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The Dragon and the Djinn, Page 2

Gordon R. Dickson

  As he got closer, soaring this time on a convenient slant of the wind, he saw what the problem was. One of Sir Hubert's cows had evidently fallen into a snow-filled ditch, or small ravine, and Sir Hubert, with the four men he had with him, were trying to get her out.

  But the cow could not help them—or else she did not understand what she was supposed to do to help—and her weight was such that the four of them could not lift her or drag her from it, Sir Hubert was making so much noise that none of them realized Jim was even close to them until he landed in their midst with the same sort of thump with which he had landed outside of the widow Tebbits's home. They all whirled about and for a moment they merely stared at him.

  "A dragon!" roared Sir Hubert, whipping his sword out of its sheath. His face was pale, but the sword was quite steady. In spite of all his other faults, Sir Hubert was not a coward. No one was likely to live to adulthood back in this time if they were, of course, no matter what level of society they belonged to.

  Clearly they had not recognized him, the way Jim's own tenants and people did. The four men with Sir Hubert were actually not armed, aside from their ordinary all-purpose belt knives. But they all snatched these out and hefted whatever else they had in their hand that might be a weapon—in this case a couple of long poles which two of them held; and in the case of one man, rather ridiculously, a rope he was holding.

  It was foolish of them, of course. Even fully armed and armored, on foot the five of them would probably never have escaped alive if they had seriously tried to battle a dragon of Jim's size. While they might do some serious damage to Jim before being killed, Jim would certainly be the last to die.

  "Don't be an ass, Sir Hubert," said Jim, finding the British phrase rolled quite happily off his tongue. What a handy sort of phrase it was for situations like this, he told himself. "I'm James Eckert, your neighbor—only in my dragon body. I came over to see if I could help."

  Sir Hubert's face stayed pale and his sword stayed pointed, but its point dropped a few inches.

  "Hah!" he said doubtfully.

  "I happened to be flying by, taking a look at how my own lands had come through the snowstorm," said Jim, "and I saw you having some trouble over here. So I came."

  Sir Hubert's sword dropped down, but he still did not sheath it.

  "Well, if it's you, why didn't you come like a man?"

  "There's a lot more strength in this dragon body of mine, when it comes to helping with something like this," said Jim. "Stop and think for a moment, Hubert!"

  "Well, damn it! How the bloody hell was I supposed to know?" the knight said. "You could have been any dragon, ravening for our blood!"

  "I don't raven," said Jim. "You've eaten dinner at Malencontri often enough to know that, Hubert."

  "Well…" Sir Hubert sheathed his sword. "How can you help us?"

  "I'm not sure yet," said Jim. "Let me take a look at the situation. What kind of hole is she stuck in?"

  "Little dimple in the ground, that's all," grumbled Sir Hubert. "If she had any sense in her head she could walk out of there. Damn cows, anyhow!"

  "Steep sides or sloping sides?"

  "Sloping," said Sir Hubert. "If she'd help a little, we could have got her out of there."

  "If they're sloping, maybe I can get down in beside her. Then if I lift and the rest of you tug, maybe she can scramble out," said Jim.

  "She'll kick you," said Sir Hubert with relish.

  "Maybe," said Jim. "Let's see."

  He approached the hole, and the cow, who had been upwind of him until now, suddenly smelling and seeing a dragon in her immediate vicinity, bellered in terror. Jim tested the slope of the ground under the snow and after a moment slid down beside the cow's flank. She cried out for help again; for now Jim's body was pinning her against the opposite side of what Sir Hubert had described as a dimple and she could not manage a good kick through the hip-deep snow.

  Whether she actually succeeded in kicking him or not, Jim never knew. But he managed to get down beside her, low enough so that he could get leverage for the shoulder of one folded wing beneath her belly. Once he had her firmly pressed between his shoulder and the opposite side of the depression, she stopped bellering, gave one sad moo of utter despair and fell silent.

  Jim took a deep breath and lifted, like a man lifting a weight balanced on one shoulder. The cow was no lightweight; but on the other hand, the muscles Jim was bringing into play were awesome compared to any human's. The cow rose upward and sprawled out on her side on the far edge of the dimple; Sir Hubert's men immediately laid hands on her, skidded her across the snow away from the depression and began to coax her to her feet.

  Jim climbed out of the depression himself.

  "Well, you did it easily enough," said Sir Hubert grumblingly, almost as if he was accusing Jim of doing him an injury.

  "You're entirely welcome," said Jim, knowing that Sir Hubert's words were as close as the knight could come to saying thanks. He leaped into the air and began to climb once more for the long soar home.

  With the wind in the southeast, he had to climb for altitude and make a long sweep over Sir Hubert's land to get himself turned about and headed back to Malencontri. He was in the process of this when he suddenly realized he was high enough and looking in the light direction to see the woods in which Carolinus had his cottage; and his conscience niggled at him.

  He had been meaning to talk to Carolinus—his Master in magic—ever since he and Angie with young Robert Falon and their personal attendants had gotten back from the Christmas party of the Earl of Somerset almost a month ago. But one thing and another had kept him from getting together with the older magician.

  This was an ideal time to call in briefly for a quick chat on a couple of points that dated back to the Twelve Days of Christmas at the Earl's, and had been bothering Jim since. For one thing, he had the sneaking feeling that he owed Carolinus an apology—having gotten somewhat annoyed with the other man during those twelve days.

  But, back at the castle, it was already past lunch time. Angie would be waiting for him in the Great Hall. And there might be something to do with Robert that would call for him to be there…

  Robert had become a concern that seemed to crop up in all sorts of otherwise ordinary situations. In fact, Jim was not at all sure that he was the right man to bring up an orphan boy of noble birth in the fourteenth century, where all such were raised to be warriors. He was no real warrior himself. The youngster could well be hampered by Jim's different, twentieth-century outlook on life—

  Jim pushed that thought from his mind. Robert was still far too young to eat lunch with them in the Great Hall. Still—Jim's conscience pulled him both ways. But then he reminded himself that Angie would not wait very long before going ahead and eating by herself; so actually no harm would have been done. He, himself, could eat anything that was available after he got back to Malencontri, whenever that might be.

  He altered the angle of his wings and headed toward the tops of the trees that still obscured the little clearing in which Carolinus's cottage stood.

  The clearing, when he got to it, was pretty much as he had expected it. It was completely surrounded by very tall oaks and yews, and roughly oval in shape. It was also roughly the size of a football field. Snow hung on the trees around the clearing and coated the ground up to within about ten yards of the cottage, leaving a perfect circle in which it was still summer.

  Within that circle, the cottage stood, snow-free. The grass was green, flowers bloomed, and a fountain tinkled its jet of water in the middle of a small pool from which occasionally small golden fish—or were they very small golden mermaids?—leaped like miniature dolphins into the air. Jim's eye had never been quick enough to make sure.

  Beside the pool was a neatly raked gravel path leading up to the door of a small, oddly narrow peaked-roof house that ought to have looked out of place here; but what with the pool, the grass and the occasional flash of a golden jumping figure from the pool, it lo
oked as if it could not have been any place else.

  Jim landed with a thump at the end of the gravel path; but no one immediately tried to look out from the house to see who had arrived. He turned himself back into a human, complete with warm clothes (he had had a little trouble with the clothes part in the early days of learning how to use magic, but had it under control now), walked up to the door of the house and tapped gently at it.

  There was no answer. He pushed gently on it and it swung open. He stepped in.

  "Eh? What? Oh, it's you, Jim," said Carolinus, looking up.

  He was seated in his large, wing-back chair, with a thick and heavy volume of some book or other, open on the table at his elbow; and the small green, sylphlike and fragile, female figure of a naiad perched on one of his knees, as lightly as a butterfly on a twig. Carolinus looked at her.

  "You'd better run along now, my dear," he said gently to the naiad. "We can finish our talk later."

  The naiad drifted off his knee to stand before him with downcast eyes. She murmured something incomprehensible.

  "Certainly!" said Carolinus.

  She turned and went toward the door. Jim stood aside to let her pass and she approached him with downcast eyes, glancing up for just a moment and murmuring something else equally incomprehensible.

  "Not at all," said Jim. He had not understood her, as Carolinus obviously had a moment before; but the words he had chosen ought to be fairly safe as an answer. She went on out the door and it closed behind her.

  "Well, well, my boy," said Carolinus cheerfully. "It's good to see you, and particularly to see you in your human body, rather than the dragon one. This is a small house, you know."

  It was indeed a small house; and what was more, crammed to the rafters with books and everything else imaginable, ordinary and occult In fact, it looked more like a warehouse than a home. But since Carolinus was accustomed to merely ordering whatever he wanted from whatever was piled around to appear in front of him, this made no difference to the older magician.

  "Well, yes," said Jim. "I've been meaning to drop by ever since we got back from the Earl's, and I happened to be close so I simply came on. I'm not interrupting anything, or catching you at a busy moment, am I?"

  "Not at all, not at all," said Carolinus. "Lalline and I can chat at anytime. You and I see each other all too seldom."

  The last words were a perfect invitation for Jim to point out that he had made a lot of efforts to see Carolinus. It was Carolinus who had been hard to find. However, he did not.

  "But never mind that, now that you're here," went on Carolinus jovially. "You're looking rested and in good spirits. Ready for your next adventure?"

  Chapter Three

  "Adventure!" said Jim, with a sudden cold feeling in his stomach. "Certainly not. I'm looking forward to having nothing to do with adventures for a long time. Angie and I are going to try to live as ordinary people for the next few years."

  An evil suspicion crept into his mind.

  "You haven't got something up your sleeve for me, have you?" he demanded.

  "I? James!" said Carolinus. "I certainly wouldn't impose another set of duties on you so quickly after the last affair at the Earl's. No, no. I don't have the slightest thing in mind for you. If you get involved in anything, it will be because you do it yourself."

  "I'm sorry," said Jim. "It was just that those twelve days rather took things out of me. Do you mind if I sit down?"

  "Sit down? Of course," said Carolinus. "Of course—that is, if you can find a chair. There are some around here, someplace."

  He peered about the interior of the cottage shortsightedly.

  "I know there are some other chairs. Try under those volumes in the corner there."

  "Sorry for overreacting," said Jim, seated finally after a small but necessary delay. "But Angie feels that I spend far too little time with her, and I can't say I blame her."

  "Of course not," said Carolinus. "Is the chair comfortable?"

  "Well…" said Jim. "To tell you the truth, no."

  "It should be!" said Carolinus in a terrifying voice.

  The chair instantly was. It was possibly the most comfortable chair Jim had ever sat in, in spite of the fact that it had four single legs, a stiff upright back, no arms and no padding.

  "To tell you the truth, Carolinus," he said, "I came here because, after thinking it over, I may have been a little too suspicious and a little too short-tempered with you during those twelve days. But I was used to having you around to check with in emergencies; and I could never get in touch with you."

  "Dear me!" said Carolinus.

  "Oh, it's all right," Jim went on. "I understand now you were deliberately leaving me on my own, as the best way of doing things. But I'm glad to be back to where I can find you when I want you and check with you if I need to."

  "Find me, and check with me by all means, Jim," said Carolinus. "Bear in mind, though, there is no going back. You have now tried your wings as an independent magickian; and you will have to fly by yourself from here on."

  "I will?" asked Jim. A couple of years before, Carolinus's words would not have had a particularly ominous sound. Now that he realized the possibilities of magic better—as well as its limitations—he found they worried him.

  "What are the limits, then, to what you can do for me?"

  "You can ask me questions," said Carolinus. "And within certain limits I will answer them. Absolutely complete answers to anything simply do not exist. You will discover this yourself, Jim, once you are an established magickian of at least A level and dealing with those of a lesser level; or even with an apprentice of your own."

  "I can believe you," said Jim, who had about as much intention of ever taking on an apprentice in magic as he had of setting himself on fire.

  "Remember always," said Carolinus, "there's never any point in offering information to someone until they're ready to receive it. But, if you wait until they ask, then the two things that need to happen are happening. One, they'll be ready to listen to what you have to tell them. Secondly, now they give a value to what you say; whereas until they had a need, they might have been inclined to question or even argue with your instruction or advice, out of sheer ignorance."

  "Had I been doing that?" said Jim.

  "As a matter of fact," said Carolinus, "you haven't. But then, you don't fit the usual pattern of apprentices. Your problem lies in a different area, one in which I'm helpless to be of any use to you; and that is, your thinking is entirely conditioned by this—what shall I say—mechanistic…"

  "You mean I've been conditioned by the technology of the twentieth-century world I came from," said Jim.

  "Yes," said Carolinus. "That's it exactly."

  "I don't know what to do about that," said Jim.

  "Well, it has to be your problem; but it's also, paradoxically, the basis of your unusual ability to find solutions, outside the normal bounds of what a learning magickian might, in dealing with a problem. For me to try to correct your habits and preconceptions in this area would probably throttle the very abilities that are your greatest asset. Therefore, you must sink or swim on your own, Jim; even more so than the ordinary apprentice."

  "That's fine if I get into something on my own," said Jim. "But if you, yourself, give me something to do and I need help, then I can call on you, and you'll answer and give me the information I ask for?"

  "Not necessarily all the information you ask for," said Carolinus. "I have a great deal more information than you imagine, Jim. Most of it you couldn't use, even if you could understand it. But I'll always give you as much information as I think you can use."

  "But if I solve problems in ways you can't and don't, yourself, because I come from somewhere else, you can't know what information I can't use, or understand."

  "That may be, possibly. It may be a remote possibility. But," said Carolinus, "one of us has to choose what information you are to receive. And since it is my information; and I'm one of only three AAA+ clas
s magickians in this world, where you are only a C-class magickian, my apprentice and a relative newcomer—I shall be the one who chooses."

  "In other words," said Jim, "I've got no choice. Well, I suppose I can't force you to give me any more information than you want to."

  "You've always been very quick to see the point, Jim," said Carolinus. "That's one of the things I remarked immediately about you when we first met."

  "But you'll do the best you can to help me within what you see as possible limits, right?" asked Jim.

  "Yes," said Carolinus. "Remember, Jim, I have a great consideration for you—wouldn't have taken you on as my apprentice otherwise—and I rejoice when you succeed and am concerned when you are in difficulty. In short, I hope you feel you can trust in my goodwill."

  "Actually, I never doubted that," said Jim. What he had feared, of course, was Carolinus jumping to the wrong conclusions because the older magician was thinking purely in terms of his own fourteenth-century experience. Or at least, that was the way Jim had felt most of the time. For a little while during the Christmas party at the Earl's he had wondered whether Carolinus wasn't necessarily using him for his own convenience, and had been for some time. But that proved to be wrong. "No, I trust you, Carolinus, of course. So does Angie."

  "I appreciate that, my boy," said Carolinus. "Nor have I forgotten how you saved my life when those two local healing women were about to heal me to death with their potions and rough treatment"

  Jim remembered. That had indeed been a time when Carolinus had been helpless; and Jim and Angie with some of their men-at-arms, plus the fortunate appearance of John Chandos, Giles and Chandos's squire, had appeared in the nick of time to rescue the elderly magician and get him to Malencontri where he could be nursed back to health. Jim's guilty feeling for doubting Carolinus at the Earl's, grew to an even greater self-accusation.

  "I'll trust you, Carolinus," he said. "You can count on me."

  "And you can count on me, my boy," said Carolinus. "Opportunely, since we have just established our mutual trust, there is something that I have been meaning to speak very seriously to you about, since you are moving—let us say—into a new area of the use of magick. You know, of course, that you have this unlimited drawing account on magickal energy because of your unusual status, and that this has caused some upset on the part of other magickians and their apprentices, who feel you're being especially favored."