your saddle. And the pistols. Those are terrible weapons, are they not?" Elijah smiled weakly. "You may as well ask what hasn't convinced me that you're a warrior of a fierce and warlike aspect." He shook his head. "I did not mean to offend you, but—"
"No. Your kind never does. You consider yourself better than me, with your fine schools and expensive garments." He leaned forward, glaring at Elijah. "I've an Irish father, laddie, who married into the clans. You've no idea what that does to a boy, growing up in the Highlands without the proper blood. Don't presume to know me. Don't presume to know much of anything."
"Well, I don't think…I…." Elijah trailed off as he shrank from Fitz. "You are correct, Mr. Muldoon. Absolutely correct. I don't know much of anything. You know, I don't want to harm this dragon. It's a peaceful beast, slumbering in its home for centuries without bothering a soul. I don't think I am strong enough to follow my father's wishes. And now I insult the man he sends to protect me."
The boy stared ahead and fell into silence. Fitzgerald tried to think of something to say to comfort him. Elijah had no ill will. It was clear that he hadn't meant to insult Fitzgerald. It seemed he would have a difficult time insulting anybody. The boy was alone for the first time in his life, and frightened, and so he drew a cloak of superiority around himself, and tried to hide from the world. Fitz tried to think of something to comfort him.
He heard hooves behind them. His ears pricked up. Fitz had stalked wild forests with the Red Men of North America, the Mohawk of the Iroquois, and they had taught him how to realize if he was being followed. They would have laughed, if they saw how easily he had been trailed now. Fitzgerald looked over his shoulder. There were two men on horseback, both in dusty rust-colored cloaks and tricornes pulled low over their faces. Sword handles glistened at their sides, and blunderbusses rested on their backs.
"Hell's Bells," Fitz whispered. He looked ahead. Two more horsemen in similar coats had emerged from the woods. They were cantering towards them, reaching for their guns. Fitzgerald's hand moved towards the butt of his Brown Bess musket.
"Oh. It seems we've met some fellow travelers on this lonesome road." Elijah waved cheerfully. "Hello there! Where are you bound?"
The leader of the highwaymen stopped his horse, right across from Elijah. He was broad shouldered, with a thick moustache that resembled an axe blade, a long curling dueling scar across his cheek and forehead. Twin musketoons rested in his sash. He removed his tricorne. "Where are we bound, little one?" he asked. "Wherever the road may lead. I find it always brings us treasure. And today is no different."
That must have been the highwaymen's signal. More of the bandits emerged from sides of the robe, stepping out from behind trees or shrubs, and covering Fitzgerald and Elijah with their flintlocks. They were hard men, scarred and with dim, cold eyes. Fitzgerald cursed himself a thousand times. Solomon Stein had entrusted him with protecting Elijah. And he had led the boy into a den of thieves.
The leader of the highwaymen smiled. "You may have heard of me. I am Black Heinrich. You ride in my woods. And you must pay the tax." He leaned forward, staring at Elijah. The boy's eyes darted around. He clutched the reins with white knuckles. Black Heinrich noted the boy's weakness. "Do you know what the tax is, little one?"
"N-no, sir," Elijah replied.
"It is everything of worth you carry. And perhaps your life's blood, as well."
Fitzgerald shifted his shoulders. His redingote opened, revealing the butts of his pistols. He carried a quartet of them. "You might find that not so easy to take, Black Heinrich. If I were in your boots, I'd ride along and let our purses pass without a touch of your fat fingers."
Black Heinrich's eyes twinkled. "Ho, ho! You wish to challenge Black Heinrich? Not many have done so and lived, Herr Englishman."
"Please, there is no need for such threatening words." Elijah tried to regain control of the situation. He faced Black Heinrich and sat tall in the saddle of his pony. He was trying to look impressive. He failed miserably. "Mr. Heinrich, my father is Solomon Stein. I'm certain you know of him. His skill in the arcane arts is legendary. Now we are on his business, to slay a dragon, and—"
"A dragon?" Black Heinrich rode closer to Elijah, drawing out a musketoon. "Such a beast must be worth a fortune, if Solomon Stein would send his only son to capture it! Where is the dragon, little one? Perhaps you will lead me to it. Yes, I think you will." His lips curled back. "Any disagreements?"
"Just one." Fitzgerald reached for the hilt of his claymore. "I'm not Englishman, you bleeding road rat! I'm a Scott!" He drew the sword, and urged his horse into a gallop. Fitzgerald kicked out with his leg, his boot striking the rump of Elijah's pony. Both mounts shot forward, racing down the cobblestone road.
The claymore swung through the air, making the wind hum as it whirled towards its target. Black Heinrich leapt from his horse, diving into the dirt to avoid the blade. "Stop them!" he cried, as he rolled on the ground. "Bring them down!" Fitzgerald heard flintlocks cocking as the robbers hastened to obey their chief's command. He ducked low, as musket balls whined past him like angry hornets.
One highwayman hurried into his path, swinging a powerful pike. Fitzgerald swung his sword around, letting the weight of the claymore carry it forward. The bandit's mouth fell open as his pike was hacked apart, and then let out a strangled scream as Fitz's blade reached his throat. His head left his shoulders in a shower of blood, and bounced twice on the cobblestones.
"By all the angels in heaven and demons in Hell!" Elijah cried, holding tightly to his pony. He stared at Fitzgerald, as they galloped down the road. "They'll cut us down! We haven't a chance!"
"Do not talk such nonsense, laddie. Leave matters of war to me." Fitzgerald twisted the reins of his horse, turning the animal off the road. Elijah followed. They hurried into the forest, weaving between the great trees. More flintlock shots echoed behind them. But Fitz had chosen his path well. They rode on, deep into the woods. Fitzgerald wasn't sure where they were going. He didn't exactly care.
Finally, when he could not hear the musket shots echoing behind him, Fitz slowed his horse. He motioned for Elijah to do the same. Fitzgerald grinned at the lad. "I know you do not like the shedding of blood, but Black Heinrich would have slain us, sure as I'm standing before you now. Scum like him respect a sharp blade or a loaded gun, and little else."
"I suppose you are right," Elijah agreed, his voice soft. He looked around at the trees and reached for his map. He was still shivering from the sudden violence. "Um, do you, by any chance, know where we are?"
A few shafts of sunlight arced down from between the trees, casting a ghostly gray light over the dark earth. Fitzgerald looked between the trees. His eyes settled on something in the distance, some sort of stone wall rearing up amongst the trees. "Of course I do, laddie," he replied. "Follow me." He urged his horse into the woods. Elijah followed, keeping his pony close to Fitzgerald.
Their horses rode slowly through the woods. The darkness seemed to seep around them, edging out from the trees like spilled ink. Fitzgerald felt his heart beat faster. Then he saw what they had ridden into – a ruined castle, of fantastic size and in the utter throes of destruction. Pillars lay shattered on the ground beside cracked walls, structures had been reduced to great piles of rubble, and statues and gargoyles were like mangled bodies, sprawled in the dirt.
A cold wind ran through the Black Forest where there had been stillness before. It stirred the dead leaves and whistled through the broken castle. Fitzgerald swung down from his horse, his boots hitting the dirt. He bent down over a broken statue for a better look. He saw it was a snarling dog, the teeth barred and the cracked face still snarling.
"What is this place?" He turned back to Elijah. "Do you know of any such ruin, Elijah?"
"No, Mr. Muldoon. Unless…." A howl echoed through the ruins. It was a bestial, frenzied cry, that ended suddenly and made Fitzgerald shivered. Elijah shrank back, his eyes wide and terrified. "These are the ruins of Baron Von Struck's castle!" he cried. "And those are the calls of his hunting hounds!"
Fitz wanted to laugh at the boy's superstition. But he had seen too much to doubt legends. He grabbed his claymore and held it aloft. "Come on, you cursed phantoms!" he roared. "Stop gamboling about and snarling at the wind, and face me! I've had enough of the cruelty of living, so I care not for the evils of the dead!" He swung the claymore at the ground, sending up a stream of earth.
His cry was answered. A tall figure came out of the ruins, stepping from the shadows like a piece of the ruined castle had sprang to life. He was riding on a black charger, and dressed in black Teutonic armor. A great helm adorned with curling horns covered his head. There was only darkness in the thin slits. He carried a hunting lance in his hand, with more strapped to his saddle. His horse breathed steam and stomped the earth with hooves like dinner plates. Around the feet of the horse, shadowy hounds sported about, snarling and breaking into wild howls. Their eyes glowed red, and their steel claws raked the earth.
Elijah glared at Fitzgerald. "You really are an idiot, aren't you?" he whispered.
Baron Von Struck raised his spear. "What quarry crosses my path?" he demanded. His voice was a ghostly rasp, a whisper that seemed to echo from the trees and the ruined stones. "Who begs to find themselves hunted to the edge of the world, by the very hounds of Hell?"
"We're not really prey, sir!" Elijah raised his voice, shouting over the howls of Von Struck's hounds. "We're just a pair of travelers, on our way to Wurmhaven! I am Elijah Aurelous Stein and this fellow is Fitzgerald Muldoon. We don't want to cause you any trouble!"
"Travelers. Peasants. All are prey to Baron Von Struck!" He hurled his spear forward. It soared through the air and landed in the dirt before Elijah.
The boy shivered, but stood his ground. "You are a n-nobleman, sir!" Elijah cried. "And I expect better from a man of your rank and breeding! And besides, we wouldn't be very good prey. I'm, well, I'm rather slow. And small. I'm sure one of those hounds could gobble me down in one bite. That wouldn't be very sporting, now would it?"
Von Struck's helmet shifted to the side. "What of your companion?" he asked. "He of the braying voice?"
"I am no easy prey, for any man – soldier or specter." Fitzgerald held his ground. He raised his claymore. "Choose to chase me, and you'll find that out." He stepped in front of Elijah, his claymore held with both hands. He looked at the hunting hounds, ignoring their snarls and barks, until he faced Von Struck. "I've seen worse than you, you ghostly baron. I've slain worse. So don't try and scare me, for I'll wager that nothing can."
His words were met by silence. Even the growling of the hounds ceased. Baron Von Struck reached up to his helmet. His gauntlets grasped the edges of the cylindrical helm and pulled it free. Fitzgerald looked at his face. It was little more than a barren skull, ghostly white and glowing in the low light of the Black Forest. "I can see into your soul, Scotsman," Von Struck said. "And you have indeed seen worse than me. You are man who has lost everything."
Slowly, Elijah turned to Fitzgerald. He seemed to stare at his bodyguard with new eyes. He looked back at Von Struck, and Fitz saw him wringing his hands, thinking hard. "So, will you still try to hunt us? Because I think I might know of something which would be better game."
"And what would that be?" Von Struck demanded.
"A dragon, sir. One of the last of its breed." Elijah pointed into the woods. "It slumbers in wood over yonder. If I raise the beast, and bring it here, will you hunt it and slay it?"
"A dragon," Von Struck repeated. "Yes. By God, I would welcome the task!" He turned away, tugging at the reins of his black horse. His hounds followed, baying at his heels. "Do not make me find you, Elijah Stein. You would be poor sport. But I will have my prey – whatever it may be." He leapt forward, the hooves of his steed flying into the air. Baron Von Struck rode into the woods, his hounds dashing behind him. They vanished into the darkness behind the trees.
Elijah and Fitzgerald exchanged a glance. "That was some right quick thinking," Fitz said. "Now we can kill the dragon and the phantom will spare our lives."
"Well, it was your courage with made the specter reticent, I believe," Elijah said. He lowered his head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Muldoon. I should not have called you an idiot, for that is clearly not the case. I'm sorry I called you a brute, and all the other insults I have made against you."
Fitz shrugged. He walked back to his horse and swung into the saddle. Elijah tried to hop onto his pony, and scrambled up after several tries. Fitzgerald turned around and caught a glimpse of the cobblestone road. He headed through the trees, still looking for any sign of Black Heinrich and his highwaymen.
They rode in silence, side by side, until they located the road. Elijah swallowed and coughed. He looked over at Fitzgerald. "Sir?" he asked. "What exactly did the ghostly apparition mean? It mentioned that you had, well, suffered a great loss. Is that so?"
"Aye, laddie, it is." Fitzgerald turned away from the boy. He spoke softly, tripping over the words. "I was in the Infantry. I served in India and met a camp follower and her children. Her name was Rani and she'd do laundry and the like for the officers. A fine woman, with half a dozen children always about her skirts, each from a different father. I loved her. Dear God, how I loved her."
"Oh…" Elijah stammered out his response. "Mr. Muldoon, you d-don't have to tell me, if—"
"We was ambushed once. Some rival tribe, some Maratha warlord angry over John Company's treatment of him, launched the attack. I know nothing of the particulars of the reason for the attack, if there even was one. They hit the baggage train first. I left my ranks. I ran to them and saw my Rani, lying with all her babes. Only one was still living – the youngest boy. I held him in my hands as he breathed his last. And it was if aught that was good in the world had drifted away." Fitzgerald turned away from Elijah after the story ended. He looked back at the road.
"Mr. Muldoon." Elijah rode his pony closer to Fitz. He reached out and touched Fitz's hand. "I'm sorry, sir. I'm so terribly sorry."
Fitz looked at the boy. His dark eyes were full and nervous, but there was kindness there too, and compassion. He gave Elijah a smile. "Well, thank you, laddie. It was not your fault." Fitzgerald breathed in the crisp air of the Black Forest. "That's Wurmhaven up ahead, is it not? You'd best get your tools ready. We'd not want to anger the good Baron Von Struck."
"No, Mr. Muldoon. We certainly wouldn't. I don't know if I want to harm the dragon, but with such orders from my father and now this phantom huntsman, it seems I have little choice." Elijah busied himself with his pack, getting various contraptions and equipment ready as they rode to the clearing. He seemed eager for the distraction. Fitz didn't blame him. They rode on to Wurmhaven.
When they reached the clearing, Fitzgerald dismounted and looked around. He knew instantly that this place was different from the rest of the Black Forest. Where the trees were solemn and quiet, there was life in this little expanse of open ground. Flowers blossomed in a riot of colors besides a small trickling brook. In the center of the meadow was a rolling hill, which reminded Fitz of the gentle land of his birth. He looked up at the sun. It seemed amazingly bright, now that they had left the shadows of the trees.
He turned back to Elijah. The boy tumbled down from his pony and knelt down on the grass, pulling several items from his pocket. One was a thin stone rod, ringed with glittering crystal. The other was a tiny hammer. Fitzgerald walked over to him. "What's that you're working there?" he wondered.
"Hmmm? Oh, it's merely a lodestone. It sends out a thaumaturgic burst into the nearby ley lines. The dragon is slumbering under such a ley line, and the energy will hopefully wake her up." He smiled as he raised the little mallet. "Do you understand?"
"Seems simple enough," Fitz replied. "So you just give that stone a whack and up the dragon comes?"
"That's the plan." Elijah struck the stone. It hummed from the blow. Fitzgerald felt the sonorous rumble echo through the forest – and his own body. He seemed to feel the noise in his guts. It faded away, and there was no sign of the dragon. "Perhaps it takes a while…" Elijah suggested.
But Fitz did hear something else: hooves, pounding through the dark earth. He stood up, reaching for his musket. The Brown Bess was already loaded. Fitzgerald brought it up to his shoulder and looked into the woods. He saw a scrap of red, mounted on a charging horse. "Elijah!" Fitzgerald cried. "Get your head down!" He raised the musket and fired.
His shot knocked the highwayman from the saddle, depositing the German on the forest floor with a red hole in his gut. The rest of Black Heinrich's gang emerged from the forest, darting into the clearing with weapons drawn. Fitzgerald spotted Black Heinrich himself, hanging back while his troops charged.
"Bloody damnation!" Fitz muttered. He dropped the musket and went for his pistols. They were in his hands and firing before he knew it, years of training and bloody experience helping him once again. A bandit came charging towards him, hatchet pulled back, and Fitz shot him through the throat. He replaced his pistol and drew another with one hand, the other already picking a second target. The flintlock cracked and a third highwayman rolled in the grass, his skull split by Fitz's bullet.
But then the robbers had met them. "Finish them, you rat droppings, you wretched wastrels!" Black Heinrich roared. "I'll see every last one of you swinging from a bough if you fail me!"
Fitzgerald heard Elijah squealing in pain. He twisted around, swinging his second set of pistols to face the boy's attackers. He saw that one of the highwaymen had grabbed the child, and was holding a curved blade to his throat. The look in the highwayman's eyes said it all. Fitzgerald slid his pistols back into his coat. He raised his hands.
The highwaymen surrounded them, rapiers and blunderbusses at the ready. Black Heinrich rode forward, his long sword in hand. He stopped before Fitzgerald, and placed the tip of the blade at his neck. Fitzgerald looked up the length of the sword into Heinrich's pitiless eyes.
"You stopped!" Heinrich laughed. "Hah! We simply wave a blade in a child's direction, and all your warrior's spirit drips out of you!"
"I have seen a child die. I would not so again." Fitz looked at the edge of the clearing. His horse and Elijah's pony rested there, waiting for their masters. But there were at least two dozen highwaymen between them and the steeds. He had two pistols, still with ball and shot. There was no way to win.
Black Heinrich swung down from his horse. He faced Elijah. "I need you, little one," he said. "For the summoning of the dragon." He turned back to Fitz, his eyes sparkling. "But your guard, we don't need him at all, do we?"
"No! Don't hurt him, you fiend! He's innocent of this whole affair!" Fitz was amazed at the passion in the boy's voice. He hadn't known Elijah long. He knew the boy was a little afraid of him, and felt superior as well. But he didn't know that Elijah cared about him. And when Heinrich slammed his fist into Elijah's chest, causing the boy to gasp and double-up with pain, Fitzgerald knew that he felt the same way. He leapt for Heinrich, arms outstretched to strangle the highwaymen. Two of Heinrich's men grabbed his arm. They held him back.
"Do not order me about!" Heinrich roared. "Don't tell me what to do!" He looked back at Fitz and drew a long barreled dragoon pistol. "Summon the dragon immediately, or your man over there dies."
"I don't…I don't think I want the dragon to be harmed. I don't want to obey my father!" Elijah cried. But then he looked at the pistol. He closed his eyes. "I already summoned the dragon. It should rise itself momentarily."
"When?" Heinrich demanded.
Fitzgerald felt the earth shift. He stomach churned as he felt the hill of the small clearing bulge outwards. He looked at the highwayman leader. "You sorry wee bastard," he said. "It's happening right now." The ground splintered, like it had been blasted by a cannon. It smashed open, tossing Fitzgerald, Elijah, Black Heinrich and all the bandits into the air. Fitz landed hard. He looked up, trying to shake himself into action, and something big and red blossomed from the broken ground.
The dragon soared into the air. Chunks of dirt rained down, and Fitzgerald scrambled back, even as he looked into the sky. Elijah sat next to him, watching the dragon. The boy was transfixed by the great flying beast, not noticing the highwaymen unloading their blunderbusses and the horses panicking all around him.
"Great Gods…" Elijah whispered. "She's…she's magnificent!"
He was right. The dragon spread its wings above them. They cast a shadow over the entire clearing. Fitzgerald recognized the great reptilian beast from a thousand childhood tales and legends, but they could not have prepared him for the amazing sight in the clear gray sky. The dragon was larger than he imagined, big enough to carry away a carriage in each massive talon. Her scales were a dull red, covered with moss, tufts and grass and chunks of dirt. Two long horns curled up from her head. Her snout was cherry red, and smoldered.
"No time to stare!" Fitz grabbed Elijah's shoulder. "We've a phantom what owes us a death, I won't come up short with him!" They ran through the panicking highwaymen, pounding for the edge of the clearing. The dragon swooped down.
Fire spat from out from her mouth. Fitzgerald pushed Elijah down, and dropped low to the earth. The fire shot over their heads in a great flickering orange column. It struck the ancient trees of the Black Forest, turning them to cinders. The grass smoldered under Fitzgerald's feet. His horse and Elijah's pony were panicking.
They reached them, just before the animals dashed away. "Ride for Castle Von Struck!" Fitz cried, setting Elijah on back of his pony. "I'll be right behind you, laddie! Ride like the devil!" He ran for his horse.
"Fitz, I don't know if I want to do this, I don't believe I can—"But Fitzgerald didn't hear the boy's protest. He ran to his horse and swung himself aboard, grasping the reins and preparing to ride. But then a strong hand grasped his leg. He looked down.
It was Black Heinrich. The highwayman had his sword drawn. "You'll pay for this, Englishman!" Heinrich snarled.
Swiftly, Fitzgerald drew one of his pistols. "That's Scottish, you blasted pig of a man!" He fired the gun into Heinrich's chest, and knocked him back, into the blazing clearing. Then he cracked his heels and rode after Elijah, his coat fluttering behind him.
They surged down the forest trail. The dragon flew above them, leaving the clearing behind. "Bloody Hell!" Fitz cried. "It's following us!"
"The lodestone. It seeks the lodestone." Elijah held the glowing crystalline rod in his hand. It was pulsing now, and its inner light was nearly blinding. "Now we have only to take it to Baron Von Struck and the phantom shall finish the job. I'm not so certain I wish for that to happen, Mr. Muldoon!"
"What the devil are you talking about?" Fitz turned off the road, moving into the maze of trees. The dragon swooped down, her great wings shearing the tops off of trees. Pine needles and leaves came down in a green rain, swallowing up Fitz in a sea of falling emerald. He shielded his eyes, and did his best to keep his horse galloping and avoid colliding with a tree.
Elijah looked back at the dragon. "There are so few of her kind, sir," he said. "And she is so amazingly beautiful. It would be a shame for there to be one less dragon, all for the sake of some sorcerer's spell."
They neared the ruins. Fitzgerald slowed his horse. He wondered if Elijah was right, but shook the thoughts from his head. There was no room for doubt now. He leapt off the horse and moved to Elijah, hauling the boy down. He grabbed the lodestone from his hand.
"You want this, you big beastie?" he asked the dragon. "Go on and get it!" He hurled it into the center of the ruins, then grabbed Elijah and ducked behind a crumbling stone wall. Fitz raised his voice. "Baron!" he roared. "Your game has arrived! The hour of the hunt is upon you!"
Baron Von Struck emerged from the darkness of his ruins. He seemed like some god the ancient night as he rode forth, his black cloak fluttering about him, his spear poised. His great horned helm gleamed silver in the shadows of the Black Forest. His hounds surged around the hooves of his warhorse, more of the beasts than Fitz could count. They bayed and snarled at the dragon, a tide of leaping, slathering spirits eager for the hunt. Without a word, Von Struck hurled his spear.
The weapon seemed to be made of glowing, seething darkness. It soared through the dark air, making less noise than a shadow, and struck into the chest of the dragon. The long spear pierced the scaly hide, sinking deep until it had vanished into the dragon.
The beast reared back. Her wings struck the air rapidly, and thick puffs of white smoke coursed from her open mouth. She plummeted to the ground, her tail and wings thrashing about. Her impact shook the earth. Fitzgerald covered his ears as dust and leaves filled the air. He forced himself to stare at the dragon, as Baron Von Struck rode closer.
Somehow, Von Struck's spear had returned to his hands. "Such a fine animal!" he roared, his voice full of the sheer passion of the hunt. "How I would love to have hunted it in life! And in my death, I shall achieve the greatest kill a huntsman ever made!"
His hounds dashed forward and sprang on the dragon. Their paws pressed on the wings and they sunk their teeth into scaly sides. They were like a swarm of rats, and through the dragon swung its tails and flapped its wings, they held it down and pressed in. Fitzgerald watched as Von Struck rode nearer, and pulled back his spear. The dragon roared piteously, and smoke bloomed in its nose and mouth. It was terrible to watch such a force of nature subdued and about to be destroyed.
"No!" Elijah stood up. Before Fitz could stop him, the boy ran from cover and dashed for the Baron. His thin legs pumped across the ground. He tripped and stumbled in the dark dirt, but then he was back on his feet, and still running for Von Struck. He reached into his coat. Fitzgerald saw the boy holding aloft a small green leaf, a sprig of mistletoe, like it was a blazing torch that could defeat Baron Von Struck.
Fitz couldn't believe his eyes. He wanted to yell at the boy, to tell him to run back to safety and cover, but it was far too late. Elijah was nearing the hounds. They looked up from the dragon, their ears going flat on their heads, their white teeth appearing as they growled. Von Struck spun his spear around. All of them faced the child.
Von Struck's horse reared back. It towered over Elijah, overwhelming him. The boy was shaking. "This is my kill, boy!" Von Struck roared. "What business have you to stand against me? I am the greatest hunter the in earth, heaven and hell, and I shall not be denied!"
"You must, sir. I'm sorry, but I can't allow you to harm this dragon. Let her return to her place in the earth, and don't bother her a-again, if you please." His voice quivered as he spoke, but he held his ground and talked straight to the baron. Fitzgerald ran from his hiding place to stand next to the boy. He was impressed. Elijah Stein was facing down a monstrous phantom. The least Fitz could do was stand with him.
As Fitzgerald ran next to Elijah, Von Struck pulled his spear back. His hounds clustered around, and began a chorus of howls. It sounded like a terrible tempest, a storm blazing through the Black Forest. "Will you yield?" he asked. "Will you run before me?"
"No, sir!" Elijah cried.
"Then you shall die!" Von Struck charged. His hounds came with him. But Elijah stood his ground. Fitzgerald wanted to turn and run, to put as much distance between him and the ghostly huntsman as he could, but when he saw little Elijah standing firm, and holding up his sprig of holly, he could only do his best to stay with his charge.
The hounds reached them first. Fitzgerald drew his claymore and swung it in wide, powerful arcs. He turned away the hounds, one after the other. They fell, yelping into the dirt, their spectral forms ripped and shattered by the claymore's blade. But they did not fall. They merely crouched back, preparing to pounce again. And then Von Struck came for them.
But Elijah threw the sprig of mistletoe. It sunk into the form of Von Struck, swallowed up by his darkness, like it had been sunk into some dark, moonlit pool. The baron stopped his charge. His horse faltered and his spear dipped. He looked down at Elijah, grasping his chest. His hounds howled harder.
"What…what have you done?" His voice boomed and cracked, like thunder and lightning had split apart his words.
"Mistletoe. It banishes spirits. I didn't know if it was strong enough against you, but it was my only hope, I believe. Aradia taught me to always keep a little of it on me, in case some ghost needs banishing." He smiled weakly. "I didn't want to use it earlier. I thought we come to some peaceful terms. But I suppose I had no choice now."
"No…choice." Von Struck charged, swinging down his spear. Fitz grabbed the boy's arm and pulled him back, but then Von Struck was falling apart, his armor, horse and hounds melting away before their eyes, dripping and splintering and cracking and vanishing into the clear air. The whole dark form of the baron was gone before he reached them.
Fitzgerald looked at the space where Baron Von Struck had been. "Blood Hell. You done away with him." He looked back at Elijah. "What are you gonna tell your father, laddie?"
The boy shrugged. "I do not know. I don't look forward to explaining the truth to him. But I suppose I must." He looked back at the dragon. The beast still lay on the ground, gathering her strength. Elijah took a quick step towards the dragon. "Go on back to Wurmhaven," he said. "It's safe for you now. There will be no hunters. I promise you that." He turned back to Fitz. "Well, Mr. Muldoon, let's go and get our confession over with."
"Right." Fitzgerald followed the boy to their horses.
They returned to Castle Stein. Fitzgerald saw that three figures stood on the drawbridge, along with a large ebony coach. Klaus, the heavy-set homunculus, was hauling suitcases and trunks into the top of the coach, hoisting them aloft with leisurely twitches of his giant arms. The coach was preparing for a journey. Elijah slowed his pony as neared the gate. His father, Aradia, and another girl, a petite maiden of sixteen years who had to be his sister Mattie, stood waiting for him.
Elijah swung down from his pony. He got his foot stuck in the stirrup, and fell to the dirt. He sat up, and looked at his father. "Um, I'm sorry," he said. "I am deeply sorry, but I could not bring myself to slay the dragon. I don't have the eye you needed."
Solomon Stein nodded. "Then you have slain your boar. You have proven to me that you have a kind heart, and will do no evil in this world. I wish I could say the same for myself." He nodded to Fitzgerald. "And your bodyguard, who has aided you and helped you, must possess a similar temperament. You are good men. You have passed my test."
"So, we weren't even supposed to get the dragon's eye?" Fitz asked. "What a bleeding waste! We was almost gutted by bandits, eaten by ghostly hounds and hunted to death by a phantom baron, not to mention being roasted by dragon's flame!" He leaned down from his horse, staring at Solomon. "I ought to rip out your gullets!"
"You'd better not, Mr. Muldoon." Aradia approached him. "Or else you'd be out of a job. You are to be our brother's bodyguard. Will you agree to this? Will you keep him safe?"
Fitz nodded without hesitation. "I'll see to his safety, miss. He's a good lad, and he deserves it."
"I know." Aradia looked down at Elijah. Her eyes closed. She swept him up in her arms. "I'll miss you, my dear," she said. "I'll miss you dreadfully." Mattie joined them, saying her goodbyes between tears. Only Solomon Stein stood apart, watching his family say goodbye to his son.
"Sir?" Fitzgerald asked, swinging down from his horse. "Will you bid farewell to your boy?"
Solomon sighed. "I did not take part in raising him, Mr. Muldoon. If I did, perhaps he wouldn't have the kindness to spare the dragon. Perhaps he would be a completely different person, without any sort of compassion." He held out his hand. "Keep him safe, Mr. Muldoon."
"I will, sir." Fitz turned back to Elijah. The boy had stepped away from his sisters. He was looking at his shoes and was shivering, like he had been lost out in the rain. Fitzgerald stood next to him and put his hand on his shoulder.
Together, the two of them stepped into the coach. Elijah looked at the handwritten parchment set on the seat. "It's a list, Mr. Muldoon," he said. "A list of ingredients, from my father. Great Gods, it appears they are in several different areas of the globe, including the New World."
"Then we'd be better begin our journey." Fitzgerald smiled at Elijah as Klaus cracked the reins. He had tied Fitz's horse and Elijah's pony to the rear of the carriage, and they trotted dutifully down the road. Elijah opened the window and poked his head out, waving goodbye to his sister. "And laddie?"
"Yes, Mr. Muldoon?"
"You may call me Fitz, if you wish."
"Thank you, Fitz," Elijah agreed. He didn't look away from his sisters. The boy kept waving to his family, his castle, and his home, until the coach rolled along and they vanished into the depths of the Black Forest.