Dragon Hunt - Part Two
Lana spoke with the captain of the vessel and made clear the two females were worth having onboard - Lana for her spellcasting, Brunnhild for the abilities bestowed by her faith. In return for their vigilance they would be provided with comfortable quarters and their fares were reduced to token payments. They would receive passage to Hillfork which was the boat's destination up the Mesonian River. It was not far; in fact Lana probably could have flown there in under a day had she been travelling by carpet.
Other passengers boarding the craft included a musclebound individual whose laugh was to be heard no matter what part of the craft Lana might retreat to. He was heard regaling the crew with tales of his fighting prowess - for he made it known that he was a gladiator, not an enslaved one - and he greatly relished his vocation. There was a pen of livestock onboard and a couple of horses as well, one of which the gladiator went to check on every so often. It was grey and stood at least fifteen hands tall, its back and sides overlaid with what might have been light barding if not a coat to keep out the winter chill.
As the boat prepared to depart, the females settled themselves in the prow and pulled their winter garments around themselves.
“Have you been in Thyatis long?” asked Lana conversationally.
“Less than three months,” her retainer replied. She spoke perfect Imperial Thyatian, with only a hint of a faraway accent when she pronounced certain vowels.
“And you’re originally from…?”
“I see. What brought you here?”
"All in my Temple received visions," she told Lana, "months ago, years in some cases. There are those from the Reaches who have travelled far and wide in order to spread chaos and devastation; it is Thor’s will that his faithful do what they can to oppose his enemies. Dark forces whose names it is not proper to speak."
"You mean Hel," said Lana plainly.
Her companion frowned. "Among others, yes. You know something of our ways then."
"Sadly yes." A thought occurred to her. “When you asked me at the docks if I served a Queen, just now… you weren’t suggesting that my powers somehow derive… from her?”
Brunnhild’s gaze did not leave her employer. “Witches and wizards receive their powers directly from the Queen of the Damned.” It was a statement of fact. She added, “although exceptions have been known to occur.”
The qualification was a begrudging one though Lana breathed easier for hearing it. She laughed. “Is that what your people believe?”
“If you were to observe the rituals performed in my homeland,” said Brunnhild darkly, “you might begin to understand why.”
“Let me assure you that I fit into the category of exceptions. I will tell you a tale of how I might have been considered a thorn in Hel’s side, rather than her dutiful servant. Hopefully you’ll come to accept that as we journey together.”
Brunnhild gave a nod of approval; the remark went some way to assuaging her concerns about Lana’s profession.
Both women observed a dozen or so sheep being herded through the docks.
“How long ago did you enter Thor’s flock?” Lana asked with a smile.
“Before I was born,” was her companion’s answer.
Lana’s eyebrows rose. “How could that be so?”
“It’s a long story.” Brunnhild gestured at the surrounding docks and the sprawling skyline of the metropolis beyond. “This is where my father spent most of his life, though it is not his homeland. He was sold into slavery, by a jarl whom he had offended while a young man who allowed his heart to rule his head.”
“He was a slave?”
Brunnhild nodded. “It took him two decades to purchase his freedom. He vowed to Thor that if he became a freedman and returned home, his firstborn child would enter Thor’s clergy. Only I was born a girl rather than a boy.”
Lana was fascinated. “Does your father still live?”
“He must be very old?”
“That he is, he has many more years than my mother. But his heart is young, you could say he is making up for lost time. Thor sustains him and grants him longevity for the time stolen from him. As much as his years will allow, he embodies many of Thor’s teachings.”
“So all your life… you have served Thor?”
“I was only formally accepted into His brotherhood a few years ago.” The woman’s face screwed up as she emphasised the word ‘brotherhood’; it caused Lana to wonder whether there were many ‘sisters’ in its ranks. “I grew up learning the legends and cultures of my people, how best to honour Thor and follow His ways. After my father taught me to speak Thyatian, the Order in Ostland thought I should serve by travelling to the Empire. Although the faith here differs greatly and has departed from its roots.” She did not expand on the last statement, though it seemed to Lana it might be something of a sore point.
“And the Immortals of your country encompass Odin…”
“The All-Father, aye.”
“… and Thor, and who else besides the Dark Queen?” A name danced at the edge of her memory.
“Of course. A Fire Immortal, isn’t he?”
“That he is,” Brunnhild nodded, “but a Trickster afore all else. Thor and he are especially opposed. If I could locate those who call the Trickster their patron here in Thyatis, and smash them asunder, I would be worthy indeed in Thor’s eyes.”
“I too received portents,” said Lana. “Not recently, more like over a year ago. A dream, while I was serving a goodly Immortal. The dream suggested that Loki is indeed active in Thyatis, though I do not believe I fully comprehend everything I could have.”
“That is Loki’s way,” said Brunnhild. “his followers conceal the true nature of things and confound those with proper intentions. His plans are devilishly intricate, and many never get fully brought into the light.”
“A sad truth,” Lana agreed.
If anything, the gladiator grew more boisterous the further the boat travelled from the capital. Members of the crew asked him to cease distracting them while they carried out their duties; this made him want to draw even more attention. Lana considered having a word but thought better of it; she was a Karameikan abroad and did not want to get herself into avoidable situations. She did however find herself longing to unroll the carpet and take off with Brunnhild, who seemed a quieter soul by far, and seek solace further up the river. She performed what mental exercises she could to block the gladiator from her consciousness, and enjoyed watching the scenery as the boat passed upriver through lightly wooded hills.
Thyatis was a civilised land where disquiet was not to be expected. As such, it came as a surprise when the bandits made their appearance upriver, relatively close to the capital. Lana used her magic to incapacitate their main contingent from a distance. It then became apparent that a small group had swum - through the icy river water - to board the craft from its rear. Brunnhild made a dedication to Thor and caused three of the men to freeze in their tracks. The burly fighter charged into the midst of the remaining men and made short work of them with his double-handed sword. It appeared to Land that he had built up a berserker’s rage, the remnants of which he channelled into hurling the frozen trio into the river waters where they promptly sank. Lana was aghast at this excessive display but said nothing. By contrast, Brunnhild nodded to the gladiator to signal her approval. The men had sealed their fate by attacking the boat, and Thor’s teachings did not encompasss mercy to one’s foes.
After the immediate threats had been dealt with, it came to light that one of the intruders had sought to release the horses onboard from their pens. The bandit was spotted and one of the boatmen ran at him with a club. The pair locked together and crushed against the side of the gladiator’s horse, which reared and whinnied to suggest that it had been hurt. After the bandit was apprehended, the gladiator who had been engaged in fighting at the other end of the craft became incensed and for a moment it looked like he would have torn boatman’s head from his shoulders. He practically ripped the overcoat off his mount after the fighting was over, revealing that the steed had wings. One of the wings had clearly been crushed in the melee, and was seen to flap somewhat gingerly as if the creature was in pain.
In the afternoon of the day after leaving Thyatis, the riverboat docked at Hillfork. Just a mile beyond the settlement the watercourse could be seen to divide in two at the hill which gave the settlement its name. There were a number of elves present at the docks who appeared to be working with local industry guilds to maintain planting and sustain the nearby forests. These, Lana learned from conversing with the ship hands, were essential to two local industries - silk production, and timber for shipbuilding. Lana, whose father was a textile merchant, spied bolts of coloured silks being carried through the streets. She thought enviously of the expensive stolas and togas which the fabrics would become. It occurred she might tarry in the town and do some shopping; she decided against doing so seeing how her retainer was in tow. Even though she was the paying employer, Lana yearned for the open air of the wilderness and to get properly on their way so they did not spend long in the bustling town.
Brunnhild’s demeanour shifted to suggest unease at the prospect of mounting the flying carpet when Lana unveiled it.
“The skies are Thor’s domain,” she said hesitantly, staring at the conveyance as it floated at knee-height.
Lana hopped on and gestured for the cleric to do likewise. “We’ll not fly above the clouds,” she assured her companion, “nor too far at all from the ground.”
To her surprise Brunnhild accepted what she said, and seated herself without further ado.
The companions agreed they had suffered enough of the loud gladiator and would be glad to see the last of him. It dismayed them, therefore, when he saddled his winged mount and took off in the same direction they intended to follow. Lana passed herself, calling good day to the man before they parted ways. The trio continued abreast along the riverside - Lana gave thought to their respective speeds. Her carpet was slowed by the weight of two passengers, though she marvelled that Brunnhild’s ringed mail did not weigh the carpet as greatly as would be normal. She surmised that it was probably enchanted. The gladiator’s pegasus, meanwhile, while normally faster than a carpet had sustained an injury to one of its wings onboard the rivercraft. This considerably slowed the rate at which it could carry its rider. Nevertheless it made good speed and more or less matched the carpet’s own speed.
When they reached the river fork there was a brief discussion onboard the carpet as to which way they would go. Flowing from the northwest was the Trevonian River which, if followed all the way, would lead to the Barony of Biazzan. Lana fancied exploring unfamiliar terrain and so opted to follow the tributary flowing from the northeast, the Mesonian itself, and so the carpet headed in that direction.
To their displeasure, the gladiator’s pegasus followed not far behind them, and would remain there all the rest of the day.
When the females stopped to make camp that evening, it did not take the gladiator long to catch up with them. His pegasus touched ground a hundred feet away from their camp, then he led it by its reins in the females’ direction.
He was tall with square-set shoulders, very close-cropped hair and several days’ worth of stubble, the sun had tanned his olive skin, and scars could be seen running the full length of his arms. He wore a metal breastplate and greaves, with sections exposed to allow ease of movement at the expense of cover. He flashed a smile as he drew near and walked with a pronounced swagger; loathe as she was to pre-judge anybody, Lana had decided he was a creep based on his loud and boorish behaviour onboard the river boat.
"Good evening!" he called heartily as Brunnhild was coaxing their campfire into a flame. "Titus Burrhus is the name. Perhaps you've heard of me."
The females' vacant expressions suggested that they had not.
"Who might you be?" he prompted.
"I'm Lana, this is Brunnhild." Lana wished to divulge no more information than was necessary to this stranger.
"Mind me asking where you're heading?"
"Okay." Something grated in the man's response, but it was short-lived. "Care to know where I'm headed?"
"Only if it pleases you." Lana got the impression that the man was bursting to tell her.
"Mine is a perilous undertaking," the man pronounced gravely, pausing for dramatic impact, "for I am hunting dragons. Fire-breathing dragons."
Lana was taken aback. "That's precisely what we’re doing.” Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What a coincidence."
"I thought I mightn't be the only one," the gladiator grinned. From under his metal breastplate he produced a folded sheet of parchment - Lana's own advertisement, ripped from the tavern doorpost.
Lana gasped. "That’s my notice! Is that what gave you the idea?"
"Absolutely not," the man denied, with perhaps too much immediacy. "I have friends in the Air Fleet who have been complaining about dragons infesting the Altan Tepes. They reckon that if things are left as they are, there might be no more pegasi in a year's time."
Lana fumed. "A queer happening that you commence your quest on the same day we do." She eyed her notice. "You knew others were setting out on the path you intended to follow, and you worried they might beat you to the prize."
"If you mean the dragon's treasure, then you're wrong. It's glory I seek. The gold will be merely…" he flashed a smile, "an added benefit. I'm already well-known in Thyatis, you see. I've made quite a name for myself on the arena floor, took to it a couple of years ago," he flexed his muscles demonstrably, "now it's time to attain greater celebrity. In time I might enter the Knights of the Air, but for now I’ve something else planned.” He grinned. “Dragon-slaying. It's made for me. What moniker do you reckon they'll give me when I arrive back at the city gates with severed dragon heads? Something grandiose. Burrhus the Dragonslayer? He Who Bathes in Flames?"
"Hothead?" Lana volunteered.
"I've not heard of you," Brunnhild said plainly. Lana found herself adoring the woman's open manner of speaking. Little seemed to faze her.
The gladiator looked baffled. "How could you not? Everyone goes to the games."
"I don't. Not often, at any rate. My brethren do. I think they might have mentioned you."
The man's mouth opened then closed without saying anything. "Yalag would say differently, I assure you. Don't mind if we camp together, do you? Safety in numbers, and all that."
"By all means we'll keep you safe," Brunnhild answered.
"I meant," the man said clearly and slowly, "that it is you who should appreciate my protection." He unbuckled a massive two-handed sword which he carried on his back, and laid the weapon on the ground. "The day Burrhus of the Sands thanks two females for protecting him will be the same day he goes to the armourer and asks for nipples on his breastplate."
A period of silence followed.
“Nice carpet you’ve got,” Burrhus said, breaking it.
“Thank you. I made it.” She decided she would voice a question. “Where did you get your pegasus? Is it borrowed from the Air Fleet? I noticed they maintain a huge stable in the city.”
The man shook his head and grinned. “The Air Fleet doesn’t make a habit of renting out its mounts. Nah, it’s mine. Raised it from a foal, paid for it to be stabled and trained out of my winnings from the games these past couple of years. Which might have included favours for prominent senators, or should I say their wives -” he winked at his female audience. Lana thought she followed the man’s meaning and blocked it from her consciousness. “But it’s mine. My own property. And it’ll carry me to adventure, just like ol’ Retebius and other old heroes used to fly into combat. Now I’m doing the same.”
Lana didn’t know what to say in response. Brunnhild too sat quietly saying nothing. Burrhus went to secure the reins of his pegasus to a nearby tree.
"So you're clearly Thyatian," the man stated when he came back, addressing Brunnhild, "or you’ve been here long enough to lose your accent. You haven't." He levelled his thumb at Lana who had been trying to speak in the Imperial dialect. Evidently she hadn't succeeded.
"You're right," she said quietly. "I'm Karameikan."
The man's face lit up. "You don't say?"
Another period of silence followed, too shortlived Lana thought when the man spoke again.
"So," the man declared brightly, "your Duke chose the right moment to turn traitor."
"That’s unfair," Lana countered. "His lands were fairly bought thirty years, he simply reminded the Emperor of the terms they agreed. Otherwise the Emperor would have commandeered our military at a time when we have our own threats to deal with. And," she corrected him, "Stefan Karameikos is a King now, I'll thank you to refer to him as such."
"There's a certain bravery to his actions," Brunnhild opined. "To invite the storm as he did took courage and he must have been sure of his own mind."
"Still traitorous if you ask me. You don't wait to kick a man when he's down."
"Not so," replied Lana, "Karameikos remains a friend to Thyatis. We can't participate in the War, that's all."
The man regarded her almost sensibly. "Because that's the true meaning of friendship, isn't it? Self-preservation. Stand back and watch your ally fall, if it means you’ll live to see another day."
Something in the man's tone cut her to the quick. Was it the inconvenient ring of truth? Even if she agreed with his viewpoint, two things prevented her from saying so. One was the oath of fealty she had given. The other was that she found Burrhus completely overbearing.
She decided she would give back as good as she got.
“If you’re intent on becoming a hero of Thyatis,” she riposted, “why aren’t you helping the Army on the Isle of Dawn?”
“And be one man among thousands? I think not. I’m not part of the Army, never have been. I stand apart from the mob, not in it. Besides, why would I travel so far from home? The mob cares less about news from across the sea than it does about red dragons right on their doorstep.”
“I’m don’t believe that’s true,” said Brunnhild. “Stand on any street and all you’ll hear is rumours of how the War is going overseas.”
“There are many good people fighting,” replied Lana. “If you returned the mob’s affection you’d serve them well by joining in.”
Burrhus dismissed the comments with a laugh. “What, is the Machine paying you to recruit me? Put it this way. If the Alphatians come knocking on the City gates, I’ll be first in line to pummel them back to where they came from. Till then, I’ll follow my own path to glory, thanks all the same.”
He drank from his waterskin and chuckled. “Bit rich, isn’t it?” He rubbed a hand across his stubbly jaw. “Two foreigners trying to educate me about Thyatian national spirit.”
“I’ll have you know,” said Lana, “I fought for my country at the Battle of Darokin.”
The gladiator pulled a face before stretching out, unimpressed.
"I'll wish you good night, sir." Lana’s tone was gruff; she had tired of the discussion. "You too, Brunnhild." She pulled her Glantrian blanket around her shoulders and lay flat on her bedroll, gazing at the stars and thinking about Hadrian for a while before closing her eyes and drifting to sleep.
The morning dawned fresh and bright. Brunnhild spent time in prayer while Burrhus performed physical exercise, generating grunts and groans of varying intensities. He was sweating despite the chill and his breath hung in great clouds around him, slow to disperse. Lana stayed warm below her blanket, feigning sleep while she waited for the man to finish. With Brunnhild in a trancelike state she had no wish to engage Burrhus in conversation, and she wished he would pack up and get on his way.
"Where will your path take you?" she asked, when it became clear he was not about to hurry on his way.
"Upriver and into the mountains, same as yourselves."
"We should select separate territories," Lana ventured. "so that we don’t end up setting our sights on the same lair."
"Nope," the man dismissed her suggestion with the single word. "I'm headed in a straight line. First lair I come to will be mine. No need to go further from home than I need to, means I'll have less far to haul the carcasses back. I don't have a fancy carpet like you do."
"So what are we meant to do?" Brunnhild demanded, having finished praying. "Travel further, just so that you can claim the nearest lair?"
"You got it." The man winked and flashed her a grin.
"Think again and be reasonable," Lana said coldly. “It’s a large territory but we’re both flying and we’re bound to get in each other’s way. Pick another direction.”
“Why don’t you?” came the response.
“Because there’s two of us and we’ve already decided on our route. We’re not about to change just to suit you.”
"Nothing like a challenge, eh?" Burrhus' grin continued unabated. "And I'm not about to let myself get trounced by two women."
At that, the two women decided the conversation was over.
"It'd serve him right if we did trounce him," Lana muttered to Brunnhild as they walked away. "Imagine the talk there'd be in the arena."
"May the best man win!" Burrhus shouted at their backs.
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