Chapter 20: West
Almonihah woke with a start. It took a moment for his mind to catch up with his body, during which time he frantically tried to figure out why he was in a bed in a somewhat dark room. Then the aches caught up with his consciousness, and he remembered.
He gritted his teeth against a groan as he sat up. As he did so, he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He forced his eyes to focus, and he could see a young human boy in a simple robe sitting up from where he was slouching in his chair.
“You’re awake!” the boy said, a bit sleepily.
Almonihah grunted in response. Then he remembered something else.
“Zakhin’Dakh!” Almonihah barked. “The griffon. How’s he?”
The boy—a young priest-in-training, Almonihah guessed—had to think for a second, blinking sleepily. Then his eyes got big as he said, “Oooooo… the big one?”
Almonihah nodded impatiently.
“The Judge-priest went to look after him last night. He looked really tired when he came back, but he said he’d be okay…”
He stopped speaking as Almonihah started sitting up all the way up.
“He said you’re not to get out of bed yet!”
The half-dragon grunted, but turned to put his feet on the ground. The acolyte stood and stepped over as if to do something to keep Almonihah from standing, but the half-dragon held up a hand to him.
“’m fine, kid. My friend was worse ‘n me.” And it’s my fault, he added silently.
The acolyte hesitated just long enough for Almonihah to get his feet on the ground and slowly stand up. He took an unsteady step toward the door. The young human finally came to a decision, and came over to stand nervously next to the half-dragon.
“I… can show you the way?” he said, nervously.
Almonihah grunted in response and waved him forward.
He could see, when they left the temple, that it was still early in the morning. No one else was in the temple, and only a couple people were out on the street. One of them peered at Almonihah, then yelled in surprise, “You’re the dragon-slayer!”
Almonihah just grunted in reply and kept walking, keeping focused on staying upright. It was getting a bit better, but he could still tell he was weak.
“Thank you! That dragon… I don’t know what would have happened if it’d stayed around…”the person—a human woman—looked again at Almonihah. “Are you…”
“I’ll be fine,” Almonihah growled.
The woman seemed a bit taken aback, and just watched the pair pass in silence.
It wasn’t long before they reached the inn. Almonihah could hear someone speaking as they approached.
“…you should be in fine shape in a couple of days.”
The tired screech that seemed to be a reply was definitely Zakhin’Dakh’s. Almonihah quickened his pace a bit to reach the entrance to the innyard. The gate opened just as he reached it to reveal the head priest on his way out.
He laughed. “I suppose I should have known you wouldn’t stay laying down. You adventuring types never listen to those kinds of instructions, do you?” He shook his head and waved behind him. “Well, I’m sure your friend… Zakhin’Dakh, you called him, yes? He will be glad to see you. And I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that both he and you should be fine shortly, assuming,” he gave the half-dragon a stern look, “You don’t hurt yourself again.”
“Thanks,” Almonihah mumbled, a bit surprised. He noted briefly that, despite the priest’s cheerful demeanor, he looked very tired. A quick glance over at the acolyte revealed that he seemed rather surprised at the priest’s appearance… or perhaps just that he was here.
“Now, I’m guessing you’d like to be alone with him.” It was more a statement than a question. The priest waved at his acolyte. “Come along, Mekel.”
The young acolyte, Mekel, seemed rather bewildered as he followed the head priest back toward their temple. Almonihah made his way into the innyard. Zakhin’Dakh was sprawled in a pile of hay in front of the stables—which for some reason were presently empty. He perked up when he saw his friend walking in, and started to struggle to his feet.
Almonihah quickly waved him back down. “t’s okay, Zakhin’Dakh. Don’t need t’ get up.”
The big griffon cheeped a quiet acknowledgment as he settled back down. Almonihah slowly looked him over.
“Looks like th’ priest did a good job,” he grudgingly admitted.
Zakhin’Dakh nodded his head slightly in agreement. The huge wounds the dragon’s claws had torn in his wings and forequarters were nearly completely healed, and there was no sign of the broken bones that had troubled him.
Just tired, the griffon softly screeched.
“Yeah,” Almonihah agreed. “Guess this much healing’s tiring even with magic.”
Zakhin’Dakh inclined his head in agreement. Almonihah walked over and gently laid a hand on his shoulder. They stood in silence for a while.
Sorry… for almost getting you killed, the half-dragon whispered to his big friend.
Zakhin’Dakh shook his head in wordless disagreement.
They spent most of the day together recuperating. The priest of Mashano and his acolytes checked on them occasionally, and the innkeeper prepared some hearty meals for Almonihah (the town elders brought a cow for Zakhin’Dakh, and had a small ceremony of gratitude for the pair), but most of the time, they rested and talked. Almonihah noted that the griffon’s Great Eagle was getting more coherent quite quickly—as quick as his had, if not quicker.
By the next day, both of them were restless. Almonihah, with Zakhin’Dakh following, decided to go out to where they had killed the dragon, and managed to convince the guard captain to send a couple guards with him by mentioning that he would look for the dragon’s lair… and hoard. He stopped on the way to cut some large pieces out of the dragon’s hide, spoke with Zakhin’Dakh, and then tied them to his back. He had some ideas for how it could be used…
The dragon’s lair was in a cave in the hill it had emerged from, and it did, indeed, have a sizable hoard. Almonihah took a fair-sized cut for himself and Zakhin’Dakh, and then the pair of guards loaded the rest up, and they returned to town.
They returned that evening to find that the townspeople had put together a feast in honor of the dragon-slayer and his griffon. Almonihah was already getting rather sick of everything, so when the town elder at the head of the table asked him to speak, he knew just what to say.
“Thanks for th’ last couple days,” he started, “But Zakhin’Dakh ‘nd I have t’ leave tonight.”
A wave of startled murmurs rippled across the crowd. Almonihah paused for only a moment.
“Make sure t’ share that hoard with anyone else that’s been hit by that dragon. Don’t think it’s just attacked you.”
And with that, he walked over to Zakhin’Dakh. After a moment of stunned disbelief, several people started urging the pair to stay for at least one night, but Almonihah was done with being in town. They went far enough that night to put the town’s stockade out of sight before setting up camp in the moonlight.
They headed southwest, roughly following the uncertain boundary between the human kingdom they were in—Teket, wasn’t it?—and the Orc Hills. Almonihah guided his friend away from other settlements, instead staying mostly to the wilderness, only crossing cleared areas when they had to. Though he was headed for a larger town, Almonihah didn’t particularly feel like dealing with more people than he had to before then. Zakhin’Dakh thought this was kind of strange, but he was usually too caught up in the newness of everything to think about it much.
After a few days of easy travel, they reached the town Almonihah was heading for. It was a larger town, positioned at the southern pass through the Orc Hills. Zrathanzon had mentioned, once, when they had passed through, that there was a particularly good saddle-maker here. He should have enough dragon hide for the job…
They stopped outside town, at the edge of a patch of woods, and Almonihah explained what he was thinking of to Zakhin’Dakh. At first the big griffon was a bit confused by the concept, but then some riders galloped out of the gate and down the road, and Almonihah could point out the saddles they were using. (Fortunately, the riders had neither dragon nor eagle eyes, and so could not see their observers) Once he saw them, and thought about how uncomfortable it had gotten the few times Almonihah had been on his back, he agreed it was a good idea.
Almonihah left his friend in the woods and went into town. The guards, who had at least heard of half-dragons, simply gave him a dark look and a stern warning about not causing trouble. It took him a while to find the saddle-maker, and even longer to convince him to come outside town to see what kind of job he was facing, but the sight of some dragon gold finally convinced him to come take a look.
After a moment of carefully controlled shock at the sight of the giant griffon, he got to work taking measurements of both Zakhin’Dakh and the pieces of dragon hide. A few moment’s deliberation later, he said there was enough, and promised to help get the griffon inside town
The guards were understandably… reluctant to let a giant griffon through the gate, but eventually, the arguments of a well-known townsman convinced them to let him through. That done, the saddle-maker got to work.
It took several days to complete, but eventually, Zakhin’Dakh’s saddle was ready. Almonihah inspected it carefully, but finally admitted that it was a good piece of work, and well worth the gold he was paying. It sat right behind the base of the griffon’s neck, letting his rider straddle his neck—which was a bit thinner than the rest of him. A complex system of straps and structural pieces kept it in place without obstructing the motion of Zakhin’Dakh’s wings.
Once out of town a little ways, Almonihah looked up at his big friend with a bit of a grin. Time for a test flight?
Yes! Zakhin’Dakh screeched in happy reply.
Almonihah backed up, then leaped, using a couple flaps of his own wings to get him up to the right height. He got rather clumsily into the saddle, then spent a few moments settling himself in. Once he was fairly certain of his seat, he said, Let’s go!
Zakhin’Dakh happily jumped into the air, his powerful leap and wingbeats rattling his rider until he figured out how to compensate properly. After a few minutes, Almonihah started to relax. No voices in the wind troubled him, no thoughts of darkness to the south came.
How far do you think we can go in one flight?
Really far! Zakhin’Dakh replied excitedly, flapping harder as he sped west.
Almonihah had to make Zakhin’Dakh land before he exhausted himself too badly. He seemed rather disappointed at the distance they had covered, but Almonihah assured him that it was a lot. Zakhin’Dakh just felt like he should have been able to get further, even though Almonihah said that his weight and the weight of the saddle was tiring the griffon out faster. He felt a little better when Almonihah reassured him that he’d get better at it with practice.
Practice lots! Zakhin’Dakh screeched.
Almonihah laughed a bit. We’ll both get plenty of practice, he said, walking just a bit stiffly. It’d been a long time since he’d ridden griffon-back for long…
They made their way west across the plains, keeping the Dragon’s Teeth range visible on the horizon to their left. Despite Zakhin’Dakh trying to outdo himself every day, they traveled slowly. Almonihah would often spot a herd of animals off to one side, or something else would catch Zakhin’Dakh’s attention, and so they meandered back and forth almost as much as they headed west.
A thunderstorm rolled across the plains as they traveled. Almonihah leaned into it, a hint of a grin playing on his face as he reveled in the wild power of the wind, the rain, and the thunder. He glanced back at Zakhin’Dakh. The big griffon was clearly not enjoying the storm as much. Water dripped off of his feathers and fur, and his head and wings drooped as he slogged through the mud.
Zakhin’Dakh noticed his friend looking back. Not good flying, he screeched, sadly.
Almonihah laughed. Not really good weather for flying, he agreed.
He slowed his pace a bit to allow the griffon to catch back up to him, then kept walking. After a moment, Zakhin’Dakh asked, Why you like?
Almonihah had to think a moment before answering. The wind across my scales… the thunder… maybe it’s just in my blood. I can breathe lightning, so I like thunderstorms. He shrugged. I can’t really say for sure. It’s like… why do you like flying?
It’s fun! Zakhin’Dakh answered, immediately.
The half-dragon grinned a bit. And why is it fun?
Zakhin’Dakh got a funny look on his face, like he’d been about to say something and then realized he didn’t know what it was. After a few moments he closed his beak, and then softly screeched a wordless sound that, from a human, probably would have been “Oh.”
Almonihah just grinned a bit more.
For Zakhin’Dakh’s sake, Almonihah struck out more to the south, heading for the mountains, where there might be more shelter if another storm struck. As they got close, Zakhin’Dakh screeched softly.
That where meet?
Almonihah nodded. Where we met isn’t too far from here.
The big griffon thought for a big, then added, enthusiastically, Can fly over!
Almonihah laughed. Let’s see.
They searched around for a while for a good place to make the attempt, but the high, snowy passes didn’t look particularly inviting to either of them. Then one day, Almonihah noticed a small rift in a mountainside. He had a funny feeling, like he should have seen it before. Shaking it off, he directed Zakhin’Dakh toward it.