If you haven’t, yet,
Zanne /zān/ Coldstorm paced the length of her office for perhaps the fiftieth time that day, her ebony hair flaring out behind her like a veil every time she turned around. The white lock at her right temple made the silken mass look like a storm cloud. This more or less matched Zanne’s mood, which had been getting increasingly sour with each passing day. Her husband, Saytur /sā‘tǝr/ Wildwalker, watched her from his quiet corner by the window, stroking the breast of his hawk companion, Kothra. He’d been sending her out with increasing frequency, at Zanne’s request, to check the road down which the NSDL deputation had departed nearly a month and a half ago. A breeze from the half-open window tousled his own shoulder-length fox-brown hair and tugged at his full beard.
At twenty-five years of age, Zanne Coldstorm was both an accomplished wizard and the director of Ibany’s chapter of the DESU. She’d initially been thrilled to be chosen for this task. Nine years’ work as an adventuress was finally paying off, she’d said. Saytur, an equally accomplished ranger and barely a year older, had been less comfortable with the whole thing, but then again, he was more at home in wild places, where the birds and other wild things sang the lullaby that put him to sleep at night. They’d been married about six years ago, although, personality-wise, they were about as different as night and day. Still, they made a good team and their personalities melded in all the ways that mattered. Sure, it made for a slightly rocky relationship, but they always found a way to make things work.
“They could be delayed,” Saytur suggested softly.
“I’m aware of that,” Zanne replied coldly, continuing to pace. “I took this position on the understanding that I would be breaking new territory for the DESU; a dragon in a country that hadn’t seen one in a hundred years. Then, instead of gaining new contacts for the organization and hopefully making a good impression for ourselves, what happens? The entire capital city decides to demonstrate against us.”
“Not the entire city,” corrected Saytur, gazing fondly at his tiny wife.
Zanne stopped pacing at this and glared angrily at Saytur, her deep, blue eyes glittering with suppressed rage; the calm before the storm. Saytur merely gazed back, putting all his love for this beautiful woman into his eyes as he opened his arms in invitation to her. Her gaze softened, the storm dissipating as if it had never threatened.
“I’m sorry I let myself get like that,” Zanne sighed, relaxing into her husband’s embrace. “I just feel so…”
“Trapped?” offered Saytur sagely.
“Yes!” agreed his wife, resting her head on the ranger’s leather-covered chest. “That’s it exactly. I want to be out there, directing younger knights and other adventurers; taking on the dragon and bringing back its head, covered in glory. I can’t believe that we’ve been so easily set aside for a bunch of townies. What’s more, if they succeed in talking the dragon into leaving the people alone, we may never get a chance, because they’ll ask us to leave the country.”
“I don’t think that’s likely,” replied Saytur, stroking his wife’s dark hair. She laughed at this. “Better?” he asked, holding her at arms length so he could gaze down into the deep blue depths of her eyes.
Zanne nodded. “Why don’t you send Kothra out one more time before we close up tonight?”
“All right,” Saytur responded, kissing the top of Zanne’s head fondly.
Saytur stepped out of the little office and shut the door behind him. He gazed uncomfortably at the larger room beyond, which Zanne had initially assured him would soon be full of adventurous men and women looking for good work at a reasonable rate. Even after nine years of fighting monsters and brigands, rooms such as this still made the ranger feel ill at ease. He’d been raised in a forest, with the green canopy of leaves overhead for a roof and the hard compacted earth beneath his feet for a floor. Zanne, on the other hand, was the daughter of some unknown lord. She’d defied her father’s order that she marry royalty and bring her family with her to court and chosen to study magic instead. This headstrong desire to do her own thing was among the many reasons why Saytur loved her, as well as one of the many reasons they tended to argue.
The big ranger sighed relief with the prospect of leaving the building again that day. Zanne had come to rely on the red-tailed hawk‘s ability to scout ahead and it was for this reason that she asked him to send her out. So, placing his gloved left hand by his right shoulder, Kothra’s favorite perch, the ranger pulled the building’s door open. Framed in the doorway, to Saytur’s great surprise, stood six people, outlined in gold by the setting sun. The first, Saytur already knew, was the captain of the Vessam city guard, a veteran Ar’kimian mercenary by the name of Ale’asi Morkell. The rest, however, were surely what Zanne liked to call “townies,” all of whom looked upset.
“I beg your pardon,” Captain Morkell began, bowing his head, “Is it too late to see the director?”
“No,” Saytur replied. Lowering his glove so that Kothra could return to his shoulder, the big ranger stepped out of the doorway so that the visitors could enter the building. “What do you need?”
“We must see the director at once,” Captain Morkell explained. “The negotiations have failed.”
Saytur’s eyes went wide at this. Abruptly, the ranger recognized the strange townsfolk that had accompanied Morkell. They were no less than half of the party of NSDL members that had Zanne so upset. Without another word, the big ranger turned to stride back to his wife’s office.
Zanne looked surprised when the door opened again. “Forget something?” she asked with a smile. Saytur came quickly into the office and shut the door behind him.
“They’re back,” he told her.
Zanne’s eyes widened then narrowed. “Bring them in,” she ordered.
Not more than a few minutes later, all six visitors were crowded into the little office and Saytur was back in his usual corner by the window, doing his best to project an aura of confidence and strength at the same time. Zanne, however, was unusually calm, even going so far as to stroke the head of the lightning lizard wound around the polished head of her magic staff.
“What seems to be the trouble?” she asked, studying the black stripes that lined the otherwise vividly blue lizard from its nose to the base of its tail.
“Mistress,” one of them, the hostler, began, stepping forward. “We’ve failed to negotiate with the dragon. We’ve come to ask your help in rescuing our fellows, or at least discovering if they’re alive or not.”
“Why should I do that?” Zanne asked scornfully, sparing them a bored look. “After all, wasn’t it your organization that said the dragon has rights? As such, if I rescue its captives, I would have to violate those rights. I’m not sure I can do that.”
“But you must!” pled the hostler, desperate tears coming to his eyes. “My daughter is among them.” Then all five dragon-lovers began to babble at the same time. Morkell, for his part, stood at parade rest by the door, the ghost of a smile playing across his swarthy face. Zanne’s eyes rolled up toward the ceiling and she turned to favor Saytur with a pleading look.
“Call,” he whispered to Kothra, who let out an ear-piercing shriek that had the little room quiet in a second.
“I can’t authorize any action against the dragon,” Zanne insisted disdainfully. “For me to rescue your fellows, I would have to have the dragon slain. Isn’t that against your beliefs?”
“We wouldn’t ask you to kill it if we could avoid it!” the group’s sole woman, probably the baker’s wife, snapped irritably. “We’ve seen the dragon up close. For myself, though I agree that it’s frightening, I think it was really beautiful, like gazing at a work of art in one of the public galleries. If there was a way to rescue our friends and keep the kingdom safe without killing it, I’d take it without hesitation.” She thrust her chin out as though daring Zanne to call her a liar.
As Saytur watched, Zanne’s expression softened. “What happened?” she asked, her face now assuming a look of grim concentration.
The hostler stepped forward. “I’m Thercis, mistress.”
“I’m no one’s mistress,” smiled the wizard. “Please, call me Zanne.”
“As you wish, Mistress Zanne,” Thercis replied uncomfortably. “When we reached the dragon’s cave, we were all surprised at how little greenery was there. Still, Ardyn was sure that we could convince the dragon to leave the people alone, at least. He told the guards to stay behind, but that one Captain Morkell put in charge…”
“Lt. Kanun,” Morkell supplied.
“Yes! Him,” Thercis nodded, plunging onward. “Anyway, he wouldn’t stay behind, so Ardyn let him lead the heifer we brought along. We went into the cave where the dragon was and Ardyn started in with the speech he’d been working on. Right in the middle of it, well…”
“The dragon attacked you,” guessed Zanne coolly.
“It made as if to bite Ardyn,” Thercis agreed, “Lt. Kanun shoved him out of the way and everyone ran.” At this he looked over his shoulder at Capt. Morkell. “I’m so sorry, Captain. The lieutenant gave his life to save us.”
Morkell nodded dourly, “No more than was expected of him.”
“Well, when we came to ourselves,” the hostler continued, “we realized that fully half of our number hadn’t made it out of the cave. So we tried to come up with a plan how to get ’em out again. We waited ’til nightfall. I confess, I was hoping the dragon’d be asleep or that it’d leave and make it easier for us. We were able to find the place where the others were hiding, but we lost two more guards in the process and we barely escaped with our lives. We realized then that we probably didn’t understand the dragon as well as we’d thought and that we should probably come back as quick as we could and beg your forgiveness and that you’d save our kin for us, if it was in your power.” When Thercis finished, his face was so red, he might have just confessed a grievous sin.
Zanne tapped a finger contemplatively against her pursed lips. “I think we may have just come to an understanding,” she commented finally, with a distinct nod of her head. “We wouldn’t kill the dragon, if it would only leave the people alone. As it won’t, we must deal with it.”
The little group of townsfolk each nodded.
“What we need, then, is a way to slay the dragon without allowing it to suffer,” the mage continued, “If I remember correctly, the only known way to kill a dragon is to cut off its head or drive an arrow or two through its brain.” Zanne got up and began to pace again, thoughtfully this time. “I’ve heard of plants that can slay animals humanely. They simply die in their sleep. Saytur, your knowledge of both herb-lore and dragon-lore are beyond mine. Is there an herb that might slay a dragon in its sleep?”
Saytur shook his head. “Dragons can’t be poisoned,” he informed her. “But I think there might still be a way. There’s a plant called ‘moon rose’ that grows in the woods and in cow pastures. The cows eat it and aren’t harmed, but I’ve seen basilisks kill and eat one of these cows and then die, themselves. I once saw a dragon eat such a cow. It slept soundly for a week. Dragons love beef.”
Zanne’s eyes narrowed. “Perfect. Captain, are there any farmers in this area with moon roses growing in their cow pastures?”
“Three,” Morkell replied evenly.
“Good,” Zanne grinned ferally. “Here’s what we’ll do.”
Three weeks later, Saytur found himself approaching the dragon’s cave leading a cow that had, for the entire journey, eaten nothing but moon rose plants. With him were two DESU volunteers and Thercis the hostler, who had anxiously refused to remain behind. Saytur had his doubts about the two fighters, though. Both seemed entirely overeager; each anxious to make a name for himself as a dragon slayer. Neither seemed to understand the desire of the townsfolk to kill the dragon painlessly. As for the hostler, he only seemed to be interested in worrying aloud about his daughter. Saytur had eventually had to ask the man to wait with the horses. The big ranger had begun to wonder if he shouldn’t have insisted on coming alone, not that he thought Zanne would approve of such an idea.
“With that cow as bait,” the larger of the two men whispered, “the dragon won’t be able to resist. While he’s eating it, we’ll jump on it, take it by surprise and kill it! But I get first swipe.”
“Glory hound,” accused the other, who was leaner and shorter than the first. “You just want all the honor for yourself. Leave some for the rest of us, why don’t you?”
“Why should I?” growled the first, shoving the smaller fighter. In no time, the two of them were arguing, first in whispers, then, not much later, in shouts.
Saytur put a single arrow to his bow string and bounced it off a rock near the two to get their attention. When they looked around, he pulled two more arrows from the quiver, lovingly stroked the fletching of each, then glared at the pair meaningfully. They were instantly silent. Shaking his head, Saytur put the arrows back into his quiver and led the protesting cow forward, tying its rope to a tall rock near the cave’s entrance. That done, he hurried back to the relative safety of their chosen hiding place.
It wasn’t long before the dragon emerged. It sniffed the terrified cow, which lowed shrilly, depositing a large cow pie on the rocks behind it. The dragon let out a growl of hunger, then seized the cow, snapping the rope and the animal’s neck in one movement. Saytur watched grimly as the dragon settled down to its grizzly feast. The cow was reduced to bones in a matter of minutes. The dragon turned then and seemed about to return to its den. Instead, however, it opened its mouth in a prodigious yawn and collapsed.
“Now, can we kill the dragon?” the larger fighter demanded.
“Stay here,” Saytur commanded.
“You have got to be kidding!” objected the smaller fighter.
“No,” the ranger replied firmly, drawing an arrow from its quiver and fitting it to his bowstring. Carefully, Saytur crept toward the dragon and the remains of its meal. This dragon was much larger than the one he’d seen before and he was uncertain how long the drugged beef would keep the monster asleep. Fortunately, the creature lay on the rock-strewn mountainside with its mouth wide open, its side heaving with the rhythm of its breathing. Without hesitation, Saytur bent and shot his arrow up into that open maw, aiming for the creature’s brain. The dragon twitched and its eyes popped open and, for a second, Saytur began to think he wasn’t going to make it home to his wife. Then the monster’s muscles relaxed and with a last fetid breath, it ceased to move.
“You killed it!” squawked the smaller fighter.
“You could have stayed in Vessam,” Saytur replied evenly.
“But what about the glory,” the man complained, “the honor?”
“There’s an easy way to settle this,” the larger fighter growled. “Kill him and we can claim the kill for himself.”
Saytur shook his head ruefully as the pair drew swords and began advancing on him. “Go,” he told Kothra, who rose into the air and, like a spear, dove for the bigger man’s face, forcing him, screaming, back several feet. At the same moment, Saytur drew an arrow from his quiver, nocked and released it all in one movement. The arrow’s barbed tip buried itself in the smaller man’s shoulder. Then the ranger lifted his left hand, and Kothra flew back to perch lightly on it.
“Leave,” Saytur commanded then Stumbling, they turned and made their way back to the horses as fast as their trembling legs would carry them. Saytur shook his head, hoping the experience would teach the two bloodthirsty men a lesson that would save their lives one day.. He was sure Zanne wouldn’t be pleased when she heard about this later.
Prowling forward, Saytur whispered another word to Kothra. “Seek!” The hawk let out a brief cry, then spread her wings and flew into the cave. The ranger fitted yet another arrow to his bowstring, following her on cat-like feet. Without the dragon inside, the cave was dark as night. Saytur paused briefly in the entrance to allow his eyes to adjust. Kothra screeched at him off to his left, the soft sound of her wings churning up the air in the cave.
“Is someone out there?” a frightened young voice asked.
“Yes,” Saytur answered, moving toward the sound of the voice.
“The dragon,” a deeper, male voice added, “Is it…?”
“Dead,” finished Saytur, finally reaching the smaller cave. “Come out and see.”
Slowly at first, then more quickly, the little group emerged from the cave; two men, one with severe burns on his back and legs, and three women. All five of them were soaked with sweat. Carefully, Saytur led them back out of the empty cave. When they came out into daylight, and saw the dragon, the youngest of the women cried out.
“Why?” she demanded, grabbing Saytur’s boar hide tunic.
“To rescue you,” he replied, gently turning the girl to face the corpse lying in the cave’s mouth. “It died quickly and without pain,” he added, feeling that they might wish to know that. “Come. There are horses and a wagon. Kothra!” At this last, the red-tailed hawk soared from the mouth of the cave and landed lightly back on the ranger’s right shoulder.
As the little group descended the mountain, something else emerged from the cave and flew, unnoticed, to the top of the ridge. It watched with glittering copper eyes as the humans stumbled down the rocks below. Poor mother, it thought, gazing at the dragon’s lifeless corpse, She was so foolish. I will not make that mistake.