For months; maybe even longer, Igar had been feeling the pull of some strong emotion that he couldn’t shake. He could not relax. Even now with time to kill and others around him in a celebratory mood, he could not find happiness.
Formed up as the army was now, the men in the fortress of Krawnholde would soon begin to starve and most likely revolt. The Trullstyrke 2nd battalion had reached the northern end of Dundermann Pass just hours before Igar’s 1st battalion stormed through the valley of Heldahl. The timing was perfect. Everything had gone according to plan. They’d sacked the outlying homesteads; taken every bit of provisions the farms had to offer and killed every man ,woman and child. So why was he so miserable? They’d had a minor scuffle with a company of Blothe’s mercenaries who were fleeing the northern army; sneaking out the back door, so to speak. They were locked out of the bastion for the cowardly traitors that they were and Igar’s trulls mowed them mercilessly. Igar himself had ten new ears drying on a rack thanks to the encounter. So why was he moping in his tent, instead of caught up in the revelry with his men? He’d often fantasized such a moment.
The questions were as disturbing as the emotions. It was the worst he had ever felt. There was no joy in the battles he had just fought. In fact he was beginning to feel ill. Maybe he’d had some food that had turned. That wouldn’t surprise him. Perhaps the food they’d taken from the farms…suddenly, at the thought of the farms and the people they’d slaughtered he bolted off his stool, through the tent-flap and vomited uncontrollably.
One of his sergeants, Flob Islow, came running over to see what was wrong with his captain. “Ya had too much mead, Cap’n? Should I get one o’ healers?”
Igar, wiping his mouth and shaking his head said, “No. Prolly just some of that food we got from the farms. Who knows what kind of things gets into Men’s food? I’m gonna lay down. I’ll be alright.” At this he turned and went back in to lie down.
It took what seemed like forever, but sleep finally came. Igar, however, found no peace. He was tortured by images from the day. In his sleep, he saw a family that had, just before sunrise, been hauled from their home. They were a father, mother, two sons and a daughter. They were dragged into the farmyard back-lit by the burning barn. He could clearly hear the tortured screams of the horses within. The people pleaded and the father begged to be slain that the children might be spared. But trulls spare no one. The sons were the first to be killed; gutted only feet from their horrified parents who were forced to watch. Next the daughter was brutally raped and beaten. She was taken off by a group of his soldiers and not seen again. The parents were beheaded. In his dream, as in reality the mothers head fell heavily to the ground where it rolled to his feet, jaws still working and a look of condemnation in her eyes before the light of life faded.
He awoke with a start and a scream, sweating profusely. He looked around to see if he was seen or heard. The din outside was reaching a fevered pitch. No one was in his tent. He was alone. Suddenly, alone, he buried his head in his hands and wept.
He was thankful that, because there was little more expected of his trulls other than a holding action, his presence on the field was completely superfluous. At the moment he could hear Flob pulling things together to the accompaniment of his cracking whip. “No more booze fer anybody till we get’s this place ready. Weapons off the ground and outta’ da mud, you lazy scum. If ya can‘t get to ‘em when ya needs ‘em, ye‘ll be so much meat. Hop to, my lads.”
Igar’s head ached terribly. He told himself it was from the heroic amounts of purloined mead he’d consumed, but that did not account for the pain in his heart. He flopped back on his cot, long arms hanging over the sides. Flies buzzed in the humid heat of the tent’s interior. Flies were something that didn’t bother trulls much, but these were drawn by the carnage of the previous day’s slaughter. It seemed everything was a painful reminder and he was powerless to escape it. Then a light shone somewhere deep within his consciousness…powerless to escape it. He realized with a flash of cool enlightenment that he was not powerless. Escape he might. He could just leave; abandon all this madness. Couldn’t he?
What was he thinking? He was raised a soldier. It was the only life he’d ever known. He’d worked diligently to reach his present rank of captain. In the trull army, the only higher rank was a captain with more grizzly trophies, such as ears, scalps, fingers, skulls, etc.. As it stood now, there was no one who outranked him save the hated draugs and Doden, himself.
How could he even consider fleeing this life? Wasn’t it all he had ever wanted from life? The answer was YES. Unfortunately the operative word in that phrase was had. With a blow that was like an explosion in his head, came the epiphany. He no longer wanted this life. Such epiphanies are seldom a comfort. Like a saint called to martyrdom, if he followed this calling, all that he knew would be lost. The thought made him as sick of mind as yesterday’s butchery. If he left, he would be anathema to the whole world. The other races of the world hated trulls and would kill them on sight if possible. Certainly, from Doden, there would be a bounty on his head that would make the collector wealthy beyond all hope. There was no community in the earthlands that would give him sanctuary. Where would he go?
But he could not stay; this he now knew.
The problem before him was, how to defect? He’d posted sentries all about the perimeters. The seeds of a plan began to formulate. He would have Flob call in all the sentries with the explanation that the army had just scoured all the lands to the south and that the sentries were unnecessary. He spent the rest of the day readying the things he would need for his journey, which would take him westward and then south through the Daggernasties, and then only the Norns knew where.
That night it was, in fact, only the sentries that were still in a high state of alertness. “Flob,” called Igar. Flob, who always tried to be within earshot of his captain, was there in a nonce. “Yessir, Cap’n, what’s yer need?” Igar considered Flob a suckup, but he was a very consistent suckup and could be depended upon.
“Flob, call in all the sentries. They’ve worked as hard as anyone and deserve a break. At this point, seems t’ me that they ain’t needed now anyway. Bring ‘em in and give ‘em a cask of their own and tell ‘em it’s on me.”
Flob saluted and turned to leave, turning back he said “I’m sure they’ll appreciate it. Gaw, but ain’t it good to relax after all these months?”
Igar nodded and stepped back inside his tent to await the proper time for his departure. Late that night amidst the guttering campfires and snores of thousands of drunken trulls, Igar picked his way to the edge of the trull encampment by the shortest and least watched route. Within hours he was wending his way through the windswept foothills of the Daggernasty Mountains. The further he got from the scene at Dundermann pass, the lighter he felt and the easier he breathed. But there was some haunting emotion nipping at his heels like a rabid ferret. He had never experienced any emotion like it before. Suddenly it shouted its name. ‘GUILT! And with it came remorse.
Bill, the tower guard stepped out of the guard tower into the predawn air and stretched. His shift on the walls wasn’t due to start for another ten minutes, so he was in no hurry. As he climbed the fifteen stairs to the wall he thought he smelled smoke and when he happened upon the whole of the night’s guard crew gathered around a table playing bones, he mentioned it. “That old Vandermeer has burnt the morning vittles again, is probably a better bet than the one I just placed,” said one of the players
Bill smiled at the joke and walked to the wall. The sight that met his eyes made him leap. “Hey boys, better come look at this,” he said. “NOW!”
In the distance grey smoke blossomed into the morning air and a horde could be seen marching on the keep. They all looked at each other and simultaneously bolted for the north side to check on conditions there. Worse. On this side there was an army already formed up beneath the walls.
“You boys are in deep trouble , letting this slip by unnoticed,” said Bill.
“Who are they?” asked another guard.
“Who’s ol’ Blothe pissed off lately?” came another voice.
“Who ain’t he?” came another.
“Shyte! Them’s trulls,” said a veteran named Spencer. “I kin smell ‘em from here. Bill, go git the captain right away.”
Blothe was panic stricken. He seldom came out into the open air; preferring instead to stay in the great hall pontificating while eating and drinking, or in his private chambers being ministered to by servants and concubines.
This day was different. Blothe could be seen racing from the north to the south parapets of Krawnholde, which was a fair distance. He’d not done so much running since he was a child. His grotesque body, wringing with sweat shook like pudding as he ran wheezing and pushing people out of the way screaming, “Chamberlain, convene my war council at once,” and “Oh, what have I done to deserve this?”
The world hadn’t seen a gathering of trulls such as this since the Great Dragon Wars, centuries ago.
Blothe had gathered his captains and advisors in the war chamber just off the great hall. He had never imagined he’d have to use this room in earnest. He’d thrown costume parties and banquets there for select groups of friends, but today’s circumstances were grim.
“So, has anyone come up with a plan?” Blothe was pacing back and forth by the window, eyeing his gathered company as if this latest turn of events was all their fault.
“I’d say we find out what it is they want,” said an advisor named Grimmley.
Alright,” said Blothe . “That sounds reasonable. Go find out, will you?”
Grimmley left and Blothe continued to pace. Finally Grimmley returned wringing his hat in his hands. “Well?’ said Blothe, huffing his impatience.
“Umm, it would seem they want Krawnholde, Your Highness.”
“Well, they can’t have it. Carrigan, you’re my high captain; you make them go away.”
Carrigan who was a well trained and seasoned warrior sighed and came forward. He had signed on with Blothe for the money and with assurance that it would be a mostly cushy job that would include such things as, chasing down bands of nomads or bringing in outlaws that had gotten out of hand enough to require that an example be made. The present situation was something that he wasn’t sure he’d get involved in even if he stood a chance of victory, which he didn’t. “Your Highness, I have eight sub-captains under my command. They each command a company of between three to five hundred soldiers. Most of Captain O’Leary’s company fled this morning.” Here he indicated the captain to his left, who nodded and said, “I’ve ninety eight men left.”
“If I’ve done the math right,” Carrigan continued, “that gives you an army of somewhere in the nieghborhood of thirty two hundred soldiers. We are facing an army of three times that many at least. Armed conflict against those odds is hopeless and foolhardy, plus they have every tactical advantage. We would be utterly crushed.”
“Damn!” Blothe cursed. “Can they get in? Can they breach the walls and take Krawnholde by force?”
“I’d say not,” said Carrigan. “I see no siege machines of any kind, not even ladders. The walls are a hundred feet high. No, I’d say they intend to starve us out.”
“Well,” Blothe replied, “We are well stocked indeed. We’ll see who starves first.”
Carrigan heaved an exasperated sigh and said, “I’d say we have little choice.”
So began the siege of Krawnhold.
Faracayn came awake with the noonday sun in his eyes. He was famished, sore and outraged. In his mind only a powerful wizard could have wreaked the kind of devastation that had befallen him. Dragons, while they could be noble creatures and have actually been known to occasionally give aid where needed to the other races, were for the most part irascible and easily offended. They were also creatures of habit and tended to relate only to what they knew. While they could be possessed of great wisdom, they didn’t seem to have much in the way of common sense.
And so it was that Faracayne had the preconceived notion that wizards or at least Men or Dwarves, with their mechanical contrivances, were to be held responsible for his plight.
Faracayne was not an indiscriminate taker of lives, no matter how angry he was. He was not like some of the dragons of old, who would occasionally destroy a village simply because it was within their power to do so. Also, for some reason, they seemed to hate everyone but themselves. Faracayne was not like them. This would have to be handled carefully. Faracayne was certainly not above terrifying people into coming across with the information he needed. People in fear of losing crops or livestock or, indeed, their own lives could be veritable fonts of information.
So, on this day Faracayne began his quest and the legend grew of an angry dragon raiding communities and farms backing down the hapless inhabitants and hissing, “Who dared awaken me?”
At Fjellhiem, the day was winding down. All were gathered in the main hall for the evening. Dolf, who had drawn the evenings first watch poured himself a cup of tea, took his sword, spear and shield from the rack on the wall and headed for the ramparts.
The sun was just sinking over the horizon when a bird of some sort caught Dolf’s eye, floating gracefully on the thermals. Dolf watched with interest, deciding that it must be some large bird of prey. The bird would bank, turn and rise only to repeat the action and each time get just a bit closer. Watching the great raptor, Dolf began to daydream about being able to ride the wind like that. Then something caught his attention. He wasn’t sure what it was at first, but there was something different about the bird. He abandoned his fantasy of flight and paid close attention to the approaching bird. It wasn’t something evident at first; maybe something about the way it moved but this bird was strange in some way.
Then he saw it. A long tail that was adeptly used as an in-flight counterbalance. A counterbalance to a long neck that was now sweeping to and fro, as if in search of something.
Dolf stood transfixed by what he was seeing and told himself it was not so. A creature out of legends of the past. He had to consciously keep himself breathing. His feet didn’t want to move but he knew he must make them do so, and soon he was running for the keep.
Bursting through the door to the great hall he ran the length of the room and skidded to a halt only after Tykk caught him. He tried to speak but his throat was too dry. He grabbed the gobblet of wine out of Tykk’s hand, drained it, then croaked, “DRAGON!”
Briar, who was sitting in his usual chair smiled and frowned at the same time, “Come again?”
At this Dolf grabbed the wine pitcher from the table, took a long pull and with wine dribbling down his chin, said, “There’s a dragon headed this way…flying.”
Of course, one can imagine the taunts that began to formulate in the minds of the company. In fact, only Tykk was quick enough. Grabbing the decanter from Dolf, he said, “Here lad, I’d say you’ve had enough o’ that.” Then…
Who dared awaken me?”
Everyone sitting bolted to their feet, but Arnaald was the only one who spoke. “Oh my, this can’t be good.” Retrieving his staff from its place in the corner he made straight for the rampart with the others hesitantly in tow.
From the doorway that led out to the catwalk, Arnaald paused to survey the situation. There on the wall, perched a silver dragon the size of a very, VERY large warship, head stretched skyward and spouting flames into the night air. Arnaald turned to the uncertain group behind him, eyebrows raised, “Impressive, eh?” Wide-eyed, everyone nodded.
Arnaald called from within the doorway, “Mighty Faracayne, you always were one for theatrics.”
“Eh?” came the reply. Faracayne now craned his neck toward the open door, squinting his eyes. “Who knows my name? Show yourself.”
“First, “ replied Arnaald, “I must have your word that you won’t eat or fry me.”
“Hmm, I could lie and eat you anyway.”
“Yes,” said Arnaald, “That you could. But you have never been a liar. Why start now? Have you picked up bad habits over the years?”
“Very well, stranger, you have piqued my curiosity. You have my word, at least temporarily. You may approach.”
Arnaald turned to the group, “Stay here.”
“I don’t think you need worry about that,” replied Garr. Arnaald turned and started out the door then turned back. He handed his staff to Garr. “Hold this.” He raised his hands and strode through the door.
Faracayn was perched on the wall across the bailey, so the wizard’s approach was a circuitous one. The dragon scrutinized the approaching figure carefully, sniffing all the while. Suddenly, his eyes grew wide with recognition. “Hardrada,” he said.
“The same, old Wyrm,” replied the mage. “You’re looking well, I must say.”
“Phaw! Spare me your flattery. I look like I feel. Old. I expected you to be dead,” said the dragon.
Arnaald smiled ruefully. “Yes, I’m hearing a lot of that lately. Sorry to disappoint. There’s a rumor going about that I am exactly that.”
It takes a trained eye to detect when a dragon smiles. It is all in the eyes. The dragon was smiling now. “The fact is I am pleased to see that I was wrong. It is good to know that not everything has changed. Not much has pleased me these past years”
“I was very sorry to hear of Fremlinga’s passing. What brings you awake? I don’t mean to wax morose, but I assumed that you’d undertaken the death-sleep when you lost her.”
“I still have too much rage to extinguish my flame, it seems. As to my awakening, that is a morose tale. Someone conspired to bury me alive by sealing me in my cave with a boulder the size of a small mountain. Only by sheer desperation was I able to extricate myself from that would-be tomb. I mean to find the author of my misery and do murder.” Here Faracayne vented steam in way of punctuation.
Arnaald rubbed his bearded chin. “Hmm, something about your tale seems patently wrong, my friend.”
Faracayne’s head shot up indignantly. “You dare call me a liar?”
Arnaald wave away the accusation, “No, no. Of course not. I say that you are misinterpreting the cause.”
“I know what I saw,” said the dragon, still a bit put out
“Bear with me,” said the mage. “I recently had occasion to make the long journey from Bolle to here. My traveling companion and I were fortunate to secure overnight accommodations at quite a few farmsteads en route. All the way we were regaled with tales of something bright and explosive occurring out on the Lieleghet Plain. Also, the farmers spoke of a nissalykt shower during the same time. Now, we students of the alchemic and arcane call these occurrences shooting stars, and it is known that they occasionally make their way to earth with catastrophic effect. Why, the very valley of Bolle, where coincidentally, I was recently imprisoned, is a crater caused by just the same. So you see, my friend, I think your vendetta is for naught. Unless, that is, you can leave the world and attack the stars.”
“If you are correct, which it would seem you are,” sighed the dragon, “I’ve wasted the past few months terrorizing the countryside for naught, as you say. But do you know, at least I felt that after these long years, my life now had purpose. That’s pretty sorry isn’t it?”
“Yes, I’m sorry to agree that it is.” Here the mage seemed to be deep in thought. Finally he said, “Faracayne, might I encourage you to join our little company? We are forming up for some high adventure that I have not yet been able to place a finger on. What I am sure of is this: trulls are congregating again and the situation needs to be addressed. I‘m not sure exactly what course our endeavors will take, but we sure could use a dragon.”
“Trulls? Phooie!” Faracayne spat.
At just that moment, the signal bell outside the gates sounded. Arnaald and Faracayne walked over to where they could see who it was ringing the bell.
“Svartalfar, Phooie!” Faracayne spat.