Graymantle Story - Dragon
“Graytelyn, tell us a story with dragons! Yes dragons, please?” pleaded the young elf to the minstrel. He and his fellow kin looked anxiously towards her as the clattering of clean-up in the great dining hall began to wane, being almost done.
“Oh, but I want to hear more tales about our ancestors,” yearned another, who looked at her with hopeful eyes. The little ones looked around at each other sizing up who wanted what making their preference known by frowns or some light applause. The grownups smiled and waited, looking uninterested, but they really were.
Graytelyn arose from her seat nearest the hall doorway and sauntered purposefully across the hall taking up a position near the warming fire in the huge hearth. She observed the glow reflecting off her family’s faces, all now facing her in the early evening, in anticipation. She remembered when she too, was only waist high, wanting to hear about her ancestors and more and more tales. So, she smiled and began.
“Mayhaps I can accommodate both requests,” she said taking a deep breath. And she began her story:
Graymantle’s broad hand rested lightly on the cottage door. The old board warmed pleasantly under his creased and callused palm, and Gray looked into the faded heart of the ancient tree that the door had once been. The green world held few secrets that the hunter-mage could not see through his fingers. This tree had fallen during the Great War, and its memories had slowly faded from every growth ring but the last.
Graymantle closed his eyes and removed his hand. He recovered his smile by remembering why he’d come. It was Brenariel’s birthday. And just in time, for Tarran caught sight of him through the window and swung open the heavy door.
“Gray! Welcome! Come in from the cold. Have something to drink. It’s been too long again!” Tarran boomed.
It was true.
He had not seen his friends since the middle of the previous year, neither the lore-master nor her husband. Now the early snows had fallen in Imladris (Rivendell), and the seasonal birds had deserted the high country as the first autumn of peace returned to the Hithaeglir (Misty Mountains).
A little snow had descended on Brenariel as well, Gray thought, smiling wider. He looked past Tarran to see her framed in firelight, frowning as she inspected a small, decorated bucket, the first slight frosting of silver in her auburn hair.
As the season and years passed, she was setting gradually into age. Someone else has taken over her long secret watch in the Hithaeglir, and Brenariel’s immortality had been transferred to her successor.
Brenariel rose and hugged Gray as he spoke his birthday blessing. She smelled of sunlight and fresh herbs and falling water.
“Oh, Graymantle! It’s good to see you!” she exclaimed. “I was just trying to figure out why my augury bucket formed no ice last night. It happens every so often, and somehow always on the coldest night of the year. Why, the water was still warm when I brought . . . “
Suddenly, fiercely, she hugged Gray again.
“But this is no night for complaint!” she said with a laugh. “My friend is here, and we’ve things to celebrate.”
Tarran brought Gray a cup of brandied coffee and said, “You’re just in time for a tale. Brenariel is about to tell me the story of the dragons . . . “
“When the wars began and the cities burned?” Gray asked, setting a parcel safely at the far edge of the hearth.
“Much, much earlier. When the minions of the Dark Lord Sauron first arose on the continent of Middle Earth,” Brenariel explained. “We know too well of the end of the Second Age, when the Last Alliance defeated Sauron and took his ring. But this is different, a smaller tale. A story to tell on a birthday.”
She grinned, relishing her first birthday in many centuries.
The lore-master began her story, and the hunter settled into the chair beside her, sipping his drink. He reached for the small decorative bucket and ran his hands over its burnished slats, his fingers finding places that seemed to have been chewed or gnawed at.
Gray’s eyes widened slowly as he felt the magical grain of the wood. This was still a powerful augury vessel. Its wood-hallowed memories were clear and breathtakingly alive. Touching it, he saw the very pictures of the words the lore-master spoke, and more. For this bucket had not only been witness to the story she was telling, but its wood remembered things she did not know. Gray began to see how . . .
- - - -
It was the time of dragons, and the first wings were passing over the full moon. Brenariel crouched beneath the sagging branches of a blue needled tree and watched the shadows over the snow dimmed landscape as they weaved soundlessly in and out of the starlight, black between the sparse evergreens.
It took no lore-master teachings, no augury or insight, to remind her to lie low, out of the piercing sight that could spot a rabbit or vole from two thousand feet.
The villagers had told Brenariel of the flights, of the mysterious wheeling shapes dark against the orange moon, of their spiraling north into the impenetrable mountains.
They are bats, the villagers maintained. Enormous bats raised by the wrong doing of a thousand years. When the time comes, they will travel in daylight. Then they will swallow the sun. Brenariel did not correct them. The truth would raise even more panic, more discord, for the evil dragons had come to the Misty Mountains.
She had known about them for a month, through her auguries, through the fractures of ice and the flight patterns of winter birds. She knew as well, in that quiet faith beyond augury and knowing, that the good dragons would be coming as well, though the evil dragons might destroy the world in the delay.
She could have fled, sought shelter, but her strong, protective magic might shield the villagers fire and plunder. So, she decided to follow the dragons as far as her legs and her bravery would go. Good as it was, gelomancy was an erratic oracle. She wanted to see what was going on with her own eyes.
The evidence was menacing and grim. There ten of them, perhaps twelve, in the fiercely swirling snow. It was hard to count. Dragons of such numbers were sure to be about momentous business.
“Sauron’s legions,” Brenariel gasped. “The dark mage’s minions.” She caught herself with a gasp.
Talking to herself again, when a voice might carry on the storm winds and the enemy wheeled above her in hopeless numbers! Silently, holding her breath, the lore-master collected her augury bucket and drew close against the fragrant base of the tree.
One of the dragons, a squat young creature, pivoted and dove towards the blue needled grove, sniffing the air apprehensively, its black wings flickering obscenely in the bloody orange hued moonlight.
Slowly, mimicking the droop of snow laden branches, Brenariel spread the blue limbs like a veil in front of her and breathed a prayer into the fragrant needles.
In unsteady flight, the young straggler brushed wings with a large blue dragon, the slap of scales cutting through the frosty air like the crack of falling timbers. The big blue shrieked and wheeled above the smaller monster, who sheered away in panic, grazing the top of the grove in a swift rush.
Brenariel gasped. The creature stared right at her! . . . and beyond her. Its eyes were terror struck, blank.
With a gibbering cry, the young dragon flashed through the trees, scattering branches, needles, and snow. For a moment, it reached out blindly to break a fall that never came, its talons groping, clutching ice and frozen earth.
Something dropped softly from its grasp.
The dragon turned, puzzled and disoriented, shook the snow from its leathery wings, and soared to catch up with its company. It dipped once more, then vaulted a tall outcropping of firwood, wobbling on a frantic, unsteady path to catch up with its comrades.
“My word!” Brenariel whispered, staring at the snow covered object the beast had left behind. “An egg! And unbroken!” She caught herself again, clapping her hand over her mouth, stood slowly as the snow tumbled from her shoulders, and watched the last of the dragons vanish into the swirling night, heedless of her words.
With a deep breath, Brenariel stepped from behind the tree, the green light spreading from her fingertips to illuminate her path up the treacherous slope of the hill. She clutched the bare, frayed branches of an old juniper to steady herself for the last few feet of ascent. The ancient tree glowed at her first touch, and it seemed for a moment it was renewed with vigor.
At her feet, illumined by the shining branches, the egg lay dark against the glinting snow. She wondered if the dragons were moving their lairs far to the north, and why.
But there was another question, more serious and immediate. What would she do with the egg?
Her first thought was to smash it, to destroy the thing inside that would become a screaming killer. But then a sort of ambiguous protection began to rise up in her. What if the egg were stolen? It could belong to the good ones. Long ago, longer than she could count the years or reckon the time, the lore masters before her had known what to do with lost creatures. “Do nothing,” they had told her. “There is a harmony in the losing and finding, and the great balances of nature tilt for no one creature. Do nothing. You cannot be delicate.”
“So be it,” she whispered, but lifted the egg anyway, for somewhat of a scientific observation.
The thing was leathery, the size of a small melon. Brenariel marveled at its heft, at the strange texture of its shiny, almost metallic surface. She turned the egg carefully, balancing it with some effort in the palm of her left hand, noting its lines and contours, color and texture. Already her first instinct was passing from thought. The egg was now a curiosity, something to learn about and then leave alone.
It was just part of the great impartial balance.
Her hands glowing softly to guide her vision, Brenariel stared through the shimmering, translucent shell into the interior of the egg. Transparent, blue-veined wings shrouded a reptilian face with two great black eyes. Tiny arms slowly moved in the milky fluid, and one claw reached suddenly toward her, a fervent grasp that startled Brenariel back into the moment.
It was almost formed. In a short season, given shelter and attention, its enormous, skewed egg tooth would break the shell, and the dragon would burst forth to take wing.
And it was a bronze. The good dragons had come! This was one of theirs. The lore master sighed.
- - - -
In the heart of the egg, hovering in a glittering amniotic fluid, the bronze dragon stirred.
A green light played across the edge of the world before him, strong and steady. He reached for the light, turning slowly in the metallic waters, his thin wings hunched.
It was an elvin hand he saw, green and golden, radiant with a strange and warming light. He knew this hand was no part of the dream that had kept him a year in the shell, the dream of flying, of hot spaces, of spellcraft and fifty thousand years of dragon heritage.
No. This was something entirely new and warm at the edge of his egg. He saw the light pulse and shiver, felt a roaring heartbeat in the depths of the hand. It was an overwhelming music, a power he could not resist.
It had to be the promised change. The dream had told him how the edge of the metallic world would crack, would open. And beyond it would lie yet another world, with hot arid spaces, and gravity and the buoyancy of air. There would be a high and dissolving sun, which you kept at your back in the hunt, in battle.
And this touch must be the herald. Green and glowing, it would bring him to the new world, and he yearned to be there, to reach for this kindness and courage. He leapt forward with love and longing.
- - - -
Brenariel gently replaced the egg where it had fallen and backed away from it, wrapping her green cloak tightly around her shoulders.
Do nothing, Brenariel told herself, again and again and again as she recalled the black, watery eyes of the creature staring softly through the shell. You cannot be delicate.
Only once did she look back at the leathery egg lying desolate in the snow, blurred by the swirling wind and by her own sudden swelling of tears. When she reached the safety of her cave, a mile from the outcropping of firwood, the slope, and the icy plain, she had collected herself and was calmly pondering the new ice in her oaken bucket, reading its crazing and clouds for auguries, for insights and omens.
Why would the black dragons . . . ?
And this creature, accustomed to the dry, hot wastelands, would perish at once in a winter such as this. “Do nothing. Some mysteries are to unravel, and some mysteries must remain.”
Snow slowly covered the bronze egg, but the tiny dragon lay still, warmed magically by Brenariel’s touch fiercely growing toward a new dream.
- - - -
In the Hithaeglir, the Misty Mountains, winter passed into spring doubtfully and gradually. Huddled by the fire, Brenariel could tell by the return of the snow eagle, by the later arrivals of robin and larkenvale, that this winter was nearly gone. When the lore master looked up to see Lunisari adrift at the peak of the heavens, passing through the constellation Giean, the huntress, she began to clear the cave of winter’s refuse, to air her musty belongings and plant the first of this year’s seeds.
On the second day of planting, as she knelt above the spare, rocky earth, dropping the glittering black seeds and singing a gentle incantation, Brenariel heard an odd noise in the firwood thicket below. Cautiously, the wary lore master rose, brushing the gray dirt from the front of her dress. Shielding her eyes from the midday sun, she stared down into a swirl of blue branches and needles.
Thrashing, discordantly babbling, something had caught itself in the evergreens. The blue branches broke and tossed, and the lore master could see something, bronze and flickering, in the middle of the thicket.
A great bleat pulverized Brenariel’s ears.
Quickly breathing a spell of protection, the mage stepped into a globe of green light and moved toward the entangled beast. For beast it was. That much she could discern from the bending of the foliage, from the furious language of the scattering birds as they flapped out of the firwood grove and flew, panic stricken, down the mountain slopes.
Another sharp cry, the creature burst forth from the snare, its rust colored wings shaking away blue needles, dirt, and dew. Without hesitation, as though it had expected her to be there, it wheeled toward the sloping hillside and lumbered over to Brenariel, its babbling grown even louder, more frenzied.
“No!” Brenariel shrieked. It was a dragon, and though it was a very small one, the lore master suddenly felt her legs shake and the blind surge of fear stiffen the back of her neck. This was known to mages as dragonawe, a nearly uncontrollable reaction to the sight of the creatures.
“No,” she said, fighting for control and the power to run, and “no” again, as the creature rushed toward her, sidling crablike, stumbling over loose rocks and crashing into a young firwood, uprooting the tree in its breakneck charge. Her warding held just as the creature stopped short of her nose.
“No,” the mage declared a fourth time, stumbling backward, and at last the calm of her heart matched the calm of her words. She regarded the creature, or rather, the gigantic, crooked egg tooth at the end of its snout, with a cold, level stare, and lifted her hands to the first of the seven stations of Kir-Jol. The air crackled with heat, and the wind rose.
Brenariel shifted her hands to the second station, as the distant cloud rushed in from the western sky, boiling and darkening as it gathered speed.
Then the dragon sneezed hugely, spraying her with phlegm and smoke.
Her concentration totally broken, Brenariel was well into laughter as the poor creature staggered backward from the explosive force, stepped on its own tail, and somersaulted down the hillside into a white outcropping of rock, where it struck its head and lay still, forlorn little wisps of smoke rising from its nostrils.
Brenariel wiped herself off and crept toward the dazed dragon. Slowly, she leaned over it and then stopped laughing altogether.
She reached out and touched the glittering scales, took the edge of one between thumb and forefinger. Less than a year old.
How had he ever found her? She wondered.
Do nothing, they had said.
But she had done something.
Suddenly, with a snort and addled brilliance, the enormous dark eyes opened and regarded her with delight.
“Blort,” the dragon slobbered, a foolish, innocent smile spreading over two rows of razored teeth.
- - - -
The mage saw no choice in the matter. Left to its own resources, the creature would no doubt maul itself in the rugged, mountainous terrain. It might even become the first of its kind to be hunted down and eaten by wolves.
Never had a dragon seen so helpless, so guileless, such a sorry excuse for dragonkind.
Do nothing . .
But she swore to herself that it would be just for a short season, just until the egg tooth dropped off. She could not harbor a pet who would fill half her cave by the time it was fully grown. Just until high summer, she told herself, until he was nourished and less awkward, until the weather warmed and the abundance of game in the grasslands lured panther and wolf from the mountains.
Then she would take the dragon north, guide him to a place where the plains spread below him, vast and featureless and inviting. She would bid him farewell, then, and point out the Ered Mithrin, the Grey Mountains, and to the east the withered Heath, the Land of the Dragons. There, long stretches of wastelands would be more to his liking, the firwoods sparse and enormous and nontangling. There he would find friendlier terrain, joined with the possibility that somehow his kind were gaining force in Middle Earth.
If he survived the season, his chances would blossom from bleak to slim, and perhaps he would live to adulthood, to the legendary ages of his fabled and ancient kinsmen. It would balance nature, she decided and give the creature the chance that accident and the evil dragons mysterious greed had taken away.
It was her part, she decided. But the balancing day, when nature was righted and her work ended was still a trying season away.
- - - -
One month passed, and then another. No more evil dragons were seen on the sloping face of the Misty Mountains as spring approached and passed, and summer followed.
Standing at the mouth of her cavern, boom in hand, Brenariel told herself that this at last would be the week. For the dragon was still with her, snoring on a bed of straw and dried leaves, inhaling her foodstores and exhaling smoke, occasionally, a little flame. The beast followed her through gardens like an enormous, persistent dog, so close on her heels that the spring crops of rhubarb and radishes had been flattened beyond recognition.
Oliver, she called him in the old tongue, after the green cast of his bronze scales. She smiled as she whispered the name. Oliver was smoke in the back of the cavern, a rumbling and belching, and a strange, reptilian devotion.
He would slip his head beneath her hand, urging her wordlessly to scratch behind his ears.
Brenariel straightened sharply. She must be on guard against softness. Despite the warring voices in her own conscience, there was no keeping a creature who fractured the furniture and singed the dry herbs.
She smiled again, this time a bit wearily, “But I told myself these same things at midsummer,” she acknowledged. “And now the moon has passed to the ninth month, and Oliver is still here.”
As the lady mage swept the leaves from the mouth of the cave, an odd clattering in the cavern’s recesses startled her. Instantly she turned and moved steadily into the darkness, raising her left hand to provide faint light, her right hand still clutching the broom.
She relaxed as she saw Oliver’s huge shadow dance, heard him squeal and mutter as he battered his wings against the walls of the cave, his thick tail thrashing wildly.
“Again?” she exclaimed, dropping the broom and rushing to him.
“Ummrgry,” the dragon explained, shaking his head, pointing clumsily at his snout, which was obviously stuck in a small bucket.
With a sigh, Brenariel set her foot to the dragon’s chest, seized the oaken bucket, and with one powerful yank, removed her bucket with a pop from the creature’s nose. Mage and dragon tumbled to opposite sides of the cavern, where they slumped dazed and breathless against the cool walls.
“How many times must we do this, Oliver?” the lore master scolded, brushing the dust from her robes. “My bucket is all scratched up, and you’ve ruined the ice for augury again. Now it’s a trip to the mountaintops for more.”
The dragon hung his head, and crept to the farthest corner of the chamber. He stared at her dolefully, black eyes glittering between his folded wings.
“Gawwr,” he murmured, a wisp of smoke rising lazily from his right nostril. His egg tooth, which seemed to be a permanent feature, jutted absurdly from beneath his upper lip.
Brenariel rolled her eyes. “Enough!” she commanded, masking a smile as a wave of her hand dispelled the darkness in the cavern chamber. “You’re not being punished. Now come with me. The north side garden needs attention.”
She heard the dragon follow, shuffling and grumbling behind her as she stepped from the mouth of the cave into the evening solitude. It dawned on her again that the time had passed in which she could safely send such a creature into the wild on its own.
Oliver was defenseless where a dragon should have bristled with armament. His wings were little more than large leathery ornaments. The one flight he had attempted had lodged him tightly in the lower branches of a firwood, where he had squawked and thrashed his tail until Brenariel freed him with a mild spell. He was strong but clumsy, more likely to shock himself with his lightning breath than turn his formidable weapons against predator or foe.
As for sense of direction, she had found him on two occasions, hopelessly lost, his head half swallowed by a large pillowcase he had been exploring.
His lumbering footsteps slowed behind her, then stopped altogether.
The mage wheeled around, expecting an accident, or more probably, a near disaster. Oliver teetered absurdly on the edge of the enormous barrel in which Brenariel kept dried apples and nuts, and munched merrily, his outsized bottom and tail twitching like a contented cat’s.
“It had gone on too long,” Brenariel murmured, rushing toward the glutted, grumbling hindrance devouring her autumn stores. “It’s unnatural. The balance has tilted.”
Then, as the first moon rose bright and pale over the Misty Mountains, the lore master resolved to do the only thing remaining to do. Brenariel resolved to teach the belching, stumbling thing in her custody, to be a dragon.
- - - -
Oliver was not a good student.
Daunted by his first, ill-fated venture into the air, the dragon avoided aeronautics altogether, preferring to crouch on an overhanging ledge above the cavern, wings folded tightly over his head. With the vast rubble strewn and level stretches of the northern high pass spreading out below, Brenariel would stand at the edge of the bluff, clutch the hem of her bulky robe, flap her covered arms in her best imitation of flight, then stare hopefully at Oliver.
“Nyawmp!” Oliver always rumbled, his egg tooth protruding stupidly. It was his denial sound, his refusal. She had heard it dozens of times before. When she tried to teach him to hunt, to use the lightning and cloud of gas that were his breath weapons by nature, when she had tried, with increasing desperation, to housebreak him.
“Nyawmp!” The high mountain winds swirled about her, the high forest showed red and golden below, and fortress Hrimbarg, small and dim, could be seen to the south, and the Vindurhal Vale to the west. Twenty times she had brought him here, and twenty times he had refused to fly, to move, even to flap those recently enormous and always useless wings.
But today would be different. Her kindness over stretched, her patience unraveling, Brenariel has sneaked up here the night before, while Oliver snored and whistled in the musty throat of the cave.
All was ready. She sprinkled the dried fruit along the lip of the overhang.
“Where pleas and threats fail,“ the lore master whispered with a strange half-smile, “then pick and shovel avail.” This was a saying learned from her dwarven friends.
Without a word to Oliver, Brenariel descended the rocky stairs to the mouth of the cave below.
The dragon stirred, made to follow. “Nyawmp? Ah . . . Froof!” The sight and smell of apples and apricots were irresistible.
He considered. Dried fruit was his favorite treat, surpassing bread, beer, and even rosemary tea. But the delicacies lay perilously close to the edge of the bluff.
Perhaps if he stretched. . .
Oliver took a tentative step toward the ledge, then another. He extended his neck, stretched out his tongue toward the nearest apricot, lying tantalizingly out of reach.
“Shirrot,” he grumbled, and took another tiny step.
Now the art of sapping is a dwarf’s art, the pastime of miners and engineers. A clever sapper may undermine a keep, a wall, even a parcel of land, so that when any heavy vehicle, weapon, or creature strays onto it, the structure collapses immediately. Students of the art claim that its uses are almost all military, and that sapping is useless to woodland peoples, like elves and centaurs, and mages.
However, Brenariel was a most resourceful teacher. Virtually nothing was useless to her. And if it didn’t work, well, she would just make a good story out of it.
But it did work, and the cliff crumbled easily under Oliver’s weight. He found himself sliding over the edge of the deep ravine and hurtling breakneck through the crisp mountain air. He flailed, shrieked, and clutched for the rock face.
And then something desperate untangled his wings. A strangely familiar power surged through his upper body, something he had dreamed of in the long spring nights and forgotten until this moment, this dire time in the air. And then he was unsteadily aloft, spinning gently toward Hrimbarg, rubble from the fractured Cliffside toppling by him, bouncing harmlessly off his strong back.
With a snort of delight, Oliver steadied, banked, and soared toward the high peaks, gaining altitude and strength and confidence as he drew nearer and nearer the lofty mountains. The sunlight poured over his bronze wings, and he bellowed in happiness, the sound echoing through the sheer valleys of the upper Misty Mountains.
Far below, at the mouth of the cavern, the lore master leaned against her shovel and laughed with the same abandon.
- - - -
During the long winter, the egg dream returned to Oliver. He stirred restlessly in the cave, his enormous tail wrenching and thrashing, until the mage, plagued by many sleepless nights, gathered and placed a sizable mound of straw and dried leaves by the cave mouth, on sturdy rock and out of inclement winds. She led the grumbling dragon out, and as Oliver settled disconsolately in his new bed, Brenariel turned to the fire, ignoring one last pathetic blort before the creature fell asleep and snored merrily, impervious to the snow and cold.
For now, he thinks I am cruel, she told herself. But I must keep patience, must stay the time. The seasons and nature will take care of the rest.
Besides, this cavern is too confined for his smell.
- - - -
Oliver was lying on the pallet at the cave’s mouth, lazing in the new year’s sun, when he saw the invaders. His tail thrashed nervously, and alerted by the noise, the lore master hurried to the mouth of the cave.
A dozen shadowy figures ranged over the ice, a squadron heading north towards the ruins of Starkhath, where giants used to reside.
For a month Brenariel had known they were coming. She had read, in the ice, the movement of some kind of army. And this army was unlike the goblin regiments or the swift, elusive bands of wargs.
These were winged creatures. She had never before seen their like.
Loping, almost undulating with a sinister, reptilian grace, the creatures passed by the fringe of the forest and farther out onto the clear and desolate plain. Their leathery scales glinted a dull bronze, laced with a chalky verdigris. Their wings flapped slowly like scavengers perched on a carcass.
From her high vantage, safely downwind from the stalking monsters, Brenariel caught a faint whiff of metal and blood on the icy air. Ate her side, Oliver stirred and rumbled.
“Easy, child,” the mage soothed.
“Eessie,” the dragon echoed, and was obediently still.
But he was not at all easy that night, and the lore mistress gazed with great concern at his restless, shadowy form at the broken bluff’s edge. Oliver paced and stared toward the ruins of Starkhath, the old castle framed in the rising orange light of the moon.
What is he thinking? The mage asked herself. What goes on in that opaque, inhuman mind?
She knew something was calling to him from out of the ruins, for as the wind rustled the dry straw on the bluff, Oliver rumbled and boded, his eyes fixed on something that moved among the distant, collapsed walls and towers. When he slept at last he found the long dream of the dragon, listened to the strange, winged creatures, all of them sharing a common dream as their heritage, as their destiny.
The invaders were called the Bronak, Oliver learned. Their thoughts were a fever of confusion and rage. They remembered only that a strange magic had coursed through them in the egg, as they coiled and grew and awaited birth.
Had time and nature taken its course, the Bronak would have become bronze dragons, like Oliver. These monsters had been Oliver’s nest mates, changed from their natures and ruined forever by an old and evil design. Instead of being dragons, they were dracs, dwarfed in body and spirit, tracking over the wastes of the Misty Mountains on a mission so dark that the thought of it was a black and swirling spot at the edge of the dream.
Oliver awoke the next morning, raised his head, and wailed sadly into the dying wind.
- - - -
“From that moment,” the lore mistress proclaimed, lifting her eyes from the firelight, “the dragon was no longer the docile eager creature of the spring and high summer and fall. Something turned in him as the year turned, and it was high time the change had come. I was glad to see it, even though it had taken monsters to bring it on. I thought he would never leave.”
Graymantle was silent, staring into the firelight, a secret smile playing across his face.
Tarran nodded. “It happens in war. The boy who sees his face in the face of the enemy is a boy no longer, though it may take him many years and many battles to know it. He puts away childish things. And sooner or later, he welcomes adulthood.”
Brenariel smiled. “Odd you should say that, my peach. It was a battle of sorts that brought Oliver to full maturity. But first, I should tell you that.”
- - - -
Oliver had begun to hunt. At first, it was small game: a rabbit he snatched from somewhere on the plains and carried gently back to the cavern. There, he would set the trembling creature on his straw pallet, stare at it for an hour, then fall asleep. The rabbit would seize the opportunity to escape.
Later, in the new spring, the dragon soared over the rocky plains, bringing back a holly bush, a chiseled stone from the ruins of Starkhath, a rickety hay wagon, and finally, his first kill, a small goat that he must have pondered over for about a week. The smell was so dreadful that the mage threatened to sprout his tail with mushrooms unless he removed the carcass.
It was about this time when a young dauntless Sir Jeoffruel, a Knight of the Sword, rode across Vindurhal Vale in search of . . . well, it was never very clear what Sir Jeoffruel was searching for. He was awfully far east of the Clerist’s Tower and alone in a land quite hostile to his Order.
Perhaps it was adventure he sought, and honor.
Perhaps he too, followed some undefinable dream.
Whatever drove him forth or drew him onward, Sir Jeoffruel had passed through villages where his Knighthood was held in contempt, where his fellow knights were considered smug, self-righteous, and meddlesome. He was the perfect showpiece of that Order, the knight they had dreamed of.
Keen of eye and deft of hand, the locals never saved a curse or a rotten turnip for later. By the time he had reached the lower mountains, his shield was spattered with mud, refuse, and with things too vile to describe. He was tired of Oath and Measure, and very tired of the intricate code of his Order that told him to return dignity for scorn and to raise no weapon against a weaker soul.
By the time he reached the lower Misty Mountains, he was positively spoiling for trouble. At the edge of the of the forest, he came across a pair of hunters, actually farm lads, from nearby who were terrified by his armor and his big glistening sword, who dropped their field dressed deer and made for cover of the nearby trees.
Raised among the nobility, amid posted lands and private deer parks, Sir Jeoffruel mistook the ragged men for poachers and inquired in a voice that miles of indignities had stripped of any courtesy, just what they planned to do with the deer.
“Eat it, we reckon,” the lads responded. “And then wear some of it too.”
It was all Sir Jeoffruel could do to restrain himself. Instead, his face aflame with anger and his voice quivering with outrage, he asked the two peasants who they reckoned owned these woods.
The men exchanged wary glances.
“That would be the lore mistress?” the older one offered, more question than answer in his voice.
The young knight gasped. Suddenly, his true quest blazed brightly before him.
Had not the Order instructed him about the ways of the wicked magicians? Tricksters and illusionists, they had said. Worshipers of tree and shrubbery. Stealers of babies.
He instantly envisioned himself charging regally toward a certain victory, toward great honor and repute.
After extracting directions to Brenariel’s cave, dauntless Sir Jeoffruel abruptly left the two puzzled hunters and their dinner/wardrobe for more important game. He would capture this monstrous forest temptress and make his name. This was a challenge he had yearned for since his first disastrous hunt in the Hart’s Forest. The younger knights had laughed at him then; the older ones ignored him.
But now, when he returned, bearing magical trophies . . .
Sir Jeoffruel skirted the smooth path into the mountains, preferring a precarious, narrow route by which he fancied he would catch the mage entirely by surprise. Instead, it led him above the cavern, to a ruined bluff someone evidently had labored to collapse.
Dwarven work, the young knight supposed, dismounting and stooping to inspect the scattered rubble along the ledge, some of which, to his great perplexity, turned out to be dried apricots.
Ah. Poison, of course, he thought. Set out especially for him. And there was no telling how ancient this creature’s stronghold was. How many more illusions and snares she had scattered for him, he reasoned shrewdly.
He shuddered, frightened of his own imaginings. But shaking it off, he leapt into the saddle, hoping to find a pathway down to the mage’s cavern.
His horse, however, was of another mind. The animal, digging its hooves into the gravel, refused to budge, and despite cajolery, threats, and curses, Sir Jeoffruel soon realized that he would indeed travel the rest of the way alone.
The horse stopped for its own reasons, but a very good one would have been because Brenariel was not in the cavern, having taken the sunlit afternoon to tend her daylilies some hundred yards away.
The dragon, however, was home.
Hungry as usual, Oliver had sneaked into the farthest recesses of the cave, where he had previously entangled himself in pillowcases and buckets. This time, however, he was plundering the last of the winter foodstores, the vegetables put away and preserved by Brenariel’s magical arts. Quietly, guiltily, and with great gusto, he gobbled beans, raw cabbage, and parsnips. Shifting his huge backside toward the mouth of the chamber so that tail, wing, and scales blocked sunlight, he foraged greedily in the dark, thinking that Brenariel could not see him if he could not see her.
Stepping into the cave, sword drawn, Sir Jeoffruel spied something hulking and dark hiding in the furthermost recesses and making disgusting sounds. He surmised it was his quarry, eating children, no doubt. He took a deep breath, planted his feet solidly, and braced for the fight of his life.
At the sound of the dauntless warrior’s clanking armor, the dragon, a great many parsnips still wedged in his teeth, perceived that he had company, and that it was not Brenariel. Desperately, not risking the sound of further chewing, he tried to fold his lips over the lumpy vegetables. He tucked his tail and crouched, trying to make himself look like nothing, nothing at all.
But Sir Jeoffruel threw down the challenge.
“Infernal creature of cavernous darkness,” he bellowed. “I have ventured for months and for hundreds of miles to deal with thee. Release those small sweet prisoners you are surely devouring! I declare war on you and your kind! Show thyself, and die an honorable death!”
“Nyawmp!” answered Oliver, horrified and amazed that someone had known to come and rescue his ill-gotten parsnips. He quickly spat them back into the barrel.
“Come forward!” the knight commanded, raising his sword. “Face the light. Monster!”
Oliver turned slowly, apprehensively, his eyes adjusting to the sunlight. The man was a blur that seemed to be made of metal and mud. The dragon caught a strong whiff of rotten turnips.
This must be something from the grave, something from among the ferocious undead. Oliver fought down a sudden surge of panic.
But isn’t fire the enemy of the undead? He asked himself, shifting his ponderous weight and staring at the outline of his adversary, half lost in sunlight.
And isn’t lighting the mother of fire? Oliver took a moment for a quick calculation.
The bronze dragon is famous for its two breath weapons. One, of course, is the lightning, the jagged irresistible fire of battle. There is also the breath gas that drives fear and loathing into any adversary who encounters it.
Oliver fully intended to use the lightning, so the green, fetid cloud that billowed from his nostrils surprised him, as did the meek blort that rose from somewhere just above his stomach and rushed up the long tunnel of his neck, exploding from his mouth in a miasma of half-digested cabbage, beans, and parsnips.
Sir Jeoffruel staggered in his boots as the smell slapped him senseless. His sword slipped from his hand. “What in the world,” he began, but the floor seemed to tilt and rise, his stomach roiled, and he fell to his knees at the cavern mouth, the green mist eddying around him like some deadly stew.
“What . . .” he breathed, but he had forgotten what he was asking, and he would remember nothing else for hours.
With a cry of triumph, Oliver lurched upward and toward the mouth of the cave, his head and dragon consciousness now raised. The dream erupted with visions of flame and lightning, of the knight’s leg in his ravenous maw. He bounded toward his helpless opponent.
And struck his snout soundly against a low hanging row of stalactites.
His silly egg tooth broke off and clattered to the floor of the cave. The dragon reeled. For a moment Oliver thought he was airborne and flapped his wings foolishly, the darkness overtook him, and he collapsed in a heap next to the gas felled knight.
Brenariel heard the boom, saw the green cloud, and ran from the garden to find the two facedown amid vegetables, shattered stalactites, Jeoffruel’s last shred of dignity, and Oliver’s egg tooth.
She celebrated the armistice by having a picnic alone, far, far away from them all.
- - - -
It was a full day and night before the dragon came to, and the knight took a whole day longer. Throughout the week of mending and cleaning that followed, the adversaries eyed each other warily from opposite sides of the cave.
The dauntless Sir Jeoffruel left on the eighth day, the stink of rotten vegetables lodged in his nostrils forever. He could not believe that the lore master had not mired him in quick sand or transformed him into a box elder, that she had patched him and fed him and sent him on his way. His armor was even polished, his sword sharpened, and his horse was glossy, fed and newly shod.
After the knight’s departure, it was scarcely a week until Oliver took to the air and headed north toward the ice caps, where the lore mistress’s augury had suggested that fleets of good dragons would eventually appear.
Brenariel stood on the shortened bluff and watched the great creature vault clumsily into the sky. Steer by the book, she had told him, by the constellations and the red star in her nightly cycle, and soon you will fly over the last of the Misty Mountains, and into the Withered Heath, the Land of Dragons. You will catch a coolness in the air. It will be faint, but you will know it, like the feel of a distant mountaintop on a summer day. And you will keep the rising sun at your heart’s wing and behind you and fly for a night, and another night, and there will be ice then, and the ancient nests of your kind.
There will be dragons, I speak this in faith, Oliver.
She looked after him sadly, then smiled as he soared above her, and waved as he banked his wings and circled in a widening spiral going higher and higher. Soon he was lost to sight and she returned to the cave, her thoughts on the summer, and the late plantings, and a strange, large emptiness she had not expected to feel.
- - - -
Graymantle started as the bucket nearly slipped from his hand. The brandied coffee was cold now, and the fire was a faint orange glow amid the ashes of the hearth.
“It was good to be rid of him,” the lore master said a little too emphatically, as she turned her face from the hearth. “He never came back.”
“Is that so?” Graymantle asked very quietly, smiling as he gently replaced the magical bucket. “I brought you a gift, Brenariel. In the bag by the hearth.”
It was a plant, of course, a daylily he had bred from his own ancient stock on the hillside. He knew how the mage loved the brief, abundant blooms.
Brenariel smiled, admiring the leaves, the stems, the pod-shaped buds. She marveled that it was not dormant, like the others in the deepening cold of autumn.
“I’ve handled it, Brenariel,” Graymantle explained, “so that for this year, it’s the latest bloomer of all. Happy Birthday.”
His big gentle hand passed over a swelling bud, and immediately, as though it were touched by a month of sunlight, the small flower opened and blossomed, pale orchid petals, a purple eye, a green throat. And a skewed and jagged edge to the blossom, like . . .
“Like his tooth!” the lore master exclaimed. “Like the egg tooth!”
“Oliver Dragontooth, I’ll call it,” the hunter-mage announced with a laugh. “Though it blooms out of season, it blooms nonetheless., and in the years to come, it will find its own cycle, its own balance in nature. It’s a fitting final touch to the dragon story.”
It was time to go.
“Ah . . .” the mage asked, “before you leave, would you mind setting my bucket outside the door? I’ll give it another chance to gather ice before I scrap it for firewood.”
Graymantle smiled, knowing Brenariel would do nothing of the sort. Fastening his cloak, he stepped into the darkness and softly closed the big oaken door behind him. It had been a marvelous evening.
Graymantle paused as he looked out into the mystic night sky and set the bucket on the cottage threshold. He chuckled at what his hunter’s hands had discovered in the weathered whorl of that wood. For the secret, unknown to any but the most magical of hands, was that Oliver had come back. Again and again, season after season.
When the dragon dream is first broken by the touch of a hand on the egg, the creature is bound forever to that hand, not by curse or enchantment or even instinct. But by the softer, more willing bonds of love.
That was why no ice had formed in the bucket, even on the coldest nights of the year. The steam of dragon breath had warmed it as it lay in the frigid darkness. Oliver had returned, and with a silent grace, newborn from his survival in the wild, crept slowly to the threshold of Brenariel’s house, new snow covering his tracks, and gazed curiously into the familiar bucket.
“Forever auguring for Froof,” Graymantle muttered with a laugh, as he trudged down the snow covered hillside.
Graytelyn paused and took a deep breath. Her story was over, and she hoped that most everyone enjoyed the tale. Yes, there were a few of the younger set that drifted off before the ending, but the majority of her audience seemed very pleased.
“I assure you that while this is an interesting tale, it is also true. It was related to me many years ago by my grandsire, Graymantle, since he was part of it. I know he has more stories to tell but he seldom does so now, leaving the tellings to me and others, preferring to listen and enjoy them along with the audience.”
“That concludes my moment for this evening. I know there are some others that have equally as enthralling lore to pass on. Part of the joy of being a minstrel is listening to what others relate.”
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