Chapter 6: Flight
“So is he ready yet?” Almonihah asked, barely able to contain his excitement.
Zrathanzon gave Varack’Nara an appraising looking. He was about the size of your average riding horse—minus his wings, of course. His wingspan was more than twice his length. “He should be able to carry you soon. Just wait a few days more.”
Almonihah sighed, disappointed that he hadn’t said today. Still, he could wait just a few days.
They walked in silence for a little longer, and then suddenly, Zrathanzon stopped. “Almonihah, there’s something I want to make sure you understand,” he said, his voice very serious.
“What?” Almonihah’s response was just as serious.
Zrathanzon squatted down so that he was almost looking straight into Almonihah’s eyes. “You may ride Varack’Nara if he lets you, but you have to remember, he is still his own creature. You do not own him or control him, and if he lets you ride him, it is only as a favor to a friend, not because he has to.” The Ranger paused for a moment to make sure his words had sunk in, and then asked, “Do you understand what I mean?”
Almonihah slowly nodded. “I think so. Varack’Nara is a friend, not a pet.”
Varack’Nara, hearing his name but unable to follow the Draconic conversation, screeched a bit peevishly, as if to express his dislike of being excluded from such a lengthy conversation. Almonihah grinned a bit at the griffon’s timing. This brought an inquisitive screech from Varack’Nara, but Almonihah just shook his head in response.
They made camp a bit early that evening. After they had everything set up for the evening, Zrathanzon got out the tools and materials he had been working with. This time Almonihah got a closer look at what the Ranger was making.
“Is that a saddle?”
Zrathanzon chuckled a bit. “This is part of why I wanted you to wait. It’s a lot safer to ride a griffon with a proper saddle. Not to mention it’s easier on the griffon.”
“Oh.” Almonihah was silent for a bit, then asked, “So how long until it’s ready?”
The older half-dragon chuckled again. “A bit impatient, Almonihah?” Then he sobered a bit. “I said a few days more, and that’s when the saddle will be done.”
The next few days seemed very long, but they finally came and went. The saddle was finished, and after a couple iterations of putting it on Varack’Nara and making readjustments, Zrathanzon finally declared it was ready. The saddle was settled into place, the straps tightened, and everything seemed to be in place.
Remembering what Zrathanzon had said, Almonihah went up to the griffon and said, “Varack’Nara, I’m ready to fly with you. You don’t mind having me ride, do you?”
Varack’Nara shook his head, then stooped down so it would be easier for Almonihah to mount. Almonihah looked back at Zrathanzon. The Ranger motioned for him to go ahead and get on.
Almonihah studied the saddle for a bit, trying to remember what his mentor had said about mounting and trying to figure out how to put it in practice. After a bit, he carefully put one foot in the stirrup, stepped up, and grabbed onto the saddle itself. After a few seconds of pulling and shifting around, he was finally seated properly in the saddle.
Almonihah bent over and whispered, “Ready?” to Varack’Nara. The griffon nodded his head, then stood up with an enthusiastic shriek. Almonihah, caught slightly off guard by the sudden movement, convulsively gripped the front of the saddle.
Once Varack’Nara was standing, Zrathanzon did one last check on the saddle straps, then asked Almonihah rather pointedly, “When are you going to get strapped into the harness?”
“Oh, yeah,” Almonihah said, suddenly realizing he’d left the straps that were supposed to help secure him in the saddle during flight dangling every which way.
After everything was strapped, buckled, and double-checked, Zrathanzon slowly went over the various signals and riding techniques one last time with both the rider and the ridden one last time. Finally, he said, “Now, I want you two to stay low and take it easy for a while until you’re both sure you’ve got the hang of this. Riding a griffon isn’t easy, for both the rider and the griffon, so both of you need to take your time. You shouldn’t go too fast or do anything crazy for quite a while. Do you two understand me?”
Both of them nodded. After a moment’s pause, as if to give them time to reconsider, Zrathanzon said, “All right. You can start.”
They both just sat there for a moment, as if unsure exactly how to start. Then Almonihah murmured something to Varack’Nara, and he started walking, then running, and then leaped. That leap coincided with a powerful downbeat of his wings, which was followed by another, and then another, as they climbed up above the treetops and into the open air.
Almonihah at first found the whole experience rather uncomfortable—every flap of the griffon’s wings translated into a sudden jolt in the saddle, each of which seemed like he was being slammed into the ground. After a little while, however, he started figuring out how to anticipate them and move with them, which made them somewhat better. He still suspected he would find places he never thought could get sore by the end of the day, but it was bearable enough that he could stop focusing on not getting rattled to pieces or out of the saddle and look around.
And what he saw took his breath away.
They were flying fairly low, maybe just ten or fifteen feet above the level of the trees. The trees were going by quickly below them—faster than they looked like they were going when he ran his fastest, and Varack’Nara was just gliding now. He found that he liked gliding a lot better than flapping. It didn’t involve nearly so much jerking around.
Now that he was starting to relax a bit, Almonihah found himself grinning. The wind flowing past him felt just like he had remembered… that is, imagined it. Though it really had seemed like a memory. What was that Zrathanzon had said? Something about how his dragon half seemed to remember things?
Soon enough, the sheer joy of flying pushed aside all questions. There was a feeling of… freedom, was perhaps the best word for it, as if slipping the ties of gravity let loose all the fetters of life. The sights, the sounds, and the feel of the wind made an exhilarating mix that made the day to day cares of existence fade away.
“No wonder you spend so much time flying!” Almonihah said to Varack’Nara.
The griffon screeched in agreement.
As they flew, Almonihah grew more comfortable in his seat, though he suspected it would still take a lot of practice before he really moved completely in unison with Varack’Nara, the way Zrathanzon had said an expert griffon rider did. He still had a bit of trouble anticipating the first jerk when the griffon started flapping his wings after gliding for a while, but he could usually do pretty well after that.
They circled back around, heading back towards where Zrathanzon was standing, watching them. As they passed the Ranger, Almonihah lifted up his arms and let out a whoop of joy. As they turned again, heading off in another direction from the clearing where they had taken off, Almonihah looked over his shoulder and saw his mentor shaking his head in what he thought was probably amusement. Almonihah just grinned wider.
After a few more minutes of flying, the young half-dragon began to realize just how sore he was going to be. It was always bad when it started even before he stopped whatever was making him sore.
“Maybe it’s time we landed,” Almonihah said wistfully, disappointment at his lack of endurance evident in his voice.
Varack’Nara circled the clearing, descending slowly until he was about at the level of the tree tops, then angling downwards to land. Almonihah didn’t realize just how hard of a jerk landing was going to make until it hit him.
“Oooooowwww…” he groaned as something particularly sensitive connected with the saddle.
Zrathanzon grinned as he walked up. “I told you that landing was the trickiest part, didn’t I?”
Almonihah simply nodded in mute, painful agreement.
The year passed quickly for Almonihah. He and Varack’Nara flew most days, until, by the end of the year, it seemed second nature to both of them. Their endurance improved, as well, to the point that they could spend several hours in the air without Almonihah ending the day sore, though the griffon did require periods of rest on the ground. Almonihah hadn’t thought about it before, but it made sense to him when Zrathanzon explained how tiring flying really was, especially with added weight. It also explained why Varack’Nara ate so much on the days when they spent a lot of time in the air.
Varack’Nara had just about reached his full growth by the time the leaves started falling from the trees. He was just a bit bigger than the big horse breeds that carried armored knights, though it would only be later in his life that Almonihah could truly make that comparison. It made it a bit of a stretch for Almonihah to ride the griffon, even though he had been growing, too. He could still ride, though, and he wouldn’t have given up his time in the air with Varack’Nara for anything.
They had to cut down a lot on their time flying during the winter. For one thing, while Almonihah was slowly getting to be more resistant to cold, he would still have needed some much heavier clothing, and for another, griffons weren’t particularly resistant to the cold, either. The half-bronze dragon couldn’t really complain of being bored, though. His training under both Zrathanzon and Llinos occupied him quite thoroughly.
One day, Almonihah asked a question he had been thinking about for quite a while. “Llinos, you wear that thing around your neck to say you worship Naishia, right?”
Llinos smiled. “Yes, child,” he responded, brushing his fingers across the tree carving in question. “It is one of the many symbols used for Naishia. Not only does it declare my allegiance to Naishia, it is also blessed so as to be used in my druidic magic.”
Almonihah nodded in satisfaction at being right, then asked, “And you wear one to say you worship Bahamut, right, Zrathanzon?”
The Ranger simply nodded his head.
“So… do you think maybe I should get one?”
They were silent for a moment, then Zrathanzon asked, “Is that your way of saying you’ve decided on a god that you want to worship.”
Almonihah squirmed uncomfortably for a bit, then nodded.
“So which one is it?” Zrathanzon asked, after another moment of silence.
Almonihah answered this question without any hesitation. “Naishia.”
Llinos nodded, then spoke. “I trust you are aware of what worshiping Naishia entails?”
Almonihah nodded again.
Llinos smiled. “Then She will be glad to have you. I think I can arrange for you to get a symbol of your own, if you so desire. I suspect you will also want me to teach you more of the worship of Naishia?”
“Yes,” Almonihah responded.
“I trust this is acceptable to you?” Llinos asked Zrathanzon.
Zrathanzon nodded. “He can choose for himself.”
“Then let us begin.”
Almonihah’s training for the rest of the winter was much more focused. Llinos spoke with him of the worship of Naishia, and of the respect and defense of the wild lands of Draezoln that it entailed. He also spoke to him of the principles of druidic magic, though he did not teach him any over this winter.
The winter seemed to pass even more quickly than the year before it had. All too soon it was time to leave Llinos’s valley and head back east. Almonihah knew that the possibility of him simply remaining in the valley existed, but despite his newly declared allegiance, he didn’t think he could stay in the valley all year. He always felt restless by the time the winter ended.
The year passed swiftly, much as past years had. Almonihah was pleased to note how much progress he was making in the various skills he was learning, though he could tell from observing Zrathanzon when he took time to practice his own skills instead of teaching his young pupil that he still had a long way to go. Almonihah was particularly pleased when Zrathanzon got a pair of small short swords to for the younger half-dragon to use in place of the daggers he had been using.
The first snow of the year came early, catching them still several days’ travel east of Llinos’s valley. Zrathanzon seemed a bit worried by this.
“Early winters usually mean trouble,” he explained to Almonihah. “Creatures that can usually get enough food stored up for winter in a normal year sometimes come south to finish getting ready for the snows when winter comes early.”
The next day, as they were traveling, Zrathanzon suddenly stopped. Without turning, he asked the younger half-dragon, “Almonihah, do you notice something odd?”
Almonihah frowned in concentration as he strained his senses for something out of the ordinary. After a few moments, his frown changed from one of focus to one of worry.
“It’s too quiet.”
Zrathanzon nodded. “We’d better tread carefully and quietly. No telling what’s wrong.”
They traveled in silence for the next few minutes before Zrathanzon stopped again. This time Almonihah didn’t need any time to tell what was wrong. There was a narrow swath of large footprints heading south in the shallow snow lingering in the shade of the trees.
Zrathanzon stooped down to examine the footprints, then cursed in Draconic. “Ice trolls,” he spat the words out. “A whole tribe of them. Must have had a tough year up north and decided to come south for easier pickings.”
The Ranger stood up and whistled for Varack’Nara, who was soaring overhead. When he landed, the older half-dragon motioned for Almonihah to get on the griffon. “You’ll need him to keep up with me,” was his explanation.
Once Almonihah had mounted, Zrathanzon started running in the direction the footprints headed. “There’s a village just south of the woods here.”
Almonihah needed no further explanation.
They traveled as quickly as they could, hoping to arrive in time to help. They reached the edge of the forest just in time to see a large group of creatures charging towards the stockade surrounding thing village. The creatures looked vaguely humanoid, though they stooped over and ran with both feet and the knuckles of their hands like some kind of gorilla. Some clutched clubs or spears in their hands as they ran, though how they could hold on to the weapons and still use their knuckles to run was a bit of a mystery to Almonihah. Their hides ranged in shade from a dirty white, like old snow, to a very pale blue.
Zrathanzon broke into a run again as the ice trolls reached bowshot of the stockade. A few arrows flew out to meet them, and while most found their mark, only a couple actually penetrated the thick hides of the trolls, and even those didn’t seem to do any true harm. The trolls with spears paused for a moment to throw their spears in reply. As far as Almonihah could tell, they didn’t hit any of the men guarding the stockade, but it did make them spend some time ducking and dodging instead of nocking arrows.
“Almonihah, stay back and just shoot arrows,” Zrathanzon commanded as Varack’Nara started to follow after the Ranger. “You and Varack’Nara don’t have any business getting close to an ice troll.”
Almonihah didn’t need to be told that twice. The first of the ice trolls were getting near the stockade now, and he could tell that, even hunched over, the creatures must be nearly as tall as the wall was. He definitely didn’t want to get close to them if he could help it. Varack’Nara didn’t seem eager to get close to the creatures, either, and he glided down to a landing well away from them.
When the first trolls reached the walls, they stood up all the way, which brought their clubs and massive fists on level with the top of the wall. One of the defenders managed to put a spear through a troll’s eye, and it fell back to the ground with a thud that Almonihah could hear even from where he was. Most of the defenders weren’t as lucky, and the trolls’ blows sent them flying. Almonihah doubted any of them were alive when they landed.
Then Zrathanzon fired an arrow. As soon as it left his bow, it blazed with a bright white light. It sped through the air much faster than the humans’ arrows had, and buried itself deep in the neck of one of the trolls. The beast stumbled, clutching its throat, then toppled to the ground. The other trolls paused to look behind them, searching for this new threat. This gave the human defenders a chance to strike. A fresh barrage of arrows, spears, and other weapons forced those trolls nearest the walls to turn their attention back to the humans. What looked like the largest of the trolls gestured to some of the other trolls, then at Zrathanzon. About half a dozen trolls from the back of the group turned back and started to charge towards the Ranger and his pupil.
“Stay here,” the half-gold dragon whispered to the younger half-dragon, then continued running towards the trolls.
Almonihah obediently halted. He watched as his mentor fired two more arrows even while running, each shot felling another troll. Then he was too close to the trolls. He put his bow away and drew his sword, which burst into flames. Almonihah wondered why his mentor hadn’t used all of the magical abilities of his weapons when they had been fighting the fell-wolves, but filed away the question as he drew his bowstring to do what he could do to help the older half-dragon.
Zrathanzon nimbly dodged the club that tried to smash him as he reached the four trolls, and neatly hamstrung the troll who was wielding the club. The giant creature cried out in pain as its leg gave out underneath it. The Ranger was already moving on as it fell, slashing the wrist tendons of a fist that tried to smash him, stabbing another troll in the kidney region, then ducking under another club.
Almonihah, who had been looking for an opening, thought he saw one. He fired his little arrow at the eyes of the troll who was clutching his bleeding wrist with his other hand. He watched his arrow as it flew to its target, only to see it skip off the thick hide of the troll’s shoulder. Determinedly, he nocked another arrow and took another shot.
While his pupil was doing what he could, Zrathanzon had worked his way back around to the hamstrung troll, which was shakily trying to get back up on its other leg. Zrathanzon darted under it as it rose up on its knuckles and one leg, his sword flashing. The troll collapsed to the ground, its last breaths bubbling through the blood flowing from the gash in its throat.
One of Almonihah’s arrows finally penetrated the troll’s hide. The creature grunted in surprise, looked up at the young half-dragon, and started charging towards him. Then it toppled face-first into the ground as it too was hamstrung, as Zrathanzon moved to protect his protégé. The Ranger jumped up on its back and stabbed his sword down into its back, piercing its heart. Then he ducked under a club as one of the remaining two trolls swung at him, then jumped off the dead troll just high enough to chop into the attacking troll between its ribs. As it fell, he quickly finished off the last remaining troll.
The battle at the stockade was going badly for the human defenders. Only one more troll had fallen, and there seemed to be only a few warriors still fighting those that remained. Zrathanzon hurried towards the stockade, and then, once he was sure he was close enough to be heard clearly, roared out something in a harsh, guttural language that Almonihah didn’t recognize, though he guessed it was probably Trollish.
Whatever the Ranger said, it got the attention of the big troll. He responded in the same guttural language that Zrathanzon had spoken. The half-gold dragon responded, and then the big troll said something to the other trolls. They started to back away from the wall.
Zrathanzon called out to the remaining human defenders. “They’ve called a truce while I settle this with their chief. If you stop fighting, they’ll stop.”
Warily, the humans stopped firing at the trolls. Meanwhile, Zrathanzon and the big troll who must have been the chief the Ranger had referred to approached each other. They spoke some more, the troll chief emphasizing some points by pounding his club on the ground. After some discussion, they both fell into ready stances and started circling each other.
The troll struck first, springing forwards and slamming its club down surprisingly fast for such a large, ungainly-looking creature. Zrathanzon wasn’t caught off guard, however. He had already dodged to the side, his flaming sword slashing towards the chief’s forearm. Surprisingly, the troll managed to move quickly enough that the sword only singed its hide. A little bit surprised, Zrathanzon leaped back just in time to avoid a counterattack from the troll chief. Clearly this wasn’t going to be as easy as the other trolls.
They circled warily for a little while longer. This time Zrathanzon initiated the exchange, dashing forwards to slash at the troll. It swung its club high at his head as he neared, but the Ranger, rather than dodging, dove under it, coming to his feet inside of the troll’s reach before it could recover from its swing. He slashed at it, and it could only dodge enough to turn what could have been a very dangerous blow to a painful gash across its belly. It did have a surprise for Zrathanzon, however, as it kicked him hard enough to knock him back beyond the reach of the club.
Despite obviously being caught off guard by the blow, Zrathanzon turned his landing into an acrobatic roll, somehow ending up back on his feet before the troll chief could take advantage of his blow. It swung at him, narrowly missing him. As it recovered from its swing, the half-gold dragon breathed a gout of fire at its face. While it truly didn’t do a lot of damage—troll hide is amazingly tough—it did blind the big troll for just long enough for Zrathanzon to get inside its reach again. It managed to get its arm in the way just in time to turn what would have been a stab in the kidneys into a stab in the arm, but from the way the creature grunted, it was obvious that the deep wound had caused it a lot of harm.
Zrathanzon danced back out of the way as it brought its club back around, then again as it whipped the weapon back. Then he darted forwards as it stumbled a bit, its wounds slowing its recovery just slightly. He wasn’t quite in time to dodge as it suddenly turned its stumble into a swing. The club only hit him glancingly, but it was enough to knock him over, though again he rolled with the blow right back onto his feet. As the club passed by again, he dodged back, then struck the club two-handed with his sword. It stuck deep in the wood, and was ripped out of his hands as the club passed by. The troll said something that was clearly boastful. Zrathanzon simply warily circled, watching the chief.
The troll idly walked towards Zrathanzon, swinging its club lazily. It clearly no longer regarded the Ranger as a threat. Zrathanzon simply continued to dodge, watching the troll carefully. After a while it got a strange expression on its face, as if suddenly realizing that it had failed to account for something. Then it yelped and threw its now flaming club away from itself. Zrathanzon ran after it, then retrieved his flaming sword from it, its work well-done.
The troll chief watched Zrathanzon approach closely, obviously aware of how the Ranger had just turned the tables. This time, as the half-gold dragon charged, there were only fists to meet him, and while they moved quickly, he was faster. He managed to get around to the side of the beast, and slashed the back of its leg. As it stumbled, he nimbly moved behind it, stabbing deep into its back in a couple of places. It tried to recover, keeping its weight off of its leg, but it was obviously being slowed by its injuries. It just couldn’t move fast enough any more to keep the Ranger away from its vitals.
The battle didn’t last much longer.
After the troll chief stopped twitching, Zrathanzon stepped up on top of it and turned to the trolls, who were looking at him uncertainly. He called out in their guttural language, pointing to the dead troll, then to himself. Then he took the remaining trolls in a sweeping gesture, still speaking in Trollish, then gestured sharply to the north.
Grudgingly, the trolls started straggling towards the north. Turning his attention briefly to Almonihah, Zrathanzon called out in Draconic, “Make sure to stay out of their way.”
Almonihah didn’t need to be told to stay out of the way of the sullen trolls. He and Varack’Nara were far off to the side when they passed, grumbling in their harsh tongue. Obviously, they weren’t happy about leaving without the food they must have come for, but just as obviously, they didn’t want to mess with the Ranger.
Once the trolls were out of sight, Almonihah and Varack’Nara returned to Zrathanzon’s side. Zrathanzon turned to his pupil from watching the edge of the woods.
“Let’s see how much of that herb-lore you remember.”
They approached the gates of what remained of the stockade, leaving the griffon outside with orders to stay put. One of the remaining guards hailed them as they neared.
“Ranger! Praise the gods that you showed up here in time!”
“Just wish I’d been earlier,” was the half-gold dragon’s reply.
“We’re just as glad you showed up when you did,” the warrior said. “You coming in?”
Zrathanzon nodded. “See what we can do for the injured.”
The warrior motioned to someone behind the wall, then turned back to the half-dragons with a sigh. “I’m not sure there’s many you can do much for, but we’re grateful for anything you can do.”
They entered the village, and it was clear what the guard meant. There were several men sprawled on the ground, and even a couple partway through walls of some of the homes in the village. None of them were moving.
After asking around a bit, they found the place the surviving wounded had been taken. There were only a couple of them, men who had only been struck glancingly by the trolls. A priest was there, caring for them. He looked up as the two half-dragons entered.
“I’ve done everything I can for them. They should be fine in a few days,” the priest said, stepping aside for the Ranger to inspect his patients.
Zrathanzon shook his head. “I doubt I could do anything more than you have.”
The priest nodded in appreciation, then turned back to his patients.
The Ranger turned to his pupil. “Let’s go. There’s not anything more we can do here.”
A few villagers thanked the half-dragons as they passed on their way to the gates. Just as they reached the gates, a woman’s voice reached them, cursing them. Almonihah flinched at the yell.
“She’s grief-stricken. No doubt her husband was one of those we were too late for,” Zrathanzon murmured to his pupil.
“Oh,” Almonihah replied, her words still ringing in his ears.