The Journey Begins
Iorneste was hurt. He had thought his idea to be such a fine one. Mourne's reaction, however, indicated otherwise.
They trudged now in silence, neither of them speaking, with the tunnel to Kaer Drac closing behind them. Iorneste stopped to look back. Mourne did not. He did not even stop walking. He simply stared forward, eyes vacant like a dead man. Which was a close approximation of what he felt he now was.
It had not begun in silence. There were words aplenty, and many of them were from Mourne. Iorneste considered Mourne's silence, and realized the moment their relationship had changed.
"I'm going to be a dragon slayer," he had said. As soon as he said the words, the dragon knew it was the right choice. His chest swelled, and a strange tingling sensation raised all over his skin, the tiny hairs standing on end. It was a very pleasant sensation, he felt. The air left his lungs in a contented rush, and he turned to Mourne with a practiced but natural smile on his face.
Mourne's mouth fell open, his eyes seemed to grow larger. Iorneste studied this, trying to decide which emotion this represented. "Are you serious?!" Mourne shouted, forgetting his place.
Aha, thought Iorneste clinically. This expression means surprise. Or perhaps 'incredulity' is a better word. "Of course I am serious, friend Mourne. Is this not permitted by the rules of the Binding?"
"It's not permitted by sanity! You have no idea--" Mourne stopped abruptly, realizing that he was still addressing a Drac, albeit a young, inexperienced, and possibly deranged one. He performed the calming exercises he'd learned from his father, remembering to focus on his breathing, to sequester his thoughts and rein them in, to witness those thoughts, without allowing them to dominate him.
Iorneste, to his credit, merely waited for Mourne to finish his thought. Long conversations with his elders had often started in one season, and ended in another. By comparison, talking with Mourne was brisk and decisive. He liked that.
"I am sorry, Iorneste. I forget my place."
"Your place is to be my instructor. You do not need to treat me like a dragon anymore."
"But you cannot be serious. How can you possibly expect to be a dragon, masquerading as a dragon slayer, and get away with it?"
"As you said before, I will already be lying about a great many things. I am, in reality, a being of ancient magic, of an exalted race dating back to the world's creation. I possess strength beyond that of most creatures, intelligence that is celebrated in stories and songs, the divine gift of an immortal lifespan, superior senses of exquisite refinement--"
"But not humility," Mourne muttered under his breath.
The dragon's sharp ears caught it. "Humility is not counted among Drac virtures."
"The world knows this."
"But I possess all of these majestic talents, and yet I will hide them from the world. Every time I move past others, I will be deceiving them, simply by existing, hiding the greatest secret of all: myself."
"This is true, and I am glad you realize this, rather than having to learn it the hard way. But what is your point?"
"That compared to hiding all of this great power, being a dragon slayer seems to be a white lie by comparison."
"Pretending to be a dragon slayer." Mourne countered. "And that is the greatest problem of all. What happens when someone wants you to slay a dragon? What will you do then?"
"All sorts of creatures are called dragons. Wyverns, even, and they are not really dragons, but none of the scholars seem to listen to us on this point."
"So you would slay a wyvern?"
"Wouldn't you? They were created by the mad god Xules in the Age of Secrets. They exist only to breed, to consume, and to destroy. They are ancestral enemies of ours. It is a duty of ours to destroy them, one that we have been unable to fulfill since our self-imposed exile from the world. The humans would thank us for it, were they not inclined to attack us on sight."
"What about a drake?"
"Drakes are like perpetual children. Though relatives of ours, they are easily handled by a Drac, as they innately sense our superiority, and defer to us."
Mourne nodded, impressed despite himself. He thinks exceptionally fast, even for a Drac, or else he has planned this out in advance. But somehow I do not get that impression. "What about encountering another of the Drac? You are not permitted to slay one of your own kind, not to mention you are still young and no match for an eregaunt," he said, using the Drac word for "adult".
"This is true. But the Drac are not permitted beyond the Wall unless they are in disguise. One so clumsy as to get discovered in the open, such that a dragon-slayer is even summoned, would lose a great deal of face. Their life would not be worth living, and they would seek refuge here rather than risk another Great Hunt."
Mourne then gave Iorneste a steady look. "And what if it is one of the Yeomi?"
Iorneste's face hardened at the mention of the betrayers, and his lips curled back into a very inhuman snarl. Mourne took a step back. "I would tear its heart from its blasphemous chest!"
"This is in your blood, yes. There is no way you can fight it. And there is also no way you can win."
"It would be worth trying."
Mourne felt pity for a moment. Iorneste was placid, civil, and almost innocent, such that he could believe at times that he was nothing more than an exceptionally articulate and educated human youth. But the Drac had sworn a blood oath, over the eggs of their own hatchlings, that they would eradicate the Yeomi from the earth. Such was the depth of their treason against their own kind that the hatred, and the blood oath, burned through eons, passed down from matriarch to hatchling. Iorneste could no more control his hatred for the Yeomi than he could control his own need to breathe, and in this case he was a slave, and forever would be.
But this would be a problem for him whether he was playing the part of a dragon slayer or not. Mourne reached for another argument, nearing defeat. "You are not much of a warrior. You cannot even use a sword."
"I am a fast learner. Besides, are you not here to instruct me?"
Mourne changed tack. "Being a dragon slayer will get you a lot of attention," he said, laying out the argument on the fly. "Maintaining a low profile will be impossible. If you actually follow through on slaying a dragon, you will be celebrated as a hero. In time, your name will become known throughout all of the land. It will be the exact opposite of maintaining a low profile."
"Aha," Iorneste countered, warming now to the banter. "But I will be hiding in plain sight. No one, surely, would suspect the most audacious lie of all. That the dragon slayer is, in fact, himself a dragon. Incredulity is the very heart of misdirection."
"And I suppose you've read a book on misdirection."
"Several! Guile, unlike humility, is counted among the Drac's virtues. It is also considered a great skill to use guile to get others to do your will without even striking a blow, and a Drac who can execute it successfully gains a great deal of face."
Realization dawned, and Mourne felt the horror of the situation descend upon him. Iorneste understood far, far more than he could have imagined. The Drac paid a great show of disinterest towards any who left on the First Exile, but in reality they were keenly interested. Part of the Drac's test started right now. High points were awarded for style, and the audacity of what Iorneste was proposing would certainly gain him those points.
It would also send Kaer Drac into a tizzy of consternation, bickering, and even social upheaval. There would be scheming and plotting. Different camps would develop, all with differing philosophical opinions on the situation. They would all be terrified of what he was going to do, out there in the open, proclaiming his dragon slaying skills for the world to see, rubbing shoulder to shoulder with other dragon slayers as one of their own; all the while being the greatest prize of all: one of the legendary Drac, unseen in the world for generations, and thought long gone.
He was playing a colossal trick on everyone. It was devious, but undertaken with the whimsy and sense of invulnerability possessed only by children. This was the part that terrified him most. Of all the Drac he had shepherded into their First Exile over his 176 years of artificially-extended life, this was the one that scared him the most. He had once spent a pleasant 25 years working in a bakery with Sheldrache, who successfully lived out a normal woman's lifespan along with a husband, and their adopted child, before seeing them both in their grave and returning to Kaer Drac. Never once during those 25 years had he felt the sense of dread he now possessed.
Mourne at that moment realized that Iorneste was very likely going to get him killed. He just wasn't certain whether it would be the men or the dragons that killed him first.
What complicated matters most was that there were things he was simply not permitted to say yet to Iorneste about the realities of life in Kaer Drac, but he could not stop the precocious dragon from figuring out some of those realities for himself. But he has an imperfect knowledge of those realities, Mourne pondered. And that is what puts us both in such grave danger. I am bound to serve him and to abide by his choices, but can provide no illuminating details about the ramifications of this decision which might have changed his mind. He, meanwhile, thinks he is being very clever and also having a great deal of fun at the same time. I can only trust the matriarchs to understand this as well, and not to interfere. If they decide to interfere, the whole world may burn for this single decision.
As the saying went, "When the dragon speaks, the world shakes."
By comparison the Binding felt anticlimactic. Mourne said very little, and went through the ritual officiously, with very little passion in his words. The ancient Drac words rattled off of his tongue with practiced familiarity, and Iorneste answered him, filling in the responses like a good student.
"Iorneste," said Mourne, addressing him in High Draccian, "You are to begin the First Exile, here and now. You will retain your human form for no less than 25 years, and shall adopt a human life for the entirety of that term. You shall not leave that form, nor shall you use any magic, without the consent of the kiin assigned to you. Swear it by your life."
"I swear it by my life," answered Iorneste, feeling the first chains of the Binding surround him. He tried not to smile at the heavily-accented way that humans spoke High Draccian. Without the second tongue at the back of their throat, they'd never be able to properly enunciate the glottals.
"You will be given equipment suitable to your chosen profession in life, the profession you will follow for the next 25 years. You will be given instruction by the kiin in the ways of humankind, and you will be a devoted student to these words. At no point shall you disobey his commands, or violate his strict orders. If at any point you violate the terms of the binding, you will be returned to Kaer Drac in disgrace, serving as a relarche for the remainder of your days. Do you comply?"
Compliance is not a Drac virtue, and the threat of becoming a relarche was always implicit, but it gave him pause. The lesser Drac were stripped of most of their gifts, living as second-class citizens to the rest of the Drac. These were dragons who had shown themselves unworthy of the cunning and respect affording their kind, and were forever after viewed as failures, and their hatchlings would inherit their fate. Iorneste shuddered, but showed little hesitation. "I comply in this, friend Mourne. You shall be my guardian, my instructor, and my protector in the world of which I know so little."
Mourne raised one eyebrow at Iorneste's improvisation, but continued on. "Then I declare this Binding complete, by the powers of the Drac given to me for this purpose. We are, the two of us, bound for 25 years, one to the other, to the success or failure of the First Exile, or until one of us dies." Mourne choked delivering the last words.
Iorneste clapped his hands together once, the force sounding like a tree branch breaking. "It is done! And now for the treasures." Ahh yes, a dragon and his treasures. There was no love greater.
The great chests beside the door were enchanted, and could produce anything needed for their journey. Reaching into the chest, Iorneste got dressed. There were some leather trousers, high boots, undershirt, overshirt, and a long, worn, and hooded leather coat that Iorneste was quite taken with. "Why not a cloak?" he asked.
"Cloaks are out of fashion," Mourne lamented. "More's the pity."
"I will need a weapon," Iorneste said.
"Yes," Mourne agreed, reaching into the chest and withdrawing a large claymore, inlaid with runes, reflecting the sun with such perfection that it was nearly blinding. He flipped the sword expertly, presenting it over his forearm to Iorneste.
Iorneste took it gingerly in awe at first, keen dragon eyes seeing every magical inscription on its surface, runes for sharpness, to banish rust, to add extra lightness and balance, and took a sudden test swing of the weapon that nearly decapitated Mourne, who threw himself flat to the ground.
"Watch it!" shouted Mourne. "You don't know how to use that yet!" He's almost killed me and we haven't even left the Kaer yet. Not a good sign.
"Apologies, friend Mourne."
"For now, put it in this scabbard, and strap it to your back." Climbing to his feet, Mourne reached into the chest, pulling out a scabbard and baldric that was made specifically for the sword. Iorneste took the scabbard, sheathed the sword, and strapped it over his back without any argument.
Mourne armed himself with a longsword, a simple and unenchanted affair, considered reaching for armor and then shook his head. Armor was expensive, they had no need to play the part of successful or well-established dragon-slayers, and it had been years since he had kept up with the styles of armor in the Many Kingdoms. He did, however, grab a shield, a simple round wooden shield, with no device, but it also had a single rune of resilience scratched on the back side.
The two of them shouldered the backpacks beside the door, the entirety of their supplies. They were provisioned, armed, and as ready for the world as they would ever be.
"Time to go. The First Exile truly begins now." Mourne began walking down the tunnel, and Iorneste followed, shouldering his pack.
They walked for some time after passing beyond the wall in silence.
They broke at midday for a meal, opening their packs and fishing around inside to see what was provided for them. Inside they found cheese, wine, bread, and a handful of apples. His hunger and the time alone with his thoughts had calmed Mourne's bleak outlook somewhat, but he still felt very much the sheep among the wolf. It wasn't that the kiin were not aware that their very lives existed upon the whim of the Drac, it was that they could always expect a certain degree of honor and decency in their interactions--and when dealing with the eregaunte, you were dealing with those who were not prone to rash decisions. Hatchlings came with no such guarantees--but this was the first hatchling on the First Exile who had wanted to be a hero. Damn all heroes to hell, his father had once said, who damn their friends with them.
Iorneste was halfway through the wheel of cheese when Mourne looked up in alarm and stopped him from taking another hefty bite. "You're eating too much. You need to ration this food, until we can purchase or trade for some more."
"But I have a large appetite, Mourne. I could eat a small cow."
"You are now human, Iorn, for all intents and purposes. And humans do not eat entire cows."
"Surely the ones who are very hungry do."
Mourne let out a sigh filled with more exasperation than the comment warranted. "No. No they don't. When we reach Sandridge, we will have a proper meal, and you will see how much humans eat. In the meantime, put your formidable intellect to the task and consider the size of a cow compared to your current size, and adjust proportions mathematically."
Iorneste looked ruefully at the remains of his provisions. He realized that much of his time as a human was going to be spent feeling hungry. He hadn't said as much to Mourne, but for some reason he'd felt that the provisions in his pack were for a single meal. He sadly noted that there were no runes of replenishing on the pack, and so the food would not, as he at first assumed, simply reappear when needed. He could add such a rune himself, but not without Mourne's permission.
With exquisite sadness and regret, he put the remainder of his provisions back into his pack. "We could hunt a deer," he offered.
"We don't have a bow, or a firearm, and you don't know how to shoot one."
"Firearm?" asked Iorneste, suddenly interested.
"Yes, another advancement humans have made since the disappearance of the Drac, and good for the Drac that they had not developed it sooner. Loud, noisy, inelegant things they are, but extremely effective. They can punch through armor like paper, and I suspect a dragon's hide would also be easily pierced in much the same manner."
"So what do they hunt with these firearms?"
"Mostly each other."
Mourne stood up, shouldering his pack. "Let's get moving. We could reach Sandridge by nightfall."
They traveled on, Iorneste enjoying every sight, every sensation, and climbing every ridge tirelessly. Without even a hitch in his breath he commented on the song of birds that echoed through the woods, the buzzing of insects, and the change of the shadows of the forest as day moved on toward dusk. Mourne envied him his stamina, himself breathing heavily and unused to the exertion after years of sedentary existence within the Kaer.
They were just reaching the top of a ridgeline, when Iorneste stopped Mourne with his hand, nostrils flaring. "Do you smell that?" he asked.
Mourne tried to pick up what Iorneste was smelling, but shook his head. "Just the forest. What do you smell?"
"Smoke. I smell smoke. And human and animal sweat, and I can hear screaming."
"Oh no," Mourne muttered, and ran further ahead of Iorneste, to the top of the ridgeline, pushing free of the undergrowth and looking down into the valley below.
In the dwindling daylight, the glow of the fire was all too visible. The woodlands glowed like a funeral pyre. Sandridge was burning.
The Dragon Within
by the Arcane Bloodletter, Art of Zeony
©2015 Art of Zeony