Be a smart fox, Erran.
It took several hours to complete the practical preparations for his quest. There was gear to be packed, oaths to make and blessings to receive, along with official documents and a requisition of gold coins. Dusk had already fallen by the time Erran summoned his familiar, the aura-horse Maedrephon, and greeted him with the usual question.
“My friend, can you carry me where I need to be in time for me to be there?”
“Master,” said the horse with a body like clouds and starlight, “if you were to sew all new clothes, bake all new bread, brew all new beer, shave and grow all new whiskers, and only then set out, I would still get you there before you are ready.”
True to his word, Maedrephon carried Erran’s caravan through the night sky, galloping as swift as the wind across the treetops of the western forests of Bodhael, the Realm of Earth.
Inside the wagon, Nutkin slept off his seed cake feast, curled up and snoring among the cushions. Erran read by the light of a crystal lantern. He had pulled from his book trunk everything he thought might be relevant. Bookmarks bristled around the edges of the Vomarius Compendium of Beast Magicks and Antanolin’s Customs and Anatomies of the Lesser Dracolins, both well worn and annotated, as well as some newer papers on wyverns. He had even acquired a bound edition of The Ziri Manuscripts, penned by the Reverend Sister who was so inconveniently far away in Einael, the Air Realm. This turned out to be a bardic grimoire, which Erran did not understand at all, though he pored over its arcane diagrams and jargon late into the night until finally he, too, had to lay down his head and sleep.
Taking a straight line southwest from Llenead Maera to the coastal state of Lorond, they covered in a night the distance of three days by river and five or more by road. Maedrephon brought the caravan to land with a thump. Awakened, Erran and Nutkin climbed out and surveyed the surroundings in the misty light of early morning.
Chesny Wold was a soft land of green meadows dotted with flowers. The undulating terrain rose and dipped like waves in motion. They had landed near one of the Temple’s shrines, a water hole circled by standing stones carved with Nimrie’s symbols. All creatures might stop here as they pleased and be blessed by the place’s sacred aura. Yet no beasts grazed these pastures, as far as Erran could see.
Nearby in one direction, a line of trees marked a road, and in another, a soft sound and a fresh, earthy smell suggested a swift-running stream. Over one hill rose a faint haze of chimney smoke. On the slopes and ridge of another stood a dark mass that seemed to resist the dawn. Shadow and tension radiated into the air above it like a different kind of smoke.
“I would keep clear of that place, brother,” a voice called out.
Erran turned and was hailed by a man about his own age, with flaxen hair and a thin beard, coming across the dewy meadow from the direction of the stream. He wore shepherd’s clothes and carried a long crook, though no sheep accompanied him.
Erran smiled as he approached. “Good morning, brother. Will you tell me two things?”
“I will if I can,” said the man, leaning on his crook.
“First, am I close to the village of Chesny? Second, what is that place I should avoid?”
“First, you are close indeed. Chesny lies just beyond that hill yonder. I’m on my way there now. Second, that,” the man pointed towards the dark mass, “is Tulgi Wood, and it has been taken by a wyvern.”
“Ah, I see,” said Erran, nodding as he gazed at it.
The flaxen-haired man ran his eyes sharply over Erran’s under-dressed state, still in his sleep shirt and breeches, the squirrel peeping from amongst his loose, chestnut-red hair, and the tall, gray and white horse standing between the shafts of the caravan with no harness to connect them.
“It’s been rough luck for the folks hereabouts,” he said cautiously. “We’ve written to the Beast Temple about it.”
“And the Temple has sent me in answer. I am Erran Fox, a Ranger of Nimrie.”
The man lit up with a broad smile. “Then I am glad to meet you, Master Fox. I am Broge of the clan Baile. My farm is in the dale below the wood. Please allow me to lead you to the village.”
“Thank you kindly, Master Baile,” said Erran. “Just let me dress for the day.”
“Please, call me Broge.”
“I will call you Broge if you will call me friend.”
And so they shook hands.
Chesny proved to be a sizable settlement arranged around a crossing of three lanes and a brook, nestled in the lee of the smaller of the two hills. It boasted brightly painted houses with creatively thatched roofs, and its center buzzed with the labor of workshops around a fountain, from which water flowed to all sections of the village. The public house, a large structure with two timbered upper stories, bore the legend “The Old Ram” in artistic characters over its entrance, alongside a hanging signboard depicting the titular beast leaping over a tankard flowing with ale.
Townspeople stopped to watch Erran’s caravan roll in and Broge Baile jump out of it, together with the now properly attired ranger. Broge bade Erran wait in the tavern, and trotted off. Erran nodded to some of the people staring at him, which prompted them to return to their own business.
With Nutkin riding on his arm, he entered the tavern’s cozy darkness scented with pipe smoke and sweet and savory baking. The few patrons looked at him in silence, but the innkeeper, a tall, thin woman with a long face, came forward to greet him.
“Good morning to you, young Master,” she said in a nasal, sing-song voice as she eyed him eagerly. “And how may I serve your needs?”
“Good morning, Mistress,” said Erran. “Have you anything for a breakfast for myself and my friend? And some kind of tea as well?”
“I think I may have something you’ll enjoy,” she replied, still looking him up and down. “Sit you down, dear, and I’ll be back.”
Similar to the people in the square, the old men in the tavern responded to Erran’s nods by concentrating on their pipes. He took a seat near the front window. Nutkin sat on the table, and they exchanged looks and shrugs.
The innkeeper returned with a tray of buns stuffed with apples, fresh soft cheese, a small dish of hazelnuts and berries, a heated teapot and a selection of dried herbs. She fussed over Erran and insisted on serving the tea, making a little performance of spooning the herbs into a sieve in a cup and pouring the hot water over them, while inviting him to call her by her name, Lenna. He thanked her with a small bow.
“Such fine manners,” she purred, and as she turned to go back to her kitchen, she announced to the other customers, “You layabouts could learn a thing or two from this young gentleman. If you can’t be useful, you can at least be pleasant.”
Now they all glowered at the blushing Erran before returning to their contemplative smoking.
The buns and cheese were delicious, and Nutkin was pleased with his own little dish as well, but they had hardly tucked into their meal properly when Broge Baile reappeared, herding several people before him and calling Lenna to join the group.
These were the Chesny Council. Broge started the introductions with a burly, scowling man named Odlam, the Sheriff of the Wold. Erran had already met Mistress Lenna, proprietor of the Old Ram. She waved at him to continue eating. Next was a small, elderly lady in a crisp linen apron and cap, who smelled of herbs and flowers. This was Chesny’s healer and apothecary, Mistress Sabeth. Broge didn’t bother with the half dozen others lingering behind, nor did they volunteer to speak for themselves.
Erran pulled himself together to perform the required rituals. He presented his letter of authority to the Sheriff, formally declared his purpose for being there, and invited them to speak their woes.
They did so with enthusiasm. Realizing he was hearing a multi-part recitation of the prayer petition he had already read, he interrupted them with calming gestures.
“Gentlefolk, please,” he said, “I am prepared to begin work immediately, but I must first present myself to the animals of your farms.”
“Why?” asked Sheriff Odlam.
“There were two petitions,” said Erran, “so I am here to serve two sets of supplicants.”
Odlam frowned so intensely, his wiry eyebrows almost met over his heavy nose. “That will be easy enough, I suppose. We had to move them all into the village, you see. Every shed and yard is packed with animals. We can’t keep it up. The winter hay is gone. They’ll soon start birthing lambs and calves. They must have fresh food, but they swear they will not take to the pastures, nor give either wool or milk, until the wyvern is gone. I had hoped we could simply go to them with a finished result.”
Erran sympathized, but the proprieties must be observed, so off they went that very moment. The entire Council, all together, marched Erran through the streets to the village green, crowded with sheep, goats, and cattle. There, he was introduced to three of the most senior ewes, who apparently spoke for all the working beasts.
Colorful ribbons adorned their short horns, bells hung around their necks, and they sat impassive on the grass, their legs tucked under their thick fleece, while Erran ran through the formalities again. When he ended with the invitation for them to speak, two of them snorted derisively, and the third gave him a cold stare.
“Is the wyvern dead?” she said.
“I’ve only just arrived,” said Erran.
“So you’re the one sent by Mother Nimrie. That’s well, but we have already told them what we need done.” The ewe shook her head towards the villagers watching from a distance. “Why should we repeat ourselves? Show us a human doing a human’s work and keeping a human’s oath, and then we may sit and talk.”
All three then closed their eyes, ending the interview.
Erran was a bit shocked at this reception for a representative of the Beast Mother, but done is done, and he sensed there would be little point in arguing about it. This left just one party to this matter not yet heard.
Assuring the Council and the sheep that the situation would be resolved as soon as possible, Erran armed himself with bow and sword, and he, Nutkin, and Maedrephon rode across the pastures to Tulgi Wood to see the wyvern.
In the warming sun, they looked up at the forest on the hill, breathing out mist and an aura of bad dreams. All around, no creature showed itself, and the only sounds were their own breathing and their own footfalls on the turf.
“Maybe we should find a bard like the Divines said,” suggested Nutkin. Maedrephon tossed his head in agreement.
“Not before I know what I’m dealing with,” said Erran.
“But the Arch-Prelate—“
“The Arch-Prelate said I should use my judgment, and I must have something to judge. Don’t worry.” He dismounted, still gazing up at the wood. “If I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t have been tasked with it. Wait here with Maedrephon.”
“No,” barked Nutkin. “Who knows what trouble you’ll get into alone.”
“Then stay inside my jerkin, and don’t let go of me.”
As they crossed the boundary into the forest, three ravens took flight from the branches, crying out with their strangely human voices. They were the first other beings they’d seen since leaving the village.
The forest closed in around them. In just a few steps, the sky and light were blocked and the path out vanished. The air turned heavy.
“Ugh, what’s that smell? It stinks,” said Nutkin. “And those carrion-eaters hanging around. I don’t like it. Let’s get out of here.”
Erran studied the scent hanging in the stagnant air. There was blood in it, and death, and something more. It seemed equally strong in all directions, as if the forest had been stewing in it long enough for it to saturate every twig and leaf. He couldn’t describe the smell to himself, but something about it offended him deeply, personally, to his inner core. This unnatural silence, the very trees withdrawn deep within themselves, closed off from life and light – everything here felt wrong, bent to a perverse will. A hot flush of anger ran through his body, and his head went light. A red mist seemed to gather before his eyes.
Quickly, he fished a small vial and a kerchief from his belt pouch. “Nutkin, cover your nose,” he said as he dabbed the kerchief and wrapped it around his face. “This air is bad.”
He felt Nutkin squirming around under the shield of his leather jerkin, obeying without argument for once. He shook a few drops from the vial down his shirt collar, and soon heard a tiny, muffled sneeze and cough. The astringent tincture in the potion would be harsh to the squirrel’s sensitive nose, but it would protect them both with its cleansing power. It seared his own nostrils and tickled his eyes as he breathed it in from the kerchief, but his head began to clear.
He eased the bow from his shoulder quiver, nocked an arrow, loose but ready, and continued into the wood.
Broken branches swayed above him. Deep gouges in the ground indicated talons that could grip him around the chest. The miasma reduced the forms of the trees to distorted shapes that seemed to move as he moved, ghosts maneuvering around him, whispering things he should not be remembering at this moment – fears, and regrets, and best-forgotten grudges.
The marks led him to a trampled space and the remains of two stags, decayed and partially eaten. Something had been at them, but not the usual scavengers. He saw no marks of gnawing or pecking, not even maggots in the rotting flesh. Something greedy was keeping this feast all to itself.
“Erran, we shouldn’t be here. Let’s go back,” Nutkin whispered, but Erran hushed him.
He knew Nutkin was right. The protective potion was only an emergency measure. They couldn’t stay in this tainted atmosphere very long, especially small Nutkin, but it was all so wrong. None of this made any sense.
Erran crouched among the gory carcasses, examining the bones as best he could. The skulls were cracked, dented, in a pattern that suggested they had bashed their heads together until they had killed each other. The deers’ time for mating and war was in the autumn, but now, the second moon of spring had not yet come. These stags had only begun their annual antler growth. The tender, bloody velvet was drying out on the nubs of what should have grown eventually to impressive racks. What could have driven them to such suicidal aggression so far out of season?
Erran thought through everything he had read the night before, as much as he could recall, searching his memory for any reference to miasmas and violence. An image started to form in his head, but even if it were so, it would still make no sense.
“Erran!” Nutkin whispered. “It’s coming. Let’s go. Let’s run!”
Even as he reacted to the warning, he heard something burbling and whiffling through the wood and the tortured creak of bending trees. A huge shadow loomed above him. A deafening scream tore the air apart.
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this chapter of An Alchemy of Dragons. Words and images are my original works. Let me know what you think in the comments below.
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