Doran did not have to dream to get there.
Or perhaps he was dreaming. It was hard to tell, the way the woods shifted around him, closing in and then drawing back as if tentatively sniffing. They knew he did not belong there.
He had barely felt the shift, barely noticed when he had stepped from the woods near his house to these woods. One minute he was walking through the woods he knew, woods with little undergrowth and trees small enough that he could wrap his arms around them, and the next he was standing on the middle of an ancient forest, thick with plants that clogged the area between the trees. It made no sense. He was not asleep, or he would have been semi-transparent as soon as he stepped into this world. He had not stepped through an open passage, or he would have vomited. Making passage the traditional way always made him sick.
A gorge lay off to his right, a deep scar in the earth that ran as far as he could see either way. Spanning the gorge was a white bridge, magnificent and beautiful, with an otherworldly look that made him nervous. He stared at it a moment, then looked across the gorge.
He could see nothing.
A thrill of fear running through him, he stepped toward the edge of the gorge and strained to see what was beyond it. He could see no further than the other side. It was as if there was a veil between him and the rest of the world.
"All right, Doran," he murmured. "You shouldn't be here. Turn around and go home."
He did not move.
He was a fool. No idea where he was, no weapon, no time to waste, and he wanted to go exploring? But he did. So he glanced once behind him to memorize the place he had stepped through, and walked toward the bridge.
Standing at the foot of the bridge, he looked down into the gorge. It would be easier to cross the bridge. Infinitely easier than climbing down the side of the gorge, fighting through the underbrush, and then climbing up the other side. Easier, but more difficult was usually safer.
Doran walked past the forbiddingly lovely bridge until he sighted what looked like an ancient footpath down the wall of the gorge. If there was a footpath, maybe there was something on the other side.
Climbing down was easier for him than it might have been for most boys his age, though the closeness of the woods ensured he worked up a sweat before he reached the bottom. Pulling his damp t-shirt away from his back, he huffed. Definitely more difficult.
He gave himself five minutes to catch his breath before beginning the ascent. Going up was both harder and easier than coming down; on the one hand, he didn't have to worry about over-stepping and falling headfirst to the bottom of the gorge. On the other hand, gravity was working against him now.
He stopped one step short of the rim, half-kneeling. Even here, one foot from the edge, he could see nothing past the curtain of white mist. He could have reached out and touched it. He did, and felt nothing.
Something beyond the mist beckoned to him, calling him to step beyond the veil. Was it his imagination, or could he hear the faint sound of birdsong?
Taking a deep breath, he steeled himself and plunged into the mist.
The world constricted around Doran, spinning around him as it got tighter and tighter, and then snapped wide. Doran emptied his stomach on the ground.
Making passage always made him sick.
When his head cleared, he was kneeling on the rocky ground, a ruined land stretched out before him in every direction. The sun was barely up, and the chill of the morning froze Doran right through to his bones. He breathed in cautiously, shallowly, testing the air of the place he had ended up. An acrid smell tinged the air, like smoke that had refused to be cleared by the wind, though the fire had been gone for years. Like poison. Doran hissed through his teeth and stood unsteadily. This place was neither very welcoming nor very safe. He turned to leave. The veil was gone and he could see clear into the gorge and over to the other side.
Won't you follow me?
It was the bird's song, yet Doran heard the words in it plainly. He knew that voice. Cocking his head toward the sound, he whispered, "My Lord?"
Won't you follow me?
There was no explanation, but Doran needed none. He knew the voice well enough to recognize it no matter the way it sounded, no matter the world he heard it in. And he trusted it.
He turned back away from the gorge, wrapped his arms around himself, and followed the bird's song. Before long, he could see a city in the distance, and his stomach twisted into a knot.
The city was ruined. Oh, not totally. It was standing, and carried the memory of it's former glory. But as far as he could see there was nothing green, and the city itself... What kind of invasion could make it seem so dead, even while the faint sound of celebration came from inside? The bird led him around to the back of the large city, where, straining his eyes, he could see a small figure on a bridge over a ditch. The bridge was aflame.
The person on the bridge was covered in cloth from head to foot, pale rags that reminded Doran of a Halloween costume. He or she struggled to raise something large and dark from the bridge. As Doran drew closer, he realized it was a person.
Though the veiled person could not have been more than a child, he or she lifted the man as if he weighed nothing. Doran slowed. What was he supposed to do? His mentor had told him to never interfere without permission, but surely helping a man back into the city would not be counted as interfering. Or would it?
Doran was close enough now that, had either person turned, they would have been able to see his face clearly. The smoke from the flames swirled around him, thick with the poison he had smelled upon first entering this world. His heart began to pound. At last, he recognized the smell. He had smelled it before, in a dark fortress at the far east of another world, in a world empty and dead, and in many other places in many other worlds. He pulled the collar of his shirt up over his mouth and nose, but still it seared his lungs and set his eyes on fire. It brought back memories of shame and regret.
Do not be afraid. Follow me. You are mine.
Focusing all of his heart on the silver voice, he lurched forward. The poison still hovered around him, burning his eyes and his lungs, but it was blocked from his heart.
He finally drew near enough the bridge to hear their voices.
"Put your arm round my neck," the veiled person was saying, a woman's voice. "That's right. Now this way."
The woman led the man off the bridge, supporting most of his weight for him. She was focusing all her attention on him, on getting him away from the flames, away from the poison. So Doran saw the crowd before she did.
There were hundreds of them, clothed in celebratory clothes, their faces etched with hatred and fear. Each person was armed with some sort of makeshift weapon— rods, rakes, pans, seemingly anything they could get their hands on. Doran dropped to his stomach to avoid being seen.
"Come on, Leo," the woman said. "Let's get you back to—"
Then she noticed the crowd. There was a second of shocked silence from both groups, and then someone in the mob shouted.
The cry was immediately echoed by the rest of the mob. Louder and louder they grew, like fans at a football game suddenly gone crazy, hatred clear in their voices and their faces. Before Doran could react, they surged around the woman and Leo and started to pull them apart. The woman shouted something as she tried desperately to hold onto the Leo, but the mob's roar swallowed her voice before it reached Doran. His heart urged him to stand up and help her, but he hesitated. Every one of the people he could see had dark hair and dark skin. While his hair was dark enough to pass, his skin was so pale he would be noticed in an instant. What if that made things worse for them?
"Lord, what am I supposed to do?" He whispered.
The mob surged into the city, leaving behind a small group of men that supported the man from the bridge. Doran inched forward on his belly.
"Are you hurt, Your Highness?" Someone asked. "Did she harm you?"
The man shook his head as if trying to clear it. "What are they doing?" He looked dazed, the poor man.
"They'll hang the little beast at last," came the answer. "She's bewitched our land long enough."
Doran's heart rose in his throat. What was going on here?
The man stood there dumbly for a few seconds. Suddenly a wordless shout burst from him and he broke from the other men, running toward the city. He ran faster than Doran knew a human could, and Doran finally made up his mind. He shot to his feet and ran after Leo. One of the men left behind shouted something he did not understand, and he glanced over his shoulder to see them chasing him, hatred and panic twisting their faces into hideous expressions.
Not very friendly to outsiders, it seemed.
Doran yanked his shirt off his face and looked around for a place to hide. Mingling with the mob would never work; they would spot him in an instant, and he would be literally torn apart.
One of the benefits of being a sixteen year old boy who has traveled regularly to different worlds was that he was faster than most grown men. One of the disadvantages was that old wounds never really heal. Doran's leg started aching fiercely before he developed a stitch in the side. He had to find a place to hide. He could not run for much longer.
"Lord?" He gasped out.
Follow me, sang his Lord.
The bird's call led him into an alleyway, where a heap of fabric lay on the ground. His pursuers did not follow. Coughing and gasping, he pressed his hands against the nearest wall and leaned over.
Come on, Doran, he scolded himself again. You're not doing any good suffocating here!
As soon as his coughs subsided, he scooped up the pile of cloth, threw it around his shoulders and head as a makeshift cloak, and started jogging toward the angry sounds of the mob. He kept his head down, and focused on breathing.
They were at the front gates of the city, clogging the steps up the wall and coating the top.
Daring to raise his head enough to scan the wall, he finally found what he sought. The small woman was at the very top, being held by the shoulders. Doran ducked his head again and sprinted for the stairs.
The mass of people pressed in on him, but he somehow managed to force his way through to where "Your Highness," was flanked by a group of soldiers.
"She does!" Leo roared for no obvious reason, brandishing a sword before him. "Out of my way, you devils!"
The crowd moved too slowly, until the bird sang again.
The mob parted, and Doran pressed as close to the man as he could so he could get through before the way closed. He squirmed through the crowd so he could see what was happening.
So he saw as they yanked the veil from her face.
She was far from beautiful, with wide silver eyes set in a pale, deformed face. It was her eyes that struck Doran so hard, thrust him through the heart with the memory of another goblin girl he knew. He took a step back in spite of himself, then stood still. He had seen worse.
His Highness apparently had not. Doran saw a shudder run through him, and the goblin girl bowed her head.
But still, Leo said, "Let her go."
No one moved.
"Your Highness," the burly man holding her said. "The demon must die. She let a dragon into the city. Everyone knows she's a dragon herself, or a witch. We can't have her betraying our land no more!"
Someone stepped forward and placed a noose over her head, and she screamed. Doran moved forward, but Leo was faster. He swung the sword and the severed rope fell to the stone walkway.
His Highness moved forward, placing the tip of his sword against the burly man's neck.
"Let her go." His voice was shaking in fury. "Am I prince or not?"
"Your Highness!" The man said. "Your Highness, she's bewitched you! Everyone knows it. Let us hang her and save you—"
"I'll kill you."
Doran's gaze had strayed back to the girl, but when the Prince spoke Doran looked at him sharply.
"I'll kill you, man."
That did it. The man holding her backed away, and she fell on her face and crawled to the Prince. Leo knelt and touched her back, but did not lower the sword for a second.
"The people won't stand for it!" Another man shouted. "They won't stand for her to live anymore! You're not thinking clearly for her spells, but it's the truth we're telling you."
Doran looked at the hideous creature huddled at the Prince's feet and wondered.
"There will be no hanging," Doran heard the prince say. "Not by you."
By you? Doran asked silently, without taking his eyes off the girl. She looked so pitiful there, huddled in a ball at the prince's feet, so reliant on him for her life. So trusting. So like...
"The people won't stand for her to go on working her evil in the land," another shouted. "We've seen one dragon already today. How many more will she bring?"
"You escaped those five years, prince! You don't know what it's like!"
As the crowd's mutters increased to a low roar, soldiers moved to surround the prince and the girl.
Doran stepped back, pressing himself against the balustrade just to feel it hard in the middle of his back. He closed his eyes, trying to shut out their anger long enough for him to think. What was he supposed to do? He did not even know what was going on here! "Lord, why did you lead me here?" He mouthed.
A voice rose above the others and forced Doran to bring himself back to the present. The Prince was balancing on top of the balustrade, shouting to the people below.
"There will be no hanging!" he said. "We will bring the accused to the mayor's hall for fair trial and there decide what is to be done with her. In accordance with the law. Your prince has commanded!"
Doran's stomach twisted. No ruler, no judge, no jury, would ever acquit someone this hated by the masses.
The prince climbed down and went back to the girl, whom he wordlessly lifted to her feet. Unsure what to do, Doran followed them through the city until they stopped in a courtyard before a wooden dais. Several important-looking people were there before they arrived, but Doran skimmed over them and only focused on one, a man, seated in a wooden chair aboard the dais. He looked ancient and weary, but only a fool could not have known he was in charge.
The Prince dragged the girl up onto the dais and said sharply, "Kneel."
She did, hiding her face against the wooden slats. Doran's heart ached.
"What is this, Lionheart?" The old man asked the prince.
"The people of Southlands," Prince Lionheart said, breathing fully as hard as Doran had when he was running, "bring accusations against this girl, my servant, and wish to see her tried according to our law."
The old man nodded wearily. "Have the people a spokesman?"
"Who among you wishes to bring charges against this girl before your Eldest?" Lionheart demanded of the crowd.
Doran watched as the crowd chose a spokesman, one of the people who had been on the wall, and the man gave his case. There was little besides what had been said on the wall, but watching the face of the Eldest, Doran's stomach twisted tighter. His head pounded from the poison on the air, and his heart pounded for the hideous girl on the dais. Yet he stood motionless as the trial proceeded.
When Lionheart asked the girl, Rosie as he called her, if there was anyone who could stand by her, Doran almost stepped forward. Though he knew nothing about this girl, though he knew they would never take the word of a foreigner, he had to do something! He could not let an innocent person suffer. Not again.
Wait, sang the voice of his Lord.
Doran's face contorted. "Wait for what?"
So he waited. He waited, and no one spoke for Rosie, because Prince Lionheart's word did not count. He waited, and the King told his son he had lost the people's trust. He waited, and finally saw what he was waiting for when the Eldest said, "I hereby give to my son, your prince, the duty of passing sentence upon the accused."
Doran wrapped his fingers tight around empty air. Say it, Prince Lionheart, he urged silently. Live up to your name. Say she is innocent!
Doran barely heard the crowd's furious mutters. His eyes were fastened on the prince's back and his heart was pounding like a million feet.
"What is your decision, Lionheart?" The king asked.
Lionheart pivoted to face the crowd. "I sentence the accused to banishment," he said, loud enough for all to hear.
He continued speaking, but to Doran, his words were far away and indecipherable. He had condemned her. Every sound faded away as Doran looked at the girl on the dais, watching as she was dragged to her feet and pulled into a cart after Lionheart.
He had condemned her, condemned this girl he thought was innocent! Yet, looking around at the angry faces around him, Doran did not know what else he could have done. How could he have set her free? The mob would have torn him apart, and if they did not, he certainly would have lost whatever trust they had left.
Instead, he gained their approval and lost his innocence.
Doran followed them out of the city, his mind reeling. What should he do? What should the prince have done? True, he had just banished a girl he knew to be innocent, but what else could he have done? Heart and soul screamed that what the prince did was wrong. His mind calmly said it was the only thing left.
He was surprised when he realized they had come to the same gorge he had climbed through this morning. Lionheart led Rosie to the edge of the gorge, and for a moment they just stood there. Rosie was trembling. She grasped at Leo's arm, and said something Doran did not hear. If the prince replied, Doran did not hear that either. His heart convulsed as Leo shoved the girl to her knees.
"Go!" The Prince shouted. "Never return to Southlands."
The pale eyes stared up at him, and Doran saw them die. Then the girl stood, trembling, and started quickly down the same path Doran had come up.
Doran shifted his gaze from the girl to the forest she was heading toward. Was it his imagination, or was it moving, reaching, coming up to meet Rosie? Forgetting for a moment that he was not supposed to, he let down the barriers between himself and the unseen.
Doran's heart stopped. The Cowardly Lion had condemned Rosie to something worse than banishment. The forest, every tree, reeked of otherworldliness. Somewhere out there, something powerful was searching.
The voice, so loud and desperate it nearly knocked Doran to his knees, came from somewhere behind the crowd. Everyone looked. And Doran saw his chance.
He was not bound by the people's expectations. He had no excuses this time.
Doran took a breath and plunged in after Rosie.
Immediately he felt the world contort around him.
No! Not now!
His protests did no good. He managed to catch one last glimpse of Lionheart's face, and for the briefest moment he saw himself.
Excuses and all.
Then he was on his knees in his own woods.