If you haven’t, yet,
“Stop the rapers of nature!” Thercis /thǝr’sĭs/ the hostler cried, waving his sign, which read “Dragons are God’s Creations” on one side and “Let the Dragon Live” on the other, high in the air. “Murderer! God will punish you for the sin of destroying his creations!”
An armor clad woman wearing a sword and carrying a circular shield on her back passed between the guards keeping the demonstrators back and, sparing them a glance filled with disgust, gestured rudely before entering the building.
Thercis ran the livery stable in Vessam and, ever since he’d joined the NSDL and their fight against the DESU, he’d flatly refused to give even the most spavined pony to an adventurer that approached him. Thercis wasn’t a founding member, but he agreed thoroughly with the people who were founders that dragons, a creation of God, deserved to live just as much as people did. The noise by the DESU office building was deafening. One merchant, a fruit and vegetable vendor, had brought a several crates of decomposing produce and the League were enthusiastically throwing them at the building. Already, two windows had been broken by flying vegetables.
A shrill whistle brought them all up short. A contingent of the city guard, with their captain, a scarred, Ar’kimian mercenary veteran by the name of Ale’asi Morkell, at the front, stood in the street nearby, quietly watching the spectacle.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Captain Morkell announced in carrying tones, “the king has asked me to deliver a message to you. He has asked me to say that he is aware of your concerns regarding the dragon and he wishes to give your ideas every chance of success. However, the dragon has, at this point, killed something in excess of a hundred people, burned three whole villages that we know of to the ground and driven hundreds more from their homes. More refugees arrive every day.
“This, therefore, is the king’s proposal. Choose your most convincing people and form a deputation to speak to the dragon, offer it anything you choose within reason if it will leave the people and their homes and villages in peace. If you succeed, the king has agreed to ask the DESU to leave the country. If, however, you are unable to reason with the dragon, the king will have no choice but to send the DESU’s finest warriors to exterminate the dragon, preventing it from doing any further damage. Am I understood, ladies and gentlemen?”
There was a lot of muttering. “It’s a trick!” someone yelled. “The DESU will kill us and blame the dragon.”
“I will send a dozen of my best men with your deputation,” Captain Morkell interjected, gesturing to the men behind him. “None of them are killers unless they’re given no other choice.”
“He speaks the truth,” Thercis cried, stepping from the crowd, his sign lowered. “Captain Morkell has been in charge of the Vessam city guard for eight years now and he’s never been bloodthirsty.”
More muttering chased through the crowd.
“Assuming you accept his majesty’s proposal, you’ll want to discuss which of your number will go to reason with the dragon. So, I and my men will escort you to a safer location.” With that, he turned to the group of guardsmen behind him. “Form up!” he bellowed. Instantly, the guards swung into action, surrounding the protesters with an ease that surprised Thercis. “Do you have a group headquarters?” Morkell asked.
“No, sir,” Ardyn the smith replied, stepping up next to Thercis. “Until now, we’ve only been gathering at each other’s homes and businesses.”
“Then may I suggest a location?” Morkell added, gesturing to his men. Within a few minutes, the entire group were standing outside one of the city’s warehouses. “This should do for the time being,” Morkell said, unlocking it. Inside, the building was dark and crates lined the walls here and there, but not so many that it wouldn’t comfortably fit them all. On a shelf to the left of the door were a selection of lanterns, some with candles and some with oil, all quite old, but still usable. Several members chose lanterns and lit them, placing them on various boxes near the doorway.
“This will do,” Ardyn said evenly, “I’d like to ask you and your men to wait outside.”
“Of course,” Captain Morkell replied with a slight bow of the head. Turning, he barked a number of orders to the men surrounding the protesters and they all lined up against the outside wall of the warehouse, two of them on either side of the door. “Your decision is eagerly awaited. Now, you must excuse me. I have other things I must attend to. Speak to Lt. Kanun when you’re ready to leave.” Captain Morkell gestured to a tall, burly man with red hair and gleaming green eyes, who stepped forward and, smilingly, bowed. “Lt. Kanun,” Morkell added, “you’re in charge. See to it that these people reach the dragon and return safely.”
“Yes, sir!” Kanun replied, saluting. Morkell saluted back and strode away, his back straight as a poker. If he’d been a horse, he’d have been one of the finest in the king’s stables, fit mostly for hunting and dressage. Thercis had a few horses like that which were mostly used for drawing carriages for the wealthy or noble. The big hostler wrested his mind away from such thoughts. More important things must be considered, now.
“The first thing we need to decide,” said Dag, one of the city’s six barkeeps, “is who’s going to lead this expedition. Which of us is the best salesman?”
“My money’s on Ardyn the smith,” someone else said. “He can get you to re-shoe your horses when you only came in to have your wagon-tongue fixed.”
“I’ll agree to that,” said Thercis, grinning to himself. “Why, I went to see him the other day to have my Arody shod and by the time the job was done, Ardyn had me convinced that about half the rest of my stables needed new shoes as well.” The group laughed, but several others called their agreements. So, Ardyn the smith climbed onto a stack of crates, faced the crowd and gestured for silence. It took a while but, eventually, the warehouse was quiet.
“All right,” said Ardyn, smiling, “but if I lead, I’ll be wanting Thercis the hostler to join the team as well.” Again there was laughter and loud agreement. Thercis stepped forward to join Ardyn.
Soon, two more good men had either stepped forward or been volunteered: Rhol the tailor and Yburo the silversmith. Then Aomi /ă·ō‘mĭ/, the baker’s wife stepped forward.
“I’ll go,” she declared, her chin thrust out defiantly.
“Aomi, you can’t…” her husband stammered out.
“Hush, Stel,” Aomi interrupted, stepping onto a crate. “We can’t have only men speaking to this dragon. If we do that, the rest of the town will think we’re afraid of it. There needs to be women in this group and I want to be one of them. There’s not a loaf of bread, nor a slice of cake that’s bought in Stel’s bakery that doesn’t pass my inspection, first, and there’s not a man among you that doesn’t know it.”
A good deal of muttering and nervous laughter followed that, but Ardyn gestured for silence again. “She’s right, lads,” he called loud enough that the voices that hadn’t quieted at his gesture also dropped away. “As well, if we bring our women, the dragon will know our intentions are peaceful.”
The meeting didn’t take much longer after that. In the end, ten people were chosen or volunteered and four of them were women. Ardyn suggested that they agree to leave that afternoon. Thercis even volunteered twenty-two of his best and gentlest mounts for the job, which was something he wouldn’t ordinarily have done. It wasn’t long before they had everything they felt they would need, including a heifer donated by Vessam’s butcher.
“All right, gentlemen,” Ardyn said to the group of waiting guards, “lead us to the dragon.”
At first, the expedition was sort of like a festival or a party. The first two week’s travel mostly involved riding along, laughing and discussing what they would say to the dragon when they reached it. However, in the middle of the fifteenth day out, the terrain changed drastically. This was no gradual change, as one might expect when ascending a mountain. It was as though someone had drawn a line and then burned almost everything on one side of the line. The effect on the NSDL deputation was equally instantaneous. The party atmosphere was dispelled in that single moment.
“I’m not sure this was such a good idea,” moaned Nicera, Thercis’ daughter and the youngest member of the group. She hugged herself as they passed the burnt out wreckage of a ruined village, as if she was cold.
“Don’t forget, Nicera,” Aomi replied grimly, “The only reason this is happening is because the dragon believes we humans mean to harm it. We must convince it otherwise.”
“How much further is it going to be?” Ardyn asked Lt. Kanun as they rode along, gazing concernedly at the wrecked village.
“Another week or so, give or take,” Kanun replied, his eyebrows low on his forehead.
“Is it all like this?” Thercis asked, aghast at the number of blackened skeletons he could see in the streets of the passing town.
Kanun simply nodded. Suddenly, Thercis, too, was having his doubts about the likelihood their mission would succeed. No! He wrenched his eyes away from the smoking buildings. Aomi was right. This would stop when the dragon understood that they wanted to coexist with it in peace. He found himself praying fervently that the dragon was intelligent.
The rest of the trip was quiet. All along the way, there were more burned buildings and skeletons, most of them human. There was very little greenery to be seen anywhere they went and less the longer they rode. The further they went, the more they had to remind themselves of why they were going. Only a few of them, most notably Ardyn and Aomi, still remained confident of their mission’s success. The mountainside was the worst of it. Not a hint of greenery or even of snow was anywhere to be seen. Instead, the ground, from the foothills where they had to leave the horses picketed clear to the cave where they were told the dragon lived, was covered with ash and scorch marks.
“Wait!” Kanun whispered, when they were about fifteen yards from the cave. “Let me check and see if it’s in there. If it’s not, we’ll have to find somewhere sa–… uh… somewhere to set up camp and wait.” Privately, Thercis agreed with Lt. Kanun’s intended statement: somewhere safe. Still, he wondered if anywhere could be considered safe in this place. Lt. Kanun carefully removed his armor, then crept toward the cave’s mouth as silently as he could. Thercis was surprised, however, when, ten feet from the entrance, Kanun made a face and hurried back.
“You didn’t even look,” Thercis objected.
“Don’t need to,” Kanun replied, donning his armor again. “Take a deep breath.”
They all did. Thercis smelled something that reminded him of spoiled eggs.
“That’s sulfur you’re smelling,” the lieutenant informed them. “It’s part of what helps the dragon breathe fire. Form up, men.” At his words, the rest of the company of guards moved into position around the delegation.
“Now, just a minute,” Ardyn objected. “This is exactly the kind of thing that will upset the dragon. Gentlemen, I think we can take it from here.”
“I’m afraid not, sir,” said Kanun stiffly. “My orders are clear. Make sure the group of you get here and return safely. If the dragon isn’t disposed to listen to your arguments…”
“We’re not bothered by that,” Aomi interrupted, leading the frightened heifer forward. “Now, be good lads and wait here.”
“Very well,” Kanun replied, “the rest can wait, but I’ll come along, whether you want me or not. It’s my neck if something happens to you. I hope you don’t blame me for wanting to protect it.”
“No, I guess not,” Ardyn chuckled, shaking his head. Turning to the rest of the delegation, he added, “Well, my friends. This is what we came for. Marshal your arguments and let’s go.”
Thercis’ mouth was dry as he walked forward with the rest of the group, many of whom were muttering a last quick prayer. Lt. Kanun, for his part, led the shaking heifer, his knuckles white on the rope that held her.
When they passed the mouth of the cave, it would have been safe to say that none of them were prepared for the size of the dragon. It was easily as tall as Vessam’s community church, which, apart from the king’s palace, was one of the city’s largest buildings. Thercis didn’t realize he’d stopped for a second when he saw it until someone pushed him a little from behind.
“Great dragon,” Ardyn began, when all of them were in the cave and the heifer had been led to the front. “We represent the free peoples of the kingdom of Ibany. We’ve come to you in peace to negotiate for the safety of our people.”
The dragon, which had been doing something to its rear, lifted its scaly, emerald head and regarded the tiny creatures that had invaded its home with narrow, copper eyes.