Vigil for a Dragon, part 26

Kallar had always been a large boy, with broad shoulders and strong muscles. He’d known from quite an early age that his father had decided to apprentice him off to a smith, and he had no problem with that. He did have some suspicions about the old man’s motives – he said it was just the best way that Kallar could help provide for his younger siblings, and that was true, but Kallar also suspected that the man was worried that one day very soon Kallar would lose his fear of the old man, and beat the living crap out of him.

In point of fact, Kallar wasn’t at all afraid of his father, but neither did he harbour any ambition to thrash the man. His dad hadn’t hit them more than they deserved, and didn’t seem to take pleasure in doing so, and as far as Kallar was concerned, that was fair enough. He held no grudges.

Unfortunately, the local priest was an acolyte of Bekkuar, the god of families, who firmly believed that all children were not to be trusted, and had filled his father’s head with this nonsense too. Kallar had tried reasoning with the man, and failed, and had eventually decided to simply prove him wrong, and wait for the old man to realise his error.

Heavy thoughts for a sixteen year old, to be sure, but when you’re the oldest of eight with no mother and a father who works every hour of daylight the gods send, you learn responsibility swiftly and thoroughly. If his dad wanted him to be a smith, he’d be the best damned smith he could be. It was that simple.

Vigil for a Dragon, part 27

The only problem that Kallar had was which guild of smiths to join. Each of them followed a different god – Brong for one of them; Felaster for the other – and Kallar had definite opinions about which was better. Unfortunately, so did his father, and they disagreed vehemently about which god’s guild he should join.

Brong’s guild was better known and more widely respected in the lands about their village, argued his father, although he and Kallar knew that the real reason he favoured Brong was that Brong was the son of Bekkaur. Felaster, on the other hand, was less popular, but his guild had greater skill in their craft, in Kaller’s opinion.

The followers of Brong, like their god, tended to treat every problem in life as one to which the solution was ‘hit it with a hammer’. Felaster’s worshippers, on the other hand, prided themselves on versatility, and believed in the right tool for the right job.

Kallar and his father argued over this all winter, both knowing that when Spring came, a decision would have to be made, and neither of them willing to back down.

In the end, Kallar managed to get his way in the matter, not because of the strength or truth of his arguments, but because it had been pointed out to his father that smiths of Felaster commanded higher prices for their services.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 28

Pol watched from the ends of the lists. Sir Gurthron was a strong man, but strength came with a price: he sat heavily in the saddle, and his horse could not run as fast as his opponent’s. Sometimes that worked to his advantage, making him hard to shift from the saddle in a joust. Other times, like today, it was likely to prove a disadvantage. But as a lowly squire, Pol’s opinion counted for little. Gurthron treated him more like a slave than an apprentice. Some times, Pol even thought that the older man must hate him.

He’d be set straight on that last point by someone he’d thought a friend. The knight did not hate Pol Grevis, his friend had told him, he merely feared him. Knights might be brave, but they were also superstitious, and Pol Grevis had been a squire to several knights, all of whom had died while he served them. While none of these deaths were Pol’s fault – indeed, at least one of them was a direct result of Pol’s advice being ignored – some suspicion had inevitably settled on him. No one thought that Pol had deliberately killed his masters if they talked to him for even a minute – there was no way that a boy as free of guile or cynicism as Pol could possibly murder anyone – but the suspicion that he was some sort of jinx, possibly even the bearer of a curse, was a widespread one.

Or so Pol’s (now former) friend had told him.

Pol didn’t believe it, of course. No true knight would.

But as Sir Gurthron fell to the ground, a piece of his opponent’s lance embedded in his helm in a most unhealthy fashion, Pol found himself wondering, just the same.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 29

It’s painfully obvious to Bridget that the building she’s so randomly entered is a temple. Even though the room she’s in is completely dark, there’s a distant sound of chanting, and the smell of incense is almost overpowering. She reaches back to the door she entered through, but she can find no handle on this side of it. Her first reaction is panic, but then she forces herself to calm down, and conducts a thorough search of the door, covering every part of it. And then she’s sure. It’s not only lacking in handles, but she can barely find the edges of it against the wall, so close-fitted is it made. She wonders who makes a door that way, and her imagination is only to happy to provide a lurid and detailed list of the possibilities, none of them pleasant.

Bridget makes an effort to breathe deeply and evenly, in the hope of calming her racing heart, and after a minute or two, it starts to work. She’s in control of herself again, and those deep breaths have gotten her used to the incense smell, too. She moves back to the wall, but this time she begins to trace along it at about waist height, following the lines of it around the room until she finds a door. This one has a handle, but it’s locked. Which only makes sense, she realises, because this room is specifically designed to trap the unwary and imprison awaiting the pleasures of demons or dark gods…

She angrily stamps down on her imagination again. It isn’t helping. Jiggling the door handle is noisier than she’d like, but it confirms one thing to Bridget – the key to the lock is still in it, albeit on the other side of the door. But she knows this trick from when her father tried to lock her in her room. All she needs is something to push it out, and something else to catch it with on the far side. The first is easy to find – there’s a whole shelf of books along one wall, and it’s no trouble to pull out a couple of pages to push under the door. The second is trickier, but a hopeful search of her hems finds a pin she’d idly stuck there days or weeks earlier. It takes a little work to loosen the key and push it out, but once she does, it’s easy to pull the pages back under the door with the key on them, and then unlock the door.

The last thing she expects when she emerges from the room is the sound of applause, but that’s what happens anyway.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 30

Dragons rarely give much thought death. They know that they will most likely die in combat, and to a dragon, that is enough. That is the way of things, the method that the gods have contrived for making sure that an older dragon’s hoard will be split up and come to be part of the hoards of younger dragons. Dragons are confident that one day – not soon, but they can afford to take the view – one day, all wealth will belong to dragons. And then there will be a contest, dragon fighting dragon according to strict rules of ettiquette, until finally, one dragon prevails and all hoards are one.

The dragon regretfully realises that he will not live to see that day. Soon, someone will detect his weakness, and take action as a result. Soon he will be dead, and his hoard redistributed. Not tomorrow, not next week, but soon. Another year at most, he thinks. So soon, and yet, has he not lived a long time, even by the standards of his long-lived race? He does not wish to die, but then, who ever does? He does not wish to, but his wishes matter little in the circumstances.

But he will die proudly, and it will not go easy for his slayer. Of that, he is sure.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 31

“You’ve never seen a dragon, have you lad?” asked the older man. Phanathon shook his head.
“I haven’t. I’ve been told that they breathe fire, but that seems…”
“Ridiculous?” suggested the man.
“Well, yes,” said Phanathon. The man nodded.
“I thought so too, once.” He took a long draw on his pipe, and stared at the fire.

Phanathon waited, as politely as he could. It had been four months now, and he still felt that he was no closer to his goal. He had heard many stories of dragons, but there were few common threads among them. He sometimes wondered if dragons were like fish, and there were many different kinds of them. But the Oracle had sounded more precise than that. Phanathon had the distinct impression that she had referred to a singular being. He was so lost in thought that he almost missed it when the man started talking again.

“I was only a lad then, perhaps a year or so older than you are now. A dragon – the dragon, I suppose – attacked the city. I saw people burned alive by dragon flame…” he said. “…you know, it’s not like they always tell it in the tales. When a person is burned like that, it doesn’t matter how stoic they are. They don’t just stand there like the monks of Jelune do when they burn themselves in sacrifices. They scream like nothing you’ve ever heard of – high pitched, like wounded animals. Imagine being cooked alive, at a heat hot enough to melt a sword like ice on a griddle. The talespinners say that it can’t hurt too bad because it happens so fast, but I think that’s wrong. You ever been trapped under water too long, boy?”
“Yes,” said Phanathon. “When I was a child.”
“Aye,” said the man, “me too. Felt like forever, didn’t it? Couldn’t have been more than a minute or two, but when it was happening, it felt like years.”
“Yes. Yes, it did.”
“I think that’s what it feels like to burn in dragon’s fire. Hot instead of cold, dry instead of wet, but just the same: seconds stretched into hours… days… years…”

Phanathon shuddered. He looked at the fire in the hearth, and wondered how bad it would feel… and just what the Oracle had seen in his future.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 32

Genter still did not feel quite himself. He couldn’t work out exactly what the priests had done to him – he’d passed out somewhere between the application of burning irons to his armpits and the knife being drawn across his chest – but whatever it was, it went beyond the merely physical hurts. There had been rather a lot of chanting in languages Genter didn’t know, and burning of strange incenses and so on, so he assumed that it was something magical. Or possibly divine, although that was a horrifying thought that he had to shy away from. They couldn’t have done something to his spirit, could they?

But maybe they had. Nothing felt right in his body or his mind, and he knew it wasn’t just the pain (although to be sure, the pain was considerable). He fingered the scars on his chest again. It was hard to tell while they were still all scabbed over, but he was pretty sure that they traced a rune of some sort on his skin. In his flesh. In his very soul? Perhaps. He didn’t recognise the rune, but it wasn’t hard to guess what it might be.

Ever since his exile had been pronounced – a week ago only, although it felt so much longer – he’d been unable to return to his home. He would try, and somehow, his now eight-toe’d feet would never take him there. And when he tried to speak to other elves – and he’d seen no shortage of them in the last week – they couldn’t understand him. He wasn’t sure if it was them or him – if he’d lost all language, why could he still think? – but whichever it was, it had meant that there was no help forthcoming from that direction. He took out the bow he’d been allowed to leave with again, and looked at it once more. He couldn’t string it – not while his armpits still burned so – but he’d have to some time soon. It was that or starve.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 33

There were two smiling men facing her, one of them placing coins in the waiting hand of the other. Bridget thought they looked familiar, but she so rarely left the house and she certainly didn’t know anyone their age. Then it hit her. She’d met them at the house. They were friends of her father. Her mind raced, trying to work out what this all meant – but not fast enough.

A fist came out of the darkness, slamming into her face and knocking her to her floor. Of course, she thought, friends of my father. It figures that he’d be here too. She winced then, less at the pain she felt (was her jaw broken? It certainly felt like it was) and more for the thought of the pain she was going to be experiencing very soon now. If her father knew that she’d planned to run away – and it seemed very likely that he did, all things considered – she could only imagine what he would do to her this time.

“Stay down, you bitch,” her father said, almost spitting the words in his anger.
“Are you alright, Gus?” asked one of the two men, and Bridget could hear the effort he made to calm his breathing and answer.
“I’m good, Dev. Be better once I get little miss here home.” A horrible thought occurred to Bridget, and despite the pain, she had to speak. But she couldn’t.
“Hhhhh,” she said, but that was as far as she could get. She tried again. “Hhhhh, hhhh, hhhh?”
“How?” said her father, amused now but just as cruel still. Bridget nodded, but even that hurt incredibly. “I’ll tell you how,” he said. “Your little friend told me.” He grabbed her arm and roughly dragged her to her feet. “No more questions,” he said. “We’re going home now. Home to stay.”

“Unfortunately, that will not be possible,” said another voice.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 34

It had not been an easy decision, but luckily for Pol, he had been spared the trouble having to actually make it. Instead, it appeared that every knight – those who had squires already and those who did not – had independently, but very vehemently, decided that he or she had no room for Pol Grevis as a squire, now or in the future. Pol couldn’t actually sense the shades of his four deceased former masters behind him, but it seemed that he was the only one. One knight, a little more friendly than the others (although, of course, he already had a squire and could thus afford to be) even suggested that perhaps an exorcism was in order.

The day had been a long one, and greatly wearying to both body and soul, as Pol sat near the lists, idly watching the carpenters disassemble them for transport to the next site on the circuit. He had spoken to every single knight he could reach. He had even asked them if they knew any other knights – friends or family who were absent that day – who were in need of a squire, unable to stop even though he knew they could sense his desperation and were repelled by it.

Pol didn’t really see the work of the men in front of him. His eyes were fixed on the future, which suddenly seemed to be little more than a huge, gaping void. He tried to tell himself that he was simply deciding on what to do now, but in truth, he wasn’t really thinking about anything. All his mental energy was absolutely devoted to the effort of not crying in public.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 35

There was a movement from the shadows, and suddenly the room they were in seemed full of people. There was an armed man behind Bridget’s father and each of his two friends – an armed man holding a knife blade against the throat of the man in front of him. And another man, the one who had spoken just now she assumed, was approaching her.

“I am sorry that we could not intervene sooner, my dear. But you are safe now,” he said kindly. He cocked his head to one side, replaying the words he had just uttered. “Well,” he amended, “safe from these three thugs, at the least.” He helped Bridget to her feet, and helped her to walk, half supporting, half leading her. “Come along, we must get you looked at by the healer.” He paused and turned back to the others in the room. “You three may leave now, with your lives, or you may press the issue, and leave a little later without them. What will it be?”

“We’ll go,” said Dev, and the man nodded.
“Release them, then,” he ordered his followers. “And Gus – you and your friends have committed enough blasphemy against the Divine Z’hel, his temple and his priesthood on this day to last you a lifetime. I know you are planning to return here in search of vengeance, but I promise you, you will not find it, here or anywhere else. But if you are foolish enough to try, it will find you. Am I understood?”

There was no reply. Gus and his friends simply ran out the door that one of the knifemen was holding open for them. The priest sighed and shook his head.
“Ten silvers says they’ll back before the week is out,” he muttered, and Bridget saw the grins of the knifemen. “I’m sorry, my dear,” he said again. “I sometimes forget my manners when the opportunity for a little theatre presents itself. I am Sand, high priest of the Divine Z’hel, and you are under my – and His – protection now. Now, let us get you to that healer.”

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 37

Bridget’s jaw never did heal straight. But it didn’t cause her pain after the healer did his work, and that was enough for her. She spared little time thinking about that in any case. Sand spent the larger part of each day with her, teaching her about Z’hel. Bridget was astonished to learn that the god was not what she had thought he was. Her father had always referred to Z’hel as a god of madness, but Sand taught her of Z’hel’s other face, the god of visions. Z’hel did not send madness, she learned. He sent visions. It was simply unfortunate that some minds were not strong enough to receive and endure the visions as the god intended.

Before long, Bridget was participating in the ceremonies of Z’hel, and when the healer pronounced her well enough, her participation came to include the consumption of the potions that Sand and other members of the priesthood prepared, that they described as aids to vision. Sand was always sure to be with her when she consumed the potions, to anchor and guide her through the visions that they induced. Bridget did not realise that a slow escalation of the strength of the potions was occurring, attributing the growing clarity and vividness of her visions to her own progress.

She was quite shocked the day that Sand explained that he intended for her to succeed him as high priest when he retired to the monastic libraries that the order kept. It seemed to her that she had only been in the temple a few weeks, but Sand told her that two years had passed. He was not surprised that her reaction to this news was, in order, swearing, denial, and finally, running out of the temple. He’d done the exact same thing decades earlier, after all.

Vigil for a Dragon, pt 38

In his youth, the dragon had loved flying above all things.

He had gloried in the power of his wings, in his ability to fly higher and further than any other being (other than some of the elders of his own race). He had flown across the world, and across the gulfs between worlds. He had even ventured – once – into the Primal Egg itself, from which all dragons come and to which their spirits return upon their deaths.

It is to this he attributes his weakened state. He was told, again and again, that he should not venture to the Egg in mundane reality, but only through the comparative safety of draconic dreams. But he was young, and headstrong, and determined to do what no other had ever done.

So much was burned away in the fires of the Primal Egg. So much of himself lost forever. A large portion of his strength and power, a still greater portion of his years – his very name itself, all lost in the flames.

He wonders if the last will be returned to him, when his spirit returns to the Egg.