Authors: Richard Lee Byers
THE YEAR OF ROGUE DRAGONS
Richard Lee Byers
12 Flamerule, the Year of Moonfall (1344 DR)
The world changed in an instant.
Before that moment, it seemed to Dorn Graybrook that life was perfect: The nine-year-old boy rarely escaped his round of chores in the master’s cheerless house, and it was only to run errands through the city with its surly crowds and high gray walls that blocked the sun. Today, though…
Open expanses of tall grass, shimmering in the summer heat, rolled away on either side of the dusty road. The snow-crowned Dragonspine Mountains rose far ahead, and sometimes Dorn caught a glimpse of the purple-blue waters of the Moonsea to the north. He was outside, truly outside, and he loved it.
The best thing of all, though, was the change the journey evoked in his parents. At home, they often seemed sad and weary, worn down by their years of servitude.
Mother, who’d opted to walk for a time among the half dozen guards, sang songs. As Father drove the wagon, he joked with the boy seated beside him and told him things about the countryside. Sometimes the balding bondsman with the wry, intelligent face even let Dorn take the reins and guide the two dappled horses himself.
Priam said, “Look!”
He pointed up at the western sky. The leader of the guards, Priam was a lanky mercenary with a fierce trap of a mouth. He’d slain many a bandit and goblin in defense of the master’s trade goods, and everyone admired his courage. But his voice was subtly different, as if he had to struggle to keep it steady.
Dorn peered upward. At first he couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. Then he spotted the specks streaking along against the blue. When he squinted, he could make out the long tails, serpentine necks, and beating wings.
Are they dragons?” Father asked, reining in the team. His voice was different, too, quavering, higher-pitched, and though he was a clerk, not a warrior like Priam, somehow his fear alarmed Dorn even more than the mercenary’s had.
“Yes,” Priam said.
The other guards startled babbling all at once.
“Weeping Ilmater,” Father said. “What do we do?”
“Get off the road,” Mother suggested, her braided red hair glowing like flame. She seemed a little calmer than the men. “Hide in the tall grass, and keep quiet.”
“The grass isn’t likely to hide us from something soaring overhead,” Priam replied. “Still, it’s worth a try. The Storm Lord knows, we can’t outrun the things.” He cast about, then gestured with the broad steel head of his spear. “That spot looks as good as any. Everybody, move!”
They moved, and Dorn saw that Priam was right. It was a bad hiding place. People could crouch down in the grass, but the horses and wagon stuck up over the top.
Father applied the brake, then climbed down to stand with the team. He stroked them and crooned to them, trying to keep them calm. Every few seconds, he fingered the hilt of
the broadsword hanging at his side. He always wore it when he traveled, out Dorn had never seen him practice with it or even draw it from its bronze scabbard.
Mother led Dorn away from the wagon to hunker down on the ground.
“Now,” she said to Dorn, “you just have to be very still.” The boy’s heart pounded in his chest, and his mouth was dry. He had to swallow before he could speak.
“Are we going to die?”
“No,” she said. “The dragons may not come this way. Even if they do, they probably won’t notice us or take any interest in us. We’re just being safe.”
All right,” he said, though he could tell she was acting more confident than she felt.
“One of them’s swinging this way,” said a black-bearded spearman.
“Bugger this,” said another guard, a sharp-featured young man named Janx. “Let’s scatter. It can’t catch all of us.”
“Yes, it can,” Priam said. “It’s fast enough. So, would you rather fight it by yourself or with your comrades beside you?”
“I’ll wind up just as dead either way,” said Janx, but he stayed put.
The next minute or two crawled by, and everything started happening very fast, or at least it felt that way. The approaching dragon changed course again to fly directly at the travelers. It swooped lower. Shivering despite the hot sun, Dorn could make out the color of its glinting scalesred like blood.
“When I tell you,” Mother said, “I want you to run away through the grass, and whatever happens, don’t look back.”
“That we mustn’t scatter: But you’re small, and you’ll have a head start. The creature could easily overlook you.” “What about you and Father?”
“We’ll be fine,” she lied. He thought she’s never lied to him before that day, and suddenly she was doing it over and over. “We’ll find you when the trouble’s over.”
“You aren’t guards. You could run, too.”
“Just do what I tell you.”
Like some terrible shooting star, the dragon plunged down to just a few yards above the ground.
Until then, Dorn hadn’t been able to tell how huge it actually washuge enough to make the humans before it look like mice scurrying about below a scarlet lion. Its amber eyes shone like molten lava, and its neck frills and wings were ash blue at the edges. It stank of sulfur and burning.
Despite Father’s efforts, the horses went mad. They wrenched themselves free of his hold and nearly knocked him over as they wheeled to flee, dragging the wagon with its locked front wheels jolting along behind them. He let them go and unsheathed his sword.
A couple of the guards panicked and likewise tried to run. The red dragon turned its wedge-shaped head almost lazily, regarded them, then puffed out a jet of yellow flame at them. They dropped instantly, without so much as a scream, to lie withered and black among the beginnings of a crackling grass fire.
Priam threw his spear. It bounced off the scales on the wyrm’s neck.
“Bring it down!” he shouted to the other guards, and they started casting their own lances.
“Now!” Mother said. “Run!”
She gave Dorn a shove, and he obeyed her. He was too scared to do anything else.
Yet he didn’t run far. Perhaps he didn’t have it in him to abandon the only people he loved in the whole world, the only people who loved him. In any event, after a few strides, panting and shaking, he turned back around to see what was happening.
The scarlet dragon was on the ground, but not, as best Dorn could tell, because anyone had “brought it down.” No one had yet succeeded in hurting it at all. It had simply chosen to land. It slashed with its claws and pulled Janx’s insides out of his belly. Its gigantic jaws bit Priam’s head off.
After that, there weren’t any more guards. Just Father, holding his sword in an awkward two-handed grip, and Mother, sprinting to join him without any weapon at all spending their lives to buy their son another moment to run.
Dorn couldn’t bear such a sacrifice on his behalf. He had to stand with them, die with them. He ran back toward his parents and the dragon.
He was a fast runner, but not fast enough. Before he could close the distance, the wyrm caught Father in its fangs. It chewed him up and swallowed him down, spitting out the broadsword a moment later, the blade bent from the pressure of its jaws.
Mother snatched up the ruined weapon and hacked at the dragon with it. The reptile puffed malodorous flame into her face. She staggered a step and collapsed, her hair burning, the flesh of her head and shoulders running like melted candle wax.
Fists clenched, Dorn hurled himself at the wyrm. He never got a chance to hit it. It met him with a flick of its talons and hurled him to the ground.
To his surprise, he wasn’t dead, but when he tried to get up, he couldn’t. The throbbing pain started a second later.
He’d fallen with his face pointed toward his mother. He watched the dragon eat her, not gobbling her all at once as it had his father, but rather picking her apart and devouring her a piece at a time.
He could have shut his eyes. He still had that much control over his damaged body. But he chose to watch.
Something had changed in him. Agony and grief wracked him, but he wasn’t afraid of the dragon anymore. Terror had given way to hatred, and he glared at it as if in the hope that his malice alone could kill it.
When it finished with his mother, it pivoted toward him.
16 Hammer, the Year of Rogue Dragons (1373 DR)
Kara jerked upright, and her wounded arm and shoulder throbbed. How long had she dozed? Long enough for the air to grow cold despite the miserly fire dying in the fieldstone hearth. Or perhaps it was the bleeding that made her feel a chill. Blood had soaked her tattered velvet sleeve and dripped down to spatter the sawdust strewn around the floor. The smell of it mixed with the ambient odors of eye-stinging smoke and stale beer.
Hoping to discover some sign of imminent assistance, the willowy woman with the flowing silver-blond hair peered around the taproom. No one was there but the same six surly-looking men she’d observed before, sipping their ale and watching her from the shadows. Alarmed, she raised a numb, trembling hand. Mandal, the taverner, a gaunt man with spiky, grizzled hair, ambled to her table. He
gave her a smile that didn’t quite reach his shifty eyes. “Patience, maid,” he said. “The healer is surely on his way.”
Well, he ought to be, Kara thought.
She’d promised Mandal a ruby brooch from her pouch if he would find help for her. Still, she was starting to wonder. Are you certain?” she asked.
“You saw the messenger leave to fetch him.”
“But it’s been a long while. Perhaps I should seek the temple myself.”
She tried to rise, and dizziness assailed her. She might not have made it to her feet even if Mandal hadn’t gripped her shoulder and held her down.
“You’re too weak to walk anywhere,” he said, “you don’t know your way around Ylraphon, and these dark streets are freezing cold. Just wait. It will be all right.”
In her dazed, depleted condition, acquiescence was easier than resistance, and in any case, maybe he’d offered good advice. Perhaps it was simply fear that made her feel it was folly to stay there. Though she’d suffered serious injury before, she had little experience of dread and the way it could unsettle one’s judgment. Many things were changing, and none of them for the better.
“More mulled wine?” he asked.
She shook her head. The drink might warm her and ease her pain, but she was reluctant to dull her senses any further. Mandal shrugged and wandered off to huddle and whisper with his friends.
Then, at last, the door creaked open.
Kara wrenched herself around so quickly it gave her torn flesh an excruciating twinge. An instant later, she felt an even crueler pang of disappointment.
Two strangers stood framed in the doorway. The halfling, no larger than a human child, his heart-shaped face framed by curly black lovelocks, wore leather armor and carried a warsling and a curved, broad-bladed hunting sword. The tall and brawny man behind him sported what amounted to half a suit of iron plate armor affixed to the left side of his body. The uppermost portion conformed to the contours of his head, out lower down, the sleeves of metal encasing his arm and leg were so massive it was a wonder even such a giant could bear the weight. It made him look lopsided, with the knuckle spikes and claws jutting from his gauntlet further contributing to the appearance of grotesque asymmetry.
They looked around the grubby, cheerless tavern as if inclined to turn up their noses and go elsewhere. Then, however, the halfling noticed Kara, and frowning, hurried toward her.
“What happened?” he asked, concern evident in his clear tenor voice.
“I was attacked on the road just outside of town,” she said.
She hoped he wouldn’t press for details. She felt too weak and muddled to weave any more lies.
“You need help,” he said, “and right now.”
“We already took care of it,” said the taverner. “A priest is on the way.”
“You’re sure? I have a friend”
“We’re sure,” Mandal said.
“Well, even so, it will do no harm to fetch Pavel, also.”
“I told you,” the taverner said, “she’s going to be fine, so why don’t you run along and let her rest?”
“I’m not keen on being told to run” the small stranger replied as his hand eased toward the staghorn hilt of his sword.
“What I’m telling you is this place is closed, to give the poor injured maid some peace and quiet.”
Chairs scraped and squeaked as the tavern’s other patrons pushed back from their tables. Plainly, if the halfling opted to defy the host, he’d have to reckon with the rest of the men as well.
The halfling looked to his companion and asked, “What do you think?”
“Plainly, they’re lying,” the man in the iron armor said. “They mean the lass ill. Which is none of our affair, out I reckon you want to make it so.”
“Well, up to now it’s been a dull night.” The halfling turned back to the denizens of the tavern and said, “If you choose, you can turn the lass, along with her coin and belongings, over to us and live.”
For a moment the knaves were silent then they whooped with laughterand why not? The huge man presented a bizarre, daunting appearance, but it didn’t change the fact that the outlaws outnumbered the intruders seven to two.
“You really should think about it,” the halfling said. “My friend is Dorn Graybrook, and I’m Will Turnstone.”
Mandal sneered and said, “Never heard of you.”
Will glanced at Dorn.
“I told you we should have bribed a few bards to spread tales of our exploits,” said the halfling.
“If you insist on doing this,” Dorn rasped, “let’s do it?’
Dorn yanked his bastard sword from its pewter scabbard. The blade was long and heavy, designed so a strong warrior could wield it with two hands or one. Dorn opted for the latter tactic, using the arm that merely wore leather to cock the weapon behind him. The one sheathed in iron he extended toward his foes.
Meanwhile, Will pulled his warsling from his belt. It seemed a poor weapon with which to fight long odds at close quarters, just as the halfling himself looked puny compared to the human scoundrels, but if Will was frightened, Kara couldn’t tell it. He grinned as if relishing the chance to prove his mettle.