Chapter 2: Cub
The next morning, Almonihah’s training began almost immediately. Zrathanzon started by teaching him how to cook over a campfire, though he did have some extra food ready for when his student dropped his in the fire. Then were some lessons on cleaning and caring for some of the equipment they used. And so it went on for a while that morning.
In time, they came to practicing with the sword again. This time, Zrathanzon stopped before handing him the makeshift practice sword.
“Almonihah, I made a bit of an assumption yesterday. You’ve been taught to write, correct?” At Almonihah’s nod, he continued, “Which hand do you usually write with?”
Almonihah frowned a little bit in thought at the question, then he shrugged diffidently. “Either one.”
Zrathanzon cocked his head, and gave Almonihah an intrigued look. “Either one, hm? Let’s see then… take this in your left hand.”
Zrathanzon handed him the practice sword, and Almonihah obediently took it in his left hand. Then they started into the exact same drills they had done the first day. While it took a little while at first for him to get used to switching sides, Almonihah was soon doing the drills just as well with his left hand as he had been with his right. Then Zrathanzon had him switch hands and started teaching him another move, then had him switch back to practice it.
After observing his student’s performance, Zrathanzon shook his head and murmured, as much to himself as to Almonihah, “Ambidextrous. Completely ambidextrous, as far as I can tell.” Speaking a bit more loudly he asked, “Did you know you could do this?”
Almonihah stopped the drill he was doing and looked up at Zrathanzon with a faintly confused look. “I thought everyone could,” he said with another shrug.
Zrathanzon laughed a bit. “I suppose it’s not the kind of thing that comes up a lot. But no, not very many people can use both hands so well. You’re a lucky kid to be able to.”
Almonihah turned away from his teacher and muttered, bitterly, “Yeah, lucky…”
It didn’t take long for them to settle into a routine. They arose every morning, ate a simple breakfast, and then Zrathanzon would start Almonihah’s lessons. Sometimes the lessons were mostly around the campsite, such as sword drills and even some bow training, but more often they were practical, taught while on the move, hunting or foraging or any of the other activities Zrathanzon engaged in. Every few weeks, they would move to another campsite, though truthfully, Almonihah could hardly tell each one from the last.
The relentless schedule left Almonihah aching and exhausted every night, but he was glad for it. All of the things to do during the day kept him too busy to dwell on the past, and exhaustion meant there were precious few moments lying in bed waiting for sleep in which to ask what had become of his father. If Zrathanzon was surprised by how completely his little student threw himself into his lessons, he didn’t show it. Perhaps he knew why Almonihah did it, and thought it was the most he could do to help ease the child’s pain.
As the months passed, Almonihah could tell he was getting stronger and more skilled. It seemed, however, that his teacher could tell as well, because his lessons simply became more difficult. Every time he thought he was getting good at something, Zrathanzon would show him that there was still a lot more to learn. And each time, Almonihah would throw himself back into his training, more determined to do better.
The leaves were falling from the trees, and Almonihah had come to feel the forest was his home. Though Zrathanzon still warned of great dangers in the woods, and taught him all he could about how to avoid them, he hadn’t seen any sign of them. The only danger he knew was the one that had overtaken his mother, and that was one which he wished to forget.
Then, one evening, he found out one reason why most men avoided the North Forest.
The two were traveling, as they often did, further west. They were taking their time, and Almonihah was amusing himself by practicing some of his sword drills with a stick as they walked. He was so absorbed in doing so that he didn’t notice that he had fallen a little behind Zrathanzon, as well as to the side of where he was walking. Nor did he notice the signs that Zrathanzon had taught him to look for.
Suddenly, Almonihah felt something tighten around his ankle, and then he was violently yanked into the air. He cried out in fear. Ahead of him, he heard Zrathanzon bite off a curse in Draconic—something he had never heard his mentor do before. He struggled to get a look at what was holding his boot as he was shaken about in midair, and finally managed to see that it was a thick, brown, hairy vine.
Just as he was reaching to try to loosen the vine’s grip on his ankle, he felt another one brush his shoulder, and he remembered what Zrathanzon had told him this vine was. A blood vine, a deadly plant that ambushed its prey, strangled it, and then drained its blood—though it wasn’t always picky about finishing strangling its prey before it started on the blood-draining part, from what Zrathanzon had said.
As the second vine started to wrap around his neck, Almonihah spotted a flash of golden scales and bright steel. A sword whistled through the air, and then he found himself falling, the vine that had been about to choke him brushing painfully past his ears and nose. As he fell to the ground, there were a couple more whistling sounds, followed by woody thunks, and then he was lifted and carried a short distance by Zrathanzon before being set on the ground.
After getting his breath back and his heartbeat under control, Almonihah started to a bit better. Then he wondered if Zrathanzon was going to be mad. After all, this was exactly the sort of thing he’d been trying to teach how him to avoid, and he’d gone and walked right into it. He started to look up at the Ranger, then decided he’d rather not meet his eyes and looked down, ashamed.
“Almonihah,” Zrathanzon murmured gently.
Slowly, Almonihah looked up and met Zrathanzon’s gaze. He was rather relieved to see that it didn’t seem to be an angry gaze.
“I think you’ve learned your lesson already, right?”
“Then let’s keep going. Just… pay more attention to where you’re going, okay? I don’t want to get scared like that again.”
After that, Almonihah was a lot more cautious and attentive while they traveled, and even just around the campsite. He was rather surprised, as he looked around, just how many of the dangers Zrathanzon had taught him about were around him. Usually the area around their campsites were fairly clear, though there were exceptions. Whenever they did find something dangerous too close to a campsite, though, Zrathanzon cleared it out.
When Almonihah asked about this, his mentor explained, “We’re not the only ones who use these campsites. There’s a couple of other Rangers and druids in these woods, and then there’s the occasional hunter or trapper who ventures this far. I try to leave these sites a bit safer for them, and they generally do the same.”
“Druids?” Almonihah inquired, feeling like he should know the term.
“Priests and priestesses of Naishia,” Zrathanzon responded as he dug up the roots of the blood vine he’d just chopped up.
“Naishia… she’s the nature goddess, right?”
Zrathanzon chuckled a bit. “Yes, she is. How much do you know about the Ten?”
Almonihah frowned a bit in thought, then perked up as he figured out what the Ranger was talking about. “The Ten Gods, right? A little bit…” His voice trailed off as the thought brought memories of family—painful memories, like anything that reminded him of why he was living here, in the woods, rather than in a home somewhere.
“Their names, at least?”
Almonihah nodded. “Bahamut, Naishia, Mashano, Kazoran, Sephania, Tiamat, Kenash, Kerichang, Arphaxad, and… Jivenesh, right?”
“That’s right,” Zrathanzon acknowledged.
Almonihah thought for a bit, then asked, “Do you worship one of the gods, Zrathanzon?”
Zrathanzon was quiet for a moment, then answered, “Bahamut, mostly. I have a lot of respect for Naishia, too, but I wouldn’t say I worship her.”
“Why not?” Almonihah asked, every bit the five-or-six year old he was for the moment.
The Ranger was thoughtful for a longer moment, then responded, “Bahamut… he’s more about defending, protecting people. Keeping them safe from the dangers of evil. Naishia… she cares, too, but she’s more about preserving the world, the woods… and I guess I think it’s more important to protect people.” He stopped for a moment, then shrugged and continued, “Of course, I try to protect the woods, too, except for things like this,” he gestured at the remains of the blood vine he was collecting to burn as they talked, “but worship’s a funny thing. Some people say they worship two gods at once but… I can’t. And Bahamut’s closer to my heart than Naishia.”
Almonihah was silent as he digested this. After a while, Zrathanzon stopped working for a second to look at him and ask, “Have you thought much about following a god?”
Almonihah seemed to be startled out of his thoughts by the question. He mutely shook his head.
“You need to,” Zrathanzon said, his voice serious. “Most kids would be too young to right now, but most kids aren’t half-dragons, either.”
For the first time, Almonihah thought of how differently he thought and looked at the world then he had just a year ago. Most kids don’t watch their mother die, either, he thought, but all he said was, “Could you teach me more about them?”
From then on, Zrathanzon added teaching about the gods to the lessons he taught Almonihah. With that came teachings about the different races of Draezoln, for the two subjects are intimately connected, and in time the lessons extended to cover the nations and geography of their world.
In time, the leaves changed colors, then fell, leaving only the occasional stand of pines for shelter from the rains, and then the snows. Fortunately, Zrathanzon had had the the foresight to purchase some warm clothing for Almonihah. Zrathanzon, however, didn’t wear anything more than his usual leather armor.
When Almonihah pointed this out, Zrathanzon countered with a question. “Have you ever heard of a dragon wearing a fur coat?”
“No,” Almonihah responded, carefully not thinking about the only dragon he’d ever actually seen.
“Well, I’ve got enough dragon blood to not need to. Maybe when you’re older, you won’t, either.”
The pair continued making their way slowly west, moving from campsite to campsite whenever Zrathanzon decided it was time to move on. In time, as winter was setting in in earnest, Almonihah thought he could see something through the bare branches of the trees to the west.
“Zrathanzon,” he said, pointing, “What’s that over there?”
Zrathanzon looked over at where Almonihah was pointing. “Those? Those are the Stormpeaks, that go clear from up here down to Midport.”
“Why are we headed towards them?” Almonihah asked.
“Well, it’s been a while since I’ve gotten out this way,” Zrathanzon responded. “There’s some people I want to check up on, maybe even an old friend you could meet.”
“An old friend?”
Zrathanzon chuckled a bit. “Yes, an old friend of mine. A druid. You might learn a few things from him.”
“Oh,” Almonihah said, his voice actually sounding interested.
They continued on their meandering way west. Sometimes, as they were traveling, Zrathanzon would stop, quietly tell Almonihah to stay put, then go ahead. Sometimes nothing would happen, but sometimes, Almonihah would be able to hear the sounds of some beast fighting and dying.
On one occasion, Zrathanzon came back from one of these encounters with a small gash on his leg and a slight limp. Seeing Almonihah’s expression of dismay, he insisted that he’d be fine, they would just have to make camp here for the night.
Zrathanzon directed Almonihah in setting up the camp while he started pulling some bandages and herbs out of his pack. After he had everything, he pulled out his waterskin and used a bit of the water to clean his wound.
Zrathanzon spoke, almost to himself, as he cleaned and bandaged his wound. “Monsters are always more aggressive this time of year. Hungrier, because there’s less for them to eat. It makes them a lot more dangerous during the winter.” He paused to check his bandage job, then turned to Almonihah and asked, “You’ve still got that dagger I gave you, right?”
Almonihah nodded. Zrathanzon then continued, “Well, we’d better have you start practicing with it. Never know when you might need it.”
Almonihah practiced while Zrathanzon sat, observed, and gave the occasional compliment, critique, or command. Before long, the shadows started to lengthen. Zrathanzon cooked some of their provisions, then they ate, cleaned up, and went to sleep.
Zrathanzon healed quickly, and it was not long before they were traveling again. Within the space of a couple weeks they reached the foothills of the mountains. Almonihah was amazed by how big they actually were, now that they had reached them. They seemed tall enough to touch the sky, and it seemed something in him wanted to reach up and touch it with them.
“Are we going up to the top of one of those?” Almonihah asked his mentor, pointing to the tallest peak he could see.
Zrathanzon chuckled, then answered, “Maybe someday, Almonihah. You’ve got quite a ways to go before you’re really up for climbing that high, though.”
Almonihah was silent, but disappointment was clear on his face. This brought another laugh from Zrathanzon, which was only intensified when Almonihah frowned back in response.
They made good time, traveling further into the night to reach a campsite Zrathanzon knew of nearby. They managed to reach it not long after the sun had gone down. They quickly made camp, and then went to bed.
And that night, Almonihah dreamed.
It was not a dream like he’d ever had before, however. It was no thing of confused shadows mixed with painful memories, but rather crisp, vivid, almost as if he was living it rather than dreaming it. He was just stepping out of a cave on a mountain much like the one he had been wanting to climb, stretching his wings, looking forward to the morning’s flight. After testing the wind for a moment, he bounded forward, leaped off the cliff, spread his wings, and flew.
He glided out over the forest, his keen eyes searching for prey. Soon, he saw a herd of deer in a meadow, peacefully grazing. He flew over towards the clearing, making certain that his huge shadow didn’t warn them of his approach.
Just as he was getting ready to dive, a voice startled him, telling him to wake up. That seemed kind of silly—after all, he wasn’t asleep, he was hunting. It called again, and this time he did wake up to see Zrathanzon standing over him, telling him to wake up for his morning drills.
Almonihah got up rather more slowly than usual, the sensations of flight still fresh in his mind. He couldn’t recall ever having such a vivid dream, nor one that so involved all of his senses. It seemed almost like a fresh memory. His introspection continued throughout breakfast and into his morning drills.
After observing his young companion for a little while, Zrathanzon asked, “You all right, Almonihah?”
Almonihah nodded in response, then added a “Yeah.”
Zrathanzon looked closely at his young companion, clearly not convinced. After a moment, then, he said, “All right, then, you must not have any excuses for why you were so much sloppier than usual on that last drill, hm?”
“Oh,” Almonihah responded, his little head-fin drooping a bit in shame, “…yeah, I don’t”
“Let’s see you do it again then, and show me that you’ve actually learned something this time,” Zrathanzon said sternly.
Almonihah did focus better on his lessons that morning, but his dream remained with him throughout the day as they headed closer and closer to the mountains. Something about the mountains seemed to call to him, awakening a longing in him to climb to the top of one of them, step off, and fly over the forest below.
“They’re really something, aren’t they?” Zrathanzon broke into Almonihah’s thoughts.
“Huh?” Almonihah, distracted again, was caught off guard by the Ranger’s question.
Zrathanzon nodded his head in the direction of the nearby peaks and clarified, “The mountains. They really make you realize how big the world really is, don’t they?”
“Yeah…” Almonihah’s tone was still a bit distracted, and his gaze never strayed from the snowy peaks in front of him.
Zrathanzon looked up at the mountains, too, and his voice grew softer as he spoke again. “They kind of call out to you… like the dragon part of you remembers living in some lair in a mountain like one of these…” Zrathanzon’s voiced trailed off, then he seemed to shake himself out of his reverie and said, “At least, that’s how it seems for me. Not sure if it works the same way for you.”
“Yeah, it…” Almonihah hesitated for a moment, thinking on his dream and whether or not he should tell his mentor about it, then finished by saying simply, “It does.”
“Well, I guess we’d better get used to it. We’ll probably be staying around here for a good bit of the winter,” the Ranger said, his tone more normal.
Remembering where they were going, Almonihah asked, “So when are we going to meet your friend?”
Zrathanzon pointed up the little creek they had been following for the past few minutes. “You see how this goes up into the mountains? He lives up there, but he tends to move around a bit up and down this creek. We may meet him today, and if not, he’ll see our campfire and meet us in the morning.”
They hiked upwards, following the creek as it meandered between hills on its way down from the mountains. As they drew closer, Almonihah could see that they were headed towards a broad-mouthed canyon between two of the closer mountains. As they walked, Almonihah noticed a funny mark on one of the trees near the creek. It looked kind of like someone had lightly etched a rough likeness of a tree into the bark.
“What’s that mean, Zrathanzon?” Almonihah asked, pointing at the mark.
Zrathanzon looked at where Almonihah was pointing, his expression a bit puzzled at first. After studying it for a bit, he smiled a bit and said, “Good eyes, Almonihah. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked past this tree and not noticed that there. That is one of the many symbols used to refer to Naishia. No doubt Llinos was the one who placed it there.”
“That’s the name of my friend who lives here,” Zrathanzon replied to Almonihah’s question with a bit of a grin.
“Oh.” Almonihah realized that he probably should have known that.
They continued on, following the creek. Almonihah got a funny feeling as they passed the marked tree. It took him a little bit to put his finger on what kind of a feeling it was, but it seemed like the best description for it was a feeling of peace.
As the last light of dusk was disappearing, they came to a fire ring, much like the fire rings at the other campsites Zrathanzon had apparently set up all throughout the North Forest. They quickly set up camp for the night.
“Llinos should find us in the morning,” Zrathanzon told his student as he prepared to lay down.
Almonihah only nodded in response as he went to his bedroll, as well. He was quite surprised to find that he fell asleep quickly—or rather, he would have been, if he had been awake long enough to appreciate it. His dreams that night were peaceful and pleasant.