The fire crackled softly against a background of insects chirping. The forest air was damp and humid, warm and dry around the fire, but chilly after the rain earlier that day. The wet leaves of the reptilian humanoids’ camp site were cold. Gesh, a tall and stalky Dragonborn, handed a lump of barely-cooked meat to young red-scaled dragon who sat next to him.
Drake, the half-breed dragon and prince-in-exile of a cult of dragon-worshipping shamans, accepted the meal from his bodyguard, lover and best friend gratefully.
“Thank you, Gesh. have you eaten your fill?” he said, smiling.
“O’ course I ‘ave, Sire.” Gesh smiled back, puffing his chest out proudly. “You eat that, now. Ya’ve had less’n me.”
Gesh was lying of course. Both he and Drake knew it, but this was routine for the pair. They worried for eachother more than was necessary, but they were also comforted by the fact that if they did truly run out of food, they could still always go hunt some more while it was still dark out. They both silently acknowledged the same fact; they were unlikely to sleep much tonight, anyway.
Drake and Gesh spent most of their time wandering. Drake was constantly avoiding the territory that his reviled father controlled from a dwarven fortress. He never told Gesh where that castle was, or precisely what land it was located. The mighty dragon who fathered Drake was nearly universally hated, and only the dragon shamans of that land, mostly dark elves, revered him. The farther away Drake was from that land and his father, the better.
“R’member the last time I had t’save yer scaly ‘ide fro’ danger, Milord?” Gesh teased. He smiled broadly, sharp teeth flashing in the firelight. Drake tensed and blood rushed to his leathery cheeks.
“I could have handled it! I had him right where I wanted him.” he protested. His bodyguard laughed heartily.
“I know. Yer more powerful’n I am, now. I don’ think ya even need my services.”
“I still require help from time to time. Besides, Gesh, I value you and like your presence. I don’t know what I would do without you.” Drake replied. “And you don’t have to call me ‘Lord’. Please relax, Gesh. you don’t have to be formal with me.”
Gesh smiled again, more softly now. Then he straightened his back and poked at the fire.
“I’m sorry, Drake. I’ll r’member.” he said. “You should try t’rest. I’ll keep watch.”
Drake nodded and set up his sleeping bag. He watched the fire for a while, letting its hypnotic flame lull him into sleep.
It was a couple hours by the time Gesh could tell that Drake was truly asleep. At that moment, he muttered softly, “you can come outta ‘idin’, now.”
Two elves, skin as brown as bark, and hair as black as raven feathers, stepped out of the shadows with their bows drawn. Each had a sword at their hip, the long-hair male a straight blade, and the short-haired female a curved blade. They wore armour made of animal hide with steel pauldrons and greaves, and leather boots.
“You knew we were watching you for hours, and made no move to alert your charge?” the male elf asked.
“If you were gonna shoot at us, ya would’ve. You were obviously sent here t’observe us, and if I gave away yer position t’would put my Prince in more danger. The question now is, what’s the goal o’ yer spyin’?”
The elves looked at eachother, and the female nodded.
“Our Queen has business allies neighboring your kingdom. She wishes to find out whether your Prince poses a threat or is a potential ally. She will not make any diplomatic or military decisions until she has a more clear picture of his motives and intentions.”
Gesh stared silently at the pair of spies for a long moment, before finally speaking again.
“I understand. As it so ‘appens, our current mission relates to yers. We were made aware o’ the ties the nearby mining comp’ny has to a secluded elven kingdom. Prince Drake’s wicked father would see the mountain range and its ore-rich mines brought under ‘is dominion. We fear that such a takeover would prob’ly lead t’yer kingdom becomin’ part o’ the dragon’s territory. We’re on our way t’meet with emissaries o’ the mining comp’ny in question, t’negotiate a relocation o’ their operations.”
“So in other words, you intend to lose us our trading partner. Is that right?” the female elf asked.
“It’s better fer ya that they leave. If their mines’re taken over by the dragon, all o’ that ore’ll go straight t’ his ‘oard instead o’ t’yer queen’s coffers, an’ yer nation’ll fall under the dominion o’ his vile reach.”
“And what then are we to do about the loss of our imports?” they pressed.
“That remains t’be seen. We first must see ‘ow negotiations go, and from there we’ll decide our next move. D’pendin’ on what we learn, plans may evolve’r change. Yer welcome t’join us, and create a three-way negotiation. It may very well prove beneficial t’all parties involved.”
The elves shook their heads, lowering their weapons. “We cannot. We do not have the authority to represent the Queen’s trade interests. That was not our assigned task.”
“Join our journey, then, at least. Ya needn’t ‘ave a seat at the table, ya can still observe.”
“We will follow you, as ordered by our liege, but we will keep our distance and camp separately.” they insisted.
“Suit yerself.” Gesh shrugged. But I’m gonna alert the Prince o’yer presence. You can thank me later fer savin’ yer lives.”
The elves faces showed obvious resentment at the insinuation. But they nodded cordially. “of course. We understand.”
The rest of the evening went well, and Gesh allowed himself a few hours of rest, setting a bell trap to alert him if anything got too close. He was able to still awake before Drake did in the morning.
Breaking camp, Gesh made sure to prepare a breakfast stew before setting the fire out. It was the smell of this food that awake Drake.
“That smells good.” he said, yawning and stretching, his wings spreading as he arched his back, and flexing several times before closing again. “I could eat the whole pot.”
Gesh chuckled. “Lemme ‘ave one bowl full’n you can ‘ave the rest if ya want.”
“I was only joking, Gesh. we will of course split it.”
They shared the meal without words, though the noises from them scarfing down the food so quickly could scarcely be called silence. The pot was emptied in minutes, though Gesh was able to cleverly give Drake twice as much as he gave himself. Drake, in his hunger, didn’t even notice.
After packing everything up save for the pot, Drake and Gesh checked their map and double-checked their orientation. They had previously marked a tree with a drawing of a compass so they would know which way north was. Gesh suggested they stop by the creek nearby to wash the pot, and then they could follow its waters for a time before returning to the main road. They would pass through a village soon that way, and be able to gather some intelligence pertaining to their goal.
“But what about our appearance?” Drake asked. “Remember, Gesh. we are not in our home territory any longer, and outsiders may consider our forms…. Monstrous.” his tone was cautionary and firm. He would not be challenged on this.
“Yer wisdom is sharp as ever, milove.” Gesh responded. “I assure you, I kept tha’ in mind. Wear my spare cloak’n amulet o’ the Faith o’ Bahamut, and I’ll present my symbol in front. Even this small town’ll know o’ Bahamut’s benevolent will, and should the townspeople remain untrustin’ we can use intimidation t’ensure our safety.” Gesh responded.
“Hopefully it won’t come to that. If it does, save violence for a last resort. I don’t want to give them any excuses. If they harm you, however, I will not let them get away with it.”
“Nor will I allow any harm t’come t’you. Even a threat t’yer safety’ll be severely punished.”
The two set off, Gesh carrying the pot in his hands with only a folded cloth between. He led his horse, Halitrad, by the reins, lance fastened to mount’s side. Washing the pot took only a few minutes, and then they continued as planned.
“By the way, Drake, we’re being followed by two spies. They mean us no harm, but if ya notice a pair o’ elves watchin’ us, be not alarmed.” Gesh told the Prince. Drake nodded.
“I expected as much. We are going to be under scrutiny by the elven kingdom.”
“T’won’t be a problem.” Gesh assured him.
“Of course it won’t, Gesh. we are more than enough to handle a couple of pawns.”
It was late afternoon by the time the Prince and his Knight arrived in town. The village was a small settlement, primarily comprised of subsistence farms and shops, and seemingly relying on timber from the woods and fish from the river that the various nearby creeks feed into. Though the village was on the map it was not listed with a name. A sign at the guard tower read ‘WELCOME TO BROOKVILLE’ in faded lettering on old wood.
“Halt! Who goes?” cried out a gravely voice. A bearded human atop the tower, armed with a crossbow and wearing a metal helm and a green-and-white tabard was staring down at them.
“Pilgrims o’ the Faith o’ Lord Bahamut.” announced Gesh in response. “We’re passin’ through’n seek shelter fer the night.”
“Be ye monsters?” inquired the guard. “Your skin is scaly and your teeth are as daggers.”
“We’re blessed by the Master o’ the North Winds. Blood o’ Dragons courses through our veins. But we’re protectors o’ humankind, not devourers o’ yer kin. We mean ya no harm.”
“Ye may enter, but do not tally. Stay the night if you can find a room. Otherwise be gone quickly. We have no tolerance for beggars, and very little patience for outsiders. “
“We’ll be quick t’pass through.” Gesh promised, having to stifle his lover before Drake could protest in anger.
As the gates opened, Drake muttered to his bodyguard “the insult is unforgivable.” but Gesh merely whispered back,
“Bare it, Sire. they’re small-minded and know not their deeds. They’re beneath contempt. Their rudeness doesn’t matter. And now we ‘ave access t’this village.” Drake made a face at the title, but grudgingly agreed.
They wandered through the town along one road, gathering stares of fear or distrust from local villagers they passed along the way. They began to worry they would find no inn to stay at, when finally they spotted a small church which offered temporary room and board for donations. The church seemed to be erected to some local forest goddess, and the abbot professed this deity’s tenets of self-sufficiency, bounty, and kindness. Apparently the people of this town believed this deity watched over them, ensuring that those who treat the forest and its inhabitants with reverence would be blessed with the gifts the forest has to offer, allowing their society to live peacefully and in harmony with nature.
It was a nice message, though trivial in the eyes of Gesh. still, he respected the church and it’s willingness to help them. The two put the horse in the stable, and paid the church a few gold coins each, before asking to be led to their room. Once they were alone, Drake and Gesh quickly set up their beds and rested.
The sound of roosters and barking dogs woke both Drake and Gesh up early in the morning. The sun had yet to rise, but they were refreshed by now and paid no mind to the early morning chill. Sluggish at first, they warmed up and became more awake once they dressed.
A simple humble breakfast or porridge, fruit, and milk was shared by a small number of priests and a number of orphans and homeless people. Drake and Gesh were also served the same food. Before anyone could eat, however, mandatory prayers were spoken in unison. The abbott led the prayer. Gesh was uncomfortable, but played along, though in his heart he substituted the deity of this church with Bahamut. Drake was merely annoyed, but he prayed anyway because he really didn’t care about gods and prayers.
During breakfast, Gesh and Drake struck up conversation with the other people round them. Working up a rapport, they were able to subtly ask questions which, on the surface, seemed innocent at first, and as they drew their conversation deeper, were able to ask more direct questions with less suspicion. Drake’s natural charisma and Gesh’s refined etiquette and diplomatic training made this an easy task.
“Is it hard being impoverished in this town?” Drake asked an orphan he was chatting with. The young man was barely younger than Drake was, and yet was responsible for taking care of his two younger siblings. The boy nodded.
“Begging is pointless, most of the people here make only enough to get by themselves. We are not a town that prides itself on excess, and so very few make more than they need just to survive. But as long as we put our faith in the forest and it’s protector, we are provided for. This church is an extension of Her will, offering us shelter and food when we cannot get it ourselves, and teaching us the skills necessary to get by when the church cannot take us in.”
“It’s so heartbreaking to see one so young bare all these responsibilities out of necessity. I can understand, though. I’ve had to face many difficulties myself.” Drake said.
“We are kindred spirits, Drake.” the boy said. “Though we look very different, I feel like we understand each other the way only family do.”
Drake smiled. “I am not entirely sure what family means. I don’t really get along with my father. In fact, I am very afraid of him. And I have never known my mother. I still search for her.”
“Me and my siblings have been orphans for years. I’m the only one who remembers what our parents were like before they passed away.”
“How did they die?” Drake asked, genuinely curious. The boy looked to his younger brother and sister, obviously remembering a painful time and worrying about them, but when he faced Drake again he was smiling and calm.
“It was in the woods. My father was hunting, and was killed by bandits who were wandering through. It’s why our village doesn’t allow outsiders. When we went out to look for him, we found his body flayed and hung from a tree, and the bandits laughing around a campfire. When they saw us, they tried to take us as slaves, but our mother forced us to run away and in the process she was captured. She fought them until they were forced to kill her.”
Then he asked Drake “what about you? Why are you afraid of your father?”
The young dragon slumped a little, his eyes lowered sadly. “I have never been what my father wanted me to be. When I was hatched, he tried to kill me because I was born an abominable mutant from being subject to a ritual. It was not even something I had any control over. Now that I have ascended to true dragonhood, he seeks to control me and use me for his own selfish ends.”
“Even so, he’s still your father.” the boy said. “Maybe you can reason with him.”
“There is no reasoning with him, I’m afraid. As long as he is more powerful than me, he will force his will on me. I can only try to escape his tyranny. I used to want his approval. Now, I only want him dead. He is the dreaded scourge of the dragon lands, and once his reign has ended I can take over and set right what he has spoiled.”
“Perhaps then you are destined to slay him and take your rightful place as king.” the boy said. “There’s a prophecy in this town, and old tale. It says one day a traveler with a cursed lineage will rise up against the tyrant wyrm, and strike him down. After defeating the serpent, all the lands will prosper as they did in the days long ago. If that prophecy is true, and the traveler is you, I believe that the time of our prosperity is soon to come. With the dragon gone, we would be able to expand our village northwards to better resources.”
Drake smiled. “I don’t put much stock in prophecies and faerie tales. But the thought is nice. Maybe one day I will defeat him, and ear my rightful place.”
“Then I should take you to see the Spear of Destiny. It is said that on that day, the traveler will wield destiny itself and pierce the heart of the wyrm. The villagers here believe that this spear is that weapon.”
“I would very much like to see this spear.” Drake said, eyebrows raised in curiosity.
Drake, Gesh, and the orphan -- whose name was Ehren -- went after breakfast and cleanup to see the spear Ehren mentioned. The path they took through the village was fairly straightforward, until Ehren led them down a sharp turn to wooded area of town with only a graveyard on the other end of the path.
“In that mausoleum is a trophy room for the family’s heirlooms. The people buried here were the original founders of the village, whose line has ended decades ago. The current mayor is descended from the sheriff who took over when the founding family was killed off.”
The structure Ehren pointed at was elaborately carved but very weathered stone. It had motifs of gargoyles and unicorns and eagles and owls on it facing every which way, and bas relief depictions of the founding of the village. The massive stone door frame was carved in the likeness of two fluted pillars and an arch, with reinforced wooden doors fitted into it. The doors were barred by a chain and heavy padlock.
“How do you intend to show us something locked away in this tomb?” asked Drake.
“It’s easy!” Ehren said. “ I know a back door.” he smirked, and began to hop off toward a tombstone with an angel statue.
But before he could touch the gravemarker, he was grabbed by a coal-skinned arm and grappled against his ambusher’s scaled cuirass. A band of dark elves, wearing armour fashioned from dragon scales, stepped out from the trees, their red eyes shining faintly in the shade. One elf, likely the leader, wore a metal helmet with a visor shaped like the face of a dragon.
“We’ll take that spear. Surrender now and lead us to it.” he demanded.
“Ya may outnumber us,” Gesh began, “but yer at a disadvan’age. Yer soldiers’re no match fer Drake’n I, and with the sun out yer vision’s impaired. A weakness we can easily exploit.”
“But I myself am more than enough for both of you, and we now have a hostage. If you want him to live, you’ll do as we say.” the helmed elf snapped his fingers and one of his minions drew an elaborate dagger shaped like a spider with the eight legs fashioned as the blade. The knife was place point-first at Ehren’s neck. The orphan whimpered in fear, eyes going wide.
“What will it be, Drake? Your little friend, or some silly old spear?”
To be continued...