Dragon Hunt - Part One
Inside the Stoat and Pail the scene was set. In the L-shaped taproom Lana had placed stools to cordon off a reasonably-sized area at the back. The proprietor had been paid in advance for the use of his premises. "No going past midday," he told her in no uncertain terms, "we do good trade in lunches, the wife's been baking all morning and I won't see her efforts gone to waste."
"Rest assured," she had replied, "I shall take up no more time than is necessary."
She arranged the cakes she had bought on a pewter dish. She also requested that the proprietor keep some tea freshly brewed in case any of her applicants required refreshment.
Cold air ushered into the taproom as an individual appeared in the doorway.
"Good day, how now!" Lana greeted him merrily. "Won't you come in and take a seat."
The halfling, as he was, removed his cloak and hung it on a low peg by the door. He approached Lana's table stopping to lift a glowing twig from the hearth. This he prodded into the end of a pipe which extended practically to his bare, curly-haired feet. He inhaled deeply, puckering his mouth to blow a smoke circle which hovered atop his head like a halo. This put him at ease and he relaxed into his chair.
"That's better. Hin weren't meant for cold weather."
Lana cleared her throat. "You're responding to my advertisement?"
The halfling nodded and offered his pipe. "Want a try? Best weed you'll find, imported from the Shires. None better in the whole Empire."
"No thank you. But have a cake, if you'd like."
"That's kind, milady." The halfling picked up not one but two scones and inserted them into the pockets of the emerald jerkin he wore. "Freshly baked, are they? I daresay they'll keep for later."
He offered the pipe a second time. "Sure you won't have some?"
Lana realised they were losing focus. "I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning," was her prim reply. "I am seeking somebody to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone. Let us not digress. What skills can you offer my expedition?"
"A good mix - pro'ly the same as most folk of my stature. Ducking and diving, staying hidden, and I'm a crack shot with a sling. That sort of thing."
"That sort of thing sounds general, don't you think?"
The halfling shrugged. "Only if you're seeking something more specific. Are you?"
"Actually, yes. Do you have experience with monsters?"
"Depends what monsters."
"Dragons. You may recall, my advertisement mentioned dragons."
This seemed like news to the halfling, whose complexion grew pale. "It must have been in the small print. I don't think I'd be best suited to… dragons. Although if you're talking -" he glanced around furtively before saying the word aloud, "- Burglary, perhaps I could be of use. Is it a hoard you want stolen?"
"Not primarily, no. I don't believe the services of a Burglar are what I require."
"Then I'll bid you good day, milady, and wish you luck." The halfling rose, blew a stream of smoke up into the air, and exited.
The door barely closed before it swung open and a second individual entered - a foot taller than the halfling and heavier-set.
"Master dwarf," Lana beckoned him to approach. "Do come and take some tea."
Clad in a dark red cloak and hood, with an axe slung across his back, the dwarf seated himself. "Spiced ale would suit better," he said. "And I'll have one of those cakes."
Lana gestured to the bar. A teacake was lifted from the platter while a slave brought a mug of ale. He hovered, looking at Lana expectantly. She handed him a silver coin. Evidently his master wasn't prepared to throw in a drink or two for free.
"Dragons, is it?" muttered the dwarf.
"That's right," said Lana, pleased somebody had read her notice. "Do you have experience?"
"I've swung my axe at many a creature." He picked crumbs from his beard, which looked to be thinning a bit. "Dragonhide'll take a stronger swing but I'm capable of it."
"Sounds like you're up for the challenge."
"It's the sort of thing what I'm looking for, yes."
"And why is that?"
"Well…" he looked wistful. “You get to an age, see, and you look back and think, there don't seem to have been many good opportunities. And the few there were didn't turn out how you wanted and got turned into regrets. Then to top it all your beard starts to go and you feel tired… you wonder what's the point. I mean, why keep carrying on. Know what I mean?"
Lana was bemused to say the least. "You're looking… to throw it all away? Fighting dragons?"
"Mayhap it'll work out that way." He squinted. "How far would we travel?"
"To the Altan Tepes. We'll go by boat to Hillfork then into the mountains, probably along the Mesonian."
"Seems like an awful distance." The notion of a long journey seemed to have disheartened him. "Maybe I'll just stay here." He lifted his tankard and retreated to the far corner of the barroom to sit and drink in the shadows.
Lana's spirits fell. Had the fellow reminded her of Drewen, notwithstanding his wistful nature? It occurred to her that she might have mentioned her carpet, though flying would appeal to few dwarves. No, his heart wasn't in it. She would seek a more suitable companion.
The door opened a third time, framing an old man in grey robes with a tall pointed hat and a matted beard down to his waist. Lana stood before he could even enter.
"No!" she said loudly and forcibly. The last thing she needed on her quest was another wizard. The man regarded her sullenly, tapped the end of his gnarled wooden staff on the stone floor and left. She heard sounds outside; he and the halfling might have been conversing.
There came no more enquirers. Lana cursed herself for not having advertised further ahead of time but she could not have made arrangements any sooner. Her errand required immediate action; the longer she tarried the greater peril she and others would face. Time was a precious commodity. Besides, the year's end was drawing near, less than two weeks away, and she planned to celebrate with the residents of Glaston - an occasion she did not wish to miss. It felt like ages since she had been home.
She lifted a teacake and took a large bite. If a suitable retainer wasn't going to respond to her notice, then she would seek one directly. She fancied having a cleric accompany her - for if she was to engage red dragons, protection from fire could prove life-saving. Which Immortal would she choose? More faiths than could be counted were represented within the city walls in shrines and temples of varying sizes.
After no time the tavern's proprietor reappeared, egged on by his indomitable spouse, and ushered Lana from the premises. She garnered directions before the door closed behind her: the nearest Temple of Vanya could not be missed on account of the great spire atop its roof - a lance thrusting heavenward. By no means the largest such building in the city it was a sight to behold nevertheless. The clerics there found time to speak with Lana but informed her in what sounded like Hattian accents that there was a War on, didn't she know, and Vanya's will compelled her faithful to await Thincol's call lest they be dispatched to the Isle of Dawn or another corner of the Empire. News about Biazzan had broken and created a general malaise - popular opinion held that Thyatis was being invaded along all its borders.
Subsequent trips were made to less grand churches at the end of the Estates nearest to where Lana had been lodging in the Blocks, in the hope of keeping a low profile. Shrines were found to a multitude of Immortals all vying to be venerated by the Thyatians - Valerias, Asterius, Korutiku, Koryis and Halav among less familiar names. It struck Lana that many of them had overlapping interests, for example in relation to the many diverse aspects of War. She theorised that if she sought a smaller shrine, perhaps she would be expected to pay less for the assistance she required. So long as they can heal and insulate against fire, she thought, that's what I really need of them.
She came upon a chapel outside which stood an eight-foot effigy of a bearded, barrel-chested man. He wore a helmet and grasped a hammer prominently in a gloved hand. He might have passed for a dwarf, had he not been so tall. 'Thor', read the motto underneath. The name was familiar. From where? After a moment's reflection she knew - the pantheon of the Northern Reaches. Karnus had mentioned the name before, having read a book he brought back from Alphatia. Connected with Odin, wasn't he? She recalled the odious, ill-mannered individual at the Battle of Darokin whose methods against Alrethus had been effective, but whose temperament left much to be desired. She wavered as she considered whether to seek the aid of one whose pantheon had caused her aggravation, but decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Entering, she spoke with a bearded old cleric who looked to have weathered many an arduous battle. Despite not being a young man he was visibly hale and hearty. He revealed that there was indeed a member of his Clergy who might be spared to assist Lana, for appropriate remuneration of course. "It's resistance against fire that I chiefly require," she told him as she found herself reaching for her purse. Something about the man's temperament filled her with reassurance. "But somebody who can hold their own in a fight wouldn't go amiss either." The man's smile continued unabated as he invited Lana to keep handing across her coins, followed by pieces of quartz when he spied them in her purse, followed by more costly gems when he spied them also.
"The person I have in mind can swing a hammer with the best of them," the Patriarch informed her. As her purse grew ever-more-light she found herself feeling more and more assured, visualising herself shielded from the dragon's searing breath by a strapping, bravado-filled individual, muscle-bound and resilient - the likeness of Thor himself from his statue. The dragon's fiery breath would turn aside by the sheer determination and resilience of her chosen retainer…
"Ah," spoke the patriarch in a cheerful manner after Lana parted with coins and gems to the value of over three hundred gold pieces, "she approaches. I give you Brunnhild Siegmundsdottier."
Her retainer was presented - a blonde, passive-looking maiden. A stark contrast to what Lana was expecting. The girl curtseyed in what seemed a half-hearted, awkward manner. Her tousled hair reminded Lana of Aleena Halaran whom she had once pre-judged as weak and ineffectual. Dubious, Lana looked this stranger up and down. She and Aleena differed in at least one respect; Aleena wouldn't have allowed so much dirt to accumulate beneath her fingernails.
"Surely there has been a mistake?" Lana posed the question as politely as possible.
The maiden stared at her vacantly.
"No mistake, milady! Do not judge this young one by her appearance, her heart is as an anvil and will stand fast before any foe."
"How old are you, Brunnhild?" Lana asked.
"Two and twenty years, milady."
The response came as a surprise - she might have passed for several years younger. The woman regarded her superior with eyes which were the grey blue of a sea in winter. "Before I depart on this errand I would check whether it is truly Thor’s will that I do so. I received no portent of this stranger's coming."
"I located your Temple by chance," Lana began to explain, "just this morning. In fact -"
"I say it is Thor's will!" Gone was his cheerful temperament; the Patriarch's glare descended upon his junior colleague like a black cloud. "If you are preoccupied with portents as you claim," he said in a tone of outrage which resounded throughout the Temple, "then I bid you cast your mind back. Were you not compelled as we all were to be vigilant against the growing storm? We are charged with maintaining balance within our pantheon yet it has been weeks since YOU -" the word exploded like a thunderclap, "set foot beyond these walls. Thor wishes you to set forth into the Empire, that you might be the hammer blow which scatters our enemies." He glowered and repeated: "I say it is Thor's will."
The girl's expression was difficult to read but she didn't seem the slightest bit intimidated by the doughty, older cleric. Lana suspected this was not the first time the pair had not seen eye to eye. Perhaps the younger cleric's attitude made her out to be insubordinate, whether or not that was intended.
Brunnhild addressed Lana. "What do you require of me, milady?"
"I am hunting dragons."
"Dragons?" she echoed. Lana nodded, noting that she didn't seem deterred by the proposal. She half-shrugged half-nodded. "Why not, I'll go along with you."
Optimism sparked in Lana then: a hint of resilience within this maiden's heart.
"When did you wish to depart?"
"Straightaway, if possible. I will secure passage for us on the next boat departing along the Mesonian."
Despite the time of year, Lana had thought they might travel by mundane means, at least initially. It would be possible to travel by boat to Hillfork which marked the beginning of foothills which in turn would become the Altan Tepes. She had spent a great deal of time travelling aboard her carpet and fancied a change, if only for a short while. She found herself remembering her early adventuring days and realised it had been a long time since she last travelled by other means than her carpet.
"As you wish, milady. I will prepare myself and meet you at the docks."
Lana nodded and took her leave. As she descended the Temple steps, she heard the Patriarch’s voice rise in volume again. She imagined the two expressing conflicting views, Brunnhild keeping her cool and giving as good as she got in the debate. Lana could not help but smile at the thought.
Strolling in the direction of her lodgings her path took her back past the Stoat and Pail. She noticed that the advertisement she had fixed to the doorpost was gone, though a shred of its parchment clung to the nail which had embedded it. No doubt the proprietor had seen to removing it.
Around an hour later there was no sign of Brunnhild at the docks. Lana stood waiting in a central, visible location and just as she was about to pull out her crystal ball, the cleric emerged from behind a pile of wooden crates. She wore chainmail underneath a surcoat showing a lightning bolt behind a hammer, not unlike the leather-bound weapon she carried in the hand which did not hold her shield. Atop her blonde hair was a helm with small wings tooled on its sides, and her garments were overlaid by a thick pelt which Lana reckoned to be that of a bear, with straps to secure it around the cleric's shoulders. Lana noted that she could not see any holy symbol, and surmised that the hammer itself might be the emblem of Brunnhild's faith.
She still looked like she would benefit from a good wash.
Lana was unsure what she had been up to but the woman’s steely blue eyes bore into her as she approached.
“Well met,” said Lana once they were standing together.
Brunnhild did not return the greeting. “When we last met, Patriarch Kurdon had not informed me that you are a witch.” There was disapproval in her tone; the statement sounded like it was meant as an accusation. Lana wondered in that moment whether their agreement was ended before it had even begun.
She nodded withal and answered cautiously. “Yes, I am a wizardess. Is that a problem?”
“That depends. I’ll ask you about the source of your powers before we set off.”
The question took Lana aback. “My powers?”
“Aye your powers.” Her gaze continued to scrutinise Lana’s expression. “Tell me who you serve.”
Lana laughed to allay how unnerved she felt. “I’m not sure I follow you. Many magic-users are independent, but I’ve sworn loyalty to the King of my homeland. As for the source of my powers…” she shrugged, “there are different schools of thought about where magic flows from. The Universe? The Planes of Existence? The Immortals? Who can say.”
It seemed Brunnhild was waiting to hear something more, something which would dispel her concern. “You mentioned the Immortal Ones, and your King. Answer me in truth - do you serve a Queen?” She pronounced the last word as if she might have spat it.
“Queen…” Lana had no idea where the conversation was heading or why it was relevant. She guessed there was something she was missing, something which might occur to her if she thought about it for a while, but for the present she remained baffled. “King Stefan has a wife, the former Duchess Olivia. Besides that, no. In any event, neither of them has any connection with my powers.”
She had indulged the cleric’s questions and wondered whether she would need to commence her hunt for a companion all over again. She fixed Brunnhild with what she hoped was a persuasive look.
Brunnhild considered her responses. Gradually her features relaxed, slightly. “I will give you the benefit of the doubt,” she said, “until your actions reveal you to be other than what you claim to be. Be in no doubt Lana Budanter - Thor’s eyes are open to deceit and he does not hesitate to smite those who betray his trust.”
Lana did not follow and was lost for words. A tiny lump had risen in her throat. “Hopefully you won’t need to smite me,” she eventually said. Then, wishing to change the topic of conversation, she asked, “You can definitely bestow protection against fire?" She wished to verify that the cleric was clear about what was expected of her, before they got underway.
"Upon how many people at once?"
Brunnhild regarded her employer as if the answer to her question were a nonsense. "Why, both of us in the same day if necessary."
"Good." The answer pleased Lana and she would rest easier knowing it. This, if nothing else, would reassure her on the journey north. “I would ask you to take as many of those prayers as you may each day, to the exclusion of other spells.”
“Please, call me Lana.” She smiled; it was barely reciprocated. At least there wasn’t any smiting.
They boarded the boat which would bear them upriver to the thriving industrial town of Hillfork. As she ascended the gangplank Lana thought of the carpet inside her bag of holding. It would be unrolled the following afternoon, but for the moment she fancied a change and had opted to enjoy mundane travel as a reminder of times-gone-by. With any luck the journey from the city would prove quiet.
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