Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Dragon Catchers

This is another story from Iden, the land I created for my book series, The Book of Iden.  Just a reminder, if you are confused at all about any locations, you can click on the page titled 'The Northern Kingdom' for a map.  This one shouldn't need any extra explanation like the last one, so please enjoy!

            In the cradle of the Kharna Geihn, the House of Gharan has long been the tip of the spear for the King.  None outside the royal family are held in higher esteem, but that was not always so.  Since the days of the Northern Peninsula, the Gharans had lived in the northern mountains, separated from the rest of humans.  They were part of Cane’s tribe, but most considered them to be outsiders, for they had little contact with the other Houses.  Many other members of the tribe were suspicious of the Gharans because of their isolation.  Others thought them to be arrogant in their view of those outside their own house.  Either way, few facts were known about the mysterious Gharans.
            The stories that were told amongst the Sons of Cane about the Gharan tribe ranged from viciously slanderous to fantastically unbelievable.  One of the most popular stories spread was that the first Gharans had been deserters from the Creation War.  They were a band of cowards who fled to the mountains in an attempt to hide from the wrath of the Divine Lord Adonesha.  As punishment for their cowardice, Adonesha banished the dragons of Solgerunth to those same mountains.  Since then, the Gharans have fought the dragons for dominion over the mountains. 
            Few truly believe this tale.  The idea of a band of cowards keeping a host of dragons at bay is preposterous.  However, the few facts known about the Gharans are startling.  They lived in the mountains, making their homes in great caves hewn into the rock, and they undoubtedly battled dragons.  On the rare occasions in which they ventured down from the mountains, the Gharans brought with them dragon bones and teeth for trading.  When asked of their origin, they answered with silence and moved on to the next merchant willing to trade.  It was this that made many of Cane’s tribe hold them in fear and awe.  Any time they came into a town, anxious eyes followed them and breathless voices whispered: Dragon Catchers.  This is the tale of how they came to be the sword hand of the King.
            In the days after Cane’s death, when the flight from the Peninsula was merely a distant memory in the minds of the very old and Cane II had sat on his father’s throne for thirty years, the Northern Kingdom was flourishing.  The fields around Murtland and Bard’s Hallow overflowed with wheat and barley and the orchards of Glowen provided the whole land with fresh fruits.  The people of the kingdom were fruitful as well.  Cane II saw the size of his tribe triple since he ascended to the throne.  The King himself had seen his family grow, fathering two sons: Cane, the elder and heir to the throne and Collen, the younger.  Cane III was much like his father and his father’s father before him.  He was broad of chest and of a sturdy build.  He was single minded in his love of power and unspoken fear of foreign domination.  The expulsion had left a dark mark in the mind of the Northern Kings.  Cane II told his son stories of the Peninsula and the harsh treatment his people had received their, passing his father’s bitterness down to his heir.  When Cane left that land, he vowed that never again would his people suffer any rule but their own, and he meant to keep that vow by spilling the blood of any who might oppose him.  He would ride out to war in an instant at the slightest inkling of a threat and battle relentlessly without care for carnage on either side.  His son had inherited this fierce love of battle, as had his elder grandson.
            Collen, however, was not so eager to shed blood as his brethren.  When he looked at the lands of the north, he saw not a kingdom surviving only by the sword, but a vast fruitful land with everything necessary to support his father’s tribe.  He saw no need for brash wars of expansion against beings that had made no threatening gestures aside from existing.  Collen never felt the same bitterness when his father told stories of the far north, for he cared little about the way things had been.  In his mind, the Northern Kingdom was a paradise far beyond anything the Peninsula could have been.  Collen was slow to anger and wise in his council, but Collen was not the heir.
            Still, life in the Northern Kingdom had grown calm in the latter days of Cane II’s rule.  Though in his heart he wished for war, he often heeded his younger son’s council; a fact that often angered his heir.  Cane III preferred the old days, when he would ride out to battle beside his father to the blare of trumpets.  He had known bloodshed since he could remember and the idea of peace left him uncomfortable.  He resented his brother for the sway he held in the court and he resented his father for what he thought was cowardice.  Cane II had once been a bold warrior, but all that his son saw now was a craven old shell of a king. 
            What his son did not know, was that the king was not long for the land of Iden.  It was a secret held by a small number of his closest advisors, for he did not wish to appear weak to the outside world, but the fact could not be denied.  The king was dying.  This knowledge had brought to light many of the things that Collen saw and softened the heart of the old man.  Alone in his chambers, he made a secret vow to himself that the realm would not make war again while he still sat on the throne.  For five years, he kept that promise and the kingdom prospered, until a messenger from the northern farmlands appeared in his court and uttered the last word anyone wanted to hear: dragons.
            Prince Cane jumped from his seat by his father’s side.
            “Dragons?” he said with a mixture of excitement and astonishment.  “I shall lead a host out at once to turn them back!”  The Prince turned to leave but was frozen in place by a raise of his father’s hand. 
            “Let us not be so rash, my son,” he said in a thin, weak voice.  “The northern fringes have long been plagued by rogue dragons.  Let the messenger continue.”  The king nodded to the courier.
            “Thank you, my lord.  As I said, the northern farmlands are beset upon by dragons.  They burn our fields and devour our flocks.  We cannot turn them back for there are too many.  Never have so many invaded our lands at once.”  The king’s face grew severe. 
            “What of Lord Bard and the North Guard?  They are tasked with defense of those lands.  What are they doing to stop this tide?”  The messenger shook his head sadly.
            “That is even graver news.  When the attacks started, Lord Bard led his knights out in battle against them.  He and his men were brave and fought valiantly, but none survived.  The dragons were too great in number.”
            “Not one survived?” the Prince shouted incredulously.
            “My word, Lord Bard dead?” the king whispered in disbelief.  Prince Cane rose from his chair and turned to his father.
            “You see now we have no choice.  Let me raise an army to push these beasts back into the mountains!”  The king did not seem to hear.
            “My dear friend Lord Bard…dead without an heir,” he said in a cold voice.  The Prince began to grow impatient.
            “This is not the time to dwell on losses, father.  Give me leave to build my army,” he said more forcefully than anyone had heard him speak to the king.  His father looked deep in thought, his eyes darting back and forth.
            “Perhaps…perhaps…” he whispered.  The Prince would wait no longer.
            “We have no choice,” he said, standing erect by his father’s chair as though it were his.  “We must build the army.  Heralds, inform the Lord General that…
            “Ah-hem,” came a polite yet loud interruption.   Prince Cane turned angrily to see his younger brother standing patiently in the wings.  He walked forward briskly, but not in undue haste, carrying with him an air of calm precaution.  His older brother curled his lip in disgust as he approached, but Collen paid him little heed.
            “I do not believe our father gave any such order, dear brother, nor would he intend to so brashly.  Besides, there may be another course of action that would lead to less bloodshed,” Collen finished with a smile. His appearance was flawless, but behind the mask of calm, his mind raced.  He knew open war against the dragons could be disastrous, but he also knew the folly of defying his older brother.  Collen did his best to fight his brother sparingly.  It did not do to have a future king on ones bad side.
            “This is foolishness.  The longer we delay, the longer…” he was again silenced by a raise of his father’s hand.
            “Sit, my heir.  Never reject good council.”  He nodded to his younger son as Prince Cane grumbled.
            “Good council,” he snorted.  “More like the craven wallowing of a coward.”
            “Be that as it may, brother,” Collen said with forced confidence, “The council of those who fear death may prove to prevent it, while those who welcome death get just that.  I should think our objective in this matter would be to avoid further death.” 
            “What do you propose, my son?” his father said as Prince Cane sat down in anger.  Collen shifted uncomfortable and cleared his throat once more.
            “Our soldiers are strong and brave fighters, indeed, but they are trained to fight the wild tribes and the half people.  Dragons are a different challenge entirely, especially at such a large number.  If the North Guard could not turn them back, what number of knights do you suppose could?”  The king’s eyes narrowed.
            “Enough riddles son, say what you mean,” he said calmly. 
            “Well, perhaps we need a force with more…er, specialized skills,” Collen continued, his voice wavering slightly.  His father and brother gave him hard looks, but silence prevailed.  He felt a cold sweat on his brow and he wrung his hands nervously.
            “Perhaps the Gharan tribe could be of service.”  The response was immediate and outraged.
            “The Gharans?” his father replied in shock.
            “The cursed recluses of the mountains?” shouted his brother.
            “They are outcasts,” continued his father.
            “Cowardly traitors,” added Prince Cane.
            “Dragon catchers,” Collen said sternly.  “Every year they come to the villages of the north with dragon bones, teeth and hides.  They live in the very mountains where the dragons roost.  Surely they must know secrets that we do not.  They could aid us in the protection of our lands.” 
            “Perhaps,” the king said stiffly, “but I have no wish to offer up our defense to outside protectors.  Protectors soon become overlords and those they protect are soon banished from the lands they once held.  I will not hand over my kingdom to the House of Gharan.
            “They would not be protectors, Father, simply soldiers at your command.  Perhaps we could offer the head of their house lordship in exchange for his services.”
            “Invest that den of vipers?” shouted his outraged brother.  “What do we truly know about these so called ‘dragon catchers?’ 
            “That is true,” the king interjected.  “We do know very little about the House of Gharan.  Perhaps this is our chance to learn more about them.”  Prince Cane’s face grew red, but he kept his mouth shut.  Prince Collen nodded graciously.
            “Very good, father.  I shall assemble an envoy to send immediately.  I feel that Lord Hartly would be the best choice to lead.”
            “Oh no,” the king said sternly.  “This may well be a dangerous mission with little hope of success.  That being said, it is also a very important mission.  You shall go yourself.”  Collen choked on a lump that popped into his throat.
            “Myself?  Surely you jest, father,” he said, startled.  His father shook his head.
            “I am most definitely serious, my son.  And what’s more, I have further instructions.  While you are of begging favors of exiles, I want you to learn all you can about them.  I wish to know all there is to know about our would-be saviors.  That is my decree.”  Collen opened his mouth to object, but his father turned away and rose from his throne.  Without looking back, he made his way slowly out of the court and into his chambers, leaving Collen and his brother behind.  Prince Cane eyed Collen angrily.
            “Mark my words, brother.  I will not wait forever on your fool’s errand.  You have a fortnight to sway these mountain lords and then I will make my war.”  He turned abruptly on his heels and left the court.  Collen sat down with a heavy sigh.  Brilliant, he thought.  A fine way to get myself killed.  We don’t even know where to find them.  Collen sat back in his chair and pondered the journey ahead of him.  Next time I have an idea I’ll just keep it to myself…
            The cold mountain air blew across Andricor’s face as he kept watch from the within the crags of Mount Habitroth.  High above him, a bird cried out mournfully as it circled the peak of the mountain.  It was an awesome sight to see, the great birds of the mountains soaring up above, but not the sight for which he kept his vigil.  He shifted uncomfortably, sucked in the thin air and cursed his father’s harsh discipline.  It did not do for a man of his birth to be subjected to sentry duty.  The Gharan tribe had many lower families from which sentries could be gleaned, but his father insisted that his sons take active roles in the defense of the valley his people called home.  Andricor had assumed that would mean taking charge of a hunting party.  In fact, he had been so certain this was the case that he immediately assembled and equipped his own expedition. 
            How furious his father had been when he’d heard of this.  Traditionally, only the head of the tribe could organize hunting parties, and his behavior was a direct challenge to his father’s authority.  Andricor had intended no such offense, but when his father confronted him, he had responded defiantly.  His father, ever the level-headed leader, informed his son that, should he wish to form his own tribe, he would be more than welcome to take those who would follow into the mountains on their own.  Those who left would not be allowed to return, including Andricor.  He had watched silently as those around him slowly moved away from his side.  Seeing he that had no choice, he had fallen to one knee and begged his father’s forgiveness.  The gracious head of the Gharan tribe granted it and ordered his son to take up the mountain watch.
            Andricor shivered against the wind and pulled his cloak more tightly around himself.  Leaning back against a rocky outcropping, he continued to brood in silence.  Mists still covered the peaks of the mountains of the west, but to the east he could just make out a shoreline in the distance, and the mountains turned to hills and sloped down to the sea.  He had never seen the waters up close.  When he was younger, he had dreamed of one day visiting the ocean and braving the waves.  Such thoughts seemed foolish to him now.  The Gharans were the lords of the sky and they made their homes high above the waters and the fields.  He belonged in the mountains and he was fiercely proud of his heritage.  Andricor was born in the mists of the northern range and he was certain he would die there as well.
            A cry from high above him broke Andricor from his contemplation.  He looked up and saw the great bird wheel midair; turning towards the south.  Andricor followed its trajectory downward until he saw two small figures near the narrow trail that ran around the mountain.  The smaller of the two appeared to be a man huddled against a rock swatting blindly upward at the other figure, which was hovering just out of his reach.
            “Dragon,” he whispered and sprung into action.  Scrambling down from his vantage point to another rocky outcropping just below, he picked up a large horn and blew.  The sound echoed off the mountains, filling the area from peak to valley with sound.  Dropping the horn, he hurried to the end of the outcropping.  Leaping outward into space, he plunged ten feet and landed on the slanted side of the mountain.  He slid another ten feet until he reached the path and then took off running at full speed.
            By the time he reached the scene it was already over.  The dragon lay dead on the rocky slope beside the trail with the bird perched a few feet away, preening its feathers.  It eyed him suspiciously as he approached and he wisely chose to keep his distance.  Damnation, he thought, cursing his slowness.  Another chance missed.
            Heaving a heavy sigh, he looked around for the unknown traveler.  He found him huddled between two boulders just off the path.  When the man heard him coming, he looked up startled.  There was something familiar about the look of him, but Andricor could not quite place it.  The thought gnawed at him a bit, but there was a more pressing matter at hand.
            “Who are you and what business do you have in these lands?” he asked, donning his most severe tone.  The stranger peered out from behind the boulders nervously.
            “I-is it dead?” he stuttered.  Andricor shrugged and looked back at the creature.
            “Seems to be,” he replied nonchalantly.  The man slowly made his way out from his hiding place.
            “That’s a dragon,” he said in disbelief.  Andricor sighed.
            “It was, yes,” he replied impatiently.
            “It’s so big and…scaly…” the stranger continued.
            “Indeed,” Andricor answered curtly.  “It’s a dragon.”
            “I’ve never seen one in person before.  It’s so…big…”  Andricor turned back to the dragon and looked it over.  From tip to tail it was about the size of two full grown men.  A yearling, he thought, laughing to himself.  He turned back to the young man huddled behind him and shook his head.
            “Now, who are you and what business do you have in this realm?”  Andricor’s official tone seemed to bring the young man back to his senses and he rose to his feet.  He gave a shallow bow and then stood as erect as possible.
            “I am an envoy from the king of the north.  I wish to speak to the Chieftain of the Gharan.”  At once, Andricor realized why the young man had seemed so familiar: the rusty brown hair, the pale blue eyes, the proud protruding nose.  He had seen a similar likeness in the books kept by his father’s scribes.
            “You are of the House of Cane, are you not?”  The young man responded with a smile.
            “Indeed I am.  My father is King Cane II,” he said proudly.  Andricor frowned.
            “Odd that a man of your father’s stature would send his own heir into such a hazardous land.  He must care very little for your safety,” he said, without a trace of humor.  The young man chuckled nervously.
            “Er, no.  I am his younger son.  Collen is my name.”  Andricor looked him over, clearly unimpressed.
            “Ah, that would be why.”  Collen frowned.  He was fairly certain that his father cared greatly for him, though the situation did seem to point rather conclusively to the contrary.  The thought was disconcerting, but he tried to put it behind him and focus on the task at hand.  He cleared his throat meekly and continued.
            “Yes, but as I said, I wish to speak to the Chieftain of your clan.” 
            “Why would our chieftain want to hear what you have to say?” Andricor asked. 
            “I was sent by the king,” Collen answered, assuming that would suffice.  Andricor laughed derisively. 
            “There is no king in these lands,” he replied, his voice thinly layered with scorn.  “Gharel of the Gharan rules these lands and suffers no outsider’s law.  Take your royal decrees elsewhere.”  Collen was taken aback.  He knew he would not be welcomed with open arms, but he had expected the word of the king to carry at least some weight. 
            “Well,” he said, trying to think diplomatically.  “That being the case, would it not be best if he were the one to decide which envoys to receive and which to reject?”
            “Are you suggesting that I am ignorant of his wishes?”  Collen stared at him, perplexed for a moment.
            “Forgive me when I say this; I mean no disrespect, but you are just a sentry, are you not?  Surely Gharel does not share his mind with all those in his tribe.”  Andricor’s first reaction was anger, but he quickly realized there was no way a man from the kingdom would know his identity.  Still, it stung his pride to be unknown in the very lands he would someday rule. 
            “I am Andricor, son of Gharel and heir of Gharan, no lowly sentry,” he said bitterly. 
            “I see,” Collen replied, taken aback for a moment.  Then, as he remembered his own situation, it did not seem so odd. 
            “Gharel expects much of his sons.  Our fathers have that in common.”
            “Our fathers have nothing in common,” Andricor snapped.  Collen tried to remain diplomatic, but the young heir’s attitude was beginning to irritate him.
            “Well, be that as it may, as the son of a leader of men myself, I can say with great certainty that your father would not appreciate you usurping his position while he still lives.”  Andricor donned a hard look, but behind his resistant façade, he knew Collen was right.  His father would be furious to hear that Andricor had presumed to speak for him.  He relented, but kept his prickly demeanor.
            “Very well,” he said, subconsciously trying to appear taller.  “I shall take you to see my father, but I doubt he will be happy to see you.  The Gharans deplore uninvited guests.” 
            “I shall keep that in mind,” Collen replied with a hint of defiance.  Andricor turned away from Collen and headed north along the path.  He whistled at the large bird still perched a few feet away and it pounced on the dragon corpse with a pleasured caw.  Collen started a bit at the sudden flurry of feathers and the sound of tearing dragon scales.
            “Was that bird waiting for you?” he asked in disbelief.  His question went unanswered as Andricor decided he would say no more to the king’s son.  Collen was annoyed, but he decided it was for the best.  They continued in silence until they reached home of the Gharan tribe. 
            Such a home it was that Collen gasped when he saw it.  The sight came about quite unexpectedly.  There had been little to see along the path that led north into the mountains save rock and a few spare brushes.  As they traveled, the mountain to the east began to bear in towards them.  After a while, it came in so close that it rose up like a wall to their right.  The path narrowed even more, nearly to the point where both sides came together when it suddenly and unexpectedly opened into a vast green valley surrounded by mountains on all sides.  Collen could never have conceived of such a sight when he had first spotted the northern range. 
            The valley was not lush by normal standards.  Trees and other vegetation grew sparsely, mostly around a thin blue lake that snaked its way from one side to the other.  Livestock dotted a large green field on the far side of the river and a handful of small cottages rose up out of the meadows.  Most of the population seemed to reside on the near side of the river.  Small huts on the eastern edge of the valley gave way to larger and larger buildings as his eyes swept west.  The structures flowed across the land and up the slopes on the western end, culminating in an enormous fortress that rose out of the mountainside.  Collen stood awestruck by the scene before him, so much so that he had not noticed Andricor continuing down the path and out of sight.  When he realized he was alone, he started a bit and hurried off after his guide.
            The trek across the valley to the lower parts of the palace took the better part of an hour.  The streets were not so densely populated as his home in Canniwain, but otherwise the little city reminded Collen very much of home.  He could hear blacksmiths and cobblers hard at work in their shops, while other citizens walked the streets trading their goods for services.  Andricor strode proudly ahead of him to a chorus of salutations.
            “Good day, m’lord,” a woman said with a bow.  “Great health to the son of Gharel!” another shouted.  Andricor acknowledged them both with a smile.  Collen followed close behind, but the crowds paid him little heed.  A stranger in their land was not simply unwelcome, but wholly uninteresting.  The Gharan clan simply did not care about the outside world.  While not always the focus of attention, Collen was used to a certain level of esteem and recognition.   In the valley of Gharan, he was nothing. 
            When they reached the palace, the gates opened without so much as a gesture and Andricor led him inside.  The palace interior was quite a sight.  While not gilded and ornate like the king’s palace, it was decorated with elaborate stone carvings and vibrant tapestries.  Collen was overcome with the urge to stop and examine them, but Andricor did not break stride.  He marched briskly through the entrance hall and disappeared through a doorway at the far end.  Collen hurried off after him.  The door led to a hallway which turned left and right and left again before winding about so much that Collen could no longer tell which direction he was headed until he nearly collided with Adricor who was waiting impatiently by a large oak door.  Collen smiled nervously as he turned away and pushed open the doors.  As he opened the door, he called out in a loud voice:
            “Andricor, son of Gharel.  I bring to the Chieftain a herald from the king in the south.”  He gestured for Collen to follow him and he entered the hall, donning his most regal policies.  In the center of the room, Gharel of the Gharan sat in a large wooden chair. The lord of the mountains cut a fearsome sight dressed in a dragon scale tunic, a dragon bone scepter lying across his lap.  He eyed them both suspiciously, but his first words were for his son.
            “Strange that you appear here when your shift on the mountain top does not end until the evening,” he said in a booming voice befitting a leader of men.  Andricor lowered his head.
            “I am sorry, my lord.  I saw this traveler being harassed by a young dragon and hurried to his aid.  When he told me of his charge, I thought it best to bring him to you immediately.”  This version of the events from the morning did not sound entirely correct to Collen, but he decided to keep this to himself.  He had no wish to shame Andricor in his father’s court.  Gharel seemed angry enough already.
            “The duty of a sentry is to keep the watch, not collect heralds,” Gharel replied contemptuously.  “Abandoning your post to see to this stranger has put the lives of my people in danger.”  Andricor’s face flushed red.
            “I am sorry father,” he said as he fell to one knee.  “I shall return at once to my p-”
            “Enough,” Gharel interrupted.  “Char has already been sent to replace you.  Stand aside for now.  I shall deal with you later.”  Andricor rose and gave a deep bow.  He hurried off to the far side of the hall, but not before giving Collen an angry look.  No doubt Andricor blamed him for this admonishment.  If his father had half the distaste for outsiders that he had, Collen was certain this mission was destined for failure.  When Gharel turned to face him, Collen’s insides turned and his hands began to shake.  He put them behind his back and bowed politely, doing his best to look like a courtly gentleman.  Gharel’s eyes narrowed for a moment and Collen thought he could sense his anger.  He was about to take a step backward when Gharel’s rough face cracked into a broad smile.
            “Welcome to my hall, messenger of the southern king!  I am Gharel, son of Ghareth and lord of the Gharan.”  Collen let out a sigh of relief, but quickly caught himself. 
            “I am Collen, son of-”
            “My word,” Gharel said, rising from his chair.  “The king has sent his message carried by his own blood?  This must be dire indeed.” 
            “Y-you know who I am?” Collen asked, glancing over at Andricor.  He had not expected recognition in these halls after his rather cold welcome.  Gharel let out a deep, rumbling laugh.
            “One does not easily hide the blood of Cane.  You’ll be the younger then?”
            “Indeed I am.  My father sends his regards.” 
            “His regards and what else?” Gharel replied snootily.
            “I beg your pardon?” Collen said nervously.  His host chuckled and shook his head.
            “What is the meaning of your visit, young Prince?  Certainly his grace did not send you all this way with only salutations.”
            “Ah, yes,” Collen said with a shaky voice.  “My father requests the expertise of the Gharan tribe with a certain problem.”
            “I see,” Gharel replied almost gleefully.  “And what kind of problem is that?”  Collen swallowed uncomfortable and cleared his throat.
            “A dragon, eh,” Gharel answered with a wily smile.  “I suppose that would be a problem for you lowland folk.  You have come here to ask us to rid you of this pest?  It seems to me a small show of force would push the offending creature out.”
            “Er, begging your pardon, sir; not a dragon.  Several dragons.  The field hands reported four score at last count, but you know how unreliable country folk can be when it comes to such stories.”  Gharel looked at him open mouth.
            “Eighty dragons you say?  Impossible!  In all my years amongst these mountains I have never seen them travel in groups of more than three or four.  It simply does not happen!” 
            “Our field hands in the north would beg to differ; as would our burnt crops and devoured livestock.  The whole of the kingdom is in crisis.”  Gharel shook his head, the jovial look melting from his face.
            “This would explain much,” he said gravely.  “For three seasons now our sentries have seen little activity apart from the odd yearling looking for a new roost.  Before then, we would often fend off five or six groups of them every year.  It would seem that they have learned their lesson.  Perhaps our ancient enemies are searching for greener pastures.”
            “Aye,” Collen replied.  “And they have found them in the kingdom.”  Gharel’s eyes narrowed.  Collen could tell he was deep in thought.  For a few moments, the entire hall fell silent.  Finally, the lord of the Gharan spoke.
            “Tell me, Collen, why should my people risk their lives for this cause?  The dragons that attack you no longer attack us.  What does your father offer in exchange for our aide?”  Collen nodded and drew a parchment from his cloak.
            “In exchange for his aide in the matter, King Cane II, Lord of the Tribe of Cane, offers Gharel of the Gharan lordship and land in the Kingdom of Cane.”  As he finished, Andricor shouted from the wings.
            “Aye, lands and our solemn oath of fealty to the king.  He offers nothing but empty words in exchange for the lives of our people.”  Gharel turned and silenced him with a cold stare. 
            “My son speaks the truth,” he said, turning his gaze back to Collen, “though in doing so he forgets himself.  Tell me, Collen; did your father think I could be so easily bought?  Did he think the Gharan a tribe of homeless beggars desperate for a home?”  Collen’s mind sprung into panic mode.  He had not expected Gharel to take the offer as an insult.
            “No, of course not, m’lord; he simply wished to offer as great a gift as could be given.  If there is more you require I am certain my father would accept your terms.”
            “Enough,” Gharel growled.  An anger began to grow in him and he fought hard to hold it back.  He held up his hand for a moment and breathed deeply, fighting the fire in his belly.  The temper of his ancestors was legendary, but he had strived all his life to rise above it. 
            “The Gharan do not seek the luxuries of the south,” he said in a calm voice.  “We cannot be bought by your riches.”  Collen had not expected such a response.  He respected Gharel for this, but the Chieftain’s restraint was his people’s death sentence.  When he thought of the destruction he had seen on his trek through the north, it filled him with a deep sadness.
            “Please, my lord,” he said falling humbly to one knee.  “This invasion has left my people near ruin.  Our fields in the north are desolate wastes.  Every day, refugees from the burnt lands stream into Canniwain.  They are poor and starving and we cannot feed them all.  My father has even broken into the castle stores to feed them, but with each attack, the dragons burn more and more land.  They are destroying everything.  If you do not help us, thousands will starve.”  Collen finished nearly in tears as he thought about crowds of poor displaced farmers moving south to the city.  These dragon catchers were his people’s last hope.
            Gharel’s face grew grave as he listened.  Though his look never softened, his heart burned for his brothers and sisters to the south.  It was not so long ago that his own people felt the terror of the dragon’s flame.
            “You speak well,” Gharel said in a soft voice.  “It would be cruel for those of us with the means to help you to sit and do nothing.”  Andricor was shocked.
            “Father, surely you don’t mean to bow to this ‘king’s’ wishes!”  Gharel ignored his son’s protests.
            “The Gharan tribe shall aide you in this matter.”  Collen was ecstatic.  He nearly whooped for joy, but contained himself to a broad, if foolish smile. 
            “There is one small thing I require in exchange.”  Collen nodded.
            “Of course,” he said.  “Anything.”
            “I want the north,” Gharel said with a grim smile.  “My fief shall extend from the great lake to the shore and from the mountains to the forest above Bard’s Hallow.”  Collen was taken aback.  That was quite a bit of land, but he did not want to risk losing the dragon catchers.
            “It is done.  You have my word.”  Gharel nodded happily.  “Good,” Collen continued.  “The king requests your warriors to assemble just north of Murtland.”
            “Warriors?” Gharel said, amused.  “My word no.  You’ll get no such thing.  One does not ride into battle without knowing why.”  Collen was bemused.
            “We know why, my lord.  The dragons are pillaging our fields.”
            “Aye,” Gharel said with a smile.  “But why have they left their northern roosts.  That is what we must find out.”  He turned away from Collen and shouted to his son.
            “You boy, since you seem so eager to fight dragons, I will send you with Prince Collen to investigate the meaning of this sudden exodus.”  Now it was Andricor’s turn to be bemused, though Collen was not much happier.
            “Send me with him?” Andricor said with disgust.
            “Send me with him?” Collen said in terror. 
            “That is my way,” Gharel said flatly.  “When one of my tribe makes a request and I see fit to grant it, it is up to he who made the request to carry it out.  It would not be right to ask another.”
            “That is all well and good, Father, but why must I be subjected to this madness?”  His father eyed him coldly at first, but his expression quickly softened.
            “First of all, it would be foolish to send this man into the mountains on his own.  Secondly, something so important should be attended to by someone I know well and trust.  Who better than my own son?  The king and I see eye to eye in that respect,” he said, turning to Collen.  “You shall each take a bird, though Andricor will have to instruct you on handling them.  Once the two of you have discovered the reason behind these attacks you shall report back to me and we shall decide on the best course of action.  Those are my last words on the matter until you return.”  Collen made as if to reply but Andricor caught his eye and shook his head.  He beckoned for the Prince to follow him.  Collen found the bird handling comment strange, but did as he was bid and following him out the back of the hall.
            “This does not mean I am happy about this arrangement,” Andricor said sourly as soon as they were out of his father’s hall.  “However, my father is right.  You would not last long on your own in our mountains.”  Collen’s first instinct was to protest, but he could not honestly disagree.  He had almost been killed on his journey north by what was apparently a juvenile.  If he was going to have to go on this mission himself, it would be best to stick close to Andricor. 
            The two left the palace in silence by the rear exit.  A crude staircase was carved into the mountainside ascending into the clouds above.  Andricor began to climb with Collen following closely.  The flight followed a steep course straight up the side of the mountain.  Collen huffed and puffed as he tried to keep up with Andricor, who seemed to glide effortlessly from step to step.
            “Where is it we are going?” Collen asked between deep breaths.
            “To the roost,” Andricor replied.  “It would not do to venture into dragon country without birds.”
            “I don’t understand,” Collen said, puzzled.
            “You will,” Andricor answered curtly and continued up without another word.  They traveled upward for the better part of two hours before they broke through the clouds, revealing a bright, sunny day above.  At the crest of the mountain stood a building with a high caged roof.  Andricor made directly for it without a care for the awesome scene surrounding them.  The layer of clouds stretched out as far as Collen could see, dotted with the craggy peaks of other mountains rising high and higher as his eyes were drawn west.  It was something to behold, but there was no time for sightseeing now. 
            Collen followed Andricor inside where they were met by a grizzled looking man in a dragon scale cloak. 
            “Gharel requests two birds to accompany us on a mission of highest importance.”  The man eyed Collen and frowned.
            “A bird for this one?” he said as he curled is upper lip.  “Where did m’lord find him?”
            “Think of it as giving two birds to me,” Andricor answered impatiently.  “This one is just a little extra baggage.”  The man chuckled and patted Andricor on the back.
            “With the progress you’ve made in the hunt, I’d imagine most men would be to you.  You’ll be wanting Tullus, naturally.  Might I suggest Farnor for your second?  The two get along better than any other pair so you shan’t have any issue taking them both.”  Andricor nodded judiciously and smiled.
            “They will do quite well, thank you.  We shall meet you around back.”  The man bowed humbly to Andricor and gave Collen a hard look before turning away and disappearing into the back of the building.  Collen followed Andricor outside and around the back of the building to the huge cage that sat behind it. 
            “I don’t understand,” Collen said as they came to the stop beside the cage.  “What kind of bird?”
            “What kind of bird do you think?” Andricor answered wryly.  “Have you not seen them already?”
            “You don’t mean…that thing from…” Collen paused, shaking his head in confusion.  As if on cue, a shutter shot open on the side of the cage and there was a flutter of feathers.  Two enormous birds shot into the sky with an ear splitting cry that nearly knocked Collen off his feet.  They wheeled around in wide arcs before tucking in their wings and diving toward the ground.  As they neared the stony mountainside, they unfolded their wings and landed in a rush of wind. 
            Collen was in awe.  The birds stood twice his height from the tip of their hooked beaks to their dagger like talons.  Their feet looked big enough to grasp a full grown man at his widest point.  Their chests were a brilliant red with blue and yellow feathers trimming the underside of their wings, but their backs were jet black.  When they folded their wings, they looked like little more than a shadow.
            “What are they?” Collen gasped, taking a step back.  Andricor took a step forward and held out his hand, allowing the larger of the two birds to brush it with its beak. 
            “In the south you call us Dragon Catchers,” Andricor replied.  “That is the one instance in which you overestimate us.  This, Prince Collen, is a Dragon Catcher.”  Collen braved a step forward and the smaller of the birds cocked its head sideways at him.
            “That is Farnor, and this great beast is Tullus,” Andricor continued.  “We train these great birds to aid us in defense against the dragons.  It is said that they have been our companions since before the War of Creation.  They are natural predators of dragons, but they only hunt the young.  We have trained them to take down the larger ones, but it takes a warrior of the Gharan to finish them off.  It is a dangerous job for both bird and handler, but one that is relished amongst my people.”  He finished with a great satisfaction and a swelling in his chest.  Collen smiled understandingly.
            “You take great pride in being one of the Gharan,” he said.  Collen hoped to find some connection with Andricor.  After all, they both came from well known families, though Collen’s was held in quite higher esteem.  However, his words only served to bring Andricor back to his previous self.
            “And why shouldn’t I?” he snapped defensively.  “The Gharans are masters of the mountains.  What family in the south could say as much?” 
            “Perhaps you forget that I am a descendent of Cane,” Collen said with a sly smile.  “We are the family of kings.
            “Aye,” Andricor spat contemptuously.  “Soft kings on a soft throne.  Let your king try living off bare rock and see if he is worth such high esteem.  This land makes mountains of men.” 
            “If I remember correctly,” Collen replied with growing agitation, “you and your people live off small orchards, farms and fresh flowing water.  The only bare rocks I saw were those that we climbed.”  Andricor glared at him and kicked the ground crossly, but he had no retort.  Rather, he waved his hands demonstratively and the Dragon Catchers shot into the air.
            “We’ve no more time for foolish prattle,” he said and stormed away in a huff, with Collen following as quickly as he could.   
            Collen could see that Andricor knew the northern mountains well.  They made astonishing progress at the outset of their journey, because the area was well traveled.  Before long, they had moved out of sight of the mountains that bordered the Gharan valley.  By evening fall, Collen estimated that they had traveled three leagues over rocky terrain.  They made camp in a rocky grove at the base of an immense mountain.
            “Travel will not be so easy on the morrow,” Andricor said gruffly.  “We have stayed to the valleys so far, but if we wish to see anything, we must climb the mountains.”  Not another word was shared between them that evening or the following day.  They conducted their search in silence with Andricor in the lead and the two great birds circling above.  Every so often, Tullus or Farnor would spot something in the distance and speed off to investigate, but rarely did they return with any evidence of dragons apart from the odd juvenile straying too far from its roost.  Andricor paid them little heed.  After all, it was not stray dragons they sought. 
            The sun continued to rise and set as their fruitless search continued.  Collen had nearly given up hope until one night he awoke to a strange sound filling the sky.  It was not loud, nor was it harsh or grating; just an odd rippling coming through the darkness.  Collen sat up slowly and saw that Andricor was already on the move, crawling up the side of the mountain on which they were camped.  He followed silently.  Staying low, he looked around for the Dragon Catchers, but the black-backed birds were invisible in the darkness.  The sound continued, and as Collen’s eyes began to clear, he saw large shadows gliding over head.  Above him, Andricor stopped and pressed himself tightly against the top of a rocky outcropping.  Collen slid up beside him and whispered:
            “Dragons?”  Andricor nodded.  The two sat deathly still and watched as the black cloud of creatures drifted over them.  Collen grew more uneasy with each passing minute.  How many could there possibly be? he thought.  What could we possibly do against such odds?
            When they finally passed, Collen let out a heavy sigh.
            “There were so many,” his said in an awed voice.
            “More than three hundred I would say; headed south east.”  Collen pondered the course for a moment and an icy fear gripped his heart.
            “South west?” he said in horror.  “They’re headed toward Murtland!  They’ll never be able to hold off such an attack.  I must warn them!”
            “And how do you intend to beat the dragons to your city?” Andricor said coolly.  “Can you fly?”
            “No,” Collen said in a panicked voice.  “Perhaps the birds-”
            “We do not ride the Dragon Catchers,” Andricor interrupted in a steady voice.  “What hope could two birds have against three hundred full grown dragons?”
            “How can you be so calm?” Collen hissed.  “Have you no regard for human life outside your tribe?  My people will be slaughtered.  I am their prince.  I must help them…”  Andricor shook his head and donned a hard look.
            “Think clearly, prince.  There are times when loyalty requires you to turn away from your home and bravery means parting from your brothers in arms.  Your people’s hope does not lie in Murtland.  It lies in these mountains and it lies in you.”  He fell silent for a moment, and then cringed as though regretting his own words. 
            “Thank you,” Collen said gratefully, but Andricor shook his head.
            “No, no,” he said.  “Don’t do that.  I meant me.  Hope lies only in me, because you are useless in these lands.”  Collen looked at him and smiled.
            “Of course,” he said with a knowing grin.  Andricor replied with an icy glare.  The two sat in silence for a few minutes.  The night air was thin and cool and Collen found it pleasant despite the dire events of the evening.  He still could not help but think of his people, however, and his thoughts soon turned gloomy.
            “My mother was born in Murtland,” he said glumly.  “So many mothers…”
            “There will still be mothers in Murtland come morning,” Andricor replied flatly. 
            “She was a fine woman, strong of heart and mind.  Very kind…” Collen continued.
            “Please do not describe your mother to me.  Perhaps it is time to return to the camp,” he suggested.
            “Do you have a mother?” Collen asked, looking for a certain common ground.
            “No,” Andricor said flatly as he rose to his feet.
            “I’m sorry,” Collen replied sheepishly.  “Has she passed?”
            “No,” he repeated and began to move away.
            “I don’t understand…”
            “No, we’re not talking about this,” Andricor said sternly.
            “Oh come now, Andricor,” Collen said in a chipper voice.  “We are comrades in arms now; what other friends do we have?”
            “What?” Andricor said, baffled.  “Fre…what are you talking about?  I’ve no interest in any such thing.”
            “No interest in friends?” Collen chuckled.
            “Not if you are my only option.”  Collen frowned and shrugged.  They returned to the camp in silence and went back to sleep. 
            In the morning, Andricor was cold as ever.  They broke camp without a word and moved double speed through the mountains.  Collen struggled to keep up, cursing himself for pressing so far the night before.  He doubted Andricor would ever warm to his presence and felt it best to focus his attention on the task at hand.  Thoughts of the people of Murtland inspired him to keep the blistering pace.  He owed it to the kingdom to find the cause of these attacks.  As Andricor had said, they were the kingdoms last hope.
            An hour before noon, Andricor froze and held up his hand to signal stop.  Collen could not tell what was wrong until he looked up above them.
            “Where did the birds…” he started, but was cut off by a rush of air as Farnor and Tullus landed beside them.  Collen nearly jumped out of his boots in surprise.  Andricor turned to him with a grim look.
            “They are trained to return only if there is a dragon or dragons they cannot defeat on their own.  There must be a large one over that ridge,” he said, pointing to the north.  “Or possibly many.”  Collen felt like a lead ball had dropped into his lower intestines, but he knew what they must do.
            “We have to investigate, don’t we?”  Andricor nodded and tightened his sword belt.  Collen did the same and, crouching low, they made their way to the top of the ridge.  At first, Collen saw nothing, until Andricor directed his gaze to the valley below.  Amidst the dust and stones of the valley, stood a man in a dark cloak with four dragons in a circle around him.  It seemed quite a peculiar sight to Collen, but Andricor did not hesitate.  He gestured for the birds and they rose high into the sky.
            “As soon as they go into their dive, we must begin our descent,” he whispered.  “We must be quick.”
            “Wait,” Collen said, grabbing his arm.  “Something is wrong.  They’re not attacking him.”
            “Not yet,” Andricor said as he drew his long sword.  Sometimes they just like to play games.  If we move quickly we can end their little game and save that man’s life.  You are interested in saving lives, are you not?”  Collen yielded with a nod and drew his sword.  Two harsh cries from above signaled the dragon catchers’ dive and he leapt over the ridge and charged down the other side. 
            The valley sprang to life in an instant.  All four dragons lifted off the ground in a rush of leathery wings, but two barely made it into the hair before they were driven back into the rocks by the dragon catchers.  Dragon and bird grappled in the dusty valley.  Collen ran as fast as he could, but it was no use.  In an instant, the other two dragons descended on the catchers.  Andricor let out a primal bellow and threw himself at the nearest dragon, striking it hard on the side and causing it to tumble off of Tullus.  Collen summoned all his courage and tried to do the same.  Leaping off a boulder, he sailed through the air and landed square on the creature’s back.  It roared and threw its head backward, snapping at him as he tried to stay on top.  Fire sprang from its mouth, setting his clothes ablaze and singeing his hair.  He tumbled off the beast and onto the dust, attempting to roll as far as he could as it chased after him.  He sprang up just as the dragon buried a claw in the ground where he had been lying not a moment earlier.  Scrambling behind a rock, he avoided another spray of fire. 
            A harsh gurgling sound across the valley told Collen that Andricor must have struck a heavy blow to one of the dragons.  The more pressing issue for him, however, was the monster just behind him.  He crouched behind the rock and tried to think, but was distracted by a long spiked tail that whipped around the rock and crashed down right beside him.  Without a second thought, he lashed out with his sword and heard the dragon bellow.  It’ll be good and angry now, he thought.  Forcing himself out from behind the rock, he sprang forward and rolled, narrowly sliding under another jet of flame.  He stabbed upward as he jumped to his feet and wounded the dragon in the belly.  It roared and smacked him with a clawed paw, sending him flying several feet.  The rocks knocked the wind out of him and he gasped for air.  The dragon sputtered a bit and clutched at its stomach wound.  It was rearing its head back to roast him alive when Farnor zoomed into its side and sunk its talons into the creature’s throat.  Liquid fire leaked from the dragon’s throat as it groaned and collapsed on the ground. 
            Collen let out a sigh of relief, but he only paused for a moment.  He scrambled to his feet to see Andricor narrowly dodging a blast of fire.  Collen rushed to his aid with Farnor streaking off ahead of him.  When Andricor saw him approaching he waved Collen off.
            “Tullus!” he shouted.  “Help Tullus!”  Collen wheeled around to see Tullus grappling with another dragon.  The bird had it pinned, but the dragon was giving him hell.  Collen sprinted towards them with his sword raised over his head.  Just before he arrived, the dragon wrenched its neck free and sunk its teeth into Tullus’ wing.  The bird let out an anguished cry.  Collen threw all is strength into the blow as he swung his sword down hard onto the dragon’s head and split its skull in two.  Behind him, Farnor flipped the last dragon on its back and Andricor dispatched it with a slice to the throat. 
            As the last dragon finished its death throes, Collen sat down hard on the stones.  In a flash, Andricor was by Tulles’ side, examining the bird’s wounds.
            “They’ll heal,” he announced.  “But it would be a grave risk for him to continue on this mission.” 
            Across the valley, the man in the black robes was hurrying towards them with his arms outstretched.  He was a tall man, not well built, with thinning white hair.  When he reached Collen and Andricor, he fell to one knee.
            “Thank you so much, sirs.  You brave knights have saved my life.”
            “We’re not knights,” Andricor said gruffly.
            “I am, actually,” Collen interjected.  “It is tradition the sons of the king who will not assume the throne be knighted.  Did you see me kill that dragon?”
            “Sorry, I must have been distracted,” Andricor replied bluntly.
            “You were both most brilliant,” the old man said, still down on one knee.
            “Alright, get up old man,” Andricor growled.  The old man obliged, but insisted on bowing frequently.  “What are you doing out here alone?” 
            “Oh, why, I live here, good sirs.  My family has lived in these mountains for years, only…I fear I am the only one left.”
            “Impossible,” Andricor said stiffly.  “My people would have noticed others living in our mountains.” 
            “Ah,” the old man said with a wily smile.  “You’ll be one of the Gharans.  Perhaps you have never seen us because these are not your mountains.  They are ours.”
            “Excuse me?” Andricor replied, a hot anger rising behind his face.  Collen saw this and quickly intervened.
            “So if you live in these mountains, you must have noticed the strange movements of the dragons.  They are all moving south into the open lands.”
            “It would seem not all,” the old man said as he gestured to the four dead dragons.
            “Well, yes, that is certainly true,” Collen replied.  “But there is no doubt that a large number of dragons have begun striking further south than ever before.”
            “Hm, yes, yes,” the old man murmured.  “I seemed to remember a great flock of dragons moving south not long ago.  It would sound to me like a new Dragon Lord has arisen.”
            “A Dragon Lord?” Andricor scoffed.  “What on earth is that?”  The old man chuckled.
            “The great Gharan know nothing of the Dragon Lords?  This is quite amusing.  Very well, I shall tell you.  It is said that every half century or so, one dragon grows so powerful that it commands the allegiance of all others.  Dragon Lords of the past have used their power to cover the whole of Iden in fire.  There is no stopping them until the old Dragon Lord is dead and none has grown strong enough to rule in its place.  Really, I would say the title says it all.”
            “This is preposterous,” Andricor growled.  “There is no such thing.”
            “Aye,” the old man said with a smile.  “And dragons never travel in packs larger than four, but…it would seem that is not so…”  Andricor looked deeply troubled, but still not ready to believe. 
            “It seems unlikely,” he said, his voice heavy with uncertainty.
            “Believe what you will,” the old man replied.  “It sounds like a Dragon Lord to me and if you want to stop it, you’ll have to kill it.  That is, if you know how to find it.  Now I must be going back to my home.  Thank you kindly good sirs.  I bid you good day.”  The old man turned abruptly and walked away toward the far end of the dusty valley.  Andricor had a queer look on his face as though the old man’s words had disturbed him deeply.  Collen, on the other hand, thought this excellent news.
            “Finally a break in our search for answers.  If what this man says is true, we need only find this Dragon Lord to put this matter to rest.” 
            “Strange,” was all Andricor said in reply.  They sat in silence in the valley for a long time while Andricor pondered the words of the old man and the birds rested from the battle.  The sun was low in the sky Andricor finally spoke again.
            “We must return to my father now,” he said with a blank look on his face.  “Tullus can go no further and I must discuss this new information with him.” 

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