Chapter 1: Hunted
Dragons are much more capable than human babies when they are hatched, both in physical and mental capabilities. Some can even remember their thoughts before they hatched. Thus, despite how young Almonihah was during the events of his early childhood, he still remembers them with perfect clarity. Even when he wishes he didn’t.
Almonihah was born in a small, secluded town somewhere on the western edge of Gatath. His parents were a human sorceress and a bronze dragon, who had taken human form for the sake of his wife. Unfortunately, the town they lived in was not a particularly… accepting town. While the little family was able to keep their son’s race (and therefore the father’s race) a secret for a time, especially since Almonihah did not yet have wings, it was inevitable that the secret would get out. And when it did, it was only in keeping with the character of the town for a mob to charge their home. They were met calmly by Almonihah’s father, who informed them that, if his son was half-dragon, that meant that he was full dragon, and then requested that the family be allowed to leave in peace. Though at first there were some voices of dissent, a low, draconic growl from Almonihah’s father was enough to make them see the course of wisdom.
The little family went further north and west, into the untamed North Forest. They built a small cabin there, and lived a simple life. Well, as simple a life as a dragon, a sorceress, and their son can really be said to lead. Which is to say that Almonihah’s parents probably did all sorts of interesting things while they were away from home, which one or the other of them often was. At home, however, everything was quiet, and Almonihah grew in relative peace and happiness. His father trained him in being a dragon, and his mother trained him in being a human, so they figured they were doing a pretty good job at raising a half-dragon.
Around the time he reached the age of five, however, something changed. Almonihah’s parents started to have tense whispered conversations when he wasn’t close enough to overhear, and his father seemed to spend longer periods of time away from home. When he asked what was going on, his parents would deny that there was anything out of the ordinary, but you can’t truly hide anything from a child, not when you live with him.
Things continued this way for several weeks until one summer evening, when the little family was together in their cabin, finishing a meal. Suddenly the father froze and looked at the door. Then, looking back at his wife, he nodded and murmured something, at which point she got up and told Almonihah to follow her and get himself ready to go outside. As Almonihah obeyed, his father went out the front door. Just as they were preparing to leave, Almonihah’s father came back in, went to a chest in the corner, pulled out a rapier, and came over to his wife and son.
Looking straight at Almonihah, he said, “Almonihah, this is Zithrandrak. It’s a sword I’ve had in my hoard for a long time, and I want you to have it now. Take care of it for me, okay?”
Almonihah nodded his head, then, as his father turned to go back out, called after him, “Father, where are you going? Aren’t you coming back?”
His mother hushed him and hurried him to the back door (Almonihah would not learn until much later how unusual it was for a cabin to have two doors), and his father made no reply as he left the cabin. Then Almonihah and his mother left, too, through the back door, with Almonihah clutching Zithrandrak uncertainly. His mother picked Almonihah up and started walking very quickly through the cleared area behind their cabin, when they heard his father’s roar from the other side of the cabin, and then some shouts and yells mingled with more roars.
Almonihah’s mother broke into a run, heading for the dense forest not far from where they were. They had nearly reached the cover of the trees when another roar came from overhead, one unfamiliar to Almonihah. His mother glanced over her shoulder, gasped a little at what she saw, and redoubled her efforts to reach the woods.
When she did, she set Almonihah down next to a tree with a whispered, “Be safe,” then turned back and strode out into the open. She started chanting, and her son recognized that she was casting one of her spells, when there was another roar from the sky, followed by a bolt of lightning that struck her right in the chest. She jerked once, then fell limply to the ground.
Almonihah sat in shock, still clutching Zithrandrak to his chest. He had seen animals die when his father had taken him hunting (meaning, when his father carried Almonihah while he went hunting), so he was fairly certain he knew what he had just seen, but his mother… his young mind, advanced though it was in comparison to a human five-year-old’s, couldn’t accept what he had seen, so he just sat there, uncomprehending. Some part of his brain recognized the sound of draconic wingflaps coming closer to him, but his conscious brain was still jammed on the thought of his mother being dead.
Suddenly, a twanging sound came from the forest behind him—a sound he would later learn was the twang of a bow—followed by a roar from close overhead. The sound was enough to shock him out of his stupor, especially since it was so nearby. He knew better than to go take a look at what was roaring, though, so he simply clutched his father’s rapier closer to his chest and waited. The twanging sound came again, and again, and was followed by more roaring, and then the wingflaps started getting more distant.
There was silence for a moment. Almonihah’s view was still riveted to his motionless mother, when something obstructed his view. A pair of golden eyes, slitted like his own, met his. A gruff voice asked, “You okay, kid?” After a moment’s hesitation, Almonihah nodded his head. The gruff voice spoke again. “We can’t stay here. Come with me.” The tone of voice made the last sentence sound like a question, so Almonihah nodded again.
He was picked up by strong, scaled hands, and laid across a shoulder that had something hard on it, Zithrandrak still in his hands. Even after she was lost to him in the trees, Almonihah kept staring in the direction his mother lay, as if his unblinking gaze could somehow make her death go away.
It seemed to Almonihah that he was carried by the golden-eyed stranger for a long time through the woods. Days. Weeks, even. His mind seemed trapped in a timeless haze. Eventually, the gruff voice spoke again. “Here we are,” it said, and Almonihah felt himself being lowered onto a bedroll of some kind. Almonihah sat where he was put down unmoving.
The golden-eyed stranger sighed, and then said, “Try to sleep. Things… may not seem so bad in the morning.”
Though he wasn’t tired, Almonihah obediently lay down on the bedroll. He didn’t close his eyes, though, despite not really seeing what he was looking at. He heard the stranger moving around, doing things behind him. Eventually, the sounds stopped, but still Almonihah didn’t close his eyes. Then he felt something wet under his eyes. He reached up to wipe his eyes, and found tears.
He finally fell asleep sometime that night, clutching Zithrandrak like some kind of talisman, tears still drying on his scaled cheeks.
Almonihah awoke in the morning to find the sun was already quite a ways into the sky. He frowned a bit, wondering why his mother hadn’t woken him earlier, like she usually did, when the memory of yesterday came rushing back. He felt the urge to weep again, but some stubborn part of him didn’t want to have the stranger, if he was still around, see the tears. So he choked them back, and once he felt he had control over himself, he started to look around to see where he was.
What he saw was a small campsite somewhere deep in the woods. There was the bedroll he was laying on, some equipment stacked neatly next to a half-full pack, and another bedroll on the other side of a small fire ring, all in a clear area under some tall oak trees. There was a fire in the ring, being attended by a man who was probably the one who had carried him here. Almonihah was surprised to realize that the golden-eyed stranger was another half-dragon, though with golden scales instead of bronze, like his own. He was tall, and wore worn-looking leather clothing. He also wore a sword sheathed in a scabbard which hung from his belt at his left hip, as well as a quiver which hung at his left hip.
The stranger’s golden eyes met Almonihah’s again, and he said, “Finally awake? Feeling better now, kid?”
“Yes,” Almonihah croaked almost too quietly to hear. Surprised at how hard it was to speak, he cleared his throat and said, more loudly this time, “Yes.”
“And speaking, too! Good. You’re probably hungry now, aren’t you?” the stranger said, a bit of cheer in his gruff voice.
Almonihah was about to say no when he caught a whiff of what was cooking over the fire—some venison. He was quite surprised to realize he was hungry, after all, so he replied, “Yes.” The gold half-dragon picked up a stick which was leaning on the edge of the fire ring, which Almonihah realized had the venison cooking on the end of it, then came over to him. Almonihah noted with surprise as he came over that he had a thin tail.
“Here you go,” the stranger said, his voice tinged with amusement, when he reached Almonihah. Almonihah realized with a start that he had been staring at his tail. He refocused and saw that the stranger was holding the stick out to Almonihah with the meat on the end of it. Almonihah looked rather dubiously at the meat, thinking that his mother wouldn’t approve of him eating it without a plate or utensils. The thought of his mother forced him to choke back tears again, so to cover up his weakness he snatched the meat rather forcefully and took a big bite.
The stranger chuckled, and said, “You are hungry, aren’t you?” Almonihah nodded his head while he chewed busily. It wasn’t the same as… what he used to have, but it was still good in a way. The stranger watched him chew and swallow, then said, “I suppose it’s time to introduce myself. My name’s Zrathanzon. What’s yours, kid?”
“Almonihah,” Almonihah responded. At least he didn’t have to think of Zrathanzon as “the stranger” any more. He took another bite of venison.
Zrathanzon watched Almonihah eat in silence for a little while, then went back and got some food for himself. They ate in silence, with only the crackling of the fire and the rustling of the leaves to complement the soft sounds of them eating.
After their simple breakfast was over, Almonihah’s thoughts started to turn back to the events of yesterday. Just as they did, however, Zrathanzon said, “That’s quite a sword you’ve got there. Why were you carrying it around?”
Startled out of his thoughts, Almonihah looked at Zithrandrak. He hadn’t gotten a clear look at it before, but now he was quite startled to see it was, quite frankly, beautiful. It was rather short for a rapier, and intricately decorated to resemble a silver dragon, its long tail the blade, its wings the crossguard, and its neck wrapping around to form a small guard. The detail work was so fine that Almonihah could see every scale on the dragon, and they almost seemed to ripple as he moved the sword, as if the dragon was alive. The whole thing was coated in—or maybe even made of—silver, so that it seemed more like a piece of art than a functional sword.
“My father…” Almonihah stopped cold mid-sentence. His father. What had happened with his father? He remembered the roaring, the yelling, getting fainter as he and his mother ran… then he wasn’t sure if he could still hear it when his mother was struck down. There hadn’t been room in his brain to track anything else at the time.
Zrathanzon seemed to follow Almonihah’s thoughts. “I’m sure, if he can, he’ll come find you soon.”
“If he can…” Almonihah murmured. What if… but his father was a dragon. There was no way anything could beat his father. But if not, then why…
Zrathanzon broke in on Almonihah’s thoughts. “You ever used a sword?”
Almonihah blinked at the change of topics, but some part of him welcomed it, shying away from its former train of thought. “No…”
“Do you want to learn how?”
Almonihah thought for a moment. Maybe, if he had known how to fight… “Yes, I do,” Almonihah said, a determined look on his small, scaled face.
Zrathanzon revealed that he had made a small practice sword overnight—really just a roughly straight stick of about the right size that had the bark shaved off and another stick lashed on like a crossguard. Zrathanzon gave it to Almonihah, then drew his own sword. “You hold a sword like this,” he said, demonstrating. Almonihah, frowning a bit in concentration, looked at what his instructor was doing, then carefully copied it. “A little farther down the hilt,” Zrathanzon instructed, and Almonihah obeyed, then looked back at Zrathanzon. Zrathanzon nodded, then said, “Ok, now this is your first stance…”
Almonihah was breathing in gasps by the end of the training session. He couldn’t think of any time he’d been breathing so hard, but it felt good. It meant he didn’t have energy to think about anything. It was clear that the training was over for the morning, though. Zrathanzon confirmed it by sheathing his sword and saying, “Not bad, Almonihah. You’ve got potential. I think it’s time for you to rest now, though.”
Almonihah had too little breath to respond, and only nodded in acknowledgement. He sat where he was, still breathing hard, while Zrathanzon went back into camp and stirred up the fire. Slowly, Almonihah’s breathing slowed to normal. When he could feel his heart beating at a more normal rate, he got back up and followed Zrathanzon back into camp. He was somewhat surprised to find that Zrathanzon was preparing lunch, until he glance up into the sky and noticed that the sun had already passed the middle of the sky. He’d been learning swordplay the whole morning.
After lunch, they took a moment to rest around the fire. Almonihah looked at his new teacher, his little mind working, and asked, “So… Zrathanzon, what do you do?”
Zrathanzon chuckled a little, and responded, “I’m a Ranger.” When Almonihah just stared blankly at him, he continued, “I travel in the wilds,” he gestured to indicate the untamed forest around them, “hunting, looking out for people who live out here, protecting them from monsters…” Zrathanzon shrugged. “You’ll understand.”
Almonihah was silent as he tried to understand what Zrathanzon had said. He was still trying to create a picture in his mind of what a Ranger was when Zrathanzon said, “You feeling rested, Almonihah?” At Almonihah’s nod, he continued, “Have you ever been hunting?”
Almonihah nodded again and said, “Yes…” He looked at Zrathanzon for a bit, then continued a bit doubtfully, “But I don’t think you do it the same.”
Zrathanzon laughed a bit, and said, “Probably not. Want to see how I do it?”
“Yes,” Almonihah answered.
Zrathanzon laughed a bit again, and then murmured, “You like brief answers, don’t you?” He shook his head in amusement, and then continued, “Well, it’s about time to make a hunting trip. Make sure you put that sword somewhere safe, then we’ll get going.”
Almonihah nodded, looked around for somewhere to put Zithrandrak, and eventually contented himself with hiding it in his bedroll. “We’ll have to make a sheath for it sometime,” Zrathanzon murmured, more to himself than to Almonihah. “Of course, it’ll be a while before you’re big enough to use it,” he continued a bit more loudly. Almonihah simply nodded again.
Zrathanzon picked up a piece of bent wood leaned up against a tree near his bedroll, pulled out some string, and started using the string to bend the wood more. Almonihah looked quizzically at him for a bit, then asked, “What’s that?”
Zrathanzon chuckled a bit. “I’m stringing my bow.” He glanced at Almonihah, and seeing his uncomprehending look, laughed and said, “You’ve never seen a bow before, have you?” Almonihah shook his head, and Zrathanzon said, “Well, this is what one looks like.” He held up the now-strung bow. Almonihah’s stare… was still blank. Zrathanzon laughed again, shaking his head, and said, “You’ll see pretty soon what a bow does.”
With that, Zrathanzon got up, picked up a couple other little pieces of equipment, then motioned for Almonihah to follow. As they traveled deeper into the woods, Almonihah snapped a twig underfoot. Zrathanzon froze, then turned back and whispered, “Watch your feet. Like this.”
Zrathanzon walked carefully, his booted feet completely silent. Almonihah watched intently, then tried to follow. He got a good ways before crunching anything else.
After practicing moving through the woods silently for a while, the two reached the edge of a sizable clearing. There was a small herd of deer browsing on the other side. Zrathanzon froze, and gestured for his little companion to do likewise. Then he slowly drew an arrow from his quiver, nocked it, drew, and loosed it.
It sank deep into one of the deer’s sides, but not into anything that would kill it quickly. The whole herd, including the wounded deer, took off running, and Zrathanzon took off after it. Almonihah tried to follow, but he was quickly outdistanced by the much longer-legged Ranger. It wasn’t long, however, before he nocked and loosed a second arrow, one which brought down the wounded deer almost instantly. Zrathanzon slowed his pace, and Almonihah was able to catch up, breathing hard.
“The deer would have died after a while on its own,” Zrathanzon said when his student reached him near the deer, “But you don’t make it suffer unnecessarily. We have to kill to eat, but we kill as quickly and painlessly as possible.”
“Is that part of being a Ranger, too?” Almonihah asked.
Zrathanzon nodded. “Rangers don’t cause animals—or plants, really—any more harm than we absolutely have to. We respect nature, and nature respects us in turn.” An oddly thoughtful expression (at least for a five-year-old) came over Almonihah’s face at this.
Zrathanzon reached the downed deer, carefully pulled the two arrows out of the carcass, then shouldered it easily. “Let’s get back to camp and prepare this meat,” he said, turning back to where they had come.
It was late by the time they had finished preparing (and eating some of) the meat. It seemed to Almonihah that he had never been so tired in his short life. Sword practice, hunting, preparing the meat… his mother had always given him chores, but never like these!
His father. Where was his father?
Zrathanzon broke into his thoughts. “You want to go to bed now, Almonihah?”
“Yes!” Almonihah answered emphatically.
Zrathanzon grinned a bit and motioned at Almonihah’s bedroll. “Well, go ahead. Just don’t lay down on your sword.”
Almonihah had been in such a hurry to lay down that he’d almost forgotten about that. He winced a bit at the thought of laying down on top of his father’s sword, and made sure to carefully move it aside as he got under the blanket on his bedroll. He closed his eyes and expected to fall asleep almost instantly. He didn’t.
First of all, the day’s exertions seemed to have made every muscle in his body sore, so that there wasn’t any comfortable way to lay on his bedroll. Second… now that he didn’t have any task to throw himself headlong into learning, he had no defense against his thoughts. His mother falling… his father maybe being dead… otherwise why wouldn’t he have come? Why wouldn’t he have saved her? And even if he was alive… and came and found Almonihah… how could he go home without mother?
Why hadn’t he saved her?
There were tears on Almonihah’s cheeks again when he fell asleep.
He could hear Zrathanzon moving some things around when he woke up in the morning. He rolled over to take a look, and was surprised to find that his teacher had packed up nearly everything in their little campsite besides the fire ring (of course) and the bedroll that he was sleeping in. He thought he had been pretty quiet when he’d rolled over, but Zrathanzon glanced over at him and said, cheerily, “I’m glad you woke up, Almonihah. I was just about to wake you up so I could roll up your bedroll.”
“Are we going somewhere?” Almonihah asked as he got out of his bedroll.
“We’re going into town,” replied the Ranger, tying a knot in a rope to hold one last bit of equipment on his backpack.
Almonihah froze. Town. That word conjured up memories, angry yelling outside their home, his parents’ quick embrace before his father went out to face the mob, his mother frantically drawing with some kind of silvery powder on the ground in preparation for some last-ditch magical effort, the mob’s sullen, angry, frightened stares as they left town…
“We can’t go into town!” Almonihah almost shouted.
Zrathanzon glanced at his small charge in surprise, which softened into understanding. “I know a town where they won’t throw us out.”
Almonihah’s only response was an incredulous stare, to which Zrathanzon responded with a smile and “You’ll see.”
Almonihah still looked doubtful, but Zrathanzon just said, “Get ready to go.”
Almonihah knelt down to roll up his bedroll, and winced. “I hurt all over,” he groaned as he realized that he really did seem to ache in places he didn’t know he could.
Zrathanzon just laughed again. “That means you’re getting stronger.”
Almonihah groaned again as he reached for the rope to tie up his bedroll. “Why does it have to hurt so much?”
Zrathanzon paused for a moment, then said, “Real growth always hurts. Otherwise everyone would do it.”
Almonihah’s little face scrunched up in an uncomprehending frown, then he shrugged and tied a knot. Zrathanzon, observing, came over and retied the knot, with his little student observing. Then Almonihah picked up his bedroll and Zithrandrak, and they set off, Zrathanzon leading.
Almonihah kept groaning as they walked. After a while, Zrathanzon turned to look at him and said, “If you keep doing that, it’ll just make it worse.”
“Ok,” Almonihah said, mollified.
They walked in silence for a little while, then Zrathanzon continued, “Complaining is worthless. It never helps anything, it wastes energy, and it saps your will. Don’t ever do it.” Almonihah made no response.
It seemed to Almonihah’s weary body that he walked for days, but to his surprise, after a while, the pain and fatigue seemed to fade, driven back by the demands of travel and interest in the teachings of Zrathanzon. He was fascinated by how much his teacher seemed to know about the woods, how to travel in them, how to avoid its dangers—things his mother and father had never said anything about. It seemed that every plant and animal—and even every bit of displaced leaf litter or depression in the ground—had a name, a meaning, and a purpose.
Almonihah was almost sad when Zrathanzon called a halt for lunch, because that might mean Zrathanzon would stop talking about the woods for a little while. As they unpacked some food—roots, berries, jerky—Almonihah tried to keep the conversation going by asking, “How do you know so much stuff?”
Zrathanzon laughed, and responded, “I’ve lived for a while.”
Almonihah shook his head. “No, how do you know so much stuff about the forest?”
His mentor chuckled again, and replied, “I’ve lived for a while in the woods.”
Almonihah frowned, unsatisfied with the response. Zrathanzon, noticing this, continued, “I was taught how to learn about the forest by… some friends, and the names of things I’ve picked up here and there, but most of it I’ve learned myself, living here.” He looked at his companion and said, “You could learn, too, with time.” Almonihah looked thoughtful at this, and was silent for the rest of their lunch.
They hiked for most of the afternoon, finally reaching the outskirts of a small town at the edge of the forest as the sun was touching the horizon in the west. It was surrounded by a rough stockade, as most of the villages around the untamed North Forest were. There was a single guard at the gate towards which they were walking. He looked up as the pair approached, and much to Almonihah’s amazement, waved amiably at Zrathanzon.
“Evenin’, Ranger! It seems like it’s been a while since you’ve stopped by here,” the guard called out as they came within hailing distance. Then he took a closer look at the two approaching him, and continued, gesturing at Almonihah, “Little relative of yours?”
Zrathanzon laughed. “Last I checked, it was hard to be a close relative of a dragon—or half-dragon—with different-colored scales than me. This is Almonihah, and I’m… just watching out for him for now.”
“Like you’ve always done for us, eh?” The guard responded. “He’s a lucky child, then. And, ah, welcome to you, Almonihah,” he continued, looking down at the bronze-scaled child. Almonihah, still unable to believe they were actually being welcomed, simply averted his eyes. The guard chuckled a bit. “A bit shy, eh? Nothin’ to fear here, lad. Any friend of Zrathanzon is a friend of our town.”
By now they had reached the gates. “Go ahead—I expect there’s still a room or two in the inn empty, if you’re not wantin’ to camp today,” the guard said cheerfully.
Zrathanzon replied just as cheerfully, “I think that sounds good.”
The pair of half-dragons made their way through the small town. It was clear that Zrathanzon was familiar with the way, and that the people going about their business were familiar with him. Many greeted the two cheerfully, and some expressed thanks to Zrathanzon for one thing or another. Almonihah’s expression was one of shock. How had Zrathanzon become so welcome in this town?
Before long they entered a small inn. The innkeeper looked up as they entered, smiled at the sight of Zrathanzon, and boomed in a deep voice, “If it isn’t our gold-scaled Ranger! And here I was thinkin’ you’d gone and wandered off for good this time!”
Zrathanzon smiled as well. “Do you really think I could leave without stopping by to tell you it’s fine for someone else to use that room you always ‘happen to have empty’ for me?”
The innkeeper laughed. “Oh, I’ve rented it out a few times while you haven’t been here, when one of th’ big caravans comes through town.”
“But it’s always the last one you rent out, isn’t it,” Zrathanzon replied, still grinning. “You don’t need to bother, you know. It’s not like I’m not used to camping.”
“Oh, sure, you can camp…” the innkeeper trailed off for a second, then continued, his voice a bit more serious, “But after what you did for my brother, it’s th’ least I could do.”
“Speaking of your brother, how is he?”
The innkeeper guffawed, his belly shaking as some memory tickled his brain. “Oh, you should see him! Sneakin’ out of his bed while he thinks his wife isn’t watchin’ ‘im, sayin’ he’s ‘just fine, thank you!’ when she catches ‘im… You ask me, she prob’ly is fussin’ a bit too much over ‘im, but after that orc slashed ‘im… well, I s’pose you can’t be too careful.”
Zrathanzon nodded. “Yes, that was quite a wound he took,” he said, face and voice serious. Then a bit of a grin started to creep back, and he continued, “But I imagine if he’s trying to evade his wife, he’s most of the way recovered by now.”
“Aye, he’s lookin’ pretty good now. Have to say, though, it’s lucky for ‘im that th’ scar ain’t somewhere most folks ‘ll be seein’ it.” The innkeeper was quiet for a bit, then shrugged and said, “Well, if you want, you can go ahead up to your room. I’ll get the wife started on cookin’ us up a bit of supper. There ain’t another soul in ‘ere other than yourself, me, and the wife, so we hadn’t been plannin’ on cookin’ too much.”
“Ah, but there is someone you haven’t mentioned here,” Zrathanzon responded.
“Eh?” The innkeeper didn’t catch what Zrathanzon was talking about until he nodded at Almonihah. Leaning over the counter, he finally noticed the young half-dragon. “Ah! Sorry, little sir, I didn’t see you over th’ counter. This a relation of yours, Ranger?”
Zrathanzon laughed, and said, “You have no idea how many people have asked that since we arrived.” Then he shook his head and answered, “No, Almonihah isn’t related to me, he’s just someone I’m looking after for a while.”
The innkeeper shrugged, then said, “Well, I think I can move another bed into your room for ‘im. It’ll be a bit big, mind, but I ain’t never heard somebody complainin’ about havin’ too big of a bed.” He laughed a bit at his own joke and said, “Well, if you won’t be mindin’, sirs, I’ll go ahead and tell the wife to cook for more than two tonight,” as he turned to do just that.
“Let’s drop our packs off in our room,” Zrathanzon said to his little charge, leading the way up the stairs to the rooms. He went straight to a room at the end of the upstairs hallway, and then went in. It was a simple room, much like any other frontier inn room, with a plain bed—little more than a raised straw pallet—with a chest at the foot of it for any gear a traveler chose to store in the inn. Zrathanzon took off his pack and leaned it against the wall, and motioned for Almonihah to do likewise.
“So why do all the people here like you so much?” Almonihah asked as he set his pack down.
Zrathanzon paused for a bit, then answered, “Well, like the innkeeper said, I helped out his brother when a few stray orcs wandered over to his farm and decided they’d see what they could steal. They gave him a rather nasty slash before my arrows convinced those that were alive to look elsewhere for entertainment, but I was able to stop the bleeding before he lost too much blood.”
When Zrathanzon paused, Almonihah asked, “But what about everyone else?”
Zrathanzon shrugged a bit. “This isn’t a very settled area, and the North Forest has worse things in it than feral orcs. The plains aren’t exactly safe, either. I can’t be here often, but I can often tell when there’s going to be trouble and get here in time to help out.” Zrathanzon hesitated for a moment, then continued, “And there are those in town who know metallic scales,” he tapped a claw against the golden scales on his cheek, “generally mean good rather than ill.”
Almonihah was quiet for a bit. He remembered his father telling him about the different kinds of dragons—the noble metallic dragons, like his father, and the evil chromatic dragons.
His mother. What… what had killed his mother?
“Zrathanzon…” Almonihah fought against the pain even framing the question brought for a moment, then said, his voice a bit choked, “Did you see… what… happened to my mother?”
If Zrathanzon was surprised by the sudden change of subject, he didn’t show it. He nodded. “It was a blue dragon. Not too old of one, but… old enough.”
“A blue dragon…” Almonihah pictured something like his father, but with blue scales, in his mind.
At that moment, there was a knock on the door, and then the innkeeper’s voice. “I’ve got that second bed for you!”
Zrathanzon walked to the door and opened it. The innkeeper stood on the other side with the straw pallet from another bed. “I thought about it for a bit, and it seemed like it’d be awful hard to get the whole bed in ‘ere, so I figured this’d do. This okay with you, little sir?”
Almonihah nodded, still unsure of how to act around these friendly townspeople. The innkeeper entered the room and placed the pallet on the ground. After a little bit of rearrangement, he nodded in satisfaction and said, “There you go, little sir. All set up.” Straightening, he said, “Supper’ll be ready in a bit,” then went back out the door.
“It will be longer than just ‘a bit’,” Zrathanzon said with a bit of a grin after the innkeeper was out of earshot. “We should have time to do an errand or two before he has anything ready for us to eat.”
With that, the pair left the inn and went further into the town. The inn was just off of the main road, which was surprisingly wide for a small town like this, though in rather poor repair and deeply rutted by wagon wheels.
“This road is the only reason this village is here,” Zrathanzon explained. “It connects the east and the west coasts. In the east they call it the Spice Way, and the westerners call it the Tea Road. Around here, though, folks just call it the Gold Road, because the only gold coins anyone ever sees around here come from the caravans.”
They went along the main road to a small shop with a crude sign that seemed to represent some kind of footwear. Almonihah glanced down at his feet, remembering complaining to his mother just a few days ago that his claws were starting to poke holes in the ends of his shoes again. He quickly looked back up and blinked away the tears that began to come at the memory.
When they entered the shop, it was clear that, while the shopkeeper might specialize in footwear, he also sold a number of other items of apparel. The shopkeeper looked up as the half-dragons walked in.
“Ah, Zrathanzon! Good to see you’re still around these parts.” He looked a bit closer at Almonihah. “Bronze scales, not gold, I see. For a second I was wondering if you’d gone and found yourself a lady,” the shopkeeper said with a wink at Zrathanzon.
Zrathanzon laughed, but there seemed to be a subtle undercurrent to his laugh that Almonihah hadn’t caught in his others. “That’d be the day!” he said.
The shopkeeper grinned a bit wider, then suddenly sobered, all business. “So what do you need today?”
Zrathanzon nodded at Almonihah. “He needs something a bit tougher than what he’s wearing right now,” he replied.
The shopkeeper nodded. “So, some boots, probably some leather leggings and such?”
Zrathanzon nodded, and the shopkeeper disappeared into a back room for a moment, before returning with a small, sturdy-looking pair of boots. “Let’s try these first.”
After trying several different pairs of boots, as well as holding up some leather clothing to himself, they walked out with a couple changes of tough clothing and a pair of boots for Almonihah, and some scraps of leather that the shopkeeper apparently kept specifically for Zrathanzon’s visits. He said they were for repairs, and looking closely, Almonihah could tell that his mentor’s gear was, indeed, patched in several places. He had also gotten a rather sizable piece of leather that he said he would use to make a scabbard for Zithrandrak.
When they returned to the inn, the innkeeper poked his head out of the kitchen door. “Ah, good, you’re back! Supper’s just about ready to serve,” he called to them.
The pair went up to their room, deposited their purchases, then came back down to the common room just in time to see the innkeeper and his wife bringing some food out to one of the tables. It was fairly simple fare, but to Almonihah, used to living only off of what his family could hunt or grow itself, it was a feast.
Their conversation over supper meandered about, though it mostly focused on the goings on of the town and its surroundings. It seemed to Almonihah that his mentor must know everyone in the community, from the way he knew what to ask about them and the way he laughed at all the innkeeper’s jokes about them. Their joking and laughter lasted longer than the food did.
Eventually, Zrathanzon noticed that his little charge was rather fidgety, and said that he was feeling like it was time to go to bed. The innkeeper agreed, and the little group parted. When the two half-dragons reached their room, Almonihah threw himself onto his bed, not quite as exhausted as last night, but still very tired.
Zrathanzon cleared his throat. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
Almonihah looked up at the Ranger quizzically. Said Ranger gently asked, “Where’s Zithrandrak?”
“I put it in the chest when we got here,” Almonihah said, a little confused about why his mentor was asking him.
“And is it still there?”
Almonihah frowned. “Why wouldn’t it be?”
Zrathanzon sighed. “You always check on your equipment. If you don’t take good care of it, it might not take care of you when you need it to. Besides, that’s a valuable sword. The kind that some brave or desperate soul might try to relieve a young warrior of for some quick coin.”
“Oh,” Almonihah responded, beginning to comprehend. He opened the chest at the foot of Zrathanzon’s bed, and was relieved to see it was still there. Then he closed the chest and got back in bed.
“Hmm…” Zrathanzon seemed like he was going to say something more, but decided against it and went to bed himself.
As Almonihah lay in bed, waiting for sleep to come, his mental image of a blue dragon came back to mind unbidden. It seemed to be watching him, mocking him. He felt anger welling up within him, mixed in with and intensified by the confusion, the fear, and the pain that had so recently filled his mind whenever he let it drift. Silently, he vowed to hunt it down, to hunt all of its kind down. As he drifted off to sleep, the image and the thoughts became confused with his dreams, until he remembered no more.
Almonihah woke with a start in the morning from some dark, disturbing dream. He remembered blue wings… and his father… and somehow it was him…
“Hungry, Almonihah?” Zrathanzon, who seemed to always be awake before Almonihah, asked as he noticed his little student’s eyes open.
Almonihah thought for a bit, then nodded. “Well, I imagine it won’t take the innkeeper much longer to get breakfast ready. I’ll go ahead down, and you can try on your new stuff and come down when you’re ready,” Zrathanzon said cheerfully.
Almonihah nodded again, and the golden-scaled Ranger left the room. Almonihah changed into his new leather gear. It seemed a bit big on him, but he remembered Zrathanzon saying something about leaving him some room to grow into. Then he made his way downstairs.
Zrathanzon and the innkeeper were talking just like they had been last night when Almonihah got to the common room, with breakfast already set out on the table. Just as the night before, he sat silently and listened to the two of them talk as all of them ate. He did notice as he listened that he was now dressed very similarly to his mentor. He wondered if there was any significance to that fact.
After breakfast, Zrathanzon said his goodbyes to the innkeeper and the pair made their way back out. They made a few other purchases while they were there—some arrows, a small dagger (“It’s more your size right now,” was Zrathanzon’s explanation), and various other little pieces of equipment needed for living in the wilds. That afternoon, they left the town and headed back into the North Forest.
After a while, Almonihah realized that they were headed northwest, away from the campsite he was familiar with. Growing a bit concerned, he asked, “Where are we going?”
“A campsite a bit further west,” was Zrathanzon’s terse reply.
“But… what if my father’s still looking for me? Shouldn’t we stay close so he can find me?”
Zrathanzon stopped with a sigh, then turned to address Almonihah. “If your father was looking for you, he would have found us that first day. Which means that he’s not. Which probably means that whatever attacked him… is still hunting you.”
Almonihah was stunned by these words. Nothing could have… killed… his father… right? But then, wasn’t that what Zrathanzon was saying? What other possible reason could his father have for not looking for him? Again the image of blue wings from his dream fluttered at the edge of his consciousness, but he quickly brushed it away.
Zrathanzon had continued while Almonihah had been lost in thought. “So we’re going farther away. Further west, and a bit deeper into the forest.” He paused, then looked Almonihah in the eye. “We’re going far enough in that things might get dangerous. You have to watch and listen carefully to what I do. Are you ready?”
The Ranger’s serious tone had brought Almonihah back out of his reverie. He nodded solemnly, though his mind was still grappling with the idea of the kind of dangers he must be referring to.
The pair made good time that day, but it still took them almost another day after the first to reach the campsite Zrathanzon was referring to. It wasn’t much of a campsite at first—just a small clear spot in the trees with a fire ring. In fact, Almonihah realized that it looked an awful lot like what the campsite they’d left had looked after they had packed everything up.
Zrathanzon quickly set to work setting up camp, every now and then directing Almonihah to help in some way. Almonihah was not surprised to see how similar it was to their first campsite by the time they finished.
Zrathanzon looked about the camp when they were done, and nodded in satisfaction. “Should be a good base camp to start your training from,” he said when he was finished inspecting everything.
“Training?” Almonihah repeated, not following Zrathanzon’s train of thought.
“You’re probably going to be stuck with me for a while—which means I need to teach you to survive in the wilds. Sound like a plan?”
Almonihah was thoughtful for a moment, then nodded his head. “Yes,” he said, determination in his young face and voice.
“Good. We’ll start in the morning then.”