Dragon tales are a fantasy staple to be sure, but few are regaled as well as this…
I met my first dragon when I was seventeen, a self-conscious and ungainly lad teetering at the brink of manhood. Succumbing to popular superstition that had it that a mole above the right wrist was the mark of a true warrior, my parents had enrolled me in the Knight’s Academy after my formal schooling ended the previous year. Having never had the slightest interest in physical activities of any kind, I rebelled initially, but my appeals to the contrary fell on deaf ears.
My father, who was himself a proud member of the Violet Falcons, the elite of Selganor’s military, had remonstrated, “You have in you the makings and the mettle of a fighter. But even the best ore is useless if nothing is done to extract from it the coveted steel. You waste too much time dreaming, Pyotr. A few years at the finest of combat institutions will make of you a more worthy man.”
By dreaming my father referred to the sudden spells of stillness that I was wont to lapse into, an eccentricity he thought unbecoming for one of my age and potential. Yet it was no idle daydream that I entertained during those periods but instead grand fantasies in which the downtrodden and estranged bully-fodder transmogrifies into an epic hero to be feared and revered. Constantly bullied for my slender sinews and reclusive nature, always I dreamt of greatness, of strength and courage.
I had but one interest outside residing in the surreal world of my own construction, and that was in herbs. The study of plants fascinated me and I would spend many happy hours absorbed in my ill-organized but engaging studies of the myriad flora that thrived at the edge of the Augan woods barely a stone’s throw from my abode. That I was good at my hobby is no arrant boast; when I was barely ten I was already concocting my own formulae of stomach medicine with which I dosed myself in secret whenever my insides began their violent gymnastics. My father naturally frowned upon my passion, perceiving such an art as effeminate and impractical, and steadfastly maintained that my destiny was the blade and not some Nancy pastime.
Those were the old days when Harold the Gold and his famous Cyrinian plutocracy reigned in Selganor, and in those days the word of the parent was the law. Flippant and obdurate conduct towards one’s elders was no minor transgression, and woe betide the child who contravened his parents’ wishes. It must be made clear that for all their inflexibilities my parents were a loving lot and unlike many others frequently allowed me, their child, my say. But in what they considered were major decisions that would impact my future they did what they thought best and my opposing views were usually cast aside and ascribed to ignorance and childish impetuousness. Therefore, I had to, in the end, bow grudgingly to the fate my parents had dictated for me.
Like a rose plunged into a clump of daisies I suffered and withered in the Knight’s Academy, or at least I did so initially. For I possessed none of those qualities like derring-do and brawn that are popularly held as the denotations of masculinity, and was thus mercilessly derided for supposedly puerile deficiencies like a fear of blood and instinctively flinching at the sight of an incoming sword. But as is it was in every human to do, I adapted. It had been almost a year since my entry, and though I knew deep in my heart that my true calling lay elsewhere in some distant facet of life, I had begun to appreciate the rewards of military regimen. I grew stronger---physically and emotionally--- and soon shed those overly modest perceptions of myself that had haunted me for the better part of an unhappy childhood.
That year summer was late in coming, and despite the time the air was still crisp and cool, its smell redolent of spring. It had been yet another long and tiring day spent in the tedium of exacting sword drills and I was now heading for a nearby pond where I hoped to refresh myself and seek respite for my aching muscles and chafed sides. There were many ponds located in the vicinity of the Academy, but only one which I favoured, for unlike others its waters were crystal clear and sheltered from the smouldering rays of the afternoon sun. I had stumbled across it in my forays along the Augan woods when I was younger and was pleased to learn of its proximity to the Academy. Hidden behind a veil of ferns and thick underbrush, so well did nature conceal it that it seemed none but myself knew of its presence, for I always found it deserted.
I was therefore rudely surprised when I arrived to discover my private sanctuary violated by a recent trespasser, or rather, trespassers. There was, of course, no one in sight, but the badly trampled environs that had all appearances of having weathered the passage of a mighty phalanx told volumes. Etched onto every broken twig and the ugly swath that had been cleaved through the foliage was uncontroversial evidence pointing to the advent of disrespectful interlopers. Maddening and distressing it was, to behold the Machiavellian handiwork that had left my haven besmirched and defiled.
But there was nothing for it. The wilderness knew but one healer and he was time. And I had to return before the fifth hand of the sun, which left me with little enough time to bathe myself, much less ponder hopelessly about unfortunate recent developments. In the grips of impotent sorrow, I removed my tunic and waded into the welcome embrace of the cool shallows. Once completely submerged but for my head I allowed myself to relax completely, enjoying the relief as my muscles loosened and unlocked.
As I suspended motionless in a seeming timeless eternity of bliss, the palette of colours a thousand feet above subtly shifted and darkened to the crimson that would soon usher in the night’s obsidian mantle. Arousing from my stupor only to regard the hues of a late evening sky that portended diatribes and discipline, I hastily thrashed up the shore towards my clothes. But as I made to pick up my jerkin, I noted something that sent a greater thrill of horror down my spine.
My wristband was missing. Made of brown leather and emblazoned with the insignia of a roaring lion, it proclaimed its wearer as belonging to the house of the Brave in the Academy. Altogether the Academy had ten different houses, each named after an attribute strongly associated with the warrior paragon. Each wristband had on it the creature thought to epitomize the aspect that is its house’s namesake and was regarded as the most sacred and important of a novice’s accoutrements. Severe punishment, weighed well against the heftiness of the crime, would inexorably follow its loss.
I had no wish to try the patience or the mercy of my superiors, who had been harsh enough for the most minor of inconsistencies, and would rather return late with the wristband than early and without. Cursing my ill fortune, I dived into the pond where I deduced the wristband must have slipped off without my knowing.
After a moment’s hunt, I found it sitting among a cluster of vexed water snails which were probing their horns at the curious specimen that had tumbled into their midst. But just as I was maneuvering myself to retrieve the wristband, something else caught my eye: a massive hole that I knew had not been there before and which appeared to have been formed by some creature of monstrous proportions. A huge animal, I reasoned, must have forced its way brutishly through the vegetation and launched itself into the water where it sought refuge. For a moment curiosity battled with apprehension and better sense, curiosity won. I returned to the surface long enough only to take a gulp of air and then, with careful, deliberate strokes swam back towards the gaping abyss, hoping to espy the pond’s newest colossal denizen.
I knew from my studies and literary exploits of a number of huge amphibious creatures---some territorial and aggressive like the tortoise-like Gocolash, some harmless and docile like the humanoid Salt Titan; all rare. Any of them might have formed this fissure. I had my hopes and my hunches as I peered into the hole. Its interior was inky-black. I twisted the enchanted silver ring---a parting gift from my parents when I entered the Academy--- I always wore around my finger and muttered an incantation. Immediately, the darkness fled as the magic forced the human visual reliance on light from my eyes.
To my surprise it was no tunnel I was looking down, but a rather shallow cave. That is, shallow when taking into consideration the size of its occupant. Suspended in the cave was the largest bubble I had ever seen. But what that held me awe-struck was not the shimmering iridescent globe but the creature it had been erected around.
There I floated, terror and wonder vying within me for ascendancy as I held the gaze of a dragon.
The long-lived creature of legend, its stories forged more by fable than fact, its true nature so clouded by rumour and fantasy it boasted a near-mythical status, the dragon was the undisputed lord of the leviathans, powerful and magical beyond mortal ken. Characterized by thunderous beating wings, a deadly breath attack and a gargantuan serpentine body, most dragons had their domain in the deep reaches of the Thentor black oak forest that began just a little north of the Augan woods and sprawled for thousands of miles. There, among the oldest of sentient trees, the black oaks, and the Thentoric Circle, their druidic allies, hundreds of dragons thrived and spawned, protected by nature and sorcery from prying eyes and destructive mortal intervention.
What was a dragon doing so far away from its brethren and in lands unfamiliar to its ilk? I wondered. But I had no time to ponder such riddles, for the very next moment I found myself ensnared by invisible tendrils and drawn inexorably towards the dragon. Frightened and panicked, I struggled against my confines in a futile attempt to escape to the surface and away from certain demise. I felt naked and helpless without my sword and suddenly wished I had it at hand, though my fate would have even then been equally sealed.
The sudden grip of frenzy had caused me to reflexively inhale, drawing in mouthfuls of water. My lungs burned from the lack of oxygen even as it fought fruitlessly to expel the unwelcome fluid. I could feel my consciousness slipping away, the terrible yet soothing darkness enveloping my senses when, suddenly, I discovered I could breathe again.
I sputtered and coughed, furiously gulping in air at intervals. When my breathing was normal again if a little ragged, I was able to appreciate the mystery as to why there was air I could breathe beneath the waves. I had been somehow drawn by magic into the bubble that ensured the survival of the dragon in the submerged cul-de-sac. I looked up, fully expecting to see a massive, bloody talon poised to rip me to pieces.
Instead, the dragon merely hovered over me, appraising me with what seemed to be (and what I hoped was) a benign expression on its face. Fascination won over fear for the moment, and I took the chance to study it. It stood over fifty feet tall, some ten times my height, with a girth to match. Huge, bat-like wings sprouted from its back and seemed monstrous even folded as they were. Its eyes were massive orbs of gold, heavily lidded with black slits for pupils. Beneath a long snout that ended in vermillion-rimmed nostrils rows of serrated ivories gleamed. All this seemed in keeping with what I had read about dragons. What that was startling was that while I had long thought dragons to be scaly and reptilian, this specimen before me sported a body of black fur, long ebony strands that appeared as sleek and soft as the best of human hair. Like the dragon, I was floating in the air enclosed by the bubble. Magic again, no doubt.
I had to pinch myself. After all, it was not every day that one met a hairy black dragon while diving in a pond. No, I was fully awake.
“My apologies, you are not one of them.” The voice rumbled like distant thunder, but not threateningly.
“You speak!” I exclaimed before I could help myself. I briefly wondered if it would take offense at my ignorance of draconic linguistic adequacy.
But the dragon appeared amused, not angry. “And not just the human tongue. I happen to be conversant with all languages of the non-faery realm. They are, after all, only a succession of queer noises. My magic lends voice to my thoughts so that I will always say in whatever tongue I desire exactly what I intend to.” I observed that the dragon’s voice seemed to emanate from the depths of its stomach. Its lips barely even twitched as it spoke.
“Who are the ‘them’ you mistook me for?” I queried.
Its face darkened, or so it appeared, for I was not familiar with the expressions of a dragon, but when it spoke an unmistakable note of anger and fear crept into its voice. “The high slayers. Even as we speak, one combs this land to claim my head.”
It spoke as though I was familiar with the term, but I was not. “Are these high slayers dragons like yourself?”
The dragon grunted, it seemed, in exasperation, “Have you never heard of the high slayers of Urabus?”
“I know only Urabus. Its caravans often arrive to do trade with our merchants.” Bordering the Thentor forest, the wizard-city of Urabus was in fact renowned not for commerce but the vaunted knowledge and powers of the sorcerers that comprised its citizenry.
“Then perhaps you also know of that degenerate city’s latest attempt to expand its noxious and corrupt holdings. War once again smoulders along our borders as Urabus raises the hatchet against the Thentoric Circle and the forest that is its charge. We, the forest’s greatest guardians, have been called upon to defend our home, and in response Urabus sends its high slayers. They are human warriors who have been trained to subdue my kind with might, magic and vile trickery.”
“And why have you traveled so far south instead of remaining in your land’s defense?”
“I am in flight. Our armies clashed in our first battle at Equeri’s Glade. The druids were unable to withstand the might of the invading legions and retreated deeper into the woods to regroup and consult the wisdom of the black oaks. Many of the draconic battalions were scattered, and the enemy had wasted no time in dispatching its high slayers to ensure that none of us return and rally. I fled south, with a particularly tenacious high slayer hot in pursuit. We clashed recently, and I barely escaped with a severe wound on one wing so I cannot fly. Now I must hide until I am strong enough to elude or subdue him.”
The dragon’s eyes narrowed. “But I have told you enough already, human hatchling. I indulged you by way of apology for mistakenly manhandling you with my magic. You have now leave to go. But breathe not a word of what you have seen to anybody or you shall suffer my wrath.”
Insulted and indignant, I responded truthfully that I had no love for those who befouled the greens and who sought the destruction of such majestic and beautiful creatures as dragons, which I had long been fascinated by. It was therefore unthinkable that I should betray it. With deference, I informed it furthermore that I was familiar with this region of the Augan woods, and could act as its scout and guide should I be permitted to remain its acquaintance.
The dragon inclined its graceful head and thought deeply for a moment. Golden orbs shifted and I knew before the cavern resounded from its baritone that he had arrived at a favourable conclusion.
“I should like to leave under the cover of darkness tonight to a safer and more secluded region. Do you know of any tunnels or caves covered by thick vegetation which are large enough to contain me?”
I could not come up with such a place offhand, but promised that I would find time to think on it and return at midnight with my answer. As it turned out, I did have plenty of time to think on it. That frosty night, as my rule-abiding comrades slumbered in their snug cots, I occupied my mind with this problem while shivering and cursing during my watch on the battlements of the Knight’s Academy.
* * *
Since our first meeting, I visited Forfeyn, as I had come to know the dragon by, whenever I had the time to spare. I spoke of nothing regarding this to my fellows and they suspected nothing, taking my frequent excursions to mean more frequent baths owing to the onset of a hot and humid summer. Being both carnivorous and of a gregarious nature, Forfeyn welcomed my visits as respites from the tedium of isolation and a vegetarian diet; fearing that the carcasses of preys would betray its whereabouts, Forfeyn had been compelled to subsist mainly on nuts and berries foraged in the vicinity, and only occasionally on haunches of meat bought with my allowance.
The Augan woods came to an abrupt end at the base of a cluster of huge cliffs where the thick vegetation pressed futilely against the rocky ramparts. There numerous caves of various sizes riddled the granite countenances and it had not been difficult to find one in which Forfeyn could comfortably reside. Being both a long way from the forest-cutting trade routes and devoid of game, the area was rarely visited by hunting parties and caravans that might inadvertently discover the rogue dragon. The only major problem I saw presented itself through Forfeyn’s sheer bulk. It would be difficult for the dragon to avoid leaving traces of its passing in the form of scoured and trampled vegetation. The matter, once mentioned, however, had been easily resolved. With its reserves of magic somewhat revived after its rest in the pond, Forfeyn could adopt an ethereal form that enabled it to ghost through forested tracts. The effect was draining and uncomfortable, however, and the dragon maintained it only as long as it took to get it to its temporary abode.
Forfeyn predicted that it would take at least half a season before its wing was hale enough to take to the sky. When I mentioned in jest that the war might be over by then, it scoffed. With the defenders of the forest stalwart and uncompromising, their antagonists long-lived and persistent, half a season would barely figure against the duration of warfare; the last battle between city and nature, Forfeyn informed me, had lasted for no less than eight decades.
Except for the purpose of sustenance, Forfeyn never ventured beyond the confines of its refuge, so fearful was he of persecution. Intent on recovering as quickly as possible, it spent most of its day either resting or working healing magics upon its wound, a deep, festering rent that spilled across tendon and membrane in an angry arc. My offers to help it create healing poultices were turned down but not without gratitude, on grounds that herbs worked differently on different creatures, and what knowledge I had in the field was confined to the province of humans.
As the weeks fled by, my rapport with Forfeyn improved and I grew increasingly enamoured of it. Because the magic that translated with dead-eye accuracy its intended meaning into words I could understand also worked in the reverse, the feelings and expressions I put forth were never lost on the dragon. It felt as though Forfeyn was a long lost brother, a guardian angel and confidante that could commiserate, guide and instruct. My periods of despondency over common adolescent trifling like unreciprocated infatuations and schoolroom intrigues therefore never lasted long against the balm of Forfeyn’s patient counsel.
My moments with Forfeyn were never dull, for it had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of tales of its homeland and other far more exotic places with which to regale me, and which I never tired of hearing. He proved to be a rich vein of information, and appeared to have at least a modicum of knowledge in any subject. Occasionally, when it felt like it, it would amuse me with its innate magical talents, making rock men joust with grass swords or conjuring a delightful spectacle of variegated illusions. The magic awed and thrilled me, but despite their jovial nature I was never able to shake off the undercurrent of disquiet that gnawed on my nerves whenever witnessing these fantastic prestidigitations; for, as Forfeyn once told me, this very same sorcery that I enjoyed was, when wielded under different circumstances, the widespread cause of suffering, grief and utter devastation.
In what I felt was an inadequate way, albeit the best I could manage, I reciprocated by telling Forfeyn of my way of life in the Academy, and of our tenets of loyalty and courage. My tales appeared to me mundane and insipid in comparison with those the dragon had to offer, but it nevertheless proved an attentive audience. Having seen its share of battle, it perked up especially when I described the war and arms drills we were required to learn by rote in the Knight’s Academy. Calling upon its vast pool of knowledge and experience, Forfeyn would criticize and comment on the finer points of the tactics involved while I listened, intrigued.
This was what we were doing, one sunny morning many weeks later when Forfeyn’s wings were on the verge of full recovery, when things began to happen very quickly.
By my father’s word, I had learnt the night before that a group of bandits had taken up residence in the Augan woods, and had been preying covertly on northward bound caravans with a rapacity and aggression that defied their small numbers. Under orders from the crown, the Violet Falcons had been dispatched to deliver the land-bound tradesmen of Selganor from the depredations of the ruthless outlaws. A party of selected elites hand-picked by my father had set out for that purpose at first light, and because they included several instructors from the Knight’s Academy, the school had been declared closed for the day. Thus I was able to spend the morning with Forfeyn in a far more pleasant manner.
“…I see the cleverness of that thrust and parry technique,” Forfeyn was saying, after I had demonstrated a novel style of sword fighting I had picked up from one of my peers the day before. “But it can be easily foiled by quicker reflexes and then perhaps even turned against you. The movement leaves your chest unguarded, and if you cannot recover quickly enough…”
“But such reflexes are beyond humans, are they not?” I said, shifting my gaze for a moment.
Then quite suddenly, I found myself addressing the empty air.
Vaguely apprehensive, I moved into the cave, thinking perhaps that it had disappeared into the dark reaches of the cave.
But the cave was empty. And Forfeyn could not have left it, for then I would have seen it.
As I made to reenter the sunshine, very perplexed, a shadow blotted out the light streaming through the cave entrance: A robed man, to judge by his silhouette. The stranger raised a hand, fingers shifting curiously, and suddenly the cavern was ablaze with light, the last vestige of darkness utterly vanquished.
When my eyes had adjusted to the brightness, I could make out in detail the new arrival. He was tall and fair-skinned, the brown tresses that tumbled to his shoulders mingling with the silvery heralds of advanced age. Dressed in a simple, travel worn red robe, he wore a sheathed, nondescript sword and a brace of daggers. What seemed to be an intricately crafted golden bracelet, curiously etched with ivy leaves, suspended from the worn studded belt at his waist. My first thought was that he was a bandit, for, with his hard grey eyes and broad, well-muscled frame, he easily qualified as one.
I drew my short sword, which I had always carried around with me ever since my first day at the Knight’s Academy. The sonorous ring of steel ricocheted off the cavern walls in unearthly peals. As I backed off, sinking into a defensive stance, the man parted his lips.
“Peace, young man, I do not approach with unlawful intent.” Even as he spoke his eyes scathed every corner of the cave.
I eyed him guardedly. “What brings you to this place then, sir?”
The man gestured vaguely, “I am a trapper.”
“Everyone knows that there is no game to be found in this area.”
The hand closer to the hilt twitched. “True. But not so far from here I managed to snare a hare, and a lapse of prudence on the part of my boy allowed it to escape. We chased the wounded creature to this region. I saw you outside this cave a moment ago, and decided to approach you to see if you have seen my prey pass by.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I have not.” I replied earnestly.
“Well, thank you very much then, and kindly accept my apologies for startling you.” The man cast a final look around, nodding. “I bid you good day.”
I returned to my perch at the entrance of cave and watched the man until he had vanished into the foliage. “A trapper indeed,” I muttered caustically. “Whoever has heard of a trapper who wears robes to impede his movement and disrupt his stealth, and who chases a paltry hare over such a long distance?”
“Not paltry,” a familiar voice sounded beside my ear. “If the hare was the size of a house, with wings wide enough to blot out the sky and a fire-spewing, spell-casting head worth its weight in golden bounty. Your first meeting with a High slayer didn’t turn out very pleasantly, but not that I expected it to.”
Startled, I turned my head only to see Forfeyn materializing out of its ethereal and invisible state. “So that was the High slayer.” I nodded. “I suspected as much. Does it not worry you that he is on to you again?”
Forfeyn shrugged. “I’m only surprised that one of his powers took so long about it. No matter, my wing is almost recovered. I shall fly for the Thentor black oak forest in a day’s time, and should he return to this cave he shall discover that his hare has flown beyond his reach.
“But I fear for you, Pyotr. The High slayer did not stumble upon this hideout by mischance.”
“He knew of the nature of my visits and tracked me? But that’s impossible!”
Forfeyn shook its head. “He might have kept an ear out for rumour in the region, and perhaps your constant forays into the forest aroused talk. But this is not our pressing concern. The matter of greatest importance is to ensure your safety. Promise me, Pyotr, that after my escape you will remain vigilant and eschew these woods for at least a season. The High slayer will not take his defeat passively, and you would be an excellent target for his baleful vengeance.”
I gave my assent, but the dragon still seemed troubled. After yet another lengthy pause, it said, “Hold out your sword.”
Wondering and expectant, I did as the dragon asked. Forfeyn reared onto its hind legs, its head scraping against the stratospheric ceiling of the vast cavern. A rumbling gently shuddered the air around me, and I realized Forfeyn was chanting. Even as the dragon’s drone persisted, riveting and soporific, whispers filled the air to mute it, some sharp and insistent, others gentle and soothing, spoken in an alien tongue that was mellifluous and lilting. Invisible brambles clawed at my skin in a prickly caress. An errant breeze stole past my nostrils, thick with the lingering, euphoric fragrance of bark and mildew. A shaft of golden sunlight caught my naked blade, suffusing it with a gentle glow. The halo shifted, swirling and mingling with wisps of ruby-red, then dissolved, fleeing into unseen recluses in the quavering air.
As the arcane spirits of the woodlands bubbled into nothingness, my surroundings returned to normalcy and Forfeyn dropped onto its fours again.
My gaze fell upon my ensorcelled blade. It looked as mundane as ever, the drab, tarnished steel making its shining and exultant memory seem ever more a fleeting dream. Yet, as I inclined the sword against the light, something akin to veins of fire laced its dull sheen.
“This should be of some protection.” The dragon said, satisfied.
I expressed my gratitude, and then both of us retreated deep into the cave to continue conversation. Out of precaution, Forfeyn drew with its magic a web of concealment across the entrance of the cave. And so we whittled away at our time in desultory talk, straying from swordplay techniques to narrations of strange, fantastic places like the nomadic steppes and the Firelands where the great dwarves had been locked in civil strife with the efreeti since time immemorial. Outside the sun heaved itself through its timeworn passage, and as the shadows lengthened across the cave floor, I bade Forfeyn farewell and made for home, delighted at having had such a fulfilling day.
Yet the final vestiges of buoyant spirit were leeched from my veins by the terrible news that greeted me at my doorstep.
My house was a two-storied mansion on a knoll overlooking the commercial district of Selganor, fitting grandeur for the abode of one of the Violet Falcon’s most distinguished captains. Unlike the veritable palaces of others who shared my father’s status, it had more practicality than opulence in its design, the austerity not detracting from its dignity in the least. Without the benefit of a marble and gold façade, the mansion’s immaculate granite walls and soaring turrets nevertheless presented the imposing spectacle that sometimes seemed reflective of its master’s mien.
At this time of the day, smoke could usually be seen wafting out of the chimneys of the house as my mother readied dinner. Today, however, the roof looked strangely incomplete without the fine white gauze hovering above it. Nor was the scene before my house any less unusual. My mother was at the door, her blanched face clear even from a distance. Before her, shifting in distinct discomfort was a tall red-haired man in a blood-splattered field plate, his helmet clamped tightly beneath his right arm while his left hand gripped its tassel. As I approached the two, dread coiling my stomach, my mother suddenly ran over and flung her arms around me.
“Your father-” She managed to say, before her voice caught and she dissolved into tears.
I was thoroughly taken aback, for unlike most other women my mother was not easily moved to weakness. Like my father she had a disciplined temperament and composure, and never once before had I seen her display such extreme emotion. She had been, in fact, a spell mason--- a magic user called upon to craft and fortify military defensive structures---in the Selganor siege cavalry before embracing a life of matrimonial bliss. She was warrior in spirit if no more in profession, and the sight of her distraught and inconsolable told of nothing less than ultimate catastrophe.
Gently but firmly I extricated myself from the desperate embrace and turned towards the soldier, whom his surcoat proclaimed a lieutenant of the Violet Falcons. My throat was tight with fear. “Tell me, sir, what happened to my father? Was he…was he slain?”
“Not that we know. He was captured by the enemy, I regret to say.”
“Did you not give chase?”
“We did, but could not recover him. We severely underestimated those bandits. The villains were not numerous, but they were skilled, and not merely in physical arms. Captain Tavenis was whisked away by sorcery, and his captors disappeared with him. We combed the area, but could find no trace of our foes.”
The withering pain in my chest was terrible, but I willed myself to remain strong. No transport of grief would avail me during such a crisis.
“Has all hope been abandoned?” I dreaded to ask, but still, I had to know.
“It has been more than half a day. No ransom note has arrived, and our keenest search parties have turned up nothing. I am very sorry, lad.”
I could have railed at him, could have struck him with the unbridled fury of the betrayed and indignant directed against the icy expedience of an unforgiving institution that saw it fit to so prematurely forswear one who had pledged his life to its cause. But I knew my hysterical ravings would never galvanize the authorities to what was imminently necessary. Without a word I fled back along the path I had taken just minutes ago. The wind was a soothing balm against my flushed cheeks. Through the marketplace I raced, my feet pounding against cobblestone, past lighted taverns and rapidly emptying shops. My surroundings whizzed by in a mottled blur of colour and idyllic chatter. Then the voices ceased. The temperature fell. In the coolness of the Augan woods, pitch black but for the magic of my ring, I slowed to a mile-eating trot.
Forfeyn was where I had left it. Its sharp senses likely informed it of my approach long before I entered the cave. With as brave a front as I could, I told it of what had happened.
“You have to help me,” I pleaded, “The bandits are based in these woods and must not be far.”
It might have been a trick of the infra-visional magic, but I thought Forfeyn suddenly looked distinctly uncomfortable. Yet with barely a pause it answered, “I will.”
“Now,” I insisted.
“At dawn. It is too dark. No magic of mine can let me see clearly from up high in the night. And, silhouetted against the starry sky, we would be spotted instantly. Your father’s life may be placed in greater jeopardy by our imprudence.”
At first I suspected that the dragon was hedging, but on further thought I realized the wisdom of its words. If the bandits recognized a powerful force on their tail, they would likely rid themselves of their pursuers’ goal by killing and running.
My nerves were so taut and my mind so agonized that I was certain I would stay up all night. But exhaustion won over as midnight approached, the blessed mantle of sleep numbing thought and masking consciousness.
* * *
I awoke just as night blushed in the face of an impending dawn, stirring from a fitful slumber punctuated by terrifyingly vivid delineations of my most dismal imaginings. Beside me, Forfeyn stood a silent vigil, its eyes fixed on the horizon across which a faint pink hue was gradually spreading. Dragons never slept and had no need to. I could not know, but it seemed to me that this had been the dragon’s stance unchanged through the night.
Forfeyn appeared uncharacteristically silent, a departure from its usual effervescence. At first I supposed that it was lost in reverie about the forest homeland it would soon embrace. But then I realized that its pensive mood had a foreboding edge to it. There was something in the way those eyes stared ahead, intent and transfixed, that made me conscious of the darker nature of its uncanny sobriety.
I too, watched the arriving dawn, and did so with ill-concealed impatience and trepidation. Anxiety churned my innards as visions from the night before flashed through my mind, painting possibilities I dared not consider.
Thousands of heartbeats later, and it was light enough to make our move.
Forfeyn once again called upon its ethereal visage, wending its way through the trees. I followed the dragon wordlessly. We traveled alert, our eyes peeled for movement and our ears pricked for sound. Unmolested, we reached our goal: The clearing where we first met, that was the only known place spacious enough for the dragon to take to the skies. Once there, Forfeyn gently lifted me with a gargantuan appendage onto its hairless nape where I perched precariously at a dizzying height. With no purchase, I sought to secure myself by lying flat against my mount, my limbs pressing hard against dragon skin.
Forfeyn turned its head to catch my eye, and I nodded to show I was ready. Colossal wings unfurled, the dragon reared and its powerful hind legs drove into the ground. I experienced a sickening, rushing sensation as the initial lurch carried us beyond the canopy in a matter of heart-stopping split seconds. Tendons flexed and bones creaked as Forfeyn rode on one thermal current after another, wheeling aloft.
We climbed higher and higher, then maintained altitude, plunging into livid rifts of clouds for concealment from eyes below. Suspended by magic, so that its wings need not flap and disperse our wispy curtains, Forfeyn maneuvered such that little more than our heads emerged from the clouds. The rarefied air forced me to breathe harder or risk asphyxiation Panting, I scanned the forest and its adjoining lands that were bathed in dawn’s pale glow, searching for signs of habitation.
Our efforts remained futile until near mid-morning. Forfeyn was just recovering from a swoop it had taken for a closer look at some suspicious movement below (it turned out to be a petrified squirrel) when, rising, the dragon suddenly said, “I see them now.”
I perused the area with a fine-toothed comb, but saw nothing that remotely hinted at human presence.
“Where,” I asked, my pulse soaring.
But Forfeyn was already in the midst of another spell. As the dragon intoned, a silvery thread sprang from one talon towards some invisible target in the forest below. A close stand of trees, draped with vines and girdled by bushes, flickered below us nearby. Then it was gone.
“An illusion,” I gasped. But the scene revealed proved to be far more startling.
In place of the trees was now a clearing, in which crude tents had been constructed around the skeletal remains of a fire. A wooden stake stood near the tents, its foot ringed by lengths of broken rope. And around the tents, ashes and stake, a battle raged.
One man, my father, was pitted against four. With one look, I immediately discerned the story behind the situation. Ill-used as the captive of blood lusty bandits---red welts covered his still-bleeding back--- he must have cunningly freed himself when his kidnappers lapsed in vigilance, and engaged them to return a few of their favours. But the battle was far from going well for him. Indeed, the lieutenant had not overstated the prowess of the bandits. My father’s unerring strokes and impeccable swordplay would have easily felled greater numbers of lesser opponents, but Captain Tavenis’ present enemies did not repel Selganor’s finest the day before by mere luck. The bandits lunged and whirled, their movements well rehearsed and fluid, around their adversary, like wolves circling a beleaguered deer.
The battle must have commenced but moments ago, for against such formidable opponents, the injured and unarmoured man, for all his skills, could not have lasted long. Already my father was faltering. I watched, hapless, as one bandit unleashed a ball of force that sent the warrior to his knees in spasms of pain. A whip was laid across his back, opening fresh wounds and jerking his spine straight. Still my father did not relent. His blade went up, deflecting a spear, parrying a mace and by more will than strength he set himself once again upon his foes.
And I remembered a time in the past, when I was but seven. The family had been traipsing along the countryside, near the road that ran between Selganor and the bucolic goblin village of T’rras, when a group of goblin rebels ambushed us. That there were many of them was all I could remember, for the measured passage of time had clouded all details of that unnerving event but one. Standing out starkly amidst a half-buried memory was the scene of my father throwing himself before me, taking the blow of an axe calculated to claim my life. Yet the greatest injury he suffered was not to his body but his spirit. The wounded back that never fully recovered halted his progress through many openings in the ranks and forever dispelled his dream of one day becoming the lord general of the Violet Falcons.
Up in the air, watching my father dancing in death’s shadow, I could not stand by and do nothing.
“You can save him, Forfeyn,” I breathed. “Destroy the bandits and rescue him from the battle!”
But Forfeyn hesitated, and I was very much taken aback by its reaction. Never before had it struck me as one to quail in the face of danger. Below, my father took another blow and crumbled.
“DO IT!” I shouted, panic sending my wits on the edge. “Do it, you coward!”
Forfeyn dived, streaking towards the clearing, and as it did so its head turned to appraise me for one swift moment. And what I saw in its eyes shook me inexplicably. I suddenly feared, not for myself, but for the dragon. Its eyes were set like my father’s had been, before a goblin had glazed it over with a terrible blow placed a decade ago.
“Wait-,” I started to say, but it was too late.
The bandit who stood over my father’s prostrate form, his spear poised to land the killing stroke, noticed too late the death that swooped down upon him on black wings. His spear went down, but my father, who had only been feigning, rolled aside and lashed out with steel. The blade---and Forfeyn’s ball of fire--- took the bandit simultaneously. He was dead and well charred before he hit the ground.
Forfeyn picked up my father in a clawed fist. Initially the warrior struggled, but Forfeyn said, “You are in safe hands, captain. Your son sent me for you.” Hearing that, though he must have been brimming with doubts and questions, my father subsided.
Its goal accomplished, Forfeyn likely saw no reason to further embroil itself in the conflict, though I would have been far from displeased to see every last man of the bandits suffer for their actions at Forfeyn’s talons. Banking steeply, the dragon executed a sharp turn mid-air and made once again for the clouds. I looked over my shoulder smugly, expecting perhaps to see the remaining bandits running helter-skelter for cover, or rooted to the ground by paralyzing fear. What I certainly did not expect was the men coolly readying a counter-offensive against their interlopers.
I urged Forfeyn to greater speeds as the first volley of arrows skimmed the dragon’s hide. I looked back to see the bandits dropping their gilded bows and preparing spells as we flew beyond the reach of their range weapons. Something hot and dazzling shot past me before I realized I had barely missed being sheared by a crackling bolt of lightning.
We were almost into the canopy of clouds and sanctuary when Forfeyn suddenly lurched, quaking and shuddering, victim of an unerring ball of force. The convulsion threw me off its back. I shouted in horror as I plummeted towards the trees that were arrayed like a bed of massive wooden stakes waiting to impale. I must have blacked out for several seconds, but when I regained consciousness again, the reassuring bulk of Forfeyn was once again beneath me.
There was a price to pay, however, for Forfeyn’s desperate rescue attempt had brought us so close to the clearing once again that I could see the deadly intent and malicious glee on every one of the three bandits faces, even as the beginnings of more spells blossomed at their fingertips. Forfeyn, taking stock of the situation, suddenly halted in its upward flight. I could feel the dragon’s skin tighten as a thousand pliable quails straightened into deadly spears poised for the kill. It gave a deafening roar of exultation as the coiled tension around every follicle released abruptly, raining a storm of ebony lances into the enemy’s midst.
Two of the bandits fell impaled, the potent venom of the quails robbing them of what breaths their physical injuries still left them. The third was faster, his hands a blur as he conjured an arcane shield to deflect the projectiles that had claimed the lives of his comrades. Yet the magically inspired barrier could all but withstand the next barrage of sorcery unleashed by the now enraged dragon. The protective dome faltered as Forfeyn pummeled it incessantly with flaming meteors spewed from its maw, and with a rapidly cooling boulder as his cairn, the last of the bandits expired.
Or perhaps not.
As the dust and fire cleared, still one man---a newcomer---stood amidst the wreckage of broken poles, collapsed tents and bloodied corpses. I could not think from whence he had appeared. He stood quietly, surveying the carnage with chilling equanimity, his gaze going from one dead bandit to another, finally resting on the huge rock settled over the body of the last. Then he lifted his eyes towards us, eyes hard and grey.
Recognition and belated understanding all struck me at once, would have bowled me over had I not been already flat against Forfeyn’s nape.
It was all clear to me now. It explained everything. Forfeyn must have known it all along, and yet…
The high slayer’s hands were moving now in a terrible ballet. Both of us---Forfeyn and I---knew the dragon’s exertions had left it with too little energy to even ward off the high slayer’s magical assault, much less subdue him. The only option lay above us. Forfeyn beat its wings with unreserved strength, trying with all its might to distance three lives from certain death. But the battle and the debilitating effects of the force ball had taken a lot out of the beast, and its ascent was laboured and ponderous. Behind us, the high slayer had almost completed his grim ritual.
I watched in utter dread as the red-robed man concluded his incantations with a flick of the wrist, in one sinuous motion tearing the golden bracelet contraption from his girdle and flinging it in our direction. Borne by the wings of magic, the strange ivy leaf-adorned circlet whistled towards us, expanding as it moved. It slipped unerringly through Forfeyn’s left hind leg and clamped fast onto the limb.
The effect on the dragon was electric. Forfeyn roared in abstract fear and agony, thrashing furiously in the air, spiraling downwards. The malignant dweomers of the bracelet pulsed feverishly, gaining in brilliance even as its prey was sapped of its strength. It was all I could do to stay on the beast, the knowledge of certain death should I slip tightening my grip on my mount.
Forfeyn recovered at the last moment, barely clear of the treetops, pulling itself together through a haze of pain. I could see and feel my beloved ally fight for every breath and every mile. Over the trees the dragon steered, driven by some miraculous force toward some unknown destination. It flew haphazardly in intermittent spurts of energy. Many times it foundered, dipping dangerously low, and I feared we were lost. But always, it would rally itself to continue its erratic and doomed voyage. The terror of pursuit had my heart in a grip of vice. I could not see beyond the canopy, but I knew that the hunter was never far behind, enjoying the frenzied theatrics of its prey before closing in for the kill.
We crash-landed in the forest clearing wherein stood the pool of pellucid waters and sun-dappled shadows. No longer did its ravaged beauty appear inappropriate and out of place. This monument to peaceful solitude was soon to be the deathbed of two great souls and one man’s craven folly.
My father lay smote into semi-consciousness by the impact he suffered from the jarring landing. The strokes of his adversaries were finally beginning to take their toll, and his wounds had started to fester. Delirious with fever, he raved unintelligibly, shining eyes wide-open but not seeing. Beside him, Forfeyn appeared to be in equally wretched straits, but its suffering far more pronounced.
Gingerly, I eased my father to a more comfortable position, propping up one of his sides so his lacerated back would not contact the ground. I treated some of his wounds with analgesic herbs from my pouch. There was little I could do for him, and nothing I could do for the dragon. I wanted badly to flee and return with aid, but I dared not, for any second the high slayer would come upon the hapless duo, and I would be their only defense.
For the rest of the day I waited sword in hand, ready too late to take my turn at courage. For an eternity it seemed I was kept at my post, and as the day wore on and no one appeared I began to vacillate again. But much time had elapsed, and the encroaching darkness put an end to that question.
Courage. How that word filled me with guilt and self-loathing! What a terrible moment of revelation it had been, to suddenly realize that all I thought I had become was yet another fragment of my fantasy! One year training to be a hardened warrior, and I had thought myself distanced from my cowardly past. Yet this day had fed me the truth in unwholesome dollops. The true tales of courage lay broken before me: One man, who would willingly give his life to cause and family, and one beast, who would gladly surrender its breath for country and friend.
Forfeyn had verily risked its freedom---and perhaps paid with its life---for the sake of my family, while all I had done was to selfishly manipulate the bonds of our friendship. It had long known that the bandits were, in truth, high slayers of Urabus recently summoned by their leader, the red robed man, to aid him in his search for one elusive dragon. Yet, to fulfill the request of a friend, Forfeyn had deliberately engaged those it had sought so desperately to evade, fully prepared to lose its life in consequence. It should have been my place to save my own father, yet it was the dragon that now lay dying as a result of the venture. Looking upon that reduced and pitiable shadow of Forfeyn’s past, I felt petty and meek. Such courage I could not even begin to comprehend, the true courage that was found in sacrifice and love.
To sacrifice is to give without expecting reward. Yet reward usually comes, albeit in more profound forms. That afternoon, the Violet Falcon took flight without waking. I looked upon his face, so contented and serene, and could not grieve.
* * *
At last, close to dusk, the high slayer arrived. Forfeyn was still alive if unconscious, though it’s breathing was shallow and rapid, and its grasp on life tenuous at best.
I rose to my feet, my legs tingling from the long kneel beside Forfeyn, during which I had prayed hard for Gauth, the patron deity of fighters everywhere, to lend the dragon strength and will to combat the evil magic that assuaged it. I unsheathed my short sword, experiencing an unwonted uplifting sensation as its latent magic awakened to the presence of a malefactor. Scarlet flames sprang to life, dancing eagerly along the edge of the blade. I felt numb and hollow. And vengeful.
The high slayer was attired exactly as he had been when I met him the previous morning. Only the strange bracelet on his belt was missing. His eyes gleamed like ice and victory.
“Stand aside, boy. The dragon is mine. You should never have interfered in our affairs. But let it not be said that I am without mercy. You may go free---alive---if you will trouble me no further. You friend here will not suffer much more, I assure you. One swift stroke, and painlessly it shall end what the Itllyic, or the Dragon Snare as many call it, has begun.”
The high slayer pulled out his sword in a slow and deliberate motion. Its hilt was common iron wrapped in raveling strips of worn leather, but its ivory blade was keen and well honed, blazing with infernal sorcery that was palpable even at a distance. One nick by that weapon, forged to deal grievous damage to the mightiest of the mystical bestiary, and my body would be instantly and irrevocably wrecked beyond life.
Yet I stood my ground firmly; my conscience would permit no less.
“Foolish youngster, you do not understand. However determined you are to stand in my way, you cannot prevail. Your obduracy will merely add to the body count. Whatever the case, the dragon is as good as gone. Death is its only salvation.”
In answer I spoke my final words. “But I understand perfectly, if a little too late. You hunt my friend. You hunted my people---do not think your machinations opaque, for I know that you and your high slayers were behind the attacks of our merchant convoys, to remove witnesses to your military’s uninvited presence, which the merchant princes of Selganor will not suffer peacefully. My father was tortured for information he did not have, and died by your hands. This last obstacle of yours may be the smallest yet, but like the others before it, it shall not yield without first falling.”
And then there was chaos and fury and wild abandon. Driven by rage, impelled by reckless fervour, I launched into swift and deadly sparring sequences primed by sheer practice, snapping off series after series of well placed jabs and timely parries. The magic of our swords entwined and battled for supremacy. For a moment, the high slayer was disarmed by the ferocity of my attacks. But he quickly recovered and calmly snatched from me the upper hand. One slash I ducked, and another I barely evaded, now completely on the defensive. The sword in his hand danced and writhed adroitly, flashing in a thousand places at once. I fell back one step, then another. Steel sang loudly as I blocked a low swing, the high slayer’s strength jarring my arm and throwing me off balance.
I stumbled and fell, my head striking a boulder. Darkness and the high slayer’s sword raced to steal me. The darkness won.
* * *
I awoke to see a familiar face floating over me. A huge friendly face that was elongated and black and scaly. I heard familiar rumbling, and the soothing effects of a spell of healing. It took me a moment to comprehend what my senses told me.
“Forfeyn!” I cried, getting up and experiencing a terrible rush of nausea. “You’re alive!”
We were on a sheltered ledge near the top of the cliffs at the base of which Forfeyn had had its temporary recluse. The vantage point presented a bird’s eye view of the panorama that sprawled beneath us. I could see to the other end of the Augan woods from my perch. To the north beyond the woods was a vast expanse of sun-drenched pastures that stretched for miles, the landscape broken only by sporadic herding settlements. Further than that and I espied a black fringe that I knew to be the beginnings of the Thentor Black oak forest. Even further were the Giantear Mountains, vague and ethereal from afar.
“Indeed I am, and it is all thanks to you. I was never unconscious, merely drained of all but the last of my strength by the cruel Itllyic. I pretended to be comatose, all the while harnessing my powers to overrule the magic of the Dragon Snare. While the high slayer was distracted by your attacks, I gathered my strength and shrugged off the enervating influence of the snare long enough to assault the slayer with my quails. I was only just in time, so fast was his blade upon you. With his death, the enchantment of the snare was neutered and my strength returned. No lasting injury, I’m glad to say.”
I was suddenly ashamed. “Do not thank me. I owe you too much.” I said, remembering.
Forfeyn laughed, a delightful baritone sound that echoed for miles. “Do not blame yourself, Pyotr. You owe me nothing. You are still young, as I am, by dragon standards, and we both have much to learn. Do not be so quick to judge yourself.”
I nodded, humbled. “Do be on your way, Forfeyn. I am well enough to make my own way down through the caves. May you never again be without your forestlands.”
“And may your sword arm always remain a compliment to you, warrior. You know, the high slayer was right. Death was my only salvation---but he didn’t say whose.”
Forfeyn dipped its head at me, its eyes still twinkling in silent mirth, and took off towards the heavens. Over the forest and fields it soared, its tail flowing sinuously behind it. I watched as it sped towards its distant homeland, straight and unwavering as an arrow. I watched as its silhouette diminished rapidly into the horizon, first a smudge, then a speck, then nothing. And I watched, swiftly overtaken by nostalgia. The evening sky was crimson, my blade the faintest scarlet, and my eyes, quite suddenly, afire.