The First Dragoneer
by M.R. Mathias
“So what are you gonna do? Have you decided yet?” Brendly Tuck asked his best friend.
They had known each other all seventeen summers of their lives. Brendly hoped that since he didn’t have the option of getting out of Prominence Valley as March Weston did, that his best friend would decide not to leave. It was a small hope though, because Brendly couldn’t remember March ever talking about anything else. March was always asking him things like, “Where should I go?” Or “What should I try to become? Should I go downriver to Camberly? What about up North to the borders? Maybe I could hire on as a guardsman, or maybe go down South to the coast and work a ship?”
Brendly loved his friend dearly, but as the finality of their last summer together grew closer, the gnawing sense of loss, and feelings that bordered on jealousy, were growing inside of him. If March kept rubbing it in, Brendly thought that he might just have to give his best friend a good ole thumping to take with him when he left.
Wondering now why he had asked the question, Brendly stopped on the woodsy game trail that they were traveling and waited for the answer that he didn’t really want to hear.
“I don’t know yet where I’m gonna go, or what I’m gonna do,” March replied. March could sense Brendly’s discomfort so he added, “But I sure wish you could come with me.”
“So do I.” Brendly dropped his head with the weight of the words to look at his scuffed up leather hunting boots.
“Well, let’s make the best of it till midsummer, when I’m to leave. We can worry about it then.” March forced a grin and started back up the trail. Brendly waited only a moment to follow, but March had already disappeared under the thick canopy of the woods causing Brendly to have to quicken his step to catch up.
“We won’t even get a rabbit, much less a stag. Not if we keep skulking about thinking of that stuff,” March called back over his shoulder. “Come on, it’s getting late.”
Remembering that they were hunting, Brendly caught up with his friend and let the worries of the future slip away.
They were hiking their way up toward Cander’s Ridge. It was a little farther from Prominence than they usually came to hunt, but not so far as to cause concern. They were still easily in the kingdom’s border, at least as long as they stayed on this side of the slope. Topping the ridge would only invite trouble though.
A pack of dark skinned, pointy eared, kobles had been spotted recently. The feral humanoid creatures could best be described as two legged dogs. They weren’t very dangerous alone, but if you ran into a pack of them you could be in serious trouble. They seldom ventured across the kingdom’s established border, which meant that they weren’t completely void of sense. Only the hungriest of them ever hunted in the protected lands of Prominence Valley, and though a few had killed villagers and hunters in the past, those were usually hunted down and killed. The dead then hung up in the trees, to draw carrion, for their violation.
This side of the ridge was kingdom territory, and not even the huge dark skinned wood trolls that roamed the foothills dared to trespass. King Timothy’s border guard patrolled the boundary well and often. The border guard was feared by even the giant Karsithian warriors, who sometimes ventured too far south out of their high mountain territories.
The game trail the boys were following led them to a clearing that held a small pool. When they stopped and looked around for tracks, they both noticed the valley spreading out below them. The rich, dark shades of the green tree tops flowed down the mountainside on their way out into the lower slopes of the valley. The trees thinned into large clumps, only to disappear completely in the valley floor. There, squares and long rectangles of brown, gold and russet took over. Some of the greener fields were speckled with the black and brown dots that were livestock, but most were empty of life save for the rows and rows of crops. The silvery-blue thread of the Prominence River wound its way through the pastures and crop-fields, splitting the valley into two misshaped halves. The river was speckled with dots, but those were the fishing boats and cargo ships that used its flow as a source of bounty. It was a view that neither of the boys had seen before. They were entranced by its overwhelming beauty.
“Let’s make camp here,” March whispered as if his voice might disturb the tranquility of the valley far below.
“Yup,” Bren replied simply, not taking his eyes away from the sight before him.
They made a circle of rocks and started a fire inside it. Then they went about setting up a makeshift tent by draping an oiled sheet of canvas over some low hanging branches and stretching it wide at the bottom. They fastened the corners of the canvas with wooden stakes so the breeze couldn’t flutter it away.
They had planned to be hunting for at least five days, or until they got a fat, late spring buck, or some other sizable game that they could carry home and parade proudly around town. Neither of them got in a hurry over anything.
They both knew that this was a goodbye hunt. In only a few short weeks March would set off to find his fortune. His father, and two older brothers, would take care of his mother and sister, and the family farm. It was the unspoken duty of a third son in a struggling family to move on and make his own way. March didn’t mind. He had been dreaming of leaving since he found out that he would someday have to.
Brendly had no brothers. He did have four sisters that he and his father would labor to care for until they were eventually married off, but even then Bren wouldn’t be free. He was destined to take over the family’s herd of horses, and the small farm where they raised them. It wasn’t likely that he’d ever escape the boring, yet ever growing village of Prominence.
Prominence was at the eastern most edge of the kingdom. It was originally a river stop for the copper miners that had once swarmed the other side of the valley. As time wore on and the veins in the mountain dried up, farming and ranching had slowly taken over the area. A large reservoir, up in the eastern foothills at the head of the river, was rich in krill and whisker fish. If you had a net boat, you could fetch a fair share of coin in Camberly, a city that was a two day float downstream to the west.
Prominence sat at the base of the large jagged mountain range known simply as the Teeth. Throughout the Teeth, wood and rock trolls roamed, as did kobles, and many other unfriendly creatures. Brendly and March had both heard the myriad horror stories that their parents had used to keep them close to the home fires when they were little. They both knew that the stories weren’t just wives tales either. Much blood had been spilled over the years to make the kingdom safe for humanity. King Timothy’s border guard was one of the main reasons for the sense of security.
As the sun disappeared and the moon washed them in a pale silver glow, they were content to sit by their small fire and listen to the symphony that the forest provided. The woods could be frightening at night, but both Brendly and March felt comfortable. They were men now. They had been on many a hunt, both with their fathers, and without. They felt safe inside the borders of the kingdom.
“When I was looking for firewood by the bigger pool upstream I saw fresh tracks,” March said quietly. “If we can get up early enough, we can find a spot near there, and maybe get a shot at something coming to water at daybreak.”
“Yup,” Brendly replied half heartedly. He was thinking about March leaving again and wondering who he would hunt with after his best friend was gone.
“You can’t be a sad-sack till I go, you know!” March jested.
“March, I don’t want to be stuck in the valley all my life,” Brendly responded passionately. “I don’t want to be a horse rancher. I want to go on an adventure like you.”
“Bren, you're gonna marry Canda Shilling, or Deanda Bargery, and have a family, and a good happy life!” There was more than a little envy in March’s voice. “It’s going to be a lot of boring days and nights without my friends and family for me, no matter where I decide to go. It won’t be all fun and exciting like you think.”
“But what if I went with you?” Brendly lit up at the thought, as if he would really run off in the night and leave his structured world behind. “You’d have a friend with you, and we could make our fortunes together.”
“Your ma would hunt us both down, and then strap you all the way home. I can’t let you come with me!” March laughed.
Bren laughed too, and after a long awkward silence said, “I’m sure gonna miss you.”
“I’m not gone yet, Bren. Let’s get some sleep so we can get up to that bigger pool before daybreak.”
When the sun broke the horizon, they had a perfect view of the tracks by the pool. Each of the boys was at one end of a thick heavy shrub that hid them well from whatever might come to drink the cool crisp water. Yet, they weren’t so far apart that they couldn’t communicate silently with the hunter’s hand signals that their fathers had taught them. The air was cold and charged with anticipation. Birds were just starting to chirp their good mornings to the world. The forest was coming to life, bringing with it the promise and blood tingling excitement of the hunt.
Brendly, sitting there alert with an arrow ready to loose, had forgoten his sadness for the moment.
March was feeling alive inside. He was anxious to see what would show up to drink on this most perfect of mornings.
The moment was broken by the distant, yet clear, sound of dried wood cracking. The boys looked at each other excitedly. Whatever it was, it was moving noisily toward them. Both of them began to scan the tree line across the pool for any sign of movement. Instinctively each raised his bow toward the area of the noise.
Bren was trying not to breathe too loudly. It was always a chore for him to keep calm and contain himself when this moment came on a hunt.
March just wished his nose would stop itching. It seemed to him that every time he was in a position that he couldn’t scratch his face, it began to itch. As the sound of the approaching animal grew closer, the discomfort got so bad that he decided that Bren could have this one and he silently relaxed his draw so that he could scratch his face.
“Whew!” Bren exhaled rather loudly. March turned and looked at him with alarm. Bren glanced toward him, and whispered, “It was only a wild sow -- or a little-- uh.”
His words abruptly stopped as a new sound carried toward them. It was a snort, a loud one. It was accompanied by the sound of rattling branches.
Bren instantly went back into firing position; alert, prone and ready. March gave his nose a last second scratch as he re-aimed his arrow. The soft sound of Bren’s excited breathing was the last sound he heard before he tuned the world out so that he could focus on the tree line.
First it was a small doe, a yearling, March thought. Two fawns and another larger doe appeared. With nervous darting eyes, the biggest of the four deer lowered its head and began to drink. Slowly the others followed suit. March was thrilled. He hoped that Bren would be patient. A buck was sure to present itself eventually.
Bren almost loosed his arrow on the larger doe, but at the last second thought better of it. He wanted a buck to show off to his dad. His restraint however was mostly due to the two awkward moving young fawns frolicking near their mother.
Suddenly, all four of the deer rose from the pool and froze in alarm. In a flash of movement, a big cracking sound erupted from behind them. They were off in a series of leaping bounds that carried them instantly out of sight and back into the forest.
Here he comes, March thought. He expected a wide heavy rack of antlers to emerge from the trees, announcing the leader of the herd. Instead, the creature that showed itself nearly stopped his heart.
As silently as he could, Brendly took in a deep breath as the magnificent beast stepped out of the tree line. Cautiously, it moved into the clearing and looked around.
It was a white stag, majestic and awe inspiring. Its antlers were long, and only slightly curvy. They twisted and forked only thrice, and in perfect symmetry. The stag’s chest was thrust forward showing its dominance of the forest, and its short white fur was clean and glossy, like frozen snow. It strutted toward the pool with kingly grace. Its large black eyes didn’t dart around as the does had. These eyes were full of confidence. There was only the hint of the creature’s natural caution showing in them. Throughout this forest of paupers and peasants, this creature was royalty. As far as non predatory animals went, this was the undisputed king of the forest.
March dropped his aim slowly. He wanted to look and see if Brendly was about to take the shot, but he was afraid to take his eyes off the rare beast that stood before him. Thousands of camp fire stories ran through his head, all of them about this legendary creature. He was taken by its beauty, and suddenly he didn’t want Bren to take its life. This was the moment in time that he wanted to remember when he thought about his home and his friend. No matter how far away he traveled, or what his situation might be, he wanted to be able to close his eyes and know in his heart that this creature still roamed the valley around Prominence. He would live his life knowing that he and Bren had been graced by its presence.
Brendly’s heart was trying to pound out of his rib cage. Instinctively he began to calm himself enough to steady his aim. What a reception they’d have if they returned to Prominence with such a kill. His father would beam when he told folks of his son’s bounty. All the other hunters would envy him and March forever.
Brendly took his time and lined up the shot perfectly. He wanted to hit the stag’s heart. He carefully checked the range to determine the slight arch he had to consider to place the arrow where he wanted it to go. It wouldn’t do to let this creature suffer. He finally got the white furred buck sighted. He knew his shot would swiftly end its life. With a sigh of resignation, he let out his breath and made to let his shaft fly.
Suddenly, March jumped from the bushes, waving his arms like a mad man. “Run away!” he screamed at the top of his lungs.
Brendly’s arrow went astray, flying well over the stag and disappearing into the forest. The stag raised its head from the pool and snorted its disapproval over the interruption. Proudly, the magnificent animal strode out of the clearing, disappearing as if the two boys were of no concern.
“Don’t stop running!” March yelled. “Don’t ever stop.”
“Why March?” Brendly asked. He wasn’t angry, but he was far from pleased. He had his shot lined up perfectly. He could already see the look of pride in his father’s eyes at the sight of such a kill. He could even feel the congratulatory pats on his back from the other hunters. Then March had jumped out and ruined his moment. He looked at his friend with a questioning glare.
“Promise me Bren,” March started with a look of wild elation. “Promise me that you’ll never kill that stag! I don’t care if you see him a thousand times after I leave.” March waved his arm around stupidly causing Bren to laugh and lighten his mood. “You can’t ever kill such a majestic and beautiful animal!"
“You’re as crazy as a bald-eyed giboon,” Brendly said as the tension fell completely away from him. “I had him, you know!”
“Yes, I know. That’s why I scared him away.” March’s smile was wide and infectious as he walked over putting his arm around his friend’s shoulder. “Just think, if you’d killed him, then we’d have to pack him back down into town and our hunt would already be over. This way you can live all of your days, knowing in your heart, that you had the white stag in your sights but chose to let him live on.”
Brendly thought about that for a moment, then laughed at March’s cheer. “So what do we do now?”
“Let’s go back to camp and eat a bite, then go exploring.” March was feeling electric. His blood was charged. He felt immortal. “Let’s go all the way up to the ridge!”
“To the ridge?” Bren questioned, with only a hint of alarm in his voice. He too was feeling the invincibility of youth coursing through his veins. He was now bound and determined to make the best of what was sure to be the last hunt he ever had with his best friend. Adding a little danger to the kettle only seemed to make the idea of it all the better.
They ate and then broke camp. Neither of them was able to sit still for any length of time. To make it to the ridge before nightfall would be easy, but to find a safe place to camp up there might take hours. They moved with intensity and purpose as they gathered their things and loaded their packs. Neither of them wanted to have to search out a place to camp in the dark, and building a fire too close to the ridge would only serve to alert the wilder things to their presence. As adventurous as they felt, there were things in the Teeth that they didn’t ever want to cross paths with, and they both knew it.
The climb grew more laborious the higher they went. With every step the air grew thinner, the foliage thicker, and the ground less agreeable to their soft leather boots. When they were finally forced to make camp, the ridge was still a quarter mile above them. It was getting dark and they were relieved that they could make a fire. They were still well within the kingdom’s patrolled boundary. They didn’t have to worry about anything attacking them. This would allow them to sleep without watches. This way they would be able to explore the ridge in the morning, in the daylight.
The colder, higher altitude demanded that they keep warm, and they wasted no time using the dusky light that was left to gather wood and get a blaze started. They strung their canvas on a rope between two pines at the edge of the tiny clearing they had chosen, and settled in for the night.
Unlike the previous night, there was no glorious view of the valley below. Pine trees, shrubs, and boulders spread out in every direction, as far as the eye could see, which was only about twenty paces. They sat and ate dried beef from their packs as the last of the sunlight faded from the world. After a time, March started rummaging through his pack, with a wicked grin on his face.
Noticing this, Brendly spoke up. “What is it?” he asked.
“I was gonna save it for after we got a kill, but now seems like a better time.” March handed something to Brendly.
It was a silver flask. Brendly could tell by the weight of it that it was full.
“It’s Master Beryll’s strongest plum brandy!” March informed before he snatched it back from Bren. He pulled the stopper, took a long pull, and then nearly spewed it back out of his mouth as the burn of the fiery stuff hit his throat.
Laughing, Brendly took the flask back from his red faced friend, and took a few small sips. “You sip a brandy, March,” he said knowingly, before the burn hit his throat as well. “Whew, you could burn green wood with this stuff. This is raw brandy hooch, not plum brandy.” He passed the flask back to March.
They each took a few more sips and agreed to save the rest for another day, but they’d each had enough to get them warm and light headed. Around them, the night song of the higher altitudes began to sound, reminding them that they were close to the boundary.
“Do you really think I’ll marry Canda Shellings?” Brendly asked after the long silence. He was trying to take his mind off of the eerie sounds of the night.
“Her, or Deanda,” March teased. “They both giggle and blush, and carry on when you pass them.”
“No more than Jeana Hallin does you,” Brendly returned defensively. He noticed an immediate sadness take hold of March at the mention of her name. “What does she think of you leaving?”
“She’s so perfect and understanding sometimes, but lately she’s hard to be around.” March sat up quickly. He was determined not to let his good mood slip away. “All in all I think she’s just another sad sack, like you.” He punched Bren lightly on the shoulder. “She’ll get over it.”
“It’s not that I’m a sad sack, March. I just--” He looked around the camp searching for the right words as if he might find them roosting in the pine trees or hiding in the thicket. “Who’s gonna help me terrorize Quinton? And who is gonna race me to the short dock when the krill begin to spawn?” Bren forced a laugh. “And who’s gonna come out here and traipse through the woods with me and scare the white stag off when I have the perfect shot lined up?”
March smiled broadly at his friend. “He was magnificent, wasn’t he? Did you see his antlers? They looked like flaming ice.”
“Yup, he was amazing.”
“I won’t ever forget that moment as long as I live Bren, the way he snorted when I jumped out of the bushes. I think he was laughing at us.”
“He wouldn’t have been laughing if you hadn’t jumped out when you did.” Bren smiled at the thought.
“I don’t think you’d have done it,” March’s voice turned serious. “When it came time to loose you would have balked, or missed on purpose. Not even you, the great Brendly Tuck, could have killed such a creature.” March stood and yawned as he stretched out his arms.
“Maybe not,” Brendly conceded. He wondered if March was right. He lay awake a long time after his friend was asleep, wondering about just that.
Bren woke with a shock as icy cold water splashed across his face. March’s hysterical laughter filled his bewilderment. The sun was already up. The sounds of the birds chirping and whistling filled the cool air between March’s deep belly roars of mirth.
March handed Bren a pan full of scrambled grouse eggs that he had collected and cooked earlier. With a grimace of friendly disapproval, Brendly took them and woofed them down with his fingers. After that, they put their bulky packs under the canvas shelter and checked their gear. They each tested the sharpness of their long skinning knives and made sure that they had plenty of arrows between them. They put enough water and dried beef for the day in their belt pouches and left the things they didn’t think they would need. March pushed his head, and one arm, through a coil of rope and checked to make sure he had his tinder box. They were both accomplished hunters and had learned from experience not to go off unprepared. Bren even went as far as putting a small wood ax in his belt.
It took longer than they thought it would to reach the ridge. When they finally got there they were almost disappointed not to see hoards of kobles and wood trolls gathering on the other side. What they found was a small valley, very small compared to Prominence Valley. The dense forest continued down the steep terrain to the valley’s floor some three hundred yards below them. There, a small stream could be seen through the treetops winding its way down the hill.
Not far below them, the trees gave way to a rocky outcropping that looked interesting. Without a thought, March started down toward it with only a smiling glance back at Bren’s hesitation.
Swallowing his nervousness, Bren hurried to catch up. He nearly tumbled over his feet as the steepness of the slope was revealed. By the time he reached March’s side, he was out of breath, and more than a little worried.
It only took them a few minutes to get to what turned out to be a flat shelf of rock that protruded out over the tree tops. On either side of the shelf, the trees and the undergrowth were as thick as thieves at a festival, but for this one small area, about a hundred paces wide, the rocks prevailed.
March eased out to the edge to look down at what he was sure would be a cliff like plummet into the sea of tree tops below. Bren stayed back and nervously waited for March to tell him what he saw. After a few moments, March stopped his cautious approach. He then pulled the rope he was carrying back over his head and began uncoiling it.
“I’m going all the way out to the edge to look.” March looked excitedly back at Bren then threw him one end of the rope. “Hold this in case I slip. I don’t want to go all the way over.”
“Here I was worried about you leaving,” Bren joked sheepishly. “You’ll not live to set foot out of Prominence Valley.”
March grinned as he tied his end of the rope around his waist. “You’re a bald-eyed giboon, Bren,” March laughed. “We're not even in Prominence Valley anymore.”
“Oh. Yeh.” Bren swallowed hard, remembering that they were also beyond the kingdom’s boundary.
“Now come on, gibber lips,” March chided. “The ropes not long enough for you to stay way up there.”
Bren eased close enough so that March could lean out over the edge. He found a depression in the rock where he could dig in his heels and create leverage if it became necessary. When he saw March get to his belly and began crawling out, he dug in any way.
“Don’t fall, March!” Bren yelled out as his daring friend got to the edge and looked over. “What is it? What do you see?” His curiosity was drowning his concern.
March quickly scooted back and stood up. A giant smile had spread across his face. When he saw how eager Bren was to know what he’d seen he purposely kept from saying anything.
“Come on, March. Spit it out!” Bren yelled. “Just tell me!”
“There’s a cave down there!” March was beaming. “A big ole cave!”
“You wanted to go on an adventure, sad sack. Let’s go on one!” March said moving back up the hill on one side of the rocky shelf. “There’s a way down over here,” he pointed.
Bren quickly pulled all the slack out of the rope and nearly yanked March off of his feet. Between laughs he said, “At least—untie yourself first, you big giboon!”
March blushed realizing that in his rush to get down to the cave he had completely forgotten that he had a rope tied to his waist. He gave his end a good yank, pulling it free from Bren’s hands. He yanked it hard enough to give Bren a burn in his palms. Even though he was the one laughing now, it took him only seconds to untie himself. He coiled the rope back up quickly, and then shouldered it.
The descent proved to be tedious. The ground was loose and rocky, and the trees were in all the wrong places. They ended up going away from the shelf, out into the forest where the grade seemed a little better. They had to backtrack twice and ended up going too far down slope. When they finally realized this, the cave was above them, looming up the slope like a hungry maw. Climbing back up to it, they began to feel the humidity of the forest. The sun was directly overhead now. The trees shaded the ground well, but the canopy was so thick that it held in the ground moisture. It wasn’t long before both of the boys’ woolen shirts and leather pants were soaked with sweat. To make matters worse there was no breeze to be felt at all. The trees kept it from reaching them.
The dark mouth of the cave grew as they approached it. They could see that it was deep. What hid in those depths was the mystery. The only thing about the hole that was inviting was the knowledge that inside the cavern they could cool off and take a short rest.
The natural opening was easily ten paces wide and half again that tall. The rock formation seemed out of place sitting there by itself in the middle of the dense forested greenery. Scattered here and there up along the cliff-like face were clumps of mossy growth and a few patches of vines that bloomed with brilliantly colored little blue and yellow flowers.
March didn’t hesitate. Just inside, out of the sun, he plopped down on a piece of rock and began rummaging through his pack for food and water. Bren joined him, already sipping from the deer skin canteen he carried at his hip. Both were winded from the climb back up to the cavern so neither spoke for a long while. They ate and sipped cool water and let their bodies rejuvenate. All the while the endless possibilities of what could be hiding down in the cavern kept culminating in their imaginations.
After a while Bren whispered, “I wonder how far back it goes?”
“We’ll find out soon enough, won't we?” March laughed confidently. “Why are you whispering?”
“This is a big cave,” Bren answered seriously, his voice still a whisper. “Something big could live back there.”
March hadn’t thought of that. His mind began to race through all the creatures he knew of that were big enough to do them harm. He turned to Bren dropping his tone and volume to match his friends. “We’ll be quiet and go really slow.” He turned back and peered into the darkness of the tunnel-like shaft that the cavern formed. He couldn’t see very far at all. “We’ll have to make a torch.”
March stood and began looking around the lighted part of the cave. He found a length of dried wood as big around as his thigh, and after feeling its weight, he quickly discarded it. Bren was rummaging through his belt pack so March headed back out into the woods to seek out a better prospect. He returned with a piece of green wood nearly four feet long and about as big around as his wrist. It was heavy but it would be handy as a club if the need arose. He noticed that Bren had strung his bow and had moved his quiver of arrows from his back to his hip.
He’d never tell Bren, because it would swell up his friend’s melon head, but he thought that Bren was the best archer he’d ever seen. The thought was comforting. He’d once seen Bren shoot a gobbler out of the air. Bren had fired two arrows in rapid succession and both had hit their mark. It was improbable to have hit a bird in flight even once. Bren had hit it twice back to back, and with lightning speed. March was sure that Bren hadn’t been lying when he had said that the white stag had been lucky.
“How are you gonna make a torch out of that?” Bren asked.
March just shook his head. How could such an accomplished hunter be such a giboon, he wondered? He sat back down near his friend and cut an arm length of rope from his coil. He tied it tightly around one end of the limb. Then he took out the silver flask of Master Beryll’s brandy hooch and poured a few dollops over the rope until it was saturated with the liquid. He offered Bren a sip from it, but Bren refused it. March took a good sized swig though, and then put it away. With a red faced grimace, he held the limb out to Bren for inspection. “Torch,” was all the sting of the liquor would allow him to say.
Bren was uneasy, almost scared, about going deeper into the cavern. He would never let it show though, not to March. He had said he wanted an adventure. Now here he was, across the ridge in the unprotected Teeth, about to venture into a cavern big enough for a bear, or a family of rock trolls, or even a small dragon to call home.
Not that Bren really thought that there was a dragon here. The mighty dragons hadn’t been seen in the area for dozens of years. Even when they had, they were seen from great distances as they flew overhead, doing whatever it is that dragons do in the sky. Still, the possibility of what might reside deep in this cavern was unnerving.
In between his short bouts of fear, Bren found himself terribly excited. He wondered how March could remain so calm. Maybe March was scared too. Maybe March was just able to hide it better. Or maybe March was just that confident.
March didn’t look terrified, but he was. It wasn’t easy always taking the lead. Bren had wanted an adventure, and March wanted to have a hunting trip that they would both always remember forever, so here they were. He wished that Bren hadn’t said anything about something living in here. Up until then he had only been excited. Now, he was truly afraid. But he couldn’t let Bren see it. He told himself that this was just going to be an old empty cavern and did his best to swallow his fear.
“Are you ready?” March asked quietly. He took out his tinder box and prepared to light the makeshift torch.
“Yup, just stay to my left, and keep the torch flame up high, so it stays out of my eyes.” It took great effort to keep his voice from trembling as he added. “I want to have a good clear shot if we run into anything hungry back there.”
March lit the torch and then handed it to his friend while he put the flint and steel back into the tinder box and put it away. He unsheathed his skinning knife and took the torch back from Bren. With the brightly flaming brand in one hand and the long blade in the other, he started moving deeper into the cave.
The flickering light of the brand allowed them to see about twenty paces ahead. The flames caused exaggerated shadows to dance around the tunnel like ghoulish specters. Beyond the shadows, the thick blackness swallowed up the light like a hungry beast.
There were webs deeper in the cave. Some of them spanned the entire width of the shaft like forgotten fishing nets. More than a few fist sized spiders scurried from the noisy brightness of their approach. After only a few hundred feet, March was forced to get in front of Bren because the shaft began to narrow.
“Don’t get too far ahead of me, March!” Bren whispered nervously. Even at a whisper his voice reverberated off the rough rocky walls.
“I won’t,” March joked. “I don’t want an arrow in the back when one of those spiders drops on your fat head.”
“Not funny.” Bren wasn’t laughing. His attention had been drawn up ahead of them. He gripped the semi-drawn arrow with the index finger of his bow hand so that his right hand was free. He reached forward and tapped March on the shoulder with it. When he had his friend’s attention he pointed up ahead at what he saw, then drew back his arrow again and stepped around March.
“What is it?” March asked. He had to squint his eyes to block out the glare from the torch flame. “Is it a rock?”
“Only if the rocks in here grow fur!” Bren said as his arrow loosed at the thing.
The arrow struck with a thump and sunk deeply into the creature. Before March could take a breath, Bren had another arrow ready to fire.
“It’s not rock,” said March moving toward it cautiously. “And it stinks!”
“It’s not alive,” Bren stated the obvious. His arrow was still trained on the thing though.
They were relieved to see that it was just a dead deer. That relief faded quickly when they saw that it was only part of a deer. Half of it had been torn away, leaving a puddle of thick black muck that was littered with pieces of broken bone. A trail of splotchy red and black led from the carcass into the blackness.
“Pretty fresh kill,” March commented after kneeling and examining it. “The stink is from the curdled blood, not the meat.”
“It’s time to get out of here, March,” Bren said sternly. “Something bit off the whole back half of that doe. I don’t want to meet it!”
March wasn’t listening. He was already moving further into the cave. He’d seen something else and was heading toward it. Bren hurried after him, and was just about to yank his friend back by the shoulder and haul him out of there when he saw what March was after. He gasped loudly.
It was the skeleton of a human. It was whole and still encased in rusty ringed mail armor. At the side of the body was a dusty, but wicked looking sword. Several small packs were attached to the dead man’s belt, and a large leather backpack was still strung over his shoulders.
“Hold this,” March said as he thrust the torch to Bren. Reluctantly Bren took the brand even though holding it meant that he wouldn’t be ready to fire an arrow if trouble came. He looked on in horror at what March started to do next.
“You can’t steal from the dead, March!” Bren said rather loudly. The word dead echoed around the cavern and down the tunnel like an ominous warning.
“It’s not stealing,” March justified as he unlocked the sword belt and fastened it over his shoulder. “This isn’t digging up a grave. This guy has been here a long time.” He rolled the skeleton over and almost jumped out of his skin as it broke apart in his hands.
“All right, but hurry! I don’t like this one bit.”
March pulled the leather backpack free, causing the skull to roll over and look up at him as if it were still alive. He took a deep breath and repositioned the body in a more comfortable looking position. “Rest peacefully whoever you were,” He said softly.
He slung the pack over his shoulder and was about to reach for the torch, but a glittering sparkle underneath the dead man’s neck caught his eye.
Bren, seeing his friend reach back down to the body, yelled out in frustration. “COME ON!... On... on.” His voice echoed down the cavern.
“Just a moment,” March growled back up at Bren’s impatience.
He groped through the dust where he’d seen the flashing reflection and found a small chain with his fingertips. As he pulled it out from under the dead warrior, he could feel the substantial weight of something that dangled from it.
“Light, Bren!” He ordered. Bren sighed and held the torch forth so that he and March could both see what it was.
The firelight reflected so brilliantly off of the thumb sized gem mounted in the dirty medallion that it nearly blinded them.
“Wow,” March gasped, turning to his friend. “Its--”
His voice was drowned out by the sudden angry growl of something very big and very close.
March pulled the medallion’s chain over his head and grabbed the torch back from his friend.
“Let’s go!” Bren yelled again. His bow was instantly drawn and his arrow trained at the area of darkness where the sound had come. “Now!”
March gave no argument. He immediately began backing through the cavern towards the entrance, holding the torch out toward the sound they had heard. They awkwardly tried to stay side-by-side as they continued moving backwards as quickly as they could.
They heard the thump of heavy footfalls pounding rapidly towards them from the darkness. A strong alien scent filled the air. Whatever it was, it was four legged, and it was closing in on them.
A deep rumbling growl began and quickly turned into a screechy roar. It was right there, just outside of the torchlight. March could see several glistening reflections in the darkness, all of which were at least a head taller than he was. He was sure it was eyes and teeth, or maybe scales that he was seeing.
“Loose, Bren!” March yelled. An arrow thrummed by his ear from his friend’s bow.
A viscous screech filled the cavern then, and the head and wing claws of a snarling young wyvern charged into the torchlight. Its scales were pale, almost pink. It was dragon-like, but not nearly as large as even a young wyrm was rumored to be. It’s long sinuous body was the size of a small horse, or a big tree cat, and it’s toothy serpent head was already lunging. Two huge fangs curled up from its bottom jaw and jutted above plum sized nostril holes. Behind them, eyes that looked like cherry walnuts glowed with indignant rage. Menacingly, the strange reptilian creature roared at them and crouched to strike. The arrow Bren had fired protruded harmlessly from creature’s shoulder. Bren didn’t hesitate to fire again, this time aiming for the vital chest area between the creature’s stumpy forelegs. The arrow sank deeply, but didn’t even slow the bursting charge. A huge raking claw lashed out at March and though it barely missed his flesh, it hung in the thick leather sword belt he had taken from the corpse. He, and the torch, were slung violently into the cavern wall.
Bren fired two more arrows at the beast, but the force and speed of the attack on March, and the way the torch had gone flying across the air, had been dizzying. Even still, he had struck the sun starved creature well enough to stop it in its tracks. The dying torch was behind the wyvern now, near where March was stirring. The creature was perfectly silhouetted and Bren went to fire another arrow. Reaching in, he found his quiver empty. He looked down at it in shock. He never retrieved the arrow he had loosed at the white stag. At that very moment of realization, a razor sharp claw ripped down his hip tearing his leg wide open.
He crumpled to the ground without a sound. When he looked up, he saw stars swirling around the blackness. Then there was nothing, nothing at all.
With a lustful triumphant roar the wyvern’s serpentine head lunged toward Bren’s limp body. The victory growl was cut short though. The sound quickly turned into a horrid pain filled screech as the smoldering end of the torch came down on its pink scaly back. The brand sizzled and popped back to life, flaming hotly before it rolled off and hit the ground. The torch rolled to a stop just under the raging beast’s underbelly. March instinctively reached to his belt for his knife, but it was not there. He had dropped it when he was smashed into the wall. He didn’t panic though; instead he reached back over his head and grabbed hold of the ancient sword’s hilt in an effort to pull it from the scabbard. At first it wouldn’t come free, but with his second try, it did. The heavy metal hand guard cracked him in his ear and sent him stumbling head first across cavern floor towards the creature. The razor sharp blade sliced across his scalp, cutting him to the bone as it slipped free. March had to grab the sword by the blade to turn it around so that he could hold it correctly. He cut his palms open in the process, but not so badly that he couldn’t grip the hilt.
March looked up to see the slithery beast fighting to turn around and face him. It was trying to avoid the torch flames that were licking its tender underbelly. March’s heart hit the floor when he caught a brief glimpse of Bren’s torn and bloody body crumpled against the wall. He saw Bren’s thigh-bone fully exposed, and the huge pool of blood surrounding his friend. He feared Bren was dead.
A deep rush of anger fueled adrenaline shot through his veins. He gripped the sword with both hands. The grip wasn’t very good due to the blood leaking from the wounds in his palms, but it was good enough for him to raise the blade over his head and charge recklessly into the range of those horrible, finger-long fangs. At least the albino beast was easy to see in the muted torch light.
March was getting dizzy, and he could feel his warm blood sluicing down his back from the head wound. Luckily, his rage took over as he brought the gleaming sword down into the exposed flank of the turning creature. He felt the blade slice deep into flesh before it was yanked from his hands.
The wyvern bucked wildly, slamming March and itself into the rocky wall. Then it hopped backward into the darkened cavern. It was too late for the wyvern though. The slam, into the unrelenting surface of the wall, had driven the sword deeper into its vitals. With a series of deep, guttural moans that resounded with a hissing wetness, the creature curled and thrashed until it finally stilled.
March reached for the back of his head. His wound was bad. He could feel his bare skull. But, he quickly forgot his pain when he heard Bren’s familiar voice moaning from across the cavern. Stopping only to retrieve the still smoldering torch, he went to Bren’s side.
A finger deep gash ran from Bren’s hip to just above his knee and a fat purple knot was forming on his cheek, from where it had impacted the rocky floor. He had lost a lot of blood, but was slowly regaining consciousness. March pulled the old pack off of his back and gently put it under Bren’s head. He then tore off his shirt. Using Bren’s skinning knife, he cut the cloth into wide strips. He wrapped the strips around Bren’s thigh, pulled the wound closed with them, then tied them tightly. Only after he was sure that his friend wasn’t going to bleed out right there on the cavern floor did he use the last strip of cloth to tie around his still bleeding head.
When that was done, he poured a generous dollop of the brandy hooch along the length of Bren’s wound.
“No… no,” Bren said weakly as the burn of the liquid shot through his leg like a length of forge heated steel. After a moment of wincing and clench jawed groaning, he hissed, “Drink.”
“Here,” March tipped the flask to his friend’s lips and let him take the last of it.
March shook the flask over his hands and let the last few drops sting the wounds on his palms. Then he rubbed them together. He cut off a piece of Bren’s shirt and tore it into two strips which he then tied around them.
“You’re a damn giboon,” Bren said quietly. He adjusted his upper body and pulled a fist sized stone from under his arse.
“Well, if you’d have been a better shot, maybe we could have avoided the ruckus,” March forced a chuckle as he staggered to his feet.
“Is it dead, or did it just run off?” Bren asked with worry. He started to roll over to look, but his wounds kept him from turning.
“It’s just down there resting,” March answered seriously. “I’m gonna go get wood for a fire. Just yell as loud as you can if it comes back.” He then started off into the darkness.
“March! Hey, don’t leave.” He choked as he rolled over despite the pain. He stopped yelling when he saw the albino wyvern’s pale lifeless bulk at the edge of the torchlight. Four arrows protruded from the thick, pinkish-white scaled body. The blood covered hilt of the sword March had pilfered protruded from the thing, as well. Below the sword hilt there was a gash big enough to crawl into, and a massive pool of black thickening blood. The creature would have been ten or twelve paces from head to tail if it was stretched out.
Relieved, Bren lay back, closed his eyes, and slowly slipped into blackness.
March could never in his life remember being as relieved as he was when he finally saw the daylight shining at the mouth of the cavern. By the look of the sun, it was still only early afternoon. What had seemed like a day long ordeal had actually lasted less than a turn of the glass. Thankful to still be alive, he grabbed the rope and his skinning knife, and began to gather up pieces of dried wood. The medallion hanging around his neck gleamed brightly in the sunlight. He was compelled to pause a moment to examine it.
It was palm-sized and disc-shaped, formed from a heavy metal that he had never seen before. Not gold or silver, but easily as shiny and as beautiful. It was finely worked with runes and symbols that he did not recognize. In the center, a thumb sized, teardrop shaped, diamond was mounted. Turning it over, he saw that both sides were identical and that the jewel sparkled with a million prismatic colors. The chain appeared to be made from the same metal as the medallion. When he tucked it into his shirt he found that it hung perfectly below his collar between his pectoral muscles. It felt as if it had been fitted for him. He decided that it would be his good luck charm since he’d worn it while defeating that slithery beast. It could be magical like the artifacts from the old world he had heard about. If not, it was surely worth its weight in gold. Enough to buy a small farm he figured. Silently he swore to never sell it, or give it away. He also vowed to try to find the meaning of the markings on its surface.
The scream of a distant predator bird pulled him from his musings. He still had to get his badly injured friend home. It wouldn’t take the wolves long to pick up the scent of all that blood, and Prominence was a long way away.
After gathering some wood he started back into the darkness of the cave. He could see the dim torch flame flickering ahead and he carefully continued in that direction. His arms were full, so it was hard to step over the lifeless lump of the dead creature, but he managed. He marveled at the size of it. It was easily three times as long as Bren. Maybe he would cut off the head and some claws. He could make himself a trophy, and make Bren a necklace with the teeth.
“Marcherion?” Bren called out weakly. “Is that you?”
“Who else would it be, you big giboon!” March laughed. “How are you feeling?”
“Like a tumbler at the fair.” Bren smiled broadly, but he gasped and turned a sickly pale color when he tried to sit up. Through clenched teeth he said, “My leg is pretty bad off, March!”
“We will get you home,” March reassured. “If I can get you back over the ridge to our camp before dark, I’ll have you back in your bed by tomorrow night.”
March talked on as he built a fire. “Getting back over the ridge is gonna be hard on you.” He looked at Bren seriously. “But if you can grit it out that far, we’ll be home free.”
“I don’t think I can stand,” Bren said with more than a little worry in his voice. He knew the way the wolves had tracked and attacked other groups of hunters when they hadn’t gotten their fresh kills into the lower valley fast enough. He also knew that he smelled like a fresh kill, and that the wolves would surely come for him. March was a great hunter, and a superb woodsman, but no match for even a small pack of hungry wolves.
“I wish I had something to make a splint with,” March muttered. Then he cursed himself for letting the medallion dazzle him from his wits while he was outside. He was about to start back through the cave when he noticed the sword’s scabbard lying on the cavern floor. An idea struck him then, and even though the cuts on his hands hurt badly, he went over to the white scaled wyvern’s side and struggled to pull the sword free. He screamed loudly as his hands slid roughly off of the hilt. The sword hadn’t budged and the cuts on his palms were reopened. He stood there grimacing, with his palms held to his chest, as fresh blood trickled down his arms and dripped from his elbows.
Bren positioned himself to where he could see March. He saw the blood soaked band around his friend’s head and watched him wince as he wiped his bloody hands on his pants. Bren started to worry. They wouldn’t stand a chance if they got stuck in the woods in the dark. With both of them lame and smelling like a feast, all sorts of hungry things would come sniffing. He felt little relief when March tried again and grinned proudly after finally pulling the sword free of the wyvern.
March searched the cavern for something to wipe the sword’s blade clean. His gaze finally landed on Bren, who was staring straight back at him with true fear in his eyes. March disregarded the look and walked over and pulled the dead man’s pack out from under Bren’s head. He opened it, and luckily, right there on top was a rolled up woolen cloak. It was exactly what he needed to save his friend. As he pulled it free, a fat leather pouch fell out of the roll. It chinked to the floor just beside Bren’s ear. Bren struggled to grab it while March went about rummaging through the rest of the backpack.
“March look!” Bren said excitedly. He rolled to his side and poured a pile of shiny gold coins onto the floor. “We're rich!”
March found a wine skin and was sniffing the spout to try to see if it held water or wine. It turned out to be some sort of liqueur. It probably had a fruity aroma at one time, but now it smelled of nothing but pure grain. He braved a small sip as he turned to see what Bren was carrying on about and nearly choked. Whether from the strength of the drink or from the sight of the pile of golden coins, he would never know. He forced himself to swallow and felt the burn of the liquid all the way down his throat and into his belly. He nearly choked again when he saw that Bren had only dumped out a small portion of the contents from the pouch. Bren was holding the heavy bag of coins in his hand and grinning ear to ear.
Without hesitation, and with the eagerness of a small child reveling under the Giver Man’s tree on full winter’s morn, March dropped down to his knees and began rummaging through the rest of the contents. To his disappointment only two items remained. Neither was as glamorous as the bag of coins.
“What’s left?” Bren asked excitedly.
“Only an old book and a scroll tube,” March said flatly. “It’s all for nothing if we can’t get you back home. The wolves don’t take bribes.”
He regretted saying it as soon as it came out of his mouth. It wasn’t right for him to scare Bren like that. It would be hard enough to get Bren over the ridge, even if his idea worked, and all the harder if either of them panicked.
After giving Bren the skin full of the liqueur, March laid out the cloak and began cutting it into strips. After that, he gently took off the blood soaked pieces of the shirt he had tied around Bren’s leg. The cut looked like a long black gooey line. March wished he had a way to stitch it up, but the nearest needle was back over the ridge with their other gear. He thought about leaving Bren here and making the trip alone, but thoughts of what could happen to his friend lying defenseless in the cave made up his mind for him.
“You pouring, or me?” March asked, pointing from the wine skin to the gash.
“I’ll pour it,” Bren sounded reluctant. “You have to hold my leg still so I don’t pull it all back open if I jump.”
“All right,” March couldn’t help but laugh. “But you’re such a giboon. I ought to just leave you here, take all this stuff and go buy myself a castle.”
Bren tried to laugh, but the anticipation of the pain to come kept him from it. March put one hand on Bren’s knee and the other on Bren’s hip. Then he nodded that he was ready. Bren took a big swig from the skin. Then, before he lost his resolve, he poured a generous amount of the liquid down his thigh just as he swallowed.
To March’s surprise Bren just looked at him stupidly. It seemed as though he wasn’t feeling any pain at all. Then, Bren’s face slowly flushed pink. It quickly graduated to a bright reddish color. Soon it looked as if Bren’s head would burst. Then the scream came.
It was long and loud, and it was followed by several quick sharp huffs that sent spittle flying from Bren’s mouth in every direction. He looked pleadingly at March and started to scream again, but mercifully his eyes rolled back into his head as his body succumbed to the pain.
March wasted no time. He first padded the wound with a folded piece of the cloak. He bound it once more with strips so that it wouldn’t pull open on its own. Then he bound it again with a second layer of strips. After putting the sword back in the scabbard, he laid it along Bren’s wounded leg. He made sure that the ball of the hilt was jutting just past the bottom of Bren’s boot heel. He was glad to see that the tip of the sheathed blade was above Bren’s hip, nearly at his armpit. He strapped the sword to Bren’s leg with more strips of the cloak and some lengths of rope. He tied a fancy knot around Bren’s foot and the hilt, so that the sword couldn’t come sliding out of its scabbard. Finally, he slipped the thick leather sword belt under his friend’s waist then buckled it tightly around Bren and the sword’s blade. He hoped that most of Bren’s weight would be on the tempered steel and not on his leg.
March took a moment to rest after his labors. He wanted desperately to be back over the ridge and in their camp before dark. He rounded up everything he could find, including the coins from the floor of the cavern. He put them all into the backpack. He strapped Bren’s bow and quiver around his shoulders, and took the time to remove three of the arrows from the body of the beast. Then he decided to take some proof of the kill. With his skinning knife, he cut the fore claw off of the creature, and after wrapping it in what was left of the cloak, he forced it into the pack. He shouldered the load, and after a quick look around to make sure that he had gotten everything, he went to wake Brendly.
It was a slow tedious climb. The sword splint was awkward, but it worked. Bren was more or less just stumbling from tree to tree. He clung to the lower branches and used his muscled arms to keep himself from falling all the way down.
March was carrying the packs and finding that keeping the bow ready was a chore all by itself. His ruined palms wouldn’t close around the grip correctly and even the slightest squeeze of his hands caused extreme pain. To make things worse, he could feel the icy burn of his skull where his scalp wasn’t covering the bone anymore. He would have just fallen down and cried if it weren’t for the heart wrenching determination Bren was showing by just keeping himself upright.
Ever so slowly they continued the journey upward, fighting their pain as they climbed. They stopped to drink from the wine skin and to eat some dried beef but found that it was a mistake. The short reprieve allowed their bodies to relax but caused their wounds to stiffen. Bren felt far worse than he had when they had started from the cave. March didn’t feel much better. The strong content of the skin, that the skeleton had so generously preserved for them, did very little to ease their suffering, but Bren found himself wanting more of it. March let him finish what was left before they started back up the mountain.
They climbed some more and eventually the ridge came into view. Bren used the sight of it to strengthen his resolve. He used all that he had left in himself to get there.
March wasn’t far behind, but blood loss had him feeling dizzy. He was sure that the sticky wetness that he was feeling running down his back was as much blood as it was sweat. A glance at the sun told him that they probably wouldn’t make it back to the camp by nightfall, but since they would be within the kingdom’s boundaries, and traveling downhill, he felt that their chances were good of getting there alive. That is, if he could keep from passing out. He was sure that Bren was having a harder time of it. It amazed him that Bren hadn’t done much more than grunt and wince on the way up. Bren had to be in incredible pain. March’s wounds were superficial in comparison.
“Well that was the hard part!” March managed to say between breaths as he gained Bren’s side at the top of the ridge.
Bren was holding desperately onto a branch to steady himself and he was gasping for air. He managed a grim smile.
March plopped down heavily onto a rock and began rummaging through his pack until he found his water skin. After taking a long drink, he handed it to Bren’s trembling hand. Bren finished it off then he playfully tossed it at March before he started down the mountainside.
“We're not stopping here,” Bren called out over his shoulder. “And you’d better hurry up and lead, because if it’s up to me, we are going straight down into the valley.”
March reluctantly got to his feet and started after his friend. He was completely amazed at the way Bren was handling the pain.
It was dark when March finally found the camp. He wouldn’t have found it, if not for the many tracking and hunting lessons he’d learned from his father and two older brothers over the years.
The stars weren’t very bright this night, but the moon would be up soon. He’d use its light to check Bren’s wounds.
Bren was in a bad way. Several times, on the last portion of the trek, he had stumbled into trees and shrubs. Once, when his tired arms wouldn’t hold him up any longer, he had fallen into a stiff-legged heap on the forest floor. He was stretched out now, under the shelter March had made for them the previous night. March made him drink the remainder of their water, and then helped him eat some dried beef before letting him pass out.
As soon as he got a fire started, March was going to range out in the darkness and find the pool of clean water where they had seen the stag. He had to be sure that the fire wouldn’t burn out while he was gone. If it did, every hungry creature in the forest would be after Bren like ants on a piece of sweet candy. All they would have to do to find him was follow the blood trail they had left throughout the day. The fire would also help March find his way back from the pool. The fire roared to life, and while stoking it to the size he needed it to be, March felt its warmth sink into his aching bones. He fought, but to no avail. Before he could leave, he too fell into a deep, much needed sleep.
March woke to the sound of Bren’s agonizing moans. Somewhere beyond the mountains, the sun was breaking the night, giving him just enough rosy light to see by. The morning sky was glorious and filled with color, where it could be seen peeking above the mountain tops. March couldn’t enjoy it though, because he knew they desperately needed water.
The air was thick with a sense of urgency. Bren was fever stricken. His tired body was now fighting infection. What Bren really needed was the care of an herb master. March was tempted to make a litter and drag his friend down the mountainside. He wondered if the time he spent going and getting some water would allow the infection to get into Bren’s blood. He’d seen that happen once when a copper miner who had been cut on the arm had stayed in the mine too long. The Herb Master had had to cut the arm off, but the miner eventually died anyway. All of Prominence Village had been forced to endure his screaming torment until he finally died.
The gravity of their situation weighed heavy on March. If he made the wrong decision it could cost Bren his leg, or worse. He was so concerned with Bren that he completely ignored the pain of his own wounds. He made the decision to make the litter and drag Bren to the stag’s pool with him. There he could wash the wounds, and boil water to clean the bandages.
Methodically he went about making a litter out of the oil cloth they had used for their shelter and some limbs he cut from nearby trees. He had made several litters in his life. It was the easiest way to get a big buck down the mountain. He and Bren had used them a few times when they were younger, before they were strong enough to spit a carcass and shoulder it down.
The sun was above the peaks by the time he was done making the travois-like device. He was weak and dehydrated, but he packed all their gear onto it with Bren and then gripped the two poles. His split hands were still bleeding and raw, but he started off anyway. Inside March there was nothing left except sheer determination and love for his friend.
It was midday and the sun was high and hot when they finally arrived at the pool. March spent a few moments picking the splinters and dried bark out of the gashes in his palms while cleansing them in the cool water. Then he focused all of his attention on Bren.
By nightfall, he was a little more confident in Bren’s chances. He had thoroughly cleansed away the dirt and grime from his friend’s wound. He had forced it to bleed and then opened the cut wide enough to cut away all the yellowing pussy sections that had formed there. He even stitched it in several places but he wasn’t sure if he had done it right. They still had a long hard journey ahead of them. March could only hope that he had done enough.
The wound was staying closed, but Bren still had fever. March hoped that his condition would change if they rested through the night. He had made a broth by placing the last of their dried beef in the pot and boiling in some gable roots he found. Bren woke just long enough to drink a good portion of it. He was pale and weak from loss of blood and couldn’t manage the strength to speak. He did manage to drink most of the aromatic liquid down. Then he was off again, back into a fitful slumber.
March figured that if he rested for a while he could get them down into the valley by the following afternoon. There he would break apart the litter and burn it before the sun went down. If a farmer or shepherd didn’t respond, he would run like the wind and return with a cart or a wagon. He was determined to have Bren in Prominence proper by dawn. It was a sound plan and it relieved him to have at least that much.
While Bren tossed and turned, March fingered the medallion he had found. He wasn’t certain, but at one point he thought that it might have been causing his palms to tingle. It wasn’t long before he too fell into slumber. He slept heavily and had vivid dreams that eluded him when the sound of a curious scavenger woke him in the predawn light. When he reached over to shake Bren awake his heart slid up into his throat. Bren had died in the night. His body was cool and stiff.
“By the Gods, NOOOOO!” he shouted at the still darkened sky. A cluster of startled birds exploded from a nearby tree and sent his heavy heart to hammering.
“There’s a way to save him,” a small steady voice said from behind him. “All you have to do is pledge your soul to the Confliction.”
March whirled around and saw the impossible. The white stag was standing there looking at him, its dark eyes plainly visible against its luminescent white fur. It wasn’t the stag who had spoken though. Sitting on the stag’s back was one of the fabled elvish. The fair skinned, silvery haired, creature seemed to be slightly unsettled by the fact that March was twice his size, but he met March’s gaze with his wild amber eyes.
March’s emotion surged. “You’ll save my friend if you can, or I will-- I’ll--”
“You’ll do naught other than pledge your soul to the fighting of the Confliction,” the little man said flatly. He was wearing a sort of cloth that looked to be made out of tiny rings of the same strange metal as the medallion. And, what March had first mistaken as fear had suddenly turned into snarling defiance. “You’ll swear to fight against the Confliction, or I’ll take that medallion. Then you can drag your friend’s corpse home to his mother.”
March was so stunned and confused, and welling with grief, that he couldn’t form a cohesive thought. For a long time, he was silent. Finally, he asked the elf the only question that would come. “You can save him?”
“You can save him,” the elf replied, “but only if you hurry.”
“Use the medallion to call your dragon. When it comes, it will know your heart and use its magic to restore the life of your companion.”
“There are no dragons around here,” March looked around. “If there was, why would a dragon do such a thing?”
“There are no elvish in this valley either I’d guess,” the elf shrugged. “Either way, you should get to calling your wyrm before it’s too late for him.” The elf nodded at Bren’s corpse.
“What’s this Confliction you speak?” March asked as he crawled to his feet and pulled the medallion out of his shirt.
He was feverish, and the world was swimming in and out of focus, but somehow he knew that this was no fever dream. He was about to pledge his life to something he didn’t understand so that his friend would be saved.
“It cannot be explained,” the elf sighed. “There will be more of you. There will be five dragoneers in all. Some are already trying to bond with their wyrms. But they are far from here, in another land that lies across the sea. It is a place that your people do not know of. You must call your dragon, and then go to them. Together the five of you will stand against the storm.”
The elf glanced up at the sky as if he were searching for something. The light of dawn was only a few breaths from breaking the horizon.
“Don’t let the sun rise and burn his soul away,” the elf nodded at Bren again. “Do this thing. Call your dragon. Go find the dragoneers and face the destiny you’ve chanced upon. It will be a great one, I think.”
The stag pawed the ground and snorted his agreement. It tilted it’s antlered head slightly and gave Bren a look that conveyed volumes. Inexplicably, March suddenly knew that he had to do this. There was no other choice. “How?”
“Take the Medallion in your hands. Yes, like that.” March cupped the silvery disc as if it were a precious egg.
“Kiss the tear stone,” the elf instructed. “Now pledge within your soul to fight the coming Confliction. Only then will your dragon come.”
“I don’t care about the dragon,” March mumbled. I’m doing this for Bren.
As soon as he kissed the tear shaped jewel, and told his heart that he would see this thing through, he felt a chilling tingle flutter through him. His skin prickled and his mind began to clear. He had made the right decision, and he knew it. His blood was turning into liquid fire and his breathing grew erratic.
“That is the Dour that makes you feel that way,” the elf grinned. He patted the stag on the shoulder and leaned toward its ear. “You were right my friend. This was the one.”
“What’s Dour?” March asked. Whatever it was, it felt fantastic in his veins, as if he were full of lightning.
“It will fade. That dragon’s tear is old, the amber Dour has been leaking from it for a century or more. See how clear it is? The dragon that let it fall died long, long ago.” The elf lightly heeled the stag into a turn and looked to be about to trot away.
“Wait,” March pleaded. “What about Bren? What about my family?”
The elf gave a nervous chuckle. “Your dragon is coming, and you were going to leave anyway. Just go.” The stag shivered and looked to be growing nervous. “I’ll not want to be bumbling around when your wyrm gets here. After you’ve gone, I’ll return and keep the scavengers from badgering your friend. I’ll make sure he gets where he needs to be.”
As the stag bounded away, March heard the elf chuckling.
March looked at Bren and dropped his head. He hoped he hadn’t been a fool. He hoped—
Suddenly, the trees swayed violently. A near silent blast of air wafted across the camp. Before a thought could form, another gust came, this one kicking up leaves and sending a dusty whirl of debris into the thicket. Then the dragon was there, directly behind March, looming it’s long neck up over the camp as it pulled in its leathery wings. The connection happened instantaneously. They bonded, and a single shared consciousness was born.
The dragon’s name was Balazerahdadicol and he was the rarest form of pure blooded High Dracus that existed. Since March’s human tongue couldn’t pronounce the name correctly the dragon spoke a single word into his mind. “Blaze.” Blaze was a pure blooded fire drake. March somehow knew this, and other things that he never imagined one could know. It was overwhelming.
March turned to take his bond-mate in with his eyes. He found that save for its neck and head, the dragon was nearly invisible in the pre dawn shadows. What he could see was nothing more than a sinuous crimson silhouette in the lightening sky. The dragon was not huge, nor was he small. Substantial was the word that March decided upon, probably twenty-five paces from tip to tail. Through the bond they shared, a wealth of knowledge was opening up and starting to flood into March’s eager mind. Had it not been, his instinct to flee would have already taken hold.
A pulse of magical energy rippled through the fabric of the world and March knew in his heart of hearts that Blaze had just filled Bren’s body with powerful healing Dour. Bren would wake soon and the elf would watch over him until he could make it down into the valley. March, however, knew that he had to go. The land he and Blaze were going to was far far away. It would take them a full season to fly there, most of the journey over the sea.
Blaze leaned down and created a step with his fore claw. March hurried to his bedroll, grabbed the pack, his bow, and a quiver of arrows. Then, after saying a silent goodbye to his friend, he climbed onto the wyrm. He left the sword and the gold for his friend. He wished he could stay and explain what he was doing, where he was going, but he wasn’t even sure about those things himself.
Blaze took an awkward lurching step. Then a few neck yanking, exhilarating wing strokes later, they were above the forest and flying.
The first of the dragoneers had bonded and the wheels of destiny had been set into motion. The saga of the dragoneers had begun.
Thus ends the prequel novella:
The First Dragoneer by M.R. Mathias
Also by M.R. Mathias
The Saga of the Dragoneers:
Book I - The Royal Dragoneers - Now Available
Book II - Cold Hearted Son of a Witch - Now Available
Book III - The Confliction - Now Available
Crimzon & Clover I - Orphaned Dragon, Lucky Girl
Crimzon & Clover II - The Tricky Wizard
Crimzon & Clover III - The Grog
Crimzon & Clover IV - The Wrath of Crimzon
Oathbreaker - A Faery Tale Short
King of Fools
And don't miss the huge International Bestselling epic:
**The Wardstone Trilogy**
Book One - The Sword and the Dragon
Book Two - Kings, Queens, Heroes, & Fools
Book Three - The Wizard & the Warlord