When I was young and foolish, I sought adventure, not realizing what dangers it could bring. Once, when in my early twenties, I signed on a ship going on a foreign safari.
The passengers were a mystic, a priest and two warriors, on their way to Gereon, to hunt a dragon rumored to live there. To make a story that may take a book in itself short, one of the two warriors drank the blood of the dragon and bathed his body in it, in hope of becoming invincible. He died a few weeks later, on the return trip, when a mast broke in a storm and crashed down on him. In view of this, I must dispute the myths cast upon dragons.
To start with, let me assure you that a dragon is no more than a large lizard. It has not the rump of a lion, nor the forelegs of an eagle, nor the wings of a bat. A dragon is a survivor of times past, when giant lizards still walked the surface of Makdiar. As such a survivor, the dragon is in no way a supernatural or mythical combination of beasts and is completely characteristic of other lizards. Dragons are cold blooded, with scaly skin, a forked tongue and so on, as long as this describes a lizard as well, although there is one notable discrepancy to this rule. Dragons have what can be termed as wings, but from my research and single meeting with a dragon, I feel safe in stating that these are no more than strong membranes binding the extension of the spine to the body, much as the skin on a duck’s webbed feet. This trait enables the dragons to fly or more accurately, glide.
This leaves one more myth to be disclaimed – the dragon’s ability to breath fire. If such an ability, which I will not dispute, exists, I have not witnessed it and so must dismiss it as a mythical ability of this species. Fires and treasures and great intelligence have always been attributed to dragons by legend alone. Perhaps it is some lizard’s fetish for shiny objects, just as the crow’s, which made its way into folklore and in order to obtain and store the treasure, these lizards were made intelligent. Fire breathing can be just another part of this same myth. The dragon’s primeval element is water and all recorded have lived in damp dark caves on shores of large bodies of water or deep inside non-volcanic mountains.
No magic, no mystery. A dragon is simply an animal that happened to become famous in folklore and myths. Being a nearly extinct species has contributed to the dragon’s fame and fewer sightings and almost no survivors of dragon hunts are what we consider to be a romantic legend.
-Bistra, head chronicler, City of Shakin, “The Realities of Myths”, pages 81-85
Dead. Rien looked at the body of the hermit. Blade wound in the neck…
“It was probably Cril or one of his men,” Kera said.
Rien fought to retain his sanity. “How long will we be leaving this bloody trail?” he looked at her.
“We didn’t do this,” Kera said. “We only killed those who were after us…” Her voice trailed off, as she realized she had killed two men.
“We led them here,” Rien glared at her. “We did this.” He turned to leave. “Coming?”
Kera looked at the dead hermit one last time and followed Rien out. “Aren’t we going to bury him?” she asked.
Rien paused and looked back. “No,” he answered. “We don’t have the time.” He took two more steps and stopped again. “He did his best to help us. We have to put him to rest.”
“We need to release the dogs too,” Kera added. “They’ll starve otherwise.”
A few hours later Rien and Kera finished with their tasks and returned to the horses. “I was thinking of not returning to Dargon,” Rien said. “It would only put us closer to Liriss. Let’s go down to Tench. Hopefully that will give us a lead.”
“I doubt there are any dragons in Tench,” Kera said. “It would be easier to find a sage or a scribe or a chronicler to point us on our way in Dargon than in Tench.”
“Tench is a two street town. There are no sages or scribes there,” Rien stated.
“Then why go there?”
“For a two street town, Tench sees more traffic than Dargon can hope to. We need the people in Tench. A lot of them travel; they see things that may help. Besides, Dargon is not a very safe place for either of us right now.”
“Do you really consider Dargon to be such a danger?” Kera asked.
“I killed Terell. Liriss is probably on a war path by now. There are plenty of other things that would be hard to deal with at a time like this. We have to got to Tench.”
“But if it’s so small…” Kera began. “Why bother going there?”
“Hope,” Rien answered simply.
“Lame Duck Inn?” Kera wondered out loud, stopping in mid stride.
Rien bumped into her and thoughtfully looked up at the sign above the door, then guided Kera inside. Across the lobby a small man, with his back to the entrance, was flipping his way through a book.
“Excuse me?” Kera approached the counter, seeing that Rien was not going to take charge.
“Uh…” the man froze, holding up a page, but then turned it over and continued reading the listings.
Kera struck her plated forearm against the top of the counter, making the innkeeper jump. “Yes, yes!” he spun around, startled. “One room or two?”
Kera looked at the short balding man with a hint of amusement on her ace before answering. “One,” she ordered.
Rien started to protest, but decided against it.
“Right away, right away,” the man mumbled, placing the book before her. “Sign in right here,” he pointed to a blank line. “Boy!” he screamed into the doorway behind the counter. “Boy!”
Moments later a skinny boy, with half open eyes appeared in the doorway.
“Show these people to room four,” the innkeeper ordered.
“And take care of our horses,” Kera instructed, returning the book.
The boy nodded, circling the counter to the front of the lobby. “This way, please,” he said with a sleepy voice.
“Coming?” Kera prodeled Rien and he followed her up the stairs.
“This town is even smaller than I remember,” Rien commented when he and Kera were left alone. “It will be a miracle if we will be able to get anything accomplished here.”
“So will we go on to Magnus?” Kera asked.
“No,” Rien answered. “Not yet. It was only a passing thought when I mentioned it. Magnus has the resources to help us and I have some friends there who would be willing to help, but we don’t have the time. Depending on what we learn here, we may have to return to Dargon…or to Maari. I strongly doubt that there are any dragons in Cherisk.”
“First time I heard you giving up,” Kera commented.
“First time I had my back to a wall,” Rien said. “You didn’t expect me to be all powerful, did you?”
Kera shook her head. “No, but I’ve seen you take on odds I’d turn down.”
“Like what? Terell the ‘great’ alchemist? Cril and his men? Liriss’ guards in the alley?”
“That wasn’t taking on greater odds. That was fighting the way I learned it — dirty.” Rien paced the room, metal sollerets clanking unevenly against the wood floor. “If I would have stopped to think, I would have never drunk Terell’s potion, chased you down an alley and I certainly would not have agreed to have sex with you in the middle of a forest. I created my problems by not thinking and had to get out of them by use of force.”
“Where do elves have sex?” Kera smiled.
Rien looked at her sternly, then smiled back. “Ljosalfar do it in the woods. I don’t know about Dopkalfar.”
“So what wrong with the forest?” Kera asked.
“I suppose nothing,” Rien answered. “Only it’s not done while someone is trying to hunt them down.”
“And anything wrong with this room?”
Rien glanced around at the old stained furniture he did not get a chance to look at before. “There’s a lot of work to do and you need rest.”
“Won’t you be resting?” Kera asked suggestively.
“My rest does not depend on sleep,” Rien said and Kera’s smile widened. “But I do intend on finding out what this town has to offer,” he added hurriedly.
The innkeeper was still up, still reading his book where Kera had left it. Rien looked over his shoulder, realizing that it was a ledger, containing guest names, room numbers and lengths of stay.
“Is there a tavern here?”
“Down the street,” the man yawned, not looking up from his work.
“Thank you,” Rien muttered and walked out of the inn. The town was dead quiet, with the exception of a single noisy building not far away.
Rien made his way there and found the bar. A fat balding man was pouring drinks, at times missing the glasses he aimed for. Rien ordered an ale and when it was served, asked the bartender if he knew anything about dragons. The man wandered off laughing to himself.
“Pay no attention to him,” someone behind Rien said. “By the time it’s this late, he’s tasted most of what he served.”
“I wonder how he ever makes a profit,” Rien said, turning to face a farmer standing behind him. “You wouldn’t know anything about dragons…would you?”
“Sorry,” the farmer released an abrupt laugh. “You need a sage for that problem. I’m afraid this town is just too small.”
“I realize that,” Rien said.
“I’d even venture to say there’s no such beast in this whole kingdom,” the farmer added. “Why are you asking anyhow?” Rien hesitated answering and the farmer went on. “Want to recapture the glory of the old dragon hunts?”
Rien smiled silently. “As easily as in a legend…” He returned to the Lame Duck Inn shortly before sunrise and spent the first half of the morning rereading key paragraphs of “The Realities of Myths”.
By the time Kera came downstairs, the inn was full with people eating breakfast. She found Rien sitting in a corner, going through his book. “You’ve been at it all night?” she asked.
“Since sunrise,” he answered. “I spent the night asking questions in the tavern, although most drunks aren’t very cooperative.”
“Did you learn anything?”
“One man recommended I find an old witch named Maari in the woods west of here,” Rien smirked. “Most people couldn’t even recommend that.”
Kera too smiled, in spite of the graveness of the situation. “What about the book?”
“It’s about as helpful as Maari. Bistra wrote it for reference, not practical applications.”
Kera shook her head in dispair.
“But I have come to a decision,” Rien said. “Having polled most of this town in a single night, I’ve decided that tomorrow morning we will leave for Magnus.”
“It will take too long!” Kera gasped. “You won’t be leaving any time for yourself!”
“I am half human,” he reminded her. “I may have more time then they said. The disease may not even have as great an effect on me.”
“And if you don’t have that time?”
“Then I’ll make sure you have a better chance than you’ve got now.”
Kera was about to protest, but kept quiet as two men pushed by her and sat down at a neighboring table. She hesitated talking with strangers so near and was about to ask Rien to move when one of the two new comers started talking.
“If the old man wants to have a dragon, he can go hunt one down himself.”
Kera and Rien looked at each other in disbelief. “Excuse me,” Rien leaned to face the new comers. “Did you say dragon?”
One man continued sipping his drink as the other turned to look tolerantly at Rien. “Yeah. You dumb enough to go get one?”
“Perhaps ‘desperate’ would be a better choice of words,” said Rien.
“Room twelve, on the corner,” the man answered and returned to his companion.
Rien and Kera did not waste any precious time persuing their good fortune and hurried to the specified room. Behind them the two men watched them leave, then one flipped a silver coin, catching it in mid air. “Easiest silver I made all month…” The two laughed merrily, calling for more drinks.
A middle aged, grey haired man opened the door for Rien and Kera. He stood as tall as Rien, dressed in a silver and red robe with swirling patterns. “What can I do for you?” he asked with a slight accent, examining the visitors.
“We heard you were interested in hunting dragons and became curious,” Rien said.
“Ah, it is I who is curious about your dragon fetish,” the man responded. “Why don’t you come in and tell me about it?”
Cautiously Rien and Kera stepped into the man’s room. They were surprised at the man’s approach to their visit and he seemed mildly amused.
“Please, don’t be surprised by my curiosity,” the man said to Rien. “I heard you in the tavern last night and could not help but wonder what you need a dragon for.”
“You know where there is one?” Rien asked.
“First things first,” the man said. “Sit down. My story is short, but our discussion may take a while.” He waited for Rien and Kera to follow his instructions before continuing. “My name is Gerim Marat, though it should mean nothing to you. I am a jeweler by trade and wizard by profession. I give advice to those who can afford it and will go out of my way for a good adventure.”
“So are you here for adventure or we for advice?” Rien asked.
“Be courteous and introduce yourself first,” Gerim suggested. Without hesitation Rien did so. In his view Gerim could be a powerful wizard and these would better be left satisfied with the way the world spins around them. Old lessons taught by wizards are certainly things to remember and keep in mind when talking to men of the trade.
“Good, good,” Gerim smiled. “Why don’t you tell me now what you need a dragon for.”
“Why do you want to know?” Kera asked in a how-dare-you tone.
“If I like your reason well enough,” the wizard said, “I may opt to help you.”
“We don’t really need a dragon,” Rien admitted. “We need a dragon egg…”
“This is the right time of the year,” Gerim approved. “Providing that the dragon is in the mating mood, that is. What will you do with it if you get it?”
“We were promised medicine for it.”
“What kind of medicine?”
“Aren’t you getting a little personal?” Kera lost her temper again.
“Perhaps I am,” the wizard agreed, “but then I did say it was to be a lengthy discussion.”
Rien weighed the situation. Neither thinking, nor fighting seemed appropriate here. He clasped Kera’s hand in hopes that she will calm down. “The cure is for lycanthropy.”
“May I see your book?”
Rien permitted him to take it and the wizard smiled approvingly, flipping through the pages, stopping at the bookmarks. A minute later he returned the volume. “Which of you has the disease?”
Kera tried pulling her hand from Rien’s grip.
“Both of you. I see…”
“If this is all you wanted to know,” Rien began, getting up and pulling Kera up with him.
“No, not yet,” the wizard stopped them. “One man yesterday told you to see old Maari and you told him that she is the one who sent you. Is that right? Is she the one who wants the egg?”
“She said she needs it as an ingredient,” Rien answered.
“Good, good,” the wizard smiled. “If you return tomorrow at this time, I will have one waiting for you.”
“And how much will you want for your ‘advice’?”
“Let’s just say it’s my adventure,” Gerim continued to smile. “Now go. I have a lot of work to do.”
Rien and Kera left the room, as amazed as they were entering it. “Do you think he is serious?” Kera asked when they were out of the man’s hearing range.
“He seemed anxious to help,” Rien admitted. “I really don’t know. We won’t lose much if we don’t leave tomorrow morning.”
“Do you think he’s a real wizard?” Kera asked again.
“We’ll know tomorrow,” Rien answered.
“How? Have you ever seen a dragon egg?”
“No, but I assume it’s bigger than that of a chicken. Maybe the size of a head.”
Kera sighed. “I hope you’re right.”
Rien smiled at her. “Go eat breakfast and I’ll see to what supplies we may need.”
“I’m not hungry. I’ll go with you,” Kera said and leaned on Rien’s shoulder. “I wish this was all over. I wish I could relax.”
“Life was boring when it was simple,” Rien put his arm around her.
Gerim went into the make shift laboratory, considering what he had just done. If this couple was gullible enough, he could force them to do the job for him. If they weren’t…they had to be. It would be a simple con, easy to execute and they would never be in danger…unless they knew or Maari suspected.
Gerim approached the crystal ball. “Where are they?” and an image of Rien and Kera exiting the inn appeared. He listened carefully to their conversation, then got up. “They need to be tested…”
“I thought you said there wasn’t anything to sight see around here.”
“There wasn’t last time I was here,” Rien repeated, almost to himself.
“That’s a pretty big army camp, to be in the middle of nowhere,” Kera said. “When’s the last time you were here?”
“A while back,” Rien sighed. It was really before the rule of the previous king.
“What’s a while in your terms?”
“Long enough for this to be built, it would seem…” He sat down in the lush spring grass, pulling Kera down next to himself. “I was really hoping for this to be a bit more deserted…”
For the first time Kera realized just how tired and worn out Rien looked. “Why don’t you go back to the inn and get some sleep,” she suggested. “I can take care of the supplies we need myself.”
“I’m fine,” Rien shook his head. “I’ll get some rest tonight.”
“I wasn’t recommending it,” Kera insisted.
Rien’s gaze followed the people practicing in the field. “Trust me, I’m fine.”
Kera leaned on his shoulder and he shifted so as not to fall over.
“I can tell,” Kera sighed, as Rien pushed her back, forcing her to the ground.
“Don’t argue with me,” he held her down for a moment. “I was hoping to find a quiet place to soak in the atmosphere. It’s not the army camp I should be worried about distracting me — you do the job well enough alone.”
Kera sat up, brushing the lose grass off her side, then lunged at Rien, pushing him down under herself. He grunted, rolled over and held her down, reducing her struggling to helpless wriggling.
“Cut it out.”
Kera held still and Rien let her go. They lay next to each other, staring up at the blue sky.
“Are you going to trust the wizard?” Kera asked after a few moments of silence.
“Probably,” Rien said. “Even if he wants some payment, it can’t be worse than Maari’s, but I want to hear what he has to say first.”
“What about Maari?”
“I can deal with the dragon egg — a task in itself,” Rien began, “but the business of her wanting a subject to cast spells through I can not agree to. I wish I could come up with a good way to trick her.”
“But if you’re against what she is doing, why not stop her from doing it?”
“That wouldn’t be right. If anyone could kill anyone else because they disagree with their basic beliefs, the only rule would be that the strongest rule. I don’t believe in making myself an exception to that. Plenty people already do as it is.”
“So what are you going to do?”
Rien turned over, digging his elbows into the ground. “I don’t know. Burn that bridge when we get to it.”
They lay like that for a while longer, enjoying the morning sun without their armor, observing the army camp at the bottom of the hill.
“That camp is strategically misplaced,” Rien said in a matter-of-fact voice. “It would take them weeks to get to the nearest border…”
Kera turned over, adjusting herself to the moving sunlight. “This is wonderful,” she muttered completely out of context and Rien sat up.
Kera lay still.
“What?” Rien asked again, touching her shoulder.
“This is wonderful without armor,” Kera mumbled, shifting away from his touch.
“Get up,” Rien took her arm. “You’re not going to fall asleep on me. We still have a lot to do today.”
Lazily Kera sat up and Rien helped her to her feet. “Let’s go find that store.”
They returned to town and locating the small wooden building named Kristee & Daughter, entered. A mildly overweight woman at the counter greeted the pair and asked what she could get them.
“We’d like to look around,” Rien answered politely and together with Kera retreated to the shelves of merchandise.
“I’ll get the rations,” Kera said, disappearing deeper into the store after Rien’s approving nod.
Rien paused at a display of equipment when suddenly he heard the woman at the counter exclaim loudly.
“The money,” a male voice sounded as Rien turned around. Two men, one with a sword, a second with a crossbow stood between him and the counter. The man with the crossbow motioned to Rien.
The woman started frantically placing coins on the table.
“You know you won’t make it out of town,” Rien pointed out.
“And who’s to stop us?” the man with the crossbow asked. “You?”
Rien shrugged. “I doubt it. You seem too determined.”
“The money,” the man repeated.
At that time Kera showed up at the front of the store, her arms loaded with goods. “Are you just going to stand there?” she asked Rien before noticing anything wrong. She shifted uncomfortably, looking at the two armed men. “I’ll wait back there…”
“Your money,” the man with the crossbow repeated.
Rien noticed Kera balancing what she carried on one hand and immediately stepped forward, handing his money to the brigand and blocking Kera from his view. When he stepped back, Kera stood perfectly still.
“You too,” the man indicated to Kera, who slowly bent down, put what she carried on the floor and straitened with a sudden flick of the wrist.
The crossbow went off in panic, the bolt harmlessly hitting a wall and the man who fired it sank to his knees, grasping a dagger stuck in his stomach.
Kera pulled out another dagger.
The man with the sword hesitated — try throwing a sword at a dagger.
“Take your friend and go,” Rien instructed. “Or she may hack you too.”
The man hastily sheathed his sword and scooped some money off the counter.
“Leave the money,” Rien added and the man, supporting his companion beat a hasty retreat.
“Oh, mercy!” the woman exclaimed, looking from Kera to Rien and back again. “How could I ever thank you? Oh… Just take what you wanted to buy and don’t bother paying for it!”
“That’s quite all right, madam,” Rien smiled. “It was our pleasure to help. No gratitude is needed.”
“I insist!” the woman exclaimed again. “You can’t even imagine how much help you were! Now you see, normally one of the nice young men from Lord Morion’s school is here to help me if I need it, but this time…” She was certainly long winded…
The crystal ball grew dark as its owner stood up. His own quest would soon come to an end.
“A test well passed, but you two will yet do my job for me…I wish I could help your quest as well…”