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15

In Which Everyone Argues

Willin's list was remarkably clear and well organized. Once they found the section headed "Caves and Caverns Near the Mountains of Morning," it was only a matter of a few minutes before they discovered the listing for the Cave of Stone Icicles, the only cave at the western end of the Pass of the Dragons. As Mendanbar had predicted, there was a back way into it. A tunnel started from the bottom of the Crystal Falls and wound around under the hills and forest until it reached a crack at the rear of the cave.

"This doesn't look as if it will be hard at all," Cimorene said.

"Let's go."

"Right," said Mendanbar. "This shouldn't take long. I'll be back in an hour or so. Willin, take care of everyone while I'm gone-you know, refreshments and things."

"Wait a minute? Cimorene said, her voice rising above startled objections from everyone else. "You're not going without me."

"But-" "I am Kazul's Chief Cook and Librarian," Cimorene said firmly.

"It's my job to help rescue her."

"I suppose so," Mendanbar said, "but all I'm going to do is sneak in and look at the wizards, and then sneak out again."

"That's all you think you're going to do, but what if something goes wrong?"

"Exactly," Morwen said. "You should have someone with you. Several someones, in fact."

"I'm real good at sneaking," Crown Prince Jorillam put in eagerly.

"And I want to see a dragon up close."

"No, you don't," Mendanbar said. "Morwen, are you trying to tell me you want to come along as well?"

"No," Morwen said, looking at him sternly over the tops of her glasses.

"I'm telling you I'm going to come whether you like it or not. Kazul is my friend, and besides, I want a crack at those wretched wizards."

"We aren't going to do anything to the wizards until we know more about what we're up against," Mendanbar said, feeling harried.

"Then how come you wanted those buckets of soapy water?" Crown Prince Jorillam demanded.

'Just in case," Mendanbar said. "This is only to find out what the wizards are doing and how many of them there are."

"Which is precisely why I must accompany you," Telemain put in.

"Not you, too!"

Telemain frowned at him. "You don't seem to realize what a priceless opportunity this is," the magician said. "It is entirely possible that we shall be able to observe the Society of Wizards in the very act of casting their magic-absorbing spells. Since they are extremely secretive about their methods, this may be the only chance we have of studying their techniques."

"It isn't worth the risk," Mendanbar said.

"Not to you, perhaps," Telemain told him. "I, however, intend to take full advantage of these circumstances. One way or another, I am going to get a look at those wizards." He leaned the wizard's staff against the wall and folded his arms stubbornly.

"Yeah, and then we melt them!" Crown Prince Jorillam said enthusiastically.

"You are not coming with us," Mendanbar told him.

"But I'm real, real good at sneaking," Jorillam said. "Tell them, Uncle!"

"He is," Prince Rupert said earnestly. "And I'll keep an eye on him so he won't get in your way."

Mendanbar stared at him. "No, you won't. Because you aren't coming with me, either. I am going to sneak into the Cave of Stone Icicles by myself" "No, you're not," said everyone at once. Morwen's two cats glanced up, then went back to washing their tails. Mendanbar got the distinct impression that the only reason they hadn't joined in the general outcry was that they thought it was beneath them to argue.

"It is inappropriate for the King of the Enchanted Forest to embark on a mission to the King of the Dragons without a formal escort," Willin added.

"You want me to take all these people along as a formal escort?"

Mendanbar said incredulously. "Really, Willin-" "Not at all," the elf replied. "They are all persons of distinction, and it would not be suitable for any of them to take a position as a formal escort to Your Majesty. Properly, only those of your subjects already in Your Majesty's employ may make up such a retinue. Due to Your Majesty's general dislike of formality, we have very few such persons available at present."

"What are you suggesting?" Mendanbar asked with a sinking feeling.

"That I am the only possible person who can accompany Your Majesty in this capacity," Willin said.

"If he gets to go, so do I!" Crown Prince Jorillam cried.

"Not without me," Prince Rupert said, setting his jaw. "I don't know anything about this business with the dragons and wizards, but Jorillam is my responsibility. Until I lose him in the forest, that is."

"And Kazul is my responsibility," Cimorene said.

"Like it or not, I am going to get a look at those spells," Telemain stated flatly.

"Those wizards have caused me a lot of trouble, what with one thing and another," Morwen pointed out. "I intend to cause them a bit of trouble back."

"It is necessary to Your Majesty's dignity that Your Majesty take a proper escort with you," Willin put in.

"Quiet!" Mendanbar said.

Everyone stopped talking. Willin looked utterly astonished. Jorillam had a wary expression, and Prince Rupert and Telemain both looked mildly taken aback. Morwen's eyes gleamed approvingly behind her glasses.

Cimorene looked momentarily startled, but then she smiled.

Mendanbar took a deep breath. First things first. "Crown Prince Jorillam."

"Yes?"

"You are not coming on this expedition. You will stay here, at my castle, until I return. In the dungeon, just as you requested."

"But it's not fair," Jorillam said. "I didn't know then that you were going to go fight wizards. And that elf-" "Willin is one of my people, and a native of the Enchanted Forest," Mendanbar said. "You aren't.

Don't bother arguing; you don't get a choice.

I'm the King here, remember."

Jorillam gave him a sulky nod.

"Prince Rupert," Mendanbar went on, "you were quite right to say that your nephew needs watching. You will stay here and keep an eye on him while I'm gone."

"Certainly, Your Majesty," Prince Rupert said with a relieved sigh.

"If you say so."

"I'm afraid I can't bring you with me, either, Willin," Mendanbar said, turning to his steward. "Somebody has to take care of our visitors, you know, and you're the only possible person."

Willin hesitated, plainly torn. "It is my duty to serve Your Majesty regardless of the danger."

"I appreciate your willingness to accompany me," Mendanbar assured him.

"I feel, however, that you would serve me better here. Now, please take these two guests to the North-Northwest Tower dungeon and see that they get some refreshments."

"As Your Majesty commands," Willin said, bowing. He gestured to Prince Rupert and Crown Prince Jorillam, and led them away.

Well, that takes care of them, anyway, Mendanbar thought as the three rounded a bend in the corridor and vanished from sight. The rest wouldn't be that easy. He looked over and saw Morwen, Cimorene, and Telemain standing side by side, wearing identical expressions of stubbornness, and he sighed. He supposed he could accidentally-on-purpose forget to include them in the transportation spell, but somehow he didn't think that would stop them. Not when one was a witch, one a magician, and one an experienced dragon's princess.

"Don't even bother trying to talk us out of it," Cimorene warned.

"You'll only waste more time."

"You're probably right," Mendanbar said at last. "And anyway, I suspect I really should have some help with me, just in case."

"Very sensible of you," Morwen told him.

"Yes, well, let's get our buckets and go," Mendanbar said uncomfortably.

The four of them collected buckets of soapy water from the imperturbable castle footman. Cimorene and Telemain took two each, but Mendanbar only took one, because he wanted to keep one hand free in case he needed his sword. Morwen also took only one bucket. She did not explain, and her expression dared anyone to comment. No one did.

The footman left, removing Telemain's staff along the way. "Be sure you put that somewhere safe," Telemain called after him.

Mendanbar looked around one last time, checking to make sure everyone was finally ready, then twitched the strands of power and transported them all to the foot of the Crystal Falls.

They appeared on the slippery bank of a narrow stream. A little farther on, the Crystal Falls poured in a shining curtain down the side of a sheer cliff of black glass. The water foamed and swirled at the foot of the falls, forming a small, restless pool, then rushed down the channel at their feet and dashed on into the deeper parts of the Enchanted Forest . The noise of the falling water was tremendous, and the air had a clean, sharp smell.

Mendanbar looked around to see that everyone was there and that no one had spilled the soapy water. He noticed, without surprise, that the two cats had come along, even though he had not specifically included them in the transportation spell. Cats were like that.

"Which way is the tunnel entrance?" Cimorene asked. She had to shout to make herself heard over the roar of the waterfall.

"Over there," Mendanbar shouted back, waving at a clump of fir trees near the foot of the cliff. "Watch your step."

"What did you say?" Telemain yelled.

"He said, 'Watch your step,'" Cimorene replied at the top of her lungs.

Telemain nodded, and they moved cautiously away from the water-slick bank of the stream. The cats had already moved out of range of the mist billowing up from the base of the waterfall. When the rest of the group caught up to them, the two cats gave Mendanbar looks of deep reproach, as if to imply that he should have more sense than to set everyone down so close to such a damply uncomfortable spot.

The runnel entrance was a narrow crack in the side of the cliff, hidden behind the clump of firs. The cats trotted through it and vanished into the darkness. Morwen gazed after them with a thoughtful expression on her face.

"I don't suppose anyone remembered to bring a light?" Cimorene said, eying the crack with evident misgiving.

Telemain smiled and said three words that crackled in the air. A small globe of golden light appeared above his head. "I'll go first, so the rest of you can see where you're stepping," he said, smiling with a trace of smugness.

"And what do you think will happen when we get near the wizards and their magic-absorbing spell gets hold of your little glow-ball?"

Morwen said sharply. "You're not thinking, Telemain."

"I suppose you have a better idea?"

Morwen pushed her glasses firmly into place, set down her bucket of soapy water, and reached into one of her long, loose sleeves. She pulled out a small lantern and set it on the ground. Then she reached into the other sleeve, from which she pulled a flint striker and a long splinter of wood.

Expertly, she struck a spark and lit the splinter, then used the splinter to light the lantern. She blew the splinter out, stuffed it and the flint back into her sleeve, and smiled at the surprise on everyone else's face.

"I thought we might be needing this," she said. Picking up the lantern and the bucket, she started for the mouth of the tunnel.

"Hang on a minute," Mendanbar said. "I should go first. Would you give me the lantern, Morwen?"

"Only if you don't dawdle," Morwen responded. "My cats are in there."

"Of course. You come next, then, and Telemain after you. Cimorene can come last. That way we'll have a light between every two people."

Cimorene did not look happy about these arrangements, but Mendanbar did not give anyone time to argue. As soon as Morwen nodded, he took the lantern and started into the crack. It was only wide enough for one of them at a time to edge sideways, and the ground was covered with shattered rock, which made the footing treacherous. Juggling the lantern and his bucket back and forth from hand to hand, Mendanbar tried to see what lay ahead of him while still giving Morwen enough light to follow.

Progress was slow, and he began to wonder whether the whole tunnel was going to be as narrow and difficult as this beginning.

"Maybe we would have been better off charging at the main entrance," he muttered to himself.

After what seemed a very long time, but was probably only a few minutes, the runnel widened. The piles of shattered rock became fewer, then ceased altogether. Mendanbar heaved a sigh of relief and stopped to let the others catch up.

Morwen was the first. "Good," she said as she clambered over the last of the rock piles, balancing carefully to avoid spilling her bucket.

"I was beginning to think that rocky stuff was never going to end. Any sign of my cats?"

"It would be more reasonable to ask whether there is any sign of the wizards," Telemain said, following Morwen into the wider part of the tunnel.

There was a large wet spot down one side of his many-pocketed vest; apparently he had not been as careful with his buckets as Morwen.

"I haven't seen a trace of the wizards," Mendanbar said, "but the cats have been by here." He pointed at two small trails of footprints leading down the tunnel.

"Thank goodness that's over," Cimorene said as she emerged from the narrow section of the tunnel to join them. "Why are you all just standing here? The Cave of Stone Icicles is a lot farther on."

As this was undeniably true, they set off again. There was still not room for all four of them to stand in a line, but at least now they could walk two by two without difficulty. Somehow, Cimorene ended up walking with Mendanbar in the front. Mendanbar was not sure whether to be glad or sorry. He enjoyed walking with Cimorene, even if they did not dare to talk much; the wizards might have someone listening for odd noises. On the other hand, being in front meant that he and Cimorene were the ones the wizards would attack first. Mendanbar did not like the idea of anyone attacking Cimorene, although he knew she could take care of herself.

He had some time to consider this, for the tunnel was long and winding, but he found it hard to concentrate with Cimorene walking so close beside him. He discovered that he wanted to put his arm around her as they walked-the one carrying the bucket of water, not the lantern-but somehow that didn't seem like the right thing to do when they were supposed to be watching out for wizards. He had never met a princess like Cimorene before.

He had never met anyone like Cimorene before. She was smart and brave and kind and loyal, and he liked her. In fact, he liked her a great deal.

In fact Suddenly, the light around Mendanbar dimmed. He stopped and glanced over his shoulder. The little globe that had been hovering over Telemain's head had gone out.

"Telemain?" Mendanbar whispered.

"I didn't turn it off," Telemain whispered back. "We must be getting near the wizards."

Mendanbar nodded without surprise-the atmosphere in the tunnel felt dry and magicless, and though they were still within the Enchanted Forest, he could no longer sense threads of power floating invisibly in the air. He swallowed, hoping he would not have to do any spells in a hurry.

"Keep close," he whispered to Telemain and Morwen, and slowly started forward once more.

The tunnel bent sharply to the left, then right, and without further warning opened out into a forest of stone pillars. A glimmer of light showed between the stones, and they could hear a mumble of voices in the distance.

Hastily, Mendanbar covered the lantern with a corner of his cloak, so that it only lit the area just in front of his feet. Cimorene dropped back. After a moment, she put her hand on his shoulder, and Mendanbar wondered briefly what she had done with the bucket. She gave his shoulder a brief squeeze to indicate that Morwen and Telemain had taken their places. Then he heard her pick the bucket up again.

Carefully, Mendanbar edged through the pillars toward the light and voices.

As they drew nearer, Mendanbar began to understand what the voices were saying.

"I don't like this," grumbled one. "We've wasted too much time already.

We should just take her outside, dose her with dragonsbane, and leave her for someone to find."

"Stop complaining, Dizenel," replied a smooth voice, and Mendanbar frowned as he recognized Zemenar's fluid tones. "I have told you a hundred times how foolish that would be," Zemenar went on. "I am not going to tell you for the hundred and first."

"He's right, though," another voice said. "Someone is going to notice us pretty soon, and then where will all our planning be?"

"Someone already has," a fourth voice rasped. "What about those two this morning?"

"A couple of adventurers," Zemenar said dismissively. "They don't matter."

"They got away, didn't they? If they tell someone what they saw-" "They won't," Zemenar said.

"How can you be sure of that?"

Zemenar gave a snort. "Because of who they are. Can't you recognize a Wicked Uncle when you see one? He was probably here to drop the boy somewhere in the Enchanted Forest . He isn't going to tell anyone about us.

And even if he does, what of it? Everyone knows odd things happen in the Enchanted Forest. His story will only be one more."

Mendanbar was at the end of the stone columns, close enough to see the wizards if he peeked around a pillar. There were ten of them, grouped about a small table at one side of an enormous cavern. Zemenar and two others were seated; the rest leaned against the wall of the cave or stood in clumps close by. High above the wizards, hundreds of long, cone-shaped columns hung like stone icicles from the ceiling. Four torches dangled from iron brackets on the wall and a lamp stood in the center of the table, throwing shadows like dark fangs from the hanging rocks.

Partway across the cavern, a pale golden glow cut across the shadows like a drawn curtain. On the other side of the glow was a dragon, her wings folded along her back, her eyes narrowed to slits. Mendanbar recognized her at once, even without Cimorene's hiss. She was the same dragon they had seen in the magic window at the dwarfs house-Kazul, the King of the Dragons.


14 In Which Mendanbar Has Some Interesting Visitors | Searching for Dragons | 16 In Which Mendanbar Cleans Up