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A mist was settled over the graveyard. It glowed brightly in the morning sun, and through it, and many miles distant, you could see the Xauren Mountains stabbing up at the sky. If you squinted hard enough, you could barely make out the shapes of buildings, long since destroyed; the ruins of the town of Xauren, where I had spent the first forty years of my life. I could remember it all: I could tell you the location of every tree around for half a mile. I could describe every building, everyone who had lived there (it was a close-knit place; newcomers were few and far between). I could even go on about how frequently the Narudean Air Corps, part of our country’s Armed Forces, used to fly their dragons overhead during their training sessions.
This alone brought a tear to my eye. Forcing myself to not think about what had happened to it, I resumed walking. The place was silent, save for the sound of the birds in the trees and the whisper of the icy wind. At last I found my destination. Five graves, arranged side by side: my two sisters, Lydia and Reora; my mother, Albaia; Ibor, my father; and my brother Relar.
It was always said amongst the villagers of Xauren that the best ceremony is no ceremony at all; we were a practical people, so we saw no reason to make a big deal of anything. Even nominating a new Earl to speak for us at the King’s Council in Icereach consisted of simply handing the man a thin golden band to wear on his head, followed by putting a simple wooden chair on a dais and telling him to sit in it. Funerals, therefore, didn’t exist as such: the dead were buried in a graveyard, a simple tombstone was made, and if you wanted to pay your respects, why, feel free to do so anytime; there was no formal ceremony.
I planted a snowflower on each of the graves (a big, white thing which grows in Narudea’s many mountain regions), bowed my head, closed my eyes, and observed ten seconds of silence. It was all I could do to keep the images of fire and the screams of the terrified, wounded and dying citizens of the village out of my mind. Supposedly, after comas, most people have a hard time remembering things. I don’t know how my memory had escaped unaffected, but it had.
As I opened my eyes, I could hear the sounds of giant wings beating. Then suddenly the whole world shook, and there was a deafening boom. I nearly lost my balance, but when I regained control of myself, I turned and looked behind me. To my awe, I saw a dragon squatting on the ground, just outside the graveyard. She was red as blood, hundreds of feet long, and with a neck which seemed to be thirty feet thick. On a saddle secured by several thick leather straps wrapped around the beast’s neck was her dragoneer, her rider. From this distance, it was impossible to make out his features, but I did see him reach down, untie the safety straps around his shins, and then press a button which released another strap from around his waist. He stood up on the dragon’s back, and then he slid down his fire-breather’s wing to the ground, where he walked up to her head and told her something. “Okay, well, I’ll be here if you need me,” she said.
As the man slowly drew closer I was able to make out his features. He was a teenager, a short, thin stick of a boy, with tousled black hair, a thin, sallow face with high cheekbones and sharp features, and ice blue eyes. He was covered from foot to shirt in the thick, dark brown leather of the Air Corps, including a pair of elbow-length gloves which he was presently pulling off. His looks rang a bell; I had heard of a very similar-looking youth somewhere. I almost thought of his name. What was it? Gawain? Gowed? Either way, he’d scared all the birds off and completely ruined the ambiance of the morning.
“Ho there,” I called to him as he drew within earshot. “What are you doing, coming up here with a blasted dragon, making all the noise in the world and waking up the dead like that?” I asked him angrily.
He picked his gaze up from the ground in front of his feet. “Sorry if I disturbed you; I’ve just come to pay my respects to the dead. A rider always comes to pay respects with his dragon,” he explained. His eyes darted to the gravestone behind me. “Lydia Adalson. I presume she was related to you?”
I nodded, somewhat wary. “My sister. Died when the restaurant that I owned was destroyed during a battle. Same as the rest of my family here.” I indicated their graves with a sweeping gesture of my hand.
“Sorry about that,” he said sincerely. “Oh, I suppose I’ve forgotten my courtesies. Gowen Lewardtheangu, of the Narudean Air Combat Corps, at your service. That big red lump over there is my dragon, Maoraena.”
“I’m not a big red lump!” she called after him, pretending to be offended. In an instant, my suspicion turned to hatred. This was the kid who had ordered the destruction of my entire village and the cold-blooded slaughter of its people. I was the only survivor. I had been in a coma for a year, during which time a couple of friends of mine who had survived had whisked me off to a hospital in Icereach. I had lifelong scars – both emotional and physical – because of this boy.
“You’ve got a lot of nerve coming here, after what you’ve done,” I spat at him.
“It wasn’t my doing,” he retorted. “Trust me, we’ve looked into the matter. An entire company under my command deserted. We’ve got no idea why, but it doesn’t matter. I’m here to take a look at the damage to your village and the surrounding mountainside, and to help rebuild if I can. Here, take a look at this.” He handed me a paper. “That’s from the leader of the deserters to his friends. You can see that he targeted your village specifically, probably looking for a quick way to steal some gold.”
I looked at the paper for a long time. Back then, I was illiterate, so none of the words made any sense, but there was a diagram showing the exact route the supposed deserters were to take. As he had said, it went right over my village.
“I can’t read, but suppose I buy into what you’re saying,” I said cautiously, still wary. “What would you do first?” He rubbed his chin. “That depends. How many people survived the attack?”
“Three, that I know of – myself and two of my friends. The other two are in Icereach, however.”
He nodded. “Then I’d ask you what happened. To get a better idea of what they did,” he added.
I stared at him for a couple of seconds, weighing my options. Something told me that he’d be able to use whatever I told him against me, yet if he actually was trying to help, then he’d be able to use it to his advantage, not only in rebuilding but also finding and killing our enemy. Finally I decided that it was worth the gamble.
“Fine then, I’ll tell you,” I agreed.
“It happened a year ago, in 408. I lived in that tavern there, the closest building to us. The Horse and Four. It was a lovely place. There wasn’t much to it, I’m afraid – a rectangular building with wooden walls and rooms for the owner’s family to live in, but it did the job. Served the best mead south of the Morrow River, all the travelers we got said so, and the best food too. I lived there with my entire family for most of my life, but then Mother and Father moved out at the start of the civil war to take up arms against that idiot baron in Riverwheel who made a false claim to the throne after the previous king died. I would have gone to Icereach to pledge myself to the royal family as well, but both of my sisters had married and moved into actual houses and my brother was so bad at math that he would have run the place into the ground in a fortnight. All he was good for was reading numbers out to me so I could do the figuring out in my head, and besides, Pop said that I had ownership of the place now in case he never got back. So I stayed behind to run it.
“I got up at six in the morning that day, same as any other morning, and I looked outside. It was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky. I remember a slight draft coming through a crack in the wooden wall, but I didn’t think much of it; the place wasn’t particularly well-built, so there was always a draft. Everything seemed perfectly normal that day. I got dressed, walked downstairs. Already a crowd was beginning to gather for breakfast. It was a busy day, but nothing I hadn’t dealt with before, so I stayed in the kitchen most of the day, bartending and talking with people. As was my custom, towards midday I went outside to retrieve some firewood for our lunchtime. I guess this should have been my first hint as to what was to come: at the bottom of the mountain I saw a rider and dragon landing. I couldn’t see the rider himself, but I knew he was there because I could hear the dragon say to him, clear as day, ‘Right, then, you go have a look at the town. I’ll go around to the other side of the mountain, and we’ll meet up there.’ I thought they were simply couriers, because we got a lot of them.
“Thirty minutes later, a man dressed a lot like you showed up. While he was in there, he asked a lot of peculiar questions. Asked me where I stored my gold, how much of it I had, how many guards were patrolling the town, and other things. Now, I’m a shrewd man, so of course I lied about how much gold we had and where we had it. An hour later, he staggered back out of the place, well drunk.
“A few hours after that, towards sundown, Mom and Pop arrived back from the fighting. Clean out of the blue. I saw them coming through the door, and I completely took leave of my senses. Before I knew it, all 280 pounds of me was running across the room, fast as a dragon. I took both of them in a big embrace. I tell you, I’d never been so glad to see anyone in my life. They’d been gone three years, with no correspondence with me, my brother or my sisters at all. So we – all five of us – had a huge dinner together. Mom, Dad and I all ordered the smoked eel, I got baked trout, and my sisters got honeyed venison. My brother asked for a plate of sweetrolls and three bottles of mead. I can still remember him sitting there with icing all over his face and mead dripping down his chin as he sang The First Bond of Man and Dragon with everyone laughing to the point of crying and staring at him.
“Ah, but that didn’t last long. We were sitting there, having a good time, when I heard what sounded like a dragon’s roar, followed by people screaming. I stood up, opened the door, and there were dragons everywhere, twenty or more of them, tearing the roofs off buildings, breathing fire on anything that moved. There were people climbing off their backs with all sorts of weapons, anything from swords to crossbows, and they were even using magic. I’d never seen such a terrible spectacle in my life. One dragon, a giant thing whose neck must have been as thick as the thickest tower in the King’s Palace, literally lifted up an entire house and dashed it against a mountainside. I was scared to death.
“So I yelled, ‘Dragons! Attacking!’ and everyone in the room save for my parents ducked under their tables. Mother and Father both snatched up their swords and made for the door. Dad yelled, ‘Everyone stay down! We’ll handle this!’ And then they charged out and that’s the last I ever saw of them.
“Not a split second later, a sellsword I was acquainted with, name of Igmun, dragged one of the riders in so that he could hear the rider better while questioning him. The poor man was gushing blood from his chest, and Igmun’s blade was stark red. Igmun asked the rider, ‘Who’s your commander?’ and the man said, ‘Gowen Lewardtheangu.’
“A thousandth of a second later, a dragon tore the roof off of the place. He saw his rider lying there, dying, and picked Igmun up and threw the man, probably clean off the mountain. Then he picked his rider up in one claw and breathed down into the tavern. The fire didn’t hit me, but I felt something smash me over the head. I don’t know what it was, but the next time I opened my eyes I was in a hospital.
“I woke up and there was a massive pain in my head. My vision was all blurry, but I could see people hovering over me: my friends Bron and Colin, two of the tavern’s most loyal customers. As kids, before I inherited the inn, we used to sneak out while Mom and Dad and the rest were having busy nights at the tavern and go to the Air Corps base round the other side of the mount. There was an old, golden dragon there who would take us flying whenever he went out to hunt, but after the attack, if I never saw another dragon again, it would be too soon.
“I tried to sit up, but Colin pushed me back down gently. ‘You’ll not want to get up just yet,’ he said. ‘Wait until the nurse says you’re okay.’ ‘How long have I been out?’ I said. Bron was the one who told me. ’A year.’ I couldn’t believe it. I asked him what happened to the rest of the villagers, and he told me they’d all been slaughtered. Even my parents. We were the only three to make it out. I was a month getting over my concussion. Toward the end of the third week, I was allowed out of my bed, so that’s when I bought my horse with all of my remaining money. After they let me out of the city, I made straight for Xauren. At last, here I am.” Gowen continued to look at me for a long moment after I stopped, and then reached over and slapped me on the shoulder. “I’m sorry that had to happen to you,” he said quietly.
“I had my home taken from me like that as well. At least I got a dragon out of it.” He cast an affectionate glance at Maoraena, who had been sitting and listening to me as intently as Gowen had. She smiled – or at least, put on her least threatening grimace – back at him. “But that’s a different story,” he continued. “There’s got to be another reason they attacked and destroyed this village, besides gold.”
“I was thinking the same thing,” said Maoraena. “Almost as if they were looking to kill a specific person, regardless of the destruction it caused. If they wanted money, there’s any number of other, richer places they could have attacked. I say we should go have a look at the place, see what we can see.”
Gowen agreed, and so it was that, after all these years, I found myself climbing onto a dragon once again. The young and yet still legendary dragoneer before me scrambled nimbly up the bone of his dragon’s wing and was in the saddle, strapping himself in, in less than ten seconds. I took far longer than that, crawling on all fours and holding onto the bone for dear life. Eventually Gowen had to come back for me and help me up. Once I was on her back, since there was only one saddle, he strapped me into one of the steel seats used by the archers who rode on her back during battle.
I will admit I was scared at first, but all that changed when she took off. With three powerful thrusts of her wings, we were a thousand feet in the air, all the world laid out before us. Off to our right, to the south, I could see the northern portion of the nation of Salentis, with its far warmer climate and soaring towers. To the north, I could barely make out the sprawl that was Icereach, stowed away in the very northwest corner of the country, with the forbidding and massive King’s Palace dominating the cliff overlooking the perpetually misty Veiled Sea. Countless other cities, villages and hamlets were visible scattered across the country.
The trip to Xauren took only a few seconds, traveling at around sixty miles an hour. When we got over the hamlet, Gowen yelled to Maoraena over the wind, “Mao, let’s go inverted. I want to get a good look at the place before we land.” This she did, and before I knew it the entire world revolved around us. It was an amazing sensation, being completely weightless and staring up – down? – at the ground. Then, however, Maoraena righted herself and began spiraling down to land in the middle of the village.
“We’ll scout here,” spoke Gowen after we had dismounted. To Maoraena he added, “You go to the base of the mountain, try to see if you can find where the green dragon landed, and look around for anything important, such as papers. Call us if you find something."
Maoraena nodded. “Right. Good hunting!” Once we were far enough away, she took off again, and we heard a distant boom shortly thereafter as she landed. We looked around for a good hour, until we finally found something in the tavern. A small, leather-bound book had somehow worked itself into a corner of the dining hall. Gowen picked it up, flipped through it, and then apparently found a relevant passage, which he dictated to me. It turned out that my mother had killed the leader of the deserters’ brother, and so in a blind rage he organized a group of friends to track her down, kill her and destroy everything she loved, as she had done to him, and he had also asked his friends to name Gowen as their commander if they were asked. The man’s identity as well as that of the author of the book was unclear, but it was enough. As Gowen read, his mood became darker and darker. At the end, he threw the book to the floor and murmured, “Surely it couldn’t have been worth all this death and destruction. I promise you, I will find whoever did this and kill them. In the meantime, there must be a way I can repay you. How much money do you have?” I searched my pockets. “Not a bent piece of gold on me,” I responded.
He nodded and paced the room for a second. “I’ll ask the King if he can send a crew down here to clean up and possibly repopulate the village. Until then, I know of a kitchen that wants managing in Sparanthur, northwest of here. It’s a busy place, and its customers tend to be several hundred feet long and have wings sprouting from their backs. Can you handle it?”
A smile crept onto my face as I thought of serving Maoraena. I wondered what her reaction would be if I were to serve her some of my tavern’s ale. “Sure I can,” I laughed.
“Good, then.” He picked up the book and handed it to me. “From what I hear, you’ll have to write lots of reports, so you’ll want to be literate as well. Sparanthur is a couple of days away, so when we touch down to rest I’ll train you in reading. Once we’re there, I’ll hand you off to Professor Igol. He’s in charge of teaching illiterate newcomers to read.”
He was right: the Sparanthur Air Corps Base was a busy place indeed, though far warmer than Xauren. Aside from a strict training schedule, the dragons were free to come and go as they pleased, and this included eating at the restaurant. This place was a castle in itself, with a giant courtyard which served as a sort of dining room. Other dragons would go out hunting and bring whatever they didn’t decide to eat back for the chefs (including myself) to cook. This meant that there was a constant stream of food going into and coming out of the kitchen. It was difficult to manage, but I daresay it was far more fun than the tavern. As promised. I was getting loads of money, enough that I was able to purchase a fairly comfortable house within the city to return to when I wasn’t managing the kitchen, and my education went along smoothly. As for the village, Gowen was as good as his word. The king heard us out, and the place is slowly being rebuilt and settlers are trickling in once more.
I, however, decided shortly after my arrival to have done with the place. Even now, months after my hiring as a kitchen manager for the Air Corps, I keep thinking back on that day, how it began with a golden sunrise and ended in blood, tears and flames. In my dreams I still see Igmun being thrown off the mountain. Every time I try to stop it, but that thing still comes down and hits me in the head. It’s then that I wake up. Most of the time I’ll go outside and wander around in the forests bordering the city for a bit. There’s usually a mist over the ground, and there’s also a cliff nearby. I’ll climb to the edge of it and pretend that I’m in the graveyard once again, staring out at Xauren, and try to imagine how it would look rebuilt, but inevitably my thoughts will turn to it ablaze, and I’ll sit there with the mists surrounding me, chilled to the bone, watching the dragons ravage the place again, same as in my dreams. And on the way back, there will be three things on my mind: the mist, the fire, and the cold.