Sharp rapping on the caravan wall woke Erran in the early dawn on his second day in Chesny Wold.
His meeting with the wyvern the day before had been brief, dominated by beak and teeth, colorful head frills, huge eyes rising above him on a snake-ish neck, and shrieks like a hundred raging harpies. Finding the human amongst the leftovers of its meal, the wyvern had sought no introduction, but lunged straightaway. Erran instinctively dropped down among the deer bones, rolled under the trunk of a fallen tree, and froze behind it.
The massive head did not appear above him, and after about a minute of listening to angry thrashing and growling, Erran took a deep breath and a chance. He jumped up and shot his arrow into the bushes. The beast’s head whipped around after the sound, and Erran took off in the opposite direction, leaving the wyvern entangled in brambles.
It had been encounter enough, though, and he had spent most of that night in the caravan in the stable yard of the Old Ram, going through his books and crafting spells.
Now, summoned by the incessant knocking, he climbed from his bed, shaking papers from the blankets, and stepped out to find most of the Chesny Council with more questions and complaints.
He could at least tell them what kind of dragon it was.
“It’s a blood wyvern,” he said, rubbing his eyes.
“A what?” was the chorused response.
“A blood wyvern. They carry their power in their blood and mark their territories with secretions that release their magic in the form of a miasma.”
“What magic? What does it do?”
“It— um…“ Erran thought of the information he had read on the apothecary uses of blood wyverns. He cleared his throat. “It inflames passions.”
The farmers stared at him. Then the questions resumed.
“But why is it here?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where did it come from?”
“I don’t know.”
“How did it get here?”
“I don’t know.” Erran tried to divert the flood. “No one must enter the wood.”
“No one has entered the wood,” they retorted almost in unison, and Sheriff Odlam finished with, “We want to know when that thing is going to leave the wood.”
“I’m working on it.”
It took a few more assurances that he understood the gravity and urgency of the situation, but at last the Councilmen moved on, grumbling and glowering, no doubt to hunt down some children playing too loudly or some tradesman hanging his sign at the wrong height.
Erran shook the thought from his mind. It was too early in the day to be so cynical.
The stable yard was wet with morning mist, but warm light poured from the tavern’s kitchen, along with the fragrance of fresh baked bread, for Mistress Lenna also served as the village baker. He could hear her in there, laughing with one of the serving maids. He may as well get to work, too.
After washing and dressing, Erran ate his breakfast tea in the yard with Nutkin and Maedrephon. The aura-horse, a being of spirit energy, pantomimed munching from a bucket of oats. He did such horsey things when appearing in his physical form, though he had no bodily needs to fill. Nutkin took his favorite perch on Erran’s shoulder and pried open a walnut, dropping bits of shell down the front of Erran’s jacket. All three studied a map of the wold together while Erran made plans for the day.
“Nutkin,” he said, “I’d like you to go out among the beasts. See if you can learn more about what’s been happening. I’ve never seen angrier sheep than those yesterday. I think you’ll get more from them than I would.”
Nutkin agreed, neither of them mentioning that this job would keep the little squirrel well away from the wyvern.
Erran then spoke with Mistress Lenna, who was only too happy to accommodate him in whatever way he desired, and in short order, he and Maedrephon trotted the four or so miles back to Tulgi, carrying a sack of day-old pies.
At the foot of Tulgi Hill, Erran spread the map on the grass and produced five talismans he had prepared the night before, sealed with bee’s wax and wolf’s fur, and bearing the sigil of Nimrie. He placed these on the map and slowly moved them like game pieces around the drawn perimeter of the hill, feeling for sympathetic vibrations.
“What are you doing, brother?”
Erran turned, expecting to see Broge Baile, but found instead a raven that had walked up behind him. Two more ravens watched nearby. They were probably the three he and Nutkin had seen yesterday. Great masters of language, ravens needed no magic to speak to whomever they pleased. Today, they pleased to speak to him.
“Good day, brothers,” said Erran. “I am a Ranger of Mother Nimrie, and I’m here to ward the wood. I’m trying to find the aura gates to place the talismans.”
“Ward the wood,” the lead bird said. “To keep the wyvern in? But won’t it get hungry if it can’t get out to eat others?” All three burst into raucous, cawing laughter. “Is that what the pies are for? We smelled them from the other side of the hill. You have a soft heart, Ranger.”
The others cried out, “Soft heart! Why don’t you just kill the mad thing? Soft-hearted Ranger!”
“I am called Fox,” said Erran. “How may I call you?”
“Are you asking permission to call us? Do you wish to exchange names? But are the names we use truly our own to be called by?” said the bird. It looked to its companions, who shrugged and ruffled their feathers, then cocked its head at Erran. “You may call me Nod.”
Erran bowed his head slightly. “Greetings, Raven Nod.”
“Greetings, Ranger Fox. It happens that we know where the gates are.”
“Will you show them to me?”
“We’ll show you anything you like, won’t we, boys? We want to see you feed your pet.”
“Why did you call the wyvern mad?” Erran asked.
“Oh, it’s mad as mad can be,” said Nod. “It wanders that hill, talking all kinds of nonsense, and any creature it sees sends it into hysterics. But maybe you can tame it with your treats.”
“What nonsense does it talk?”
All three birds shrugged and ruffled again. “Nonsense is nonsense,” said Nod. “Why bother to listen?”
“Do you know why it came here? Wyverns are creatures of mountains. Why would it come to this valley?”
“Wrong! Wyverns are creatures of caves. Don’t you know this is a barrow hill, hollow through and through? The wyvern nests in a cave at the top.”
“It sleeps on a treasure of humans,” the other two laughed, jostling each other.
Erran looked up at the dark trees. Was this really a barrow hill, a place where the ancients buried their dead? It wasn’t mentioned in the petitions to the Grand Temple. He had never before heard of a dragon nesting in a burial place. Was this part of its madness, if it was mad? Ravens would know about graves, but how familiar could they be with the minds of dragons?
“As for why,” Nod continued, “you’ll have to ask it.”
Erran resolved to do just that, but first, he mounted Maedrephon and followed the ravens around Tulgi Wood. To set a large ward this way was basic geomantic magic, but if the warder did not place the talismans just right, the protective barrier would not hold. In an unfamiliar landscape, a map and a guide were better than a map alone.
He placed a talisman and invoked its spell at each point the ravens showed him, where the energy of the land aligned with earth, air, fire, water, or spirit. These were the aura gates, where the living energy of the world, Aeldreth, flowed in and out of Tulgi Wood most clearly. Their precise locations depended on a complex interplay of ley lines, aura vortices, and topology.
He made the circuit of the forest and ended back at the first point, the gate of earth, which was always the beginning and end in geomancy. The afternoon shadows were already beginning to stretch across the land. With ritual gestures and invoking the elemental deities and the authority of his own goddess, he pulled the threads of energy together, closed the circle, and with a clap of his hands, activated the ward. A cocoon of aura enclosed Tulgi Wood, north, south, east, west, above and below, within and without. Only Erran and those he permitted would be able to cross this boundary.
The birds chattered approval of his technique. He thanked them, tied a cloth charmed against miasma over his face, hoisted the sack of pies, and entered the wood. The magic wall closed itself behind him.
It was late when he rode back to the Old Ram and found the aged healer, Sabeth, waiting on the step of his caravan. She smoked a long-stemmed pipe and watched him slip down from his horse.
“I take it the wyvern is still here,” she said. “Odlam will be displeased.”
Weary to his bones, Erran sat beside her and breathed in the fragrance of her pipe.
The second day had not gone any better than the first. The wyvern had eaten the pies readily enough, but they had not bought its tolerance. He had spent hours tossing the savory baits from behind trees and rocks, while making classical arguments of logic and dodging attacks. In the falling gloom of sunset, it was all he could do to escape, having utterly failed to establish rapport. At least his ward held when the wyvern crashed into it, or his bones would likely have joined the deer in the clearing.
“The situation is complex,” he said.
“I know,” said Sabeth. “They should have sent a cohort of men-at-arms. I tried to make things clear in the petitions, but the others had tales of their own to tell, and I had only so much paper and patience.”
“You wrote the petitions?”
“The divine seals were drawn by the minister, but yes, I wrote them. We’re a small community. As healer, I am the senior witch, so all the visiting ministers leave their charms with me. If I were not here, it would be Lenna, our best cook and potioner.”
“Not Odlam, as Sheriff? Isn’t he the official authority here?”
Sabeth grinned derisively and changed the topic. “But tell me now, why is the wyvern still alive?”
“I’ve only just begun my work.”
“How long does it take to kill one sick animal?”
“Do you think it’s sick?” Erran said. Sabeth shrugged. She puffed on her pipe while Erran gazed up at the stars. “Have you ever heard of a dragon going mad?” he asked.
“Neither have I.”
The old woman peered at him in the darkness. “A complex situation won’t become simple by you shouldering others’ problems,” she said. She hopped down from the wagon. “There’s a cold supper waiting in your caravan. Eat it, sleep, let your aura replenish. In the morning, do what you came here for – and if you need help, ask for it.”
“Good night, Mistress Sabeth. You may tell the Council that the wood is warded. The pastures are safe.”
“The sheep will be glad to hear it. By the way, you’ll find your little chamber neater than you left it. Lenna wanted to collect your linens for the wash, so naturally, we picked through all your things while we were at it and tidied as we went. You’re very messy, young man.”
“Excuse me?” said Erran. “Wait – how did you get in? Wasn’t it locked?”
Sabeth laughed. “Don’t worry, I didn’t let her steal anything, though she did take two pairs of breeches for the laundry pot. Be sure you get two back. She might want to keep one as a memento. It’s not often we get such a good-looking visitor.”
In the early dawn of the third day, Erran was awakened by a young curate announcing that the Purifier had arrived. He went to meet him and to report that he had no wyvern ready for purification.
“Oh? No wyvern?”
The Purifier was a tall, broad man, rich in voice, clean-shaven and close-cropped in the style of those who purify the unclean. He sat on a wagon loaded with equipment, hitched to two oxen, in front of the Old Ram. He introduced himself as Godre and did not introduce his curate assistant at all.
“You knew I was coming, didn’t you?” he said.
“The matter is complex,” said Erran. “The wyvern’s behavior is abnormal.”
“Abnormal implies alive, Brother Ranger. I cannot do my work until the beast is dead. Has the bard been of no help? I was told to expect some dragon-charming.”
“There is no bard.”
“Oh? No bard?”
“I’m working on it, Brother Purifier. I expect all will be resolved shortly.”
“Very well, then.” Godre climbed down from the wagon and slapped the road dust from his robes. “I shall await your success.”
And he passed into the tavern.
Erran should have followed Sabeth’s advice and gotten a good night’s sleep to restore the inner aura he had consumed to fuel his spells of reason and communication. Instead, he had worked through most of yet another night, trying to figure out what he was missing about this wyvern. Innkeeper Lenna had cleaned his caravan in vain. By morning, it was once again a wreck of scattered books and papers covered with notes and diagrams.
After dressing but before eating, he grabbed a sheaf of pages he had tucked into his personal grimoire and went to consult with Chesny’s two leading witches, Sabeth and Lenna.
His new plan was straightforward: Since the wyvern seemed intent on eating him, he would give it plenty of chances.
The healer and the baker declared his idea audacious but interesting. After Lenna squared away the morning meals, they gathered in her kitchen to cast the spell Erran had designed.
Sabeth brought mandrake root powder and an herbal potion. Lenna made the specially mixed bread dough, and Erran supplied twelve locks of his hair and twelve drops of his blood to be worked into each loaf. They chanted his invocations during the mixing, kneading, and proofing, and while Lenna cut and twisted the loaves into human forms with currant eyes and cherry lips, and as they baked in her cavernous oven.
Thus they made twelve little poppets, copies of Erran himself, granted action and speech by the mandrake. They would move as Erran moved and speak as Erran spoke, echoing the dragon-controlling spells he would cast. Each one that the wyvern caught and devoured, would deliver a dose of Sabeth’s tranquilizing medicine to ease its wrath.
With the sun high in the sky, he rode again to Tulgi, carrying the still-warm poppets in his sack, and entered the wood to trick a mad wyvern into listening to reason.
He exited Tulgi again shortly after sunset, staggering and bleeding from the head.
Maedrephon ran to him and pawed the turf angrily, scolding Erran’s stubbornness. He knelt so his master could climb laboriously onto his back. Under thickening clouds, he carried him to the nearest house, which was Baile Farm.
“I can’t tell if you’re lucky or unlucky,” said Broge Baile after he got Erran safely indoors.
They sat before the hearth in Broge’s cottage. A soft, steady rain now whispered across the roof thatch above them. Erran leaned forward, shirtless, and winced as Broge’s rough hands massaged a medicinal ointment over the hot, red welt across his back.
“It just swiped me with its tail,” he said.
“Swiped! Maybe next time it’ll swipe you in the head and end all your troubles. Or did it already do that, with no effect?”
Erran touched the laceration on his scalp, dressed with salve. “A tree did that one,” he said.
Satisfied with his doctoring, Broge slapped Erran’s back, startling out a cry of pain. “That should do. At least it won’t stiffen up on you. Get dressed and tell me what went wrong this time.”
What hadn’t gone wrong? It had been quite the merry dance on Tulgi Hill that day, among him, his baked servitors, and that curse of a wyvern. The wood had rung with Erran-voices speaking words of reason, comfort, and power, all of which only seemed to enrage the beast more. Forced to run again, Erran had luckily been leaping away when he caught a glancing blow from the wyvern’s tail. It was like being smacked with the flat of a war-axe as it slammed him against the tree. He had clung to his wits just enough to tumble down the hillside and out through the ward barrier.
Erran eased his shirt over his head, and by the time he had told the condensed story and Broge had laid out a supper of stewed roots, dark bread, and soft cheese, his back was feeling a little better.
“Why didn’t the bread poppets work?” Broge asked, pouring out cups of brandy from a jug. “Sabeth knows her business, and from what you say, there was enough of her sleep potion in them to knock out ten bulls.”
“They never got the chance,” said Erran. “That beast focused on me from the very start, and nothing else existed for it.” He tasted the brandy and coughed as it burned his throat and nose.
“I guess it knows the smell of its prey.” Broge topped up Erran’s cup.
“But the poppets did smell like its prey. That was the point.” Erran’s voice rasped from the brandy. “They smell like me, sound like me – they probably taste like me. But it ate not one of them. They may still be running around up there, trying to get its attention.” He dared one more sip, then switched to food.
“Maybe it’s like a cat with a feather on a string,” said Broge.
“You know, when you play with a cat by dangling a feather on a string. Some cats are content to pretend the feather is a mouse. Others trace the string up to your hand and make you the mouse.”
Erran had to chuckle and nod. The analogy seemed apt enough.
“That other cleric mentioned something about you hiring a bard to help you,” said Broge.
Erran grimaced, imagining Godre making himself comfortable at the Old Ram. “I don’t want to do that.”
“Have you ever dealt with bards?”
“I’ve paid for a song now and then.”
“Double-dealing mountebanks, the lot of them,” Erran said, digging into the savory vegetable stew. “They call themselves wizards, and every other one will claim to charm whatever beast, monster, or god they hear mentioned, though they only use their supposed skills to seduce money from the gullible.”
Broge grinned. “Sweeping with a broad broom, aren’t you, Erran?”
“I tell you, Broge,” Erran gestured with a crust of bread, “the only worthy bards are employed in the courts and temples, and they are few and far between. My own temple had but two in the world. One just died, and all I have of the other is a book I can’t read.”
“But if it would help with the wyvern – I mean, after all…”
“You must understand, bards have no god of their own to serve and learn from, to give them purpose. They are wild folk.”
“Most ordinary people don’t serve a god.”
“I wouldn’t ask most ordinary people to fight a dragon with me, and I might wish bards were ordinary. How can I trust people who follow no rules and whose skills are proven only by their own claims? A bard must be the last resort.”
“Don’t you want to kill the wyvern?”
“No, of course not.” Erran noticed Broge’s surprise and added, “Wyverns – all dragons – are reasonable beings. One can’t want to kill them.”
“This one isn’t reasonable.”
“If your neighbor went mad, would you just kill her and be done? I must give this wyvern every chance in my power.”
“You mean every chance to kill you?”
Thunder rolled over the cottage, followed by the swish of heavy rain hitting the thatch. Listening, Erran sighed.
“Why don’t you stay here tonight?” said Broge.
Erran thought of riding through a storm back to the village and its Council. “If I may, I will. Thank you.”
After the meal, Erran was set up with a bed of straw and blankets in the barn loft. Broge had offered his own bed, but Erran wished to stay close to Maedrephon, who rested below among stalls meant for Broge’s sheep, who had been moved into the village with all the others.
Lightning flashed blue-white and thunder boomed, as Erran set his clothes beside the backpack that carried his weapons – bow, quiver, and sword – all efficiently ready. He wondered if Nutkin had found some warm place to sleep as well. He was a sensible fellow, as squirrels go, but Erran was unhappy with the uncertainty he felt, and out of habit, he transferred his worrying to the little brother he had reared by hand from when he was still blind and barely furred.
Despite Broge’s ointment, Erran felt his back would stiffen painfully if he slept on it now. He had worked more magic and rested less between workings these past few days than he normally did in a month. The aura channels of his body felt seared as if a burning thread had been pulled through them. He carefully stretched, breathing relaxation into his muscles, and began to perform the fifteen foundation moves of the Way of Oak and Wave.
This martial practice had been drummed into him from early childhood by a family who had never expected him to abandon secular life for temple service. The Oak and Wave School emphasized stability within movement in elemental magic. It made shield and weapon of the practitioner’s own body. If he focused his energy, invoked an elemental power, he could slice through walls with a sword or break them with his fist. It was said warriors of Oak and Wave were never unarmed.
Erran was no warrior, though. He could barely be called a hunter, for he hated to end a life. He didn’t even want to kill this wyvern.
Keeping his energy loose and neutral, he shifted his balance from foot to foot, letting his arms float through the motions, like waves around the oak of his spiritual core, bringing mind, body, and aura into harmony.
He had killed before. More than once he had ended the suffering of some sick or injured animal. Surely, this was a similar situation.
But when he killed, there was always a moment when his eyes met the beast’s, a moment of mutual understanding. He could not find that now. He couldn’t guess what this wyvern saw when it looked at him, and screamed and bit. Whatever spell he cast, it understood no words, and its rage only grew.
What could have reduced a creature of the dragon tribes to such a condition? Could he simply kill it and walk away without knowing?
Of course, he had no choice. He had been told to use his judgment about the bard, not the wyvern. He must return to Llenead Maera with the gem, the magical carbuncle that grew in the heads of dragons. There was only one way to get it. Ultimately, none of his worries mattered.
The wyvern’s scream suddenly shattered his thoughts. It was loud and close – too close. He called to Maedrephon as he pulled on his boots, grabbed his weapons, and slid down the loft ladder.
They galloped out into the rain. Erran heard men’s shouts mingled with the wyvern’s cries.
They soon found the beast in the meadows, facing off against men armed with staves. It held one man under its talons as it beat its wings and snapped its jaws at the others swinging and thrusting their sticks.
Erran shot an arrow at its neck, which glanced off the scales but made the wyvern flinch. Erran and Maedrephon leaped in under its hesitation, and Erran slashed his sword at its leg. The wyvern hopped back, freeing the trapped man. As it hissed and twisted, Erran drew energy from his inner being and summoned his second familiar.
She came like the howling winds of a thousand winters, the aura-wolf Pruska, and attacked the thing that threatened her master. This apparition was too much for the wyvern. It took wing and fled back to Tulgi, with the familiar on its heels.
“Stay here!” Erran shouted at the men, and he and Maedrephon chased after them.
The battle of the wolf and the wyvern sounded from somewhere up the hill. Creatures of aura could not harm a physical being directly, but they had other powers, and right now, the wyvern must be beset by hordes of phantom wolves that took away its warmth and gave back terror.
The ward was broken, its vibrations disordered. The storm was already lessening, but the clouds cast the wold in darkness. Erran reached for a light crystal, and realized he had left his outer clothes and all his other gear behind. He dismounted, tried to orient himself, and detected a strange scent in the rain.
Someone came running with a light. Erran turned, blade ready.
“It’s me, Broge!” The farmer lowered his lantern, revealing his face. “What happened? Gods, what is that noise?”
“One of my familiars. Don’t be afraid. Bring that lantern here.”
Broge cast his light where Erran stood. The ground was smeared with a large, dark blotch of something thick and slimy, giving off a foul smell.
“Ugh, what is it?” said Broge.
“Rotten blood, a ward-breaker’s trick. The unclean substance corrupts the energy, which breaks the ward array.” Erran felt around under a bush and pulled out one of his talismans. “Luckily, they missed this. Those men – did you see them? Why would they do this?”
Broge seemed at a loss. “They went to the village. One of them is hurt. Why should it be them?”
“I don’t know, but come, you’re exhausted and hurt. You can’t fight now. Come back to the house.”
Without protection against the miasma, Erran couldn’t go into the wood anyway.
“I must recast the ward,” he said. “Help me clean this stuff up.”
With Broge’s aid, Erran repaired the barrier array. He called Pruska, and the she-wolf appeared, as big as Maedrephon.
“The enemy ran to ground, Master,” she reported. “I chased it into a cave. What is your will now?” Her words were for Erran. Broge, shrinking back in alarm, heard only growling and snarling.
“My friend,” Erran put his hand on her thick fur, “can you guard what I guard, protect what I protect, hold fast what I hold fast?”
“Then guard this ward.”
Pruska’s red tongue lolled from her grinning jaws. “Be they large or small, dove or demon, none shall pass, Little Master.”
She disappeared, and as her energy separated from him, fresh pain wracked his body. He dropped to his knees. He sensed Maedrephon had as little remaining energy as he did, so he dismissed the aura-horse, who also vanished. He let Broge help him back to the cottage.
This time, Broge deposited him into his own bed, as he had originally wished. As soon as his head touched the feather pillow, Erran collapsed. His last thought before falling into dreamless sleep was of men carrying dead blood to a hill already full of the dead, and releasing the beast they had prayed to be saved from.
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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