An Alchemy of Dragons, Ch. 4

In the early dawn of the fourth day, Erran was awakened by a puff of warm air across his cheek.

He rolled over and found himself gazing into the dark eyes of a young woman. Waves of brown hair fell over her shoulders and around his face as she smiled at him.

“Good morning,” she murmured.

With a cry, he bolted from the bed and stumbled into the middle of the room.

“I’m sorry,” the woman said, laughing, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

She sat on the quilt, full trousers spread about her, tight-laced tunic accentuating her figure, and regarded Erran with such frank amusement that, blushing, he pulled his shirt closer and crossed his arms over his chest.

“May I ask who you are, lady?” he said.

“I am Kathil Arret, the Circuit Minister.”

It took him a moment to recall what that meant — the Circuit Minister who tended the shrines at Chesney and similar remote places, and who had been notified of the trouble but would not arrive until — now, apparently.

She rose and bowed, her hand on her heart. “Love and trust, Brother Fox.”

He returned the gesture vaguely. “I was told you were in the north.”

“So I was.”

“Oh.” He glanced around for his clothes and flinched when she moved in suddenly and laid a hand on his arm.

“Come, Brother, I swear I didn’t mean to upset you. Broge sent me to call you to breakfast, but when I saw you sleeping so peacefully, I couldn’t bear to shake you. It seems my waking wasn’t as gentle as intended. I beg your pardon.”

“No, Sister,“ Erran patted her hand and slipped free of it, “I must beg your pardon for my rudeness.”

“All’s well, then,” she declared. “Now, I brought hot water for your cleansing, and there’s hot food for your breakfast. Broge has told me the story, so while we eat, we may discuss this wyvern. Dress quickly.”

She left with a smile and a wave. Erran sighed. What a place Chesny was for waking a man.

A jug of mint-scented water steamed by the basin on the washstand. His things, collected from wherever he had dropped them, lay folded in a basket, with fresh breeches and hose, no doubt Broge’s, on top. Such hospitality embarrassed him, especially after the night’s trouble.

He really had overdone things. His head throbbed, and a dry pain traced the map of his nerves. He washed himself, and as he dressed, he thought. 

With the breeches, hose, and shirt, he thought of how the wyvern had flown, raging, out of the wood but then had flown, frightened, right back into it.

As he tied the waist laces of his trousers, still spotted with mud and grass, he thought about ward-breakers and the dark magic of dead blood.

As he slipped the over-worn green tunic over his head, he tallied up the equal numbers of his efforts and failures to quell the beast. 

Finally, he laced the trousers tight around his calves, cinched the buckles of his leather jerkin over the tunic, added belt and purse, and tugged his shirt collar and sleeves into place under it all. With this finishing, he worked out what he should do next and what he realistically could do in his present condition.

“You’re not going out like that, are you?” said Kathil Arret when he emerged, pondering a growing list of questions to be answered.

He looked down at himself. “What’s wrong?”

“Your hair, it’s a mess. There’s not a single braid. You’ll catch your death.”

Erran reflexively put a hand to his tangle of ruddy curls. He hadn’t given it a thought, just as he hadn’t thought to trim his beard recently. He must look rather wild by now. Broge, even in the safety of his own home, restrained his fine, light hair within a plaited circlet from his temples to a knot at the back of his head. Kathil’s lustrous mane was laced through with braids and amulets. He recalled combing his own hair out some time ago, but he hadn’t done it up again since. Nutkin normally kept him organized about such details.

“Oh, sit and eat,” Kathil said. “I’ll take care of it.”

She pushed him into a chair and began to run her fingers over his head.

Broge served him a plate of griddle cakes. “Best to let her have her way,” he grinned.

The smell of the food awakened Erran’s hunger, but his eating was complicated by Kathil tugging and twisting his hair with the harsh efficiency of a busy mother while she and Broge talked through the wyvern affair as if Erran were the newcomer. 

Broge’s telling emphasized the complaints of the farm animals, the losses and delays, and the attack on the men in the night. Kathil asked what spells had been tried, but Erran found it difficult to answer between his mouth being full and his head getting yanked about. 

He let Broge explain the failure of the bread poppets while he worked on getting some food from plate to stomach. It struck him that Kathil, a shrine minister specializing in cleansing and invocations, knew a lot about beast management, the specialty of rangers. Perhaps she was a student of his art, or perhaps the daughter of farmers, ministering to her own people in this community and able to extrapolate from sheep to dragons. 

Her questions, basic but provocative, only added to his sense of urgency. As soon as she was done with his hair and he with his food, he pulled on his boots, shouldered his pack, and thanked them both politely.

Kathil opened her mouth, but he left before she could ask to come along. He had already exposed enough people to the Chesny wyvern.

Behind the house and barn rose the steep slope of Tulgi Hill, and before them lay the valley pastures. A brook tumbled down the hill to provide the farm’s water before joining the main stream. Fields and an orchard stretched southward along the waterway, and a rough-hewn bridge let Broge get in and out with dry feet. All in all, Baile Farm was well appointed, but with its animals absent, it stood in eerie silence.

Erran followed the brook up the hill to the ward boundary. The aura shimmered where the water passed through it. He thought this invisible wall must be inconvenient for the creatures that lived in the brook – another reason to complete his quest.

He quieted his mind, raised his hand in the gesture of the element of spirit, drew the sigil of Pruska in the air, and called her name.

The wolf appeared in an icy whirlwind. “What is your will, Little Master?”

“My friend, tell me the story of the night.”

“What story? I have only an epic tale of prey that never left its burrow.” Her blazing eyes sized him up, and she added, “And of a magician with no power to spare. What can you do today?”

Erran knew he was still too weak to do any real work. “Show me the wyvern.”

Pruska carried him over the tree tops, across the energy dome of the ward. At the summit, she hovered above the rocky outcropping where the wyvern sheltered.

Erran knew the spot by now. He had seen it and felt its aura enough. Tulgi, it seemed, was indeed a barrow hill, as the ravens had said. The cave was marked by eroded, moss-cloaked carvings, bearing the sign of Caillech, the Gatekeeper, the Queen of Souls, most ancient of spirits alongside Aeldreth, the world, herself. These two deities had no temples or clerics, no spells or rites – or perhaps they had all of them. Was it not said every footstep was communion with Aeldreth, and every funeral an offering to Caillech, every birth a boon in return?

In any event, this hill had once been sacred to the Gatekeeper, but like everything else in this world, she had abandoned it, leaving Chesny Wold free for Nimrie’s blessings.

But to which goddess did the wyvern run for shelter now – the Lady of Love or the Lady of Death?

A tiny figure crawled out from under a bush in the clearing and waved a short, stiff arm at Erran. It was one of his bread poppets, a bit worse for wear. Its other arm was gone, and pale lumps marred its crust where the rain had gotten through whatever shelter it had found.

Erran stared in wonder. “How is it still walking?”

“Master,” Pruska said suspiciously, “what is that?”

“An experiment.”

“Tell me you did not put your blood into that thing and set it loose in the woods with a blood wyvern.”

“There were twelve of them when I started.”

Pruska dropped her head down to her paws. “Oh, why, Great She-Wolf, am I bound to this madman? At least it explains why I kept smelling your presence all night long. Don’t you realize that wyvern could have cursed the blood you’re still using?”

“Give me some credit,” Erran retorted. “Precautions were taken. It was quite a complex spell, actually – not that it worked.”

“I was wondering how you managed to burn all your aura so quickly.” If Erran hadn’t been sitting astride her back, the wolf would have shaken herself entirely from nose to tail in her frustration with her reckless master.

The poppet was gesturing towards the cave, indicating that the wyvern was in there. Erran gestured back, indicating that the poppet should lure it out. The poppet gestured refusal. Erran gestured insistence. 

“You were made to feed it,” he whispered loudly. “It’s your destiny. It’s my life you’ll be losing. If I don’t mind, why should you? Bring it out here.”

Watching, Pruska remarked, “Life clings to life, even other peoples’.”

More gestures were exchanged, but finally the bread-man pantomimed a heavy sigh and stepped into the clearing in front of the cave. Drawing itself up as straight as it could, it began to recite passages from the Codex of Treasure and Bane, one of the classics of dragon lore and a fundamental exercise in philosophical logic, translated as a dialogue in heroic couplets.

The poppet spoke in a small, grainy echo of Erran’s own voice, barely audible under the wind in the leaves, but the words eventually reached their audience. A growl rose from the cave, growing louder and angrier until the wyvern’s head shot out and its jaws snapped onto the poppet. That quickly, the voice, the rhetoric, and the spell were gone, along with a single drop of Erran’s life force, a morsel hardly worth swallowing.

The wyvern crawled out of the cave, which seemed too small for it. It humped and slumped over the ground in a continuous length, until its wings were free and unfurled from their painful constriction. It dug its thumb-claws into the stones and pulled itself on until the long, bird-like legs could extend. The tail was still not fully in view as it twisted and wound itself among the trees, and the fog of its miasma thickened with its exhalations.

All the while, it was talking. Erran again regretted his failures, because he could not understand what it was saying. It seemed to be complaining. Probably, it was objecting to the recitations of the little thing it had just eaten. Erran suspected it was calling him an idiot, ranting angrily to the rocks and trees about shallow interpretations of the sacred texts of its tribe.

Nonsense is nonsense, the ravens had said. What sense might be made of this madness? Of all the points and counter-points of Treasure and Bane, which had set the wyvern jabbering and tangling itself into knots?

A gust parted the tree branches and cast the shadow of the wolf and ranger across the wyvern’s eyes. Startled, it screamed and began snapping and flapping, as if attacked by a monster from its own nightmares.

“Why are you like this?” Erran said softly. “What happened to you?”

“It is an unclean thing, Master,” said Pruska. “Kill it before it escapes again.”

“How can it escape you? Is there something wrong with the ward? Did the breakers return?”

Pruska laughed the way wolves do. “Those cowardly scum don’t dare. I meant to say this earlier but I was distracted by your so-called experiment. The fault is not in the ward but in the hill.”

“What do you mean?”

“I can scent out any track in any element. I can harry my prey through space and time. I can hold safe any marked territory. But I can’t hold what can’t be held, nor track what goes nowhere. Somewhere inside this hill, the ward loses itself. The land feels tangled and hollow, and I cannot tell where the boundary lies. If that beast does not escape, it’s because it chooses to stay. Take back your energy from me, Master, and kill it before it eats the rest of you.”

Erran watched the wyvern slinking around. It seemed to have forgotten them and was looking for something more to eat.

“I need a new spell for it,” he said. “Keep the aura I gave you for now, and do the best you can.”

“Be quick about it, Master.”

The shrine at Chesny Wold

He let Pruska vanish back into the ward and walked to the village. It was a healthy stretch of the legs, but he needed the time to digest his familiar’s words.

The night’s storm had left the air crisp and fresh. Birds and insects flitted over the meadows, and he spotted some rabbits grazing the early flowers, but still no farm beasts. Why didn’t the farmers release their flocks and herds, especially after complaining about having to lock them up?

Did they know about the mysterious fault in the hill that Pruska had sensed? Was it some lingering grave energy, something “tangled and hollow” in the roots of Tulgi Wood? But wouldn’t the birds and rabbits feel it, too?

His mind turned back to the wyvern, and he was puzzling over its behavior when he came to the shrine of Nimrie and found Kathil at her work.

The tall stones sparkled, cleansed physically and magically. She was kneeling before a small fire on the altar stone, burning the remains of offerings left since her last visit – charms for love and births, mostly, faded by exposure to the weather – to release the last of their power and make room for more.

She glanced up at him. “There you are. Everything well on the hill?”

He was too occupied to answer. He crouched by the water and dipped in his hands, scattering shards of sunlight among the green grasses. Like all of Nimrie’s sacred wells, this water blessed issuances of the heart and the loins, making Chesny a good place for raising animals and families.

He sipped some water from his palm and splashed a little over his face.

“Fill some vials for me while you’re here,” said Kathil. “They’re in my pack. I’ll charge them later.”

Her pack-basket lay on the grass alongside her long-handled ministerial broom and a broad-brimmed traveler’s hat. Erran found two sectioned boxes, each containing six corked glass vials.

He returned to the pool and held each vial under, letting water replace air in a staccato dance of bubbles. As each was filled, he pressed its cork in place and made the sign of the element over it before slipping it back into the box. The sign was a formality to acknowledge the gift of the water. Kathil would charge it with her own magic when she wished.

“Don’t you think you’re making too much fuss about this wyvern?” she said casually, still feeding bits and bobs into the fire.

“Excuse me?” said Erran.

“All this business we talked about, with poppets and potions. Just kill it.”

“There’s more to it than that,” he said, continuing to fill the vials.

“Like what? What were you ordered to do when you were sent out?”

“I was told to kill the wyvern.”

“Well then?”

“It’s a quest. There’s always more to a quest.”

“If you say so.“ She threw a withered lover’s posey into the flames and watched it collapse into ash. “What if there isn’t more to it, though? What if you’re just over-thinking?”

Erran stared into the pool, mirroring the sky above. 

“Are you afraid you’re too weak?” Kathil said. “I can understand that, but I don’t believe the Lady would have sent you here just to die. What would be the point?”

Erran pulled his gaze away from the water and returned the vial boxes to her basket, saying nothing.

Finished with the old offerings, Kathil scooped up some of the water in a cup to wash away the ash of the now dying fire.

“I think you should go in there and use your power to kill that dragon,” she said with determination. “This is your chance to prove yourself.”

Erran stood and brushed his hands. Still, he said nothing.

They walked together. Erran carried Kathil’s pack as well as his own. Kathil used her broom as a staff and swung her hat in her hand. Upon reaching Chesny, they went straight to Sabeth and found the healer working in her garden.

She nodded to Kathil and looked Erran up and down. “You’d better come in.”

A strong, complicated fragrance permeated the cottage. Stools were scattered everywhere so the old lady could sit while she worked, no matter the task. Jars and boxes lined the walls, and the rafters were hidden by a solid canopy of drying herbs. An alcove held some cots, one enclosed by linen curtains.

“An aura remedy for you,” she said to Erran. “A filler, I think.” She looked him over again. “Or do you want a boost? If it’s a boost, I’ll have to cook one up.”

She used the common slang for the types of potions. A boost would open his channels wide, letting him absorb aura rapidly, even beyond his natural capacity, for a short time. Boosts were an emergency medicine, but popular with impatient magicians, despite their risks. 

Fillers were therapeutic. They improved the circulation of aura through the body, and relieved the debilitating effects of aura-burn, when a person used energy faster than they could generate or absorb it. Fillers still required rest, but less rest than the universal cure-all of time.

“A filler, please,” Erran said.

Nodding, Sabeth took a dark bottle from a shelf and decanted some of its contents into three glass vials. Each of these in turn she laid in a quartz bowl and charged with words and gestures. As the spell activated the qualities of the potion, it began to glow in the vials.

While she worked, Kathil browsed, peering at labels on various containers. Erran just let his gaze wander. His thoughts were elsewhere.

“Hey!” Sabeth snapped, waking Erran from his reverie. “That’s not for you.”

She was glaring at Kathil who had wandered over to the curtained bed and peeked inside.

“I’m not doing anything,” the Minister protested. “What’s wrong with this boy?”

“He’s not your concern. Get away.” Sabeth started around the table. 

Erran moved quickly to urge Kathil from the alcove. Within the curtains, he saw a young man on the cot, ashen, barely breathing. A kettle over a small brazier by the bed let out medicinal steam. An array of crystals hung over him.

Sabeth yanked the curtain closed. 

“Is he the one the wyvern hurt?” Erran said. “Who is he?”

“Just a rash boy,” said Sabeth. “Son of a rash father. His chest is broken. Whether my spells work or not will be up to him and his fate.” 

She prodded them to her large table, and put a thick slice of bread and one of the vials in front of Erran. The potion swirled with shimmering, changing colors. “Take that now with the bread. Drink the others, one each tomorrow and the next day, with a meal. Avoid spell-casting until one sunrise after you’ve taken the last dose.”

Erran examined the concoction. He sniffed it. It smelled of warm spices and moonlight on snow.

“It’s my own version of Royal Spirit syrup,” Sabeth said, referring to a classic aura remedy. “Good for men and beasts. Always take it with food, or it may cause lightheadedness.”

“Thank you.” He knocked back the potion, surprised at its sweetness. 

“Extract of marshmallow root,” she said, reading his expression. “It’s how I get the young men to take it. Sick men are more cooperative if you treat them as their mothers did. Two coppers.”

Erran took the bread and replaced it with two coins from his belt-purse. After a moment’s pause, he added two heavy, bright beads of gold.

“For the boy’s care,” he said.

Sabeth raised an eyebrow. “If he needs as much as that, he’s beyond my skills.”

“Buy what skills you need, and give him whatever is left — aid from the Temple until he recovers.”

Sabeth nodded and handed over the other two vials, in straw envelopes. In her eyes he saw fatigue and an acknowledgement of something in that gold that he did not wish to acknowledge himself.

He left the cottage abruptly.

Kathil chased him to the lane. “Wait, will you? That old witch is sharp today, isn’t she? I haven’t seen her in months, and that’s how she treats me?”

Erran ate the bread and walked quickly while Kathil chattered about the foolishness of villagers bringing such disasters on themselves. They soon arrived at the main square and the Old Ram.

“Please excuse me, Sister,” he said, interrupting her. “I will rejoin you shortly.” He marched to the yard, leaving her at the tavern door.

As soon as he entered his caravan, Nutkin popped his head out of his nest-box under the ceiling beams. “Erran is that you? At last!”

He jumped, landing on Erran’s chest, and began his usual inspection.

“What took you so long?” Nutkin said, skittering around Erran’s body. “I’ve waited and waited. How did you fare in the storm? Did you see the wyvern again? What happened to your hair?”

Erran caught the squirrel in his hands and briefly nuzzled his cheek against his soft fur before setting him down on a shelf.

“The circuit minister is here,” he said, answering and evading at the same time. “Where have you been?”

“Oh, where have I not been?” Nutkin dashed up to a higher shelf while Erran stripped off the layers he had put on and pulled clean things from his clothing trunk. “I’ve run practically the length and breadth of this valley. I can draw you a map of every stone and nut. I questioned every creature I found and gained a story I fear won’t please you.”

While Erran changed his clothes, Nutkin gave his report. “The wyvern has been here at least a month longer than we were told, and it has spread bad blood as well as bad air. The Baile flock were the first attacked and lost half their kin immediately, but the humans only dithered and argued. Next, the Tulgi deer were forced out by the wyvern’s poison, and after them the other forest beasts fled, too. The humans argued and dithered. Three more farms were attacked, still, the humans talked. Finally, the sheep organized the herds and declared there would be no farming until something was done. What they did was move the animals into the town and carry on arguing, until the old healer made them petition Mother Nimrie. Then you came to do their work for them.”

“So that’s what the ewes meant,” said Erran, “about seeing a human keep a human’s oath.” 

“Well may they say so. The wildlings did more than these farmers. A badger said those stags we found were warriors who tried to take back the hill. We saw the result of their bravery. Some sparrows told me a few humans – including you, I suppose – all strangers here – have gone into the wood with no more success than the deer, but the farmers, who are the wold’s caretakers, have only stood in the fields and debated each other. They’re skilled at using the labor of beasts, but when called to keep their end of the bargain, they can’t find their own tails. Some question whether they wish to be farmers at all.”

Erran absorbed this as he laced and neatened himself. 

“What of you?” said Nutkin. “What have you learned?”

“Much, I think, but it’s all jumbled in my head. Come.”

With Nutkin riding on his sleeve, he went into the tavern. The usual patrons sat at their usual tables – they seemed to live there. Sister Kathil had joined Brother Godre and his silent curate over a mid-morning meal, and Lenna polished tankards. 

“Greetings, Master Ranger,” she sang out as soon as she saw him. “Still no luck catching those wyverns?”

Godre chuckled loudly. “It’s only one wyvern, Mistress. Just the one.”

Erran ignored him. “Mistress, I need your help again. Do you know any—“

“Master Ranger!” Odlam’s gritty voice burst through the room. He marched in, followed by several councilmen who fanned out to fill the space behind him. They must have spotted Erran outside and hurried to catch up. “What’s this I hear about a bard?”

“Sherrif Odlam, all things in their turn—“

“Don’t give me excuses,” Odlam snapped. “I have learned you were supposed to bring a bard to charm the wyvern, but instead, you have wasted our time, running around and using up our food. Did you think to gain glory by defeating the beast alone? Well, you’ve made a poor showing, haven’t you, and I shall write as much to the Arch-Prelate.” He loomed over Erran, seeming to grow even bigger, and waved a finger in the smaller man’s face. “I’ve a mind to clap you in shackles for what happened last night.”

The room fell silent. There were those who knew Odlam, and those who knew the politics of states and temples, but all eyes focused on the ranger, whom none of them knew, in his forest-colored clothes and fox-colored hair. Nutkin dashed around to his back, as if to hide from a hawk, as Erran faced the bigger man.

“Master Sheriff,” Erran said quietly, “my methods are not for you to question.”

Odlam huffed like a bellows. “I am the Wold Sheriff. I keep the order here.”

“Then where were you when disorder came?” Erran looked at the faces confronting him. “Where were all of you? I think I can say for some. You, sir.” He pointed at one of the men, and then another. “Yes, and you. You were both there last night, weren’t you? And you were present earlier, when I told all of you to stay out of Tulgi.”

“You have no authority to ban us from our own woods,” one of the men shouted back. “You’re supposed to make it safe, not lock us out of it. Now my son lies near death because of your wyvern.”

“Your son lies near death because you broke the ward.” Erran’s voice neither rose nor wavered. “Do you deny it?”

“You dare!” The man swung. Erran dodged his punch. Odlam grabbed Erran’s sleeve, and Godre jumped up to grab Odlam’s.

“Brothers, brothers,” said the Purifier, “be in good humor.”

A crash broke the moment. They all turned. A shattered lay cup at Kathil’s feet.

“Enough!” she said. “Odlam, how dare you speak so to a cleric of the Beast Mother. Do you want the curse of her wrath on top of the wyvern?”

Erran caught his breath. Yes, he bore the sign of the goddess, but it would never have occurred to him to threaten Odlam in such a manner. It was not for mortals to say whom a god would curse or why, especially Nimrie, who guarded all creatures with love.

He stepped back and took a deep breath.

“I do beg your pardons,” he said to the room in general.

For their parts, the villagers seemed chastened by Kathil’s scolding. Odlam deflated visibly. He pulled a chair from a table and sat.

“Master Sheriff,” Erran said, “I was trying to say all things are done in their turn. Now it is the turn for a bard.” He turned his back on Odlam. “Mistress Lenna, what bards play here?”

“We have no bards,” she said.

“Not in the village, but who visits regularly?”

“There are no bards in the valley.”

“What are you talking about, Lenna?” said Kathil. “There are several who work the Chesny road.”

“They’re gone,” said Lenna.

“Where did they go?”

“Down that wyvern’s gullet, where else?” said Odlam miserably.

Kathil turned on him. “What?!”

Erran closed his eyes and took more calming breaths, his jaw tight. 

“Did you think we just went begging to the Temple without trying to help ourselves first?” Odlam almost pleaded with Kathil. “We tried all kinds of spells. Nothing worked. We sent three bards three times to Tulgi, and what did we get? Two never returned, and the third ran off.”

“Leaving debts behind,” someone unhelpfully added.

“No more will come here.”

At that, Erran almost laughed. “Very well.” One more deep breath, and he addressed the room, looking as many of the villagers in the eyes as would meet his gaze. “Know all of you this: Tulgi Wood is off limits. It is warded and guarded. None may enter until I say otherwise. So is it ordered by me, Erran Fox of Llenead Maera, in Nimrie’s name. Woe to any who disobey. So be it.”

He clapped his hands to seal his declaration. He put no aura into his words, made no spell of it. It was a statement of fact, and this time, no one challenged him.

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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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