Ordo Mass and the seven men—all his sons—led the companions through the thickly forested trail to a small compound of pale-wooded cottages in the center of the island, trailed by cats all the while.
“Interesting homes,” said John. “Were they made of wood from another part of the island? It doesn’t look like any from the trees we passed.”
“Our original ship was quite large,” said Ordo Maas, “and we never expected to use it again, not in the same manner we originally did. So we used the timbers from its hull to build our homes, and one or two other useful things.”
“That’s an understatement,” said Bert, “if the rest of the legend of Byblos is true.”
“There are lots of legends,” said Ordo Maas, “but yes. What you’ve heard is true.”
“What are you talking about?” said John.
“He built the ships,” said the youngest son. “All of them.”
“Hap,” Ordo Maas chided. “Do not be boastful.”
“Ships?” said Charles. “You mean the Dragonships, don’t you? Did you really build them?”
“My sons…came across a small, badly battered boat.”
Ordo Maas nodded, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“I, and my children.”
“Your sons?” said John.
“I have many children, but these seven are those who helped me, in the beginning, to build the first of what you call the Dragonships, yes.”
The companions (plus Magwich) were shown to an expansive room in the largest cottage, where they sat on overstuffed cushions scattered across the floor. Jack noticed that the cushions smelled slightly of livestock—a thought that went with the fact that the broad double doors were large enough to admit a horse, or more likely, a lion.
The house was plain, but in a manner that was simple rather than drab. Ordo Maas’s sons served them cups of hot tea and a platter of bread thick with pepper, which they needed little encouragement to devour. They noticed that dozens of saucers of tea—several of which were already being attended to by the cats that had followed them—had also been set along the walls.
The companions were curious as to what Ordo Maas would say about the Dragonships, but they held back from asking for details while their host was so graciously serving them. And to be honest, they were grateful for the respite and sustenance, stretching luxuriously on the cushions and drinking a large quantity of tea.
Once the companions had sated their hunger and thirst, the dishes had all been cleared away, and everyone was comfortably settled, Ordo Maas began his tale.
“A very, very long time ago, when this world and your own were much younger, and not so different, the boundaries between them were as gossamer, and could be freely passed.
“I traveled to the lands herein often, most frequently to those islands now called the Drowned Lands, but then, we lived in your world—”
“Where father was a very wise king,” interjected Hap.
“Where I was already very old,” Ordo Maas continued, “and was relied on to remember things that others had forgotten. I discovered that the world would soon be engulfed in a cataclysm. It would be covered in water, in a great flood that would last for a year, and many of the empires that then existed would be destroyed.
“I was mocked by the other elders and forbidden to reveal my beliefs to any over whom we ruled, nor to take steps to protect myself and my beloved wife. So, under the cover of darkness, we fled to a vast desert, and it was there that she and I began our family. And together, my sons and I started to build a great ship. It took us many years, but finally, it was complete, and we started to gather into it all the things that would be needed to rebuild the world.”
“This sounds very familiar,” said Jack.
Charles nudged him. “Don’t interrupt. Keep good form, Jack.”
“It should sound familiar,” said Ordo Maas. “The gods have been destroying mankind by flood since time began. It was necessary until the point that men had learned enough to begin destroying themselves all on their own.
“To begin on the paths of the gods, one must first perfect one’s weaknesses.
“When the ship, which we called the ark, was complete, we took into it the power of the gods, which had been stolen from them by my father, to be given to me, so that when we once more emerged into the world, we would begin with one of their strengths.”
Ordo Maas gestured with his staff, and the flame danced with movement. “He brought it from the home of the gods with his own hands, and ever since, it has never left mine,” he said. “And, when someday I must pass, as all things do, into the Summer Country, I shall give it on to my own sons.”
“We also had with us one other object of power, the last great gift of our gods—given, we believed, to aid us in rebuilding the world. But it was a burden as much as a gift, and more than one man—or woman—could be expected to bear.
“As I was given Fire, so that we could make tools, so was my wife given a gift: a great kettle of iron, emblazoned with the symbols of Creation, lidded with the shield of Perseus, and sealed with wax.
“We were told that within the kettle were the Talents of Man—everything necessary for the world to be reborn when the great waters of the flood receded—and that it must never be opened until the world was prepared. But, believing ourselves to be the equals of the gods, we did not listen. She opened the seal, and the world paid a heavy price—for within were not only the Talents of Man, but all of the Vices as well. All the evils of the world, held captive in the kettle, and freed by a moment’s hubris.”
He sighed heavily, and one of his sons placed his hands on Ordo Maas’s shoulders.
“She was cast from the Archipelago,” the ancient man continued, “and the kettle was given into the safekeeping of another. Not,” he added, “that we believed such a caution would be a permanent remedy—for it is the mandate of Men to seek after change. Even if that change is not for the better.
“But I digress—I was telling you about the ships,” said Ordo Maas. “When the flood had passed, we found ourselves here, on the island we came to call Byblos. Much of the geography of the world had been changed—but the Archipelago had remained largely unaffected by the flood, and we came to realize that it was not truly a part of the world from which we had come. Connected, but not in full.
“The Frontier had protected the lands herein and had barred passage during the flood to all vessels but our own. It was the Flame, you see,” he said, pointing to the staff. “It was a living manifestation of divinity, and it was what allowed passage through to the Archipelago.
“In time, as the world began to heal, our children began to cross back and forth, sometimes successfully, others, less so. That was how I realized what it was that had allowed the passages, and I determined that I would try to create another ship that might pass freely throughout any waters in which it was guided.
“In time I came across a shipwreck—a ship from your world, which nevertheless had that touch of divinity. And I rebuilt it, slowly, laboriously, and then made a gift of it to a distant descendant.”
“The Red Dragon,” Bert said. “That was the Red Dragon.”
“Yes,” Ordo Maas said, nodding. “The first of the Dragonships. There had been a masthead sculpted to its prow, which had been battered away in a storm. And so when I remade it, I fashioned it after the protectors of the Archipelago, the bearers of divinity in this world—the dragons.
“It seemed appropriate that those ships that followed after were not constructed wholly new, but were instead rebuilt from ships that had already seen much service—ships that had a soul, so to speak.
“Then, more than a thousand years later, when it seemed that the world was on the edge of destroying itself yet again, a great king came to the Archipelago—Arthur Pendragon.
“Arthur had the ability to command the dragons—the protectors of the Archipelago and guardians of the Frontier—and also had created a great empire in your world. It was an opportunity to reunite the two worlds under a protector who would rule with wisdom and strength. And so with him, and him alone, I shared the secret of the Dragonships that I had created.”
“Begging your pardon,” said Charles, “but after a buildup like that, I do hope you’re going to share it with us, too.”
“Their eyes,” said Ordo Maas. “The Golden Eyes of the Dragons are what allow passage between the worlds.
“I tell you this now, because you are the Caretakers of the Imaginarium Geographica, and as such, would have use of one of the ships—the Indigo Dragon, I believe. So how is it that you came to be floundering without her, in the waters near my home?”
“That,” said Bert, “is where our story begins.”
And, with occasional contributions from the others, Bert told Ordo Maas all that had happened.
“The Black Dragon,” mused Ordo Maas. “It isn’t one of ours. I haven’t built any new ships in more than four centuries—not since the Indigo Dragon, bless her heart. At present, I am simply a Cat-Herder.”
“How can you be a Cat-Herder?” said Jack. “They never come when you call them one at a time, so I don’t know how you can control an entire, ah, herd.”
“Simple,” replied Ordo Maas. “You just have to call them by their true names. Cats are very secretive and reveal their names to but a few—but those who do know may summon them at will. And cats always come when called by their true names.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” said Jack.
“Knowing the true name of a thing gives you power over that thing,” said Ordo Maas. “Sometimes a small power, not a great one, but power nonetheless.”
“Can you tell us the Winter King’s true name?” asked Jack. “That’s one fellow I wouldn’t mind having a bit of power over.”
Ordo Maas shook his head. “I cannot give you the true name of the Winter King. It is one of his greatest secrets.”
Jack drooped. “It was worth asking.”
“You didn’t hesitate in telling us your name,” said John.
“I have had many names,” said Ordo Maas, “and hope to live long enough to add many more.”
“It seems strange to have more than one name,” said Charles, “much less a true name instead of a false one.”
“There are those of your own fellowship who do not go by their true names,” said Ordo Maas.
“It’s a diminutive,” Bert began.
“You see,” said Jack, explaining, “I hated my given name, so my brother began calling me—”
“Or you,” said Ordo Maas.
He was looking at Bug.
“But,” the young man said, stammering, “I’ve always been called Bug. That’s what the Morgaine named me….”
“No,” Ordo Maas corrected. “That’s what the Morgaine called you. You were named before you came to them.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because,” said Ordo Maas, “this is not the first time you have taken shelter on my island.”
“A number of years ago—almost twenty, in fact—my sons were fishing in the southerly waters and came across a small, badly battered boat. In it was a young woman, who was barely older than a child herself.
“Her name was unknown to me, but I knew she was the old King’s youngest daughter, and the only one to escape the slaughter at Paralon. She had been at sea for many days and barely clung to life—and when we removed the blanket that was covering her, we discovered why.
“Nursing at her breast, given life by the last few drops of milk her thirst-ravaged body could provide, was a child—an infant boy. And as we lifted him from her arms, the last spark faded from her eyes and she died, having held on to the last, so her son would survive.
“We buried her here, atop the island, and then turned our attentions to the child. There was no family left to claim him, and all that remained to him of his heritage was the medallion he wore around his neck. It read ‘Artus.’”
“What did you do with him?” Charles asked, looking around at Ordo Maas’s sons.
“Oh, I couldn’t care for him here,” said Ordo Maas. “Perhaps in years past, when the mother of my children was still here…But alas, I am too old, and my sons have too much work to also add the duties of caring for and raising a small child to manhood.
“No, I decided the upbringing of the last heir to the Silver Throne required a more…maternal touch. So I took him to someone who could provide that for him. To three someones, to be exact.
“It was someone I knew from your world, who had a spiritual connection to both—called by some the Three Who Are One. I knew her—them—as the Pandora.”
It was John who made the connection first. “The Morgaine. You took the child to the Morgaine.”
Ordo Maas nodded. “Yes. I suggested that they call him Artus—after all, it was the child’s true name. Two agreed with me, but the third wouldn’t hear of it.”
“Probably Cul,” Charles said to Bert. “Very disagreeable, that one.”
“She said the child was too small for a proper name like Artus,” said Ordo Maas, “so she suggested they just call him Bug.”
“Hey,” said Bug. “That’s my name.”
The companions turned and looked at their stowaway in stunned silence.
“I don’t believe it for a second,” said Jack. “You’re telling me that this potboy is the heir to the Throne of Paralon?”
“Jack,” said Charles. “No need to be mean.”
“I’m a squire now,” said Bug, “not a potboy.”
“Hah!” said Jack. “A squire to whom? To him? He’s not even a real knight.”
“Don’t bring me into this,” said John.
“Hang on,” said Charles. “Bug—ah, Artus—can what he’s saying be true?”
Artus shrugged. “I don’t know. The Morgaine never said anything about it to me. But the Green Knight said once that I had a great destiny—I always thought he meant that I might someday be a knight.”
“Greater than that, lad,” said Bert. “You are descended from the blood of Arthur himself—making you the true king of the Archipelago.”
With that, he bowed deeply, followed in turn by John and Charles. Aven hesitated slightly before bowing herself, but Jack and Magwich refused to do it at all and watched the scene with bewilderment.
“See?” Ordo Maas whispered to Artus. “Once they get started with this sort of thing, they want to just keep doing it.”
“Get up, please,” said Artus. “I don’t think I like you bowing to me—even if I am the heir, I’m not a king. Not yet.” He thought a moment, then turned to the old shipbuilder. “That means my grandfather was the king who killed my family. And he would have killed me, too, if he’d been able.”
“That makes you very powerful,” said Aven. “If an heir is alive to sit on the Silver Throne, then the Winter King is no longer a threat. We have the Geographica, a descendant of Arthur, and the Ring of Power. He’s lost, plain and simple.”
“That’s right,” said John. “I’d forgotten about the ring. Do you still have it, Jack?”
Reluctantly, Jack took the ring from his pocket and proffered it to a hesitant Artus, who finally took it and placed it on his finger.
“Hey,” he said brightly. “It fits.”
“There is one more thing to consider,” said Ordo Maas. “Having a king, and the trappings of the office, may not be enough to overcome the Winter King. He still possesses a talisman that may yet turn the events in the Archipelago in his favor. And despite all you have done, it is a power you may be unable to defeat.”
“What talisman?” said Bert. “He’s searching for the Geographica, which we have, in order to find the ring, which we also have. How can he possibly be a threat now?”
“He murdered a king before,” said Seti, the eldest of Ordo Maas’s sons. “He can do so again.”
“Yes,” said another of the sons, called Amun. “And in the years since, he has amassed great power, conquering many lands without the ring or the Imaginarium Geographica to help him.”
“That’s right,” John said, crestfallen. “I’d forgotten. He’s taken over the Shadowed Lands without being able to control the dragons. At best, we haven’t stopped him—we’ll just be keeping him from making things worse.”
“How has he done it?” said Jack. “Where does his power come from?”
“He has found a way to harness the evil within men,” Ordo Maas said. “You have seen them with him on the Black Dragon. He calls them Shadow-Born.”
“What do you know of the old king, Archibald?” asked Ordo Maas. “Of his rule, and his decline?”
“We know he turned evil,” said John, “and murdered his family.”
“Essentially,” replied Ordo Maas, “but that is not the whole of the story.
“Archibald ruled over the Archipelago during a very tumultuous time in your world. There had been several great conflicts there, and that upset the balance here. For the first time in a number of generations, there was unrest in the Archipelago, and Archibald was bearing the brunt of it.
“He had the best of intentions, right before the fall—but intentions cannot pay the price for the actions that follow. Several times he called upon his allies from the Four Races, and more than once on the dragons themselves, to maintain peace. But Archibald was always seeking after a way to make the peace permanent. He wished for a more compelling force with which to rule his subjects. And then finally, after many years of searching, he found one.
“He discovered a record of an ancient mythical object that could draw out the spirits from living men, leaving them as stone, trapped in a living death.
“Worse, their spirits—their Shadows—would then be compelled to his service. With enough of them, he could create a deathless army that no force on Earth could defeat.”
“I thought he was a good king,” said Charles. “It sounds like he was a villain all along.”
“Archibald’s intentions were good,” said Ordo Maas. “Where he erred was in believing that he could replace free will with his own. But he was determined to achieve peace at any cost—and this talisman was the object that he believed would help him to do it.”
“Something that dangerous would not be unknown,” said Bert. “One of the Caretakers would have known of it, surely? Or Samaranth?”
“It’s well known,” said Ordo Maas, “in both this world and your own. In fact, we have spoken of it here, today, in my house. But no one believed it existed, much less how to use it. It has had many names, but the one by which it is known best comes from those who had it when it was stolen: Pandora’s Box.”
“The kettle you brought aboard the ark,” said John, “which held all the evils of mankind.”
“Yes,” said Ordo Maas. “It remained on Avalon for centuries until an agent of King Archibald found it and stole it.
“Archibald opened it again and discovered how to use it to create the Shadow-Born; and then he made his great mistake—he attempted to use it to steal the spirits of the dragons, to create the most powerful servants of all.”
“I take it that didn’t work,” said John.
“Not at all,” said Ordo Maas. “The dragons were of an age and power equal to that of the box and could not be trapped within it. But in that moment, they saw the king for what he was becoming.
“Samaranth took his ring and declared Archibald no longer worthy to summon the aid of the dragons. And that was when they began to leave the Archipelago.
“Soon after, the king went mad and slaughtered his whole family. None escaped, save for the youngest daughter—young Artus’s mother—and Artus himself.
“This was when the Winter King began his rise in the Archipelago. He killed Archibald and took Pandora’s Box—and in the years that followed, when one after another of the lands of the Archipelago fell under Shadow, I realized that Pandora’s Box was still open, and that he was using it to create an army of Shadow-Born. And thus began his conquest of the Archipelago.”
“The Morgaine—or as you called them, the Pandora—are not easily tricked,” said Charles, “and they were able to keep the box hidden and protected for a very long time. How did Archibald’s lackey manage to make away with it?”
“An excellent question,” said Ordo Maas. “Especially since you’re keeping company with the thief.”
“What?” said John. “The thief is here?”
In answer, Ordo Maas lifted his gnarled staff and pointed it at Magwich.