Vigil for a Dragon, pt 2

Every town has at least one man like Kallar.

Usually, but not always, he’s a big man, strong of arm and broad of shoulder. A smith, or a farmer, or more rarely, a hunter. A man of great solidity, simple but by no means stupid, who speaks rarely but with authority. He can be recognised at any town meeting in any town – he is the one who speaks last, and whose suggestion is adopted. (Indeed, in some of the more clever towns, town meetings consist of simply waiting until the man in question speaks, a process which is usually faster – and always quieter – than the more usual way of doing things.)
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Vigil for a Dragon, pt 3

Kallar has been watching the strangers carefully, and is beginning to form opinions of them. The thirteen of them fascinate him, not the least because he can scarcely fathom their reasons for being here. He examines them all one last time, starting with the one sitting nearest him.
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Vigil for a Dragon, pt 5

A woman in a veil sits in the next seat along. The veil covers her face above her mouth, and Kallar presumes that she is either horrifically ugly or breath-takingly beautiful to look upon, as in his experience, only the women at the extremes of appearance tend to feel the need to hide away. And yet the woman is by no means shy. She speaks confidently, even raucously at times, and her manner suggests that she is accustomed to command. Although little can be seen of her expression, her lips are often twisted into a wry smile.

Next to her sits a man dressed mostly in armour – and armour that is dented and scuffed, but probably still very serviceable to Kallar’s trained eye. The man seemed a little uncomfortable in a social setting, although that might simply have been his response to the woman sitting next to him, whom he was clearly smitten by. The man had refused the invitations of his other neighbour to gamble, but it was how he had done so that had caught Kallar’s attention: he had paused, his eyes clear but distant, and then responded only after a second or two’s thought. This was a man who knew the odds in any situation.

His neighbour probably knew them, but seemed the sort of man who would be loathe to admit that. Both his manner and his dress were as loud as the man next to him was quiet. Kallar knew his type; flashy charmers with silver tongues often came through towns like this one, offering games of chance and investments to good to refuse (and yet, which somehow never seemed to pay back their investors, although always for a good reason). They were entertaining enough if you knew where you stood with them, and even moreso (and safer to boot) if they knew that you knew.

At the last seat on that side of the table sits a young woman who seems to believe everything that the man next to her says. Kallar wonders if he shouldn’t intervene, but surely she cannot be as wide-eyedly naïve as she appears? She is a priestess, from her garb, but Kallar doesn’t recognise the god she serves – either she’s not wearing a talisman or she is and he just can’t see it. She eats like a hungry child with a bag of sweets; it’s a little endearing, truth be told.

The chair at the foot of table is unoccupied, but not empty. The minstrel has left the case of his lute sitting there while he plays elsewhere in the tavern, and Kallar does not doubt that he knows exactly how close each person who passes it is – minstrels more than most jealously guard all their possessions in his experience. The minstrel himself is young-seeming, though probably at least thirty. He’s abrupt to a point just short of rudeness, but he clearly loves his music, and on hearing it, Kallar suspects that like him, most people would love it enough to forgive the man his peculiarities.

The next chair is occupied by another elf, and this one is more what Kallar has come to associate with elves. Polite to a fault, but always faintly disdainful, as if this place is beneath him. His manner conveys that everyone here is beneath him to some extent, and that his chosen place to sit is because the people at the table with him are ever so slightly less beneath him than the others here. He talks little, and when he does, his voice is rasping, like a man with a bad cold. No one seems comfortable in his presence, least of all himself.

The final seat at the table, between the elf and the blue-skinned an, is also empty.

Kallar knows, although he knows not how he knows, that they are waiting for something, but he has no idea what. He suspects that at least some of them don’t know either.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 6

The dragon stirs in his sleep when the thunder crashes nearby. Millennia ago, he rode into battle with Varlas, the god of the sun, perched upon his back. Night battled day and was defeated, and in his gratitude, Varlas gave the dragon his weight in sun-gold. Even now the ever-warm, ever-glowing coin rest under the dragon’s belly, a bulwark against the cold of the night.

But outside of dreams, the dragon has not seen Varlas in an age of the world, and rarely even thinks of him anymore. His glorious, golden days are behind him now. His roar has grown weaker, even querulous to his ears (although still no doubt the terrifying clamour of apex predator mixed with avalanche that it always has been to his prey); his scales, which once reflected the light of the furthest stars, have lost their lustre The creatures of the forest and sky, the peoples who walk on and under the earth, all now fear him more from habit than anything else.

It makes him sad that this has happened, that old age has caught up with even him, and even his sadness is another evidence of his age. When he was younger, it would simply have made him angry, and in a fury he would have hunted down old age and taught it lessons of claw and flame until surrendered to him. But he under-estimated old age’s stealth, when he thought to estimate it at all, and he fell to it in his turn, like a man or a rabbit would.

It makes him sad.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 7

When it finally happens, at first, it’s so subtle that Kallar almost misses it.

But he catches on fast enough to note that this is one of those rare times when the minstrel is actually sitting at the table with the others. Maybe that’s what they were waiting for. The boy with the adult’s eyes is glancing around the table, seat by seat. And as he looks at each person there, he holds their gaze for two or three seconds, until they nod. Kallar isn’t sure what they’re assenting to, but although it’s clear that he missed some of the earlier nods, it’s clear that it’s something that needs to be unanimous.

Kallar gets the shock of his life when, after collecting eleven nods, the boy-man turns to him, and says just two words: “Join us.”

He’s so startled he actually looks around him to make sure that there isn’t anyone behind him that’s being invited – and Kallar knows full well he’s sitting with his back to the wall. “Me?” he says, barely loud enough to hear, and the boy-man nods.

Kallar looks around, but no one seems to be paying attention, and he is not, he reminds himself, one to worry overmuch about what the neighbours think. Taking a deep breath, he stands, and carrying his drink over to the table, takes the empty seat between the hirsute man and the dark-haired woman.

“And now our number is completed,” says the priestess.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 8

“Introductions would seem to be in order,” says the man Kallar is sure is a professional trickster. “My name is Kitson, but my friends call me Hollis.” The armoured man next to him sneers.
“Like he said, he’s Kitson,” he begins, and everyone but Kallar laughs. “I’m Pol Grevis.”
“My name is not your concern, but you may call me Duchess, or simply My Lady,” says the veiled woman.
“Elvish names are never told to outsiders. But you may call me by the translation of my name into your human tongue: I am Tiger Hunter-of-the-Greensward.”
“Just call him Tiger,” says the dwarf. “We dwarfs are not so precious with our names. Call me Darrus Sharpblade.”

There is a brief pause, until the hairy man realises that for whatever reason, the boy-man is not about to speak.
“I am Grigory,” he says, a little uncertainly to Kallar’s ears. There is another awkward pause, until Kallar realises that they are waiting on him.
“I’m sorry, I assumed that you already knew my name. I am Kallar, Son of Will.”
“You can call me Bridget the Dark,” says the woman next to him. The blue-skinned man smiles for the first time that Kallar can remember. He looks surprisingly friendly.
“I am called Phanathon” he says.
“You would call me Crystal Light-of-the-Stars,” says the second elf.
“And my name you should already know,” says the minstrel, “but just in case you missed it, it’s Davos, Tunesmith Extraordinaire.”
“This one is the handmaiden of the god Z’hel, known as Carasina,” says the priestess.

The boy’s old eyes appear almost young for once as he smiles. “And my name is Kharl Deffeng.”

“Well, now that we all know who we are, we should have a drink,” says Kitson. “You’re buying,” he tells Kallar.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 9

The dragon starts in its sleep, shocked into wakefulness. Ears which can hear grass grow have no trouble picking out the clinking of glasses and the raising of toasts in the village below its cave.

The ritual, it realizes. The oldest game. No one should even know about it, but somehow, someone does. They have gathered the thirteen, and dedicated to their purpose. Thirteen against one. The one is a dragon, and it should hardly seem fair, but the dragon worries still. Whoever brought them together must have known that. Must have chosen accordingly. The game would laugh at anything less, and all the thirteen would achieve would be their own humiliation, followed quickly by their deaths.

Resting its mighty head upon its forepaws, the dragon wonders at who it could be and what they could intend. Before it falls asleep once more, it wryly acknowledges that it will know soon enough.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 10

Kallar staggers home later that night more unsteadily than usual, aware that he has had rather more to drink than on most nights. He tries to sing the song he always sings at such times, a tune for banishing shadows that his father taught him, but the words die on his lips. His heart is too heavy for song.

These strangers have not come here for any reason that will not be trouble to Kallar and the village. It all has something to do with the dragon, but he doesn’t know what. Not yet. They’ll tell him when the time is right, they say.

He hears the breathing behind him first, then the footsteps. Bad Joe is light of foot, but he has the wind of an old woman, and the slightest exertion makes him puff.

“What do you want, Joe?” he asks without turning around or pausing on his way.
“Who are you new friends, Kallar?” demands Joe.
“Just people,” says Kallar.
“Just people,” mimics Joe, and Kallar belatedly remembers that Joe is never without his hangers-on, whoever they might be on any given night. Joe likes a fair fight about as much as a cat likes a bath. “You think you’re better than us, don’t you Kallar?”
“No, Joe. Just tireder. I just want to go home and sleep.” Joe grabs his arm and pulls at it, and Kallar lets himself be turned around. Three followers tonight, he sees – Joe’s in rare form. Tall Mick, Mackay the Farmer and Gerry the Slow. No one he can’t take, although if Mackay is armed it might be different.
“You look at me when I’m talking to you,” says Joe angrily.
“Of course, Joe,” says Kallar, and punches him. His dad always told him never to start a fight, but in Kallar’s experience, it saves time, especially when someone’s looking to start a fight with you. Joe recoils and Kallar hits him with his other fist. Joe goes to the ground, and his three followers take a step forward.

Kallar steps up to them and cracks his knuckles, casually resting a foot on Joe’s groaning form. “Who’s next, gents?” he asks, and that’s all it takes. Mackay, Gerry and Mick take to their heels. Kallar gives Joe a parting kick to make sure he stays down, and turns again for home.

Arrving home at last, Kallar looks around him, trying to figure out what he should take with him. For the first time that he can remember, he has no idea what’s expected of him. It’s a scary thought, but an exhilarating one, and he goes to sleep with a smile on his face.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 11

Far out upon the Dawn-Kissed Sea, the whaling ship Sanguinary cuts the waves. So far, the voyage has been long and unprofitable, and not a few of the crew are showing early signs of scurvy. But on this day, the simmering discontent of the men is lifted. Dolphins have been sighted off the starboard bow, and the men are hopeful that this means there will be whales too.

Whales are creatures of great contradiction to whaling men. They represent great profit, but also great danger. They are called beasts and derided as such, yet they are reckoned to be as smart and cunning as any man, if not more so. It is a whaler’s job to kill them and render their bodies into more valuable forms, and yet there are those who claim that they have souls as men do, and that to kill them is a crime and sin.

The men on board the Sanguinary have little time for such philosophical distractions, and least time of all when a whale is sighted.

A long boat puts down, and the harpooner in the bow leads the men in song with a deep and resonant voice that carries far across the waves – the better, it is believed, to attract whales. The harpooner sings, and the other men in the boat sing the antiphon:

The priest of Jennar’s daughter had a-red and rosy cheeks!
A yay, hey, hee, hi, ho!
And on the temple high days, she sang the anthem sweet
Come whale, see him blow!

The priest of Jennar’s daughter was as sweet as toffee candies
A yay, hey, hee, hi, ho!
I said her, us whalers are as lovers fine and dandy!
Come whale, see him blow!

She told me that us whalers were damněd men all and liars!
A yay, hey, hee, hi, ho!
And each of us she’d send to hell, to feed the damněd fires!
Come whale, see him blow!

On this occasion, they are successful, and their harpooner sights the whale, it’s fountain a-blow two score fathoms to port. The tillerman sets his course, and winks at the harpooner while the men labour at their oars. The harpooner flashes a quick smile back, and turns to watch for his prey once more.

The harpooner is a taciturn man with few friends on the ship, but all there respect his skill. They even boast of it when in port, and it’s true, the harpooner may actually be the best there is at what he does, but none know why.

They don’t know that the harpooner isn’t really a man at all, but a selkie, and that his gift for finding and killing whales is a perversion of the ways of his people. They don’t know that he turned to such perversion in spite and bitterness after his people exiled him for crimes of which he was innocent, all so that the chieftain’s son could marry the bride of his choosing. They don’t know this, but the whales, who have ancient treaties with the selkies, do. The harpooner does not realise it, but he is a hunter hunted.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 12

The whale sounds again, and there is a shout as all aboard realise that they are on target. The harpooner readies to throw when the whale next breaks the surface. But the whale does not come back when it should. The men at the oars mutter nervously to each other, while the tillerman calls for them to lay off their rowing and hold position.

The harpooner ignores them all. He watches for the tell-tale bubbles that will show him where the whale is. When he sees one, it is already too late, but he shouts a warning anyway. The whale has recognised its peril, and dealt with it directly. It rises directly under the long boat, lifting it easily on its back, until the timbers of the boat snap under the strain, and the men scatter everywhere. The harpooner makes his cast at the last possible instant as he tumbles, and strikes true, just above the whale’s left eye.

The whale immediately dives, pulling the harpooner and any other man unlucky enough to be entangled in the rope down with him. The men struggle to be free, and some make it, but three of them are too ensnared to get loose while their air lasts, and they drown. The harpooner is like neither of these.

A short, wiry man, he has come prepared. No ordinary man is this harpooner, but rather, a selkie. He speaks the words of enchantment and what had previously appeared to be a fur coat becomes a part of him. A man-shaped seal grips hard on the harpoon rope, and waits for the whale to tire.

It doesn’t take long. The whale surfaces, still thrashing and trying to rid itself of the harpoon, but the harpooner reaches up and pushes it in deeper, reaching the great beast’s brain. The whale twists away from him, to gaze at him with its one good eye, and names him traitor, outcast, betrayer and oath-breaker. It curses him with his secret name, known only to his own people before his exile. And as it expires, the words of the curse still on its lips, and the harpooner feels the magicks swirl around him, but knows not what they portend. He knows only that he is afraid.

The surviving men from the long boat are pulled aboard by their fellows in the other boats, and he is last of all to go aboard. While the men transform a dead whale into meat, blubbler, ambergris, baleen and myriad other useful substances, he stands apart, wondering what will become of him. Wondering what the nature of his curse will be, and swearing once more to kill the chieftain’s son should they ever meet again.

It is only later, when he attempts to shed the seal-skin, that Grigori realises what has been done to him. The skin will not come off, and although on land he can still breathe and walk like a man, he is covered all over in brown seal fur that merges into his shaggy hair and beard. His clothes itch to wear, but he must needs go covered for modesty’s sake. The men laugh to see him, thinking him a beast, and make jokes about dancing bears.

When he gets back to port, it is worse still. No woman will lie with him, for love or money; and no man will talk to him other than one he strongly suspects wants to stuff and mount him for display in a carnival freak show.