Arvad and the Red Dragon
Two weeks later Aranen, Ezra, Seth, five soldiers who volunteered, a woodcutter, and several other members of the royal family – Macken, Elban, Sephen, and Banden, were traipsing through what could be considered the most foul smelling bog in Arvad. The Arvadians had been unaware of the bog, but the search for the dragon had taken them far beyond any charted land and into some truly dangerous country.
Aranen had spooked up a small mountain dragon and her brood when looking for firewood a few days before. They were able to put down the fierce assault before nightfall but Macken had sustained a severe cut on his leg and the hunting party had been forced to sit and wait for two days while he regained his strength. During that time they were able to bring down a large deer, cure the meat and pack it away on their three mules before they set off. The bones were left out in the sun to dry and be picked clean by animals.
Aranen spent most of his time scouting ahead and along side of the hunting party. He never strayed far, and he was always on hand to help them when they needed. His prowess and agility made him capable of mounting obstacles with little of the same effort it took the Arvadians.
One day, Elban had had enough of slogging through the muck and pulling out horses. He put most of his gear on one of the pack animals so he could follow Aranen. Aranen warned him about leaving his gear behind, but Elban did not listen. He only took his sword, bow and canteen. Before he ran off, his father, Macken, had warned him a second time, but Elban was not the sort to take instruction and ignored their sage council.
Elban had spent their weeks together with a dour attitude and a distinct mistrust toward Aranen. He had mentioned to his father and Ezra something about an elfin spy; Aranen was not supposed to hear, but an elf has sharper ears than one would expect and this development concerned him mightily. Aranen would not have sent a spy into Arvad, the elves’ closest ally, and neither would his wife or any of their officers. Their trust in Arvadian loyalty was reciprocated in kind and Elban was either out of his mind or something was being played behind Aranen’s back.
But Elban never said a word to the elf king. Naturally, being a man of royal blood, he was too well bred to denounce the elves out loud, but traipsing through mire day after day has a tendency to render good breeding and high birth null. His manners were slowly slipping and Aranen knew if Elban came with him, he would be quick to lay out his contention.
“I do not trust you elves like my father, Ezra, and his uncle seem to,” Elban announced when they had traveled some half mile ahead of the party. “You are mysterious and such mystery is unwarranted among allies.” Elban was a year or two younger than Ezra, but he was already married and his wife waited with Mellolye and the other men’s wives.
Aranen noted the man’s heavy breathing and stopped at a large fallen tree to sit, somewhere the smell of the swamp would not be so bad. Elban followed him, placing his feet carefully where Aranen had. They had found out early on that footing was treacherous at best, especially for the horses and the injured Macken. Aranen surveyed the land from this carefully chosen vantage point, seeing beyond the bog. A half a day’s march ahead were the soaring mountains which undoubtedly fed this bog, and Ebwin’s Sunrise Creek. “You are bold for saying so, but then youth often begets recklessness.”
“No recklessness, just honesty,” Elban insisted. “I hear you elves treasure the sacred practice.”
“Some more than others certainly, but if you believed what you hear, you would trust me,” Aranen pointed out, leaving Elban confused but unremorseful. “I cannot prove my worth to you, for you have already made up your mind about elves. Anything I do will be questioned in your mind. So, there you have it, we are not compatible.”
Elban began to see how unequipped he was to cross verbal blades with this elf, a king. But Aranen didn’t act like any king Elban had ever known and he was thoroughly suspicious. Kings didn’t tramp off into swamps and risk their lives for other kings in other countries. It just wasn’t done. And allies don’t send spies to stir up trouble.
“Come, Elban,” Aranen called when he had made about a hundred feet and the loose tongued youth had not stirred, “compatible or not, we are still tasked to search into the mountains today.”
“But we will be a half a day in this swamp? How will we search the mountains?” Eblan asked and jumped to his feet, hopping along dry ground and downed shrubbery.
“We will not be a half a day in the swamp,” Aranen stopped for just a moment to let Elban catch up, an act Elban clearly resented. “They will be a half a day in the swamp and we will be ahead of them, making sure they don’t walk into any unseen traps.”
“Traps? Like dragons?”
“Among other things,” Aranen chuckled cryptically.
The land around the hunters was really a beautiful sight when one could get a vantage point. The bog was cradled in the arms of mountains which stretched for miles around. In any direction one cared to look, all he could see was mountains. Set low in the valleys, the bog was spotted here and there with hills which rose out of the mire and stood like islands in the sea. But one could only see them because they were bare by comparison to the thick, lush vegetation which thrived in the marsh. When Ezra’s company came out of the bog they were faced with a valley above them, a row of hills on one side of it and the steep, rocky mountains on the other. A more proper setting for a dragon one would be hard pressed to find. Herds of deer and wild cattle roamed in the more lush areas and caves pocked the rockier sections. Thick grass in the valleys made for lovely beds and fresh water bubbled out of mountain springs.
Ezra camped at the edge of the bog, on as high a hill as they could find without straying too far from the agreed upon path he had laid with Aranen the night before. His men were tired, foul smelling and very happy to be past this leg of the journey. Ezra stared at the men around their small fire and remembered what he could about them. Somehow he felt closer with them than ever, even those who were not his family.
Ezra’s brother, Seth, was a much wiser man after two weeks on this journey. He had spent most of his time pushing horses out of bad spots and the rest sparring with Aranen. Ezra chided him about this foolish endeavor, but Seth pursued the goal of striking at least one hit on Aranen doggedly.
Banden was the brother of Ezra’s grandfather’s sister’s husband, but for this hunt, they were as close as brothers, though Banden was easily sixty years old. Macken was Banden’s nephew and Elban’s father, but the authority of family hierarchy was ignored; the only law adhered to for the hunt were the words of Ezra and Aranen. The closeness of relationship to Ezra was inconsequential and pointless in a land where only strong men survived, and by the skin of their teeth.
The camp was recessed in a grove of trees, half of which were dead, the other half were flourishing. The dead trees had dropped enough branches to build them a modest fire, which Ezra soon commanded be put out.
“Our clothing isn’t even dry,” Seth protested.
“Silence. Out,” Ezra growled in a voice he rarely used. It wasn’t the sort of voice one uses to pick a fight with a brother and even Seth could not contest the king’s word.
The soldiers quickly shuffled dirt on the fire and froze in wait for Ezra’s word. The word never came, but the smell did. It was the smell of a dragon.
Across the valley, Elban shivered from his perch on a rock. He was chilled by the night wind on the mountain which had not been felt in the sweltering bog. Aranen, comfortable in his coat and dry trousers, did not try to console the youth. Hard as it might be to watch, he knew Elban would not freeze to death and he would be much more cautious later in life. Leaving one’s pack behind when one is on a journey is unwise even in lands one knows well, much less in eastern Arvad and beyond.
Elban had managed to doze off while Aranen took the first watch when Aranen’s nose twitched, almost without encouragement. The wind had shifted in their direction ever so slightly and all of a sudden Aranen could smell the unforgettable scent of a dragon. He still could not hear the beast, but fortunately, it meant the beast could not hear him either. Whether or not it was the Red Dragon, he could not say but it was concerned to be camped so close to the creature. Then, as if floating on wings, Aranen smelled smoke as well and he knew Ezra’s party was close. Too close, and just on the other side of the monster if Aranen’s guess, or rather fear, was accurate.
Aranen awoke Elban with a firm grasp over his mouth and a silent warning to not speak. Even foolish Elban interpreted this clearly and lay perfectly still until Aranen told him otherwise. If elves were anything, in his mind, they were silent and knew the art of battle.
All at once, even Elban could hear the beast moving and in horror, they realized it was right below them on the mountainside, and was creeping steadily along. The thing about a creeping sea dragon is, though they are silent in their movements, they are so large the world around them betrays their motion. Their skin scrapes against the rock, filling the air with a grating sound as if two boulders abrade one another. Their feet muffle the sound of snapping twigs, just by virtue of their size, but logs crunch and groan under their weight. The air changes course around them, the entire world bends and groans under their weight and their silhouettes block out the sky.
To fight a mountain dragon, arrows and ropes are your friend. You must first capture his wings, and bring him down to earth if you want to keep him. Then a man brave enough to face death in the eye and not blink must walk up to the beast and cut it’s soft throat.
But a sea dragon is not so easy to kill, easy being a relative term. Their wings are stronger and not quite so fragile as a mountain dragon. Though their armored sides are not as rocklike, they are stout and only a well aimed blow can breach their thick skin.
Aranen ducked low and Elban followed his example. They looked up at the sky with their breath held and as they were about to relax, the sky became black above them. Aranen made out the shape of a wing against the blanket of stars. Elban closed his eyes in terror and Aranen rose up to his haunches which caused Elban to panic and almost cry out. Aranen silenced him with a firm hand over his mouth, then slipped off into the rocks. He knew the dragon was sidelong to them by the shape of the wing, and it would not see or hear an elf sneaking along its flank.
He had chosen his footing before the sun went down and his memory of the place served to guide him, until the dragon’s back foot crashed down just a few yards away, grinding boulder to rock and rock to dust. The long, finned tail swung over Aranen’s head and he ducked low, watching. He could see by the coiling wings and flicking tail that the red dragon was about to leap and Aranen could well guess what his target was. He had only seconds, and likely as not he would be unable to stop the jump, only ride with it to its destination.
The dragon tensed and sprang while Elban shouted meaningless noises at it. Aranen jumped, catching the tail with both hands and the dragon leaped sideways like a frightened cat. It roared with surprise and Aranen found himself flung back into the rocks he had just left.
Stealth forgotten, Elban rushed down the mountain, cautious of his own neck and nothing else. The dragon heard him and bellowed a small spurt of fire in his direction. Elban leapt from the rock he was on and landed about fifteen feet further down the mountain beside the still dazed Aranen. Perhaps the elf was dead, but Elban wasn’t in the mood for grieving, or finding out for that matter. He snatched up Aranen’s sword, knowing it was sharper and more clever than his own. He then charged the rest of the way down the mountain toward the dragon.
Banden’s voice echoed through the valley and startled the dragon. The old man was running down the hillside opposite Elban’s mountain and distracting the dragon.
Hissing and lashing its tail, the dragon glanced from one to the other and lowered its head with its mouth open. The stars were just bright enough where Elban could see the monster’s outline and its movements. He hoped the darkness would hide him as he ran full tilt toward the red monster.
Suddenly, the beast spewed fire and lit the grassy hill above Banden ablaze. Banden ducked and rolled the rest of the way down the hill, and Elban knew instinctively his father and the rest of the men in the hunting party were trapped uphill of the fire in the trees.
Banden also saw this and knew it was his, and his grandnephew’s, duty to stop the monster themselves if they were ever to save their brethren. With no clear plan in mind, Banden rushed at the beast with his sword drawn and fire in his eyes. The dragon’s choice of who to attack first was suddenly made up for him and Banden took all of his attention.
Elban hoped fervently for Banden’s safety and watched horrified as he stumbled over each new obstacle in his path. Banden was being a fool, dodging and weaving between the dragon’s legs only to duck at each swing. It was a sort of horrific dancing game where the gamble was life and the penalty was death. Remarkably, the older man was agile in his age and he somehow could see the monster more clearly than it could see him.
As Elban closed in with the intent to cut the dragon’s heart out, but no real diagram as to how to accomplish this most impressive goal, he arrived to see, in the firelight, Banden be thrown to the ground and the red dragon’s left foreleg pin him there. Struck dumb, Elban watched the scene unfold and found his feet still carrying him forward in the eerie light. The dragon continued to hiss and lowered it’s head toward Banden. Everything about the dragon’s movement reminded Elban of a barn cat playing with a mouse, and he found the image an unpleasant comparison.
As the dragon was lowering his mouth to make a cinder of this troublesome toy, he had completely forgotten Elban, who promptly jumped inside his mouth. Being a dragon, the beast didn’t try to spit out the surprise morsel, not to say he wasn’t surprised.
Inside the dragon’s mouth was dry and Elban forced his revulsion into memory and focused as well as he could. He kept his arms and legs inside the dragon’s teeth and braced his feet against the lower jaw. He rose to his knees when the beast’s mouth snapped shut and began to work with Aranen’s sword on the monster’s mouth.
The dragon opened it’s mouth and tried to spit the boy out, but Elban climbed deeper into his mouth and continued his bloody work. Choking and gasping the dragon flung his head back and forth, but Elban was now lodged in his throat and putting an end to the beast from the inside out.
Ezra crouched with his men in the thicket of trees and two soldiers tried to calm the mules. He could vaguely see the outline of the dragon lurking in the valley, but the terrifying part was that the dragon was taller than they were on their hilltop. Suddenly, the beast leaped and Ezra knew it had made their position. But just the same, it went off course and the king could hear wild shouting behind it.
Ezra was about to order his men to slip down the side of the hill while they still had a reprieve when the dragon roared and a ball of fire exploded from the monster crashing into the mountain across from them. It illuminated a young figure leaping from his perch on a boulder and Banden instantly ran down the hillside to shout at the dragon.
It worked; the dragon was distracted by Banden and Banden was toying with it. However, he was in a hopeless place. Ezra wanted to order his men to rush to the old man’s aid, but he was cut short in his command when the grass below their campsite exploded in flames and their attack was cut off with a single motion from the monster. Letting the mules go where they willed, the men quickly realized the futility of their position and scampered down the other side of the hill in hopes of saving their skins and getting behind the dragon.
But when Ezra’s company circled back around the dragon, they found it lying still on the ground. They froze for a long time, waiting for it to move, and when it didn’t, they crept forward, walking the length of the beast and passing each claw in the light of the igniting trees of their former campsite.
As they reached the dragon’s head, they were met with the awful reality of the fight. Banden lay on the grass, dead. Elban was nowhere to be seen and Aranen was stumbling out of the darkness, dazed and for once, unsteady on his feet. But he still came at a run straight toward the dragon’s head.
“Give me your sword!” he yelled, though the pain in his head clearly made it difficult.
Stunned, Ezra handed his sword over and stood behind Aranen in puzzlement. Macken bellowed at the remaining men to find Elban.
“No,” Aranen shook his head and thrust Ezra’s blade into the dragon’s neck with great trouble.
“And so?” Bennett asked of the tattered party gathered in the farmer’s living room. Wives, children and siblings of the returning party gathered with them and sat rapt in the story.
“And so,” Ezra continued, after having paused for a long moment, “we dragged Elban out of the dragon’s throat and woke him up.” Jesse sat rapt on his father’s lap and listened to every word.
Elban had been severely burned, for the dragon had managed one last blast of fire in his dying breath and though it was small, even for a sea dragon, it scorched Elban’s arms and the back of his head. His hair had begun to grow back but his arms were still raw and peeling.
Aranen spoke to Banden’s widow. “We buried your husband between the front legs of the dragon. The monster will guard his grave to the end of time.” The woman nodded gratefully.
It was very late and Mellolye, carrying Quen, asked every one to go to bed. They would have plenty of time to recount their tales later and as of now, they were so exhausted they could hardly stand.
The next morning, Aranen went out to the barn to get a look at his horse. It was a well favored creature and he had been cared for properly in his master’s absence, but Aranen still took time to groom him and give his hooves a good trim. As he was finishing this last task, Elban came into the barn to retrieve a jug of milk from the milking shelf.
Aranen, quick and quiet as a cat, came up behind him and spoke. “Elban.”
The young man started violently and dropped the jug, an act Aranen had been expecting and he promptly caught the discarded vessel.
“You’re a sly one,” Elban sighed as he retrieved the milk.
“Yes, and one with sharp ears.” Aranen blocked the man’s exit and Elban braced himself for battle, be it verbal or physical.
“I do not understand.”
“No, I don’t suppose you would,” Aranen said thoughtfully and leaned against the barn wall, still blocking Elban’s retreat. “You told Macken and Ezra something which concerns me and I intend to find out about this event.”
Elban was still confused but refrained from saying so. His mind was already preoccupied with what the elf was going to do to him, not what he wanted to know.
“You said something about an elfin spy in Arvad and I want to know about it.”
Elban was somewhat relieved and relaxed considerably. “You do have sharp ears, I thought you were asleep,” he sighed. “Very well, about three months ago I met an elf in my father’s fields when I was repairing a broken fence. He badgered me for some hour before he went his way. He wanted to know the state of people’s minds in Arvad, how well the crops were doing and what Arvadians thought of the elves and their enemy, Niren.”
“What did this elf look like?” Aranen quizzed.
Aranen renewed his threatening stance, unwilling to be stymied by this youth. “I am related to every elf on this continent and I intend to find out who this elf is, because I did not send him and neither did my wife. We do not spy on Arvad and we do not intend to be accused of something when we are not guilty.”
Elban’s eyebrows shot upward and he asked, “You really didn’t send an elf to us?”
Elban sighed and nodded in submission to his better judgment of Aranen’s character. “He was dark skinned and had eyes blacker than coal. His hair was dark as well, but he wore a hat.”
Aranen recoiled in alarm. “What’s this? There is no such elf I know. Did he speak strangely?”
Elban’s eyes lit up, “Yes, yes he did. He spoke like a westerner.” Aranen turned and Elban followed him to the opposite end of the barn. “What does it all mean?” Elban asked.
“I don’t know, but I guarantee one thing, Niren is somehow connected to this dragon business. No sea dragon has any right to be on land for so long unless it is being manipulated.”
“I have heard your enemy has this capability.”
“He does, and he has discerned your country as a threat to himself, or at least as an ally to the elves. You will not know peace if he has his word.”