Crossed Stars

The wine had been very good, and the meal worthy of the wine. I respected him. Both of us
relaxed, facing each other in the firelight. He nodded at my effusive thanks and praise, and gazed off into
the night sky for a long moment.

"You are thinking. May I ask of what?"

He swung his gaze back toward me, and smiled. "Of much, I suppose. That is a privilege of the
aged, after all."

"No dispute! But, is it, perhaps, the duty of the aged to enlighten succeeding generations with the
products of their thoughts?" I poured him more wine.

"Ah. You request, then, that I unburden myself to you? Daring! You forfeit the right to plead

"If you please, I am a scholar, and historian. Unburden, and freely, if you would do me that great
favor. I shall undoubtedly plead solely for more of your wisdom. Or more of this fine wine, of which you
seem to have just finished the last…"

"There's a cask of the same vintage against the wall. Fill the pitcher again. Then, if you will,
truly, keep your tongue between your teeth… I am pondering the very mystery of my being."

I nodded my acquiescence, and returned with the filled pitcher. He had the same look in his eyes
that had prompted my previous remark. There was also, I was glad to note, a pleased twinkle at my interest
in his thoughts. I prepared myself mentally and physically to receive his tale.

"I was thinking of my parents… I regret the recent death of your father. Mine died long ago."

I nodded. "Please go on."

"Theirs was… A most unusual courtship. Most unusual. I owe what status I have to the way they
overcame so much in the course of it. As you have mentioned, the price of loving one's progenitors is a
feeling that one is most unworthy of them. You note my wealth, and, for this evening, share my comfort.
All that—the product of my parents' adversity…"

"Few would consider you unworthy! Your parents were of great power, and influence! I have
heard the tale of your father's battles. My own held both your mother and father in great respect."

He smiled, again, and then leaned forward toward me.

"I wonder, however, how your mother would react to the full story of their origins? You are
trying, with mixed success, to advance your family's name and honor to a level approaching mine. MOST
rash. Fortunately, for you, I enjoy your company and even your questions. My parents? Ah. They began
their lives with much, and forfeited it all. They suffered a very great deal, and nearly perished even at the
very inception of their union. I am the beneficiary of their labors, their suffering, their courage. You must
understand that it is only natural that I wonder if I am worthy of such an inception."

I nodded again, and was careful to keep my own features safely hidden behind my goblet.

"For example… Your father respected mine as…?"

I swallowed deliberately, buying precious seconds for thought. "He was a most formidable
fighter. He acquired your lands with great deliberation. He was thoughtful. And he loved your mother
dearly. As she loved him, of course."

He held my eyes for a moment, and put down his drink. "How, would you think, your father
would have reacted had he known that mine was the eldest son of a merchant family in Crendellin? That
vulgar trading community of fat men and fat women, squatting behind their ancestors' walls and paying us
tribute? And my mother, almost exactly the same, the daughter of a family whose cattle I still take
pleasure in driving off for my own?"

I could not repress my shudder, but the wine helped. "He would think, I suppose, that, as you say,
the two of them had overcome a very great deal… But, you are testing me, sir. The story is impossible."

"No. It is not. It is merely sufficiently extraordinary to prompt the sort of thoughts and the sort of
reaction we have just seen in us both over our wine this evening. I do not expect you to believe it,
youngster. May I expect the courtesy of your attention while I relate it?"

"Sir! You need not ask. Please, I pride myself on my open mind and my desire to learn.
Obviously I am ignorant, and that is a state of sin of which I would gladly be shriven!"

He could kill me in an instant, before I could even mark him, and face no consequences worse
than the disposal of my corpse. Worse, much worse, I DID respect him, did not wish to offend. I had
long esteemed the authority he derived from his mind, wealth, and strength. I carefully kept myself in a
submissive posture, unmoving, and did not raise my eyes from the floor until I heard him again lifting his

He was looking across the room again. After a long pause, he began to speak, keeping his gaze
out into the night, where the stars were coming out through a few high clouds. His eyes pointed toward
that squalid city in the plains below us that he had named as his parents' home.

"My father was born a young man, one hundred and twenty years ago, to the Vendelgar family, of
Crendellin. They were a vile, oily breed, like all their filthy kind. Petty lineage, petty nobility, and petty
desires. Oil, slaves, and cheap cloth had made their wealth, and my… my grandfather, white slug that he
was, thought he could turn that money into power, such as they know it, below.

"He wished to be podesta of that city—chief magistrate. Spender of the burghers' taxes, appointer
of the lesser officials, giver and receiver of many favors. The fattest and biggest toad in that cesspool of
human squalor, with the other toads well beneath his slimy feet. The post he coveted was a plum shared
between the leading families, for which he had long schemed and labored How any thinking being could
stay in that foulness—or wish to rule over it! He could see our mountains when he was born, my father
told me that. Did my grandfather lack the courage to come up here himself? How could he not? Ah…"

He let his head fall, for a moment. His glance toward me was almost apologetic.

"My father instructed me not to hold him in this contempt. He was not what we are. Why are
you taking such deep breaths?"

"I meant no disrespect! But… In the lowlands! How horrible!"

Something of the previous twinkle came back into his glance. "My parents themselves—at first--
knew and were born to no better. My father—at that time--was as ignorant of what we are as we are in
trying to comprehend their city. Perhaps that is why he would not let me hate my grandfather, whatever his
own feelings were toward him. He was quite effective in teaching me to mind my words."

"Now, my mother… Her family, of course, was the next most potent in Crendellin. The Diorin
made their money selling meat to the wealthy, and offal to the poor wretches who worked in the Vendelgar
clothworks and the hovels near the docks. They were no braver, and lived no more cleanly. The poor
starvelings you and I drive from their herds were the ones who guarded their beasts, and died in their blood
so that the Diorin could grow more wealthy. By their standards, that was affluent indeed, to the point
where money, like their herders, could be wantonly employed. My mother was not, for a woman,
particularly beautiful—nor ugly. She did have a good mind, and a good education. That was a conceit of
HER father's—that he could afford to have his daughter schooled in something other than the
housekeeping! She had teachers, music tutors, and access to books and booksellers. It was through a book
that she met my father, which is of itself an interesting tale…"

I made the smallest sound of inquiry.

"Ah. You DO need to hear it, to understand the rest. One of her tutors also worked for my
father's family, probably as a spy of some sort. My father never told me more than the minimum regarding
that man. He had taken a favored book of my mother's along with his own when he left her house one day
after her lessons. He may have sought to steal it, and sell it. My father found it among the books the tutor
had left for his studies, and he, too, found it intriguing."

"What began to intrigue him more, however, were the comments he found penned in the margins.
He knew his tutor's calligraphy. These letters were of an alluringly feminine style and hand. On one level,
that pleased him, for his contacts with other women—understandably!--had been limited. On another
level, the thoughts the letters formed were also much to his liking—in as much as they often echoed his
own musings as he read the same material. It took the offer of a bribe and the display of dagger to wring
the name of the book's true owner from the cowering pedant when the tutor returned the following week."

"At the time, my father was a shortish man of clean features, none of their facial hair, broad
shoulders, and a powerful will. He kept that last trait to his death. It took a very great deal to daunt him.
Hearing my mother's name and family, he resolved to seek her out, and the consequences be damned. The
consequences very nearly damned them both. But, I owe my existence to them, so I cannot fault his

He leaned over toward me, again, his eyes very bright in the fading firelight.

"Now, you are thinking—youngster—of all the doomed romances in the those books. You have
heard the ballads the shepherds sing. I have read your transcriptions. You have listened to the tales of
feuding families, and secret romances, and doomed courtships. Your—and I use the term politely—poetry
has come to my attention. Families, secret romances, and doom you may have. They are in this account.
But the details? Ah, they are not what your soggy poets would have them. Not very much at all…"

"First of all, my waddling grandfather would have done everything in his considerable power to
arrange my parents' betrothal. The Diorin were not, in fact, notably hostile to the Vendelgar. My father in
wedlock to a Diorin daughter would have increased my grandfather's influence greatly, at a time when he
desired just that very greatly.

"My father, however, was not one, then or later, to let others determine his fate. There was the
chance that my grandfather would have bungled the arrangement of a marriage alliance. There was the
chance that HER father—less ambitious, but a harder sort, for a merchant and a man—would put the price
of his daughter too high. And there was also the son's thought that he would prefer the woman who had
written what he had read to love him, not be driven to his bed as part of a vulgar political alliance.
Romantic that he was, he wished her to choose him without any prompting but her heart's. By forfeiting
his father's involvement, of course, he forfeited his father's support and insulted him gravely. Worse,
Grandfather had other sons, and a vindictive nature. By avoiding their procedures for a formal courtship,
my father made himself an intruder in my mother's home, a provocation to the most extreme vengeance
their kind can conceive. He transformed himself into a man marked for death by the leaders of two
powerful houses. He did all this, not knowing if the bride he sought would favor his suit. Then, as he was
later, he was a most determined individual."

He chuckled.

"His success in marrying her and siring me made him considerably less reckless in later

"The next week, my mother's tutor had an assistant, who kept a firm grip on a wooden cane
wrapped well with leather to conceal the sword hidden within. He was a cripple, the instructor explained
to the Diorin family's guards. This disability also served to explain why the 'assistant' kept so firm a grip
upon his ostensible master's shoulder as the two men made their way into my mother's quarters. My
parents tended to speak little of that first encounter. Memories are not uniformly pleasant, even if
preserved. Yet, while she lived, I was, like you, a persistent interrogator. She was offended, she once
admitted, by his intrusion. She was impressed by his resolve, then and always. What brought them
together, as they would both say, was the simple fact that each enjoyed talking to the other more than to
any other individual of either's acquaintance. In such a medium of mutual understanding did their love
commence and grow.

"Money from the two of them swiftly bought the tutor's acquiescence, and allowed their shared
interests to blossom into something of which I, eventually, was the fruit. The 'cripple' appeared many
times at my mother's lessons, and there were discussions of each other's lives, books exchanged, and wine
and food taken in silent intimacy. There came to be no question but that the two of them would join their
lives together, but as to how that would happen was a most difficult matter.

"My progenitors were not two of these impractical lovers, but there were a great many
obstacles in the way of anything resembling a successful elopement. Neither directly controlled any
source of sufficient wealth to support them for any length of time--as it stood when they met. She had
lands in her name, he was listed as owner of several Vendelgar vessels—both so for tax reasons. These
properties COULD be discreetly sold—with great care—but such actions increased the risk of discovery by
their parents exponentially. They would need more money to find a new city in which to dwell, and still
more money yet to purchase admission and protection from the dynasts controlling wherever fate led them.
For months they planned, and with exquisite prudence began to accumulate their resources. They found
out what your parents knew from their activities up here—that the two of them worked very well together,
and the bond between them had time to grow very strong until, as their kind puts it, the 'roof fell in.'

"You could almost admire that tutor, if you could stomach his sort. My father said as much when
he told me of how he had hunted down and killed him, in our style of revenge—but I overshoot my tale.
The man each trusted had let them get their wealth together, all the while accepting their gifts, their trust,
and their presents. Then he betrayed them to BOTH sets of parents simultaneously, and absconded with
the better part of what my parents had raised. Theft from them, rewards from all sides, and my father and
my mother running at night into the countryside with two sets of assassins after each to remove even the
rumors of what my parents had almost accomplished."

He took a very long drink of wine, that time, and motioned for me to refill the pitcher again. I
must have looked entranced or profoundly amazed, for he did me the honor of filling my goblet before he

"There was no hope or help for them anywhere. The villagers and peasants surrounding the city
would not shelter them, penniless as they were, much less when gold could be had for revealing them to
those coming after. They had very scant clothing, and it was cold, with snow coming on. Your own
parents would have slain mine—as they were then—upon first sight, with no more regret than if they were
lesser vermin. All the two fugitives had was their feelings for each other, and a desire to keep that love
alive for a little longer before the end came and the darkness overtook them.

"Considering that desire upon their parts, it is most ironic that fate overtook them in the place that
it did. Their last refuge was a place where their destruction could not have been more certain, far more so
than their own folk could have desired, had their pursuers not been fatally ignorant. At the best, our people
would have burned them both alive for profaning, as it would have seemed, our most sacred of shrines with
their corrupting presence. What magnificent ignorance! They were desperate, and cold. The Standing
Stones offered shelter for that last night together as man and woman. What comfort they could take in
their love was, at least, out of the wind.

"Those who came to kill them that morning were as uninformed as my parents were of what the
three rings mean to us. When he heard the hooves, my father drove my mother—she wished to perish at
his side—into the dolmen at the very center, where we leave our first kills each spring. It took the
assassins longer than it might have had the place been another. The horses, sensible creatures, would not
approach our sacred ground and did their best to escape what they knew, in simple wisdom, was inevitable.
The men in black had to approach on foot, stumbling among our relics, making their own plans for my
mother after my father had been disposed of. At length, they came forward in a ragged line to where my
father stood waiting with the same sword he had used to threaten the tutor. And then came intervention.

"My father always described it as a blast of heat, like a vast, warm wind. When his cloak
bellowed around him, he spun in his tracks, fearing, as he said, for my mother's safety. He would never
feel fear for HER protection again. He said it was like two flaring torches suddenly springing into life, as
her eyes began to glow and her head lifted up and out of the stones behind him. Mother always agreed that
he did NOT try to run when he saw what she was becoming, although the sight of her must surely have
terrified him as much as it did the men she began to kill. She had burned two and dismembered a third by
the time the changes overtook him, and the two of them, they said, killed the full two dozen of the attackers
before the sun was high in the sky. Their first meal as dragons was upon the corpses and the tethered
horses, which served to satisfy the hunger caused by their transformation.

"My father said that he finally realized that he was no longer of mankind when he first saw the
light of day shining upon my mother's wings and scales and found them beautiful. She was a very deep
shade of green—that is her portrait, there—with the pronounced crest and neck spikes that distinguish my
younger sisters. He was much more massive than she, after he changed, longer of fang, horns, and claw.
He was a lighter blue, at first, than I am now, but both our scales darkened with time. I can still remember
his dark silver eyes looking down upon me as I broke the shell for the first time, and the way he and my
mother had of embracing before twining necks, in the proper custom."

My own pupils must have contracted to narrow slits by the time his gaze next met mine, for he
actually laughed at my amazement before ordering me to finish the last of my wine. My lack of anything
to say obviously pleased him very greatly, or he would not have favored me with what he said next—
although, as I have noted, he could have severed my neck with a single movement of his jaws.

"The same forces that made them drake and draconess favored them, as you knew before I told
you all this, with a place within our own community, and that rise to the power and property of which I am
the most unworthy inheritor. We have not proclaimed this mystery in the decades since. My sisters have
all mated far abroad, and the 'secret' of my family's origins cannot damage them. I believe—don't flinch,
it's unseemly—that I can trust you to keep your peace indefinitely.

"In fact, youngster, I will favor you with a puzzle with which I toy to this day.

"Was I, like my sisters, conceived the dragon I am now? What do you think? My parents did
have that night, huddled together in the standing stones. Am I…"

And he hissed through a very deep breath.

"A dragon born, or was I—however far before my egg was laid—one of those soft, maggoty
creatures that we keep cowering in the city below? It is not a pleasant thought to contemplate—or one, I
think, upon which you will care to focus your own speculations…"

I tried not to cower, but I did draw back upon my haunches, keeping my head low and my neck
curved down in the submissive attitude I had held for much of that long night. My wings were pressed
close to my body in apprehension when I felt his shoulder touching mine. I looked up to see good humor
clearly reflected in his gleaming eyes.

"Perhaps, youngster, you will do me the honor of hunting with me? It is the least I can do after
filling you with queer tales and terror, in addition to the last of my wine…"

I accepted with alacrity, of course, and followed him in a long glide down from his lair as we
sought the more daring of the cattle on the mountain pastures beneath us.

Copyright 1997, but Permission to Circulate and Print Granted provided original authorship maintained.