Chapter 17: Refuge
Almonihah returned from consciousness only slowly. The first thing he became aware of was the smell of the room around him. At least, he was pretty sure it was a room—the odors around him seemed like cut wood and earth, like the cabins of Ranger Headquarters would smell. The smells seemed… much more intense, somehow, or perhaps he was simply much more aware of them. Certainly there seemed to be a number of them he didn’t recognize.
Next he became aware of the sounds in the room. Someone was breathing near him… probably sitting, given that it sounded close to his level and he was laying down on his side, on what felt like some furs. The person was holding mostly still, just moving occasionally.
Almonihah frowned a bit as these thoughts sunk in. It was… odd for him to figure this out. Normally he didn’t get this much information out of smell and hearing, despite the emphasis Zrathanzon had put on paying attention to all his senses. He wondered if it was just because he had his eyes closed, so he was paying attention to his ears and nose more.
So, he opened his eyes. He was, as he had thought, in a cabin. He was pretty sure it was at Ranger Headquarters, given that Commander Imlloen was sitting on a chair next to him. The elf noticed Almonihah open his eyes.
“Are you actually with us this time, Almonihah?”
Almonihah winced. His voice seemed loud after he’d been listening so intently to the near-silence in the room. He tried to respond, but his voice came out as a raspy mumble.
“Here.” Imlloen held a waterskin out to the half-dragon.
Almonihah tried to sit up, and almost fell back down. Instead, he eased himself back down and slowly grabbed the waterskin with one hand. After a couple of swallows, he felt like he might be able to speak again.
“You’ve been in and out of consciousness for almost a week now, Almonihah. Don’t overdo it,” the elf said, concern evident in his tone and voice.
“A week?” Almonihah rasped. He could vaguely remember a few brief moments of consciousness, but a week?
Imlloen nodded. “You’re lucky you crashed close enough to a Ranger that he heard you. I don’t think you would have made it if Aled hadn’t gotten to you immediately, though you owe at least as much to Brynmor.”
Almonihah started to nod, then decided against it as tilting his head made the world start to spin. He laid back down. Brynmor was a Druid, and the official healer for the Rangers at the Northern Ranger Headquarters. From what he remembered, he probably had needed the Druid’s help badly when they found him.
“Speaking of Brynmor,” the Ranger Commander said, standing and walking toward the door, “He’ll want to know you’re up.”
Almonihah took stock of himself while Imlloen was out of the room. He seemed to be all in one piece, and though he was vaguely sore… everywhere, really, it seemed he could move everything. Including the wings that were still on his back. Which made him notice that laying on his back, even with the pains whoever had laid him here had obviously taken, was not particularly comfortable any more. He tried sitting up, slowly this time, and with considerable support from the wall the bed he was on was pushed up against.
By the time he’d gotten himself situated somewhat comfortably, Imlloen came back in with Brynmor. The Druid rushed over to his patient.
“What are you sitting up for? You…”
“’t’s too uncomfortable t’ lay on these,” Almonihah interrupted, moving his wings slightly to indicate what he was referring to.
Brynmor shook his head. “I still don’t think it’s a good idea yet, but,” he sighed, “I suppose it’s too late now. Now then, let’s check things over.”
Almonihah endured in silence as the Druid poked and prodded some particular points on his limbs, and especially on his wings. “You had a number of broken bones when we found you,” he explained to his patient as he did so. “It seems like Naishia’s blessings have done their work, though. It was…” he fell silent for a moment, then said, his tone a bit more subdued, “Something… resisted me at first. For a time, it seemed I might not be able to do anything for you.”
The half-dragon grunted in acknowledgement. “Stayed out there too long,” he muttered.
Imlloen sighed. “I’d thought we’d lost you earlier, but I can’t say I was happy to see you when you were carried in. Not like you were.” He was silent for a long moment, then said, “But it’s good to have you back now.”
“You’re probably hungry,” Brynmor interjected. “I have just the thing… be back in a moment…” he went back out the door.
Imlloen watched him leave, then turned back to Almonihah. “Feel up to telling me what happened?” He asked, quietly.
The half-dragon grunted. “Yeah, th’ short version.”
Imlloen sat back down, attentive. Almonihah considered for a moment, then started, “Th’ Madlands ‘re a lot bigger than they were in Falloen’s time. Took me three times ‘s long t’ get to th’ Desolation of the Dragonfall ‘s he did.”
The elf narrowed his eyes, but said nothing. After a moment’s pause, Almonihah continued, “Ran out ‘f supplies. Had t’ eat or die.” He shrugged very slightly. “Just about died anyway.”
The room was silent for a minute or two before he added, softly, “His voice is in the wind down there. Jivenesh’s. Didn’t know what it was at first, but after I ate even that one meal…”
It was quiet again in the room. After another few moments, Brynmor came back in with a bowl of steaming broth.
“Here, this should do the trick,” he said, seating himself near the half-dragon. He filled a spoon and started lifting it to Almonihah’s mouth.
“Can do that,” he muttered.
“No, you can’t,” Brynmor replied, “And I rather not have you spill any of this broth trying.”
Dragons heal quickly, and Almonihah seemed to have inherited much of his father’s recuperative powers. At least, he thought so. Brynmor, on the other hand, insisted he take things slowly and carefully. The half-dragon grumbled and complained about the restrictions after the first few days, insisting that he felt strong enough to take care of himself even if he wasn’t quite up to leaving, but Imlloen stood behind the Druid, so Almonihah reluctantly obeyed.
He didn’t say anything, but what really bothered him was the wind. When it blew from the south, he could almost swear he could hear his name being called. It was during these times that he complained least about staying inside. He wondered sometimes if Brynmor knew, or at least suspected, something, but Almonihah never asked.
Finally, after what seemed like ages to Almonihah but was really more like a week and a half, Brynmor agreed that his patient was almost fully recovered.
“There is something I want to talk with you about first,” the Druid said.
Almonihah grunted in acknowledgement. After waiting for a moment for more of a response, Brynmor continued, “I mentioned that something resisted Naishia’s power when I was first trying to heal you.” The Druid waited for Almonihah to nod before continuing, “As you may have guessed, I could… feel the taint of Jivenesh upon you. What I have not mentioned is that the taint has not entirely disappeared.”
Almonihah nodded again. He didn’t find this much of a surprise, even though he wasn’t particularly happy to get confirmation.
“So you’ve been keeping me here t’ keep an eye on that?” he asked.
“Yes,” Brynmor replied with a sigh.
“’nd what d’ you think?”
The Druid thought for a moment before replying. “The taint is still present… but it does seem to slowly be growing weaker. At the very least it does not seem to be getting any worse, nor does it appear to be actively harming you.”
Almonihah grunted in acknowledgement as he thought this over. After a few seconds of silence, Brynmor added, “If you feel well enough, I think you could leave.”
Slowly, the half-dragon nodded. “Need t’ get away from that,” he said, jerking his head towards the south.
“I see,” Brynmor replied. “In that case, why don’t we go speak with the Commander?”
Imlloen was surprisingly willing to let Almonihah go, enough that the half-dragon was suspicious of what he’d been told. However, he was too glad to leave and go north to press the issue.
It felt good to be outside on his own again. He’d been getting restless the past couple days. Almonihah had never really liked being cooped up inside, especially not after the whole episode with Galindakherithan. Being so close to the Madlands had just made it worse. Overall, he was quite happy to be headed north.
Almonihah took his time, not really having any particular goal in mind other than getting away from the Line. He really looked around as he traveled, enjoying the little details of life in the Lost Sea Valley. He’d never really paid close attention to the variety of plants and animals here—just enough to not get eaten by any of them. Now that he really paid attention, he was surprised by how many different things lived here. The changes in elevation meant that many different types of plants could grow fairly close to each other, which in turn meant different kinds of animals.
Even as he enjoyed the diversity, however, he made sure to not be eaten by any of them. Not much tried, but he was careful all the same.
In time, he reached the other side of the valley. It was getting colder, and some of the trees’ leaves were starting to change colors on the higher parts of the mountains. Almonihah still wasn’t headed anywhere in particular, so he started exploring the slopes of the mountains, climbing up into canyons and then back down.
Then he found something odd. As far as Almonihah knew, the most permanent structures that had been built in the Lost Sea Valley were the cabins of Ranger Headquarters… and yet here was a door carved in a cliff face, with elaborate decorations carved in the stone around it. Curious, he approached to inspect it.
There was no immediately obvious way of opening the door. It was a large door, almost twice as tall as the half-dragon. He tried pushing it, but it didn’t budge. He started to wonder if it was really a door, or just carved to look like one. Then one of the patterns caught his eye. The center of it looked slightly separated from the rest. He pressed it, and it settled back a bit with a soft click. Then the door slowly started to swing inward. With a grunt of satisfaction, Almonihah walked through the doorway.
He walked down a rather plain, though well-made, corridor for a while, before finally reaching a pair of double doors. He opened one, and saw a large room. He looked around as he walked in, noting that it was made of the same unadorned but tight-fitting stonework, with a row of pillars along either side of the room. A small altar-like thing was in the center of the room, with two large statues of elves wielding swords behind it. Two other statues flanked the door, though they were of unarmed dwarves.
Curious, Almonihah walked up to the altar. Unlike the rest of the place, it was elaborately decorated, with forest scenes flanked by armed elves on two sides, and caverns flanked by armed dwarves on the other two sides. On the altar rested a scabbarded sword, with elven runes on the scabbard. Almonihah had learned enough Elvish from Zrathanzon to read what they said: Eldereth. It seemed like a name. Still curious, he picked up the sword and started to unsheathe it.
The half-dragon didn’t know what tipped him off, but somehow, he sensed the movement behind him just in time to dodge to the side before a large sword sliced through where he had been standing. A glance back, and saw that the statue behind him was moving. A quick glance around the room told him the others were as well.
That was all the time he had before he had to evade another sword-stroke. He tried to move toward the doors, but his way was blocked by the two dwarven statues. One slammed a fist into the ground where Almonihah had just been standing as he rolled to the side. He continued evading the statues’ attacks, trying to find an opening. He knew there was no point in attacking stone, but it seemed like he should be able to get past them. The Ranger couldn’t find an opening, though—the elf statues kept on him, but the dwarves kept blocking the doorway.
Almonihah was tiring when he dodged in front of one of the pillars. One of the statue’s swords struck the pillar, sending chips of stone flying. That gave him an idea. He kept circling the pillar, inviting blows and dodging aside just in time. Once the sword grazed him, drawing blood from his shoulder, but eventually the pillar cracked straight through from one of sword-strokes.
Almonihah glanced up and saw a few cracks in the ceiling, but nothing else happened. Quickly, he ran near the door on the same side as the damaged pillar, just close enough to one of the dwarf statues to draw its attacks. It followed him just far enough to strike another pillar. The half-dragon didn’t have to look up to hear the ceiling start to cave.
He rolled forward, toward the statue. It was raising a fist to smash him when a huge chunk of stone smashed its head. It stumbled just enough for Almonihah to slip behind it and to the door, still open from when he had come in. He sprinted back out into the daylight.
Almonihah stood gasping for a while before he turned back around to see what had happened. While he couldn’t see all the way back into the room, he could see a faint haze of dust coming out of the door in the mountainside. After a few moments watching for movement, he shrugged and walked off.
As he did, he drew the sword he’d almost died for. It was a surprisingly plain blade, though clearly finely crafted. It was a bit longer and a bit more slender than a longsword, but felt much lighter. It had no visible runes, no identifying marks. Out of curiosity, Almonihah gave it a swing, and was surprised to see it left a trail of sparks behind it.
“Needed a new sword,” Almonihah muttered to himself as he sheathed the sword.
A few days later, Almonihah entered a hidden valley. He knew as soon as he started to descend into it that there was something special about it. It had that… feeling about it, the same one he’d felt so long ago in Llinos’s valley. There was something a bit… different here, though. The feeling wasn’t quite the same.
A short while later, he saw another thing that was different about this valley—the animals here were much larger than normal. His first clue was some deer tracks that were more the size of a warhorse’s hoof-prints. Then he saw the deer themselves, and they removed all doubt as to their size.
After that, he saw many other giant animals—eagles, wolves, rabbits, even a bear that must have been three times Almonihah’s height. The strange thing was, the half-dragon felt completely safe among them, and they seemed to completely ignore him, despite evidence that the predators still preyed normally on their giant prey.
Almonihah found some of this evidence in a clearing. There wasn’t much left of the deer that had been taken down—just some scattered bits of flesh and bone, as well as some bloodstained earth. What really caught his interest were the tracks. There were both lion paw-prints and eagle talon marks in the ground here, both of similar, massive size. A griffon, fully twice the size of an average adult griffon, judging by the size of the prints.
The Ranger grunted softly in appreciation of the size of the beast as he stood back up, looking up the nearby mountainside as he did. A slight movement caught his eye. It was the griffon. Or at least a griffon. He seemed to be looking down at the half-dragon just as Almonihah was looking back up at him.
With just a hint of a grin, Almonihah started walking toward the mountain, looking up every now and then at the griffon watching him. Normally, he’d think it was stupid to walk closer to a griffon. Wild griffons were ferociously territorial, and if this one was twice the size of a normal griffon, he wouldn’t go down easily, even if Almonihah had wanted to try. Here, though… here, the half-dragon was sure that the griffon was no threat. While even his draconic eyes couldn’t pick out much detail from this distance, he somehow felt that the griffon was just… curious. Almonihah wondered when the last time someone had come here was.
It was a hard climb to reach the griffon’s lair. Part of the way, the Ranger could walk, though carefully, picking his way up the mountain. Other parts he had to climb, digging his claws into cracks in the stone as he pulled himself up. Once he almost spread his wings to fly the rest of the way, but the memory of how he’d gotten them was too fresh, too painful… and he couldn’t help but shake the feeling that there was a whisper of a voice in the wind when he flew.
The whole time, the big griffon up above just watched, curiously. Almonihah would meet his eyes occasionally as he climbed up to his perch, and the half-dragon could almost feel the intensity of the griffon’s inquisitiveness when they did. Finally, Almonihah reached the edge of the ledge the griffon was on. Said griffon backed up to give him space to pull himself up, and he could finally see the beast properly.
He was a huge male, at least two feet taller than Almonihah at the shoulder. Even standing level with him, Almonihah had the unusual feeling of having to look up at someone. His feathers were a dark brown, with just a hint of lighter color at the tips, and his fur was a tawny golden-brown. Overall, he looked fit and well-fed, maybe even a bit chubby. Clearly, the griffon had been doing quite well for himself.
Of course, his most obvious characteristic was his size. Almonihah had seen dragons before, and of course he’d ‘lived’ with Galindakherithan for about a year, but you expected dragons to be massive. To stand in front of a griffon this size…
“You’re pretty big,” Almonihah said, again with a little bit of a grin, feeling like he needed to break the silence. The griffon responded with a screech that made him wince just a bit—his hearing felt a bit more sensitive since he’d gotten back from the Madlands.
Almonihah nodded to himself a bit once he finished suppressing his wince. He’d known griffons were more intelligent than normal animals, and that they could generally understand a bit of the Common Tongue, just as all creatures of some intelligence could. Which made him wonder…
“You lived here long?” He asked the big griffon. He just looked back at the strange two-legged creature in front of him, seeming a bit confused.
“Nod your head like this,” Almonihah demonstrated, “To say yes. And shake your head like this,” he again demonstrated, “To say no.”
The griffon stared at him for a long moment. This was something Almonihah had wished he’d tried with Varack’Nara, because he’d always felt the griffon had more he wanted to communicate than he’d known how. Or at least, now that he was older he felt that way as he thought back on those times. Now was his chance to find out if a griffon really could think well enough to communicate more than a normal animal.
Suddenly the griffon started nodding his head, then stopped with an uncertain screech, looking at the half-dragon again. Almonihah grinned back at him.
“So yes, you have lived here a while,” he stated, waiting for the griffon to respond. After a moment, it again nodded, this time with a more certain, positive-sounding screech.
“Well, were you this big when you got here?”
A moment’s pause, then a shake of the head with another screech.
“Hm…” Almonihah thought for a moment, then noticed that the griffon was looking curiously at him again. “Wondering what I am?”
A more enthusiastic nod followed by a screech.
“’m a half-dragon. Father was a bronze dragon, mother was a human.”
The griffon screeched softly, looking rather confused. Almonihah laughed just a bit at the expression, then said, “t’d take a while t’ explain.”
The griffon screeched again in reply, this time seeming a bit disappointed. After a few quiet moments, Almonihah asked, “Want t’ know what I was doing?”
Again the nod and affirmative screech, though this time the griffon moved forward a bit excitedly.
“Was just looking at your tracks.”
Again the griffon didn’t seem enlightened by his explanation.
Almonihah paused again for a bit, then said, “This ‘s going t’ take a while…”
He spent the next several weeks mostly in the valley, spending a lot of time with the griffon and then striking out to explore sometimes when the griffon went hunting or whatever else he did. Almonihah himself didn’t eat or drink anything from the valley itself, instead going on occasional trips out to gather more food from outside of the valley. His experience in the Madlands was too recent for him to risk eating or drinking suspect things, and besides, he didn’t particularly want to be twice his current size. He already had to duck to get in some doorways.
The griffon turned out to have quite a personality as Almonihah got to know him better. He was incredibly energetic, but even more curious. The only way Almonihah could get the griffon to stay still for long was to talk with him about things, and he could always tell when he was getting bored. The most difficult thing was that he clearly wanted to communicate more—Almonihah could already recognize several of the different screeches he made, especially the ‘question’ screech—but didn’t know how. The half-dragon had thought about teaching him to speak the Common Tongue, since he obviously already understood it. On further consideration, he’d decided against it, since it didn’t seem like griffons could make the right sounds. Instead, he’d started to teach him some Great Eagle, interspersed with a bit about how to scratch some letters in the ground when the griffon got bored.
While, at first, Almonihah had felt anxious to get going again, it wasn’t long before he could feel the peace and… rightness of the place soothing him. Though he’d tried hard not to think about it, his experience in the Madlands had shaken the Ranger deeply. He’d become uncertain about who and what he was, or maybe… maybe he’d just been forced to admit he still wasn’t sure about those things. Being here didn’t answer these questions for him, but he felt himself cheering up anyway. The griffon’s innocent enthusiasm was infectious, and Almonihah found himself grinning and even laughing some evenings while talking with him and trying to teach him.
Eventually, though, he felt it was time to leave. While he still didn’t know where he needed to go, Almonihah knew he couldn’t just stay here. With regret, he told the griffon he was leaving. The griffon shook his head violently, and screeched No! with the little bit of Great Eagle he could speak. The half-dragon, however, refused to be persuaded to stay, and eventually the big griffon admitted defeat with a long, despairing screech, and collapsed in a miserable-looking heap of feathers and fur.
Looking back, Almonihah almost changed his mind, but his certainty that it was time to go wouldn’t leave him. As he turned back, he noticed the griffon suddenly stand up.
With! Come! he screeched, bounding after the retreating half-dragon. Almonihah turned again as the griffon came to a stop right behind him.
You want to come with me? he asked in Great Eagle, looking up at the again cheerful and eager eyes.
Yes! was the enthusiastic reply.
Almonihah couldn’t help grinning. After a moment of thought, he said, “Well, if you’re going to come with me, I think you need a name. How about…” he thought of the times he’d watched the griffon fly for the sheer pleasure of it, doing acrobatics or just trying to fly as fast as he could.