“I heard you are the Dragon,” MacNeill spoke first.
“I was, but I have given that title to a man named Constantine. He is now the Pendragon of Britain, Wales and Cornwall. I am retired. But tell me, aren’t you afraid the King of Leinster will get mad when he finds out you have made a place for Patrick?”
MacNeill and his roughs grinned. “I hope so,” MacNeill said. “I hope this sticks in his craw and he chokes on it.”
Festuscato glimpsed the political workings and slipped his arm around MacNeill’s shoulder. “Buy you a drink?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” MacNeill responded, and they all went in to an early, liquid supper.
The Fathers Gaius and Seamus caught up with them in the tavern, and after Gaius finished scolding Festuscato for his drinking, the Fathers joined them, with Gaius instructing the cleric Seamus throughout supper. “We have to give leeway for Lord Agitus. His is a life not like any others with many great and grave responsibilities that we cannot imagine. You need to pray for him every day.”
“Like whether he is an angel or demon,” Dibs added with a wink.
“If only it were that easy,” Festuscato said. “Alas, I am utterly human this time around so nothing is easy or obvious.”
“Praying for him twice a day would not hurt,” Gaius added to the bewilderment of Seamus and the confusion of the Irish. There followed silence for a second before all eyes got drawn to the end of the table.
“Milk?” Mousden groused, but Mirowen insisted it was good for him. The men laughed, but Mousden, looking like a stubborn nine-year-old, knocked the glass and sent the milk flying. No one got wet, thanks to Mirowen’s quick magic, but then no one especially noticed the magic.
Mirowen pulled out her handkerchief and began to clean Mousden’s mouth. Dibs squinted as he remembered how that could hurt. Mousden looked at Festuscato with pleading in his eyes, but Festuscato would not have it. “Go to your room,” he said in his most gruff tone, but Mousden determined to be rebellious. He took his natural pixie form right in front of everyone, and the Irish at least shoved back and stood, prepared to run.
“I mean it. Nap time.” Festuscato pointed his finger at the pixie, and Mousden let out a wail and frightening shriek before he flew for the stairs. Dibs put a finger in his ear. Bran took another long swig of his beer, and Gaius held Seamus to his seat while Mirowen apologized.
“He is still adjusting to living in daylight hours. He still naps and is up some at night, but he is usually better behaved.” She bowed to everyone and headed for the stairs. Every eye in the room followed her, and Festuscato thought Mirowen could not help it. The glamour that made her appear human did not disguise her beauty, and only made it worse in some ways.
“Come. Sit.” Festuscato encouraged the Irish and they sat but looked wary.
“Yes, Lord MacNeill.” Festuscato disappointed his host. “There was a woman, Keela, the daughter of the tavern master in Wicklow. Three of Sean Fen’s men caught her out back and planned to rape her.”
“What happened?” MacNeill asked, curious enough.
“I killed all three,” Festuscato said, owning the work of Mirowen and her arrows. “Now I have to be sure he does not follow and blame Patrick in any way.”
“Oh, Lord,” Seamus spoke up like a man who suddenly remembered his errand. “I came to tell you, I was with the King when word of the Bishop came to him. He got angry at first, thinking Palladius returned, but he did not act much better when he found out it was a different Priest. He said, “Are these men like ants where every time I squish one another takes his place?” I was gaining a hearing with the King’s wife and son, but when he had time to consider the matter, he ordered me out of his kingdom. That very morning, I went to pack my few things and planned to say my good-byes by early afternoon, but I steered clear of the King because Sean Fen the pirate and his mate had come to the King’s table. It was not long on that day, and I was not yet out of the town, when a rider brought word of Sean Fen’s losses. I don’t know how the King took it, but be assured Sean Fen fell into a rage and would not be calmed down.”
“Great, you see? I allowed Sean Fen to keep his head at Caerdyf, and this is the thanks I get.” Festuscato sipped his wine and made a face. It was not very good wine. “Looks like I may have to kill him after all.” One of MacNeill’s roughs looked like he thought that might not be so easy, though the other looked like he was not sure he believed the story about killing three men. MacNeill looked like a man stymied, not knowing what to believe or do, but then the tavern keeper stepped up to the table, and Festuscato wondered which of his little ones put the man up to it, because only they were able to time things so perfectly.
“Lord Agitus,” the man said in a humble tone, and he knew exactly who Festuscato was. “My name is Hugh and my wife is Clary and my son Donogh is a fine boy of twelve years, and we want to thank you for what you did for my niece Keela, down in Wicklow. I heard the true story and how you saved her from a terrible fate, and I think I want to give you back the money you paid for rooms and to stay here.”
“Don’t you dare give me any money back,” Festuscato interrupted. “A man is worthy of his rent, and I would be insulted to live off your good will.” Festuscato grabbed two more gold coins from his pocket. “In fact, you and your family will also be under my protection, should it come to that. Here, for your trouble, because I will be staying for some time and I may have some strange or unusual visitors while I am here, so just be a good host and everything will be well.” He handed the man the coins and the man smiled and went off to fetch another round of drinks.
“Generous,” MacNeill said, having eyed the gold.
“It’s only money,” Festuscato said. “Life is much more precious, and I pray I don’t have to kill Sean Fen or any more of his men.” He lifted his glass in a toast. “Here is to the Amorican, British, Welsh, Cornish, Irish, Saxons, Picts, Scots, Angles, Jutes, Galls, Danes, Goths, Franks and Romans. May we all learn to live in peace.”
Everyone drank to that, and Gaius and Seamus added, “Amen.”
It did not take three days before young Donogh prevailed upon Festuscato to come into the swamps just south of town. Bran and Dibs said they were up for an adventure, being tired of the tavern life after the last time. Seamus, the cleric turned out to be a scribe, a bit of an artist, a writer and poet. Being able to read and write explained why he had been employed by the King of Leinster. But he said he always wanted to have an adventure so he could have something worth writing about. Festuscato chuckled at the thought, knowing the way his lives went.
“Good luck with that,” Festuscato said, but the mystery Donogh presented at least sounded intriguing. Donogh said he had a special friend named Clugh who lived in the swamp. That was all he said. They would just have to come and meet him.
The land proved to be all inhospitable muck and ferns, with occasional bits of rock that appeared here and there like strange weeds or bushes in the way. Festuscato could not imagine what geological upheaval might have shoved the rock up from below. Then again, he thought the boulders might have been dropped off in the last ice age. He wondered if any of his other lifetimes knew anything about geological formations. Anywhere else in the world and he would have kept one eye open for serpents, but Ireland remained a place where the only serpents grew in the shape of a man.
“Clugh. Clugh.” Donogh called for his friend like a boy might call for a lost dog. “Clugh.”
They came to a particularly large outcropping of rocks, a kind of stack of boulders that left spaces in and though the various rocks. The spaces around the boulders were enough for several trees to grow up in between the stones. Festuscato jumped back when he saw Clugh’s head. It looked as big as Festuscato’s head, and the body looked seriously serpent-like, about fifteen to eighteen feet long, and the nostrils were smoking. Bran froze where he stood. Dibs looked like he wanted to run away, but he did not dare. Seamus fell to his knees in the muck and appeared to pray.
“Come on, Clugh. I want you to meet my friends.” Donogh appeared fearless, but it obviously came from ignorance. He put his twelve-year-old hand right up to the dragon’s head and patted down the feathers. He had no idea about serpents, and less so about dragons. No telling what sort of beast Donogh thought Clugh was.
“Friends,” Festuscato spouted in the Agdaline tongue, the language bred into dragons millennia ago. All dragons were designed to obey the right words, and the clever things did when they were young. Of course, when they got older, they got grumpy and stubborn, and sometimes became pretty slow in the obedience department. “Brothers,” Festuscato changed the word when he looked to see that Donogh was all right. “Brothers, family.” He added the word when he realized this one seemed quite young, to still be sporting so many feathers. “Family. Brothers.”
“Family,” Clugh mouthed in response to the words. It pulled from the rocks and took long whiffs of those present to be sure to identify these as family.
“Brothers,” Festuscato repeated and he dared to add, “Pet.” He reached out despite his better judgment and stroked the beast on the neck beneath the head.
“Pet,” Clugh said. He seemed to like that.
“Isn’t he great?” Donogh said, excited.
“Great,” Bran managed the word as Clugh currently sniffed Seamus who had his eyes shut as tight as possible and appeared to be shivering.
“Clugh?” Dibs asked.
“Glewg” the dragon said.
“It means hurt in Dragonspeak,” Festuscato told them, and he took a moment to examine the beast. It had a broken wing. It could not fly, which was why it had taken up residence among the swamp rocks. The boy had some fresh beef in his pack and he laid it out on the rocks. Obviously, the boy found the injured beast and made friends by bringing it food, generally a dangerous idea. If Clugh had been bigger and older, at some point the dragon might have decided the small offering was not enough and eaten Donogh for desert.
Donogh pulled his hand back which showed he had no idea what kind of animal Clugh was. Bran and Dibs hardly flinched on the word dragon, but Seamus got back to his feet. He just made sure the big Roman Sergeant and the bigger Bran the Sword stayed between him and the bulk of the beast.